Archive for the ‘Ku Hung-Ming’ Category

The Late Mr. Ku Hung-Ming 辜鴻銘

Ku Hung-ming and William Quincey


The Late Mr. Ku Hung-Ming 辜鴻銘

August 30, 1934.

Many must have been intrigued by that charming portrait of The Philosopher in Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen. A philosopher, all the world over, is usually a dull withered thing – an orange sucked dry: a day spent in such company can only be memorable for its boredom. But with Somerset Maugham’s Philosopher, it is possible to pass days, nay weeks, without in the least knowing what it is to be bored. There is just enough grace and just so much mordant wit in him to make conversation with him a matter of excitement rather than of wisdom.

Somerset Maugham’s Philosopher is, of course, none other than Ku Hung-ming. And the most distinctive thing about him is that he is no philosopher – no philosopher, that is, in the sense of a person who thinks first and lives afterwards. Ku Hung-ming has a passion for dainty living; and thought with him is sought after only because it lends colour and dignity to life. Ku Hung-ming is first and last a worldling, but with this distinction – a worldling who thinks. His Confucianism, his monarchism, and his queue are mere decorations to a life that consumes itself in the sheer joy of living. That worn cadaverous frame of his is the victim, not of thought, but of desire and wit and beauty and inordinate wish to be different from others.

In his lifetime, Ku Hung-ming had already become legendary. Now that he is dead, there is a danger that he may pass into fable. Our purpose here is to prevent this by showing him as he really is. And what he really is is not so very different from many other people whom one meets daily in the present day. Ku Hung-ming is only a picturesque instance of a person who is born a rebel.

That ostentatious display of his queue is very symptomatic of the whole man. He is cross-grained: he lives by opposition. What the commonalty accepts, he rejects. What the commonalty likes, he dislikes. What the commonalty idolises, he despises. To be different from others is his joy and pride. Because it is the fashion to have no queue, he retains his. If everybody else had a queue, I am sure Ku Hung-ming would be the first person to have his cut. It is the same with his monarchism. It is not a matter of principle with him, but of a desire to be exceptional. Republicanism is the craze: therefore, he hates it. He flaunts his monarchism as a dandy his cravat. Indeed, in things intellectual and spiritual it is no inaccurate description of Ku Hung-ming to call him a dandy. As a dandy spends his days and nights over his dress, so Ku Hung-ming takes infinite pains to be different from others, in his ideas and manner of living.

Ku Hung-ming is witty. But his wit turns invariably upon a paradox. Now the essence of a paradox is that it should surprise by the opposition of its ideas to common notions. Here again, Ku Hung-ming shows up the quality of his mind – a mind that lives by resistance to what is generally accepted.

Again, his championing of Confucianism is another expression of his wish to be different from others. A few years ago, it used to be the correct thing among the intelligentsia to look upon Confucianism as a tedious set of obsolete rules about the conduct of life. This is a good enough reason why Ku Hung-ming should be a Confucianist. What others discard, he champions. But the last person to be a Confucianist is Ku Hung-ming. He is more native to Chuang-tze and Taoism than to Confucianism.

A rebel who preaches monarchism; a romantic who accepts Confucianism as his philosophy of life; an autocrat who is proud to wear the sign of slavery – the queue: it is this contradiction in Ku Hung-ming that makes him one of the most interesting figures in modern China.

* * *


The foregoing piece appeared in 1934 the English-language weekly, The China Critic, and was published the following year in book form. These essays have been compiled and published more recently in: Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities, by Wen Yuan-ning and others, edited by Christopher Rea, Cambria Press, 2018. Ku’s portrait appears on pp. 71-73.

Portrait Source: National Galleries of Scotland


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Count von Keyserling & Ku Hung-ming



Count Hermann von Keyserling (1880-1946), a Baltic German aristocrat, best known for his travel  writings and philosophical musings, left behind a detailed account of his meetings with Ku Hung-ming in his Travel Diary of a Philosopher, published in 1925.



I spend many hours each day with Ku Hung-Ming and his friends and supporters. He is a man of such wit and such a fiery temperament that I am sometimes reminded of a Latin. Today he was explaining at great length how wrong the Europeans, and especially the sinologists are, in considering the development of Chinese culture quite by itself, without comparison with that of the West: for both have evolved, according to him, within the frame of an identical formula. In both there has been an equivalent of antiquity and medievalism, renaissance and enlightenment, reformation and counter-reformation, Hebraism and Hellenism (to use the terms of Matthew Arnold), rationalism and mysticism; and the parallel is to be drawn even in detail: even in China, for instance, there has been a Bayard. I do not know Chinese history sufficiently in order to test the soundness of these comparisons, and I rather suspect Ku Hung-Ming, as I do the majority of his countrymen, of practising rather too cheap a form of intellectualism, such as flourishes, for instance, in Southern Italy. This much, however, is true: all historical conditions are special manifestations, brought about by particular circumstances, of the natural forms of human life, which are the same everywhere; and since all possible combinations of circumstances vacillate round a few types whose sequence appears to be subject to one rule, it cannot but be that all peoples of comparable temperament also pass through comparable stages. Now Western Europeans and Chinamen are singularly comparable; they belong essentially to an identical fundamental type, the type of the “men of expression,” to which the Indians and the Russians, for instance, do not belong.

