Gu Yanwu

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GU YANWU (tzu, Ningren; hao, Tinglin; 16131682), a founder of the "school of evidential research" (kaozheng ). Gu Yanwu was born to the scholarly life. He was from Kunshan, Jiangsu province, in Southeast China, a region renowned for its historians and philosophers. His forebears were distinguished intellectuals, passionate readers and collectors of books. From the age of eleven, Gu was taught to read the encyclopedic originals of historical works rather than the standard abridgments. His upbringing instilled in him the highest standards of Confucian moral conduct.

At an early age, Gu's parents sent him to be adopted as the heir of his father's cousin, who had died in his teens. He was raised by his adoptive grandfather and by the fiancée of the deceased cousin, who insisted on living as his widow. This woman's extraordinary devotion to her fiancé's family won her public recognition and an imperial title, "Chaste and Filial." Gu Yanwu later expressed his admiration for his foster mother in a laudatory biography.

In 1644 the Manchus conquered North China, bringing an end to the Ming dynasty (13681644). The next year they drove south and conquered Jiangsu. During the siege, in which several of his relatives were killed or wounded, Gu fled with his foster mother to a remote village. When the Manchu victory was imminent, his mother starved herself to death as an act of loyalty to the Ming, exacting from her son a vow never to serve the Manchus.

In the early years of Manchu rule, Gu Yanwu, like many in the Southeast, resented the Manchus and clung to the hope that the Ming might be restored. Gu may even have covertly aided the resistance government headed by an exiled Ming prince. As time passed, many accepted the finality of the Ming defeat and made their peace with the new regime. The Manchus, for their part, courted the holdouts by means of the boxue hongci, a special examination in 1679 to select candidates for a lavish imperial project on Ming history. The court invited the support of leading intellectuals to dissipate the last vestiges of resistance in the Southeast; the "invitation" was in fact a command performance. Gu Yanwu was one of the few who did not take this examination; he escaped by working behind the scenes to have friends remove his name from the invitation list. Even after he had personally accepted the finality of the Ming defeat, he felt bound to honor his vow to his mother.

In 1657, Gu Yanwu narrowly escaped assassination by a personal enemy with whom he had been embroiled in a land dispute. To avert further harassment, Gu moved north and spent the remainder of his life separated from family and regional friends. In earlier years, he had turned in times of trouble to ancestral veneration, both to honor the heritage of his ancestors and to seek their guidance. In the North, he worshiped regularly at the tombs of the Ming imperial family, ritually renewing his commitment never to serve the Manchus, and hence honoring the memory of his mother.

The values and ritual practices of Confucianism gave meaning and structure to the life of Gu Yanwu. His scholarship was inspired and informed by his deep personal commitment to the Confucian Way.

Gu Yanwu charged that Confucian scholarship of the Song (9601279) and Ming was so speculative and tainted by Buddhism that it lost sight of the core of the tradition. He echoed the scholars of the late Ming in their call for practical learning (shixue ). Confucian scholarship could be effective only if it were solidly grounded in the authentic Way of the sages, which was expounded in the Confucian classics. For many centuries, however, Confucians, while venerating the classics as a kind of sacred canon, had distorted their true meaning by citing passages out of context or fabricating baseless interpretations. Inspired by Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) commentaries, Gu advocated a close reexamination of the classics, seeking to reconstruct the actual pronunciations and meanings of the original texts. He built on late Ming scholarship in phonology and philology, broadening the method by bringing to bear an enormous range of evidence. His work became the benchmark of evidential research.

Gu extended the methodology of kaozheng beyond classical studies. The broad-ranging collection of evidence and meticulous cross-checking of data were applied to such areas as water management, geography, and epigraphy. Gu did not limit his research to written materials; he made use of artifacts, interviews, and trips to the field. His energetic scholarship inspired several generations of intellectuals, many of whom did not appreciate the commitment to the Confucian Way that motivated his work.

Scholars have compared the legacy of kaozheng to the European Renaissance (Liang, 1959, p. 11, and Yü, 1975, p. 128) or to the Reformation (Hou, 19621963, p. 250). A more appropriate comparison might be made to the historical-critical movement in biblical scholarship, which arose alongside the European Enlightenment. Both movements claimed that misinterpretations of the canon had obscured the true teachings and exposed their traditions to dangers and heresies. Both sought to recover the true core of the teachings by means of the most rigorous historical and critical tools available. Both were occasionally misconstrued as secularizations of their traditions. Gu Yanwu devoted himself to rigorous scholarship in order to recover the solid foundations of the Way of the sages.


Gu Yanwu's Yinxue wushu in 38 juan (1667), 8 vols. (Taibei, 1957), established a model for the method of evidential research. His broader scholarly approach is best embodied in his Rizhi lu in 32 juan, "Guoxue jiben congshu," vol. 14, edited by Wang Yunwu (Taibei, 1968), a collection of erudite notes on a wide range of subjects that were revised throughout his life whenever he found a new bit of relevant information. The Gu Tinglin shi wenji, "Guoxue jiben congshu," vol. 317, edited by Wang Yunwu (Taibei, 1968), contains important letters and prefaces that articulate in succinct form the principles behind his scholarly approach.

There are two standard sources for Gu Yanwu's life. Fang Chao-ying's biography in Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 16441912, 2 vols., edited by Arthur W. Hummel (Washington, D.C., 19431944), includes a valuable overview of Gu's scholarly contributions, pp. 421426. Willard J. Peterson's "The Life of Ku Yen-wu, 16131682," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 28 (1968): 114156 and 29 (1969): 201247, offers a thoughtful analysis of the historical and familial forces that shaped Gu's career.

On Gu's thought and scholarship, the best works are Hou Wailu's Zhongguo sixiang tongshi, vol. 5 (Beijing, 19621963), pp. 204250, and Qian Mu's Zhongguo jin saibainian xueshu shi, 2 vols. (1937; reprint, Taibei, 1957), pp. 121153. There is as yet little in Western languages. Liang Qichao's Intellectual Trends in the Ch'ing Period, translated by Immanuel C. Y. Hsü (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), offers a brief introduction in English. Yü Ying-shih's article "Some Preliminary Observations on the Rise of Ch'ing Confucian Intellectualism," Tsing-hua Journal of Chinese Studies, n.s. 11 (1975): 105146, is the most helpful source on the origins and significance of the kaozheng movement.

New Sources

Ku, Wei-ying. "Gu Yanwu's Ideal of the Emperor: A Cultural Giant and Political Dwarf." In Imperial Rulership and Cultural Change in Traditional China, edited by Frederick P. Brandauer and Chun-chieh Huang, pp. 230247. Seattle, 1994.

Vergnaud, Jean-François. La pensée de Gu Yanwu, 16131682: essai de synthèse. Paris, 1990.

Vermeer, Eduard B. "Notions of Time and Space in the Early Ch'ing: The Writers of Gu Yanwu, Hsu Hsia-k'o, Ku Tsu-yu and Chang Hsueh-ch'eng." In Time and Space in Chinese Culture, edited by Chun-chieh Huang and Erik Zürcher, pp. 201236. Leiden, 1995.

Judith A. Berling (1987)

Revised Bibliography