An Inscrutable Eccentric
Born in the South (Penang), educated in the West (Europe), married to a woman from the East (Japan), and now working in the North (Peking)
Noted for his ultraconservatism and eccentricity, Gu Hongming (1857-1928) remains one of the most controversial figures in modern Chinese intellectual history. Born a colonial elite in Penang, Gu spent a decade of his formative years in Europe, learning to be what he called "an imitation Western man." In his late twenties, however, he became a Qing loyalist and Chinese spokesman who defended the Manchu monarchy, Confucian morality, and Chinese traditions until the end of his life. Having received a thorough Western training, including a degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1877, Gu was deeply influenced by European Romanticism and conservatism. After his so-called conversion to "become a Chinaman again," Gu devoted his life to translating Confucian classics into English and interpreting "the spirit of the Chinese people" to the Western world through numerous English writings. He foresaw the disastrous long-term consequences of industrialism and imperialism, then at their peak, and called for a revival of Confucianism as the antidote for modern Western civilization. Attacked by leading Chinese intellectuals during his lifetime for being an ultraconservative, Gu's sharp critiques of Western industrialism, materialism, and militarism nevertheless gained him international fame as "the principal defender of Confucianism in China," especially after World War I.
Gu Hongming flaunted the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic norms of the day. He enjoyed a daily rickshaw ride, showcasing his queue after the 1911 revolution when everyone else was embracing Western culture as a symbol of progress. He called Empress Dowager Cixi a virtuous and beloved mother of the nation when most people saw her as reactionary, corrupt, or deviant. He defended concubinage with the famous analogy of one teapot matching multiple teacups, rather than vice versa. He relentlessly announced his sexual escapades involving prostitutes and singsong girls. He frequently insulted foreigners everywhere, from a random Scottish man in a movie theater to the faculties of Peking University. After meeting the English writer W. Somerset Maugham, he wrote the visitor a set of love poems in calligraphy as a farewell gift. In a 1921 New York Times interview, he said Westerners were "all barbarians." Gu Hongming's conservative ideas and unusual behaviors were eccentric, to say the least.
Is Gu Hongming a "Chinese sage" and an "Eastern prophet," or a "crazy" fraud and "a lunatic of a dangerous kind?" This study examines the controversial scholar's intellectual and psychological journeys across geographical, national, cultural, and racial boundaries. Adopting a global-historical approach, I first reevaluate Gu's roles in transcultural exchanges during the major crisis of the World War I era. He engaged in intensive debates and dialogues with Western sinologists, missionaries, and travelers to China, and forged a unique intellectual and life trajectory as a diasporic professional and global scholar. In addition, I try to unfold a trickster-sage figure who danced between critical intellectual engagements and symbolic public performance, fighting modern Western civilization with pranks and lampoons in a time dominated by industrial power and empire building. Gu Hongming's defense of China was both personal and national, and his resistance of the West was as much psychological as intellectual. For an examination of the fascinating odyssey of this Chinese trickster-sage, let's begin with his life journey.
A Biographical Sketch
Gu Hongming was born in the British colony of Penang in 1857. Located off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, the island of Penang had been a British colony since 1786 and, at the time of Gu's birth, it was part of the Straits Settlements, together with Malacca and Singapore. Under British rule, the island transformed from a small jungle island into a commercial center and multiethnic zone where Malay, European, Chinese, and Indian cultures interacted and mingled.
Gu came from a wealthy Chinese family that had originally emigrated from Fujian, where the majority of Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements originated. Gu's clan belonged to the elite group of Straits-born Chinese and for several decades remained one of most prominent Chinese families in Penang. His great-grandfather Gu Lihuan (Koh Lay-huan), one of the earliest settlers in Penang, was appointed as the first Chinese "Kapitan" by Captain Francis Light in May 1787, when Light claimed Penang for the British India Company. Most of Gu Lihuan's descendants worked as political and commercial intermediaries between the British and the Chinese communities in the colonies, amassing a considerable fortune from their position. Gu Lihuan's second son, however, was sent back to China for education and succeeded in earning the prestigious palace graduate (jinshi) degree in the Qing government's civil service examinations, and later became a Qing official in Taiwan. This branch of the Gu clan has been influential in Taiwan since the era of Japanese occupation. Its descendants include the prominent economic tycoon Gu Xianrong (Koo Hsien-jung), who helped Gu Hongming (his cousin) when he was in financial difficulty after the 1911 revolution and hosted Gu's visit to Taiwan in 1927. Gu's father, Gu Ziyun (Kaw Chee Hoon), worked for a plantation owned by a prominent Scottish entrepreneur named Forbes Scott Brown. Gu's elder brother, Gu Hongde (Kaw Hong Take), set up a company that built Western style houses in the new treaty port of Fuzhou in 1864. He later expanded his construction business to Hong Kong and was successful enough to be awarded the title of Justice of the Peace (Taiping shenshi) in 1886. Gu Hongming appeared to have maintained a close relationship with his elder brother, continuing his visits before and after his sojourn in Europe and helping to support the brother's family after the latter's death on Hainan Island in 1901.
In many ways Gu Hongming was brought up in a familial, political, and sociocultural environment quite distinct from that of the Chinese literati of his generation in Qing China. Together with his family, Gu lived in the Brown estate in Sungai Nibong, outside downtown Penang, and had close interactions with the Brown family members. Such a hybrid living experience separated him from the children of poor immigrant families, especially the recent "coolies" living in downtown Penang. He claimed that he had "little or no education" before going to Scotland, and the only thing that he learned while "climbing coconut trees and swimming rivers in the plantation jungles of Penang" was Malay songs. But he actually received two to three years of formal education, from age twelve to age fourteen, in the Penang Free School, the oldest English school in the Straits Settlements. Established in 1816 to train intermediaries for colonial rule, the school admitted students of different races and religion. Also, unlike other elite children of his age in China, who were under pressure to master Confucian classics and succeed in the civil service examinations, Gu read the works of John Milton, from which he proudly recited later in his life, claiming that it was done in the similar manner as the mastery of Confucian writings, through memorization without "understanding the meaning of one single word of it."
