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Persons frequently ask…

“What is China’s real religion? What do people believe and worship?”

“Do they believe in an after-life? And what are the conditions of this life?”

With the first of its many volumes published by T’usewei Press, Shanghai in 1914, “Researches into Chinese Superstitions”, is a thorough, if not exhaustive, study of the questions posed above. Written and compiled by the Rev. Henri Doré, “Researches into Chinese Superstitions” is a multi-volume collection of the ‘superstitions’, which ‘swayed the family and social life’ of the Chinese people at that time.

As mentioned in previous articles, there was great interest is this area of Chinese life at the turn of the last century. Fortunately, like Dr J.-J. Matignon’s study of the subject, these studies by Doré also managed to avoid the sensationalism to which other studies around that time succumbed. Indeed, whilst Rev. Doré was a Jesuit missionary, it could be said that his own beliefs only strengthened his objective or nominal approach when it came to recording and examining these Chinese ‘superstitions’. Therefore, whatever reasons Doré may have had for producing this work, they should not deter us nor distract us from examining what is presented within the many volumes of this collection.

As far as a study of religion as a factor in social life is concerned, it may make little difference whether the anthropologist is a theist or an atheist, since in either case he can only take in to account what he can observe. But if either attempts to go further than this, each must pursue a different path. The non-believer seeks for some theory – biological, psychological, or sociological – which will explain the illusion; the believer seeks rather to understand the manner in which a people conceives of a reality and their relation to it. For both, religion is part of social life, but for the believer it has also another dimension.

E. E. Evans Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, Clarendon Press, 1965

Links to the Volumes in this Collection on Archive.org:

Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI, Volume VII, Volume VIII, Volume IX, Volume X, Volume XI (Original French), Volume XII (Original French), Volume XIII, Volume XIV, Volume XVVolume XVII (Original French), Volume XVIII (Original French)

President Yuang Shikai - Ming money ceremony 1914

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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.

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.


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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

Unlovable.


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).

Read more about Ku Hung-ming

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