Chinese Character

Man of influence

Why Chinese power brokers are grieving over death of Confucian scholar

Man of influence

Nan: an antidote to China’s growing moral vacuum?

Nan Huaijin – warrior, hermit, author and spiritual advisor to millions of Chinese – died on Saturday, September 29, aged around 94. Nan’s life reflected an extraordinary century of Chinese history. He devoted himself to popularising some of the oldest traditions of the nation’s culture – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – after an age in which they have been deeply neglected.

Nan’s death (from pneumonia) at the school he founded in Suzhou – the Taihu Great Learning Centre –brought to an end a life of learning. It began in a scholar’s family in eastern Zhejiang province in 1917 or 1918 – accounts of his exact birth date vary – and then continued in Taiwan, the United States, Hong Kong and, finally, back in the mainland of China.

Master Nan, as he was known, taught widely and wrote dozens of books along the way, mixing with the rich and famous as well as the ordinary, and sometimes getting involved in business and politics.

In one example from the late 1990s (according to a detailed account in a website belonging to the Hebei provincial government) Nan threw his support behind Deng Yingtao, an economist, environmentalist and son of the hardline Communist Deng Liqun. The goal was to launch a long-planned water diversion plan, the North-South Water Project, to alleviate north China’s chronic water shortage.

But Nan’s key preoccupations were religion and philosophy and he gained millions of followers as people sought to rediscover spiritual traditions banned after the Communist revolution in 1949.

It’s hard to overstate Nan’s influence on spiritual life in contemporary China, where his more high-profile devotees are said to have included Jiang Zemin (the former president), the chairman of Hainan Airlines, Chen Feng, and the actor Jet Li.

Importantly, Nan’s work was characterised by an ability to popularise complicated spiritual ideas from the three great schools of thought in books that often topped the bestseller lists.

Some were translated into English, such as Working Toward Enlightenment, Diamond Sutra Explained, Basic Buddhism and The Story of Chinese Zen. But most were published only in Chinese, leaving Nan less well known in the West than at home in China.

As the Qianjiang Evening News wrote on its weibo: “The master believed that the greatest state in life was to have Buddhism in your heart, Daoism in your bones, Confucianism in your outward expression, and to regard the world with magnanimity and tolerance. To have skills in your hand, ability in your body, thoughts in your mind, and to pass your life in an unhurried way.”

Thomas Cleary, a respected translator of Chinese texts of this genre, calls Nan’s work “a cut above anything else available from modern authors” and lauds his ability to combine different traditions.

“Although this comprehensive purview was common to the greatest minds of China since the Tang Dynasty, it is rare among scholars today,” Cleary wrote, in comments carried by the website,, before Nan’s death.

To the well-known liberal commentator Yu Shicun, Nan was admirable for his reach, but sometimes failed to distinguish sufficiently between the different ideas that he was describing.

“My own attitude towards him is complicated,” Yu said in an interview on the culture website of the Chinese internet giant Sohu.

“On the one hand, he broke down the barriers between the temple and the outside world, giving many people an ‘in’ and a feeling for traditional culture. On the other hand, there were problems with his readings of traditional culture,” Yu said. “Then again, what Nan did for traditional culture, others in the academies have been unwilling and unable to do: popularise it.”

Either way, as put it, Nan was “one of the main forces of a genuine Buddhist resurgence in China”.

In another, perhaps revealing, mark of how broad Nan’s appeal had become, the Sichuan branch of the Communist Youth League – officially part of an atheist state, after all – lauded him in its microblog, listing Nan’s six key qualities for “how to be a person”.

These were: 1. Be calm; speak less, listen more. 2. Be slow; do things unhurriedly, neither impatiently nor impetuously. 3. Be patient; faced with injustice, don’t become angry or give vent to pent-up feelings. 4. Yield; step back, be as boundless as the sea and sky. 5. Be light. View everything lightly, for many things will become smoke with the passing of time. 6. Be even, which is being ordinary, being balanced.

But if lightness, calm and balance were lifelong goals, Nan’s early life was one of tradition, drama and quite a bit of derring-do.

He received an old-fashioned education in the classics that included the martial arts and later taught at the Kuomintang’s Central Military Academy. According to some accounts, aged just 21, Nan led thousands of men into battle against invading Japanese troops in 1937.

After that he rejected a life of action. In 1942, Nan retreated to the holy Emei Mountain in Sichuan province where he meditated for three years before reaching enlightenment in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, Xinhua reported in its obituary.

In 1945 Nan then travelled to Tibet to study Vajrayana Buddhism, reportedly verifying his enlightenment with a Tibetan tulku, Kunga Hutuktu. These two sojourns also left him a master in both the Chan (Zen) and Tantric traditions.

In 1949, Nan went to Taiwan, escaping the Communist takeover. In Taiwan he continued to teach and write, holding professorships at several universities. Later he left for the United States, reportedly fleeing Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of the Kuomintang founder Chiang Kai-shek, who was suspicious of him. He later returned to Taiwan and by 1990 his writings were being published across the Strait too. He moved to Hong Kong, returning to the Chinese mainland in 2004.

About two weeks before his death, Nan called his students around him and began to talk about his life in order to write a biography, something he had previously refused to do, Xinhua reports.

Nan’s teachings were broad but in recent years he was particularly fashionable as a proponent of guoxue (see WiC5) or ‘national learning’, a concept most widely associated with Confucian thought but also taken to mean a broader interest in the Chinese classics today.

One of its key concepts is filial piety, of which Nan said: “People today don’t understand filial piety. They think filial piety is giving their mother and father food to eat, money to spend and taking care of their physical needs.”

But Nan didn’t see the concept as a formalistic thing, as if one were taking care of a dog or a horse. Nan’s view was that filial piety was using love to repay your parents, Xinhua suggests.

“He said, ‘you just have to remember how anxious father and mother are when something happens to you, and use that same concern for your parents. That’s filial piety.”

Nan married at least twice and had at least four children.

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