CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 12, December 2007


Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane | China Heritage Quarterly

Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane

David Hawkes

This was an Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 25 May 1961. In many ways, David Hawkes' observations on Chinese literature, language and culture in the modern context adumbrate those expressed in another hemisphere in my 2005 essay, 'On New Sinology'. In this context, H. Lyman Miller has reminded us that it is also important to reconsider the panel discussions at the 'Symposium on Chinese Studies and the Disciplines' on 22 March 1964 at the Sixteenth Annual Meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in Washington, D.C.. Extended papers from that gathering and some extemporaneous comments from the floor by Benjamin Schwartz, later written into a short essay, were published in the August 1964 (23:4) issue of the Journal of Asian Studies.

Among other things, Ben Schwartz remarked in his 'The Fetish of the "Disciplines"' that

...whatever a man's discipline, the broader and deeper his general culture—his "general education," the more willing he is to bring whatever wisdom he has to bear on the subject he is treating. Whether this wisdom derives from the "methodology" of this discipline or not, it increases the likelihood of his saying something significant. Conversely, the mechanical application of an isolated "discipline" narrowly conceived in terms of a self-contained "model" or "system" to a culture (whether contemporary or "traditional") which has not been studied in any of its other aspects by a person of limited culture may lead to sterile and even preposterous results. (Journal of Asian Studies (23:4), p.537)

The follow speech is reprinted with kind permission from the editors of David Hawkes, Classical, Modern and Humane: Essays in Chinese Literature, John Minford and Siu-kit Wong, eds, (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1989), pp.3-23. (GRB)

David Hawkes with Hetta and Willam Empson in Peking, 1947/8. From A Birthday Book for Brother Stone for David Hawkes, at Eighty, Rachel May and John Minford, eds, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press and the Hong Kong Translation Society, 2003, p.11.

Somewhat more than thirteen years ago my learned predecessor, in circumstances similar to these, spoke of the 'humanistic scholarship' of the Chinese.[1] Having lived part of my life, as it were, under 'sage Homer's rule', I hope the 'humanism' of my own title will not be accounted plagiarism—that I shall be thought guilty of nothing more serious than imitation. For imitation, it is said, is the sincerest kind of flattery; and it would be improper for me to begin without paying tribute to Professor Dubs, since it was under his aegis that Chinese studies in Oxford, from being a sort of one-man band, began to assume the appearance and proportions of a department; and it is largely due to his energy and initiative that the department now has a considerable library.

Chinese was first added to the Honour School of Oriental Studies in 1939. During the years 1939-49 only five candidates for Honours offered it; and though twenty-two, the corresponding number for the years 1950-60, represents a marked increase, it still cannot be said that the occupant of this Chair gives instruction to multitudes.

To be sure it may seem strange—to one unacquainted with British educational theory it will seem startling—that a language spoken by nearly a quarter of the world's inhabitants should be studied by only a score or so of people in one of the world's great universities. Such, however, is the case; and I cannot but feel some diffidence in venturing to talk to you about my subject and the problems of teaching it, when I reflect that it is studied by only one-fifth of 1 per cent of the undergraduate members of this university.

My justification for doing so, rather than diverting you with some scholarly hobby-horse, is twofold. In the first place, there has of late been a good deal of public discussion about Orientalism, Orientalists and their future (if any), and Asian studies,[2] and a new arrival on the scene might reasonably be expected to show his hand.

In the second place it seems extremely likely that we shall, some time during the next ten years or so, be facing a very great increase in the number of young men and women wishing to study Chinese at this university, and had better decide, sooner rather than later, what we are going to teach them and how.

Fifty or sixty years ago the answer to this question would have seemed obvious. It is by no means obvious today. In order to explain why this is so I cannot do better than turn for a moment to the history of this Chair.

James Legge, the first professor of Chinese at Oxford, was born in Aberdeenshire in 1815. From his earliest years he had wanted to be a missionary, and after completing his education in Aberdeen he went at the age of 20 to study theology in London, and was sent out by the London Missionary Society to the Chinese Mission at Malacca in 1839. A year later he was appointed principal of the Anglo-Chinese College there, which another Scot, Robert Morrison, who was the first British protestant missionary in China and the pioneer of Chinese studies in Britain, had founded in 1825.

Historians generally date China's invasion by the Western world from the end of the First Opium War in 1842. The 'Unequal Treaties' which followed gave Britain, among other things, possession of Hong Kong, one consequence of which was the removal of Legge's college and him with it to the new colony in 1843. It was in Hong Kong in 1861 that the first volume appeared of his monumental translation of the Chinese Classics, which Hong Kong University will shortly be reissuing.

Not long after the appearance of this work, Legge acquired the services of a somewhat remarkable Chinese assistant.[3] This was Wang Tao, a Chinese graduate who failed to qualify for the mandarinate and drifted, while still a very young man, to the new Shanghai, where in 1849 he was offered a job as translator in the London Mission Press by its director Medhurst, who, like Legge, had gone to China at the end of the First Opium War. Wang Tao lived the somewhat lonely life of a Chinese collaborator until the fall of Nanking to the Taipings in 1853, when Shanghai became strategically important and the social status of Chinese employed by foreigners markedly improved. Then in 1862, for reasons which are somewhat obscure, he offered his services to the Taipings while visiting his mother in occupied territory. The evidence unfortunately fell into the hands of the Imperial authorities, and Wang Tao would undoubtedly have met a gruesome and lingering death had not the British Consul in Shanghai, who happened to be the son of his late employer Medhurst, given him asylum. Medhurst Junior subsequently sent him for safety to Hong Kong, and it was in this way that he began his association with Legge.

