Buddhism and books: Lin Ching-hsuan’s cross-Strait careers

Written by Paul J. Farrelly.

On 23 January 2019 the Taiwan-born best-selling author Lin Ching-hsuan 林清玄 passed away. Aged 65, he had enjoyed a long career in Taiwan and, later in life, developed a following in China, where his pithy Buddhism-infused writing resonated with readers. For an introduction to Lin’s work, I suggest you have a look at the translations here. Having established himself as an essayist during Taiwan’s martial law period, his popularity exploded when he made Buddhism his focus in the 1980s. A cursory exploration of his career allows one to explore an intriguing way in which Buddhism took hold in late twentieth century Taiwan, reflecting the creative and commercial opportunities available in its nascent civil society and booming economy. As Scott Pacey wrote earlier on this site, “Taiwan offers a good case-study for the interaction of religion with modernity”; Lin is a colourful example of this dynamic, especially with his late-career cross-Strait rejuvenation.

Lin was born in rural Kaohsiung County in 1953. His large family was poor and his burgeoning interest in literature was not supported by his father. His first book was published in 1973 and Lin’s accessible romantic style earned him a clutch of prestigious literary awards over the next 10 years. One of the biggest fillips to Lin’s reputation and sales figures was the Bodhi series 菩提系列, of which Violet Bodhi 紫色菩提 (1986) was the first book. Comprising ten volumes, the series has sold 2 million copies, marking Lin as an integral figure in Buddhism’s growth in Taiwan. As a Buddhist author Lin evidently was in his element, recording “ his experiences and insights in spare, elegant prose, revealing a calm, Zen-like vision, offering readers new perspectives on life and living”. He was a prolific writer, with a 1994 magazine profile that lauded him as one of ‘Formosa’s 10 Great Savants’ (number one was future president Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九), noting that over the past 25 years he had written three to four thousand characters a day and published six books in 1994 alone. He also worked as a public speaker, with the content of his lectures forming the basis of later publications. A 1989 magazine profile commented that:

over a long period of time … Lin Ching-hsuan has unceasingly pushed himself to become a humble Buddhist, no matter whether through practice or studying the classics and applying these in everyday life.

In doing this, and encouraging his readers to follow a similar Buddhist morality and worldview, Lin found himself in the curious situation where he had become a religious figure. This is despite his position as a secular author of commercially disseminated texts. His elevated status, and the public expectations associated with this, set him up for the next traumatic stage of his career.

In 1995 Lin divorced his wife and remarried half a year later. When his new, and much younger, wife fell pregnant shortly after, Lin’s readers abandoned him and he was less welcome in the literary world. For many the apparent hypocrisy of someone who had written so beautifully and persuasively about Buddhism was hard to swallow. The scandal caused Lin to retreat from public life and he eventually restarted his career in China.

While Lin’s fame and influence in China never matched his early 1990s heyday in Taiwan, he still managed to forge a decent career (at the time of passing he had nearly 240,000 followers on the Chinese platform Weibo). Some of his early books have been reprinted for readers in China and he continued to regularly publish essays on his WeChat account. A 2017 visit to the famous Shaolin Temple saw him exchanging works with the abbot and he was quoted as wanting the abbot to visit Taiwan “to benefit more Taiwanese people”. While I have not read many of Lin’s publications from China, I would assume they are free of any critical political discussion – his politically benign rendering of the dharma meant he was able to continue publishing in China’s more restrictive political climate.

Beyond his prose (and trademark skullet), what is most interesting about Lin is the role he played in Taiwan’s society as it surged out of the martial law period and became increasingly experimental, at least in a religious sense; not surprisingly, his success as a Buddhist author coincided with a boom in new religious movements 新興宗教. Lin benefited from the relative free reign that Taiwan’s publishing scene enjoyed in the immediate post-martial law years: He was an established author writing about a popular topic, the perfect talent for profit-hungry publishers to foster. As the press had more scope to explore topics and Taiwan’s growing middle class grew more prosperous (and, in some cases, more neurotic), there was a ready market for Lin’s work. Easy to read and making the familiar teachings of Buddhism relevant to contemporary readers, he was able to use the channels opened by mass media (print and broadcast) to connect with an audience.

Not unlike authors in Taiwan’s burgeoning New Age Movement 新時代運動, such as Terry Hu 胡因夢 and C.C. Wang 王季慶 (both of whom he collaborated with on some early 1990s publications), Lin recognised the public’s growing interest in self-based and commercially distributed spiritual solutions. He articulated a set of ideas and practices that resonated with a society that while it was in thrall to generating financial capital, it was, at the same time, grappling with issues of identity and the possibilities inherent in a newly democratised polity. Leveraging the remaining positive aspects of his career in Taiwan, Lin took advantage of the opportunities available in China to re-emerge as a writer and produce material that avoided the attention of the sensitive Party-State there. Lin’s immense popularity and Mainland rebirth centre him as an innovative figure that managed to navigate the evolving political and cultural situations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait but, unfortunately, English language studies of Lin are non-existent. Given his prolific output and curious career trajectory, I am sure that a deeper exploration of his life and oeuvre will yield important insights about Buddhism and the conditions of modernity in Taiwan and China.

