When It Rains: Liu Kangni (668-705)

It was late afternoon on July 15th, 668 AD, the hottest day of summer yet, that Liu Hua gave birth to Liu Kangni in a small town a short distance from Chang’an. Years later, her father, Liu Bolin, would say it symbolized the fire in her spirit.

The first few years of Kangni’s life were calm. As a local government official, Liu Bolin spent most of his time working, but provided for his family a quaint home on the outskirts of town. Here, Kangni lived with her mother, older sister, Jia, and two older brothers, Kong and Jun. From the day she could walk, Kangni spent most of her time trying to keep up with her rambunctious older brothers as they ran the around house. Although it displeased her mother, Hua brushed it off as a stage. After all, Jia, now fourteen, had once been just as wild, but settled down and picked up embroidery as soon as her younger brothers began their schooling.

Although her father worked as a government official, little information of politics made its way back to home. However, that did not last long. As the sixties proceeded and power at the top end of the government shifted subtly from Emperor Gaozong to Wu Zhao following a stroke, Bolin saw his chance to advance.1 He had always dreamed of providing a better life for his family, so not long after Jia was born, Bolin had begun preparing to retake the civil service examinations. It took years of studying, but by 672, after retaking the exams, Bolin learned he had been appointed to Wu’s newly created North Gate Scholars.

At first, Bolin worried that his new job was too unprecedented and even unnecessary, but upon moving to the capital to begin work he realized he had gotten lucky.

“She [Wu] gathered around her a private brain trust of scholars who would advise her on policy and draft state papers for her. Because their offices were outside the north gate of the palace, the gate closest to the women’s quarter, they became known as the North Gate Scholars.”2

Such proximity to the head of state added prestige to his post and allowed him glimpses into the inner workings of the Tang dynasty. And, as his wife pointed out, put him in a better position to find partners for his children.

Bolin quickly moved his family to join him in Chang’an. The move was momentous for Kangni, whose whole world had been their small home. More jarring to Kangni; however, was how little time her mother wasted in setting up a meeting with the matchmaker for Jia. Despite the rush, the matchmaker had little trouble finding a suitable match for Jia thanks to her proper upbringing and her father’s government appointment. Most of the significance of the marriage ceremony was lost on Kangni at such a young age, but it didn’t take long before she understood it meant that her sister had had to leave her home and the family she had grown up her whole life knowing. This realization upset Kangni and left a bad taste in her mouth.

Even without Jia in the house anymore, life moved on as Kangni and her family settled into their new home. Her brothers, Kong and Jun, now had access to the best tutors in the capital and began to focus in earnest on studying for their examinations. All these changes left Kangni more empty time than ever before. Time she now had to spend with her mother, who had begun teaching her embroidery in hopes that she could grow into a desirable bride like her sister.

Each day Hua sat Kangni down to learn her basic stitches; however, by mid-day Kangni would sneak out of the room and hide, ignoring her mother’s angry calls. Bolin, who had once supported Hua in her teaching Jia, now felt conflicted due to his North Gate Scholar position.

“They [North Gate Scholars] wrote and compiled a number of important books, including a series of biographies of famous women …”3

His time spent writing biographies about the famous women for Wu had shifted his perspective on women’s roles. Despite much protest from Hua, who still believed it was her job to make Kangni a suitable bride, Bolin began to teach Kangni how to read and write at the beginning of the rainy season in 674. Unlike with the embroidery lessons, Kangni took immediately to reading and writing, and no longer tried to sneak out. In order to appease her mother, Kangni learned art in addition to writing and reading the Analects.

Over the next few years, Kangni’s education progressed exceptionally. Although her mother was loathe to admit it, she had picked up on her studies faster than either of her brothers had. Over the next few years, Bolin taught Kangni a mix of the classics and the biographies of famous women that he and his coworkers wrote. The time Bolin spent teaching Kangni allowed them to bond much more than when Bolin was working towards his new title. The new closeness between Kangni and Bolin meant that Kangni often got preferential treatment, meaning more lessons, and for her twelfth birthday Bolin treated Kangni to a special outing in Chang’an by carriage.

