Buddhists in China during the Korean War (1951-1953) Xue Yu The Chinese University of Hong Kong Introduction

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Buddhists in China during the Korean War (1951-1953)
Xue Yu

The Chinese University of Hong Kong


On October 8, 1950, China decided to participate in the current war in Korea by supporting Communist North Korea against America and South Korea. Within a few days, the state machine implemented the powerful propaganda campaign of “Resisting America and Assisting Korea, Protecting the Family and Safeguarding the Nation.”(抗美援朝、保家衛國)The whole country was then mobilized and millions of Chinese volunteer soldiers crossed the Yalu River to Korea, while people remaining in China made their self-sacrifices in order to back Chinese soldiers in the warfront. Under these circumstances, Chinese Buddhists, especially monks and nuns, became increasingly involved in war activities, prioritizing their efforts towards material donations and spiritual support for the war.

This article examines Chinese monks and nuns who had undertaken a series of transformative Marxist campaigns since the socialist liberation in 1949. Once again they were thrown into a patriotic campaign to support China’s efforts. They had to demonstrate themselves actively as ‘family’ members of the Chinese nation under the communist leadership. Some of them, as recorded in Xingdai Foxue(現代佛學), became deeply involved in war activities, such as political propaganda, demonstrative parades, patriotic pledges, and material donations. The phenomena that monks and nuns campaigned for the donation of a Chinese Buddhist Airplane to Chinese soldiers and that they competed with each other in joining the Volunteer Army are highlighted to demonstrate how these Buddhists attempted to demonstrate their nationalistic ideal and patriotic passion.

The role of leading Buddhists, such as Ven. Juzan (巨贊) in assisting the government to shape its new policy on Buddhism during this period is examined to reveal the impact of Buddhist activities during the war on the subsequent development of Buddhist institutions in China as a whole. One may conclude that a new form of Buddhism appeared in China during this period was in fact reinvented largely by Chinese Buddhists themselves, especially some leading figures, who lent their hands to the Communist regime and encouraged its strict control over institutional Buddhism. But first, let us examine the socio-political situation in which Buddhists undertook Marxist re-education, only then could we understand how the Communist government could effectively transform Chinese Buddhists into new patriotic citizens of socialist China.

Buddhism in the Early Communist Era (1949-1953)

The vicissitude of Buddhism in China since its introduction demonstrates that institutional Buddhism or the sangha cannot avoid political influence, and sometimes it is completely manipulated by political powers. Buddhism either would flourish once it lavishly received the government’s patronage or it would be persecuted mercilessly if the state turned against it. At the end of the Qing dynasty and the early Republic period (1912-1949), Buddhist institutions throughout the country could no longer entertain moral support and legal protection from the state; instead, temples were destroyed in war or occupied by military troops of war lords, and temple properties were confiscated for the establishment of public education. Under these circumstances, Master Taixu 太虛 (1898-1947) and others called for Buddhist reform (of doctrines, properties, and organization) with the hope of altering external persecutions and strengthening inner spiritual energy. Yet at the end, he had to admit the failure of reform efforts. A number of reasons are calculated for such failure, including the personal incapability of Taixu in organizing the Buddhist community and his lack of necessary skills to implement reform ideas. An additional factor was the powerful resistance of the conservatives. Perhaps the most important factor was the reform movement’s inability to win political support from the Nationalist regime. This fact may have provided a lesson for Taixu’s followers, such as Juzan and Zhou Puchu, who realized the vital importance of the Communist government’s support. As a result, they worked hard to obtain collaboration with the regime, hoping that a new Buddhist reform might be politically guaranteed and institutional Buddhism could be legally safeguarded.

Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a full-scale reconstruction of socialist China to achieve Communism was under way under the leadership of the Communist Party. Buddhism, although faced with tremendous problems of uncertainties and challenges, entered into a new era with a hope for a better future. The Communists, which claimed that they were credited for having overthrown the suppressions of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism, endeavored with great ambition to build a new and powerful China under the polity of the new democratic revolution. At the beginning, the government called for co-existence with religious communities within the framework of the united front and patriotic ideology, and announced the policy of freedom of religious belief. Just as Holmes Welch observed, “Until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, it was the policy of the Chinese Communist Party to protect Buddhism, while at the same time keeping it under control and utilizing it in foreign policy.”1 By announcing the freedom of religious belief, the government attempted to win over religious leaders so that they could effectively convey government policy to ordinary religious followers.

