Xi Jinping as a living bodhisattva

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Everybody's talking about Xi's Buddhist sanctification since it hit the headlines in this article:  "Xi Jinping's latest tag – living Buddhist deity, Chinese official says" (Reuters [3/9,18].

Speaking on Wednesday on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament, the party boss of the remote northwestern province of Qinghai, birthplace of the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans who lived there had been saying they view Xi as a deity.

Wang Guosheng said the province had been following Mao Zedong’s advice about inspiring the masses to love the party and its leader, distributing “images of the leader” to people in poverty-stricken areas being moved into new homes.

He did not specify if these were images of Mao or Xi.

“The ordinary people in the herder areas say, only General Secretary Xi is a living Bodhisattva. This is a really vivid thing to say,” Wang said.

Bodhisattvas are individuals who carry out compassionate acts to achieve enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists consider their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to be an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva of compassion.

First of all, I'm doubtful that we can take at face value what the Communist Party secretary of Qinghai Province says about the thoughts, words, beliefs, and deeds of the Tibetan herders over whom he rules.

Brendan O'Kane has other reservations:

For what it’s worth, I’m not so sure that 活菩萨 huo Pusa is intended literally in this sort of usage: an American babysitter who tells the parents of her charge that the kid was “an absolute saint” isn’t implying that the child was canonized in their absence. Reuters does seem to have heard Wang Guosheng correctly — see the Beijing News coverage of this — but to have been unfamiliar with the idiom. The remarks in the Chinese article seem as if they might imply a literal translation in the opposite direction: when Wang talks about people 拥抱 yongbao’ing the Party, could he be thinking of the English word “embrace” (in the abstract sense)? New to me, if so.

The more interesting thing — to me, at least — is that unlike with the cult of Mao, the praise for Xi Jinping seems to be pretty much entirely insincere. It feels almost like a game: competitive butt-kissing. The object is to see how far the Party hacks can go while keeping a straight face. Wang Shuo’s wonderful stream-of-consciousness speech from Qianwan bie ba wo dang ren 千万别把我当人 comes ever more frequently to mind.

Wang Shuo (b. 1958) is the most (in)famous / notorious / celebrated pǐzi wénxué 痞子文学 ("hooligan / riffraff / ruffian literature") author in China. Qianwan bie ba wo dang ren 千万别把我当人 (1989) is one of his representative novels. The title has variously been rendered in English as Please Don't Call Me Human, No Matter What Don't Treat Me as a Human Being, etc.

Additional observations on Xi's bodhisattvic beatification by Brendan:

A friend suggested an alternative explanation just now: “cuter” language in Party propaganda. I’m not sure this is the case, but will keep my eyes and ears open to see if there’s a pattern of that sort of thing.

It occurred to me just now that the competitive flattery / 掇臀捧屁 duōtún-pěngpì game is an awful lot like the “Yo’ Mama” game that we used to play as kids (“Your mama's so fat, she's got nine smaller women orbiting around her,” etc.), except warped into an entirely “positive energy”/正能(量) zhéng néng(liàng) framework:

“Xi Jinping’s so competent, he should be in charge for more than the former maximum of two terms!”
“Xi Jinping’s so smart, his book The Governance of China is an international bestseller!”
“Xi Jinping’s so cultured, he dropped a Bai Juyi (772-846) quotation!”
“Xi Jinping’s so concerned about the welfare of the people, he spent 15 whole minutes listening to a hand-picked migrant worker praising him!”

…and so on, ad literal nauseam. I never thought I’d have any cause to speak fondly of Hu Jintao, but at least he had the decency to remain the bland nonentity that he was.

The roots of Xi conceived of as a bodhisattva go back at least to 2016, as documented by Brendan in this tweet:

(Celebrity Buddhist Chin Kung 净空法师 did say back in 2016 that Xi was “a bodhisattva incarnate” 菩萨化身*, as pointed out – – but he also seems to be kind of a headbanger in general.)

*huàshēn 化身 ("avatar")

I remember when I first encountered Chin Kung's declaration two years ago saying to myself, "This is a bit much!"

There's a xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语 ("truncated witticism") which goes, "ní púsà guò hé泥菩萨过河" ("a mud bodhisattva crosses a river").  Jichang Lulu apparently forged a clever pun based on this saying.  I'll leave it to him to tell us his pun, and I'll leave it to John Rohsenow, who compiled an outstanding dictionary of xiēhòuyǔ 歇后语, which he calls "enigmatic folk similes", to explain the part of the truncated witticism that has been left out and what it means.  I'll leave it to the assembled Language Log readership to debate why the CCP wants us to think that President / General Secretary / Chairman / etc. Xi Jinping may just be a living bodhisattva.