In anticipation of her gift, Kangni could barely sleep the night before, relying on the steady beat of the raindrops on the roof to sooth her to sleep. The huge markets amazed her, but what impressed her the most was the Da Ci’en temple, a Buddhist temple, they passed shortly before the motion of the cart lolled her to sleep. She had never seen a building so grand and mysterious. The image stuck in her mind and she pictured it each night before falling asleep for weeks to come. The temple in the city sparked an interest in Buddhism in Kangni that she had never felt before. Now, in addition to her usual lessons, Kangni asked her father to teach her more about Buddhism. Although his knowledge was very limited, Bolin did his best to bring home texts about Buddhism to satisfy Kangni’s desire.

Throughout her pre-teens, Kangni managed to dodge her mother’s attempts to get her to agree to begin matchmaking. However, by the time she turned fourteen, Kangni was having greater difficulty and soon, Hua took up the matter with Bolin. By this point, Kangni had begun to believe that the hopes she had of staying home had come to an end. But surprisingly, her father, having become very attached to his last daughter, decided that it wasn’t time upon Kangni’s continued refusal to be married off like her sister.

Relieved, Kangni settled into a content state as she continued to study under her father, while watching her brothers take their shots as the examinations and search for wives. It didn’t last long though, as just a year later, in 685, Bolin lost his appointment to the North Gate Scholars. The job loss devastated the Liu family as they lost much of its prestige and power. Bolin wanted to retire back into the countryside where he was originally from, but Kangni knew that she could not go. As an unmarried daughter, she placed a large strain on the family resources and had to find another option. Now, her memories of the Buddhist temple and education presented her an alternative to marriage.

She presented the idea to her parents after learning of her father’s dismissal. Hua, who had given up on making her a decent bride, reluctantly agreed that a monastery was the best choice for a young woman without the skills to keep house. Bolin, on the other hand, refused to admit that Kangni belonged anywhere other than in his care. Neither wanted to lose each other. Bolin had been Kangni’s escape from traditional societal expectations and in his hours teaching Kangni, Bolin had bonded with her far more than he had his other children. He struggled to see Kangni as the independent soul he had fostered with his teachings and not as the little six year old sitting on his lap learning how to write her name. It took weeks of convincing and a visit to the temple, but Bolin eventually agreed to what would make his daughter the happiest. He could not bear to dampen the fire of his daughter’s spirit. With her family’s blessing, Kangni joined the Buddhist temple as a nun.

The uplifting of her life shook Kangni. It pained her terribly to leave her family, but leaving meant a chance for Kangni to further her education and to walk the path towards enlightenment. She could not foster hard feeling towards Wu because it was Wu that had inspired her father to educate her. She also understood that Wu commonly fired government officials to prevent them from amassing too much power. In fact, she was grateful towards Wu because without her, she would not have gotten the opportunity to pursue enlightenment, instead, she would be married with children.

The day Kangni arrived at the temple, the clouds drenched the earth, as if mourning the end the first stage of her life. In a last attempt to persuade his last daughter to stay Bolin tried to tell her that even the strongest fire could not burn through such a downpour; however, Kangni ignored the bad omen and threw herself into her studies. Only her readings could distract her from the pain of what she had lost. She quickly learned that her previous reading on Buddhism was insignificant compared to the texts and resources inside of the temple. The learning excited her and it distracted from the sense of loss she felt at having to leave her family. She spent the next three years learning all she could with the support of the monastic community. The monastic lifestyle allowed her to devote more time to studying and to learn from experienced teachers.

As Kangni gained a reputation in the monastery for her understanding of classic texts, Wu continued to consolidate power, using her knowledge of Buddhism and the Zhou dynasty to legitimize her rule.4 In 688, Kangni was chosen as one of several Buddhists to consult on the Buddhist art in Wu’s Bright Hall as it prepared for its opening the following year. The trip marked the first time she had left the monastery in three years and the grandeur of the hall amazed her. What stood out to her the most was a large group of royal guards leaving through the main gates, seeming to surround one person. The workers all whispered that it must have been Wu herself, leaving from a visit with Xue Huaiyi, a bossy man who many said was her lover. Blinded to Wu’s fault of keeping a lower by her admiration for the woman who had afforded her an education, Kangni threw herself into her consultation work.