It must be possible, therefore, to establish historical parallels. Nevertheless, my attitude towards the value of such comparisons is sceptical. Time may possess one single significance in itself — it certainly is not so in reference to men. The Chinese are men of long, and we of short, breath, for us mobility, for them quiescence is the normal condition. How, then, can one make valid comparisons? We boast of our rapid progress: thanks to it, we will probably always remain barbarians, since perfection is possible only within given limits and we are perpetually changing ours. Nor do I accept it as agreed that we will continue to advance for long at the same rate: every direction in life is limited inwardly; we too will one day reach the end, and probably earlier than we think. — I have often heard the following argument, especially in India: since all cultures we are aware of start at a relatively high level — and this is correct — this presupposes that there has been before an exceedingly long period of slow ascent. Most certainly not! Every idea contains within itself, not only in theory but de facto, the whole of its consequences; it strives for actuality; it becomes embodied wherever matter permits it to do so, so that, as soon as the mental processes are set in motion at all, they take place with great rapidity. For this reason, as long as consciousness is asleep, aeons may pass before anything new happens; this may occur either in the primordial state or, as in China, at a certain level of culture which has once been reached. But once it has been wakened, development takes place with extreme rapidity. How long was the span of time from the awakening of the Greek spirit to its perfection? A century. How long did it take from the discovery of the principle of aviation until it was applied perfectly in practice? Not ten years. In the same sense it may very well be that we too shall shortly come to an end, and stop progressing at a level of development which will be not nearly so far ahead of that of China as we suppose. For in the modern sense of the word we too are progressive people only for the last hundred years.

Ku Hung-Ming does not miss a single opportunity of having a dig at Laotse. His fundamental thesis is that Confucius is the infinitely greater of the two because he understood significance as profoundly as Laotse, but did not retire from the world, but expressed his profundity in his mastery of it. If Confucius really had been, and had achieved, what Ku asserts of him, then, of course, he would be incomparably greater. However, this is not so. It would appear to be contradictory to nature that the same man should live altogether in profundity and prove himself, at the same time, to be a mighty organiser of the surface; each one of these problems requires a special physiological organisation, and I know of no accredited case in which a man possessed both to a similar degree. Kung Fu Tse and Laotse represent the opposite poles of possible perfection; the one represents the perfection of appearance, the other perfection of significance; the former, perfection within the sphere of the materialised, the latter, within the non-materialised; therefore they cannot be measured with the same gauge. But Confucius must no doubt appear greater to the Chinese because they are practical to the extreme as a nation, and to this extent they have no direct relation to profundity as such. The more I see of the Chinese, the more I notice how uninteresting their thoughts are. Their thinking is not their essential quality: their existence is the expression of their depth. Thus Ku Hung-Ming is far more important as a man than as a writer and as a thinker.

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling, 1925

Volume 1

Volume 2


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Letter to a Chinese Gentleman



Count Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s “Letter to a Chinese Gentleman” (“Письмо китайцу”), written in reply to Ku Hung-ming (Хун-Мину), and translated by Vladimir G. Tchertkoff, was published in English in 1907 by The Free Age Press. The letter was written in October 1906 after Tolstoy received some books from Ku – “Et nunc, reges, intelligite! the moral causes of the Russo-Japanese war” and the “Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen“.

The letter was first published in German in November 1906 in the “Neue Freie Presse,” then in French in the “Courrier Européen“, in English in “The Free Age” and only lastly – and partially – in Chinese in 1907, both in China and in overseas Chinese publications (in Paris). The letter in full was published in Chinese in China only in early 1911, after Tolstoy’s death, in the “Dongfang” journal  (东方杂志).


It shall be seen that Tolstoy and Ku were in close agreement on the baneful effects of modernization and the myth of progress.

Constitutions, protective tariffs, and standing armies have rendered the Western nations what they are: people who have abandoned agriculture and become unused to it, occupied in towns and factories in the production of articles that are for the most part unnecessary, people who with their armies are adapted only to every kind of violence and robbery. However brilliant their position may appear at first sight, it is a desperate one, and they must inevitably perish if they do not change the whole structure of their life, founded as it now is on deceit and the plunder and pillage of the agricultural nations.

To imitate Western nations, being frightened by their insolence and power, would be the same as if a rational, undepraved, industrious man were to imitate a spendthrift, insolent ruffian who has lost the habit of work and was assaulting him. It would be to successfully oppose an immoral scoundrel by becoming a similar immoral scoundrel oneself. The Chinese should not imitate Western nations, but profit by their example in order to avoid falling into the same desperate straits.

All that the Western nations are doing can and should be an example for the Eastern ones – not, however, an example of what they should do, but of what they should not do under any consideration whatever.

Tolstoy and Ku’s correspondence was not limited to this single exchange of letters; Ku sent a congratulatory telegram to the Russian author on his 80th birthday in August 1908, signed by many eminent Chinese cultural personalities.

Ku Hungming

Ku Hungming

Significantly, Tolstoy considered this brief letter – which can be read as a manifesto – as one of his most important works, along with his “Circle of Reading”. Further commentary would be therefore superfluous.

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Letter to a Chinese Gentleman


Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen” (尊王篇), the title of a book by Ku Hung-ming published in 1901, is a collection of rather vitriolic essays on Western encroachment in China, written in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.

The “Bogdikhan” (usually written as Bogd Khan) was in fact the title of the last Mongolian Emperor, a Buddhist Lama enthroned as emperor.

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Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

[Ryūnosuke Akutagawa]

A further installment in our series of pieces on and by Ku Hung-ming, [Gū Hóngmíng 辜鴻銘] (1857-1928).


The Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke), author of “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”, was told before going to China in March 1921: “If you go to Peking, you may skip a visit to the old Imperial Palace, but you must not miss a chance to see Ku Hung-Ming.” Akutagawa’s visit to China lasted four months but due to ill-health he did not write a single article until he returned to Japan. Incidentally, his visit to China also included an interview with the monarchist Zheng Xiaoxu (鄭孝胥), formerly a high-ranking official in the Qing dynasty administration, who was to become Prime Minister of the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchuko under the Emperor Puyi.