As some English education was considered beneficial to a career in the colony, Gu's English education was typical among local elite Chinese families; his brother and cousins were also alumni of the school. In contrast to the literati in Qing China, most of Gu's family members were nearly illiterate in classical Chinese, spoke Southern Fujian (Minnan) dialect and the Hokkien-Malay creole known as Baba Malay, and appeared to be Peranakan, a term for a creolized Chinese group whose language and culture integrated both Chinese and Malay elements. In their choice of career, Gu's family exemplified the priority placed on material wealth over scholarship in local Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. A degree of proficiency in English was considered desirable because of its instrumental value, while mastery of the Chinese classics was not regarded as necessary or valuable. Gu grew up in essentially a colonial and culturally hybrid setting, with different political, social, and value systems from those encountered in the Qing empire, where the centuries-old negotiation between Manchu rule and Confucian cultural and bureaucratic practices presented a different set of issues. As a consequence, while the trajectory of Gu's life would eventually resemble and overlap with that of many intellectuals from the mainland, especially those who received a European education and went on to pursue careers in China, Gu's colonial origins would continue to shape his thinking throughout his life in subtle but significant ways.
In 1870-1871, Gu went to Scotland with his guardian, Forbes Scott Brown. This fourteen-year-old Chinese boy left Penang for Europe wearing a queue. For about three years, Gu Hongming stayed in Leith, at the time a small port town and now part of the city of Edinburgh. He joined Brown's two Eurasian sons, who were about the same age as he, at the Leith Academy, a small private school partly funded by Brown and headed by his son-in-law Peter Gardner. Later in life, Gu spoke highly of the Leith Academy's curriculum and textbooks in which "no political economy and useful knowledge of shoddy reading matter" were allowed, and only "pure high class literature" was included. Gu passed the matriculation examination and started attending the University of Edinburgh in 1873, at the age of sixteen. Although Chinese biographers have often pointed to this as evidence of Gu's precocity, it was in fact not uncommon among Edinburgh freshmen to enter at this age. Gu studied in the Faculty of Arts, which required "two years each of Humanity (Latin), Greek, and mathematics, and one year each of logic and metaphysics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy (physics), and rhetoric and English literature." The Edinburgh curriculum in the arts provided a solid ground for Gu's training in the Western classics. He excelled in Latin, winning third prize in his first year. He read the works of Virgil, Horace, Livy, Cicero, Tacitus, Lucretius, and Plautus, as well as books on Roman history, literature, and the antiquities, and frequently quoted from them in his later writings. In his Greek class, Gu admired Professor John Stuart Blackie, "the only professor" who was "original and inspiring in his teaching," from whom he learned selected portions by Xenophon, Homer, Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Lucian. Among the English literary greats whom Gu identified as influences were Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, most of all, Alfred Tennyson. Additionally, the Scottish Enlightenment, especially the school of common sense realism, still dominated Scottish thought during Gu's college years and had a strong influence on his later interpretation of Confucianism. Prominent Enlightenment thinkers included Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), and Dugald Stewart, professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh from 1785 to 1819, all of whom were on the reading list for Gu's moral philosophy class. Immanuel Kant's Metaphysic of Ethics and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism were also part of Gu's required reading. The famous Scottish essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle had a particular influence on Gu's political and cultural beliefs. Carlyle was appointed the university's rector in 1865, and his writings were influential in the Victorian era and popular among Edinburgh University students.
Gu Hongming distinguished himself from the other Chinese of his generation who spent considerable time in the West by his young age at his first encounter with the West, the length of his systematic study of Western learning, and the depth of his engagement with Western classical culture. He went to Edinburgh as an adolescent from an overseas settlement with little formal training in classical Chinese culture and without a clear political or religious agenda. Gu was neither "burdened" by Chinese tradition nor preoccupied with the conflict between "history" and "value" that supposedly occupied the minds of Liang Qichao and others of his time. Nor did he feel responsible for the search for the secret of Western material progress as illustrated by the case of Yan Fu, an influential scholar and translator, especially during the Self-Strengthening movement. For Gu, it was personal intellectual interests combined with career concerns that directed his path of study and formulated his philosophical orientations. He was deeply drawn to Greece and Rome as the origins of Western civilization, and to classical European traditions. Gu received a liberal arts education and had a more thorough classical training in Western literature and culture than most Chinese students at the time, who studied more technical and pragmatic subjects, such as science, engineering, medicine, and law. The reforming Qing government during the Self-Strengthening movement sent hundreds abroad to become specialists in applied technical subjects without much concern for the humanities. In April 1877, Gu Hongming graduated from the University of Edinburgh with the degree of master of arts, equivalent to an undergraduate degree today, as one of seventy arts graduates that year. Over the next two years, Gu continuously traveled and studied in Europe. He improved his proficiency in other European languages, including German, French, and Italian, and further devoted himself to German literature, especially the works of Goethe. Many unverified sources suggest that Gu received a master's degree in civil engineering from Leipzig University and several doctoral degrees from institutions in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and even Turkey. However, much remains unknown about the details of Gu's activities during his last two years in Europe.
