2002 / 11月
Tsai Wen-ting /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes
In today's Taiwanese high school textbooks, Han Yu and Su Dongpo rank highest on the scale in terms of texts selected for publication. Essays, On Mentors, In Memory of Shi'er Lang, Funeral Oration for the Crocodile and other writings by Han Yu all have a familiar ring. Earlier this year when Fo Guang Shan Temple in Kaohsiung solemnly hosted an exhibition of Buddha's remains on loan to Taiwan from the mainland, those opposing this event once again cited Han Yu's Memorial on the Bone-Relic of the Buddha. In reality, how great has the influence of Han Yu-who revered Confucian thought while castigating Buddhism throughout his life-been on Chinese culture?
Reading through the Memorial on the Bone-Relic of the Buddha, one finds biased and emotive language throughout. Han Yu believed that many Buddhist devotees among China's emperors died ahead of their time and caused the nation great harm: "They served Buddha to seek happiness, but in the end found only disaster," he wrote, and recommended that the Tang emperor Xianzong "cast the Buddha's remains into the fire, and thereby eliminate the roots of the problem."
In On the Origin of the Way, he writes in his summary: If the Way of the Buddha is not forbidden, the Way of the Sages cannot be propagated, in which case it would be best to require both Buddhist and Taoist monks and nuns to return to lay life, to burn Buddhist and Taoist canons, and refurbish temples for the lay people. By doing so, at least one could help support the disadvantaged such as widowers and widows, and orphans.
As to why Han Yu was so radically opposed to Buddhism, "That is the most basic characteristic of his life," comments Lin Ku-fang, himself a Buddhist practitioner, and head of the Institute for Art Research at Fo Kuang University. He points out that this was not just so for Han Yu; from the introduction of Buddhism during the Wei (220-280) and Jin Dynasties (265-420) and onwards, Confucianists rose up to oppose it-Han Yu among them-because they considered Buddhism a foreign religion that denied the role of the feudal lord and of the father, and thus threatened order in China's hierarchical society. As an official, he too had his own reasons for concern.
According to Professor Ko Ching-ming of the Department of Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University, to comprehend why Han Yu was opposed to Buddhism, one must think back to the era in which he lived. When he was born in mid-Tang times in 768 AD, both Buddhism and Taoism were very much part of the social mainstream. Both Buddhist monks and Taoist priests were treated respectfully, and they not only shared the privileges of the emperor and nobility, but many also possessed huge tracts of land and were exempt from paying taxes.
As a government official, Han Yu perceived that the government's finances were in crisis while the emperor lavishly prepared to host the Buddha's remains, in preparation for which lower-ranking officials and the common people "went unclothed, depleted their savings, and even sacrificed life and limb." Whereupon, in the midst of this great tide of support for hosting the Buddha's relics, Han Yu loudly and sharply denounced Buddhism. "This required great courage," says Ko Ching-ming.
The Tang dynasty saw the flowering of Buddhism, and the atmosphere was one of broad tolerance. But after the mid-Tang years, rebellions flared up, and "Confucianists like Han Yu who opposed Buddhism were bound to vehemently oppose plans to 'host ghosts and gods,'" adds Lin Ku-fang.
As someone who came after the Anlu Shan rebellion (755), the secession of Fanchen, and repeated intrusions by foreign powers such as the Tu Fan and the Hui He, Han Yu was not of the opinion that Buddhism-with its transcendental thought-could save the common people. In reality, he was a minister of merit who had personally done battle, having taken part in the military campaign to supress a rebellion in the region west of the Huai River.
"Looking at things as a government official, when problems occurred Han Yu would come up with his own answer in the hopes of delivering the people from evil," explains Ko Ching-ming. Looking at Han Yu from a social, economic and political point of view, he provided a series of realistic solutions. In On the Origin of the Way he writes: "The Way of the Sage is the way of mutual support." That is, to stop empty talk and focus on the most basic, realistic aspects of life-truths which are tried and practical. Han Yu's "Way" or Tao consists of benevolence, righteousness, morality and virtue, including the father-son relationship, and even more, those aspects impacting the daily lives of the common people. Ko Ching-ming places Han Yu alongside Mencius and Sun Yat-sen as a scholar whose thinking began with concern for the masses.
New-fangled Classical Chinese
Unlike the literati of the Southern and Northern dynasty (420-589) who emphasized classical allusions and symmetrical verses, Han Yu left the world of the classics and instead chose the middle and lower classes as his point of departure. He wrote about mundane things in artistic, truly beautiful writing, and yet managed to indirectly express grander thinking about the governance of the nation. In "Story of Wealthy Mason Wang," Han Yu conveys a moral through his observation of a bricklayer who is revealed as a lazy worker, today the owner of a lovely mansion, but inevitably unable to maintain his riches.
"Han Yu creates a form of writing which, thanks to its lively descriptions, can both convey his personal emotions and include his rich life experience," points out Ko Ching-ming. "This is a kind of liberation of 'experience,' and it inspired a new era of Chinese literature." The classical movement promoted by Han Yu not only impacted the Tang dynasty, but more so thereafter, as even Tseng Kuo-Fan and Hu Shih in the late Qing dynasty were heavily influenced by him. Thanks to Han Yu, after him the prose essay became the literary mainstream in Chinese culture. No wonder that Su Dongpo dubbed him: "He who revitalized Confucianist writing after generations of decline."
Han Yu had the ability to leap beyond the elegant beauty of Tang poetry with its grandeur and carefree attitude, and instead could write the "unbeautiful" into his poems, analyzing scenery, making inferences, creating delight in the bizarre and the droll in a very modern way.
"Han Yu was really a fascinating person. He made the literary path a much broader one, and was able to transform mundane experience into 'artistic experience,'" says Ko Ching-ming, who cannot help singing Han Yu's praises. "He was not only a significant literary activist; he was also a superior man of literature."
Han Yu, who lost his parents and elder brother when very young and was raised just by his sister-in-law, had bad luck at his exams when young as well; at 19 he went to Chang'an to take the jinshi exam, but sat four times before his name appeared on the honor roll. Add to that his penchant for speaking his mind, and three demotions during his official career. When examined from a worldly point of view based on the acquisition of wealth and reputation, Han Yu hardly qualifies as a "success."
A courageous pioneer in literary style, even when he was demoted to governor of Chaozhou Prefecture, Han Yu brought his colorful lifestyle to that far-flung uncivilized southern realm, thereby displaying once again his ability to transcend worldly concerns of fame and fortune, and his characteristic willingness to uphold the values of a life of beauty and goodness. Perhaps this is a better reason for modern scholars to offer a stick of sweet-smelling incense in his memory.
Despite the setback to his career when demoted, Han Yu's role in developing education in Chaozhou means that today he is the object of incense-burning and prayer from Guangdong's Chaozhou to Taiwan's Pingtung. (print by Huang Tsu-huan)
Changli Temple: This Hakka-style building was once an important academy for classical Chinese learning in the Liutui area.