Ku Hung-ming, Gu Hongming



“Akutagawa did have one other meeting with a Chinese intellectual, though not in Shanghai. Later in his travels, he met with the celebrated arch-reactionary Gu Hongming (1857-1928), who subsequently became an advisor to the warlord Zhang Zuolin. Gu was still wearing his queue, sign of fidelity to the Qing dynasty then ten years defunct, as he greeted his Japanese guest in English, the language they had in common and used for their conversation. While speaking nonstop in English, Gu wrote in Chinese on paper, and somehow Akutagawa conveyed the whole exchange into his travel narrative in Japanese.


Mr. Gu calls himself a man of east, west, south and north. He was born in Fujian province in the south; he studied in Scotland in the west; his wife is Japanese from the east; and he resides in Beijing to the north. He speaks English of course, but German and French as well. However, he is unlike [those associated with] young China. He does not have an inflated opinion of Western civilization. He heaps abuse on Christianity, republicanism, and the omnipotence of machinery. And, when he saw me dressed in Chinese garb, he said: “Not wearing Western clothing is quite admirable, though I do find fault with the lack of the queue!””


[The literature of travel in the Japanese rediscovery of China, 1862-1945 by Joshua A. Fogel.]



Akutagawa dressed in Chinese clothing


[Akutagawa dressed in traditional Chinese garb, as per his description above.]

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While Ku Hung-ming had nothing but strong words and contempt for modern Western civilisation; industrialisation, individualism, materialism, and democracy – or as he puts it: democrazy – he reserved some of his harshest criticism for those of his fellow compatriots who wished to introduce such concepts into China, without carefully weighing the consequences, and without regard for the millennial traditions and institutions of Imperial China.

The present queueless Republican Chinaman is a vampire, a ‘Frankenstein,’ whom foreigners themselves have created, and this Frankenstein, this awful vampire, is the Yellow Peril of the German Kaiser. And this vampire, the queueless Republican Chinaman, when he joins with the Russian Bolsheviki, will destroy not only the civilization of China, but the civilization of the whole world. Therefore, in the words of the German Kaiser I want to say here: “Look to it, ye peoples of Europe, arise and save your most sacred possessions.”

The following article, “Abolishing the Yellow Streak,” was first published in the ‘North China Standard’ of Peking, and was subsequently republished in the ‘Living Age’ in 1924. In this polemical article, Ku roundly criticizes the early Republican government and Sun Yat-sen, ‘the returned-student mob-literati,’ for wanting to turn the Chinese into ‘imitation Western men’, and, instead of reducing the discrimination of the Western Powers, merely inviting their scorn. He also blamed some of the leading figures of the reform movement; the ‘snob-literati,’ such as Kang You-wei, for having stifled true reforms with their effete attempts at ‘an imitation paper civilization,’ rather than integrating Western learning into a Chinese framework, as was proposed by Ku’s former superior, the viceroy Chang Chih-tung (Zhang Zhidong), in his famous book ‘Learn’ (published in English as ‘China’s Only Hope’).

The terribly tragic aspect of the situation in China is, while the Chinese nation are called upon to throw away their own civilization and adopt the civilization of modern Europe, there is not one single educated man in the whole Empire who has the most remote idea of what the modern European civilization really is…

In this prescient article, Ku Hung-ming shows how the end result of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is the actualization of the ‘Yellow Peril’. His near-contemporary, the Japanese writer Okakura Kakuzō, equally talented as regards writing in the English language, also noted this in his work ‘The Awakening of Japan’, from which the relevant excerpt is forthcoming.

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Some European writers also noted this transition, contrary to the attitudes then prevailing, though voiced their concern somewhat less harshly than Ku. The following excerpt gives an idea of this view:

It is only to-day that the Chinese mind is troubled, wavering, beginning to wonder whether the old tree whose roots plunge into so immeasurable a past, whose branches have given shelter and nourishment to such countless generations, should not be cut down to make room for the plants and weeds imported from abroad. And some of the weeds are of a particularly rank species, like the conceit of the Americanized students who seriously mistake their little wick of foreign-taught knowledge for a great light by which the destinies of a whole empire should be regulated. When one hears of a specimen of Republican Young China in creaky yellow boots, ill-fitting tweeds, and an intolerable cap impudently whistling and cracking a dirty riding-crop in the Temple of K’ung-fu-tsze, the very hall where Emperors used to worship Wisdom in the purity of early dawn, one begins to fear that the death-knell has rung even to Chinese vitality.

Irreverence towards what is left of the past is stupid enough – contempt of its real greatness criminal folly. Yet this idea of completely breaking with the past, of pulling down all it has built, even of irreplaceable beauty, of paramount holiness, has often tempted political hotheads. Never without grave injury to a nation that allowed itself to be seduced by their vapid arguments. The clean slate of their theories gives scope to the drawing up of plans of such faultless symmetry, such dazzling magnificence, straightway they are taken for reality, and the millennium they grandiloquently promise is reckoned on as an absolute certainty. But there never is a clean slate – either one on which the ancient writing is still legible in much of its mellowed wisdom, or one from which it has been rubbed out in a hideous blur of dust and tears. On this begrimed slate what would a China that has mutilated and slain her splendid past write, or rather scrawl? – for no one can write but his own language. Windy tags of republican liberty, divorced from reality even in the country of their origin; undigested and indigestible scraps of European ethics in which the theory of the missionary makes a shrill discord with the practice of the commercial and diplomatic carpet-bagger; the insidious poison of an ignorant press; all the ugliness and unhappiness of a machine-driven civilization.

(‘Pencil Speakings from Peking’, A.E. Grantham, 1918, pp 21-23.)

