Hotei, the Happy Chinaman

Hotei by Kano Masanobu

In Chinatowns across the world, one cannot fail to notice statues of a cheerful rotund figure carrying a hemp sack.  The Chinese call him The Happy Chinaman or The Laughing Buddha.

That happy fellow, Pu-tai Ho-shang or Hemp-bag monk, was an eccentric Zen beggar priest who lived during the Tang Dynasty. In Japan, he is called Hotei (which literally means cloth bag) and is one of the seven lucky gods.  He is supposedly the only member of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods based on an actual person.  He is sometimes mistaken for the historical Buddha Shakyamuni.  It is believed that rubbing his pot-belly will bring about wealth, good luck and prosperity.  He is considered by many as the patron saint of restaurateurs and bartenders.

Although he was a Zen master, he did not wish to be called one nor did he want any disciples. Instead, he would walk the streets with his linen sack full of candies, fruits, doughnuts and other goodies.  He would give those to the poor and needy and to the children who gather around him to play.  The streets were his kindergartens.

Whenever he met a Zen devotee he would extend his hand and say: “Give me one penny.”

Once as he was about to play-work another Zen master happened along and inquired: “What is the significance of Zen?”

Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer.

“Then,” asked the other, “what is the actualization of Zen?”

At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way., Zen Koans 12, Happy Chinaman

One Comment

  1. I appreciate the zen message and am into the iconography of Hotei (Budai 布袋) and all that, but …
    The idea that the term “Happy Chinaman” is not somehow fundamentally offensive, given its history in the United States and other English-speaking countries, is darn near offensive in itself — not to mention the highly doubtful suggestion that the Chinese somehow used or perhaps even coined the term. In fact, It’s actually not clear which, because no history of the locution is ever provided.
    Here’s the necessary supplement: Hotei is the Japanese reading of the Chinese name Budai, or “Cloth Sack,” — as mentioned above, a monk living in Tang dynasty China. In Chinese he is known either by that name or “Laughing Buddha” (Xiaofo 笑佛). I have yet to find either of these terms glossed as “laughing Chinaman” in any Chinese dictionary. What would this even be in Chinese?? — xiao Zhongguoren 笑中國人? xiao Huaren 笑华人? Those terms do not appear in any Chinese dictionaries I have, and I have a nice collection.
    I understand that a benighted literal reading of the term “Zhongguoren” might be rendered “Chinaman” according to the rules of dictionary translation. But this is to ignore the history of the word “Chinaman” as a racial epithet in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
    Yeah, yeah, Zen transcends words etc. etc. So why quibble over what is (hopefully) just an inadvertent use of a profound racial/ethnic slur? I think anyone who practices — or claims to practice — Zen in the West would benefit from a respect for the history of the tradition.
    If you are even using the word “Zen”, then the geographical trajectory of that history is this: India > China > Japan > you. Comprehension of the truths of zen koans and texts only deepens when you understand their relation to their original context. Seriously, it does.
    Bottom line?
    don’t use the word “Chinaman.” It’s offensive.

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