Update: Further deification…


  1. Bathrobe said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    Well, in 2009 Russian President Medvedev was declared an incarnation of the Buddhist goddess White Tara. The top Buryat Buddhist, Pandito Khamdo Lama, made this declaration when Medvedev visited the Ivolginsk monastery.

    If Medvedev can be a Buddhist goddess, I don't see why Xi Jinping can't be a living Buddhist deity.

  2. Jonathan said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    > "It feels almost like a game: competitive butt-kissing. The object is to see how far the Party hacks can go while keeping a straight face"

    I wouldn't be so sure of that. Have you heard of Poe's Law, and Poe's Corollary? I take them further and believe that no matter how outrageous a statement you invent, or encounter, there is a zealot somewhere who will espouse it sincerely.

  3. Arthur Waldron said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

    My sister in law younger than my wife a celebrated exponent of guqin was a devout and well informed Buddhist. She died of cancer two years ago. I applied six times for a visa. After I sent the death certificate I got five days- compassion mind you damn thoughtful. Real human heartedness. Her horrid sickening funeral was at assembly line lesser babaoshan. Run by so called Buddhists. i.e. hoods liumang bribe seekers. Pass the sick bag! But as my wife observed if you shoot all the real ones this is what you get. “a pigs’ mess” as the late Denis Twitchett might have put it. Arthur

  4. Arthur Waldron said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    So many crooked living buddhas in China that the government has put out a list of 800 plus approved does that mean real? ones. They are also about to take over from the Pope. So how about Xi revealed as Caliph Hidden Imam Archbishop of Canterbury AND Grand Dragon or the KKK? Not waving but drowning. ANW

  5. Mara K said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

    So Xi Jinping wants to be Chuck Norris?

  6. tangent said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 12:12 am

    Ours is the age of ambiguously-ironic cult of personality?

  7. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    As requested, here's the (not so clever) pun: 尼菩萨过河 Ní púsà guò hé ('Nnie crosses a river'), homophonous to the 'truncated witticism' (xiēhòuyǔ) 泥菩萨过河 ní púsà guò hé ('a mud/clay bodhisattva does') Victor gives in the post. Awaiting Rohsenovian elucidation, I'll just say that it replaces the first character 泥 ní 'mud; clay…' with 尼 ní 'Buddhist nun', here standing for 维尼 Wéiní 'Winnie [the Pooh]'. The latter is one of the many names of the Relevant Deity, as depicted in the Update to the OP.

    As O'Kane first noted, Secretary Wang's remark has been mis- (or over-)translated, in that he might not have meant to say his administration is promoting Xi's elevation to bodhisattvahood (but don't give him ideas). At any rate, the Party-state's influence on (Tibetan) Buddhist doctrine and its transmission is beyond Wang's purview. On the other hand, he should be taken literally when he says the government has images of the Lǐngxiù 领袖 hung in new homes, so that, while enjoying their new life, the masses can also feel the Party's warmth (shǐ qúnzhòng zài xiǎngshòu xīn shēnghuó de tóngshí, yòu néng gǎnshòudào Dǎng de wēnnuǎn). I believe such decisions on home decoration are well within his jurisdiction.

    The arcana of Buddhist doctrine likely escape Secretary Wang, who has only been ruling over Tibetan areas for about two years, and need not concern him anyway. Other organisations are charged with the administration, oversight and 'Sinification' (Zhōngguóhuà) of Tibetan Buddhism. As Professor Waldron notes, this includes 'managing' the recognition and training of reincarnated lamas (tulku སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་ sprul sku), and lists of approved reincarnations have been compiled for the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan. (These lists contain interesting information, such as, if memory serves, official confirmation that the 7th Taktsha 达扎 སྟག་ཚ Lama was recognised in his twenties, with the previous reincarnation still alive.) I've written about the political stakes of the recognition of Mongolia's most senior lama.

