Wang Guowei’s Extraordinary Life and Career
The Alone in the High Tower Exhibition at Tsinghua University Art Museum commemorates the 140th anniversary of Wang Guowei’s birth, a renowned scholar and poet.
Wang Guowei (1877–1927), a writer, scholar and poet, summarised his academic pursuits as “the three realms of the mind.” “Climbing up a high tower alone and looking to the farthest end of the world” was the first realm, which was also used as a metaphor for Wang’s accomplishments and his high-minded personality and maverick behaviour.
Wang Guowei was universally revered as a great scholar in Chinese modern and contemporary history. From 1925 to 1927, he was appointed professor of the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning. During his early years, he blended western philosophy and aesthetics with Chinese classical philosophy and aesthetics, creating a unique ideological system for the study of aesthetics. He also focused on poetry and theatre, and then went on to ancient history, paleography, archeology, Dunhuang studies and borderland studies. He made pioneering contributions to many fields and wrote more than 60 different types of works, some published during his lifetime and others after his death.
To commemorate this brilliant figure, from December 30, 2017 to May 4, 2018, Tsinghua University Art Museum, together with the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, the university’s archives, history gallery and library, is hosting Alone in the High Tower: Commemorative Exhibition of Wang Guowei’s 140th Anniversary of Birth, held on the second floor of Exhibition Hall 4.
Friendship with Luo Zhenyu
Both Wang Guowei and Luo Zhenyu have left deep imprints on Chinese modern academic history. The two masters extensively researched traditional fields such as literature, history, philology, exegetics, phonology, textual criticism and bibliographical studies.
In 1898, 22-year- old Wang Guowei went to Shanghai, where he worked as a proofreader for the newspaper Shiwu bao ( The Chinese Progress) and also studied at a Japanese language school founded by Luo Zhenyu. Out of great admiration for Wang’s Twenty Poems on History, Luo become friends with Wang. In the following 30 years, their lives were continually intertwined. At first, Luo was Wang’s teacher, then they worked together, later they lived in Japan for five years and finally they became relatives by marriage.
The exhibition has a large section to showcase the diary and calligraphic works of Wang Guowei’s father ( Wang Naiyu), correspondence between Wang Guowei and Luo Zhenyu and metal and stone rubbings of the prefaces and postscripts they wrote, which help visitors to better understand the two men’s close relationship.
Wang’s Circle of Friends
Being taciturn and pedantically highminded, Wang was always a bit of a maverick. Despite that, he made his mark as a great scholar all over the nation before his life came to a tragic end. While teaching at Tsinghua University, a college steeped in western learning, he insisted on wearing a traditional Chinese long gown and skullcap.
Due to his unrivalled talent, pioneering research methods and groundbreaking academic ideas, Wang is widely respected by academics at home and abroad. To bring to life for visitors Wang’s circle of friends, the exhibition showcases not only Wang’s own calligraphy works but also the letters, calligraphic works and paintings that he exchanged with friends such as Liang Qichao, Shen Cengzhi, Yao Mangfu, Paul Pelliot, Suzuki Yorao and Naito Torajiro.
Every line of writing and every painting bears witness to the close friendship between Wang and other great names in the academic world.
In celebration of Wang Guowei’s birthday, Yao Mangfu made a painting titled “Qiju tu” (“painting of willow and chrysanthemum”), which now is hung in the exhibition hall. A scroll with a poem written by Wang to Zhu Ziqing, previously held in the archives of Tsinghua University, also makes its debut at the exhibit.
Answering the call of the times, Wang found his path and blazed a new trial in academic circles. In the prime of his life, he dedicated himself to a combination of Chinese and western learning, ushering in a new era for China’s academics. When he entered middle age, he moved on to the study of oracle bones, bamboo and wooden slips and Dunhuang studies. His industrious efforts in these fields led to his international reputation as a pathfinder and pioneer of what became known as “New Learning” during the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).
Lu Xun (1881-1936) once said of Wang, “Only books such as Liusha zhuijian (a work on archaeology written by Wang Guowei and Luo Zhenyu) can be considered true research in the field of Chinese Studies. And only men such as Wang Guowei, who wrote the long preface to the book, can be considered true researchers in this field.”
In February of 1925, at the invitation of the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, Wang started his teaching career as professor of guoxue (the study of traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism). Two months later, he, together with his wife and children, moved to housing on the academy’s campus, where he lived and worked until his death. Together with Liang Qichao, Chen Yinque and Zhao Yuanren, he became a legendary figure in the history of Chinese education. The exhibition also has a large section that showcases the archival materials related to Wang’s teaching career, in order to offer a glimpse into the highs and lows of his work and life. Seeing the photo of Wang’s residence at Tsinghua University in the 1920s, viewers feel as if they have gone back in time.
During his time as professor, two cohorts of students graduated from the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, many of whom turned out to be prominent scholars. The exhibition also presents handwritten works by some of these graduates to shed light on Wang’s academic life and career from their perspective.
The Immortal Academic Master
In a group photo of the first cohort of graduates at the Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, Wang, wearing a long braid, stands out from the shorthaired people around him. Some saw the braid as a token of his revolt against the social situation of that time, symbolising his loyalty to the overthrown Manchu emperor, and as a bold choice that was a prelude to the tragedy to come.
On June 2, 1927, Wang Guowei committed suicide by leaping off a tower at Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace in Beijing, just before China’s Civil War broke out, causing a great sensation across the nation. Following his suicide, his family found the suicide note that he had written the day before. The suicide note was well- organised as usual, corresponding with his normal behaviour before his suicide. Yet, he began his note with these words, “Having lived to 50 years, I am ready for death. With the world changing as it is, there is no justice, only disgrace.” The brief 16 Chinese characters in his note left his survivors at a complete loss. Over the ensuing 70 odd years, views on his suicide have varied, making it a riddle yet to be solved.
Chen Yinque, a fellow teacher at Tsinghua University and Wang’s closest friend, wrote a eulogy for him, lamenting, “Where there is a culture on the wane, there is a man of letters in pain who is rooted in it. The more deeply rooted in it he is, the more pain he suffers, even going to the lengths of committing suicide. Yet, Wang did this not to attain peace for himself, but out of duty to his long- cherished culture.” Later, on the Memorial Epitaph for Master Wang Jing’an, Tsinghua University, Chen’s epitaph reads, “Wang’s independent spirit and freedom of thought, sacrificed at his death, will survive to the end of time, like heaven and earth, like the sun, the moon and the stars.”
Now, an array of precious cultural relics, such as the lithographed edition of Wang’s suicide note, the original copy of Wang’s obituary and the elegiac couplet by Chen Yinque, are on exhibit as tribute to Wang’s extraordinary life.
“Qiju tu” (“painting of willow and chrysanthemum”)