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Higher Education

A New Translation


by Ku Hung-Ming

(Gū Hóngmíng, 辜鴻銘, 1857-1928)

When a man has a standard of excellence before him, and only then, will he have a fixed and definite purpose; with a fixed and definite purpose, and only then, will he be able to have peace and tranquillity of mind; with tranquillity of mind, and only then, will he be able to have peace and tranquillity of soul; with peace and serenity of soul, and only then, can he devote himself to deep, serious thinking and reflection; and it is only by deep, serious thinking and reflection that a man can attain true culture.

In a work entitled China and Europe: Intellectual and Artistic Contacts in the Eighteenth Century,” the author states that, in Ku Hung-ming’s writings, “Europe is urged to follow the example of Confucian philosophy and to get a clear insight into the “fundamental concepts” in order that Europe, like China of old, may construct for itself on that basis a solid conception of the world, and thereby attain to more stable political conditions.” These “fundamental concepts” are to be found in the Confucian Classics.

In addition to his books, essays and articles, Ku Hung-ming also published translations of three of the four books that constitute the Confucian canon. They are the “Discourses and Sayings of Confucius,” (the Analects), “the Universal Order or Conduct of Life,” (the Doctrine of the Mean), as well as what he termed the “Higher Education” (the Great Learning). This last text was considered lost by scholars until recently, and has been the subject of some speculation. It was, in fact, first published in 1915 by the Shanghai Mercury. However, it was also later published abroad, in a periodical, the Theosophical Quarterly Magazine in 1931 (vol xxviii, July 1930-April 1931). The editorial matter preceding the text (‘On the Screen of Time’) gives some information as to how the magazine obtained the translation from Ku Hung-ming, some time before his death in 1928, but did not indicate whether it had been published before or not.

As the editor of that magazine stated: “Ku Hung-ming was a law unto himself. He probably saw no reason why his work – good work – should not be published repeatedly, by different people all over the world.” – Neither do we.

In his introduction, Ku gives his reasons for the delay in publishing this short but key work in the Confucian canon:

The following is a new translation of one of the four books in the Confucian Bible which has been translated by Dr. Legge as the “Great Learning.” This Ta Hsüeh (大學), the “Method of Higher Education,” together with the Chung Yung (中庸), the “Universal Order or Conduct of Life,” forms what may be called the Catechism of the Confucian Teaching. When first publishing my translation of the Chung Yung some ten years ago, I said: “It was my intention to publish these two books together; but I have not been able to bring my translation of the other book into a shape to satisfy the standard at which I aim at in my translation.” Now the present translation is, in my humble opinion, fit to be presented to the public. I therefore venture to offer it to the consideration of educated men who are really and sincerely interested in the cause of education in China and in the world.

And in the introduction to his “Conduct of Life,” first published in 1906, he writes:

My object, after I have thoroughly mastered the meaning, is not only to reproduce the matter, but also the manner of the original. For, as Wordsworth says of all literature of really intrinsic value: “To be sure, it is the manner, but the matter always comes out of the manner.” But to be able to reproduce the manner – what in literature is called the style – of the great and wise men of the past, one must try to put oneself in the same state of mind as that to which they attained – a thing one finds not easy, living in this modern world of the ‘civilisation of progress.’

In the following translation then this idea of moral obligation, which forms the basis of human conduct and social order in the scheme of the Chinese civilisation, will be explicitly set forth. There is of course no “new learning” in all this, but what is better, there is true learning in it. The enunciation of it in some form or other is to be found in the best literature of every nation that has ever had a civilisation; and what is most remarkable, as I have shown in the notes I have appended to the translation of the text, the enunciation in the same form and language as it is in this book, written two thousand years ago, is to be found in the latest writings of the best and greatest thinkers of modern Europe.

This extract from The Scriptures of Mankind gives a concise introduction to the Higher Education:

The Ta Hsueh or Great Learning, better translated, thinks Ku Hung Ming, as “Higher Education,”is also to be found as Chapter 39 of the Li Chi. It was the twelfth-century philosopher, Chu Hsi, who lifted this book and the Chung Yung out of the Li Chi and, joining them with the Analects and the works of Mencius, formed the Four Books, thus giving them a greater importance than they had, tucked away in the Book of Rites. The Ta Hsueh may have been written primarily as the basis of an education for princes, but it has for centuries been studied by all who have aspired to any important place in government.

The writer and translator Lin Yutang (林語堂), in “The Wisdom of Confucius,” states that: “The original title of this essay is Tasueh, translated by James Legge as “The Great Learning,” but more accurately by Ku Hung-ming as “The Higher Education.” Furthermore, in that book, Lin used Ku’s translation of “the Conduct of Life”, which he terms “The Central Harmony.” He writes: “Ku Hung-ming’s translation of that chapter is so brilliant and at the same time so correct and illuminating that I am sorry he did not translate more Confucian texts. It makes that chapter intelligible to the modern man… Ku’s translation has merits which are sufficiently apparent to make any justification for its use here superfluous.” Moreover, the eminent scholar, Wing Tsit-chan, in a review of Lin’s work, wrote: “In using Ku Hung-ming’s translation of Chung Yung, Dr. Lin has made a very happy choice, for Ku’s version is undoubtedly the best English translation not only of the Golden Mean but of all the Chinese classics.”

We hereby present this invaluable and timeless work as a PDF file, to read online, to download or to print – but above all – to study and to apply. It was transcribed from the version that appeared in the Theosophical Quarterly Magazine. The Chinese characters present in the original were included, a small number of typos were silently corrected and the original layout has been modified slightly for clarity. If there are any errors in this transcription, please be so kind as to let us know.