    Literal deification might not be in the works, but much of the increased state control / Sinification / partizacija партизация of Tibetan Buddhism consciously recapitulates aspects of Qing religious policy, and back then Imperial bodhisattvification was very much a thing. Conveniently, a post by Geremie Barmé on Xi's race to outtitle his predecessors listed some of emperor Qianlong's names, including the Tibetan one that makes him a boddhisattva (my note in brackets):

    Gaozong 高宗 of the Qing dynasty (Aisin Gioro Hungli 愛新覺羅 · 弘曆, 1711-1799), is known by the reign title Qianlong 乾隆, or as Abkai wehiyehe hūwangdi in Manchu. During his long reign he was known by Tibetans as the Mañjuśrī Emperor 文殊皇帝 (曼殊師利大皇帝; འཇམ་དབྱངས་གོང་མ་ཆེན་པོ་; मञ्जुश्री) and the Mongolians called him Tngri tedkügči qaɣan (ᠲᠩᠷᠢ ᠲᠡᠳᠬᠦᠭᠴᠢ ᠬᠠᠭᠠᠨ, Тэнгэр тэтгэгч хаан or 騰格里特古格奇汗) [among other variously inflected translations of the Manchu name]. Qianlong’s posthumous or ‘temple name’ was Emperor Chun 純皇帝, Yongkiyangga (‘the complete’) in Manchu. This was prefaced by a list of double-barreled epithets that reflected the deceased ruler’s peerless attributes: 法天隆運至誠先覺體元立極敷文奮武欽明孝慈神聖.

    (Specifically, the Tibetan 'Jam dbyangs gong ma chen po refers to Mañjuśrī as 'Jam dbyangs, a translation of his epithet Mañjughoṣa, 'the sweet/soft-voiced one' (妙音 Miàoyīn).)

    By "conveniently", I mean that Barmé's post is highly relevant to Xi's various avenues of ascent, as it refers to the enshrinement of Xi Jinping Thought, and calls Xi, "in effect, China’s Chairman for Life". (Months after that statement, he's now going to be made that de jure as well, becoming dictator perpetuo a bit like Julius Caesar. By deifying himself, he would be out-Juliusing Julius, who only became divus posthumously.)

    Anyway, what I wanted to say is just that, while state management of religion isn't new to the PRC, and notably Jiang Zemin advocated àiguó àijiào 爱国爱教 ('love the country, love religion'), Xi is going further than his predecessors in the instrumentalisation of religion and, specifically, Tibetan Buddhism; which warrants another form of the exoteric half of the pun: 尼菩萨过江 Ni púsà guò Jiāng, '[Wi]nnie the boddhisattva crosses the river (jiāng)', or 'outdoes Jiang'.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    Well, in 2009 Russian President Medvedev was declared an incarnation of the Buddhist goddess White Tara. This was declared by the top Buryat Buddhist, Pandito Khamdo Lama, when Medvedev visited the Ivolginsk monastery.

    If Medvedev can be a Buddhist goddess, I think it only fair that Xi Jinping can be a living Buddhist deity.

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    (哪裡,哪裡, 不敢當). Sorry to be late. The xiehouyu ('truncated witticism', or "enigmatic folk simile') referred to is of course 泥菩萨 过 江/河-- 自身南保, ni pusa guo jiang/he– zi shen nan bao: "A clay bodhisattva idol crossing a river — hard put to protect himself, [let along others]. For non Chinese speakers of LL, we should explain that xiehouyu are a widely understood form of simile often humorous or punning, in which the speaker gives an image, which alludes to a saying which refers to his/her true meaning. As many of these (like this one) are so widely known, the 'resolution' or second 'half' of the simile is very often left unstated, leaving the hearer to fill in in, or understand the speaker's true meaning. As I pointed out in the introduction to my Chinese English Dictionary of Enigmatic Folk Similes (Univ of Arizona Press, 1991, which Victor has me currently revising for his ABC series in the University of Hawaii Press), these are of course a great vehicle for stating one's trueviews indirectly, without coming right out with them, as in the famous example in LIFE magazine of Mao 'modestly' telling Edgar Snow in 1974 that he was only a 'simple monk holding up an umbrella' (和尚 打傘), which Snow (or his translator) took literally, but which in fact was the first part of a well know xiehouyu, the second part of which (無法 無天) literally: 'having neither hair nor sky (above him)', is in fact a pun on a traditional four character expression 'wu fa wu tian', meaning ' fearing neither (earthly) law nor heaven(ly retribution).' The Cultural Revolution in China continued on for two more years after that interview.
    This widely used type of word play is a little bit analogous to an (older) American saying "I'm from Missouri', meaning '[you have to] Show me!'.
    (It's the state motto, on their vehicle license plates.)
    SO: I am intrigued by the suggestion of Jichang Lulu suggestion in the previous very learned post that " it replaces the first character 泥 ní 'mud; clay…' with 尼 ní 'Buddhist nun', here standing for 维尼 Wéiní 'Winnie [the Pooh]', thus giving the referent in the first 'half' of the xiehouyu a totally different meaning, i.e alluding to Xi Jinping. As I
    assume the person quoted was merely speaking and not foolish enough to write it down, (and i can't access the cartoon 'balloon' over his head
    when he said it), once again we are left with a tantalizing ambiguity which (hopefully) will leave the speaker with 'plausible deniability', but
    give like minded listeners all over China amusing food for thought.
    Gotta go. Thanks!