Gu Hongming returned to Penang by the summer of 1879, after a ten-year sojourn in Europe. A few months after his departure from Scotland, he lamented, "Faces familiar in my infant years; But now grown alien to my traveled eyes." He was now an adult of twenty-three who spoke fluent English, wore a Western suit, and no longer had a queue. By this time his parents and Scottish guardian were all deceased. Soon after his arrival in Penang, Gu left again and went to stay with his brother in Fuzhou. For about two years he worked as a private secretary to Sir Thomas Wade in the British Legation in Beijing, followed by a short stint at the Office of the Colonial Secretary at Singapore. At the end of 1881, Gu was in Hong Kong, where he was hired as an interpreter by the well-known British geographer Archibald Ross Colquhoun, who later wrote very negative portraits of Gu after he left Colquhoun's expedition. Many details on Gu's activities between 1882 and 1885 remain obscure. He was probably living between Fuzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, where his brother had relocated. During this time, Gu continued to learn mandarin and classical Chinese and wrote for English newspapers. In 1885 Gu reached another turning point in his life when he had the opportunity to become a private secretary to Viceroy Zhang Zhidong. This began Gu's professional career in China, one that lasted more than forty years. Gu Hongming was drawn to Zhang by the latter's fame as an erudite scholar, which fit the idealized conception of a Confucian scholar-official that he was forming. Gu served as one of Zhang's loyal private secretaries from 1885 until the latter's death in 1909, two years before the fall of the Qing dynasty. His work as a member of Zhang's staff (mufu) involved translating, consulting, and dealing with Western affairs. Among the famous visitors that Gu hosted were Prince Heinrich of Prussia, the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Japanese prime minister Itō Hirobumi. Gu's position and income were not very high. Nor did his personality gain him many friends on the staff. Yet he remained useful. When Viceroy Zhang transferred from Canton to Wuchang in 1888, Gu was one of the five secretaries selected to accompany him. From late 1905 to 1910, Gu was director of the Huangpu Conservancy Board in Shanghai, an agency established under the Boxer Protocol of 1901 to improve the Shanghai harbor. In 1908, as a vice director of the newly founded Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Waiwubu Yuanwailang) in Beijing, Gu delivered a four thousand-character memorial address to the Guangxu Emperor in which he urged extreme caution against westernization, including the adoption of Western-style legal and political practices, and in 1910 he was awarded an honorary jinshi degree in humanities.
Around 1910 Gu started working at the Imperial Polytechnic College (Nanyang Gongxue) in Shanghai, predecessor of today's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and continued his absolute support of the Qing monarchy. He attacked both the "snob-literati in China," represented by Kang Youwei, who wanted to replace the civilization of China with "an imitation paper civilization" from the West, and "the mob-literati," represented by Sun Yat-sen and consisting of foreign-educated students who became fanatic about destroying Chinese civilization through revolution. During the 1911 revolution, Gu was driven out of the school by radical students who attacked his raging antirevolutionary publications in foreign newspapers in China and posted placards calling for his "extermination." His family took refuge in the French settlement and then stayed in a soap factory owned by a sympathetic Austrian in Shanghai. By late 1911 Gu had gone to Qingdao and Beijing, joining other loyal Qing subjects and former colleague-friends. Starting in March 1912, if not earlier, the unemployed Gu stayed in the Austro-Hungarian Legation in Beijing, with the help of Minister Arthur von Rosthorn, while his family remained in Shanghai for another few months. Gu Hongming never served the Republican governments in his remaining years and continuously denounced the revolution, the Republican system, and Western learning while gaining a reputation for his staunch support of Confucianism, the Manchu monarchy, footbinding, and concubinage. His political and cultural conservatism can be attributed to both his intellectual and ideological beliefs and his personal experience as a former colonial figure. Perhaps due to his strong criticisms of the revolution and his attacks on the new Republican government of Yuan Shikai as "incapable, extravagant, and utterly corrupt," Gu felt so unsafe in 1913 that he made plans to move to Taiwan permanently. This plan never materialized, however, and starting around 1915 Gu taught at Peking University as a professor in the Department of English Literature. During the notorious two-week Manchu restoration coup by "Queue General" Zhang Xun in July 1917, he was appointed senior vice secretary of foreign affairs. Gu's conservative positions and high-profile public demonstrations irritated the radical students and faculty at Peking University during the ongoing May Fourth movement. The rebellious youngsters confronted him inside and outside the classroom. Gu "was at a very low ebb," and left Peking University in the early 1920s.
For most of the period of October 1924 through July 1927, Gu lived in Japan while teaching at the newly founded Great Asiatic Culture Association (Daitō Bunka Kyōkai). On his way to Japan in September 1924, he visited Korea, where he was entertained by Admiral Baron Saitō (Saitō Makoto), the governor-general of Korea. Invited by his clan member Gu Xianrong, Gu also visited Taiwan via Japan for a month during November and December 1924; there, he visited colonial officials and local schools and gave many lectures to a variety of groups. In June 1925 Gu briefly returned China to meet the warlord Zhang Zuoling in Manchuria to discuss the possibility of working as his political advisor. But he was said to have declined the offer and soon returned to Tokyo. Gu's stay in Japan in his very last years was partly due to his admiration for Japan, which he called the heir to the true Chinese civilization, and partly due to his financial difficulties after the revolution. He depended on writing, teaching, and occasional help from friends and sympathizers to support his family. While some anecdotes suggest his indulgence in the entertainment world, his daily living conditions were also said to be moderate at most, and in one contemporary's words, "he lived and died a very poor man." Gu Hongming died in Beijing on April 30, 1928, just before he was to have assumed the post of president of Shandong University. He did eventually meet the last Qing emperor in person a few months before his death, considering it "the proudest day of his life." He was said to have been "in a state of awe-stricken speechlessness," and the memory of this day consoled "the old man's soul . . . when he lay dying."