Through her work at them temple Kangni stood out for the first time in the monastery as more than just a student. Coinciding with the opening of the Bright Hall, the older monks awarded Kangni with a position of teaching new nuns. Her text of choice, The Great Cloud Sutra, allowed her to impress her passion for the Buddha’s gift of learning on her students.

She became well known among the students of the monastery, and 693, when Xue Huaiyi wrote a commentary on The Great Cloud Sutra and Wu used it to legitimize her rule as Empress, she gained true notoriety throughout the monastery.5 Much of the monastery received Wu’s claims to be the Maitreya Buddha with much skepticism. On the other hand, Kangni embraced Wu’s declaration whole heartedly. Wu’s example had allowed Kangni to pursue a scholarly and religious life. And she wasn’t the only one to benefit from Wu’s rise in power. The claim allowed for the spread of Buddhism, a kindness that would save people from cyclic existence, and allowed for the education of many more girls to study Buddhism. Before Wu this would have been unheard of. To her it only made sense that such a women would be the reincarnation of a Bodhisattva that represented kindness. Kangni’s position as a teacher and experience interpreting The Great Cloud Sutra allowed her to convince others.

By the close of the seventh century, nearly every member of the monastery had attended at least one of Kangni’s classes on The Great Cloud Sutra and its commentary supporting Empress Wu. After years of devoting everyday of her life to Buddhism, the general consensus of the monks and nuns of the monastery and Kangni herself was that she had managed to attain enlightenment. Within her studies of The Great Cloud Sutra, Kangni felt she had gained the knowledge she had always sought. She chose to live her life as a senior nun and teacher.

Unfortunately, her contentment only lasted a handful of years. In 705, word reached the monastery of the coup that overthrew Empress Wu in the dead of night.6 Kangni could not believe her ears and even more shocking was her death shortly after. Empress Wu had facilitated much of Kangni’s success and she didn’t know what to do anymore. For a few months Kangni defaulted back to her old schedule of teaching and meditation, but as spring approached and the rainy season began, she remembered. As the Maitreya Buddha, Wu was bound to reincarnate herself. Destined to someday rule again, facilitating the spread of Buddhism, freeing people from cyclic existence, and riding young girls like herself from the crushing expectations of society.

The next day Kangni announced to her students that she would be following in Wu’s footsteps as a Bodhisattva. She planned to pass on and be reincarnated again when Wu came back to rule as a way to help spread her teachings. She chose to go in the way of the Buddha and ate pork pork given to her by a layperson that she purposely aged.7,[1] Kangni passed on one early morning in May, meditating to the soft patter of rain hitting the ground outside the monastery.

The monastery mourned the passing of a great teacher, but also celebrated that Kangni would go on to teach again in another life. Many suspected that Kangni had managed to poison the pork as she had been too young to die of simple food poisoning. However, that was beside the point as, in traditional Buddhist fashion, the monks and nuns let go and moved on in search of their own enlightenment.

[1]Buddhist monks and nun survive off food given to them by lay people looking to gain good karma. A monk is required to eat the food that is put into their bowls. The food they receive is often reflective of what the lay people eat themselves, which includes meat. The Buddha died from eating spoiled pork. The main concern held by Buddhists is that the meat cannot be prepared specially for them.


1Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 134.

2Wills, 136

3Wills, 136

4Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 183.

5Hansen, 184

6Hansen, 184

7Brahmavasmo, Ajhan. What the Buddha Said About Eating Meat. Buddhist Society of Western Australia, 1990. Online Newsletter.

Katie McKendrick is a sophomore at the University of Rochester. She is a double major in Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies. In her free time, she likes to run and read.