Download the PDF: Higher Education

Interested readers may profitably consult Lin Yutang’s rendering of the “Higher Learning” in his Wisdom of Confucius,” which also includes copious notes, as well as excerpts from the other books in the Confucian canon. Ku Hung-ming’s translation of the Universal Order or Conduct of Life,” was first published in Shanghai in 1906, and was then reprinted in the series Wisdom of the East, though with the slightly different title “the Conduct of Life or the Universal Order of Confucius,” but without the Chinese characters and certain notes and appendices. We also encourage readers to consult other translations of the sometimes difficult but always rewarding Confucian texts, in order to gain better insight into their profound meaning.

Alternate versions of this text online:

An annotated edition from Indiana University

Read the Chinese version online, with instant character references at Zhongwen.com.

Read the English translation of James Legge; The Great Learning, and the French translation of Pauthier; le Ta Hio ou La Grande Étude @ Wengu: Chinese Classics & Translation

Another version from Lapis Lazuli Texts

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Ku Hung-ming (Gū Hóngmíng, 辜鴻銘, 1857-1928) was a prolific writer and it is not easy to draw up a complete list of his writings. Over a span of almost 40 years he published a great deal of articles, letters and reviews in the press, both in China and abroad, under a variety of pen-names, and then recycled some of this material in his books. While the list of his known published books can be established more or less with certainty, the extent of his journalistic publications is much harder to pin down. The precarious position of the foreign press in China has meant that archival records often do not exist, or only partially so. The transient nature of many of these journals does not help either. Thus it has been a matter of some contention whether or not he translated such and such a text, and whether or not it was ever published, and if so, where and when.

Additionally, many of the articles and letters in question were republished in different newspapers and journals, in different countries and in different languages. As one editor said: “Ku Hung-ming was a law unto himself. He probably saw no reason why his work – good work – should not be published repeatedly, by different people all over the world.” – Neither do we.

The following article, “Uncivilized United States,” (《没有文化的美国》) was first published in the “North China Standard” of Peking, and was subsequently republished in the New York Times in 1921. Thanks to digitization, it is now available as a PDF file. By using the search function of the NYT database, one may also find a number of responses to this article, including one entitled “Poetry & Government” and another called “Civilized United States.” (Note the hackneyed caricature of a mandarin standing in front of skyscrapers.)

If the United States were destroyed tomorrow, I want to ask what great spiritual thing have the Americans as a nation done which they can leave behind them to show to men of after generations that they were once a nation with a civilization.

The polemical tone of the article will no doubt come as an affront to many, but one must always bear in mind the author’s intention. At the very least it should be regarded as a thought-provoking view of culture and civilization. In the coming weeks we hope to present selected excerpts from the works of Ku Hung-ming that further illustrate the traditional basis of civilization. Discerning readers should be capable of reading between the lines, beyond the deliberate provocation and sweeping statements. His work, more relevant than ever, deserves a wider readership and closer consideration, beyond sterile scholarship and vain argumentation.

My object in writing this article is not to abuse the American people. My object is to tell people that the only way to save civilization – the first thing you must do if you want to save civilization – is to know what civilization is.

Read or download this article here.

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The life and works of the Chinese writer and diplomat, Ku Hung-ming, (Gū Hóngmíng, 辜鴻銘, 1857-1928) have, in recent years, again begun to attract attention, after almost a century of neglect. His chief works, originally written in English, have now been translated into Chinese, due to the renewal of interest in traditional Chinese culture, and his English translations of Confucian texts have been the focus of attention by Chinese scholars in the field of translation studies. His main works include “The Spirit of the Chinese People”, “Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen”, “The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement”, and English translations of three of the four canonical Confucian classics; “The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius” [論語], “The Conduct of Life” [中庸] and “Higher Education” [大學].

Chiefly known for his controversial and reactionary political positions, he was also a writer of great talent and a skilled translator. His writings and correspondence – with Tolstoy, among others, as well as descriptions left by those who met him, provide a wealth of material, but to date there has no been no systematic study of his life, thought, or works in any European language, nor any recent edition of his books. Critics have typically chosen to focus on a couple of fictional accounts of dubious value and spurious anecdotes to paint a picture of a deliberately polemical and bitter old contrarian.

Chinese readers have been better served with the slew of recent studies and republications, among which “文化怪杰辜鸿铭” by 黄兴涛 and “辜鸿铭评传” by 孔庆茂 stand out. The collected works of Ku Hung-ming have been published in a number of different editions, such as the 2-volume “辜鸿铭文集”, and the 3-volume set entitled “中国人的精神”. An anthology of writings by and about Ku Hung-ming, also compiled by 黄兴涛; “旷世怪杰-名人笔下的辜鸿铭-辜鸿铭笔下的名人”, contains extensive accounts from Chinese sources as well as translations from English, French and German works. There have also been bilingual editions of some of his works published in China.

The success of Ku’s works, particularly in Britain and Germany, meant that Western writers and travellers were eager to correspond and meet with him. Among those who left behind written accounts of Ku Hung-ming include Richard Wilhelm, best known for his translation of the Book of Changes, who translated “Chinas Verteidigung gegen europäische Ideen”; Count Hermann von Keyserling, on the round-the-world trip that would provide fodder for his “Travel Diary of a Philosopher”; the novelist Somerset Maugham, as recounted in “On a Chinese Screen”; the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke; the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and the British tutor to the last Chinese emperor, Sir Reginald Johnston.