A Polemical Figure
Gu Hongming's life and ideas have posed a challenge to scholarly consensus since his own time. To some, he was a harmless and insignificant miscreant, a malicious character. To others, he was a patriotic nobleman who saved face for China on international stages during a humiliating time—a folk hero. During his lifetime, Gu's numerous writings and their translations into Western languages, his lecture tours in the Japanese empire, and his interactions with renowned world critics of modernism including Rabindranath Tagore and Leo Tolstoy stimulated heated debates on the values of "Eastern traditions." Dissatisfied with sinologists' versions, especially the one by renowned missionary and scholar James Legge, Gu retranslated into English three of the Four Books, a major part of the Confucian cannon, and thus created arguably the first systematic English translation by a "Chinese." His versions were published in various languages including English, German, French, and Japanese, by major publishing houses in Asia, Europe, and the United States. During the Boxer Uprising in 1900, Gu published a series of articles triggered by the chaos, later compiled into Papers from a Viceroy's Yamen that denounced Western powers' policies toward China as unjust, immoral, and unwise. Another book that created a stir among European readers was The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism in China (known in Chinese by the title Qing liu zhuan). Drawing from John Henry Newman's Oxford movement, Gu's "Chinese Oxford Movement" referred to the conservative political movement led by Viceroy Zhang Zhidong and others "against liberalism" and "the modern European ideas of progress and new learning." First published in 1910, a year after Zhang's death and a year before the Chinese Revolution, the work expressed Gu's grief over the failure of the movement and the desperate fights of his colleagues and himself. In 1915 Gu compiled his previous English speeches and articles into The Spirit of the Chinese People, his most influential English work, in which he elaborated his theories on Confucianism and the Chinese culture . Two years later, in Vox Clamantis: Essays on the War and Other Subjects, Gu blamed the outbreak of World War I on the nature of Western civilization, especially its foundation in material progress and industrialism. Compared to his English publications, Gu's Chinese writings were less substantial and compiled into two collections, Zhang Wenxiang mufu ji wen (Reminiscences of a Chinese Viceroy's Secretary) (1910) and Du Yi caotang wenji (Literary Collection by the Pastoral Hall of Reading I Ching) (1922). The former was a two-volume collection of over seventy short anecdotes of his twenty-year experience on the staff of Viceroy Zhang Zhidong, some written in very colloquial style. The latter collection consisted of more formal writings in classical language, including proposals, letters, or memorials to government officials or the emperor, as well as Chinese versions of his published English works. In all his works, Gu proclaimed that only Confucianism could save modern Western civilization from its moral bankruptcy and chaos, and that the new China emulating the West also needed to restore Confucianism for its own regeneration. He continued his support of monarchical rule and Confucian ideology with no ambiguity.
Outside China, Gu Hongming emerged as the most well-known exponent of Confucianism and Chinese tradition in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Together with other prominent advocates of "the decline of the West" and "Eastern spirituality," the Confucian sage and his messages were welcomed enthusiastically and reproduced in the Western world, especially in Germany. Leonard Nelson, a principal leader of German neo-Kantian philosophy, considered Gu the most noble and wise man of the time. English novelist W. Somerset Maugham and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright reported reading about Gu's works in English. Their initial interest turned into meetings with the author in person during their visits to China. Bernard Leach, an eminent British artist who had lived in Asia for many years, said he was greatly indebted to Gu's introduction of the Chinese traditions, especially through his translation of the Confucian classic Zhongyong. Chinese students in the West also remembered encountering Gu's works frequently. Best known for his advocacy of the Chinese civilization as the remedy to the bankruptcy of modern Western civilization, Gu echoed popular sentiments among Western intellectual elites of the time and provided accessible, "authentic," and useful ingredients for their self-critique. His success was largely due to the rise of antimodern sentiments among Westerners in the post-World War I era as well as his talents as a popularizer of Chinese culture for a general Western audience.
In early twentieth-century China, cultural conservatives were among the few who held a more sympathetic attitude toward Gu Hongming. Following Gu's The Story of a Chinese Movement, Harvard-educated literature scholar Mei Guangdi defended the true conservatism of Confucianism, critiquing the demoralizing modernism represented by Li Hongzhang. Mei later became a leader of a group affiliated with the journal Critical Review (Xueheng), a major opponent of the New Culture movement. Wu Mi, another active member of the group and also a Chinese disciple of neo-humanism, wrote a commemoration of Gu Hongming shortly after his death. While seeing his ideas as less insightful compared to his American mentor Irving Babbitt, Wu Mi nevertheless celebrated Gu's firm belief in Chinese moralism and denunciation of Western utilitarianism and imperialism. Another rare positive portrait of Gu came from T'ang Leang Li, a European-educated overseas Chinese journalist from Java who worked for the Nationalist Party and foreign press agencies. T'ang identified Gu as "the intellectual leader of the opposition" to the modernization movement, and called his criticisms against the Western system valid and "a useful corrective" to the uncritical acceptance of Western ways of "the half-educated Chinese" in the treaty ports. Gu's principal Chinese defender, however, was Lin Yutang, an influential writer and scholar educated at Harvard University and the University of Leipzig. In 1934 Lin compiled a special edition on Gu Hongming in the literary journal Renjian shi (The World of Men), stating that "a reactionary is also worth studying." The collection included nine articles by Gu's former students and Western associates, such as Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, Leo Tolstoy, and W. Somerset Maugham. In From Pagan to Christian, often considered an autobiography, Lin celebrated Gu's "first-class mind," creative interpretations of Confucian classics, and role in his own "spiritual voyage" from "a Christian Chinese" to "an authentic Chinese world." Lin's admiration of Gu Hongming was not a random thought, as he claimed in the book's "Editorial Words." These two men had much in common. Both received a thorough English education and only acquired classical Chinese learning on their own as adults after some disillusionment with the West. Lin Yutang also became known for translating Confucian classics into English and introducing Chinese culture to the Western world, while Gu had achieved a similar reputation a few decades earlier. Like Gu, Lin believed in Confucianism's universal character and role in modern society, which he saw "even among maturing modern Chinese who have received a Western education." And ultimately, Lin might have also felt like somewhat of an outcast among his contemporaneous May Fourth writers for introducing classical Chinese literature and a traditional Chinese attitude to Westerners, just like the eccentric Gu, whom no one really understood or cared about.
