寂然上人碑 Stele to the Venerable Master Jiran

Introduction by Jonathan Henshaw, Academia Sinica.


Listed among the items in the Immoveable Cultural Relics database in China’s Jiangsu Province is the Stele to the Venerable Master Jiran, a unique artefact located at Qixia Temple in the eastern suburbs of Nanjing, pre-war capital of the Republic of China. Built from 483-489 CE during the Six Dynasties (and repeatedly rebuilt since), Qixia Temple is one of Nanjing’s most important Buddhist sites and is also where Master Hsing Yun (b. 1927), founder of the influential Fo Guang Shan Order in Taiwan, was tonsured. Dated to 1940, the Jiran Stele is dedicated to Master Jiran (1893-1939), a Buddhist monk at Qixia, and includes a biographical account of his life, with a focus on his conversion to Buddhism and his activities as a monk up until his death of illness in 1939. The text of the stele has also been published in the Record of the Steles of Nanjing’s Qixia Mountain.[1]


The stele is not merely a biography of a religious figure, however, and is actually inextricably linked to the legacy of the Japanese Empire and grassroots Chinese experiences of occupation. Of particular importance is the stele’s references to humanitarian efforts during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when the Japanese Empire’s Central China Area Army attacked and occupied the city in a battle characterized by mass executions and widespread sexual violence, particularly amongst Chinese civilians. Such was the brutality that General Matsui Iwane (1878-1948), who oversaw the operation, was tried and sentenced to death at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East at Tokyo in 1948. To this day, events surrounding the attack and the terminology used to describe it, the number of casualties, and other related issues remain subject to periodic and heated debate between scholars and other commentators in China and Japan.


Previous scholarship on grassroots humanitarian efforts during the attack has tended to focus on the role of the German expatriate and Siemens businessman (and Nazi Party member) John Rabe (1882-1950), or the missionary educator and Ginling College president Minnie Vautrin (1886-1941). Their work, along with that of Western expatriate members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, saved countless lives and the records they kept have provided researchers with a crucial window into how the Massacre unfolded.[2] And yet there is more to the story, and the Jiran Stele describes how local Chinese Buddhist monks, led by Master Jiran and other members of Qixia Temple, also took part in the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering during the invasion. As the stele describes, the temple’s monks under Jiran’s direction fed and housed some 23,000 refugees through the winter of 1937 and into 1938. Many of them sheltered in makeshift grass huts, a fact documented by Ernest H. Forster, an American Episcopal missionary who photographed the site, or in the “Thousand Buddha” grottoes for which the monastery is famous.


According to the Cultural Relics database, the stele was the work of Chu Minyi (1884-1946), a French-trained intellectual and high-ranking member of the Kuomintang (China’s then-ruling party). Chu earned notoriety that same year for his decision to serve as foreign minister in the Re-organized National Government (RNG), a Japanese-backed occupation state based in Nanjing that was led by his brother-in-law, Wang Jingwei (1883-1944). A lay Buddhist himself, Chu’s connections to Buddhism in the city predated the war. In the 1930s, Chu came into contact with Master Jiran while spearheading a fund-raising campaign among the upper ranks of the Kuomintang to build a pavilion honouring the Buddhist reformer, Master Taixu (1890-1947), on the temple grounds. During his time in the RNG, Chu made Buddhism a major theme in his engagement with Japan both through the activities of the Sino-Japanese Cultural Association and through the exchange of Buddhist statuary. And when Chu was tried as a hanjian (traitor to the Han Chinese) and executed by the triumphant Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1946, it was Master Sheng Yen (1931-2009) (a young monk who would later become a major figure in Taiwanese Buddhism) who chanted the sutras over Chu’s body. Decades later, Master Sheng Yen recalled Chu as a patron of the faith who was able to maintain a tranquil demeanour in the face of death through spiritual practice.[3]


