In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West
Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance
Ting Wen-chiang: Science and China’s New Culture
Kuo Mo-jo: The Early Years
Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 1: Ai-Ch’u
Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 2: Dalai-Ma
Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 3: Mao-Wu
Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 4: Yang-Bibliography
Ku Chieh-kang and China’s New History: Nationalism and the Quest for Alternative Traditions
Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism, 1921-1965
Who’s Who in Communist China
Written Chinese is extremely difficult. Before the revolutions of the twentieth century, the literary language was a barrier protecting the Confucian elite. Anyone who could jump over that barrier by passing the official examinations immediately joined the ruling class. The strengths of written Chinese were its huge vocabulary and its enormous number of references and allusions. These could be mastered only by years of grinding study for which of course the poor had no facilities or leisure—though, as in America, the myth of equal opportunity was maintained by stressing a few extraordinary cases of poor boys reaching the top.
During the twentieth century radical intellectuals became aware of the stultifying and socially divisive effects of classical education. They deliberately tried to establish pai-hua, a demotic written language close to ordinary speech and accessible to all, through which they hoped to mobilize the people to strengthen China against foreign imperialism. However, the idea that good style consists of abstruse allusions has died extremely hard. The writer Lu Hsün, who devoted his life to rousing Chinese workers and peasants, is generally acknowledged to be the best writer in pai-hua. Even so his work is full of esoteric references which make his convoluted sentences difficult for many Chinese. Mao’s poetry is known to be traditional and refined; but much of his prose also contains classical images and phrases. Familiarity has made his writing easier to read and his style has influenced the spoken language.
The growing closeness of speech to writing makes it considerably easier to read works published after 1949. Nevertheless the esoteric tradition still flourishes. The Cultural Revolution began with an attack on a series of plays and articles written by a leading scholar, Wu Han, on an official in the Ming Dynasty called Hai Jui. In them Hai Jui was supposed to have championed the peasants against oppressive authority. Insiders knew that Hai Jui stood for P’eng Te-huai, the Minister of Defense who was dismissed in 1959 partly because he had criticized the Great Leap Forward. In 1950 Wu Han had talked with Mao Tse-tung about his position and that of other intellectuals under the new regime largely by referring to the career of a fourteenth-century Taoist monk.
To this esoteric tradition has been added the Soviet practice of indicating policies and positions in the hierarchy by subtle linguistic devices, the inclusion or omission of adjectives or the different ordering of formulae. This practice has been grafted easily onto another part of the esoteric tradition known as “praise and blame.” Confucius and later writers used this tradition to show approval or disapproval of historical figures by the way in which their names and titles were given. Thus in China today there is the paradox that articles and stories are written as simply as possible to reach and rouse the people, while at the same time the language of political infighting is deliberately allusive in order to keep the uninitiate from understanding it.
These are problems of communication for Chinese. For foreigners, particularly those studying Chinese history and culture, the situation is infinitely worse. In his fascinating annotated editions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, Martin Gardner referred to many works of scholarship and included hundreds of footnotes to explain Lewis Carroll’s work and convey some idea of his environment. The cultural distance between nineteenth-century Oxford and modern Anglo-American readers is relatively slight; nevertheless Mr. Gardner’s task was extremely difficult and he and his correspondents clearly missed many details. There is also the inherent problem of subjecting delicate works of art to crude scholarship.
But Martin Gardner’s presumption is nothing to that of Sinologists, who spend much of their time trampling over flower beds in order to point out familiar trees. To my knowledge no one in the West, for example, noticed the significance of Wu Han’s works on Hai Jui or of the many other esoteric satires published in the early 1960s; but to insiders they were obvious.
Why then should foreigners even attempt detailed studies of China? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jesuits and other Europeans approached China with respect. They tended to accept the current Chinese orthodoxy and tried to transmit its wisdom to the West. Sinology was created in the mid-nineteenth century in the full flush of positivism. All histories and cultures were to be reduced to scientific order. China’s civilization was to be made into an object fit for analysis. Ancient China, which had satisfactory academic similarities to the Western classical world, was much more suited to this treatment than more recent periods, where there was the problem of living Chinese.
However, in the latter half of the nineteenth century the conquest of the past was only a reflection of the conquest of the present. During this early but high stage of imperialism scholars found it necessary to believe that only white men were capable of “modern” activities. Thus what other people said about themselves might be interesting but it was “unscientific.” Accurate descriptions of other societies or histories had to be written by Europeans. By the turn of the century this position had to be modified when Sinologists came to realize the extremely high level—by Western standards—of Chinese textual and historical research. Nevertheless the earlier impetus and to some extent the racist beliefs behind it have persisted up to the present.