From September 21, to 30, 1949, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) held its first meeting in Beijing and passed the Common Program. This served as the first constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Of 662 members who participated in the conference, seven were practitioners of Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Article 5 of the Common Program states “the citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy the freedom of religious beliefs.” In interpreting the statement, the government announced that people enjoyed freedom of religious belief, that is, freedom to believe in a religion and freedom to refuse to believe in a religion. Although the members of Communist Party did not believe in any religion, they understood that religion would not disappear until the advanced development of science and the elimination of social classes. At the end of the conference, the seven members expressed their satisfaction with the religious policy and appreciation for the government’s protection for religions.2

It should be pointed out, however, that religious leaders took part in the CPPCC not because of their religious status but out of political consideration for the sake of the united front.(統一戰線)In April 13th, 1950, Premier Zhou Enlai delivered a speech in the National Conference on the United Front Works in Beijing in which he outlined the government’s attitude towards political participation of religionists. He said:

We have united democratic personages from religious groups just because they are democratic personages. Giving the permission to the freedom of religious belief is different from inviting the democratic personages from religious groups to participate in CPPCC or other representative meetings. The latter is done purely out of political consideration no matter they are priests or monks.3

Obviously, the government deliberately minimized the religious significance of religious leaders’ presence in the politically profiled conference; their participation in the conference was not because of their religious professions, but because they were democratic personages (民主人士) within the framework of the united front. The united front, one of three great treasures for the success of the Chinese communist revolution that had secured the victory of the Communist Party over Nationalist Party, was to unite all Chinese people collectively to rebuild a new China under the unique leadership of the Communist Party. (The other two great treasures are Communist leadership, and the People’s Liberation Army.) The principle that guided the united front work at this period was patriotism against imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism.

Patriotism was one of the most inspiring ideas and complicated sentiments that deeply influenced Chinese people’s thinking and regulated their action in modern history.4 Although the meaning and content of patriotism changed according to political and social environments in different periods, it was always associated with the idea of nationalism. Patriotism during the period shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China was interpreted to mean that the Chinese people, being proud of the Chinese nation and of the long history of civilization, should firmly defend the national territory and integrity even at the risk of their lives.5 Being loyal to the nation-state, one should make heroic self-sacrifices for the sovereignty of the country under the leadership of the Communist Party.

Only the Communist Party, as the propaganda declared, was able to expel the foreign invasion and counterrevolutionaries so that Chinese people could become the true masters of their country. Within the framework of patriotism in connection with nationalism, the people’s love for the nation was synonymous with their love for the Party; such love could be manifested and implemented only through unconditional support for the Communist government. Because the Party, the nation-state, and the government at the time were almost identical as a trinity, the Chinese people were urged to follow government policies without questioning, and to respond positively to political movements launched by the state.6 Only then could they be considered as patriots and good citizens of the country. In order to implement such patriotic ideology, the state organized a series of political programs nationwide to reeducate the Chinese people with Marxism.

Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government launched a number of political campaigns, such as Lands Reform and Three Anti movements, and almost the whole nation followed the path directed by the Communist Party without the slightest doubt or question. It seems that most Buddhists followed the contemporary social and political trends and expressed their support for the government. Some well-known Buddhists, having participated in and experienced these campaigns, became quite convinced that the Communist Party with its united front could indeed lead them and other Chinese in the great cause of reconstructing a new and prosperous China. Even though some ordinary monks and nuns may have continued to harbor doubts, uncertainty, and even fear toward the newly founded regime,7 there was no public way for them to openly express their feelings. It was commonly believed among Buddhists, both lay and clergy, that they had enjoyed religious freedom and were considered equally as citizens of new China, therefore it was their responsibility to make self-sacrifices and contributions to the nation.

Many Buddhist believed that by positively responding to the government’s call and undertake socialist transformation they would in return obtain the sympathy from the latter, which would then protect Buddhist institutions. Yet, from the viewpoint of the Communist Party, Buddhists as well the followers of other religions who became fully engaged in socialist transformation and reconstruction would divert their attention from their faith, and eventually they would forget and eventually abandon their religion altogether. Although the Common Program which served as the constitution permitted the freedom of religious belief, yet it never clearly sated that people also enjoyed the freedom of religious practice. As Richard Bush pointed out, religious activities outside walls of temples were prohibited.8 Communist documents often stated openly that religion would certainly decline and die with the development of science, and the government should make efforts to educate people with Marxist materialism so that people would gradually give up their religious beliefs altogether.

