Chén Yínkè, A Master Who Had No Degrees(2)
The Uniqueness of Yínkè

Yínkè was unique in many ways. For instance, in terms of lecturing, he had the famous “four not to do”, namely, “I shall not lecture on anything lectured by anybody before me; I shall not lecture on anything lectured by anyone recently; I shall not lecture on anything lectured by foreigners; I shall not lecture on anything I lectured before.” Another example would be his kneeling down at the tomb of Wáng Guówéi at the first anniversary of Wáng’s death while everyone else was standing in silent tribute. But, we shall mainly concentrate on the uniqueness in his studies.

1. Views on Chinese Culture

The following remarks have been well known and influential: “The culture of the Chinese nation has gone through an evolution in the last several millenniums and climaxed in the Sòng Dynasty, and then began to decline in a gradual manner. But it will be revived for sure, just like trees in the winter, even though their leaves fell, their roots are still alive, and when it gets warmer with the spring, their sprouts would grow, and by summer time, their branches and leaves would become thick and look like canopies giving shade to a hundred people or more.”


(A) China’s philosophy and arts are far from those in Greece. Our science, among other things, is not as good as that in the west. However, ancient Chinese had always been good at politics and practical ethnics. And this is similar to the Romans. In terms of morals, they stressed more of practical matters rather than empty theories. This is good and at the same time bad. It is good because it could serve the purpose of self-cultivation, bringing harmony to the family, running the state well and securing peace for the homeland; it is bad because if you are too shrewd at what is actually good and bad, you would lose vision…

(B) China was the earliest in developing her family ethnics and moral systems. The decrees, acts and social systems of Duke Zhōu were the essence of the ancient civilization. If we examine the masters from Zhōu to Qín, none could be fully commended. Both Lǎozǐ and Zhuāngzǐ revered loftiness, yet they seem really shallow when compared to western philosophers. Other theories, like the politics of Guǎn Zhòng (管仲) and Shāng Yāng (商鞅)are worth of further studies. You can not find any solid and exquisite theories from the rest…Buddhism ponders deep into metaphysics, could make up what China was short of, and had always been welcome…China studies, when assisted by Buddhism, have acquired vitality and broken a new path…

(C) Ever since the Sòng Dynasty, Buddhism has penetrated into the marrows of the Chinese people, who can not live without it. Owing to the practical nature of the Chinese people, it was difficult to develop and spread Buddhism at the beginning, and as a result, the Mahayana Buddhism managed to prosper while the Hinayana Buddhism declined in China. Yet, the Mahayana Buddhism was coarse and shallow, and the Hinayana was the authoritative origin of Buddhism. But the Chinese didn’t really care about such details, since they only mind the practicability of the religion, and abode by the instruction, “attack at a paganism would harm yourself as well”, they tolerated the concurrence of Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Mongolian, Tibetan and other religions without any restrains or supplanting, and religion had been never, like in Europe, involved into politics…

The definition of the Chinese culture is contained in the explication of the “Three Cardinal Duties and Six Relationships” in “Notes of Discussions at the White Tiger Temple” . The definition is the highest form of an abstract ideal, just like the “idea” of Plato of Greece. When we talk about the loyalty to the emperor, and suppose the emperor was Lǐ Yù (李煜) , people would hope he could be as good as Liú Xiù (刘秀) ; in terms of the relationship of friends, if the man in question is Lì Jì (郦寄) , people would still hope he could become a Bào Shū (鲍叔) .The cause people died for and the humanity people exhibited are all this abstract ideal instead of any particular person or matter. Since cardinal duties and relationships are all abstract ideal, which will have to have a backing, on which they could manifest themselves. The backing on which they manifest is tangible social systems, and most importantly the economic system. If the backing is unchanged, the thing they backed would remain. In our country, and since the ancient times, there had been matters running against the three cardinal duties and the six relationships and in neglect of loyalty to the emperor and filial piety to parents. The religion of Sakyamuni from outside China is something of this kind. Yet, Buddhism was wide spread in China, and the cardinal duties and relationships handed down from history remained unshaken by the spreading of Buddhism, because their backing, the social and economic systems remained unchanged, therefore, they could rest their lives in these systems. However, in the last few decades, and since the time of the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng, the aggression and suppression by other countries have brought drastic changes in our social and economic systems, and then the cardinal duties and relations have been losing their backing; before foreign theories strike bellows on them, they are perishing and demolishing without us even noticing them. Even though there are people trying to hold up and shouting aloud, this hopeless situation just could not be helped.