The scholar Lo Hui-min provided the following succinct account of the life and activities of Ku:

A returned student from Britain and Germany, he was to become one of the most colorful intellectuals of his time. His attacks on missionaries and his defense of traditional Chinese culture made him unpopular with many foreigners. However, his intellect was widely recognized and admired, and a work of his translated into German became required reading for German students of philosophy. His eccentricity attracted the interest of foreign scholars and writers, among them Somerset Maugham, who made him the subject of one of his sketches in ‘On a Chinese Screen’ (1922). Ku was for twenty years, from 1885 to 1905, on the staff of Chang Chih-tung, whose views on the relative values of Chinese and Western cultures were attributed to Ku’s influence, and it was while in Chang’s service that Ku came to know Liang [Tun-yen] who was Chang’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Wuchang. A committed Monarchist, Ku preferred poverty to serving the Republic after the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, and after the abortive Restoration attempt in which he served as Senior Councillor in the Foreign Ministry under Liang, he went back to teaching and writing. He remained as uncompromising as ever until the end of his life, and left his family destitute when he died.

Correspondence of G.E. Morrison 1912-1920, p.608, ed. Lo Hui-min.

Similarly, another author provided the following remarks:

Ku Hung-ming, although more widely known abroad due to his books written in English, is in reality less celebrated in his own country than the preceding: he is not even mentioned in the histories of the modern philosophical movement in China. What has made him read abroad, is his criticism of Occidental civilization – one loves to know the opinion of a Chinese on the Occident! As a matter of fact, even though he tried to harmonize the two civilizations, to complement the one by the other, he remained very much persuaded of the spiritual superiority of Confucianism and was scornful of Occidental materialism.

Fifty Years Of Chinese Philosophy 1898-1950

One of the best-known descriptions of Ku Hung-ming is that left by Somerset Maugham, in a vignette entitled The Philosopher, included in his 1922 travelogue, “On a Chinese Screen”. Maugham’s popularity and literary talent ensured that this particular account should overshadow any others, but it should be noted that it may not be strictly accurate. After all, the ‘Philosopher’ in question is never actually named directly, and it is more than probable that Maugham’s piece is an amalgam of his meeting with Ku; Ku’s own writings; and the book by G. Lowes Dickinson, “Letters from John Chinaman”, which was based on Ku himself.

The following account by the renowned American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, offers a rather different view of a complex, and sympathetic man, quite unlike the image of the cantankerous conservative he is usually portrayed as. To the best of our knowledge, this piece has not been mentioned in any of the works on Ku Hung-ming that we have been able to consult. Interested readers may find the rest of their exchange in the complete book by following the link at the end of the passage. It is the first in a planned series of writings by and about Ku Hung-ming – “the last representative of the old China.”

“When I went to Peking, 1918, to let contracts for the rugs for the Imperial Hotel, I learned facts regarding China and Japan from Dr. Ku Hung-Ming of Peking. He had once been secretary to the Empress Dowager of China. Dr. Ku was an Oxford graduate, but wore his cue (a Manchu inheritance) curled up under his red mandarin cap as a protest against what he called the motor-car Chinaman. While in Peking (Peiping) he wrote several famous books – one, “The Spirit of the Chinese People,” I had read which so impressed me that I determined to look him up when I arrived in Peking. I had a chance to sit and learn from him.

The sage and I went off the beaten track exploring Peking. Since he hated the motor-car Chinaman, we took a strapping young Mongolian (six feet seven for me and another smaller for Dr. Ku – he was not very tall) and we would usually take along a guide who had attached himself to me – not very welcome he, but useful often.

We saw the old palaces, the blue-tiled Temple of Heaven, the Imperial palaces, the great gates, dusty caravans of camels going through from the Gobi desert – loaded with furs. And then branched off into the unknown. One day he took me into an ancient temple little known to tourists. He was continually showing me the obscure but significant, interpreting it all to me in the spirit of the Chinese people. This particular temple-roof was down, water coming in on the sculptured walls – one entire wall was covered with pottery figures in complete relief set into niches in the wall. There were several hundred in several ranks, each some two and half feet high – brilliant in color.

Dr. Ku walked away to take in the view. I was again like the “hungry orphan turned loose in a bakeshop” for the moment coveting the sacred images. Satan in the bulky form of the guide stole up alongside me and now that Dr. Ku’s attention was on the landscape that came through the fallen walls, he said in a low voice, “You like statues very much? Yes? All right – you pick out one, two, tree. I bring you hotel tonight, you see in mornin.”

I was tempted for a moment, and then came a reaction – a revulsion of feeling would be it. I couldn’t bribe this fellow to plunder the place – sacred to such as Ku Hung-Ming – a plundering process across the years that was stripping China of her finest things. I said, “No. No, I don’t buy that way. Some day this temple might be restored.”

“Never,” said the guide. “Soon all gone. Somebody else will get.”

“Not me.”

The little sage’s ears must have been sharp. The dialogue had all been sotto voce, but I heard steps behind me and felt an arm laid over my shoulders as the old philosopher’s voice almost down to a whisper in my ear said, “No, it is not so. You are no American.” The token of affection and respect, for so he meant it to be, touched me and I have never regretted abandoning those marvelous figures to the “somebody else who would if I didn’t.”

We stood looking at the figures. Dr. Ku talked about them. He said there was not much chance of saving them. But it was better to leave them to their fate than go to perdition (or at least purgatory) with them.

The little old scholar, gray cue still curled up under his little red mandarin cap, said many wise things. He truly was a wise man – one of the few I’ve met. He was neither old school nor new school. He was the timeless sort so far as his mind went.”

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography, 1932, pp 460-463.

Further Reading:

Works by Ku Hung-ming available online:

Higher EducationA Bamboo Sea Exclusive & PDF Download.

“The Spirit of the Chinese People”

“Papers from a Viceroy’s Yamen”

“The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius” (Click the green button on the left to download)

“L’Esprit du Peuple Chinois” (Fr.) (as Kou Houng-ming)

Der Geist des chinesischen Volkes und der Ausweg aus dem Krieg(De.)