When Legge returned to Scotland on a long leave in 1867 he invited Wang Tao to join him, and this gay and romantic Chinese, who, despite his long association with missionaries, was not only an unregenerate heathen but a notable libertine, spent two years in the bosom of the Legge family at Dollar, Clackmannanshire, assisting the great sinologue in his labours of translation. In 1868, during his stay in Britain, he gave a talk in Chinese—presumably interpreted by Legge—to some undergraduates at Oxford. It was, according to Wang Tao's own account, received with great enthusiasm. After Legge's final return to this country Wang Tao set up as a journalist and publisher, first in Hong Kong and then in Shanghai. In Shanghai during the 80's he won considerable fame and influence by his reformist and other writings, including accounts of his travels abroad and a history of the Franco-Prussian War. He is, even today, far more widely known in China than Legge is in England.

But Legge is and was, of course, justly famous among all in this country who are interested in China or in Chinese studies. In 1875 a number of China merchants collected a fund for the endowment of a Chinese professorship in Oxford on the understanding that Legge should be the first to occupy the Chair. The university accepted; Corpus Christi College, where a portrait of him now hangs, elected him a Fellow, and on 27 October 1876 he delivered his inaugural lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre.[4]

How many pupils Legge taught is not known. Nor is there any record of what he taught them, though a photograph exists of what he wrote on the blackboard at his last lecture. His successor, however, published a book of Chinese Exercises clearly designed for those destined to wrestle with the Peking Gazette and the intricacies of the Chinese documentary style. This was T.L. Bullock, who occupied the Chair from 1899, two years after Legge's death, until his own death in 1915. Before becoming a professor, Bullock had spent twenty-eight years of his life in the Consular Service in China.

His successor, William Soothill, held the Chair from 1920 until his death in 1935. (The long fallow periods between appointments suggest that the pressure of students requiring instruction cannot have been heavy.) Soothill had, like his predecessor, already completed an eventful and active career before he became a professor. He started life as an articled clerk in a firm of solicitors, but went to China as a missionary at the age of 22. During a quarter of a century he founded a hospital, a training college, schools, and two hundred preaching stations, and translated the New Testament into the Wenzhou dialect, and in 1907 he was appointed President of the Imperial University of Shanxi. He was the first, and no doubt the last, Professor of Chinese in Oxford to be granted the Order of the Striped Tiger and that of the Red Button. He was succeeded in 1938 by the distinguished Chinese scholar Chen Yinke, who was tragically prevented by blindness from taking up the appointment when he came to England after the war in 1946. He is in China now, and continues to work and publish with the help of amanuenses. I should like, as one of his successors, to offer my homage to that very learned and courageous man.[5]

During the twelve years from the death of Soothill to the appointment of my predecessor, the flame was kept burning by the late E. R. Hughes, who, after a missionary career in China, was appointed Reader in Chinese Philosophy and Religion in 1934. It was he who founded the Chinese Honour School in 1939. Many here, in China, and in America will remember him with affection.

David and Jean Hawkes, Peking, 1951. From A Birthday Book for Brother Stone for David Hawkes, at Eighty, Rachel May and John Minford, eds, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press and the Hong Kong Translation Society, 2003, p.258.

The history of the other Chairs of Chinese in England is very similar to the story I have just told. The Chairs at Oxford, Cambridge, and London were all a product of this combination of protestant missionary endeavour, commercial enterprise, and colonial expansion. University College, London, was the first to found a Chair in 1838. It was held by the Rev. Samuel Kidd until 1842 at a professorial salary of £60 per annum. No successor was found capable of such heroic abnegation until 1873, though King's College, London, succeeded in filling a Chair of Chinese very economically with a succession of professors from 1846. None left a heavy impress on the shore of time—not at any rate, in comparison with Legge. The first Professor of Chinese at Cambridge was Sir Thomas Wade, appointed in 1888, thirteen years after Legge. He came from a very distinguished diplomatic career in China which began in the Chinese Customs Service. His successor, H.A. Giles, who succeeded to Wade's appointment in 1899 and held it until his retirement at the age of 87 in 1932, had also been a consular official in China before he became a professor. The Rev. A.C. Moule held the Chair from 1933 to 1938. Gustav Haloun, who succeeded Moule, was the first Professor of Chinese in England to be appointed from an academic background. All before him had come from active lives in China and considered it the main part of their task to give the young men who came to them the sort of training that would fit them for a career similar to their own.

Let us consider some of the changes which have taken place since Legge gave his inaugural lecture eighty-five years ago. The China of Legge's day was an effete empire governed by the decadent Manchu dynasty and a Confucian-trained Chinese bureaucracy for the most part underpaid, corrupt, and rendered intellectually impotent by generations of censorship and coercion. Like a great stranded fish gnawed at by small land animals she lay defenceless before the encroachments of the Powers. ''Tis the first leaf of the mulberry tree on which the silk-worm settles,' Legge quotes a Chinese acquaintance as saying on the subject of the New Territories; 'you will go on from that and eat up the whole of China.'

Today China is a republic; the texts of Marxism have replaced the Confucian canon as the required reading of her bureaucracy; and the world trembles to see which way the awakened giant, irritable after sleep, will tread.