Paul J. Farrelly is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University and an editorial assistant at Taiwan Insight. He is a co-editor of the forthcoming China Story Yearbook and in 2018 published a bi-lingual history of the Australia-China Council. Please see www.pauljfarrelly.com for more details.

7 comments

  1. Why not try a bit of cynicism? A successful writer taps into a great emerging new market, Buddhist spirituality. Current marketing doctrine prescribes that he must develop a dominant media presence to sell his books well. He develops a dominant media presence by single-minded public embodiment of his Buddhist writings. Consequently, his books sell very well and he becomes a celebrity. However, maintaining the idealised image of a Buddhist sage takes a toll because it is psychologically straining to constantly live the dissonance between the make believe world of a celebrity and the actual world this person is living in. There is the constant danger that a contradiction among those two worlds gets public. Once public, the marketing image is destroyed and the backlash is fierce. What’s so interesting about this story?

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      1. Your observation hits the nail on the head. I am curious about Taiwan and I am keen on learning more. ‘Taiwan Insight’ is a valuable source. However, it would be even more valuable if articles were more well-thought out. Therefore, I try to provide good examples by composing well-thought out comments. Of course, I am still far from perfect, so I am creative about diverse approaches. Let’s grow together!

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  2. Popularity, celebrity, sales figures, followers on Twitter, wealth are unreliable measures for greatness, relevance and research worthiness. Otherwise the wisdoms in Mao’s Little Red Book would still be researched and Mao would still be a source of inspiration for some eminent western academics, Xi Jinping’s thought would be taken more serious in the western world, Jeff Bezos would be a worshipped sage and Donald Trump would be regarded as the greatest benefactor in today’s world.

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    1. Big question – what is worthy of research? If we are looking at Taiwan’s Buddhist boom of the 1990s, if commercially successful and high profile figures such as Lin are not worthy of further consideration, then who/what exactly is? Or is Buddhism (and even religion more broadly) not worthy of research?

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      1. I tried to provoke you into providing more substantive information to make the story more interesting because I sense that there is potential.

        Did Lin Ching-hsuan just skilfully ride a wave or did he create the wave? Why did his rendering of Buddhist practice resonate so well with Taiwanese spiritual needs at that time? What was specific about Buddhist practice in Taiwan at that time? Were Buddhist communities in the newly expanded cities a substitute for village temple communities? Did Lin Ching-hsuan’s literary work garner critical acclaim? What did Buddhist monks and nuns say about his texts? Was he less successful in China because he shunned celebrity marketing, such avoiding a repeat of his experience in Taiwan? Or was his version of Buddhist practice less attuned to the needs of people in China? What was the difference?

        These questions seem to me a lot more illuminating than a mere biography of a popular writer would be. The answers provide the substance behind the popularity, if there is any.

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  3. My story re-frames your story, such creating a strongly contrasting point of view, to draw attention to two problems I consider important.

    1. The objective of marketing and of celebrity creation is to evoke emotional appeal, a highly subjective experience. The aim of science is to gain rational insight into aspects of the world, a highly objective endeavour. If marketing finds its way into science, we get ideology and propaganda, not insights. If celebrity overwhelms science, we get references to authorities instead of references to observations in the world. So, its beneficial to keep marketing and celebrity worship separate from science. I feel that your article is a bit wobbly on this separation.

    2. Researching the life of an author might illuminate the work of that author but such research cannot replace independent analysis and critique of the texts, it only can augment such work. So, I suggest to look carefully into the author’s texts first to assess their substance and the type of relevance it had for society at that time. It would be a waste of resources to research a fleeting, inconsequential fad. I miss in your article substantive observations on the content of the author’s work and its relevance for society.

    I offered this acerbic and condensed interpretation of Lin Ching-hsuan’s life to point out that (1) such a life trajectory seems not uncommon, that (2) it is not specific Taiwanese and that (3) similar cases probably got researched a number of times already.

    Does my rendering of his life story contain some aspects that are not based on informations provided in your article? Do parts of my rendering of his life story contradict informations provided in your article? Are one or more of the points wrong I tried to convey?

    Here is another interpretation of Lin Ching-hsuan’s life:

    A successful writer taps into a great emerging aspect of the current Zeitgeist, Buddhist spirituality. Large parts of Taiwanese society feel spiritual emptiness as a consequence of single-minded pursuit of wealth accumulation. Buddhist spirituality, masterfully conveyed by the writer, offers an attractive reprieve. But Buddhist practice mostly remains a meaningless gesture since Buddhist doctrine contradicts craving for wealth. Nevertheless, it still provides a make-believe spiritual foundation as long as the pretence does not get exposed. Once the Buddhist sage, being a celebrity whose life is highly public, makes the pretence obvious in his personal actions and such forces everybody to confront their own apparent hypocrisy, shame takes hold among his followers that can only be erased by scapegoating the fallen sage.

    That’s not uncommon either, nor is it specific Taiwanese and the phenomenon probably got explored many times also. Apparently, being confined by the informations provided in the article, I am unable to come up with a story that is interesting.

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