James CarterHeart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk

Oxford University Press, 2014

by Carla Nappi on June 11, 2014

James Carter

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[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian StudiesJay Carter’s new book follows the life of one man as a way of opening a window into the lived history of twentieth-century China. Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth-Century Monk (Oxford University Press, 2011; paperback edition 2014) is less a traditional biography than a life of an emergent modern nation as told through the experiences of a single individual whose relationships embodied the history of that nation in flesh, bones, and blood. Born in 1875 as Wang Shouchun, the man who would become Tanxu worked various jobs as laborer, minor government official, fortune-teller, and pharmacist before finding his calling, leaving his family, and setting off on a journey to become a Buddhist monk. His travels spanned the physical and spiritual worlds – one of his earliest voyages took him beyond death to the underworld and back. After leaving home, Wang experienced treaty-ports in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer uprising, and Russo-Japanese tension over Manchuria. His life unfolded in a series of Chinese cities that were administered by foreigners, and the transformative power of Sino-foreign relations in this period becomes a recurring trope throughout his story. Ranging north and south, he eventually studied to become a Buddhist monk and, as Tanxu, helped to found temples across China. Carter’s own travels took him from the Bronx (to meet with a Dharma heir disciple of the monk) through more than a dozen Chinese cities, taking Tanxu’s own memoir and itinerary as guidebook and route-map. The resulting book is a beautifully written, historiographically self-reflexive, and humane account of the lived history of modern China.

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