As the genesis and existence of religion is man’s oppression by the forces of nature and society, therefore, only when class exploitation has been eliminated from human society and man’s power to control nature has been greatly developed, and on this basis man’s consciousness and scientific-cultural level have been great raised, may religion gradually die out.9

Yet religion would not die soon, and the government needed to formulate a policy to assist people to abandon their religion. Thus the Communist Party implemented the policy of Marxist education by categorizing religion as superstition, which was considered adverse to science. At the same time, they deterred Chinese people from religious practice, portraying it as backward and harmful to oneself as well as the nation. As the result of such policy and forceful implementation, the destruction of Buddhist temples spread all over China. As Welch reported:

In the first years after Liberation there were places in China where monasteries were destroyed, monks were beaten or killed, copies of the Buddhist canon were burned, and sacred images were melted down for their metal. In these places the sangha or Buddhist clergy, already worried about the effects of land reform was reduced to ‘a state of terror.10

The state, however, never launched any campaign directly targeted at the elimination of Buddhism, nor did it openly announce that Buddhist practice should be prohibited just because it opposed against Marxist ideology. Rather, in order to rebuild a new China, the destruction of Buddhism was systematically carried out through other means, such as land reform and the Three-Antis, with the declared purpose of transforming all Chinese into new citizens to rebuild socialist China. The members of the sangha were requested to abandon their feudal ideology and superstitious practice, to give up their temple lands, and to demonstrate their hatred towards imperialists, feudalists, and bureaucratic capitalists. Only by doing so could they be qualified as socialist workers and not social parasites (those whose lives depended on lay people yet exploited their hard work). Monks and nuns were advised to closely follow government policies or they would be considered as the enemies of the people within the framework of the people’s democratic dictatorship. To a large extent, these campaigns effectively transformed monks and nuns, physically as well as mentally. As the lands of temples were confiscated, the lives of monks and nuns could no longer depend on land-rents; they eventually worked and acted as ordinary workers and farmers, readily prepared to follow whatever the Communist Party would advocate in years to come. Subsequently, they religious identities disappeared and their religious practices, such as observing Buddhist precepts and conducting ritual services, were abandoned. Monk and nuns who refused to undertake such transformation became the targets of class struggle and victims of the campaigns, they were condemned as the remainders of feudal society and condemned as the enemies of people.
Buddhism in Support of China’s Effort for the War

After the Second World War, Korea was divided by the 38th parallel into the Communist North and the Capitalist South. When the relationship between the two superpowers (Russia and America) began deteriorating and the Cold War was looming, the tension between the two sides of the 38th parallel became intensified; eventually war broke out in June 25 1950. The exact cause for the war remained unclear, yet within a few days of the war breaking out,11 North Korean troops advanced deep into the territory of the South. In July 7th, the Security Council of the United Nation declared war against the North, and established a unified command under the UN flag, delegating the authority for the command to the United States. Due to the powerful military intervention of the UN (or rather the United States), the situation of the war in Korea turned around against the North. Coalition troops led by America successfully launched counterattacks and pushed the troops of the North back towards its border with China.

Meanwhile, U.S President Harry Truman declared on June 27th that the United States would do her best to deter China from taking over Taiwan; he ordered the Seventh Fleet to enter the Taiwan Strait. Suddenly, all of these military actions were seen as posing an imminent threat to China’s security. On October 8th, China declared that it was entering war to assist Korea in resisting America. The volunteer army immediately crossed the Yalu River with the rhetorical mission of defending the family and safeguarding the nation.12 The course was again altered, this time due to China’s involvement; attacks of American and Southern Korean troops were effectively halted. China’s involvement exerted a tremendous impacts not only on the lives of millions of Chinese solders but also on ordinary Chinese, including monks and nuns, who could not remain as they had been, but were forced to throw themselves into the nationwide efforts in supporting the war.

It is traditionally believed that the sangha may not be involved in social and political activities, let alone military campaigns. The history of Chinese Buddhism demonstrates that monks and nuns in general remained within the temple premises or inside mountains, unconcerned with outside worldly affairs. The situation, however, began to change after Master Taixu campaigned for Buddhist reform from the early 1920s, that urged monks and nuns to enter into society and take part in social and politic activities. By doing so, it was hoped that Buddhism could better serve the needs of ordinary people in general so that it would survive and even revive. As an example to his advocates, Taixu became deeply engaged in national efforts of resisting Japanese invasion during the Anti-Japanese War and was rewarded by the Nationalist government after the war. Taixu’s legacy on the political participation and evolvement in war was later inherited by his followers and admirers, who believed that Buddhist reform in accordance with contemporary social and political developments was the only way for the survival and revival of Chinese Buddhism. One such follower was Ven. Juzan, well-known for his vigorous campaign of Buddhist reform and his adamant support of the Communist government in modern Chinese history.

