China’s Fake Gurus

Do you have what it takes to be a guru? Chinese lecturer Yu Dan certainly has. Born in 1965 in a family of educators, she is professor of media studies at China’s Beijing Normal University. She is also assistant to the Dean, Faculty of Arts & Media, as well as the Department Chair of the Film & Television Media Department.

Yu managed to become a household name in China “abridging” the works of Confucius (551-479 BC) and Zhuangzi (369-286 BC) to make them appear relevant to the layman. Her fans loved her vivid anecdotes and engaging storytelling. But did Confucius really say the things she said? Was she just creating her own chicken soup for the soul, promoting it by attributing it to Confucius? Fortunately for Yu Dan, not many people could tell even though she admitted that she was not presenting research to the public but exploring and conveying something beyond that.

Whatever it was, the authorities loved her and Yu Dan did very well in her career, holding some 60 appointments. At her peak, she earned over 10 million RMB in royalties, putting her just marginally behind 11 million effeminate writer Guo Jingming. She was awarded the title Master of Chinese Studies, a title which even Lu Xun would not qualify for. Though the genuine experts had their doubts, it didn’t stop Yu Dan from taking the throne.

A lot of her success has to do with her flamboyant style and her ability to sound authoritative, using words which leave the audience scrambling to decipher on Baidu. As Lao Liang put it, she is good at making the simple sound complicated, the mundane sound sensational, often stating the obvious using words that no one would normally use. There is actually very little substance in her chicken soup. Nevertheless, she managed to wow millions of viewers and readers. But then, while they might not have been able to recognise pseudo-Confucianism, but they certainly could recognise hypocrisy.

Her downfall was triggered by an expose by her interpreter when they were in London in 2009. She was throwing tantrums and behaving like an spoiled brat, demanding luxuries beyond what was provided for her. This was obviously not in line with all the Confucian values she espoused on stage. Other people who had dealt with her came out with reports on their unpleasant encounters as well.

From then on, her popularity took a beating. After a traditional Chinese opera performance in 2012 when she was invited to give her views on stage, she emerged wearing a black body con dress with matching black stockings. The audience jeered and asked her to get off the stage. Some said that her inappropriate attire offended the audience. Some said she offended them by say “I represent everyone” when almost everyone in the audience knew more about opera than she did. That was the last she was ever invited on public functions.

Of course, fading from public eye did not cause much damage to Yu Dan and her husband. After all, they have already earned enough. Yu Dan has quietly returned to her life as an academic and it’s still a highly paid job.

It’s not only in the West where you’ll find fake gurus enjoying huge commercial success. China has its fair share of fake gurus. To be a successful guru, one has to be good at showmanship. Attributing your own chicken soup for the soul to Confucius will sell the product. Consuming the product yourself is optional.