You Benchang in The Final Victory Photo: Courtesy of Zha Wenbai
Almost 30 years ago, a hot Chinese TV drama Ji Gong turned the then 53-year-old You Benchang into a household name not just in his own country, but also in some foreign countries in Southeastern Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia. His vivid portrayal of the historically renowned Buddhist monk Ji Gong (1130-1207) of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) left audiences with a deep impression of a wild and eccentric monk who at the same time has a very compassionate heart.
Now You is bringing the image of another great Buddhist monk from history to audiences’ minds. The Final Victory, a stage drama about Master Hongyi (or Li Shutong, 1880-1942), just concluded two performances last weekend in Beijing. Since its premiere in 2009, the drama has toured China performing in many cities including Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai and Taipei.
“Since 2009, we have gone from Tianjin (the birthplace of Li), then to the southern cities of Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou (where Li became a Buddhist monk when he was 38), and finally from Xiamen to Quanzhou (southeastern Fujian Province), the place he achieved Nirvana,” said You. “These cities actually mark all the footprints in Li’s life,” You told the Global Times.
Mostly known by his Buddhist name “Hongyi,” Li was highly talented when it came to the arts including painting, music, drama, calligraphy, seal cutting and poetry. As a renowned Buddhist, his influence was not just limited to China, but reached even countries like Japan. Presenting the final years of Li, The Final Victoryshows his firm belief that the Chinese people would prevail in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
Dedicated to the late master, performances of the drama are non-profit in nature and so don’t charge any fees. During the two-day performance in Beijing last weekend, fund raising was held to help children in poor areas in Northwest China’s Qinghai Province. The event collected 39,429 yuan ($6,502) by the time it was finished.
“Donations have been given to the Qinghai Xuefeng Charity Public Fund, which will give the money to children in need to be used for education,” said Zha Wenbai, director of The Final Victory.
“Audiences watching this drama have come because of their reverence for Master Hongyi and their belief in Buddhism. We are tied through it,” he stressed.
“Accomplished in so many artistic aspects, Li played a significant role in the cultural development of contemporary China,” said You. “However, for such an artistic master, people nowadays know too little about him. Some people know Hongyi, some know Li Shutong, but they don’t know the two are actually the same person!”
Successfully erecting a classic image of a historic Buddhist through the six episodes of Ji Gong, first broadcast in 1985, You himself also has his ideas about the religion. “Ji Gong’s name stands for Jishi Weigong (do good deeds to help the public). We should always have a ‘public’ heart and be aware of being occupied by our own self-concerns,” he said.
To better play Master Hongyi, the 81-year-old You converted to Buddhism in 2009. “It was very challenging for me to play such an accomplished Buddhist. He was very different from Ji Gong both in appearance and temperament,” said You, “but they have one in common, their altruistic spirit.”
Old man, or post-80s youth?
“I too am a post-80s youth!” he said using the term usually used to indicate young people born during the 1980s and 1990s.
Showing no signs of senility nor the deep wrinkles normally seen in seniors, You looks extremely well considering his advanced age. He even walks likes a robust young man. Occupied with a busy schedule full of performances, lectures and other social activities, he has his own secrets for keeping fit.
Stretching is essential, and he called it a must-do for any actor. He also has his own exclusive invention: the dry-bath.
Each morning, he and his wife will knee, pinch and flex their limbs from head to toe, making movements similar to those people use when bathing. He explained that these movements help loosen up the body and is very good for one’s health. “If a body can move freely, you won’t feel any pain,” said You.
You has not stopped performing, either on stage or screen, in spite of his age. In recent years, he appeared in several blockbusters such as The Butcher (2011), Region of Assassins (2010) and The Painted Skin II(2012). Most of the time, he was invited to play various religious masters.
“People have begun to call me ‘the master specialist,'” he laughed.
Buddhism in daily life
From playing Ji Gong to Hongyi, You deeply believes that karma affects a person’s life, “As a man sows, so does he reap.” He believes he was not meant to practice Buddhism in a temple or on a mountain, but in everyday earthly life.
“The mind decides everything” is what You emphasized the most during our interview. From current political affairs around the world to historic Chinese figures like Qian Xuesen (1911-2009, a famous physicist and father of the Chinese aerospace industry, he is also widely acclaimed for his devotion to the country at the sacrifice of his personal welfare), You views everything through the lens of this Buddhist philosophy.
“Why is Abe (Shinzo Abe) such a rightist? Because his family is historically related to the imperial household, and he himself is a descendant of a war criminal (Abe’s grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, 1896-1987, was arrested as a Class A war criminal at the end of WWII), as such he is focused on the interests of his own family,” he said.
“Devotion to the public interest is what this era lacks most,” You emphasized.