Gu Hongming Reinvents China


A review of Gu Hongming and the Re-invention of Chinese Civilization, by CHUNMEI DU. 

This dissertation illuminates the life and thought of Gu Hongming (辜鸿铭 1857-1928), a cosmopolitan scholar of the late Qing and early Republican period who has been forgotten or, at best, simply stigmatized as an anachronistic conservative in Chinese intellectual history. Chunmei Du approaches this task by crossing national, cultural, ideological, and disciplinary boundaries, while renouncing paradigms based on either a linear development of tradition to modernity or an essential discrepancy between Chinese and Western learning (pp. 10-12).

Following her introductory essay, Chapter 2(“From the South Sea to the Middle Kingdom: Gu Hongming’s Odyssey”) examines Gu’s life trajectory, one which traversed multiple geographical, national, political, and cultural boundaries: his childhood as a member of the Straits Chinese in Penang, his adolescent years in Western Europe, and his career and social life in mainland China for the remainder of his adulthood. Chapter 3, “To Become a Chinaman Again,” problematizes Gu’s Chinese identity, which existing Chinese-language historiography has taken for granted based on a common assumption of a quintessential “Chineseness.” Du does this by examining Gu’s efforts to transform his identity from that of a British colonial subject and an imitation Western man to that of a loyal subject of the Qing. Du argues that Gu’s constantly challenged process of “becoming a Chinaman” was fulfilled by two means: first, the adoption of emblematic markers of Chinese culture such as Confucian teaching, classical language, and Qing costume, including the queue; and second, a persistent attack on the West and Westernization (pp. 78-79). Regarding the motivation for Gu’s renunciation of his colonial identity, Du suggests that it was not an inevitable result of his patriotism, as Chinese scholarship has insisted (pp. 72-73), but rather a circumstantial result of his ambition for a more successful career. Finally, Du argues that many of Gu’s experiences and the problems he encountered in reconstructing Chinese identity were common among “diasporic Chinese professionals” of colonial Southeast Asia at the turn of the twentieth century (p. 97.) In Chapter 4, Du then examines the Chinese professional elite class in the British settlements in South Asia, who were characterized by a hybrid cultural upbringing as emigrants, a formal education in the metropoles of the West, and the transnational pursuit of careers, including those in mainland China. By analyzing these “cultural amphibians,” who could cross boundaries between nationality, empire, and state, and focusing on their individual experiences and pragmatic concerns rather than on spontaneous patriotism as the driving force for their “amphibian” identities, Du argues that their Chineseness had to be consciously constructed, defended, and maintained (pp. 126, 124-128).

While Chapters 2, 3, and 4 examine Gu Hongming’s hybrid identity within the parameters of the diasporic Chinese professionals from colonial Southeast Asia, Chapters 5 and 6 explore Gu’s idiosyncratic position within Chinese intellectual history. Chapter 5, “Gu Hongming’s Distinctive Thought,” first examines Gu’s philosophical critique of modern Western society or, more specifically, industrialism, machinery, commercialism, and utilitarianism – a critique that Gu developed under the influence of nineteenth-century European Romantic thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle, Gu’s mentor at Edinburgh. Gu was distinct from those Romantic mentors, Du argues, in that he criticized Western imperialism, in part because of his own experience as a colonial subject in the West (pp. 154-162). Gu also rebutted the concept of the East-West binary, a view that assumed a fundamental antagonism between the two civilizations. Gu did so, Du argues, by claiming that many cultural values – notably true liberty – were universal values found in both civilizations (p. 169). Thereby, Gu denied the inferior position of Chinese civilization imposed by Westerners and, furthermore, claimed that it was “the East” that preserved true ideals or the remedy for the dissatisfactions of the materialistic modern West (pp.173-174). This eventually led Gu to proclaim himself as a “Spokesman for the East.” In Chapter 6, Du goes on to locate Gu Hongming within a global network of “Spokesmen for the East,” comprising thinkers from Japan, India, and Russia (e.g., Rabindranath Tagore and Leo Tolstoy, who attempted to seek alternatives to Western hegemonic views of modernity in the spiritual tradition of the East) (p. 183). Du then examines how, despite doubts cast upon Gu’s “Chinese” identity by “authentic” Chinese people, as well as his his less prestigious status as a scholar on the mainland, he could be accepted as an authority on Confucianism and a propagator of true Chinese culture by Westerners in the post-World War I era. To explain this, Du points to the interplay of three factors: an audience receptive to anti-modern sentiments (and newly interested in China) in the war-weary Western world, Gu’s commitment to the self-appointed mission of propagating Chinese culture in English for a general Western public, and the absence of predecessors able to represent Chinese culture with as much knowledge and linguistic proficiency as Gu prior to the 1920s (pp. 196-213).

The final chapter, “The Gu Hongming Phenomenon,” problematizes the totalizing evaluation of Gu as an icon of reactionary conservatism in Chinese historiography. Du undertakes this examination by analyzing the process by which three different discourses interacted to erase the multifaceted and cosmopolitan aspects of Gu Hongming’s thought and life: the caricatured image of Gu as an ultraconservative and even anachronistic figure (an image created by May Fourth intellectual leaders); the Orientalizing imagination of Gu as an Eastern Sage (in Western accounts from the early twentieth century); and Gu’s self-presentation as a loyal Qing subject and a guardian of Confucianism (pp. 232-241). Finally, Du examines a “Gu Hongming fad” in both academia and mass media, such as television dramas in post-Mao China, which has seen the rise of nationalism and cultural conservatism in reaction to Westernization. Here, Gu has reemerged as a patriotic master of national learning, while his multifaceted interests as cosmopolitan elite are again overshadowed (pp. 248-252).

By providing an alternative cross-boundary paradigm by which the life and work of Gu Hongming can be considered anew, Du successfully sheds light on the career of this important historical figure, the range and depth of whose thought has been obscured by the legacy of the May Fourth movement.

Hyungju Hur
PhD Candidate
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Primary Source Materials

Archives at the National University of Singapore
Number One Historical Archives (Beijing)
Number Two Historical Archives (Nanjing)
Archives at University of Edinburgh
Academia Sinica in Taipei
Archives at Daitō Bunka University in Tokyo

Dissertation Information

Princeton University, 2009. 293 pp. Primary Advisor: Benjamin Elman.

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