Despite these sympathetic voices, overall Gu Hongming's ideas met with indifference at best or outright hostility in China. Few of his English writings were translated into Chinese or introduced to Chinese readers until the 1990s. His works were largely inaccessible to general Chinese readers because of language barriers and were completely discarded by modernist intellectuals during the New Culture movement, who were busily engaged in introducing Western trends and critiquing Chinese traditions. In June 1918 Chen Duxiu, a founder of the Chinese Communist Party, denounced the "reactionary" Gu Hongming in the famous magazine The New Youth (Xin qingnian, La Jeunesse) that he also founded. In his "Interrogation" and "Re-interrogation" letters to another influential and rival journal, Dongfang zazhi (Eastern Miscellany), Chen criticized the editor for being Gu's accomplice by translating and publishing his works that celebrated Confucianism and despotism and opposed Republicanism and constitutional monarchy. When the editor of Dongfang zazhi pointed out the differences among the positions of Gu Hongming, Kang Youwei, and Zhang Xun, as well as their own, Chen insisted on the legitimacy of grouping Gu together with the other "reactionaries." Li Dazhao, another founder of the Chinese communist party and prominent intellectual leader, warned of the dangers of Gu's ideas and called his view of the constitutional rule "pernicious" (xie). He further attacked Gu's claims for Chinese superior spirituality, stating "[By] considering the Chinese habit of being unhygienic to be evidence of a Chinese preference of the spiritual to the material, . . . isn't he trying to make the world filthy?" He continued, "For the fact that Europeans paid much attention to Gu's ideas, we should feel ashamed rather than being proud just because of that." Hu Shi, a Columbia University-educated philosopher and influential leader of the New Culture movement, wrote accounts of Gu's hostile interactions with him. The two openly opposed each other's ideas on politics and literary revolutions in English journals, and Gu was said to have threatened to sue Hu Shi for defamation. Teaching in the Department of English Literature at Peking University, where Hu Shi was the chair, Gu competed with Hu to win students as well as to represent China to the West. As Gu's international fame was transmitted back into China through Western writings and visitors, however, it was probably too difficult to simply ignore or dismiss him. For example, Hu Shi found himself seated next to Gu Hongming at the dinner party to welcome the eminent French sinologist Paul Demiéville in October 1921. In a picture taken during Rabindranath Tagore's visit to Beijing in 1924, Gu is seen sitting next to Tagore in the center while the other "new youth" are all squatting in the front or standing at the back. Ironically, major intellectual leaders all felt the need to denounce Gu in public, but their fierce attacks often ended up increasing his "fame" in China, not without his own encouragement.
Following their mentors' views of Gu as an eccentric reactionary, the "new youth" further characterized Gu Hongming as an object of mockery, focusing on his absurdity and ultraconservatism. They generated and circulated hearsay, rumors, and myths about this near-cartoon figure, based on a combination of personal observations and anecdotal imagination. Xu Deheng, a student leader who attended Gu's world history class, said Gu filled his lecture with "the spirit of the Chinese people" rather than anything related to history, and the students all got lost. He remembered Gu's "eccentric view" that Germany would definitely win World War I, seen as such a joke that students continued to mention it years later. Luo Jialun, an influential student leader in the May Fourth movement and a follower of Hu Shi, attended Gu's classes at Peking University for three years. He complained about Gu's insufficient Chinese training, exemplified by his writing Chinese characters with missing radicals, and Gu's eccentric way of teaching English literature by requiring students to translate English poetry according to the criteria of the Chinese classics such as Shi jing (The Book of Songs). Luo one day confronted Gu in the classroom about his attack on the student movement in a Japanese-owned newspaper. He also planned to send out a protest letter to the university's respected president, Cai Yuanpei, to press for Gu's expulsion from the school, a plan interrupted only by the sudden outbreak of the May Fourth Incident. Cai often had to placate students by telling them, "I hope you to learn from Prof. Gu's English" rather than learning "to support the restoration of the dynasty or constitutional monarchy."
In the early twentieth century, when discourses of westernization and modernization became increasingly hegemonic among Chinese intellectual circles, Gu Hongming provided a clear illustration of the necessity of a radical revolution against the inertia of Confucianism, and a convenient target of attack. The May Fourth narrative of "crazy old Gu" dominated scholarship and popular discussion in Republican China. Due perhaps in part to Hu Shi's overshadowing influence, Gu's ultraconservative image carried over to Taiwan. Aside from a few articles and compilations of biographical materials, no comprehensive research has been devoted to him. In mainland China during the Mao era, Gu Hongming was also largely excluded from historical discussion due to his political and cultural conservatism. Since China's opening up, however, Gu has been revived as an icon of Chinese nationalism and cultural conservatism. Study in mainland China has flourished and developed into a "Gu Hongming fad," attracting the enthusiasm of young and prestigious scholars alike, as well as the general public. His works have been translated and republished in imposing volumes inside China, while new editions and translations have also appeared outside China. In the words of an eminent historian, "It is no exaggeration to call the year 1996 the Year of Gu Hongming." It may be viewed with some astonishment that the Chinese translation of The Spirit of the Chinese People, a book celebrating Confucian moralities, sold over one hundred thousand copies in the 1990s, when the market economy and material interests gained increasing precedence on the scale of social values. Chinese monographic studies of Gu Hongming first appeared in the 1990s. In the last two decades, over fifteen monographs devoted to Gu have been published in China and more than ten doctoral theses. Prominent scholars contributed articles in leading journals that reevaluate the works of the "cultural hero of our era." Popular media such as historical novels and television dramas further popularized anecdotes and stories on the legendary eccentric figure, boosted by internet discussions. This sparkling new interest in Gu should be understood within the context of the current reimagination of China. While Mao may be left out, Confucius has become the new international symbol of China. As China seeks to build a new "traditional" identity in the face of accelerated globalization, Gu is now celebrated as a guru of Chinese learning.