We must note his viewpoint: The definition of the Chinese culture is contained in the explication of the “Three Cardinal Duties and Six Relationships” in “Notes of Discussions at the White Tiger Temple” has given rise to sharp disputes. Activists in the New Cultural Movement and participants in the May 4th Movement strongly opposed to this view. They thought Yínkè upheld the three cardinal duties. As a matter of fact he only supported the abstract ideal behind the three cardinal duties. So, what is the abstract ideal? Some scholars held that the abstract ideal was the culture order or social order that benchmarked the relations among the ruler, officers and families. Such an order was based on “families and clans”, which were the core of the society. A big family was a clan. In families or among clans, the law of propriety, good taste and good manner will have to be observed, this was the so called “rites”. When the law of good manners was extended outside the clans, the nation was born. So, the law of good manners was the benchmark of social relations in China. We may also detect a sort of understatement in the “Words of Condolence for Wáng Guówéi and a prelude”. Wáng drowned himself in 1927, almost ten years later of the New Cultural Movement. He might want to say that the leaders of the movement, Hú Shì and Chén Dúxiù (陈独秀) took too simply an approach in their anti-feudalism efforts, they threw away the rational core while they destroyed the feudalist system. They failed to see that behind the loyalty to the emperor was the loyalty to the motherland, no matter who the emperor was.

2. Views on Relations with other Cultures

He believed the Chinese culture was a blending of the culture of the Han and the culture of minorities, and you can find the elements of other nationalities in the purest Han culture. He said, “At times closed door policy was enforced in any dynasty, you still could not avoid contacting other nationalities. It goes without saying that the Táng Dynasty had more frequent contacts than any former dynasties with other nationalities both at times of war and at times of peace, it was therefore greatly and deeply influenced by other nationalities.” He stressed that a nation would decline if it does not learn from other cultures. He held that cultural difference was more important than racial difference. He successfully proofed how foreign culture had affected the Han culture in the aspects of manners, finance, music and military affairs. Even the purest Chinese religion—the Taoism was closely linked with Buddhism, “Even though Taoism was the most indigenous religion of China, it had gradually accepted theories and technologies brought in from outside China, it had therefore evolved into a complicated and huge mixture…Buddhism was the most important source of foreign theories.”

