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China’s Celebrity Monk

A celebrity monk brings a zany touch of zen to China


“Life is tough for every man, because everyday they live in the danger of being strangled. So be grateful to the women who stick through thick and thin with you, who always want to strangle you but have not done it yet. Women, too, should cherish the men by their side, especially when they are bad-looking and poor, because such men are more motivated and have great potential.”

This is not from a relationship columnist, but from a Buddhist monk, Master Yancan, who was replying a middle-aged man who was bothered by his marriage life and said that he and his wife wanted to strangle each other every day. Master Yancan is not a stereotypical monk; chubby, bucktoothed, he speaks in a heavy Hebei accent, though he claims that he practices Mandarin almost everyday by talking to vegetables and dogs. He has a weibo account, which now has 21 million followers. He published 13 books, all of them rated over four stars on Amazon. He appears in popular reality shows. In short, Master Yancan may not be the greatest Buddhist monk in China, but he is definitely the most popular one.

He became famous in July, 2012 because of a video. In the video, Master Yancan was standing on a path on Emei Mountain, Sichuan Province, praising the beauty of life, encouraging people to love and hope; however, several monkeys took an interest in the monk and kept grabbing his arm, climbing over his head, and pulling his clothes, disrupting him from finishing a single sentence. The monkeys combined with his Hebei accent made the video go viral. The sentence he struggled to say, “life is so glorious, so wonderful” (绳命,是剁么的回晃;人生,是入刺的井猜!) resounded in the world of weibo, and saying “life” in Master Yancan’s accent as “绳命” quickly became a new internet meme.

Because of his accent and his amiable, clumsy personality, Master Yancan is often referred to as “the cutest Buddhist monk in China” (中国最萌的法师). Now that he is a celebrity, his life evolves around interviews, new book releases, reality shows, and of course, weibo posting. He is so glued to his phone that his disciple (who is also his manager) take it away from him. On December 30, 2013 alone, he sent 13 weibo posts.

“Some people think monks shouldn’t use modern things. They say it is sinful for monks to travel with cameras, or drink coca cola. But we are in a modern world. If I go to Changsha from Beijing on a donkey, it will take me six years and four months, and it is possible that the donkey will die halfway, in which case I will have to walk the rest of the journey!” He told the journalist of Southern People Weekly, responding to the controversy about his lifestyle.

Master Yancan claims himself to be the best sold writer among monks, and writes up to eight books a year. Although a prolific writer, his writings are mostly of a self-help bent, written in the the style of Chicken Soup for the Soul, or “healing style” (治愈系), which tries to show the way to be peaceful, happy, tolerant, and live a simple life. Occasionally, Master Yancan shows a streak of the classical Zen master in him. For example, once a man texted him at midnight saying that he wanted to commit suicide, and Master Yancan replied, “Even my dog is asleep now. What are you doing?” And the man changed his mind and went to bed. Although he is not always that sharp and profound, everything he says is undeniably the truth—it is certainly always right to cherish your short life and be positive about it. While some readers may consider his writings to be hollow and repetitious, his fans find them infinitely enlightening and powerful.

After all, in China people are getting angrier with almost every aspect in of life, and the internet is full of bitter sarcasm and fury. Master Yancan’s writings represent a break from all these overwhelming negative energies, as he puts it in his book, “Don’t consider your life to be complicated and heavy. Say nice things, think about nice things, and be a simple person—these cannot be bad.” Master Yancan might not be ranked as the most legendary Zen master in history, but such simplicity may just be what China needs.


Image courtesy of Master Yancan’s weibo.


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