Internationally, post-Cold War struggles between the West and non-West have opened new possibilities for reinterpretations of Gu's ideas. For instance, in his brief 2009 book titled Unknown Ku Hung-Ming: Rediscovering the Confucian Intellectual Tradition, Iranian sociologist Seyed Javad Miri discussed the "contemporary significance of" Gu Hongming, "one of the most distinguished spokespersons of the Confucian tradition," being an ideal bridge between Chinese and Muslim intellectuals to forge "a grand alliance of sacred commonwealth" to resist secular materialism and combat Western imperialism. In such portraits, Gu appears as staunchly Eastern and religious, against Western secular forces, and therefore a key figure in forging an alliance between Confucian and Islamic civilizations. Gu's reinterpretation of Confucianism reflects crucial theoretical dilemmas that non-Western intellectuals have faced, especially regarding how to maintain their cultural independence from Western material dominance and universalist claims of values. As the "West versus Non-West" thesis remains a central subject in the contemporary era, Gu's criticism of modern Western civilization also continues to attract new generations of scholars by providing a solid foundation for intercultural dialogues, from a perspective that is simultaneously both insider and outsider. In one German scholar's words, Gu's universalist interpretation of Chinese culture is "quite modern and global," and therefore it is useful for the construction for a modern identity, not only in China but also in the West. This recent renewal of interest in Gu demonstrates his continuous appeal in global intellectual discussions on civilization, religion, and spirituality. There is evidence that the making of Gu Hongming will be an ongoing story.
Like his polemical image during his lifetime, Gu Hongming's portrayal in contemporary studies is controversial. Despite the prestige of the Gu clan in Penang, Gu Hongming left few records there, and he has not yet received much attention among local historians. Unlike other diasporic figures who also acted as leaders of local Chinese communities, Gu cut his connections with Malaya almost completely in his adult life and played little role in local society. His name has been almost entirely forgotten. Recently, however, scholars from Southeast Asia have brought Gu Hongming into the study of the Chinese diaspora as a lately discovered, renowned, local contributor to world civilization. For example, Wang Gungwu, a leading scholar in overseas Chinese studies, discussed Gu Hongming's conceptions of culture and nation in detail in his Fu Ssu-nien Memorial Lecture at Academia Sinica in Taiwan in 2005. Wong Sin Kiong wrote about Gu's contributions, together with those of other "returned" intellectuals from Southeast Asia. Mark Frost, also from the National University of Singapore, included Gu in his discussions of diasporic networks and the Straits Chinese in the early twentieth century. And Ng Kim Chew, himself a diasporic Chinese writer and scholar, introduced Gu to today's Chinese communities in Malaysia as a pioneer who learned to become an influential Confucian scholar in China. This increasing interest in Gu Hongming reflects an emerging trend in the study of the Chinese diaspora toward extending the scope of inquiry to persons influential not only in Southeast Asia but also in the mainland.
Japanese scholarship on Gu Hongming is not particularly extensive either. For starters, Japanese sinologists did not rank Gu among the greatest late Qing classical scholars; even members of the Great Asiatic Culture Association initially opposed Gu's appointment, citing his lack of training or excellence in classical poetry, calligraphy, or learning. Furthermore, Gu did not have as strong a political influence in China as the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen or reform advocate Liang Qichao. Finally, Gu's association with Pan-Asianist discourses in the 1920s and his subsequent appropriation by Japanese imperialists in the 1940s make him a more problematic subject. Overall, there are only a few article-length studies on Gu's activities in Japan and connections with Japanese scholars.
In contrast to the still-limited interest among scholars in Southeast Asia and Japan, scholars from mainland China have developed unprecedented enthusiasm in Gu Hongming's life and ideas since the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the context of reevaluating Chinese cultural conservatives. Historian Huang Xingtao's pioneering biographies of Gu and comprehensive compilations of his writings and other related sources are particularly useful. They have established a solid foundation and allow this study to be a more in-depth examination rather than just a biography of life trajectories. One limitation, however, is that these works are largely confined within the boundary of national history and do not pay sufficient attention to Gu's various transnational networks. By focusing on Gu's antimodern cultural conservatism alone, these studies have not shown how Gu's colonial and diasporic backgrounds affected his anti-Western thinking, universalist beliefs, and political choices. Nor have they examined how his life and ideas reflect the larger historical forces of the time, including colonialism, nationalism, Pan-Asianism, and cosmopolitism. Therefore, this scholarship often approaches and portrays Gu as a conservative and nationalist scholar, without problematizing his "Chinese" identity or examining its constructions and receptions. The other major type of Chinese publication on Gu tends to be celebratory storytelling and focus on Gu's eccentric words and behaviors. Indiscriminately using anecdotal or legendary materials, however, such writings appear more as popular literature than as critical analyses grounded in historical evidence. In general, the modernist dichotomies of traditional versus modern and old versus new remain powerful paradigms in Chinese scholarly discussions today.
As in the Chinese literature, there was little scholarship on Gu Hongming in Western languages by the 1980s. Even the 1976 groundbreaking conference volume on Chinese conservatism does not include a chapter on Gu. Such neglect is due partly to the trend in Western historiography of the time in which scholarly lineage and influence in China was deemed a major criterion for one's significance, and "progressive" figures occupied the central stage in the Chinese story of modernization. In these works, the liberals and the socialists dominated China's political and cultural scenes in the early twentieth century, and others for a long time were largely left out of the intellectual history. More recent scholarship in the West has shown increasing interest in Gu Hongming, especially regarding his hybrid identity and multivalent ideas. One scholar who merits particular notice is Lo Hui-min, an overseas Chinese scholar who taught at the Australian National University. His three biographical articles have provided useful materials for my analysis of Gu's early experience in Malaya and Scotland. Despite being brief, Guy Alitto's pioneering account illustrates Gu's conservative ideas in a comparative context with other non-Western intellectuals and positions them in the framework of global antimodernism around the World War I era. More recently, Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko have explored how Gu's colonial background affected his peculiar conception of sovereignty, nationalism, and resistance, highlighting the impacts of colonialism. Influenced by new trends in the fields of transnational and global history, diaspora, and postcolonial and cultural studies, these works shed light on Gu in other contexts than the traditional intellectual history of life and ideas, revealing the complex and multiple worlds that he actively engaged in. Limited by their scope and length, however, they have only studied selected facets of Gu Hongming, based on each author's interests and theoretical backgrounds. Overall, there is still no comprehensive study on Gu Hongming in a Western language.