Chinas Verteidigung gegen europäische Ideen(De.)

Somerset Maugham: “On a Chinese Screen”

G. Lowes Dickinson: “Letters from John Chinaman” (based on Ku Hung-ming)

Count Keyserling: The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, Volume Two.

Two Biographical pieces by Lo Hui-min:

Ku Hung-ming: Homecoming (Part 1)

Ku Hung-ming: Homecoming (Part 2)

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The Philosopher

IT was surprising to find so vast a city in a spot that seemed to me so remote. From its battlemented gate towards sunset you could see the snowy mountains of Tibet. It was so populous that you could walk at ease only on the walls and it took a rapid walker three hours to complete their circuit. There was no railway within a thousand miles and the river on which it stood was so shallow that only junks of light burden could safely navigate it. Five days in a sampan were needed to reach the Upper Yangtze. For an uneasy moment you asked yourself whether trains and steamships were as necessary to the conduct of life as we who use them every day consider; for here, a million persons throve, married, begat their kind, and died; here a million persons were busily occupied with commerce, art, and thought.

And here lived a philosopher of repute, the desire to see whom had been to me one of the incentives of a somewhat arduous journey. He was the greatest authority in China on the Confucian learning. He was said to speak English and German with facility. He had been for many years secretary to one of the Empress Dowager’s greatest viceroys, but he lived now in retirement. On certain days in the week, however, all through the year he opened his doors to such as sought after knowledge, and discoursed on the teaching of Confucius. He had a body of disciples, but it was small, since the students for the most part preferred to his modest dwelling and his severe exhortations the sumptuous buildings of the foreign university and the useful science of the barbarians: with him this was mentioned only to be scornfully dismissed. From all I heard of him I concluded that he was a man of character.

When I announced my wish to meet this distinguished person my host immediately offered to arrange a meeting; but the days passed and nothing happened. I made enquiries and my host shrugged his shoulders.

“I sent him a chit and told him to come along,” he said. “I don’t know why he hasn’t turned up. He’s a cross-grained old fellow.”

I did not think it was proper to approach a philosopher in so cavalier a fashion and I was hardly surprised that he had ignored a summons such as this. I caused a letter to be sent asking in the politest terms I could devise whether he would allow me to call upon him and within two hours received an answer making an appointment for the following morning at ten o’clock.

I was carried in a chair. The way seemed interminable. I went through crowded streets and through streets deserted till I came at last to one, silent and empty, in which at a small door in a long white wall my bearers set down my chair. One of them knocked, and after a considerable time a judas was opened; dark eyes looked through; there was a brief colloquy; and finally I was admitted. A youth, pallid of face, wizened, and poorly dressed, motioned me to follow him. I did not know if he was a servant or a pupil of the great man. I passed through a shabby yard and was led into a long low room sparsely furnished with an American roll-top desk, a couple of blackwood chairs and two little Chinese tables. Against the walls were shelves on which were a great number of books: most of them, of course, were Chinese, but there were many, philosophical and scientific works, in English, French and German; and there were hundreds of unbound copies of learned reviews. Where books did not take up the wall space hung scrolls on which in various calligraphies were written, I suppose, Confucian quotations. There was no carpet on the floor. It was a cold, bare, and comfortless chamber. Its sombreness was relieved only by a yellow chrysanthemum which stood by itself on the desk in a long vase.

I waited for some time and the youth who had shown me in brought a pot of tea, two cups, and a tin of Virginian cigarettes. As he went out the philosopher entered. I hastened to express my sense of the honour he did me in allowing me to visit him. He waved me to a chair and poured out the tea.

“I am flattered that you wished to see me,” he returned. “Your countrymen deal only with coolies and with compradores; they think every Chinese must be one or the other.”

I ventured to protest. But I had not caught his point. He leaned back in his chair and looked at me with an expression of mockery.

“They think they have but to beckon and we must come.”

I saw then that my friend’s unfortunate communication still rankled. I did not quite know how to reply. I murmured something complimentary.

He was an old man, tall, with a thin grey queue, and bright large eyes under which were heavy bags. His teeth were broken and discoloured. He was exceedingly thin, and his hands, fine and small, were withered and claw-like. I had been told that he was an opium-smoker. He was very shabbily dressed in a black gown, a little black cap, both much the worse for wear, and dark grey trousers gartered at the ankle. He was watching. He did not quite know what attitude to take up, and he had the manner of a man who was on his guard. Of course the philosopher occupies a royal place among those who concern themselves with the things of the spirit and we have the authority of Benjamin Disraeli that royalty must be treated with abundant flattery. I seized my trowel. Presently I was conscious of a certain relaxation in his demeanour. He was like a man who was all set and rigid to have his photograph taken, but hearing the shutter click lets himself go and eases into his natural self. He showed me his books.

“I took the Ph. D. in Berlin, you know,” he said. “And afterwards I studied for some time in Oxford. But the English, if you will allow me to say so, have no great aptitude for philosophy.”

Though he put the remark apologetically it was evident that he was not displeased to say a slightly disagreeable thing.

“We have had philosophers who have not been without influence in the world of thought,” I suggested.

“Hume and Berkeley? The philosophers who taught at Oxford when I was there were anxious not to offend their theological colleagues. They would not follow their thought to its logical consequences in case they should jeopardise their position in university society.”

“Have you studied the modern developments of philosophy in America?” I asked.

“Are you speaking of Pragmatism? It is the last refuge of those who want to believe the incredible. I have more use for American petroleum than for American philosophy.”

