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Persistence: A Chinese Paragon

written by Yukun Zhao 28 June 2011

Yukun Zhao, MAPP '10, was born and raised near Shanghai in China. He is the Founder and President of Huaren Applied Positive Psychology Institute (HAPPI), which is dedicated to promoting positive psychology and its applications in Chinese communities. He co-founded the Global Chinese Positive Psychology Association. He is also an acclaimed author of two books published in China. Full bio. Yukun's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.

Introduction to a New Series: Chinese Stories of Character Strengths

What do these books have in common? Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Bhagavad-Gita, Hebrew Bible, Plato’s Apology and Republic, New Testament, Pollyanna.

The answer is, they all appeared in the reading list of Positive Interventions, a course in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) that I took in 2009. They made the list because, as the instructor Dr. James Pawelski would beautifully show, they all talk about human positive transformation.

But one of my first responses was actually, “They are all not Chinese books!”

Chinese character for happiness

I had this response because I am a Chinese, and I read a lot of Chinese books. This feeling only became stronger in the following MAPP studies. Since positive psychology originated and mainly grew in Western countries, it naturally looks for intellectual sources and illustrations from Western culture. The wisdom and stories from other cultures are relatively less represented in positive psychology books, courses, and research.

This series is my attempt to introduce positive psychology stories from the culture I am most familiar with. The series will comprise 24 stories, one for each character strength listed in Peterson and Seligman’s book, Character Strengths and Virtues. The authors reviewed literature from major cultures around the whole world to select character strengths that reflect universal human values. But the paragon stories in the book are predominantly Western. I hope this series can be a small supplement to the global picture of human strengths.

Persistence: the Six Japan Voyages of Jianzhen

Let’s start with persistence. Peterson and Seligman define persistence as “voluntary continuation of a goal-directed action in spite of obstacles, difficulties, or discouragement.” The paragon story in the book is about John D. Rockefeller landing his first job at the age of 16. When all employers in his list turned him down, he started over from the beginning of his list, and eventually was hired by a company executive who was impressed by his persistence.

   Statue of Jianzhen,
   created in Japan before his death

A flight from Shanghai to Tokyo takes 3 hours. If you go by boat, that would be 2 days. In the eighth century, the trip was much longer, but you could still finish it after one or two months at sea. However, for Jianzhen, the journey took 11 years, included six voyages, and was accompanied by failures, arrests, deaths, betrayals, and loss of eyesight.

Jianzhen was born in Yangzhou (a city about 150 miles northwest of Shanghai) in AD 688. He entered the prestigious Daming Buddhism Temple at the age of fourteen, and became its abbot as well as a nationally famous monk after thirty years of learning and service. At that time, Buddhism was flourishing in China, but in Japan, it was still at an early stage. In October 742, a Japanese emissary lead by two monks named Rongrui and Puzhao came to the Daming Temple to invite Jianzhen to lecture in Japan.

Jianzhen Memorial Hall Yangzhou

Jianzhen Memorial Hall Yangzhou

Jianzhen asked for his disciples’ opinions. All kept silent. Jianzhen said, “This is for Buddhism, which is more important than life. If no one wants to go, I will go alone.”

Some of his disciples were moved to join him. But they actually had good reasons to hesitate. The journey to Japan took more than one month at that time – if you were lucky. It was not rare that a boat or even a whole fleet was destroyed by the waves and storms. Furthermore, the Chinese government had strict regulations on sailing overseas to combat piracy. No boat was allowed to sail without permission.

The first voyage

The Japanese monks received permission, so they started to build a boat for the journey. However, a quarrel broke out between one of Jianzhen’s disciples and a Korean member of the Japanese emissary, who was so infuriated that he reported to the government that Jianzhen built the boat to collude with pirates. The government arrested all the monks. Though they were soon found innocent, the Japanese monks were ordered to leave China immediately by themselves.