In Legge's day there were at least a dozen British consulates in China besides innumerable missionary stations and business houses. He was able to tell his audience that in 1875 Great Britain and her possessions had accounted for three-quarters of the total volume of Chinese overseas trade. Today consuls, missionaries, traders have vanished like last year's snows. Our trade with China in 1960 was less than three-quarters of 1 per cent, of the total volume of our overseas trade.

In Legge's day our image of China was still, though somewhat tarnished, that 'self-image' of the Chinese, as Professor Arthur Wright of Yale University has called it,[6] which the Jesuit missionaries brought back to France in the seventeenth century. The Jesuits in China looked for their patrons and converts among those in high places, and they won and maintained their favour by acquiring their Confucian learning, adopting their Confucian dress, and tolerating their Confucian observances. The missionary rivals of the Jesuits accused them of permitting idolatry, of not preaching Christ crucified, of allowing many superstitious and unchristian practices; and a bitter war of pamphleteering and intrigue began, sometimes merging into the larger quarrel of Jesuits and Jansenists, which lasted for more than a century and is known as the Rites Controversy. In this quarrel the Jesuits were forced to defend themselves by claiming that the Chinese possessed a sort of 'natural Christianity'; had from early times enjoyed a special share of grace; were governed by the most perfect institutions; and so on. They were defended by such formidable advocates as the king of France's confessor, Tellier, of whom Saint-Simon has given so terrifying a description. But in the end they lost. The picture they had painted of China, however, of her antiquity, her natural religion, her government by men of talent, her enlightened despotism, was eminently acceptable to the men of the Enlightenment.[7] And, in a diluted form, it has persisted to the present. There is no lack of people even today who believe that the society which perished only a few years ago was just such a harmonious Confucian utopia.

For the Jesuit image is essentially a Confucian one. In the Confucian view the Chinese empire, lying physically at the centre of the world, was founded by sages in the Golden Age of high antiquity; and the culture created by those sages was codified and enshrined for all time by Confucius, whose followers, the educated elite preserved this cultural heritage from age to age, and by virtue of this office had, like the guardians in Plato's republic, the right to rule the rest of society and to be supported by its labours. Dynasties rise and fall in endless cycles, but the overall picture is one of a static unchanging world.

Confucianism is rather like a secular religion invented by a benevolent agnostic for the harmonious functioning of a human beehive. It is an excellent code for an enlightened bureaucrat. It inculcates honesty, loyalty, and integrity, a sense of responsibility, a spirit of tolerance and compromise, a benevolent concern for the welfare of one's inferiors, a decent respect—wherever conscience permits—for one's superiors, a proper regard for ceremony and precedent, and a nice sense of the degrees of affection and obligation demanded by each set of human relationships. Mr. T.S. Eliot once observed that 'as soon as the emotions disappear the morality which ordered them becomes hideous;'[8] and Confucianism could in its latter days become a cloak for much that was repulsive. In its time, though, it produced men as civilized and humane as any other code or creed has done that has yet been devised by man.

But the world view of the Confucian elite and their concept of history were hopelessly at variance with the facts. Centuries of foreign conquest, the existence of cultures other than that of the Chinese but of parallel importance, radical changes in Chinese society, the tremendous part played by Buddhism in Chinese thought and institutions—these are a few of the factors which Confucian historians either overlooked or wilfully ignored.

Yet this extremely partial view has coloured not only the popular impression of China as an extremely ancient, almost totally static society—what Ranke called in his famous phrase 'die Völker des ewigen Stillstandes';[9] it has even left its impress upon serious studies. To sceptical Confucians Buddhism was a despised heterodoxy. Europe of the Enlightenment was therefore scarcely permitted to know of the very existence of Chinese Buddhism. England of the twentieth century still has no university appointment in Chinese Buddhist studies. But 'die chinesische Welt war nicht immer konfuzianisch and wird es such in Zukunft nicht sein,' as Otto Franke said in 1930.[10] It was in Buddhism, not in Confucianism, that the Chinese religious and philosophical genius found its highest expression.

One radical change that has taken place since Legge's day has been in our conception of Chinese antiquity. Of the various factors which brought about this change the most striking was the excavation during the 1930's of the Shang dynasty's capital in Henan and the decipherment of the oracle bone inscriptions, giving confirmation of the reigns of a long line of kings whose very existence had often before then been doubted.

There is no time now to tell the remarkable story of these discoveries, from its beginning in 1899, when Wang Yirong realized that the 'dragon's bones' sold him by a Peking apothecary were in fact priceless documents of antiquity, to the opening of the cruciform graves at Anyang, and the painstaking decipherment of the oracle bone script by scholars like Wang Guowei and Dong Zuobin, many of them still continuing their labours today. Most people, even if they have not heard the story of these discoveries, will have admired in our museums those splendid, somewhat sinister bronze ritual vessels, products of the superb craftsmanship of Shang artisans.

But many other less spectacular discoveries contributed to the changed view of Ancient China—not least the patient labours of generations of Chinese philologists, often almost unknown in their own day, who made possible a reassessment of the ancient texts. There is a fairly close parallel between this reassessment of China's ancient past and our own reassessment of Classical antiquity in the West. Future historians will no doubt decide whether or not some hidden link united these parallel processes.

Confucius once said that if he were asked to govern a country the first measure he would take would be the rectification of terms. It seems to me that a good deal of misunderstanding about the nature and requirements of Chinese studies derives from the highly misleading way in which they are labelled.