Apart from the history the stele records, the history of the stele, including the circumstances in which it was carved and placed, as well as its subsequent vandalism and repair, are also useful for reflecting on the interplay between local memory, national narratives; the politics of wartime commemoration and trauma; and the long post-war legacy of the Japanese Empire. The Cultural Relics database states that Chu’s status as a hanjian led to the stele being broken during the Cultural Revolution. Chu’s son, who authored a biography of his father, maintains that the damage, which included scraping Chu’s name off the stele and breaking it in half, leaving some of the text illegible, was done shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.[4] In any event, in 2000 the stele was recovered and restored to its place within the temple, and a statue of Master Jiran set up prominently on the temple grounds. And in 2005, Master Jiran’s efforts, which were remembered among the monastery’s monks, were dramatized by Master Chuanzhen, who brought them to a popular, movie-viewing audience via the film Qixia Temple 1937.[5]

[1] Long Xiang 隆相 and Xu Yehai 許業海, eds., Nanjing Qixiashan zhen shi lu: Nanjing Qixia gu si mo ya shike 南京棲霞山貞石錄:南京棲霞古寺摩崖石刻 [Record of the Steles of Nanjing Qixiashan Temple] vol. 2 (Nanjing: Fenghuang chubanshe, 2009), p. 129. [2] See, for example, Hua-ling Hu and Zhang Lian-hong, eds., The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-Fang (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 2010); John Rabe, The Good German of Nanking: the diaries of John Rabe (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998), or Timothy Brook, ed., Documents on the rape of Nanking (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), among others. [3] 釋聖嚴著《觀音妙智:觀音耳根圓通法門講要》(臺北:法鼓文化,2020), pg. 108-109. [4] Chu Youyi, Zhongxing zhuan: Chu Minyi shengping jishi 重行傳:褚民誼生平紀實 [Dr Chu Minyi: A Definitive Biography] (Taipei: Xiuwei zixun, 2021), pg. 205-206. [5] See South China Morning Post, “Monk turned film backer finds safer ground with depiction of war heroism,” 11 February 2008, accessed at https://www.scmp.com/article/625843/monk-turned-film-backer-finds-safer-ground-depiction-war-heroism on August 2022.

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寂然上人碑

Stele to the Venerable Master Jiran


Buddhism emphasises that which is real over that which is superficial; as it is said in Buddhist teachings, one should not follow worldly ways. Venerable Master Jiran was just such a person. The Master was born into the Yan family at Bingcha, in Dongtai, Jiangsu. At 13 years of age, his father Tianqing passed on and, at twenty, he suffered the loss of his mother, Madam Gu. [He was] betrothed but yet to marry. His sister, still of tender years, remained unmarried and at the family home. Once the Master came to realise the emptiness of all things and the illusoriness of the mortal world, he began a solitary life. Worldly allurements lost their appeal for him. Thereafter he urged his betrothed and younger sister[s] to practise vegetarianism and chant the sutras to dispel negative karma from their past lives. He himself made a noble vow to enter the Shousheng Monastery and become an ascetic [Sramana] under the monk Zhenchan.

In 1919, he received monastic ordination [Upasampada] at Mount Baohua in Jinling. Soon, he began learning meditation at Dache Hall in the Jiangtian Monastery at Mount Jin, Zhenjiang. From dawn to dusk, he engrossed himself in practice and study until he was suddenly enlightened about the source and substance of all things. He understood that in order to transcend the material world [to achieve Sunyata], one needs propriety and seriousness [Vyuha] in all actions; even a slight lapse would result in spiritual destruction [Ucceda]. Opportunely, the monastery ordered the Master to serve in the supply stores. He was able to fully employ his uprightness and purity [of intentions] to discipline his mind and practise the rules of monasticism [Vinaya].