The second voyage

Rongrui and Puzhao asked Jianzhen what to do. Jianzhen answered: “Don’t worry. Let’s try other means until we succeed.” He used his own money to purchase a boat and hire sailors. Three months later, they set off eastbound on the Yangtze River, only to encounter a big storm that broke the boat even before they hit the sea. They disregarded this bad sign, fixed the boat, and sailed again. The boat was blown away by a strong wind to a wild island. They almost starved to death there, before they were rescued and taken to a local temple at Ningbo five days later.

The third voyage

Ningbo Ashoka Temple

The local temple of Ningbo – about 250 miles away from Jianzhen’s home Yangzhou – was overjoyed by the surprise appearance of the famous Jianzhen. They asked him to lecture in that area for almost one year. But Jianzhen’s determination to disseminate Buddhism in Japan stayed unchanged. He was intent on going to Japan. After finding all persuasion futile, the local monks reported to the government that the Japanese monks were “abducting” Jianzhen. Rongrui was arrested, but escaped later, and went back to Jianzhen’s group.

The fourth voyage

Jianzhen’s next attempt failed similarly. This time, the informant was from his home Daming Temple. Jianzhen claimed to go south to Fujian, but actually planned to go to Japan from Fujian. This plot was leaked by the Daming monks to the government. Jianzhen and his disciples were escorted back to Yangzhou.

The fifth voyage

Jianzhen finally realized how difficult his mission was. He had to face obstacles not only from the violent sea and the hostile government, but also from his admirers and followers. But all these frustrations didn’t defeat Jianzhen. He just decided to do it more carefully.

It took Jianzhen four years to prepare for the next voyage. This time, they finally sneaked out successfully onto the sea. But this voyage wasn’t any luckier. They were hit by a big storm. They floated on the sea for 17 days. When they finally saw land, it turned out to be Hainan, the southernmost place of China, more than 1500 miles further away from Japan than Yangzhou.

Jianzhen's Voyages

Jianzhen was warmly received by the local monks and people. However, Japan was the only destination in Jianzhen’s mind. He spent the next three years on the long way back to Yangzhou. It took so long because he was invited and retained everywhere. Many things happened in this long journey. Some of his followers died, including Rongrui. The other Japanese monk, Puzhao, finally lost faith in this mission and left. Upon his departure, Jianzhen swore to Puzhao, “My wish is to disseminate Buddhism beyond the sea. I will pursue this wish until I arrive in Japan.”

To make things worse, he became blind due to an eye disease he picked up on the road.

Jianzhen's 6th Voyage

Jianzhen's 6th Voyage

The sixth voyage

Two years later, a new opportunity emerged. An official Japanese emissary went to Yangzhou and invited Jianzhen to Japan. Jianzhen was still prohibited to go abroad. Some said that’s because the Chinese emperor didn’t want to risk his life. Others speculated a completely contradictory reason, that the Chinese emperor was a Taoist who had offered to send Taoism teachers to Japan. After the offer was rejected, he prohibited Buddhists to go either.

So Jianzhen had to sneak to Suzhou, a harbor city, to meet with the Japanese emissary. The Japanese hid him in a smaller boat rather than having him sail together with the emissary official on the big boat, to prevent detection by Chinese officials. This decision turned out to work well. A storm hit the fleet. The emissary official’s boat was blown to Vietnam, while the Jianzhen’s smaller boat landed at Japan successfully. Finally.

The Toshodaiji Temple of Japan, built by Jianzhen

   The Toshodaiji Temple of Japan
   built by Jianzhen

Jianzhen’s arrival was phenomenally important to Japanese Buddhism. He brought many examples of Buddhist literature, set up rules for Japanese monks and temples, originated a new school in Japanese Buddhism, and even promoted medicines in Japan. It was said that he could distinguish between medical herbs by mere smelling.

In China, Jianzhen is a symbol of persistence. When first invited to Japan, he was 54 years old and the abbot in a prestigious temple. Yet he risked everything he had, including his life, for a dangerous mission. When he arrived in Japan, he was 65 years old and blind, having suffered repeated frustrations and failures in the past decade. That’s the nature of persistence. But then he was widely respected by Japanese, from the royal family to ordinary lay people. He was named “the Master Monk” and “the Sea-crossing Monk.” That’s the power of persistence.