Take the use of the terms 'classics' and 'classical' as applied to Chinese literature. Legge called his translations of the Confucian canon the Chinese Classics. The Confucian canon is a miscellaneous collection of ancient works of various date, consisting on the one hand of the books which Confucianists used for educational purposes, and on the other of the writings and sayings of Confucius and his disciples. When Confucianism, from being one of a number of competing philosophical schools, was raised under the imperial Han regime to the status of an orthodoxy, Confucianism gradually became the official creed of the bureaucracy; upper-class education was based upon the study of the Confucian books; and finally under later dynasties, when it became the practice to recruit the bureaucracy by means of competitive written examinations, the Confucian books were as a rule the required texts.

In the sense, then, that they are ancient texts of secular literature which were used to train countless generations of young men for positions of responsibility, the Confucian books may legitimately be compared with the Greek and Latin Classics of the West. The analogy breaks down in that 'Classics' in the West refers in a general way to the literature of a period; whilst the Confucian books are only a small fraction of extant contemporary literature, and at that by no means the most valuable one, whether from a literary or a philosophical point of view. Also, although the Confucian books cannot be described as religious texts, they were thought of by Confucianists as in some way embodying the Truth. Even within living memory a few conservative Chinese scholars were still trying to find democracy, science, socialism, and all other 'isms' and 'ologies' of the West in these archaic writings on the grounds that all Truth had been revealed in them, however darkly, by the Sage. (In just the same way seventeenth-century savants attempted to fit ancient China into the Christian canon by equating Fu Xi with Adam, Shen Nong with Cain, and the Yellow Ancestor with Enoch.)[11] In this sense the Confucian books, though they are secular texts, could more properly be compared with the Holy Scriptures than with the secular Classics of the West.

Westerners of course also use 'classical' in a wider, vaguer sense to mean little more than 'old and important' . This usage is imitated by modern Chinese, who include poetry of the eighth and fiction of the eighteenth century in the term gudian wenxue, which is the Chinese equivalent of 'Classical literature'. Yet another usage is that of modern sinologists who frequently use the term 'Classical' to include all Chinese literature, whether Confucian or not, written up to about the beginning of the Christian era.

The term 'Classical' as applied to Chinese studies can, however, have a quite different sense. Chiefly as a result of a ninth-century Confucianist revival, it became the practice among Chinese men of letters in the medieval period to write in an archaic, obsolete style of Chinese modelled on the writings of the ancients, with the result that the language of speech and the written language became increasingly dissimilar, until today they are two quite different languages. As in Europe, the language of speech was used as a written medium for works of a popular nature: fiction, drama, lyric poetry, Zen dialogues. Some of the greatest works of Chinese literature are in this language, and the earliest examples of it are considerably older than Chaucer. It is the first of these two languages, the archaic written language, which is often referred to as 'Classical Chinese'. The second is somewhat unsuitably termed 'Colloquial Chinese'.

Classical Chinese continued to be the normal medium of written communication in China until modern times. Its use had, of course, the same great advantage as that of Latin in Europe, in that an educated elite, who were often mutually unintelligible in speech, could participate by means of it in a uniform literary culture which transcended the parochial boundaries of race and tongue. It was not until after the anti-Confucian 'new literature' movement which took place between 1917 and 1921 that Colloquial Chinese began to displace Classical Chinese in general use. The displacement is by no means total even today; though in a modern, industrial society so aristocratic a means of communication is obviously doomed.

Inscription in the calligraphy of Liu Ts'un-yan 柳存仁 from A Birthday Book for Brother Stone for David Hawkes, at Eighty, Rachel May and John Minford, eds, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press and the Hong Kong Translation Society, 2003, Frontispiece.

Here, then, is a fertile source of confusion. It is always possible to imply that a person's studies are ancient and outmoded by calling them 'Classical', or that they are modern and unacademic by calling them 'Colloquial'. The truth is that Chinese literature is written in two different languages, and that anyone seriously interested in literature, not merely in talking to people on trains, really needs to know both. I shall try to demonstrate this fact with some illustrations.

Towards the end of the war a young Red Army worker stationed in the border area of Northern Shaanxi had to investigate a local tragedy arising out of a faulty judgement in a divorce case. One day he chanced to hear a shepherd singing a ballad of his own composition which not only described the affair in lively and moving terms, but also set out the facts of the case and of its mishandling by the authorities so clearly and succinctly that it greatly assisted the young man in his investigations, and at the same time turned him into a dedicated and indefatigable collector of Shaanxi folk-songs.[12] During the years which followed, besides collecting and publishing a large number of folk-songs, Li Ji (this was the young man's name) tried his hand at imitation, and the result was a ballad-poem over 700 lines long called Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang, completed in 1945 and first published at Peking in 1949. At one point in the poem Li Xiangxiang, the heroine, is seeing the man she has only a few days before married off to the wars.

By the bend of the brook the mud's yellow and thick:
Scoop some, and out of it fashion us two;
Make an image of me and an image of you.
Then smash them and mix their clay all up again.
Fashion another me,
Fashion another you:
So that in you, my dear, there will be some of me,
So that in me, my dear, there will be some of you.
And the little clay girl will cry, 'In a few days,
In a few days, my love, come back to me!'[13]



Here now is the wife of the fourteenth-century painter, Zhao Mengfu, addressing her husband in reply to some playful verses which he had sent her:

Surely was never so loving a pair!
For the potter took clay
And he fashioned a me
And modelled a you:
Then, when the whim took him,
He smashed both the ures
And set to again:
Kneaded and worked the clay,
Fashioned another me,
Modelled another you:
So that, you see,
My body is partly you
And you are partly me.