In treating the influx of the western culture, he agreed to the policy put forward by Zhāng Zhīdòng (张之洞) , which is: taking Chinese learning as the basic and using Western learning for applications. Yínkè, however, did propose: “Chinese learning and western learning should take turns in being the basic, and they should be mutually conducive 中西体用资循诱.” Many years later Wú Mì wrote in his diary after he visited Yínkè in Guǎngzhōu in 1961, “Yínkè didn’t change his ideas and thinking at all, and still stuck to what he originally abode by-- taking Chinese learning as the basic and using Western learning for applications.” Some scholars analyzed why Yínkè didn’t push through his own ideas for the inter-course of the two learning was because he didn’t want to be mingled with the main stream of the time, which was taking western learning as the coordinate, not as a reference, and secondly there was no better guideline than Zhāng Zhīdòng’s. He held that there were a few things to be done before the introduction of a foreign culture: firstly, you got to examine if the thing introduced was in its original; secondly, if it was in its original, it is important its essence was still being kept, and it would be useful in transforming Chinese culture; thirdly, even if it was useful, it has to be modified to suit China’s special conditions; fourthly, we have to follow up the results of the modification. He stressed that no matter how refined and influential the foreign culture was in its own homeland, it has to be modified when being introduced to China. He said, “It wouldn’t last long if, after being introduced into China, no changes are made in a long time. Take Buddhism, the reason it affected an important and far-going influence in the history of Chinese thinking, was because it was reformed when being absorbed by us natives. If it kept its original look and brought in as what it was, like the “mind only doctrine” brought in by Monk Xuán Zàng (玄奘) , even though it was a sensation for a while, it was demolished quietly. Recent efforts to revive it also ended in frustration. Why was this? It was just like a round tenon could not get into a square hole and was doomed to failure.” As far as specific ways to introduce a foreign learning, he had the famous catchword:”putting old wine into a new bottle.” The catchword first appeared in his review of “History of Chinese Philosophy” by Féng Yǒulán (冯友兰) , “The learning I have been engaged in all my life was neither ancient nor contemporary, my thoughts are being confined in the period between the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng and the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì, and my comments have been close to those of Zēng Guófān from Húnán and those of Zhāng Zhīdòng from Nánpí of Héběi. Since I am asked to review this book, in drafting this report and stating my views, I am just ‘filling the old wine into a new bottle’. Knowing that the old wine is a bit sore, people may not wish to buy it, so I stated this fact at the bottom of the bottle. May I just hope someone will try to have a taste?” Yínkè held that the most successful modification of a foreign learning was that of Buddhism by a new generation of Confucian scholars in the Song and Míng Dynasties who inherited what Hán Yù (韩愈) did in modifying Buddhism, “Confucian scholars like the Chéngs and Zhū Xǐ (朱熹) in the Song Dynasty were well versed in Buddhism. They adored the its wise and detailed reasoning, which, they thought could make up what China lacked; they at the same time feared that they might be blamed for using things foreign to restore things in China. They then managed to find a way to place them on a safe footing, which was to utilize the content and not to use its name, or to take away the pearl and leaving behind the box that contained the pearl. They then used the quintessence in giving notes to the Four Books and Five Classics in the name of explaining ancient studies while in fact absorbing foreign theories. They boasted they were respecting Confucius and staying away from Buddhism. Actually they themselves have been dyed and imbued with the doctrines of Buddhism. They have blended their theories with that of Buddhism. Since these forerunner Confucian scholars took such pains for the good of the state and the society, they should be respected and understood.”

3. Remarkable Ability in Composing Antithesis

First of all, what is an antithesis? An antithesis has two lines of words, and the words in one line match the words in the other in both sound and sense. It is also referred to as “pair matching” or “writing a couplet”. The features of an antithesis are:

1. The two lines should have the same number of words and the same structure;

2. The words in the corresponding parts should be the same type of words, that is to say a verb vs. verb, a noun vs. a noun, an adjective vs. an adjective, a quantifier vs. a quantifier and an adverb vs. an adverb.

3. Usually the first (or the upper) line ends in oblique tone and the second (or the lower) line ends in a level tone.

4. The two lines should have the same rhythm and pause at the same spot. Now, let’s look at the famous antithesis Yínkè composed for the students at the Qīnghuá Institute: Second generation disciples of Saint Nánhǎi ; young class mates of the Qīng Emperor. In Chinese it reads:

南海圣人再传弟子,Nánhǎi shèngrén zàichuán dìzǐ,

大清皇帝同学少年。Dàqīng huángdì tóngxué shàonián.

As a matter of fact, when this antithesis was uttered out, every student broke into laughter, because they were students of both Liáng Qǐchāo (梁启超) and Wáng Guówéi. By now you all know that Liáng was a disciple of Kāng Yǒuwé and Wáng was the last emperor’s tutor. In this antithesis we can see, 南海 (Nánhǎi) matches 大清 (the Qīng), 圣人 (Saint) matches 皇帝 (Emperor), 再传弟子 (Second generation disciples) match 同学少年 (young class mates).