Chinese character for happiness courtesy of Jonas Merian
Statue of Jianzhen from Japanese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen. Photograph taken by Ogawa Seiyou
Jianzhen Memorial Hall from the Chinese wikipedia entry for Jianzhen.
Ningbo Ashoka Temple – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.
Map of Jianzhen’s voyages – made by Yukun Zhao.
Jianzhen’s sixth voyage to Japan – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.
Toshodaiji Temple – from the Chinese wikipedia entry of Jianzhen.


Omi, M., (779). The East Journeys of the Chinese Master Monk.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia (2011). Jianzhen.

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Jan Hermiston 29 June 2011 - 5:24 am

Hello Yukun Zhao,
The story you wrote about Jianzhen’s persistence is superb & inspirational. Thank you for contributing to the positive psychology literature. I look forward to more of your writing in PPND.
Jan H.

Dan Bowling 29 June 2011 - 6:57 am

What a great story, Yukun. I hope you will provide us with stories from the Eastern tradition capturing all of the VIA character strengths.Book on the way,perhaps? For those of you who don’t know Yukun, he is one of the warmest, funniest students we have ever had in MAPP. I can’t wait for an article on the trait of “humor.”

Well done, Yukun, a big “Who Dat” to you.

Yukun Zhao 29 June 2011 - 8:54 am

Thanks Dan! Though I wish you introduced me as the most persistent student……Haha, because persistence is the weakest strength of mine. That’s why I start with this strength.

Another reason is, as you guessed, my plan is to cover all 24 VIA strengths. I will write once a month. So this is a 2-year project which requires a lot of persistence (for me).

Book? Maybe. But that’s 2 years later. For now, “Who Dat”!

Shannon Polly 29 June 2011 - 12:24 pm


Thanks so much for including this article. I look forward to the series. I second Dan’s comment about you as a MAPP student.

This is particularly helpful because I do a PP workshop for business students from China and it will be great to have them represented on PPND. Also, I’ve been to the temple at Nara and never knew the history of how it was built!

Thanks for writing!

wayne 29 June 2011 - 2:27 pm

Yukun – at what point do does persistence become pigheadedness or inflexibility. As with all values you can have too much.

The challenge with these type of stories is that we only hear the good news – you never hear about where people persist in a task that is ultimately futile – perhaps with a little bit of flexibility they might have used their persistence more productively.

So I guess I’m saying persistence needs to be tempered with common sense.

Anyhow thanx for the story

Yukun Zhao 29 June 2011 - 6:36 pm

Thanks Shannon! Apparently I don’t need to describe you and Dan back, as it tells everything that you are MAPP TAs!

Very glad to know that you find this series helpful. That’s exactly why I want to write them. Universality is one of the criteria when Chris and Marty made the VIA?strengths list. People from all cultures will find they can resonate with the strengths, and they will naturally feel more innate with them if the examples are from their own cutlures.

Jeremy McCarthy 29 June 2011 - 9:57 pm

Greetings Yukun! what a wonderful idea. I look forward to reading these stories from you to illustrate the strengths. Coincidentally, I also wrote about persistence on my blog this week. Although my article was based on stories of zombies and cyborgs!

I like Wayne’s point also. Persistence is good for getting what you want. But getting what you want is not so hard. The hard thing is knowing what you want.

Yukun Zhao 29 June 2011 - 10:26 pm

Hi, Wayne,

You are definitely right these stories are only successful stories of strengths. There are surely many examples of persistence backfiring sometimes. An extreme example that popped out right in my head was Hitler’s persistence cost millions of lives as he insisted to fight when it was clear that he lost the war.

That’s why anecdote evidence doesn’t count in science. I don’t know the research about how persistence correlates to success or well-being. My gut feeling is that it must be facilitating rather than hindering, especially in the modern society when there are so many opportunities that most people can succeed as long as they stick to it. But again, that’s just my guess.