His judgments were tart. We sat down once more and drank another cup of tea. He began to talk with fluency. He spoke a somewhat formal but an idiomatic English. Now and then he helped himself out with a German phrase. So far as it was possible for a man of that stubborn character to be influenced he had been influenced by Germany. The method and the industry of the Germans had deeply impressed him and their philosophical acumen was patent to him when a laborious professor published in a learned magazine an essay on one of his own writings.

“I have written twenty books,” he said. “And that is the only notice that has ever been taken of me in a European publication.”

But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon. He accepted its philosophy with conviction. It answered the needs of his spirit with a completeness which made all foreign learning seem vain. I was interested in this because it bore out an opinion of mine that philosophy is an affair of character rather than of logic: the philosopher believes not according to evidence, but according to his own temperament; and his thinking merely serves to make reasonable what his instinct regards as true. If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do.

My host lit a cigarette. His voice at first had been thin and tired, but as he grew interested in what he said it gained volume. He talked vehemently. There was in him none of the repose of the sage. He was a polemist and a fighter. He loathed the modern cry for individualism. For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society. He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius. He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students, fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilisation in the world.

“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilisation been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenceless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

But at that moment we were interrupted. A little girl came softly in and nestled close up to the old gentleman. She stared at me with curious eyes. He told me that she was his youngest child. He put his arms round her and with a murmur of caressing words kissed her fondly. She wore a black coat and trousers that barely reached her ankles, and she had a long pig-tail hanging down her back. She was born on the day the revolution was brought to a successful issue by the abdication of the emperor.

“I thought she heralded the Spring of a new era,” he said. “She was but the last flower of this great nation’s Fall.”

From a drawer in his roll-top desk he took a few cash, and handing them to her, sent her away.

“You see that I wear a queue,” he said, taking it in his hands. “It is a symbol. I am the last representative of the old China.”

He talked to me, more gently now, of how philosophers in long past days wandered from state to state with their disciples, teaching all who were worthy to learn. Kings called them to their councils and made them rulers of cities. His erudition was great and his eloquent phrases gave a multicoloured vitality to the incidents he related to me of the history of his country. I could not help thinking him a somewhat pathetic figure. He felt in himself the capacity to administer the state, but there was no king to entrust him with office; he had vast stores of learning which he was eager to impart to the great band of students that his soul hankered after, and there came to listen but a few, wretched, half-starved, and obtuse provincials.

Once or twice discretion had made me suggest that I should take my leave, but he had been unwilling to let me go. Now at last I was obliged to. I rose. He held my hand.

“I should like to give you something as a recollection of your visit to the last philosopher in China, but I am a poor man and I do not know what I can give you that would be worthy of your acceptance.”

I protested that the recollection of my visit was in itself a priceless gift. He smiled.

“Men have short memories in these degenerate days, and I should like to give you something more substantial. I would give you one of my books, but you cannot read Chinese.”

He looked at me with an amicable perplexity. I had an inspiration.

“Give me a sample of your calligraphy,” I said.

“Would you like that?” He smiled. “In my youth I was considered to wield the brush in a manner that was not entirely despicable.”

He sat down at his desk, took a fair sheet of paper, and placed it before him. He poured a few drops of water on a stone, rubbed the ink stick in it, and took his brush. With a free movement of the arm he began to write. And as I watched him I remembered with not a little amusement something else which had been told me of him. It appeared that the old gentleman, whenever he could scrape a little money together, spent it wantonly in the streets inhabited by ladies to describe whom a euphemism is generally used. His eldest son, a person of standing in the city, was vexed and humiliated by the scandal of this behaviour; and only his strong sense of filial duty prevented him from reproaching the libertine with severity. I daresay that to a son such looseness would be disconcerting, but the student of human nature could look upon it with equanimity. Philosophers are apt to elaborate their theories in the study, forming conclusions upon life which they know only at second hand, and it has seemed to me often that their works would have a more definite significance if they had exposed themselves to the vicissitudes which befall the common run of men. I was prepared to regard the old gentleman’s dalliance in hidden places with leniency. Perhaps he sought but to elucidate the most inscrutable of human illusions.

He finished. To dry the ink he scattered a little ash on the paper and rising handed it to me.

“What have you written?” I asked.

I thought there was a slightly malicious gleam in his eyes.

“I have ventured to offer you two little poems of my own.”

“I did not know you were a poet.”

“When China was still an uncivilised country,” he retorted with sarcasm, “all educated men could write verse at least with elegance.”

I took the paper and looked at the Chinese characters. They made an agreeable pattern upon it.

“Won’t you also give me a translation?”

Tradutore—tradittore,” he answered. “You cannot expect me to betray myself. Ask one of your English friends. Those who know most about China know nothing, but you will at least find one who is competent to give you a rendering of a few rough and simple lines.”

I bade him farewell, and with great politeness he showed me to my chair. When I had the opportunity I gave the poems to a sinologue of my acquaintance, and here is the version he made. I confess that, doubtless unreasonably, I was somewhat taken aback when I read it.

You loved me not: your voice was sweet;

Your eyes were full of laughter; your hands were tender.

And then you loved me: your voice was bitter;

Your eyes were full of tears; your hands were cruel.

Sad, sad that love should make you


I craved the years would quickly pass

That you might lose

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the cruel splendour of your youth.

Then I alone would love you

And you at last would care.

The envious years have passed full soon

And you have lost

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the charming splendour of your youth.

Alas, I do not love you

And I care not if you care.

W. Somerset Maugham: On A Chinese Screen, 1922

Note:  The character of the ‘Philosopher’ is based on the Chinese writer and diplomat, Ku Hung-ming, [Gū Hóngmíng 辜鴻銘] (1857-1928).

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