Gu Yanwu: Translations of Letters, Poems and Essays

By | 1 February 2015

Gu Yanwu (1613-1682) stands out as one of the more remarkable figures in the history of Chinese letters, even in a landscape replete with remarkable figures. Undoubtedly a number of factors contributed to this, but two were of particular note. The first was his somewhat unusual upbringing in which there were two key figures. One was his adoptive mother, Wang, who undertook his early education. She was model of uncompromising rectitude who starved herself to death rather than live under the reviled Manchus and who extracted on her deathbed a promise from Gu that he would never serve the ‘alien regime’. The other was his grandfather, Gu Shaofei, who was responsible for his later education that was unusually wide-ranging.

The second factor was the turbulence of the times, marked by decay of the social structure and peasant uprisings, and saw the end of the Ming dynasty with the Ming ruling house being replaced by the conquering Manchus. Throughout a life which became largely itinerant, and was itself turbulent as were the times, Gu managed to write a great deal on a great number of subjects and formulate ideas that were particularly influential in a number of specific areas. In general terms, however, he is regarded as a pivotal figure in the redirection of Chinese thought away from the intellectual excesses of Song Neo-Confucian metaphysics and increasing inroads of Buddhism towards the essentials of Han Confucianism and the development of the kaozheng (evidential research) movement. Like most Chinese intellectuals of the day, Gu also wrote poetry and expressed clear ideas on what poetry should be about and what its purpose should be. As well, he was interested in the technical aspects of writing poetry and wrote an important work on phonology. In 1645, immediately after the Ming overthrow, he destroyed all the poems he had written as part of a fresh start in his writings. What follows are some samples of his letters, of which around 50 survive and are very revealing of the man, a small selection of his poems and two short essays of his on poetry.

Letters: from Gu Tinglin Wenji, section 3, 25 letters to friends

20: If some gentleman should wish to publish his own writings in order to seek fame in the world, it would be like someone losing his footing and falling into a well. If someone then were to add a preface to his works, how would this not be like casting a stone in on top of him? Before he has fallen, there is still time to stop him from this enterprise. If you try to stop him but he pays no heed, then a well may be considered an appropriate domicile for him. I have said all I need to say!

23: The ability to write doesn’t make someone a writer. The ability to explain (the Classics) doesn’t make someone a teacher. In my view those who are writers and teachers of the Classics at the present time are all motivated by the desire for fame as writers and teachers. Did the Master not say: “This is notoriety not distinction.” He also said: “To be silent and yet to understand it.” As Confucius said, even though I may not be a clever man, I must try to put these statements into practice.

25: Twenty-five years have passed from the year Dingyou (1657) to the present, during which time I have not received any news from you. Whenever I travel over mountains, along rivers or across strategic passes, I regret that we two are not together. And I think back to the high hills and fast-flowing streams between Rao and She which were like places at the very edge of heaven. Before, when you sent me a letter, I was at Wuhu and I made a record of it in my notebook. But my notebook was stolen by robbers so subsequently I didn’t know your address, and when I asked at Taiyuan Ford, I couldn’t get it. This autumn, people came from the capital and brought three letters from you, so I know you are well and haven’t been troubled with ill-health. I know too that in your travels by the Yellow and Fen Rivers, you have been accompanied by many men of the like of Fang and Tu, so my joy is unbounded. I unrolled and read your substantial writings in which you speak at length of present and past, and know that you think kindly of your old friend yet fear that his writings from an earlier time will not be transmitted. How solicitous you are!

Nevertheless, twenty-five years have gone by and I have made some progress in the matter. The noble man pursues his studies to clarify the dao of government and to save the world. Devoting oneself solely to poetry and elegant essays may be termed a trivial pursuit – what benefit does it bring? From the time I turned fifty, I have directed my attention to the Classics and Histories and have achieved some depth in my studies of phonology. Now there is the Wushu (Yinxue Wushu – Five Books on Phonetics) to continue the long-interrupted interpretation of the three hundred odes. And apart from this, there is the Rizhi Lu (A Record of Daily Knowledge) – thirty or so juan in all, comprising a first section on the study of the Classics, a middle section on the dao of government, and a final section on general studies. If a king were to arise who would use the material in the conduct of affairs, he might return the world to the glories of the rulers of ancient times. But this is something I hardly dare speak about with men of the present time. The works I previously published and circulated were but a small fragment.

Now, at Huaxia (Huayin), I have begun the building of an ancestral temple to Zhu Xi as a way of showing what was, at the time, the meaning of my reply to Zijing’s letter. Here the place is bleak and desolate in the extreme. I would like to visit my parents’ graves at Jiangzuo once more and build a shrine to my late mother, but I don’t know where they are exactly. I am an old man now and not likely to go to the capital again, but our letters must not stop. I would hope that from time to time you might write to me through my nephew Yan. It would be as if we were continuing our discussion. I am adding six poems to this letter.

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