Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2015

The Drunken Buddha (1965, reissued 2015), anonymous, translated by Ian Fairweather

The Drunken Buddha

I had only just started reading this lovely UQP reissue of Ian Fairweather’s The Drunken Buddha when I got the news that I’m needed up in Queensland again.  With a beautiful textured cloth hardback cover; calligraphy on the spine; lush sea-green endpapers; expensive paper; and full colour reproductions of Fairweather’s paintings; the book is much too gorgeous to risk battering it in a suitcase (or *shudder* have  my luggage go astray) – and it’s big and heavy – so I’m going to have to leave it behind.

But the Drunken Buddha exhibition at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, which was on my list of Delightful Ways to Spend My Retirement, ends on March 15th.  So I’m jumping the gun with my thoughts about the book in order to publicise the exhibition and to remind you to take some extra money to buy the book while you are there.  Because you will definitely want to have it, (and there are many tempting eateries in the Yarra Valley as well).

I have written about Ian Fairweather before.  I borrowed Murray Bail’s Ian Fairweather from the library a while back and enthused about it here but I didn’t absorb that Fairweather was a Sinophile and that he was sufficiently expert in the Chinese language to be able to translate this famous novel The Drunken Buddha.  This expertise  – most unusual for an Australian during Fairweather’s era – came about because he was a POW in Germany during WW1 and used his time to study Chinese calligraphy.   Some time after the war he enriched this expertise with six years in China and during his lifetime would translate Chinese books into English to amuse himself.  (Fairweather was a man of solitary habits).

The date and authorship of the original novel The Life of the Great Ch’an Master Tao-chi is unknown but Fairweather’s translation is based on a late 19th century edition – and therein lies a story in itself.  Apparently novels were regarded with some scorn in China – right up until the 21st century – and so anyone with any dignity made sure that they could not be identified as the author of a novel.  Editors and publishers were also cavalier with the text, adding and deleting bits at whim and sometimes even sticking in whole chapters from other books!

Still The Drunken Buddha was very popular, ever since it was penned in the 13th century or thereabouts, perhaps because it humanises the life of a Buddhist saint, Tao-chi who lived in the province of Chekiang.  We might expect Buddhist saints to be abstemious and well-behaved, but this one

continually scandalised his fellow monks by his drunkenness and apparent irreverence, and yet disconcerted them with unexpected saintliness.

I can see signs of a sense of mischief even in the early chapters about his childhood.  The book begins with a chapter about the monastery where the Drunken Buddha ends up, a monastery which is in decline because there isn’t a Lo-han to transmit the authentic traditions of Buddhism. (BTW There are helpful notes with the text to explain aspects of Buddhism to the uninitiated, like me).  Upon the death of the old Chang-lao (an elder, analogous to an abbot) there is a sort of vision foretelling the advent of a new priest, the son of Tsan-Chan.  But when with great dignity the boy is invited by a respectful emissary to join the monastery, he refuses, with some too-clever-by-half answers, and his embarrassed father has to apologise for him.

I really like the story-telling style with which Fairweather writes, and find myself charmed by the chapter endings which follow this pattern:

What happens after this?  Listen, and it will be told in the next chapter. (p.9)

Ch’ing Chang-lao began to explain.  To know what he said listen again and it will be told in the next chapter. (p17).

If you do not know how Tao-chi learned to sit on the prayer mat, listen again; in the next chapter it will be told. (p. 25)

There are poems too.  I like this one, when Tao-chi is complaining about the rigours of prayer:

Tao-chi said, ‘I can endure no more.  I must ask the venerable master to let me go.’

The Chang-lao said, ‘I have told you before that to leave home is easy but to return is difficult.  You have left and now you cannot return.  Prayer is the first duty of a priest.  Have you no zeal?’

Ta-chi said, ‘The venerable master says that prayer is merit, but does not say that it is pain.  This brother would speak of that if the master will listen.

‘First seated on the prayer stool
The heart is light, all worry gone.
Yet soon comes doubt.
Where is the merit now
Where the light heart,
In time the head sinks
And the eyelids droop,
The back bends camel-wise.
To hold erect all sinews ache.
By evening, cramps invade the limbs
The head rolls on its weary neck,
The bones are locked in woe.
Then comes sweet sleep,
And falling, the head is bruised again,
And then the janitor, with bamboo stick
Adds yet another bruise.
Master, the Buddha’s grace is wide,
Grant this unfortunate reprieve.’

The Chang-lao laughed and said, ‘How can you say that prayer is hard, that is wrong.  It is only that you do not know how to pray properly. Go and pray again until you can do it right.  I will tell the janitor not to beat you, since you have repented.’ (p.30)

Tao-chi goes on to complain about ‘the thought of food and wine’ and how ‘not having them the thought of them is always present’.  But he’s none too impressed by the bowl of noodles when it comes either, and he quickly composes another verse:

‘Little yellow bowl with stars of bran,
Half full of leeks rotten,
In after life the scriptures tell
You will be full of nothing’.  (p. 31)

The Chang-lao has his work cut out for him with this novice!

I liked this little couplet too.  I found it at random when scanning through the pages.

‘Former sins today bring sorrow,
And sins today bring grief tomorrow.’ (p.123)

Depending on how salacious the story turns out to be, if I were still teaching, I would be tempted to try reading some of it to older students in Years 5 & 6, in much the same way as I used to read them other ancient tales such as  The Odyssey; Beowulf; and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.   I always wanted to have an ancient tale from Asia to balance my story collection for the older students, but could never find one that was suitable.

UQP has made a sample chapter available online so that you can get a taste of the book and Fairweather’s illustration style, which would be interesting to discuss with students too.   I find his artwork captivating, his colour palette is so subdued and yet it’s not morose.  I really am very disappointed not to be able to visit the exhibition at Tarrawarra…

Check out Sasha Grishin’s review at the SMH – he’s a professor at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences so he discusses Fairweather’s art with expertise.

The calligraphy on the spine is by DCS Lu, and the cover design is by Sandy Cull of gogoGingko.  In a really thoughtful touch, the ISBN barcode isn’t imprinted on the back cover to spoil it, it’s on a removable paper strip which includes a short blurb with a cartoon of the Buddha.

Update: April 24, 2015

I came back to this book and finished it, and have two further things to say.  Firstly, I think it’s perhaps not suitable for use in schools: there’s a lot of drinking in it, and IMO young people don’t need any encouragement to engage in drunkenness.  The point that a man can have a major flaw and still be a decent human being, and in this case perform minor miracles, might be lost on some.

But also, I want to comment, despite my lack of expertise in matters of art, on the painting.  Fairweather’s style is to depict people with broad black brushstrokes on his palette of dark browns.  When you read the text that goes with the paintings, it enhances their meaning.  It is astonishing how, for example, with a single line, Fairweather conveys the scepticism of the monks who observe Ta-chi’s antics.  The economy and humour in the way he depicts facial expressions is a wonder.

Author: unknown
Title: The Drunken Buddha a.k.a. The Life of the Great Ch’an Master Tao-chi 
Translated by Ian Fairweather (1891-1974)
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 50th Anniversary Edition
ISBN: 9780702253461

Review copy courtesy of UQP


Buy direct from UQP or from the Museum Shop at Tarrawarra.


  1. Sounds very interesting Lisa


  2. […] Olsen; Ian Fairweather who illustrated his own translation of The Drunken Buddha which I reviewed here and whose work also features in Murray Bail’s Fairweather (here); and she describes Louis […]


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