In 1921, when his tonsuring master, the monk Zhenchan, was nursing an illness on Mount She[1] and worsening by the day, the Master was diligent, and tended to his medical needs with great meticulousness. After Zhenchan passed into Nirvana [Parinirvana], the Master went into deep sorrow, as if mourning his own parents. Not long after, Elder Zongyang also fell ill, and the Master cared for him just as he had for Zhenchan. The elderly Monk Ruoshun was impressed with the Master’s filial _____ sincerity. Recognising his simplicity and kindness, he knew that the Master was a treasure in the Buddhist community and should not be given ordinary treatment. [Monk Ruoshun] therefore insisted that the Master stay at Mount She to help manage the affairs of Qixia Monastery. The Master, feeling recognised and appreciated, responded with great diligence in turn.

At that time, Qixia Monastery had just finished _____ eight rooms, and Ruolao was constantly on the move, collecting alms throughout the year. The Master managed the monastery, working relentlessly day and night, as the years went by. Numerous buildings—the Main Hall, the Scriptural Hall, the monastic refectory, and various rooms—were established, one after another. So majestic did the temple appear that it became pre-eminent among all the monastic establishments in Baixia.[2] As itinerant monks gathered to visit the monastery and the gentry passed to pay a visit, they were all amazed and speechless, exclaiming to each other that it was a divine achievement.

In 1924, the Master, while organising the monastic properties, came into conflict with two scoundrels of the Tu and Tao clans, and was nearly imprisoned. Fortunately, thanks to the protection and blessing of the guardian deities of justice [Dharmapala], the judicial authorities were uncorrupted and wise. Justice was ultimately served, and the monastic farmland was protected.


In 1928, Ruolao, believing that the Master possessed great merit and virtue, affirmed him as predetermined for Buddhahood. Together with Fanglian, Mingchang, Yangshan, they became a generation of monks permanently residing at the monastery. From then on, the Master conducted initiation rites at the monastery every spring, bringing benefit to many. In addition, he founded a Buddhist college to educate monks in the precepts of Buddhism. To broaden the sources of income to propagate the Dharma [universal law in Buddhism], he also established experimental farms for agriculture and forestry, opened up the hillsides for development, and planted tung-oil trees widely. As a result, he accumulated abundant prosperity and virtue, and achieved much.


This lasted until July 1937, when the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred. Great turmoil spread as far as Shanghai and Nanjing. The streets were flooded with refugees, [and] the suffering was unbearable to witness. The Master adopted the suggestion of the two Dharma Masters, Daben and Zhikai, giving them support for establishing a Buddhist refugee centre in the monastery. The rescued elderly, sickly, women, and children numbered over 23,000, [and were] served two meals per day. After April, as the streets became tranquil, [he] began sending [the refugees] back to where they came from, [illustrating the] flourishing of [his] virtue.


Following the [Marco Polo Bridge] Incident, with Ruolao in Hong Kong and Elder Zhuo residing Taizhou, the Master stayed behind at Qixia. The bitter suffering was great, [but] he endured the difficult path and took it in stride. He bore heavy burdens with iron shoulders, and lived in a state of peace and contentment. Throughout the Master’s life, he did not pursue fame or status, but instead strove for virtue and merit, seeking these in earnest, fearing only that he would be unworthy. [He] emphasised the real over the superficial–a respectable feat.


In October, 1939, [the Master] occasionally showed signs of minor illness. Aware that his destiny [Vipāka-paccaya] had been fulfilled, [he] urged the monk Zhuocheng to return to the monastery so as to hand over his affairs. On the 12th of the same month, the Master lay down on his right side as though in meditation, and passed into Nirvana soon after. His disciples Daben, Juemin, Zhikai, and others admired his virtue and merits, and could not bear for him to be forgotten. Through the introduction of Dharma Master Xuefan, [they] asked me to write an inscription based on the Master’s autobiography. The Stele was made to last forever, in honour of the Master’s great character. It is with joy, then, that I have described the Master as above, and now compose for him the following inscription:


[Following] his parents’ passing, [he] realised the world’s impermanence. At Jiangtian, he achieved enlightenment; at Qixia, he attained glory. Widely proclaiming the Dharma and benefiting the teaching [of Buddhism], [his] grace extends widely and in perpetuity.