A Chinese reader who, after reading the first of these two passages, felt troubled by echoes of the poem by Zhao Mengfu's wife, might quite likely have hunted for the original in a critical commentary by the seventeenth-century critic Jin Shengtan on the verse-drama Xixiangji. Xixiangji was written by Wang Shifu at the end of the thirteenth century. It is the most famous and best-loved play in the Chinese language, not for its plot—which consists of little more than an affair between a girl of good family and a young scholar lodging at the same monastery as the girl and her mother—but because of the wit and charm of the language and the wonderful way in which atmosphere is evoked by it: there are scenes in which one seems almost to brush the glistening dew and to sense the hushed strangeness of a moonlight night, when the rustle of a small breeze becomes weirdly significant, and the moving shadows of leaves and flowers on a wall may grow sinister or startling.

There is one scene in the play in which the heroine, who has gone into the garden to burn incense and make her wish beneath the full moon, hears the scholar playing upon the cittern. At first the sound is too soft to be identified.

'Come,' she says, 'let me conceal myself in the shadows at the corner of the wall and listen. Ah, it was someone in the west court playing on the cittern's silken strings. The music

Now martial, like mass of mailed horsemen with sword and lance thundering by,
Now tranquil, like a deep stream on which fallen blossoms lie,
Now strident, as cry of cranes shattering the silence of a fresh, moon bright sky,
Now low, like children's voices whispered in a little window, that fall and die.
The story's done;
The grief goes on;
The grief of phoenixes parted from their mates.
Before the tune ended
My heart comprehended:
Shrike flies east, swallow west, as the song relates. All this the cittern, without words, narrates.
Not I, your other, have an ear strangely keen
So to detect what your own self could mean:
The listener's heart, attuned to the self-same strain,
Vibrated to the notes and broke with pain.'[14]





At this point the critic Jin Shengtan interpolates a few lines of rapturous commentary:

'I, your other'- excellent! 'Your own self '—excellent! Zhao Mengfu once wrote a little poem in the ci style which he playfully presented to his wife. She wrote in reply...


'我他人'妙妙!'你自己'妙妙!昔赵公雪学士信手戏作小词,赠其夫人。管曰: ...

And there follows the little poem by Zhao Mengfu's wife that I have already cited. The poem itself is in fourteenth-century Colloquial Chinese, whilst Jin Shengtan's commentary is written in Classical Chinese. A little farther on we find him citing a passage from the writings of an ancient philosopher. This is in an essay introducing the scene in which the scholar, who has now parted from his mistress, is spending the night in an inn and dreams that the girl follows him there, only to be snatched from him and carried off by a band of mutinous soldiers:[15] Jin Shengtan's essay is largely a discussion on the nature of dream and reality:

Well has this been shown in Zhuangzi. 'One day,' says Zhuangzi, 'I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamed that I was a butterfly. And very pleasant it was. I was aware only that I was content to be what I was, and had no awareness that I was in fact Zhuang Zhou.

'Presently I awoke and was startled to find that I was Zhuang Zhou—yet not quite sure whether I was in fact Zhuang Zhou who had been dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou.'

Of course, there must be some distinction between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly... .



Zhuangzi is a work written for the most part in the third century B.C. and is, of course, in Classical Chinese. So, incidentally, are Liezi and the Buddhist sutra which Jin Shengtan quotes in this same essay.

The plot of Xixiangji is not original. It is, indeed, only the last in a whole series of adaptations. The original was a short story written in Classical Chinese by the poet Yuan Zhen, a close friend of Bo Juyi, in the ninth century. Yuan's story is less romantic and sentimental and a good deal more lifelike than the play. The hero's conduct throughout it seems decidedly shabby. But not shabby enough, it appears. Professor Chen Yinke, who, as I mentioned earlier, held the post of Professor of Chinese in Oxford for eight years in absentia, is convinced that the Story of Yingying, as it is called, is autobiographical, and that the girl on whom Cui Yingying is modelled was a young woman of inferior social status callously sacrificed by Yuan Zhen in the interests of his career. (Professor Chen writes, by the way, in Classical Chinese.)

The following passage from the Story of Yingying is interesting for a character sketch of the heroine which somehow contrives to say a good deal about her although it is almost entirely negative. In the story it is she, not the young man, who plays the cittern at night.

Miss Cui was an elegant calligrapher and an accomplished writer. Yet though Zhang constantly requested to see specimens of her work, he never succeeded in doing so. Sometimes he would try to provoke her into discussing it by showing her things that he had written himself; but she read them cursorily and without much attention. She was a person who demanded of herself the highest standard of excellence in all that she undertook, but who would yet betray no outward sign of knowing anything about it. Her conversation was lively and intelligent, yet she lacked small talk. And though she felt the warmest regard for Zhang, she would never communicate her feelings in words. Often her somewhat mournfully beautiful face would assume a withdrawn expression, as though she didn't know him at all. Seldom did any trace of emotion appear in it. Once Zhang overhead her playing a very melancholy tune on the cittern to herself at night. Yet when later he asked her to play for him, she never would... .[16]

The play Xixiangji is several times mentioned in the famous eighteenth-century novel, Hongloumeng (the 'Dream in the Red Chamber'). To the younger members of the noble household with which the novel is mainly concerned, fiction or drama of any kind was forbidden reading. In the passage I am just about to read you, the adolescent hero, Baoyu, has gone into an unfrequented part of the gardens to read Xixiangji, and is disturbed by his cousin Daiyu, who is sweeping up fallen peach-blossoms and burying them in a grave. She invites his assistance:

