Gu Hongming’s Eccentric Chinese Odyssey

By Chunmei Du

Reviewed by Kristin Stapleton

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2020)

Chunmei Du, Gu Hongming’s Eccentric Chinese Odyssey Chunmei Du. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. 251 pgs. ISBN-9780812251203 (cloth).

Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘—the notorious Qing loyalist who spoke out for bound feet and against democracy in the midst of the May Fourth movement—was at the center of a set of cross-cultural conversations among Chinese, European, and American intellectuals during and after World War I, Chunmei Du shows in this engaging biography. She notes that he was “the first principal Chinese spokesman of Confucianism to the Western world” (p. 49), promoting it as a universal solution to the global problems of industrialization and endemic conflict. At the same time, though, Gu displayed a most un-Confucian love of shocking and provoking his fellow humans. Du’s goal is to help us understand the influences that produced such a paradoxical character. In the end, as Du acknowledges, Gu Hongming stubbornly defies analysis. Still, her account of his life is fascinating, particularly for what it reveals about global currents of thought in the early twentieth century.

Chapter 1, “An Inscrutable Eccentric,” provides an overview of Gu’s life. Born into a prominent family in British-colonial Penang in 1857, Gu Hongming spent most of the 1870s in Europe, studying literature and classics in Edinburgh and traveling. After returning to Asia, he briefly worked for British diplomats on China-related matters and then joined Qing governor-general Zhang Zhidong’s 張之洞 secretarial staff in 1885, where he served for twenty years. While working for Zhang, he published English-language essays on Qing political affairs in Shanghai and praised Empress Dowager Cixi’s rule. In 1908, he was appointed vice director of the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After the Qing collapse, he remained loyal to the dynasty, keeping his queue. His book The Spirit of the Chinese People, published in English in 1915, brought him global fame. Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 appointed him that year to the faculty of Peking University to teach English literature, but his support for the abortive attempt to restore Puyi to the throne in 1917 and his criticism of the New Culture movement prompted attacks on him by students and colleagues. He taught in Japan for a few years before his death in 1928. After sketching Gu’s biography, the introductory chapter outlines the structure of the rest of the book: three chapters that situate Gu’s thinking in the intellectual currents of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries followed by three chapters that explore his psychological development as he went from being a colonial subject to, in his words, “an imitation Western man” who “became a Chinaman again” (p. 22).

Chapter 2 analyzes the strong influence of European romanticism on Gu Hongming as he developed his ideas about the “spirit of the Chinese people.” As a student in Scotland, his reading of Thomas Carlyle convinced him that ordinary people needed moral heroes to look up to, a theme he emphasized in his interpretations of Confucian thought. He also came to believe, with the German Romantics, in the organic nature of culture, leading him to reject the “ti-yong” (體用) approach to reform associated with his employer Zhang Zhidong. But Gu’s thinking was influenced as well by anti-colonial discourse, which he incorporated into his romanticism. Japan, he believed, had shown the power of “Eastern civilization” to surpass the “West,” and he urged Japanese to preserve the spirit of Confucianism, abandoned by the Chinese in 1912, and bring it back to China (p. 38). Du shows how Gu Hongming constructed “the spirit of China” as a universalist vision in dialogue and competition with a universalist vision created by ideologues of “Western civilization.”

Chapter 3 examines the appeal of Gu Hongming’s writings among Europeans, especially in Germany. Disillusionment with the promise of progress in the wake of World War I encouraged many European intellectuals to look east to the wisdom of Asia for guidance. Gu joined Tagore, Okakura, and Tolstoy as spokesmen for alternative, spiritual visions of humanity’s future. Gu’s writings, including his translations of three of the Four Books comprising the core of the Confucian canon, were promoted by his friend Richard Wilhelm and by Hermann Graf Keyserling, who met Gu while traveling in China. With their assistance, Gu was able to participate in the construction of a “global intellectual syncretism” (p. 66) that was a striking element of interwar thought.

