The Woman Leading a Spiritual Revival in China

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This is how to make ancient philosophy hip and glamorous again. 

Philosophy buffs aren’t usually the life of the party, but in China, mobs of soul-searching millennials certainly are entranced by self-help sage Yu Dan. They’re eating up her every Chicken Soup for the Soul-type musing, from dealing with frenemies to nurturing a wisdom of the spirit. Her talk-show-host charm and signature pixie cut have made ancient Chinese philosophy impossibly chic again.

The 51-year-old professor at Beijing Normal University is lionized for bringing ancient Confucianism — the thought attributed to Kongzi, the philosopher who in China and Korea enjoys the kind of historical celebrity of, say, Socrates — out of the dust and up to speed for modern China’s harried professionals. Confucian aphorisms, when encountered in Western popular culture, are usually distilled to fortune-cookie simplicity, but their sometimes cryptic brevity requires interpretation into “today’s language,” as Yu says. “People are living their lives in high speed now, so few take the time out to appreciate them.” Yu speaks like she writes: cool and conversational. Talking with her is like bantering with an old friend in between cups of red tea. And her words on how to lead a good life seem to be resonating deeply within a “spiritually starved” country on the rise, she says.

The modern, towering skyline of Beijing looms above her, its grandiosity belying her own: She’s a best-seller with more than 10 published books that routinely fly off shelves in China. Around the world, she’s sold more than 20 million copies, and her works have been translated into 30 different languages. Today, Yu is one of China’s richest authors — her royalties earned her 10 million yuan (about $1.5 billion), and her rise to fame has distinguished her as a champion of traditional culture.

Women are fast becoming a driving force behind the country’s spiritual renaissance, says Anna Sun, a sociology and Asian studies professor at Kenyon College, in Ohio. Decades after the government began to stamp out most religious ideology, Yu and a generation of pop-scholars are reviving traditional philosophies, tweaking them to make them speak to the modern seeker’s soul. And inevitably, on this side of the Cultural Revolution, women are among those seekers, making any philosophy that ignores them feel crusty.

Yu’s not in the business of reinterpreting the old texts through an explicitly feminist lens, but the fact of her gender makes her a kind of magnet. Millions of viewers flocked to CCTV’s popular prime-time talk show Lecture Room when Yu proselytized about self-help Confucianism, channeling her inner Oprah Winfrey. “Yet she is just like [us], a woman who is free to call Confucianism her own in the 21st century,” says Sun. And despite the patriarchal traditions of Confucianism that deemed women as fickle and dumb, she’s managed to popularize her female-friendly interpretations and carve out a space for women where they were once shunned. We can all become a junzi, Yu says, referring to a Confucian term that originally applied to princes or noblemen of “moral exemplar.”

Confucius Says Versus Yu Dan Says

On Big Hearts: “If you give a rose, the scent will remain on your hands.” vs. “Giving can bring more happiness than receiving.”

On Your Soul: “If he looks within himself, and sees nothing to make him ashamed or uneasy, of course there is nothing for him to worry about or to be afraid of.” vs. “If your conscience is clear, you won’t be frightened by a midnight knock on the door.”

On Frenemies: “The ingratiating in action, the pleasant in appearance and the plausible in speech.” vs. “Shameless toadies, two-faced friends and big-talking friends.”

It’s a vastly different life from her “childhood of solitude,” as she grew up sibling-less during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, her head “permanently buried” in the tomes of Hong Lou Meng, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and more. Now, in between the intoxicating best-selling numbers, she still finds time for esoteric pursuits, like writing in calligraphy with old black rabbit-fur brushes.

In part, her success fits in with the bibliotherapy boom that has spawned thousands of books on how to work harder, be stronger and get smarter. Since the ’90s, self-help books have dominated around 30 percent of best-seller charts in China, and now the $3 million industry accounts for more than one-third of all printed books, according to estimates from Eric Hendriks, the author of China’s Self-Help Industry: American Life Advice in China. But unlike self-help books in the U.S., which draw chiefly from individualistic, often Judeo-Christian values, the self-help canon in China reflects its 2,000-plus years of society-centered East Asian ideologies, to be more precise.

And among those are many answers. Whatever the plight — social anxiety, capitalistic greed, a bad hair day — Yu has an answer. Imagine crossing a road, she writes in her book Confucius From the Heart, when a “petty person sees the traffic lights are about to change, without waiting for the pedestrian signal, they rush across … but we know very well what will happen sooner or later.” A petty person, she says, is always “eager to snatch small advantages.”

Some members of the literati view Yu as a philosopher gone rogue, treading the likes of America’s Dr. Phil for simplifying the intricacies of Confucius with half-baked colloquialisms designed for the me-me consumer generation. Confucius’ key message was, after all, collectivism and deference to society as a whole. But Yu’s book contains an entire chapter called “The Way of Ambition.” This notion of maximizing individual success is “at odds with Confucius tradition. The popularized version tends to drop the core ideas, so it looks a little less Confucian and a little more self-help,” says Chinese studies professor Tony DeBlasi, at the University of Albany.

But Yu says she aims to take her work global, which, she says, explains some of the abstracting away from specifics. This morning, Yu was in Hangzhou. This afternoon, she’ll be in Beijing. But already, she’s gearing up for her trip tomorrow. Her next stop? “Everywhere,” she says. Yu wants to bring her “coffee talk” brand of Confucianism to the rest of the world, to people who normally wouldn’t bat an eye at the mention of China’s most famous philosopher, and to whom “China is out of reach.” Because in most corners of the world, traditional morality has been replaced with modern-day materialism, she says. So, she’s urging all of us to “enjoy life with a soft heart,” one inspiring platitude at a time. These are the universal lessons on spiritual happiness and pithy proverbs of “inner peace” that Yu wants to impart: She’s done more than a thousand speeches all around her homeland and abroad, from Taiwan to Brazil.

Still, some scholars, like Daniel Bell, just flat-out disagree with Yu’s rendition: “The problem is when accessible interpretations distort the core message of Confucianism and denude Confucianism of its social and political values,” says the Tsinghua University professor and Berggruen Institute of Philosophy and Culture director. And there may be something else irritating the critics. Four years ago, according to a Sina-US article following the event, a crowd of students booed her off the stage at Peking University for sporting a too-short skirt and sky-high stilettos. (She didn’t appreciate the “uncalled for” jabs at her outfit.)

Yu’s response to the pushback? One day, she hopes, philosophy won’t be such a boys club in China: “Because even if you find success in society, that’s not enough,” she says, in an utterance so casually Confucian it might itself answer the critics who wonder whether she’s sufficiently imbibed the beloved sage. “Everything needs balance.”

This is the third story in an OZY Special Series on “The Lady Bosses of China” resisting communist rule. Video by Melanie Ruiz.

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