It was said that in 1932, Yínkè was asked by Liú Shūyǎ (刘叔雅), the Dean of the Chinese Language Department, Qīnghuá University, to write examination papers, and the paper for the first year students included a “pair matching”, and an upper line was given: 孙行者,the students must come up with a lower line. 孙 pronounces as “sūn”, a sir name; 行 means “walking” and 者 is a form word and it could mean “the one who…”; And the three characters together is another name of the Monkey King in the story of “Pilgrim to the West”. He also gave some other upper lines for students in different years. As soon as such examination contents were exposed, some people regard them as a challenge to the “New Cultural Movement”. Because up till then students were only asked to differentiate nouns from verbs in examinations of English, it had never been done in examinations of Chinese, and in providing a lower line, one has to give it in the level tone. And the best answer to the above listed question was 胡适之. 胡pronounces as “hú”, also a sir name, what’s more was the “hú” and “sūn” together also mean “monkey”; 适 means to adapt to and 之is a form word and it could mean “the one who…”; as a matter of fact, 胡适之 or Hú Shìzhī was another name of Hú Shì, the leader of the New Cultural Movement and President of Beijing University since 1946. Yínkè didn’t really care about the comments that he was attacking the New Cultural Movement, but he did write to explain why he included composing antithesis into the examinations. He said such content can test a student if he can distinguish a notional word from a form word and how to use them. Such a test relates to the differences between the Chinese language and other languages of alphabetic writing and different approaches of teaching and testing. He said, unlike Chinese, the difference between a noun and a verb is important in English and other European and Indian languages. In these languages, aside from imperative sentences, all other sentences are in the subject and predicate structure. Yet, in Chinese, there is no subject in many sentences; quite often there is no predicate or verb, but a complete meaning can be fully expressed, especially in poems; nouns serve as verbs in many cases. Therefore, the difference between a noun and a verb is not that important in Chinese. Another feature is that there are numerous form words in Chinese, which play a crucial role in sentence structure and meaning of the sentence. What is more important is that such a way of teaching and test could lead the students to think deeper on issues of how to comprehend Chinese and foreign cultures and how to accept and learn them better.

The second purpose of the test was to find out if the student has mastered level and oblique tones, which is a remarkable feature of the Chinese language, especially in ancient poetry and poetic prose. He held that this common sense knowledge should be mastered by middle school students. Yínkè was most critical of the practice of not spending enough attention to the tones in the teaching of Chinese at the time. He said, “Any compositions with rhyme in China, no matter they are poems or poetic prose, are artistic writings with proper tones. If a reader could not distinguish a level tone from an oblique tone, he would not be able to fully comprehend the writing, and this is equal to not to know how to read, let alone asking this reader to over writing or to paraphrase it. In Chinese where to put a period or a comma depends a lot on the tones…If the reader does not understand level and oblique tones, he would not know where a sentence begins and it is easy for the reader to misunderstand the writing…”

Another purpose of such a test was to find out quantity of words the students have mastered, especially from ancient books. For at that time, most books the students read were in modern vernacular language.

The last purpose was to test the way of thinking. A first class antithesis could only be produced by one who has formed the best way of thinking and thinking in sound logic, one who only mastered words or collation of words is not able to produce a master piece. Before we end this part, we wish to mention that Yínkè castigated on the practice of using the grammatical system of the Indian-European language onto the Chinese, a bad example was "Mister Ma on How to Write Smoothly" written by Mǎ Jiànzhōng (马建忠) . Despite the fact that this is the first grammatical book in China, it was based on the common features of languages. Yínkè, relying on his profound knowledge of the characteristics of the Chinese language, he pointed out that even with in the Indian-European system, each language has its own features, and common features only take up a small percentage in all features, and this is especially true with the Chinese.

4. His Obsession with Two Beauties

Two works entitled “On the Re-Born Fate” and “The Different Biography of Liǔ Rúshì” is about two beauties, written in his later years.