Chapter 4 addresses Gu Hongming’s engagement with and influence on debates ongoing in Europe and the U.S. about Christianity and religion in general. Gu Hongming blamed Christian missionaries for the widespread attacks on them in China in the 1890s and highlighted the hypocrisy of Euro-American Christians in an age of imperialism. Du notes that his criticisms were echoed in the famous 1901 pamphlet Letters from John Chinaman, published anonymously by Cambridge professor G. L. Dickinson. In 1921 the New York Times published Gu’s satirical essay “Uncivilized United States,” which decries the absence of religion and morality in America despite the abundance of churches and missionaries. Gu also opposed the attempt, spearheaded by Kang Youwei 康有為, to establish Confucianism as an institutionalized religion like Protestantism, regarding it rather as “a combination of political ideology, social ethics, and religion of the state” (p. 86).

Du’s psychological analysis of Gu Hongming begins in chapter 5 with a discussion of Gu’s childhood in Penang, in a community where it was not uncommon for Chinese men to marry Malay women and work closely with the British colonial government. She notes that Gu was not alone in coming from such a background and building a career in China; others include Wu Lien-teh 伍連德, the public health expert, and Wu Tingfang 伍廷芳, legal reformer under the Qing and Minister of Foreign Affairs in Sun Yat-sen’s government in 1921. Unlike most such men, however, Gu had very little to do with his home community and the Chinese diaspora in general after he went to school in Europe. Du cautiously speculates that Gu Hongming could have been the product of an illicit liaison between his mother and his father’s British employer, who paid to send him to school in Scotland. Another possible reason for him to reject his culturally hybrid background is the combination of his strong attraction to aspects of European culture and his intense anger at the humiliations he endured when employed by British officials in China in the early 1880s. Citing Frantz Fanon, Du argues that Gu Hongming fantasized about achieving acceptance among European colonizers by flirting with white women, only to have his masculinity undermined by the racism of the time. She associates feelings of sexual rejection with his later insistence on maintaining his queue. Gu’s European intellectual training prepared him to lay claim to what he insisted was a superior cultural heritage: he chose to become Chinese in a way Europeans understood, even though his display of Chineseness in the form of the queue had become ridiculous in the eyes of fellow Chinese.

Chapters 6 and 7 explore Gu Hongming’s interactions with prominent Europeans who sojourned in China. Chapter 6 focuses on his relationship with W. Somerset Maugham, who met Gu in Beijing around 1920. Although their meeting was brief, Du argues that Gu made a deep impression on Maugham. Caricatures of Gu feature in several of his stories and plays, where Gu takes on the qualities of Fu Manchu, an inscrutable and menacing genius, fully educated in Western culture and aware of all its weaknesses. In his account of their meeting, Maugham mentions that Gu composed “two short Chinese poems in calligraphy,” which Gu forced upon him as a parting gift; he later discovered these to be poems of farewell to a female lover (p. 124). Du interprets this gesture as Gu’s way of dealing with his “repressed and displaced attachment to the West” by subtly mocking a presumptuous British intellectual to avenge past humiliations. Du observes that Maugham, a closeted homosexual, was accompanied on his China trip by his American lover (Frederick Gerald Haxton), but does not speculate about whether this could have had anything to do with Gu’s “inscrutable” gift (p. 125).

Chapter 7 reconsiders Gu’s attitude toward Empress Dowager Cixi in the context of Edmund Backhouse’s salacious accounts of her. Coming to Cixi’s defense, Gu depicted her as the well-loved mother of the nation, the equivalent of Queen Victoria. Du suggests that he thought of himself as Cixi’s Tennyson, singing the praises of a sovereign worthy of respect both for her domesticity and her rule. He kept his queue in loyalty to her, but his interpretation of her relied on his understanding of British monarchy. Du argues that Gu’s employment of such shifting frames of reference reflects his cultivation of a “trickster” nature as he navigated between empires and identities.

