Posts Tagged ‘Ku Hung-Ming’

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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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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En Chine, la vie est libre, heureuse, totale, sans conventions, sans préjugés, sans lois… pour nous, du moins… Pas d’autres limites à la liberté que soi-même… à l’amour que la variété triomphante de son désir.

Octave Mirbeau – Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden)

The recent publication of Sir Edmund ‘Bacchus’ Backhouse’s China memoirs, Décadence Mandchoue’, (Earnshaw Books, 2011) has revived an old controversy, namely the veracity of Sir Edmund’s claims, the reliability of his work as a whole, and more topically, the value of his writings, regardless of whether they are founded in fact or not. Until the publication in 1976 of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Hermit of Peking, Backhouse was best known, if he was remembered at all, as the co-author, along with the journalist J. O. P. Bland, of the popular works of history ‘China Under the Empress Dowager’ (1910) and ‘Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking’ (1914).

Trevor-Roper recounts how he was asked to authenticate Backhouse’s memoirs prior to publication, but found them so scandalous and untrustworthy that he decided to investigate the author further, and discovered that not only were the memoirs romanced, but also that Backhouse’s published works were largely based on forgery. This had long been suspected, but seemingly Sir Edmund had managed to gain the benefit of the doubt. ‘The Hermit of Peking’, a piece of literary detective work in the manner of A. J. A. Symon’s ‘The Quest for Corvo, not only debunks most of Backhouse’s outrageous claims, but also uncovers the series of fraudulent endeavours, literary or otherwise, that Sir Edmund embarked upon throughout his variegated career. (See here for more details.)

Trevor-Roper’s study seemed to thoroughly rubbish Backhouse’s memoirs and cast his scholarship into discredit. However it would appear that matters may have been more complex than Trevor-Roper was willing to admit. [Completing this triptych is Bernard Wasserstein’s ‘The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln’, which, again draws uncanny parallels between the careers of mystification of Trebitsch Lincoln and Backhouse – who were both in China at the same time – but without speculating further. – “Birds of that feather do not flock together!”]

Questions of literary merit or historical accuracy aside, it may not be without interest to mention one possible source of Backhouse’s memoirs – or rather, another work that may very well stem from the same ‘source’ – namely, the gossip surrounding the imperial court at the time. A previous installment provided some information on as well as illustrations from this curious French work from the turn of the twentieth century.

In 1899, a French military physician, Dr J.-J. Matignon, attaché to the French Legation in Peking, published a series of articles and lectures under the title ‘Superstitions, Crime et Misère’, essentially comprising studies of what the author terms ‘social biology’, on such varied topics as feng-shui, footbinding, eunuchs, homosexuality, and Chinese medicine, accompanied by numerous woodblock prints, photographs and illustrations… After going through a number of reprints, this work was later revised and augmented, in 1936, as ‘La Chine Hermétique’.

What will retain our attention here are the chapters on eunuchs and pederasty respectively. Considering that some of the more novel aspects of Sir Edmund’s memoirs are his salacious account of his alleged affair with the Empress Dowager, his claims of intimacy within circles of power and his depiction of homosexuality in late Imperial China, we find a number of striking parallels in Matignon’s work. These concern the secret influence of eunuchs, trysts between the Empress and Europeans, and pederasty in Chinese society.

After giving an outline of the functions, social history and medical conditions of the eunuchs, Matignon relates the following anecdote:

Les eunuques peuvent parfois être chargés de missions de confiance. Il y a quelque vingt ans, un attaché de notre Légation s’était lié avec l’eunuque favori de l’Impératrice-mère. Celle-ci, très désireuse de voir un Européen, dans son costume le plus primitif, fit faire, par cet eunuque à notre compatriote, des avances qui, malgré l’attrait de leur originale nouveauté, ne purent faire succomber sa vertu.

Of course, this remains mere hearsay, but it is possible to note a number of intriguing implications: that some foreign diplomats did, in fact, enjoy close relations with eunuchs in positions of power; and that such rumours concerning the Empress Dowager were already in circulation as early as the 1870s.

Grand Eunuch Li Lien-ying

Similarly, another intriguing literary parallel with ‘Décadence Mandchoue’, noted by Dr Hoeppli and Trevor-Roper, is ‘René Leys’, the novel by Victor Segalen, written in 1912 but published posthumously in 1922. ‘René Leys’ is, in our view, a much more profitable read, a work of fiction based as it is on a compelling combination of fact, hearsay and Segalen’s masterful storytelling. Incidentally we should remark that the empress referred to in ‘René Leys’ is Longyu, Empress Dowager Xiaoding, widow of Guangxu and niece of Cixi – not Cixi herself. (Read this blog for a detailed review and analysis of ‘René Leys’, including a comparison with Backhouse. Read ‘René Leys’ in French here.)