“The Re-Born Fate” is verses written by a lady poet of Hángzhōu Chén Duānshēng (陈端生) for story-telling by way of singing accompanied by a vertical string instrument, in Chinese it is called “tán cí—弹词”. The heroin of the story is Mèng Lìjūn, daughter of a retired Great Scholar (a first ranking official at the imperial court) Mèng Shìyuán, who is highly talented and most beautiful. By family arrangement, she was to marry to Huángfǔ Shàohuá, the son of the Governor of Yúnnán Huángfǔ Jìng. However, Liú Kuíbì, the son of the Emperor’s father-in-law, wanted to marry Mèng Lìjūn. The Mèng family refused such an offer. Liú then plotted a frame-up against the two families; Mèng Lìjūn disguised herself as a man and ran away the persecution. She later successfully passed the final round of the imperial examination and ranked number one, and then she became an official and was promoted, due to her meritorious deeds, gradually up to the position of the Great Scholar at the Hall of Preserving Harmony, her father and brother became her colleagues, and her husband-to-be became one of her subordinates. Recommended by Mèng Lìjūn, Huángfǔ Shàohuá was later knighted as a king. However, Mèng Lìjūn didn’t want to resume her identity and to admit to her parents that she was their daughter; neither did she wish to marry Huángfǔ Shàohuá. Her true identity was finally exposed, the because of her beauty, the emperor wanted to marry her and make her one of his concubines. Hearing this, she could no long put up with her sorrow and hate; she spitted blood…The story ends abruptly here by Chén Duānshēng. Some time later, Liáng Déshéng (梁德绳) picked it up and continued writing the story and gave it a happy ending by wedding Mèng Lìjūn with Huángfǔ Shàohuá.

In “On the Re-Born Fate”, Yínkè highly commended Chén Duānshēng’s work after analyzing it in the aspects of thinking, structure and diction. He thought Chén shook the earth and society since she sang loudly praise of women, she showed her contempt to the “three cardinal duties and five constant values”, which were an apotheosis in the eyes of all. Yínkè held firmly that the structure of “The Re-Born Fate” was much better than “Dream of the Red Mansion” and “The Outlaws of the Marsh”, because it has emphasis and has no digressing branch-offs. He said that the free thinking of the writer was not confined by the requirements in poetic and phonetic ways of diction.

We should note that when he was writing this book, he had already lost his eye-sight, he spend three months by giving dictations, which were nearly seventy thousand words. If you add on the amount of work in textual research, you could imagine how hard he had worked. It is interesting to know that one of his peer historians Mr. Guō Mòruò (郭沫若) showed great interest in the book. Despite of his busy schedule, he managed to read four times “On the Re-Born Fate” in a matter of one year and wrote seven commentaries, and one was as long as ten thousand words.

“The Different Biography of Liǔ Rúshì” featured the singer prostitute Liǔ Rúshì (柳如是), who was widely know and most gifted, appreciated by many romantic scholars. She finally married to a master scholar Qián Qiānyì (钱谦益), later when she learned Qián had surrendered to the Qīng rulers, she flew into a rage and asked Qián to quit from his political life and live in seclusion with her. Qián then resigned from office in the excuse of poor health. But he was later put into prison on charges of slandering the government. In spite of dangers of losing her life, she handed in petitions and she said she would receive the punishments for her husband. The governor in charge of the case was touched and he released Qián, who passed away before long. But his family managed to take away all Qián’s property and wealth from her. Having lost means of living and meaning of life, she hung herself with a white silk strip and ended her life.