  10. J said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 1:18 am

    A recent conversation with some well-heeled, well-spoken college-educated young mainland Chinese Buddhists at a gathering in Taiwan led to the following observations:

    Zhou Enlai is spoken of a 'living bodhisattva' for his perceived actions and status as moderate counterbalance to Mao's excesses, a vision which no doubt could do with a serious dose of revisionist historiography;

    Mao is not at all perceived as a 'demon king' 魔王 in those circles, whereas he very much is viewed as such in similar circles in Taiwan, although the Taiwanese have the good manners not to mention this to the 阿陸仔 ;

    Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De and other prominent communist luminaries' supposed "Buddhist pasts" are hinted at in mysterious tones and regarded in awe (e.g. connections to Empty Cloud, Nenghai et al.).

    The list could go on, but it would be more instructive to dig into Xi's discreet connections with Buddhist leaders, notably from his time spent in Fujian…

    @Bathrobe: Incidentally, some Russian Tsar (forget which one) was also declared an emanation of Tara (if memory serves) by some Buriat or Kalmyk, probably Badmaeev or Dorjiev. And Chiang Kai-shek was also deified by aboriginal tribespeople in Taiwan, alongside the Japanese emperor, to make things more interesting.

  11. John Rohsenow said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 2:51 am

    Again, sorry I was in such a hurry. earlier. I hope the typos in my previous posting are transparent and obvious. Just want to add that I also like the additional suggestion that the more commonly encountered version of this XHY 泥菩萨 过 江 (ni pusa guo JIANG), 'a clay/mud bodhisattva idol crossing a river',where the last word JIANG 'river' also could be interpreted as a pun on the name of Xi Jinping's predecessor JIANG Zemin, so that the XHY could also be interpreted as "[Win]nie surpasses Jiang." The great thing about xiehouyou 'truncated witticisms' (or 'enigmatic folk similes') is that this traditional oral folk FORM persists, and can constantly be reused to deal with new topics, much like the traditional limerick form in English also does.

  12. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 9:10 am

    @John Rohsenow

    Many thanks for this, from a xiehouyu authority. I came up with the pun. It works in spoken form if you say Wéiní púsà guò hé/jiāng 维尼菩萨过河/江.

    The Jiang interpretation ('Winnie outdoes Jiang [in the instrumentalisation of religion]') is in the final paragraph of my previous comment. The (admittedly overlong) digression was just a build-up for the Jiang version of the pun. But the tacit half of the saying ('can't even look after himself') was primarily intended, as self-preservation becomes the top priority of a personalised dictatorship.

    One Man Rule, or One Mule Ran, as I prefer to describe these votes in the light of Xi's Ass Theory (Lǘ lùn 驴论).

    That said, Xi's enthronement as dictator perpetuo has been achieved with a paltry 2958/2964 = 493/494 ~ 99.8% of the vote.

  13. Jichang Lulu said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 9:12 am


    Thanks for bringing that up. In a way, it's a sort of Russian version of Xiist religious policy's echoes of the Qing.

    Pandito/Bandido Khambo Lama (Хамбо лама ᠬᠠᠩᠪᠤ ᠯᠠᠮ᠎ᠠ / ᠪᠯᠠᠮ᠎ᠠ < མཁན་པོ་བླ་མ mkhan po bla ma) Ayusheyev Аюшеев's recognition of (then president) Medvedev as White Tara was meant as a restoration of the status of Russian emperors. That began in ~1767, when Catherine the Great was recognised as such by the first Pandito Khambo Lama. It was one of those mutual recognitions seen many times in the Tibetan Buddhist world.

    An important difference is that the Russian recognitions seemed to occur at the initiative of the Buryat top lamas, without Cathy or Medvedev probably caring too much, while Qianlong was seriously into self-bodhisattvification.

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