Baoyu was delighted to comply. 'Wait while I put this book somewhere,' he said, 'and I'll help you collect them.'
'What book?' said Daiyu.
'Oh, Confucian Classics,' said Baoyu. hastily concealing it.
'I know you are up to no good,' said Daiyu. 'You would have done much better to let me look in the first place, instead of hiding it so guiltily.'
'In your case, Daiyu, I have nothing to be afraid of,' said Baoyu; 'but if you do look, promise not to tell anyone. It's awfully well written. Once you start reading it, you'll even forget your meals.'
He handed the book to her, and Daiyu put down her flowers and looked. The more she read, the more she liked it, and before very long
she had already read several acts. She felt the power of the words and the lingering fragrance of them. After reading, she sat lost in thought with the words still ringing softly in her mind.
'Well,' said Baoyu, 'is it good?'
Daiyu smiled and nodded her head.
Baoyu laughed.
''I am a sad and lovesick swain
And yours is a beauty that kingdoms fall for.''
Daiyu reddened to the tips of her ears. The eyebrows that seemed to frown and yet didn't were now raised in anger, and the lovely eyes
flashed. There was rage in her crimson checks, and resentment in all her looks.
'How dare you! You seem to think that you can use the wicked lines in this book just to take advantage of me and talk a lot of nonsense. All right, I'm going off to tell Uncle and Aunt.'
At the words 'take advantage of me' her eyes filled with tears, and as she finished talking she swung round and walked away.[17]

A scholarly Chinese would no doubt read this passage in the excellent 1955 facsimile edition which reproduces an early manuscript of Hongloumeng containing an eighteenth-century rubric commentary, and will observe that the commentator, in an entry dated 1767, mentions that he has often wanted to paint Daiyu in this scene. Mr. Wu Shichang of this university has recently demonstrated that the commentary was written by the author's uncle. Like the commentary on Xixiangji, it is mostly in Classical Chinese.

'It's now possible to get a rough idea of the layout of this part of the mansion'. From David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone: A Translator's Notebooks, Hong Kong: Centre for Literature and Translation, Lingnan University, 2000, p.95.

So we have the third-century B.C. Zhuangzi in Classical Chinese, the ninth-century A.D. Story of Yingying in Classical Chinese, the thirteenth-century poetic drama Xixiangji in Colloquial Chinese, the fourteenth-century poem by Zhao Mengfu's wife in Colloquial Chinese, Jin Shengtan's seventeenth-century criticism of Xixiangji in Classical Chinese, the eighteenth-century novel Hongloumeng in Colloquial Chinese and its eighteenth-century commentary in Classical Chinese, and finally Li Ji's twentieth-century Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang in Colloquial Chinese, all in some way interlinked, so that a person engaged in research into any one of them might easily and imperceptibly find himself borne towards any other. To lack either one of these two languages would not be a mere closing of certain doors; it would cripple the researcher and render his labours nugatory.

It may be felt that the illustrations I have chosen are either too frivolous or too narrowly literary. But what I have said is true of almost any branch of Chinese studies. Just as the study of Colloquial literature constantly involves the student in reading memoirs, biographies, commentaries, and criticisms in Classical Chinese, so the study of Chinese antiquity necessitates his perusal of learned works by modern Chinese scholars written in the Colloquial language.

The extent to which Chinese studies in the West are dependent on native scholarship is not always realized. Actually it is no more surprising than the fact that East Asian scholars should have to lean heavily on Western achievement in the field of Greek and Latin studies. Yet too often the analogy thought of has been that of some Near Eastern discipline like Assyriology where, of course, native tradition and native scholars simply do not exist. This point has been brought out very well by Dr. Arthur Waley in a recent book. He says:

We have to remember that in the nineteenth century archaeology combined with a mild kind of espionage (consisting in little more than map-making) had been carried on extensively in Moslem countries where conversion to Islam had long ago completely divorced the inhabitants from their remote past.

It was assumed that in lands of the Near and Middle East no one was capable of understanding or appreciating relics of pre-Mohammedan culture and that their removal to Europe for conservation and study could not reasonably be resented. The continuity of Chinese culture and the existence, even during the twilight of the Manchu empire, of scholars such as Luo Zhenyu and Wang Guowei, made the adoption of a similar attitude towards Chinese treasure-trove quite inapplicable.[18]

Modern Chinese scholars mostly write in the Colloquial language. By failing to read their works we should condemn ourselves to a barren and ridiculous provincialism. We must therefore master whatever medium they choose to write in. If they reform the Chinese script, as they lately have done, we must master the reformed script. If they alphabetize it, as they threaten to, we must learn to spell. We cannot, unfortunately, even if we would, lock ourselves up in a tower of ivory and let the waves of history and politics wash unheeded beneath, if only for the very practical reason that most of the textbooks we read are printed in China.

Let us be quite clear, then, that the academic study of Chinese beyond the most elementary level requires a knowledge of both languages, Colloquial Chinese and Classical Chinese, whatever our interest may be—palaeography, phonology, philosophy, Buddhism, ancient history, poetry, fiction, drama, or modern history. There is only one sort of study which can be excepted from this rule, and that is the study of post-1920 literature. And though that should no doubt have some place in a curriculum—it already has in ours—one could no more base a whole school of Chinese studies upon it than one could confine a course in English literature to works written since the end of the Second World War.

