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‘The eccentric’ Gu Hongming

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2013-12-04

Gu Hongming (born Gu Tangsheng) was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1857, to a plantation superintendant, whose ancestral hometown was in Tong'an, Fujian province, China. His great grandfather and family had emigrated to Singapore, and then settled in Penang. When Gu Hongming was young, he was adopted by Forbes Scott Brown, a second-generation plantation owner of Scottish descent.

Gu left Asia in 1867, travelling with the Browns to Edinburgh, where he was first enrolled in a public school and then an academy. There, he received formal, elite Victorian British education, and excelled in every subject he studied.

In 1873 he passed the entrance exams for the University of Edinburgh, where he began to study in the Faculty of the Arts. Brown, a personal acquaintance of Thomas Carlyle’s, was able to ensure Gu’s instruction in Western literature under the famous Scottish historian and essayist. Gu obtained his Master of Arts from Edinburgh in 1877, passing exams in Latin, Ancient Greek, mathematics, metaphysics, moral philosophy, social sciences and rhetoric with high scores. By the age of 21, he had been thoroughly trained in Western learning and become an eloquent writer, fluent in many classical and contemporary European languages in addition to the Malay, Portuguese and Hokkien he had learned in Penang. He was also the first ethnic Chinese to complete the entire regimen of formal education in the UK, from grammar school to university.

Having mastered the humanistic curriculum of British higher education, Gu traveled to the European continent to continue his studies, first at the University of Leipzig, where he earned a diploma in civil engineering, before continuing on to France, Italy and Austria.

In 1880, the 24-year-old Gu Hongming returned briefly to Penang before taking a post in the colonial administration of Singapore. Two years later, still in Singapore, Gu met the Qing official Ma Jianzhong, an encounter which changed Gu’s life.

Ma Jianzhong was born into a prominent bureaucratic family in Dantu, Jiangsu Province in 1844. Studying the Chinese classics in history, philosophy and literature as a child, Ma developed a good command of traditional Chinese learning. As an adviser to Li Hongzhang (a scholar-general and key official and diplomat in the late Qing Dynasty), he was sent to Paris to study at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in 1876, obtaining his PhD three years later.

The two Western trained Chinese had a sincere conversation in French. Launching from Ma’s ideas about introducing Western politics, law and commerce to China, the conversation lasted for three days and nights. Inspired by Ma, Gu decided to cease his overseas wandering and return to his ancestral home; he was determined to make a substantial contribution as a Chinese.

His first stop was in Hong Kong, where he spent three dedicated years mastering the Chinese classics, reading with the help of the English-Chinese dictionary. In 1885, able to speak, read and write Chinese, he moved to Guangzhou, taking a position as the Viceroy of Liangguang Zhang Zhidong’s “foreign secretary”, where he helped the latter with diplomatic affairs. Noticing that Gu was a great master of Western learning and foreign languages, Zhang lost no time in teaching his new secretary to use the Kangxi Dictionary and instructing him in Confucius’ Analects. Later, Zhang invited several notable Confucian scholars, including Liang Dunyan and Zhang Fengchang, to educate Gu in Chinese learning. After a decade in Zhang’s service and under his direct and indirect tutelage, Gu became a Confucian scholar.

Now at home in two scholarly traditions, Gu became a vehicle for communication between them, translating some of the Confucian classics into English, notably The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius and The Universal Order or Conduct of Life, for their publication in the West. His translations quickly became best-sellers; over time they have gone through many reprints, and altogether have sold more than one million copies.

In addition to translating, Gu wrote over one hundred academic articles about Confucianism in several languages and had them published in many academic journals world-wide, facilitating the widespread of Confucian classics in the Western world. In light of his scholarly achievements, the Qing government conferred upon him the title of jinshi (the highest regular level at the imperial court in the system of the imperial examination). His English works include The Moral Cause of the Russia-Japanese War (1906), The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement (1910) and The Spirit of the Chinese People (1915).When in 1913, the Swedish Academy decided to grant the Nobel Prize in Literature to an Eastern scholar, Gu Hongming and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore were both nominated, although the award went to the latter.

Increasingly learned in Confucianism, Gu eventually took off his Western suit, hat and leather shoes, exchanging them for a long robe, Mandarin jacket and Chinese shoes—dressing like a Chinese Confucian. After the fall of Qing Dynasty, men no longer kept the queue hairstyle, but Gu insisted on preserving the old style, keeping the braided pigtail and wearing a black Chinese-style hat. His Chinese contemporaries regarded him as eccentric.

In early 1917, Cai Yuanpei returned to China after studying in Europe and was appointed president of Peking University. At Cai’s invitation Gu began teaching English literature at Peking University, where his eloquence earned him popularity among the students and his mastery of foreign languages and both Western and Chinese learning won him admiration from colleagues and students alike.

However, his appearance was at odds with the general milieu of a new Western-style institution like Peking University. A strong advocate of traditional Chinese culture, he had fierce clashes with scholars championing the New Cultural Movement. Nevertheless, Cai Yuanpei ensured that he was able to continue teaching at Peking University until Cai left the university in 1923. On April 30th, 1928, Gu Hongming died in a small courtyard on the Chunshu Hutong in Beijing.


Liu Suyong is from the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 478, July 22nd, 2013.


  Translated by Jiang Hong

  Revised by Charles Horne

Editor: Du Mei

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