25 April 2017

Gu Hongming’s commentary on the Confucian Way

Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘

It has been my profound pleasure to have run across the writings of the half-Peranakan, half-Portuguese man-of-letters, polyglot and Confucian gentleman, Dr. Thompson Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘. I happened to come across a witticism of his about the British parliament being ‘originally a witan, a meeting of wise men’, but ‘now a meeting of interested men’. I then learned that he authored a book called The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement (now on my to-read list), and was hooked from there. I have been on record considering the great institutional reformer and constitutionalist Kang Youwei to be a representative of Chinese radical High Toryism, but I’m now wondering if the ‘eccentric’ Dr. Gu might actually fit the bill a bit better. Most of his books have been written in English (the man knew at least ten languages including Ancient Greek, Latin, Russian and German as well as the local English, Malay and Minnan); so it wasn’t too hard for me to find a digital copy of his 1915 book The Spirit of the Chinese People, which I’m currently halfway through.

It is – so far – an eloquent defence of the Chinese genius as such, has much in common with the Slavophil and pan-Slav defences of the Russian genius, and indeed draws from many of the same German Romantic wellsprings. His idea of the Chinese genius being an ‘imaginative reason’ born of filial love and loyalty comes within very near shades of Kireevsky’s ‘integral knowing’. His writing is peppered throughout, as befits an apologia of Chinese civilisation to a Western audience of the time, with references to Goethe, Johnson, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, Emerson and a number of other literary figures from the Western canon, with a specific eye to the Romantics. His writing is additionally coloured by his liberal use of Pauline epistolary language and references to the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet he is no mere dilettante; his understanding of the down-to-earth Confucian reasoning with regard to the most mundane aspects of human conduct runs remarkably deep; like the Slavophils, he does not put the Chinese person on a pedestal to be admired, but rather illustrates certain admirable facets of the ordinary, all-too-human character and personality, which can shine through despite the faults and flaws to which individuals are prone. He is keen, indeed, to make the Confucian Way to be not so much an élite philosophy of government, but instead something akin to and a replacement for religious faith among the masses – a habit and an honour code both, living in the institutions and the unwritten rules of what he calls the ‘real Chinaman’, not to be confused with the modernising literati.

He places a keen emphasis on two interrelated concepts, both of which he traces to the Chunqiu 春秋: the ‘mingfen dayi’ 名分大義 or the ‘Great Principle of Honour and Duty’; and the ‘junzi zhi dao’ 君子之道 or the ‘Law of the Gentleman’. (It is of great interest to me that he singles out the Spring and Autumn Annals as a central text here. Might he not have been subject to the radical influence of the New Text scholars, despite his well-publicised disagreements with some of their notables?) He attempts to show how these unwritten principles and laws form the Chinese character, influence and infuse with reverence the common-sense respect for parents and care for spouses and children, and provide a religious-psychological ground for good behaviour that modern Europeans have lost, and thus require the iron hand of the law, the policeman and the soldier to keep in line. He writes from a heartfelt revulsion – common to authors more radical than he himself – for the twin spirits of capitalist commercialism and iron-clad militarism that, at the time he wrote this work, were gripping the West in a Great War; and he sees the Chinese genius as something the nations of the West can learn from.

In any event, it would be a great disservice to Dr. Gu to write him off as a reactionary or a mere obscurantist – though I can already tell there is indeed something of the Tory-radical, anarcho-monarchist streak which runs through his writing. It seems he’s been given somewhat short shrift by later commentators on nineteenth-century Chinese thought – perhaps unfairly, given how heavily the (modernising, anti-Confucian) May Fourth intellectuals figure into such analyses, and how thoroughly out-of-step Dr. Gu is with the great bulk of them. But I hope to have some further thoughts on Dr. Gu as I read more of his work.

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