The monk who believed Buddhism could save China

Society & Culture

The Buddhist monk Tanxu thought modern China could be strengthened through the cultivation of its soul. The Communist Party disagreed.

This Week in China’s History: April 1, 1949

On the morning of April 1, 1949, a Buddhist monk, nearing 80 years old, boarded an American transport plane in the city of Qingdao. It was the first time he had ever been on a plane, though he had traveled widely in China for decades, and even visited Japan in the 1930s. Flying wasn’t his first choice, but for Tánxū 谈虚, time and space were both running out. The train lines were all blocked by advancing Communist armies, and within, the American marines that were still occupying the city were making plans to leave. It was time to get out, quickly.

Tanxu had good reason to fear for his safety if Qingdao fell to the Communists. Japanese armies had captured Qingdao in the summer of 1937, and Tanxu had operated its largest Buddhist temple — one he had founded — for the duration of the war. The monk denied having worked with the Japanese, but he clearly did not actively resist the occupiers. Charges of collaboration would be especially hard to stave off, and neither clerics nor collaborators — passive or not — had good prospects under a Communist government.

The charge of treason would have devastated a man who had worked for so long to strengthen China. The political landscape of early-20th century China is filled with reformers and revolutionaries, reactionaries and traditionalists, but Tanxu fits none of those categories easily. He was without doubt a nationalist, but in no way a modernizer; he championed traditional Chinese values, but was never a xenophobe. His story fills in a large portion of the canvas of modern China that is left blank when we focus on the main political parties and their enemies.

I told Tanxu’s story in my book Heart of Buddha, Heart of China, and though what attracted me to it at first was the plot — narrow escapes, war, betrayal, river pirates, ghosts, even an audience with the King of Hell! — what made the biography significant was his role in the intellectual debates of the time. I first crossed his path in Harbin, where he founded a Buddhist temple in the 1920s at the invitation of city officials who wanted to define a Chinese Harbin to contrast with the Russian one that had gone before. As he put it in his memoir, “Chinese and foreign elements mixed freely. At the beginning of the Republican era, other religions flourished, but regretfully, even though Harbin was a Chinese place, there was absolutely no Chinese Buddhism, not even a single decent temple….it was very embarrassing, too depressing to bear!”

Tanxu’s belief that China needed strengthening had begun long before he was known by that name. Raised as Wáng Fútíng 王福庭 in the coastal regions near Tianjin, he had traveled for his family business trading tobacco across and along the Bohai Gulf. The First Sino-Japanese War and the Eight-Nation Alliance intervention following the Boxer Uprising had convinced him that China needed greater technical skill and stronger moral foundations to resist its enemies. The Russo-Japanese War that followed these went a step further: China was not even a participant, but could not stop foreign powers from fighting over who would get China’s territory.

Plenty of young Chinese saw the same thing, and reached the same conclusion that China needed to be stronger. But Tanxu followed the path of neither nationalists like Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān), who advocated republican government, nor radicals like Chén Dúxiù 陈独秀 (and later Máo Zédōng 毛泽东), who turned to socialism as a solution to imperialism, nor some in the Qing court who wanted to retreat into tradition. Tanxu saw in China’s Western and Japanese enemies a moral and a technological strength worth emulating. He supported the efforts of officials who embraced technical advancement, but his concern was China’s soul. He had tried Daoism and Confucianism…even Christianity…but by the time the Qing dynasty fell he had settled on Buddhism as the solution China needed. In north China, especially, Buddhism had fallen into disrepair, and he set out to renew it.

Tanxu was invited by officials in other cities to reprise the patriotic project of his temple in Harbin: Yingkou, Shenyang, Changchun. His most ambitious project came in one of China’s most famous former colonies: Qingdao. German imperialists had taken the city as retribution for the murder of two priests, and had gone about reproducing Franconia in Shandong (complete with imported hops and a brewery that still stands). The city had passed from Germany to Japan and then finally China, but when Tanxu arrived in the early 1930s, it still resembled a European city more than a Chinese one. Tanxu’s Zhanshan Temple, high on a ridge overlooking the city and Jiaozhou Bay, marked it as a Chinese place.

A Chinese place for a few years, anyway. In 1937, the new but thriving temple came under Japanese control, though it continued to function. Liberated in 1945, Zhanshan Temple had barely recovered from occupation before the next round of war closed in. Tanxu had survived foreign armies, warlords, famine, and flood, but in the spring of 1949, his advisers convinced him to flee.

The DC-3 took off from Qingdao and landed in Shanghai, where Tanxu stayed a few days in the convulsing city, vividly described by Helen Zia in her book Last Boat Out of Shanghai. Then, on April 4, another flight left Hongqiao Airport and navigated the notorious approach to Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong.

There, Tanxu continued the same work he had managed for decades, in a different guise. The temple he founded in Hong Kong was far from the city center, at Clearwater Bay in the New Territories. More important was the Chinese Buddhist Library he built on Boundary Road, where he pursued the same attempt to promote and revive the Chinese nation, but this time against Chinese invaders. With the fate of Buddhism uncertain under Communist rule, Tanxu collected Buddhist texts from across the country, building a collection that was essential to the persistence of the faith and establishing Hong Kong as an ever more important Buddhist center.

Tanxu died in 1966, so he was spared from seeing Buddhism and Buddhist relics desecrated in the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. The People’s Republic would eventually achieve the strength Tanxu had wanted China to have, but at the cost of its heart.

Tanxu’s remains were interred overlooking the South China Sea, but now, as Hong Kong’s place as a stronghold of traditional Chinese culture becomes ever more fragile, threatened by the Communist government Tanxu had fled decades ago, I sometimes wonder how the view would seem to him now.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.