Juzan was an anti-government activist against the Nationalists when he was a student in Shanghai in the late 1920s, and became tonsured partially to escape the arrest. He was ordained in Hanzhou and, with the recommendation of Master Taixu, pursued his Buddhist education at Mingnan Buddhist College in Xiamen. During the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945), Juzan became actively engaged in organizing Buddhist propaganda as well as military campaigns against Japanese invasion in Hunan and Jiangxi; thus he became associated with well known Communist leaders and intellectuals.13

In June 1949, he was nominated by his Communist friends to be one of the two Buddhist delegates to attend the CPPCC in Beijing in October. In February 1950, while proposing a plan for Buddhist reform, he wrote a letter to Chairman Mao with the signatures of 21 well-known Buddhists, which expressed Buddhist support for the revolution of people’s democracy under the leadership of the Communist Party.14 Having received no reply, Juzan then revised the proposal and highlighted the Buddhist reform in tune with the contemporary Three-Anti Campaigns in China. The proposal was later discussed in a symposium held by the Religious Affairs Team of the central government, yet it was then concluded that Buddhist reform not be implemented in haste, lest it jeopardize the government’s efforts in dealing with religion, and cause confusion among ordinary Buddhists.

China’s decision to enter the Korean War in October 1950, provided Juzan with a new opportunity to carry out his effort for Buddhist reform. Pursuant to the government’s campaign, Juzan quickly initiated a plan for Buddhist propaganda in criticizing the American invasion. He called upon all Chinese Buddhists to organize anti-American parades, to make patriotic pledges and establish the committees of Resisting America and Assisting Korea. In January 1951, Juzan and some leading monks in Beijing gathered in Zhongshan Park (中山公園) to discuss how Buddhists should respond to the government’s call. Juzan presided over the meeting and delivered the keynote speech, which highlighted the importance of Buddhists’ active commitment to the campaign and preparation for participation in the war. He said:

We Buddhists uphold peace, yet America is the deadly enemy of peace. Therefore, we must reject American imperialism in order to safeguard peace…. Now, the people of Korea were severely tortured by imperialist America, assisting Korea will safeguard not only the nation and the world, but also Buddhism.15

At the meeting, it was decided to establish the Committee of Buddhist Circles in Beijing for Safeguarding the World Peace and Resisting American Invasion.16 Juzan and eight other leading Buddhists were elected as members of the standing committee. The participants then discussed plans for various patriotic activities. On February 2nd, more than 600 monks and nuns, together with other 2000 Buddhists, including lamas, lay-people, and students from Buddhist schools in Beijing, assembled in Zhongshan Park.17 In his speech to the gathering, Juzan explained the significance of Buddhist participation in the campaign against the American invasion of Korea; he said,

The Buddhist campaign as demonstrated today is not miracle, but sincere responses to the call of Chairman Mao and the people’s government. It indicates that Buddhists love their motherland as all other Chinese do.18

Juzan reported to the gathering that more than 1300 monks and nuns in Seoul had joined the People’s Army of North Korea. He highly praised such patriotic action of the Korean monks and urged his Chinese counterparts to follow their example. The participants in the gathering then proceeded to the patriotic parade. Monks and nuns, donned with gray and black robes with hood hats, carried on their shoulders huge portraits of Chairman Mao, Stalin, King Il-sung and other leaders of Communist states worldwide. The slogans such as “Resisting the American Invasion”, “Opposing the Remilitarization of Japan” could be heard from far away.

Also in the meeting before the parade, three separate telegrams were dispatched to Chairman Mao,19 the Chinese Volunteer Army, and the Korean People’s Army, with the statements that pronounced the Patriotic Pledges on behalf of all Buddhists in Beijing: 1) All Buddhist circles are united together in resisting a U.S invasion of the Taiwan Strait and the remilitarization of Japan, and in safeguarding world peace, 2) Study hard to update our consciousness, firmly oppose all counterrevolutionary and heterodox sects, 3) Love the fatherland, love the people, and work hard in productive activities, 4) Assist the government to eliminate Nationalist bandits and dismiss rumors, and 5) Support the people’s government, the Communist Party, and Chairman Mao.

Buddhists in Beijing thus initiated nationwide Buddhist participation in the war and set an example for others to follow. In Wuhan (武漢), more than 2500 monks, nuns, and lay-Buddhists took to the streets for a parade on January 22, 1951. A well-known lay Buddhist, Chen Mingshu (陳銘樞), delivered a speech in which he condemned American invaders as devils and urged all Buddhists to fight against the devils so that peace would prevail in the world.

In Hanzhou, Buddhist representatives participated in the Symposium of Representatives of All Works of Life in Hanzhou for Resisting America and Assisting Korea. Ven. Tongyuan, a leading monk of the Buddhist community in the area, explained why monks and nuns, who had traditionally remained within the temple premises, should take part in such political activities. As Ven. Tongyuan pointed out, great compassion and loving-kindness, as well as great heroic strength, are the fundamental morality and principle of Buddhism. Therefore, Buddhists, in an attempt to protect world peace, should fight against invaders who dared to violate the peace.20

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