[His] virtue was as majestic as the clouds and mountains, and will flourish unbounded for all eternity.

[1] Translator’s note: here the author uses Sheshan (Mount She), an old name for Qixia. [2] Translator’s Note: here the author uses Baixia, an old name for Nanjing, that is now used as the name for one of the city’s districts.


(Translated by Alvin Lin Ri Qi and Chay Yao Yang, Samuel at National University of Singapore; Supervised by Jonathan Henshaw)





Rubbings of the stele (Courtesy of Mr. Xu Yehai)


A statue of Master Jiran (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Henshaw)



Discussion Questions:


1. Events and interpretations—Much of the scholarship on humanitarian efforts during the Nanjing Massacre have focused on the role of white expatriates and the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. The Jiran Stele points to the role of male Chinese Buddhist clergy. How does our understanding of the Nanjing Massacre and Japanese violence towards Chinese change after considering the actions of Master Jiran and the existence of the refugee camp at Qixia Temple? What factors might explain why these monks were able to operate their refugee camp during the massacre?


2. Source Types—Unlike ordinary written materials like diaries, letters or government documents, steles are generally meant for display in a designated location. How should that influence how we interpret the stele and the history it presents? What other types of sources should we turn to in order to understand the Jiran Stele more fully?


3. Historiography—How certain events or individuals come to be remembered or forgotten by historians (and society more broadly) is not a neutral process, but is shaped by a variety of factors, particularly for something as consequential as the Japanese Empire and its legacies. What (local, national, international or other) factors might have caused the history of the Qixia Refugee Camp and the role of Master Jiran to be forgotten after the war, and then remembered once again so many decades later?


4. Judgments—Particularly in the fields of art and entertainment, reactions to an artistic product can be linked to moral judgments about its creator. In the case of the Jiran Stele, it appears likely that it was damaged and cast away due to its close connection with Chu Minyi, who was convicted after the war as hanjian or traitor. Should Chu’s reputation be a factor in how we evaluate the stele? What might have motivated him to put up the stele? More generally, how should the connection between an artefact and its creator be understood?


5. Comparisons—In the United States, controversy has engulfed the presence of statues commemorating figures from defeated southern Confederacy from the US Civil War, with debates about the role of such monuments in contemporary society. In India, many statues from the British Raj have been re-located to Coronation Park and left to age. Similarly in Taiwan, large numbers of statues of Chiang Kai-shek, once ubiquitous across the island, have been gathered up and removed to the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park. The Jiran Stele is somewhat different. How should it be displayed today? Should it have been handled different in the early 1950s? What monuments, statues or commemorative plaques might arouse similar controversy in your own community, and how should these artefacts be handled?


[Further Readings]

See also: Refugee village outside Nanjing, China 1938, Special Collections, Divinity Library, Yale University, Ernest & Clarissa Forster Papers.


Brook, Timothy, ed. Documents on the rape of Nanking. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999.


Henshaw, Jonathan. That Which Is Carved in Stone: Nanjing’s Monuments and Chinese Commemoration of the Second World War.” Modern China 47, no. 6 (November 2021): 895–920.


Honda Katsuichi and Frank Gibney, ed. The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan’s National Shame, translated by Karen Sandness. New York: Routledge, 2015.


Hu Hua-ling and Zhang Lian-hong, eds. The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-Fang (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University, 2010.


Li Hongtao and Shunming Huang. The Nanjing Massacre and the Making of Mediated Trauma, translated by Xinyue Chang and Edwin Schmitt. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2022.


Rabe, John. The Good German of Nanking: the diaries of John Rabe. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998.


Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi. The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-1938: Complicating the Picture, 2nd Ed. New York: Bergahn Books, 2017.