Wang Guowei’s Ex­tra­or­di­nary Life and Ca­reer

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Qi­uyue Edited by Roberta Raine Photo cour­tesy of Ts­inghua Univer­sity Art Mu­seum

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.

Teach­ing Ca­reer

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”)

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