The study of Chinese is not merely the study of a foreign language. It is the study of another culture, another world—'une autre Europe au bout de l'Asie,' Michelet called it.[19] To go into this storehouse of dazzling riches and select from among the resplendent vessels of massive gold one small brass ashtray made in Birmingham—this would be to show a want of imagination, a lack of love, that would unfit us for university teaching of any kind.

Nevertheless we cannot shut our eyes to the practical need for what, in the profession, are called Modern Studies. Our age requires of us that we should understand and explain this new China which we have lately rediscovered, since this, after all, not the China of Confucius or of Genghiz Khan, is the reality which confronts us. And whoever can, whether by historical investigation or through the medium of one of the social or natural sciences, contribute to our understanding of the present reality will, perhaps rightly, be preferred, encouraged, and promoted by those who hold the purse strings and the strings of power.

It is true, of course, that all Chinese studies contribute in some way or other to our total understanding of China; it is true that the Confucian writings have been studied by so many millions of Chinese that they have acquired an historical significance which the historian cannot afford to ignore; it is true that we are concerned—or are usually supposed to be concerned—rather with education than with training; but it is equally true that this Chair was founded by the efforts of China merchants at the height of British colonial and commercial activity in China in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and that the greatest stimulus Chinese studies here have received since then they received on the recommendations of a government commission appointed in the penultimate year of the war, when national emergency had revealed the appalling scarcity of experts with knowledge of Asiatic countries and their languages.

I doubt whether anyone in this country who is concerned with Chinese studies, whether here or at Cambridge or in London, would dispute the need for the informed, scientific study of the history and institutions of Modern China. Let it be clear from the outset, then, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the position of Colloquial Chinese in university curricula. Any student of Modern Chinese history who is capable of handling Chinese sources (there are remarkably few) will tell you that many of his primary sources are in Classical Chinese. The Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Tongzhi Restoration, the Hundred Days' Reform, the Boxer Rising, the career of Sun Yat-sen—these subjects, to name only the first few that come to mind, would be studied, as far as primary sources are concerned, exclusively in the Classical language. It is entirely erroneous to assume, as is often done, that because we need Modern Studies and Colloquial Chinese is modern, therefore Modern Studies can best be advanced by promoting Colloquial at the expense of Classical Chinese.

But however much we may, as Sinophiles or Sinologues, look forward to an increased number of historians and philosophers and social scientists specializing in China and able to use Chinese language sources, it is surely not the business of a Chinese Honour School to train them.

'Friday 1 Mar[ch] 1974'. From David Hawkes, The Story of the Stone: A Translator's Notebooks, Hong Kong: Centre for Literature and Translation, Lingnan University, 2000, p.137.
What, it may be asked, is the business of an Honour School of Chinese? Foreign languages other than the Oriental ones are already taught in two quite different ways in this university: the Modern Languages way and the Literae Humaniores way. We cannot model ourselves closely upon either, because the languages they teach have, as a rule, already been studied for four or five years at school by the students who come up to read them; whereas we are frequently expected—and, with the end of National Service and of students who learned Chinese in Service courses, shall in the future be almost invariably expected—to teach Chinese from its rudiments in two and a half years, or at most three years.

Two years ago Russia already had ten schools where Chinese was being taught by qualified teachers to a total of more than 2,000 pupils.[20] I am sure that here, too, within our life-times, Chinese will come to seem no more peculiar a subject to teach in schools than Russian now does today. But it will be many years before an Honour School of Chinese can assume proficiency in the Chinese language in all of its freshmen.

If one had subscribed to the comfortable view that there is a key to every culture—that, for example, Homer, Virgil, the Bible, and Shakespeare, taken as a kind of bolus could, as it were, qualify one for a pass degree in European culture—one might reasonably, in Legge's day, have looked on the Confucian classics as an obvious key to the soul of China. But since the Chinese have disobligingly deprived us of a ready-made answer to the question 'What should we teach?' by repudiating Confucianism as a state orthodoxy, there seems no longer any particular reason for esteeming the philosophical works of the Confucian school more highly than those of its contemporary rivals, or even for preferring the works of the pre-imperial period to the masterpieces of later times. The great histories of Sima Qian and Ban Gu in the Han dynasty, the poets of the Six Dynasties and Tang periods, the story-tellers, playwrights, and novelists of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods—all seem intrinsically no less valuable or important than the philosophical writings of the third and fourth centuries B.C. The parallel and almost simultaneous ferment of ideas in Greece and in China a few centuries before the beginning of the Christian era makes comparison of their ancient literatures valuable and meaningful. But whereas Greece decayed and Rome fell, China is with us yet, and the torrent of her literary output has continued unabated up to the present. God knows, it can never be said of Chinese literature la chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres. There is an embarrassment of riches from which a paltry handful must for the purposes of an Honour School somehow be selected; and some principle must be arrived at which shall govern the choice.

And it is most important to arrive at the principle soon, since the exponent of Chinese language and literature everywhere finds himself, like Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, surrounded by experts, each of them a vested interest, urging him to spend more time on history, or philosophy, or art; telling him that Japanese is essential, or Korean, or Tibetan, of Mongol, or Manchu; exhorting him to be more modern, or maybe more ancient, to use more visual aids, or more aural aids, to teach more Colloquial Chinese, or less; and so on, and so on.

Perhaps it is easier to enunciate the principle if we have a clear idea of what we are teaching people for. Let me say at once that we are not training interpreters or consuls. This country is not going to devour China like the silk-worm in the prophecy. Never again will a generation of young Englishmen find fulfilment in the Chinese Customs. What we shall need, however, is a very large number of young men and women who count the Chinese language among the tools at their disposal for the study of history, or literature, or economics, or politics, or geography, or science, or art, and for whom Chinese literature is a part of their total cultural experience.