This study continues the world-historical approach and focuses on Gu's role in global cultural exchanges. He was at the intersection of various crucial debates on civilization and religion among sinologists, missionaries, neo-Kantian philosophers, modernist writers, world travelers, and evangelical theologians. They debated the critical issues of the day, including whether Confucianism could provide an equal or superior alternative to Christianity, and whether Eastern spiritualty was useful for the cultural rejuvenation of the West. These issues not only were related to the fate of Chinese traditions in the modern era, but also had direct implications for the core of Western identity, especially its claims of civilizational and religious superiority. Global travelers like Gu tried to conceptualize and make sense of their experiences in other and their own worlds, mapping out the East-West topology in innovative ways. Instead of a causative relationship on a linear path, Eastern and Western thinkers influenced each other in a system of circular causality, where one's idea was affected by its own effect on the Other. For example, Gu and other contemporary spokesmen from the East, who appeared as staunch advocates of Eastern cultures and traditional values, were mostly Western educated and deeply influenced by Western traditions and preconceptions of the Orient. Their reinterpretation of the spiritual East, in turn, affected new Western discourses on the East at the turn of the twentieth century, through intermediaries such as the influential German missionary-sinologist Richard Wilhelm, the scholar Hermann Graf Keyserling, the neo-Kantian philosopher Leonard Nelson, and the Cambridge professor Goldsworthy Lowes (G. L.) Dickinson. Such a pattern is also seen in Gu's interactions with the English writer W. Somerset Maugham and the sinologist and forger Edmund Backhouse, both of whom tried to construct new identities of the self, restrained or oppressed in the West, by imagining and fantasizing the Orient. Their works reveal simultaneous fear and desire for the old China, both influenced by and resistant to Victorian ideologies. This ambivalence represents contemporary Western elite travelers' problematic relationships with their own identities back home as well as their love-hate relationships with the East. As such, East and West become two actual entities and coconstructed concepts that are fundamentally interactive and mutually transformative.
In addition to Gu Hongming's fascinating intellectual world, I examine his complex psychological realm, as a parallel and interactive entity, to better decode his eccentricity: his political and cultural conservatism on the one hand, and his unusual behaviors on the other. Not only do I attempt to provide new interpretations of the central issue of his identity transformation, but I also raise new questions that have not been dealt with, such as his ambiguous racial background and psychological injuries. Although some are still inconclusive or may remain forever a mystery until new evidence surfaces, I believe the very issues raised or questions asked help reveal key characteristics of Gu Hongming's journey as well as his time. I see psychological motivations not necessarily more fundamental, determining, or exclusive, but rather working hand in hand with political, socio-economic, and cultural factors. Gu's so-called return to China, for example, was a result of both pragmatic concern over career options as a diasporic Chinese professional and his drastic identity change. On the one hand, his reinterpretation of Confucianism shows his intellectual critiques of industrialism, utilitarianism, Christianity, and imperialism. On the other hand, it reflects his longing for authenticity after his rejection by the West. Gu displaced his desire to be Western man and projected an ideal Chinese culture onto his newly imagined homeland.
The decision to include the psychological world is a result of the peculiar nature of the subject, Gu Hongming, arguably the most controversial and eccentric figure in modern Chinese intellectual history. Previous biographies have not been able to fully explain Gu's unusual ultraconservatism, nor have they paid sufficient attention to the complex psychological impacts of colonialism on him. My choice to use a more narrative type of writing in the second part of this book is also necessitated by a lack of reliable sources. The seemingly abundant sources on Gu have provided ample materials for professional and amateur storytellers in the last two decades. But these contemporaneous accounts are polemical and contradictory, often mixed with errors, exaggerations, hearsay, and fantasies. For example, while one Japanese visitor wrote that Gu still appeared as a westernized man wearing Western dress in 1884, a Western associate said Gu already wore a Chinese gown and kept a queue in 1881. Zhao Wenjun, who supposedly studied with Gu for over six years, called Gu's hometown Taiwan, and said a Chinese speaking merchant and friend of Gu's father first took him to Germany to study. Another student from Peking University said Gu was fluent in Beijing, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Shanghai dialects, as well as English, German, French, Greek, and Latin, totaling nine languages. Luo Zhenyu, Gu's old colleague and friend in the late Qing government, wrote in his biography of Gu that Gu received his doctorate from Edinburgh, followed by other degrees from universities in Germany and Paris. Other claims vary, and the highest number is thirteen doctoral degrees from Europe. Gu was frequently referred to as having be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the year that Tagore won. Even Gu's own accounts were full of exaggerations and factual mistakes. Gu once called himself a descendent of Confucius in a public speech. He supposedly told Maugham that he received his doctorate in Berlin, studied in Oxford, and had written twenty books. Some of this inaccurate information might be a result of Gu's own fabrication or others' recollections after decades, but others appear pure fictions. For example, it is said that Alfred von Waldersee, the German general who led the allied army during the Boxer crisis, was a student of Gu Hongming's back in Europe. The story goes, when Gu was studying in France, he taught an illiterate homeless boy German, mathematics, and other subjects for three years, and that boy turned out be the future general. Even these types of sensational fantasy stories remain popular and are rarely challenged in the existing literature.