Chapter 8, the conclusion, further reflects on Gu Hongming as trickster. Du argues that Gu cultivated absurdity and made himself into an eccentric in a series of “highly intentional and symbolic performances” (p. 158). She writes that Gu was “extremely conscious of performing his role as a Confucian prophet” (p. 161) so as to establish a claim to authenticity as a Chinese subject. But Chinese nationalism moved in a different direction in the early twentieth century, and Gu’s defense of monarchy and old customs found little support in 1920s China. Shifts in Chinese nationalist visions in recent years, however, have benefited Gu Hongming’s reputation—Du notes that he is now recognized by some in the PRC as a master of Confucian classical studies.

This is indeed a fascinating portrait of an unusual person. Because so little is known about Gu Hongming’s upbringing and personal life, psychological analysis must remain speculative. Du observes that many Chinese-language biographical accounts relate what are almost certainly apocryphal stories, many of which he himself probably spread. Gu seems to have been determined to lead biographers astray as he circulated myths about himself. Du does an excellent job of sifting through the evidence, but sometimes it leaves her with very little to go on in understanding her subject. In chapter 6, for example, we seem to learn more about Somerset Maugham’s psyche than we do about Gu’s. Despite the paucity of sources, however, Du’s interpretation of the emotional and psychological causes of Gu’s eccentric behavior is stimulating and plausible.

The book’s real strength, to my mind, is in its exploration of a transnational history of ideas that emphasizes the global nature of circuits of intellectual exchange in the early twentieth-century. Gu’s influence in Germany, Britain, and America is made clear, as is the influence of European thought on him. What deserves more attention in future work is Gu Hongming’s position in Chinese history—how he was influenced by and influenced the people among whom he lived and worked for most of his life. Gu’s twenty years in service to Zhang Zhidong is given relatively brief attention in this study, and that section doesn’t go much beyond Gu’s own account of it, which Du believes to be exaggerated. Zhang Zhidong himself is said to have been quite eccentric.[1] Perhaps Gu found a model for his odd behavior there. Du highlights Gu’s dislike of Kang Youwei, but, there again, one sees a possible model of eccentricity for would-be prophets of Confucianism.

Du notes that Gu Hongming had supporters among younger intellectuals within China in the 1920s, including Lin Yutang 林語堂, who succeeded him as the most visible interpreter of Chinese traditions to the Western world. Among Gu’s admirers, Du also mentions Wu Mi 吳宓, Mei Guangdi 梅光迪, and Wang Jingwei’s 汪精衛 publicist T’ang Leang Li 湯良禮. It would be interesting to learn more about any interactions with Gu they may have had. Most cultural conservatives of the time, including those who shared his admiration for Japan, were probably as repelled by Gu’s eccentricity as the May Fourth activists were by his reactionary politics.

One great pleasure of reading this account of Gu Hongming is that it conjures up visions of other eccentric intellectuals who populated twentieth-century Chinese history, Chinese and foreign alike. My own favorite is Li Zongwu 李宗吾, whose “Thick Black Studies” (厚黑學) revealed that the conduct of the sages and heroes of Chinese history demonstrated not righteousness and benevolence but rather the usefulness of thick skin and a black heart. Li Zongwu’s satirical rewritings of the Confucian classics reached a wider and more appreciative audience in 1920s China than Gu Hongming’s The Spirit of the Chinese People. As cultural critics, Li Zongwu and Gu Hongming made very different points, but their methods were not unlike: they loved to shock people. Whether shock as a rhetorical strategy was a particular feature of this juncture of Chinese history or a relatively common phenomenon across the generations is an intriguing question. It is to be hoped that an enterprising scholar will sit down some day to write a history of outlandish behavior in Chinese history. Chunmei Du’s study of Gu Hongming will be a very valuable starting point.

Kristin Stapleton
University of Buffalo


[1] See Luke Kwong’s introduction to his translation of the late-Qing novel Xindang shengguan facai ji 新黨升官發財記: The Phony Reformer: Greed, Status, and Patronage in Late-Qing China (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), p. 4.