We shall, I think, always be a trifle odd and peripheral; and accordingly we must never be too proud to act as a handmaid-subject to other disciplines. We must always be prepared to teach Chinese to postgraduate historians, and should accordingly make speed to improve our methods of language teaching.

But let us be realistic. Learning Chinese is a long, difficult, and laborious business. The system which makes us teach Chinese in two and a half years while demanding four for the Classics or Chemistry is (if I may be permitted to say so) an ass. How much less adequate still, for teaching this difficult language, must be the exiguous fraction of an Advanced Student's time that could be spared for linguistic training. Surely it is the products of the Honour School, having a sound general training in language and literature, who should go on to become the future Chinese specialists in other disciplines? Not the other way round.

We must therefore agitate tirelessly for a longer Honour School; and we must make it sufficiently broad and humane to satisfy those whose interests are not narrowly philological—not, certainly, by the use of glib parallels and misleading analogies, but by presenting Chinese literature as a part of our total human heritage; and we must have experts to encourage special interests in ancient or modern history, or philosophy, or religion, or palaeography, or archaeology, or art. But we must always insist that the Honour School should be based on the study of literature.

To conclude, then, our task is not the training of interpreters, nor the indulgence of exotic tastes, nor the revelation of some arcane Truth which the Orient possesses but we do not, nor the mastery of a sterile Asiatic scholasticism, but literature.

If universities are not to teach language by means of literature—by means of books which are intrinsically worth-while reading, I for one do not want to be a university teacher.

But that is another lecture.


[1] Homer H. Dubs, China the Land of Humanistic Scholarship, An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 23 February 1948 (Clarendon Press, 1949).

[2] See, for example, Dr. Walter Zander's article 'An outmoded concept: Orientalism in the Modern World' published in The Times Educational Supplement, 6 January 1961, and the article by Col. Geoffrey Wheeler, 'Universities' neglect of modern Asia', published in The Guardian, 13 March 1961, and subsequent correspondence published on 16, 21, 23, and 30 March.

[3] For a full and entertaining account of Wang Tao's career, see H. McAleavy, The Life and Writings of a Displaced Person, Wang T'ao (1828-?1890) (London: China Society, 1953).

[4] Inaugural Lecture, on the Constituting of a Chinese Chair in the University of Oxford delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oct. 27, 1876. By Rev. James Legge, M.A. Oxford, LL.D. Aberdeen, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature (Oxford and London: James Parker & Co.; London: Trubner & Co., 57 and 59 Ludgate Hill, 1876).

[5] Chen Yinke died in 1969—original editors' note.

[6] Arthur F. Wright, 'The Study of Chinese Civilisation', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXI, No. 2 (April-June 1960), pp.234 seq.

[7] With some exceptions. For example, the Marquis de Saint-évremond was no admirer of Confucius: '. . . J'ai passé de ces Relations au Livre de Confucius, le plus ennuyeux moral que j'aye jamais Ses sentences sount au dessous des Quatrains de Pibrac, où il est entelligible: au dessus de l'Apocalypse, où il est obscur.'—from 'jugement sur les trois. Relations de Siam, à Monsieur le Fevre (médecin à Londres),' Oeuvres meslés de monsieur de Saint-évremond, seconde edition, reveüe, corrigée et augmentée de la vie de l'Auteur (London, 1709), Vol. III, p. 163.

[8] T.S. Eliot on 'Philip Massinger' in The Sacred Wood.

[9] 'Zuweilen sind wohl die von uralter Zeit vererbten Zustände eines oder des anderen orientalischen Volkes als Grundlage von Allem betrachtet worden. Unmöglich aber kann man von den Völkern eines ewigen Stillstands ausgehen, urn die innere Bewegung der Weltgeschichte zu begreifen.'—Leopold von Ranke, Weltgeschichte (Leipzig, 1881), Vol.1,

[10] Otto Franke, Geschichte des chinesischen Reiches (Leipzig, 1930), p.xviii.

[11] Cf. Georgius Hornius, Arca Noae sive Hirtoria Imperiorum et Regnorum a Condito orbe ad nostra Tempora (Leiden, 1666), pp. 15-16: 'Esto igitur, ut jam dictum, Fohius Adam, Xinnungus igitur erit Cain,' &c.

[12] Li Ji, Shuntianyu (Lianying shudian, 1950), pp.265 seq., especially p.266.

[13] Li Ji, Wang Gui yu Li Xiangxiang (Xinhua shudian, 1949), pp.45-46.

[14] From Xixiangji, 'Qin xin' Jin Shengtan's commentary is on the words sung to the tune of 'Malanger'.

[15] Xixiangji, 'jing meng'.

[16] See 'Yingyingzhuan' in Tang Song chuanqi ji, ed. Lu Xun (Peking: Xinhua shudian, 1958 second impression), p.131.

[17] Honglourneng, Chap.23.

[18] Arthur Waley, Ballads and Stories from Tun-huang (Allen & Unwin, 1960), p.237.

[19] Jules Michelet, Histoire de France, Vol. VIII. 'Réforme' (Paris, 1855), p.488.

[20] B.N. Zanegin, 'Teaching Chinese language in primary and secondary schools of pre-revolutionary Russia and the U.S.S.R.': Papers of Soviet Sinologues for the Twelfth Conference of Junior Sinologues, Cambridge, 7-12 September 1959, p.43.