Master Deng Kuan, abbot of the Gu Temple, established in the Sui Dynasty sometime around the turn of the sixth century, was 103 when the writer Liao Yiwu met him while mountain climbing in Sichuan Province, in 2003. A tiny man with small, darting eyes and ears that were extremely hard of hearing, Deng had survived despite an irremediable fondness for his old pipe, which he relighted and puffed every few minutes as he spoke to Liao. A couple of pages into Liao’s account of their conversation in The Corpse Walker, one quickly grasps that surviving a fondness for tobacco was the very least of the old man’s exploits. We commonly think of monks as living quiet lives in retreat, and that indeed was Master Deng’s chosen path. Instead, and through no choice of his own, he ended up living a most eventful life in a country that one can credibly claim experienced the most brutal twentieth century of any place on earth.
When we recall China’s many traumas, what typically loom large are its long decades of political decay and warlordism, the civil war that pit Nationalists against Communists, and an invasion by Japan. This story line, of course, is even more indomitable in the officially sanctioned accounts of the century that exist in China, where even now serious research on things like the Cultural Revolution is still largely proscribed. For Master Deng, though, whose twentieth century was roughly split in two by the victory of Mao’s forces in 1949, the troubles of the pre-“liberation” period seem trivial in comparison with what would follow. “A couple of sentences are sufficient,” he tells Liao, dismissing the travails suffered in the early decades of his life.
Readers should be thankful that the old man dispensed with such radical economy in describing what followed. In his telling, as in the other twenty-six oral histories in Liao’s book, we are granted a robust new understanding of the modern Chinese experience. “Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact,” Deng explains, giving his interviewer an understated introduction to the upheaval inflicted on his place of worship. “This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.”
Soon after Mao’s victory, Deng was dragged out of his temple and stood up before a crowd, accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading “feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people’s minds.” People stepped forward to denounce him, and the crowd that gathered responded on cue, howling slogans like “Down with the evil landlord” and “Religion is spiritual poison.” Some spat on him. Others punched and kicked. “No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next,” Deng says. “Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us has ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.”
In this single incident, one already finds crystallized many of the signal features of the revolutionary era’s mass politics: flamboyant and typically baseless scapegoating, slogan-based campaigns aimed not just at inciting the fury of the masses but at channeling it against ever-shifting ideologically designated “enemies,” and vicious and often unrelenting sectarian attacks. By Master Deng’s reckoning, between 1952 and 1961 this meant he endured more than 300 “struggle sessions,” as these organized hazings were known in the revolution’s euphemistic terminology. In his area of Sichuan Province, he tells Liao, by 1961 “half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death.”