In addition to the lack of verified or coherent accounts of Gu Hongming's life, another major challenge to the study of Gu is that his ideas and behaviors are often highly provoking, controversial, and masqueraded. In Somerset Maugham's words, "He was like a man who was all set and rigid to have his photograph taken." Gu called his signature queue "the badge and insignia—almost a religious symbol, the flag of Chinese nationality," and put on a daily show of riding a rickshaw around the city of Beijing after the 1911 revolution. He loved to play language tricks on people, like "democracy, demo crazy" and minzhu (democracy) as minzu (people's curse). He mocked many high officials, especially Yuan Shikai, and praised prostitutes and singsong girls. He used not only Victorian-style English and classical Chinese, but also curse words and profanity in writing. He called himself "a barbarian (man ren)" among the Chinese, "an unemployed samurai (ronin)" to the Japanese, and "a lunatic (feng zi)" when facing Westerners. These pieces do not seem to add up to a coherent image and partly explain why scholars today are still debating whether Gu Hongming was "old" or "new," Chinese or Western, and nationalist or cosmopolitan. Although there are numerous materials on and by him, we do not have a clear picture of who Gu really was or how he has remained relevant despite more than a century of controversies. His storied eccentricity remains inscrutable.
These problems are particularly challenging for a historical study, but they also push me to think beyond the scope and methodology of a traditional intellectual biography. In this book, I reexamine Gu Hongming's eccentricity not only as an expression of conservatism and a result of distinctive personalities, but also as symbolic performance. Besides problematizing existing claims by Gu and others, I interpret diverse materials, such as jokes, odd jottings, and curse words, together with intellectual writings and legal documents, as well as draw on psychological concepts including projection, displacement, and ambivalence to reconstruct Gu's experience. I also find trickster a particularly useful concept and lens through which to examine him. The trickster persona is one of the archetypes from the collective unconscious in Jungian psychology, and trickster characters appear worldwide, from Prometheus in Greek mythology to the coyote in Native American traditions and the signifying monkey in African American literature. Using a combination of cunning, foolish, and humorous tricks, tricksters defy rules and conventions. Their behaviors are mostly ambiguous, as between/both malicious and good, foolish and sacred, and deceptive and heroic. I do not see the trickster persona as an overall cap that captures the totality of Gu, but rather as a conceptual tool to help decode the performative element of his eccentricity and symbolic power. Adopting a trickster-sage type of persona, Gu often performed eccentricity to reveal the insanity of a world dominated by industrialism, utilitarianism, and imperialism. Possessing the power of shapeshifting, he was at times the lampooning fool and clown, at other times the revenging cultural hero who fought dark forces with strength, wisdom, and calculated pranks. My book addresses the creative ways in which Gu engaged in global discussions and talks about him as both a person and a symbol. This holistic approach also enables me to better illustrate the actual and symbolic interactions between "Easterners" and "Westerners" in a time of heightened tensions due to colonial expansion and rising nationalism.
Gu's Intellectual and Psychological Worlds
The body of the book is divided into two parts: Part I is about Gu's intellectual journey, and Part II explores his psychological passage. The two parts share the common theme of addressing East-West coconstructions and mutual transformations but move from the philosophical and cultural scenes to the more psychological and symbolic dimensions. Chapter 2 outlines Gu's Romanticist upbringing, conservative beliefs, and anti-imperialist and anticolonial stances. It also highlights Gu's universalist and comparative approach to civilization as based on humanity. Chapter 3 examines Gu's hospitable receptions among European cultural elites, as he presented a useful ally in their own discussions on cultural crisis and regeneration after World War I. Together with other spokesmen of the East as critics of the modern West, Gu became a cultural amphibian and forged authentic identities across national, ideological, and cultural boundaries. Chapter 4 studies Gu's debates with missionaries and evangelical leaders inside and outside China regarding Confucianism and Christianity. The strong reactions that Gu received reflect the new challenges that Christianity faced at the turn of the twentieth century, and the perceived clash of civilizations based on religion. Overall, Gu's defense of Confucianism showed a clear response to and critique of the dualist Western paradigms of modernity and religion, and engaged with diverse Western cultural trends, from missionary discussions of evangelical opportunities and modernist constructions of the self to philosophical criticisms of relativism and socialist calls for a more equal society.
Building on a reinterpretation of events and new materials, Part II situates Gu's eccentric statements and neurotic behaviors within the psychological matrix of colonial ideologies. In Chapter 5, I piece together Gu's early European experience and reexamine his self-claimed "conversion" from "an imitation Western man" to "a Chinaman again." In addition to addressing the pragmatic factors affecting his reversion to China as a diasporic professional, Chapter 5 also explores Gu's possible psychological motivations, focusing on the structures of his various conversion narratives in light of his early experience in Scotland. Chapters 6 and 7 examine the intriguing personal and textual interactions between Gu and two British authors and travelers to the East: W. Somerset Maugham and Edmund Backhouse. Using the two characters as foils, I explore the psychological impacts of empire on Gu, including his injuries, and show the critical role that projection has played in all three characters' formations of the East-West binary. The conclusion (Chapter 8) revisits Gu Hongming's so-called inscrutable eccentricity and explains his enigmatic behavior and apparent lunacy in conjunction with his lasting attraction. Using the trickster framework, I analyze Gu's symbolic performance of absurdity and decode his mysterious power as a person and a symbol. Using a combination of cunning, foolish, and humorous tricks, Gu Hongming defies rules and conventions, possesses the magical power over others, and enjoys more than a century of attention inside and outside China. A hybrid seeking authenticity, Gu reinterprets, performs, and embodies "Chineseness" in a time when its very definition was changing in the modern world. Traveling on a Möbius strip-like path between the East and the West, Gu Hongming's odyssey is full of paradoxes.