Peterson & Seligman also agreed that persistence could backfire, and concluded “When outcomes are uncontrollable or goals are impossible to reach, it is adaptive to give up. Thus the key to success is not persistence as such but the ability to know when to persist and when to quit, and then to persits when it is advisable.”

At the end, I’d like to defend Jianzhen’s persistence though. Surely it was dangerous to cross the sea at that time, and he had to face many human-made difficulties, but it was not impossible. Though there was a bit of luck in his sixth voyage, but, wasn’t he also too unlucky in his previous 5 voyages? He was not a crazy person pursuing impossible goals, instead he was an extremely persistent person pursuing difficult goals that ordinary people don’t dare to try.

Secondly, this goal meant a lot to him. It later became part of his meaning of life. It might be pure stupid or stubborn to others, but that was his choice. He knew all these sarcrifice, failures and risks were worthy. It would be inappropriate for us to judge him based on our values.

And thanks for your comment! It’s nice discussion that reminds us of the other side of the story.

Yukun Zhao 29 June 2011 - 10:48 pm

Jeremy – Yes I saw the link of your blog on Dan’s twitter too! Interesting we are both writing about persistence. Though I am not a fan of zombies, but I LOVE Terminator!

Angela’s research on grit that you mentioned is definitely a good example of how this strength can facilitate our success. As I just wrote in the last comment, I feel that in modern society, persistence should be more helpful than damaging. But of course, we always need wisdom in this.

It seems actually everybody agrees on the arguments of the both sides. The real questions then are:

Can we better know the borderline of persistence? This is also #1 question in Peterson & Seligman’s book, in the section “What is not known?” about persistence.

How should we raise kids? When you see your child doing a difficult math problem, she almost wants to give up, do you intervene? Anyway maybe she is not good at math after all —- my gut feeling for this one is still to encourage her to persist, because persistence is really one of the most scarce resources people have today, and one of the few that really matters as well, I believe.

What do you guys think?

Scott 30 June 2011 - 5:38 am

Excellent idea to illustrate the strengths through story. That was a great example of perseverence which I might use in a webinar this afternoon on grit. To wayne’s point about “pig-headedness” getting in the way of something more productive I disagree. Many of us (including me) are so focused on productivity we forget about the more important values and meaning that comes from doing certain activities. Yukun, you made the point when you wrote that Jianzhen’s persistance was part of his meaning in life. Our modern world has a tendency to elevate productivity above meaning and values. As Marty points out, one of the reasons that meaning is a pillar in the PERMA model is that it is pursued for itself.
Thank you for sharing the stories. I look forward to the next one.

Kathryn Britton 30 June 2011 - 1:21 pm

Wayne and Yukun,

Your conversation reminds me of an article by Sulynn a few years ago:

Determination: Resilience or Foolhardiness?.

I’m reminded of the “expert mean” — the expertise that judges between courage and rashness, in this case between resilience and foolhardiness. If it were simple, it wouldn’t be expert.


Oz 30 June 2011 - 6:51 pm

Scott By productive I’m not talking commercially I’m talking personally. We only have a limited amount of energy which needs to be used wisely I guess in commercial speak I am talking return on investment

Yukun Zhao 1 July 2011 - 9:40 pm

Thanks for the input everyone!

Kathryn – Sulynn’s article is insightful. I like your comment there as well: Perhaps some of the goals need to be in terms of “Being” and not “Doing.” That’s the probably the key to this debate. I will read your two blogs, especially the first one, “meaning through being”, which resonates with what I’ve been thinking lately too.

Neelam 4 July 2011 - 4:08 am

This is wonderful,
Thank you

Yukun Zhao 5 July 2011 - 2:43 pm

Thanks Neelam.

And thank you Jan, for the encouraging words. I didn’t figure out how to approve messages until today. Sorry for the delay.

Trisha Carter 12 July 2011 - 11:18 pm

Thanks for this great story illustrating the universality of persistence as a signature strength. It was inspiring to hear. I look forward to further examples. I have retweeted the blog link.


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