Assessing the Photographic Record of Xu Yun's Life
My research into this project began in 2013 with a closer examination of the photographs contained within the 1988 (revised by Richard Hunn) edition of ‘Empty Cloud’ - Charles Luk’s English-language translation of Master Xu Yun’s Autobiography. Having frequented myself with the original Chinese-language versions, it is obvious that Cen Xue Lu’s version used by Charles Luk as the basis for his rendering is ‘short’ in that its compilation was rushed and (I believe) the different segments tampered with enroute from Mount Yunju to Hong Kong (there is also the issue of correcting the numerous compiling errors and misunderstandings concerning dates, geographical locations and incorrect ‘naming’, etc, that occur throughout the book). This ‘tampering’ reflects the geopolitical situation of the time, with Xu Yun’s narrative altered in parts so that his stern criticism of Tibetan Buddhism is either a) removed entirely (Cen Xue Lu admits to participating in this alteration in the finished copy), or b) played-down so as to seem trivial. Nationalist atrocities are a) removed entirely (such as the 1928 attack and destruction of the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan and the persecution and murder of the monks, or b) played-down so as to seem trivial (in his biography, Cen Xue Lu admits to carrying-out the destruction of Buddhist Temples when he was a ‘Nationalist’ government minister). Inserted so as to appear contextually out of place and obviously written by an unknown third-party is the so-called ‘Yunmen Incident’ of 1951, where a routine raid on a Temple and smashing of a ‘Nationalist’ sky-ring (communicating with Taiwan by radio) is completely misrepresented as a brutal physical attack upon Xu Yun and his fellow monks. Xu Yun a) never once said he was attacked, and b) people who were at the Temple at the time, or who knew Xu Yun also stated that as a man aged 110-years-old he was simply ‘ill’ and it was thought at the time he was dying of old age (hence the hasty gathering of his autobiography)! The fact that within a few weeks of supposedly being beaten nearly to death by the new government - Xu Yun is up and about, travelling to Beijing and being appointed the head of the newly reconstituted ‘Chinese Buddhist Association' - sheds more doubt on this story! Indeed, many photographs of the time depict him ‘sitting’ but with no physical evidence of bruising about the neck, head or hands, etc, areas described as receiving ‘special attention’ in Cen Xue Lue’s version. In the much longer versions of Xu Yun’s autobiography the so-called ‘Yunmen Incident’ is not included – not because the nasty Communist Government has ‘took it out’ - but rather this fictional story was never related by anyone to a biographer who was at the Yunmen Temple at the time! As can be seen from the photograph above, Master Xu Yun and the Revolutionary Youth of China had a very good and respectful relationship!
This - and a cluster of other photographs featuring the 'Yongquan' (涌泉) Temple (situated on Mount Gu in Fujian province) - is said to have been taken by the young American 'Edward Francis Jones' in 1860. If this is correct, and if it is true that Master Xu Yun was born in 1840 and left home to become a Buddhist monk in 1859 - travelling to the 'Yongquan' Temple in the process - then there is good reason to suspect that Xu Yun is a) in the Temple when this picture was taken, or b) is one of the younger monks sitting to the right. Furthermore, Xu Yun's teacher (and 'Head Monk' of the Temple) is recorded as 'Miao Lian' (1824-1907) who would have been 36-years-old at the time, and could be one of the senior monks sat to the right. An elderly monk named 'Chang Kai' was responsible for shaving Xu Yun's head when he first entered the Temple. This picture may or may not feature Xu Yun - but protocol would seem to suggest that the senior monks would be featured in such a novel (for the time) and potentially important events. Lineage pictures prior to this had only been sketched, engraved or occasionally painted. Master Miao Lian was apparently a very extraordinary Buddhist monk who assumed the responsibility of 'Head Monk' relatively early in his life. As there are no childhood photographs of Xu Yun, or any pictures of him as a young man, this picture from 1860 that features a place he is believed to be attending at the time serves as the only photographic intersection. There are no known photographs of Master Xu Yun throughout 1800s.
My knowledge in this area has been greatly expanded through accessing ‘Baidu’ the Chinese-Language internet active throughout China and the world. Over the last eight-years I have observed the online data-base of important Chinese cultural and historical grow from strength to strength, particularly in the area of Master Xu Yun’s photographic history. I would estimate that there exist around 120 photographs of Master Xu Yun with one being in ‘colour’ (taken in 1947), one treated with a ‘sepia’ finish (1947) and the rest all black and White (one or two have been ‘colourised’ using modern processes but I exclude this interesting development from this study). I have selected 108 photographs for the ICBI Photographic Library featuring 100 pictures of Xu Yun, 1 video slide-show, 5-material objects related to Xu Yun’s life (and death), 1 of a special monk-disciple of Xu Yun and 1 drawing depicting an important meeting he had with Chiang Kai-Shek. There are no known photographs of Master Xu Yun during the 19th century (that is, throughout the 1800s). It is known with certainty that his last photograph was taken around July, 1959, just three-months before he died. He is sat down and I suspect like the situation prevailing in 1951 he could no longer stand and needed extensive personal assistance (with Master Ti Guang being with him right up until his last breath). Out of respect I suspect the last photograph showed Master Xu Yun washed, wearing clean robes, and with his head and face shaved. As to the earliest known photograph, a candidate features Master Xu Yun standing and contemplating the mala and is dated as being taken between ‘1910-1912’. The texture of the picture does look ‘old’, but this does not necessarily mean the date is right or wrong (indeed, there is evidence this picture is from 1955 - which would mean that the earliest photograph of Xu Yun dates from 1926). In every photograph his fourth-finger of his left-hand is missing proving that every picture was taken after 1897 – the year he burned his finger-off in a ritual showing respect for his mother. As expected, the distribution of photographs progresses from smalls numbers in the 1910s to high numbers in the 1950s (as camera-technology became more available and popular amongst the masses) with the 1910s = 1 (debatable and possibly from 1955), the 1920s = 3, the 1930s = 15, 1940s = 36 and the 1950s = 45. I believe that I have found and included all the available photographs form the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930, and a fair-number from the 1940s (nearly all) and 1950s (around three-quarters - as there are many repetitions or variations of the same scene). This data expresses a meaningful 'trend' of distribution that will be maintained regardless of any 'new' photographs coming to light.
Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua describes this picture as being taken three months before Xu Yun ‘completed the stillness’, or passed away into sunyata. This fact would date the picture to around mid-way through July 1959, as Master Xu Yun entered parinirvana on the 13th day of October, 1959. During the third month of that year, he had become ill, and following the seventh month his health deteriorated. Although the Beijing authorities offered medical help, Xu Yun refused and stated that his ‘casual link with the world is coming to an end.’