The question most frequently asked was why Yínkè wrote about Liǔ Rúshì. Yínkè himself said he wanted to extol the “colorfully dressed”. However, after Wú Mì talked to him in early 1960s, Wú wrote in his diary, “Yínkè briefed me in great detail the outline of his studies on Liǔ Rúshì. Her love with Chén Zǐlóng, her marriage with Qián are all related to her national integrity and restoration of the Míng Her talent overpowers anyone else in her time. All in all, the purpose of studying the life and works of the “colorfully dressed” was to examine the real situation of the then politics and morality. So, it was not an idle or romantic action, on the contrary, he had profound intentions.” Some scholars interpreted the above words of Wú Mì thus: extolling the “colorfully dressed” was only a means, his intention was to exhibit the spiritual world of the literati and the regional cultural landscape, in so doing the evolution of Chinese culture in the few hundred years could be revealed.

The culture and social customs south of the Yangtze River had been sharply different from that in the north. Scholars and singer prostitutes, far apart in their social standing, were all carriers and creators of the culture, and in some senses, they were homesteaders in social practice. Liǔ Rúshì was made a representative of the “colorfully dressed” not only by her frequent contacts with noted scholars; she was also shaped so by the social practices in the region. He said, “The East Bank and other well known beauties of her time were good at reciting or chanting poems, well versed in painting and calligraphy, kept close relations with parties and societies in the region. Such relations can be defined as that between man and woman, and that between a teacher and a student as well; and such relations have been recorded and many people regard it as a pleasure to talk about it. These beauties were so popular, not only because they were clever, gifted and modest in learning, but also because of that fact that they were not confined in their maid’s room, not confined by rules or ritual requirement, and they could get along with a famous scholar without any worries…” We could see from “The Different Biography of Liǔ Rúshì” the freer way of living of the heroin was partially due to a special geographical feature—a network of rivers, and the prostitute were living on boats, which were not only a means of transportation, but also a place to live in; yet, to a greater extent, the social attitude toward these beauties was lenient and tolerant, for instance, Wāng Ránmíng, an aged but influential scholar, out of his recognition of the talents of Liǔ Rúshì, he tried to promote her and donated some hefty amount of money to her. The society took this as something normal in the center of scholars and singer prostitutes.

Yínkè didn’t try to defend Qián’s surrender to the Qīng; he presented Liǔ Rúshì as a big contrast. He also noticed the sophisticated attitudes of the scholars in general towards Qián’s surrender. They didn’t break up with him. Maybe there was a degree of limited tolerance. Maybe Qián’s talents, his achievement and position as a leader in the circle of literati softened criticism. But the society was not as sad at his death as the loss of the life of Liǔ Rúshì. Liǔ won much more sympathy from the literati and the society. By writing “The Different Biography of Liǔ Rúshì”, Yínkè penetrated into the cultural crisis brought by the change of rule from the Míng to the Qīng, he tried to tell us the fate of both Qián and Liǔ was an epitome of the fate of the Chinese culture. Social turmoil followed each of the frequent change of dynasties in China, and the literati and scholars who would carry on the Chinese culture were the first to be affected. They usually broke up from inside, their national integrity and their moral standard were put to tests, as results of these tests, each of them would face a different fate, and this might be the intention of Yínkè to write this book.

Inscription on the Monument Stele for Wáng Guówéi

The purpose of a student to go to school and learn is to free his mind from the yokes of plebeian ways and to seek truth. We would rather die if we can not think freely. How can any philistines dare to compare with the loftiness the saints of past and today die for? You devoted your life to nothing, but an independent and free will, not to feelings of personal gains or enmity, not to the rise or fall of one family. Now the Monument Stele is erected in the school for us to express our sorrow and remember you, to remember what wonderful books you have produced and to tell you the vastness of the Allah…In the unpredictable future, there might be places where your works are not that remarkable and places in your theories to be further discussed, yet your independent spirit and free thinking will last as long as the earth and sky and shine for ever as the three lights of the sun, the moon and the stars.

We end with this inscription by Yínkè in the hope that we shall carry on this spiritual legacy—independent spirit and free thinking and pass it on for ever. The monument stele is still there. The best way to remember these masters of China studies is to further develop their thinking and academic traditions.