China Beat Archive



Date of this Version


Document Type



December 8, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright December 8, 2010. Used by permission.


James Carter, Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University and Chief Editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China, has recently published Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk (Oxford University Press). To explore the life and work of this extraordinary individual, Carter embarked on a series of “travels with Tanxu,” spending time in Buddhist temples from Harbin to Hong Kong (with stops in Qingdao, Ningbo, Yingkou, and Shanghai along the way). Here, in an excerpt from the prologue to his book, Carter explains the challenges he encountered in tracing the life of Tanxu, an often enigmatic figure whose memoir raises as many questions for the historian as it answers.

The Present Past

A man opens the door. He wears the saffron robes and prayer beads of a Buddhist monk, his smiling face framed by a shaved head and long eyebrows. The face is more youthful than I expect of an eighty-year-old man who has lived through war, revolution, and dislocation in China. Inside, brightly colored idols and the smell of incense contrast incongruously with the gray January streets of the Bronx outside.

I greet him in Chinese. He responds in English. This exchange, with neither speaking his native tongue, underlines the fact that we are between worlds—many worlds: China and New York City; present and past; religion and scholarship. He is Master Lok To, a senior Buddhist monk; indeed, a patriarch of the Tiantai sect. Born and raised in China, he has lived in New York for four decades. I was nervous about how he would receive me, a staunchly secular American scholar forty years his junior. He has endured occupation and exile for his faith, while I’ve lived most of my life in tranquil, leafy suburbs. But he immediately puts me at ease, continuing to smile as he shakes my hand (unusual for a Buddhist monk, who will usually press his palms together in greeting), and the distance between our two lives dwindles.