Empress Dowager Cixi


The second aspect that bears some relation to Backhouse’s memoirs is that of homosexuality. According to the overly optimistic view that the memoirs are based – or partly based – on reality, then it is admitted by some scholars that they provide an insight into homosexuality in the Qing Dynasty, a field in which there would be, we are told, a paucity of information. As will be evidenced from the following excerpts from Matignon’s work, we shall see that this is not quite the case:

Un de mes vieux amis, qui connaît bien les Chinois, grâce à une longue pratique des habitants de la Terre Fleurie, établissait, un soir après-dîner, comme un axiome que «tout Chinois qui se respecte pratique, a pratiqué ou pratiquera la pédérastie». Bien que fort paradoxale, au premier abord, cette boutade, il faut le reconnaître, renferme un grand fond de vérité, et le nombre des Chinois «qui se respectent» est considérable. La pédérastie est, en effet, extrêmement répandue dans l’Empire du Milieu. Toutes les classes de la société s’y livrent, et tous les âges, les jeunes comme les vieux, en sont friands…

…Il existe, partout en Chine, des maisons de prostitution où les pédérastes trouvent des petits garçons ; quelquefois les établissements sont mixtes… Ces établissements sont de notoriété publique et les Étrangers peuvent, sans aucune difficulté, y pénétrer.

La curiosité, purement sociologique, m’a conduit deux fois dans les maisons de prostitution où se trouvent des petits garçons ; de jour, d’abord, de nuit, ensuite, pensant que je serais moins dégoûté, et après chaque séance, je suis sorti profondément écœuré de ce que j’avais vu, comme avilissement et perversion. Ces établissements se trouvent à Tien-Tsin et les Européens y sont admis sans difficulté, car beaucoup, m’a-t-on affirmé, – chose que j’ai hésité à croire ! – sont des clients assidus de ces bouges, cent fois plus ignobles que les maisons les plus infectes de nos ports de mer. Pékin est également bien pourvu de ces «tang-ming-eul» (maisons publiques), mais il est difficile aux Européens d’y pénétrer.

A ‘Sian-Gon’ (xiang gong, 相公); a transvestite male prostitute (photo: Matignon)

A second view, much more ‘relativistic’ than the first, holds that, irrespective of their veracity, the memoirs somehow have a literary value, being a prime example of exotic erotica and ‘gay writing’; however, further considerations lie beyond the scope of this brief piece.


The revised edition of ‘La Chine Hermétique’ contains a number of references to ‘China Under the Empress Dowager,’ qualified as a ‘beau livre’. Furthermore, Matignon spent ten years or so in China (1891-1901), and was in Peking at the time of the siege of the Legation quarter during the Boxer Rebellion – as was Backhouse. There is no way, of course, of finding out whether they knew each of other, but it quite likely that Backhouse would have known of Matignon’s books – and the anecdotes and rumours they reported.

To conclude, we find that Backhouse’s claims were neither new nor original, yet, on the other hand, not completely impossible. Matignon’s work shows that Westerners did frequent brothels, including homosexual ones, and did have dealings with influential eunuchs, and that there was at least one who was rumoured to have been the object of the Empress Dowager’s attentions. Whether this lends any credence to Backhouse’s assertions is another matter; one for the informed reader to judge. As to the value of the book itself, if Sir Edmund’s claims cannot be shown to reflect reality, then, are we, according to Hugh Trevor-Roper, left with a “pornographic novelette” in which “No verve in writing can redeem [its] pathological obscenity”? That is a matter for the sympathetic reader to decide…

That ardent defender of the Empress Dowager, and scourge of Western Orientalists, Ku Hung-ming, summarized an article of his criticizing Bland and Backhouse’s work in his book ‘The Spirit of the Chinese People.’ In light of Backhouse’s memoirs, it is worth quoting in full:

I have wanted to include in this volume an essay I wrote on J.B. Bland and Backhouse’s book on the famous late Empress Dowager, but unfortunately I have not been able to find a copy of that essay which was published in the ‘National Review’ in Shanghai some four years ago. In that essay, I have tried to show that, such men as J.B. Bland and Backhouse do not and cannot understand the real Chinese woman – the highest type of woman produced by the Chinese civilization viz the late Empress Dowager, because such men as J.B. Bland and Backhouse are not so simple, – have not the simplicity of mind, being too clever and having, like all modern men, a distorted intellect.

Ku Hung-ming; “The Spirit of the Chinese People”

Notes and Links:

•‘Décadence Mandchouewas published in Chinese by New Century Press as «太后與我» (‘The Empress Dowager and I’).

• The epigraph to this piece was taken from Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden) by Octave Mirbeau, a French author Backhouse was more than familiar with, and whom he quotes in ‘Décadence Mandchoue’.

• Read a previous article on the works of J.-J. Matignon, including numerous photos and illustrations: ‘La Chine Hermétique: Superstitions, Crime et Misère

• Readers knowledgeable of French will find a number of different editions and formats of Matignon’s book online:

•  A scan of the first edition @ the Internet Archive.

•  A scan (OCR) of the second edition @ Gallica.

•  A text edition of the second edition @ Les classiques des sciences sociales.

Lisez ‘René Leys’ de Victor Segalen en format PDF @ Gallica.

Both of Backhouse’s main works are available online @ the Internet Archive:

•  China under the Empress Dowager (1910)

•  Annals & Memoirs of the Court of Peking (from the 16th to the 20th Century) (1914)

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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.

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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