The obvious justification for research on China is that Western and Japanese studies are better than nothing. The Chinese comprise so large a part of mankind and their culture is so rich and well-recorded that one simply cannot neglect so important a part of human experience. Therefore any descriptions—however crude—are valuable. In the 1950s all kinds of scholarship flowered in China. Since then concern with the present has been so overwhelming that there has been relatively little new historical research there. Important source materials have been reprinted in Taiwan and the Chinese Diaspora, but original research has been hampered by lack of contact with China. This bleak situation is professionally providential for students outside China. In the West and Japan independent research provides a satisfying life and a prestigious occupation in a way that “mere translation” of Chinese secondary materials could never do.
There are, however, more decent justifications for outside study of China. Western and Japanese scholars study problems that interest them and presumably those around them. Thus their work can mediate between China and other countries in a way that Chinese writers with different preoccupations cannot. Another justification for cross-cultural studies is that although distance blurs details it gives a perspective that is sometimes interesting even to members of the culture being perceived. Professor Benjamin Schwartz points this out in his book on Yen Fu, the great Chinese translator of the early twentieth century. He argues that many of what most Westerners would consider to be Yen Fu’s misconceptions about the works he translated were in fact useful perceptions of the thought behind them. For instance Herbert Spencer believed himself to be an uncompromising internationalist, and is generally held to have been one. Yen Fu with his preoccupation on the weakness of China saw Spencer as an advocate of the release of human energy that would create strong nation states.
Professor Schwartz demonstrates that Yen Fu’s perception brings out real inconsistencies in Spencer’s thought: his proclaimed interest in the individual while being prepared to sacrifice any number of inferior individuals to the “natural” struggle for survival and the greater good of the whole. There was also his dubious but repeated analogy between society and a biological organism. If he had been consistent in applying this model he would have demanded that, just as cells or even limbs in advanced organisms are subordinated to central organs like the brain, individuals in highly developed societies should subordinate themselves to central control.
Professor Schwartz’s biography of Yen Fu is probably the most important cross-cultural study of ideas published in the last twenty years. It is not surprising that a brilliant and subtle scholar like Professor Schwartz should choose Yen Fu. Yen thrived on complexity and he was deliberately esoteric. He had no intention of popularizing his many important translations. He wrote in extraordinarily intricate classical Chinese because, as he said, “principles of original subtlety cannot be mixed together with language lacking in eloquence.” For this he was bitterly attacked by Hu Shih, one of the leading proponents of the pai-hua movement.
Hu Shih was by no means the first Chinese intellectual to write in the demotic language. He was however one of the first to abandon classical Chinese in all his work, even in his poems. He did not need the classical language, for he had a more up-to-date elitist defense, English. He spent seven years at Cornell and Columbia and remained enthusiastically pro-American throughout his life. He was particularly influential as part of the “loyal opposition” to Chiang Kai-shek, working with regimes that are often best seen as prototypes of neocolonialism. Thus in Hu’s case an American biographer has insights not available to a Chinese. These have been used well by Jerome Greider in Hu Shih and the Chinese Renaissance, which also contains fascinating descriptions of the intellectual arguments that took place in China in the 1920s and the 1930s. There is, however, something extremely dreary about Hu’s life as a bigoted pragmatist constantly telling students to work within the system and to deal with small concrete problems while Chinese society was visibly crumbling around him.
If Hu Shih was an American Chinese, the distinguished geologist Ting Wen-chiang was a British one. He was one of the very few Chinese who went not only to a university but also to school in the West. In many respects Ting remained a Chinese of his class, but the British stamp was deep and permanent. The paradox is not so great as it might appear. As his biographer Charlotte Furth rightly points out, there were profound similarities between the Confucian gentry and the ruling class of Edwardian England. Unlike the rest of his generation Ting was able to behave and think like a European. It is not surprising that Bertrand Russell wrote of him, “He was the ablest man I met in China.”
Ting was a scientist and contributed greatly to bringing Chinese geology up to high international standards. At almost the same time he became a businessman and held official posts under extremely corrupt warlords. In many respects he was a Chinese Fabian, an autocratic elitist reformer. He had an instinctive appreciation of authority and was a champion of law and order. Like the Webbs he admired Stalinist Russia while distrusting radicals at home. Charlotte Furth brings this out neatly in her excellent book.
The connection between Ting’s science and his politics fascinates her. In a famous literary debate on science and metaphysics he took the critical positivist view that science can know everything knowable. Society was clearly included. While China suffered the most appalling catastrophes Ting tirelessly argued that its problems should be solved scientifically. His message to the students was very much the same as Hu Shih’s: They should continue their study—to build up a new elite—and collect more data on social problems. Presumably with her own surroundings in mind Charlotte Furth stresses the conservative bias inherent in any attempt to apply “objective” social science. Defenders of the status quo can and do pretend to be “nonpolitical” because if let unstated their values will be assumed. Only radicals are obliged to create different ideologies and new values, thus defying “objective” science.