Chén Yínkè, A Master Who Had No Degrees(1)
 Chén Yínkè, A Master Who Had No Degrees

Chén Yínkè, or陈寅恪 in Chinese characters, was born in Chángshā, Húnán Province on July 3, 1890 and died on October 7, 1969 in Guǎngzhōu. His adult name is Hèshòu (鹤寿). His grandfather Chén Bǎozhēn (陈宝箴) was a provincial candidate to the national imperial examination during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng (道光),executed reform and new policies in Húnán Province when he was its Governor. After the One Hundred Day Reform ended in failure, he was removed from his office. His father Chén Sānlì (陈三立), with an adult name Bóyán, Sǎnyuán is another name. He was an advanced scholar who passed through the final stage of the imperial examinations during the reign of Emperor Guāngxù (光绪), was one of the main officials in the Ministry of Personnel; was reputed as one of the Four Outstanding Youth together with Tán Sìtóng (谭嗣同) and two others in Beijing, because of his caliber and talents. To protest against the Japanese occupation, he refused to eat and died of hunger. He was a major poet at late Qing in the Song Dynasty style as reflected in his “Poems of Sǎnyuán Teaching Cottage.”

He had very nice family education during his childhood; he read most extensively and laid a very solid foundation in his China studies. As a matter of fact, he could remember by heart almost all of the thirteen classics. He went to Japan with his elder brother Héngkè (蘅恪) in 1902 and studied at Sugamo Bunngaku Gakuen in Tokyo. He returned home in 1905 and entered the Fùdàn Public School in Shanghai and graduated from it in 1909. The next year he went to Europe and studied at the University of Berlin, University of Zurich and Science Politique de Paris and he graduated from all of them in 1914 without a diploma. When he returned home he was hired by the Governor of Húnán Tán Yánkǎi (谭延闿) to head the head the provincial office of foreign contacts. He then went to Nánchāng to review examinations paper for three years at the provincial education department there. In the winter of 1918, he went to the United States to study Sanskrit and Pali at the Harvard University for two years. He then went back to the University of Berlin to continue his studies of Sanskrit and Pali and old characters of the orient. He returned home in 1925. Altogether, he spent fourteen years overseas and became well versed in Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchurian, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, Persian, Turkic, the language of Western Xia (Tangut), Latin, Greek, English, French and Germany. All these time, he also engaged in the comparative studies of languages, the history of the Tang Dynasty, Western Xia and Buddhism.

He returned to Beijing in 1925, to join Wáng Guówéi, Liáng Qǐchāo and Zhào Yuánrèn as masters of the Qinghua Institute of China Studies. Yet, the appointment didn’t come easily. He had no degrees, he was not well known. Thanks to the personal guarantee by Wáng Guówéi and Liáng Qǐchāo, and in particular the efforts of Wú Mì (吴宓), the Director of the Institute and a schoolmate of Chén’s at the Harvard he was finally hired. Wú recommended him as the “most erudite person of China” and Liáng told the school that Chén’s learning was better than his. It was said that when the great historian of Japan Shiratori Kurakichi came across, in 1938, with a difficult issue in his studies of the history of central Asia, German and Austrian experts were not able to help him, he went to Chén after the University of Berlin recommended him, and his got his question answered. Chén gave an accurate translation of the inscriptions on a stone tablet in Turkic when the Soviet archaeologists, who excavated the tablet, could not find anybody to translate it.

What Chén taught at the institute was “Translated Buddhist Literature”, “Bibliography of Orient Studies by Westerns”, “Grammar of Sanskrit” and so on. In 1935, he became a councilor of the Central Academy, a member of council of the Palace Museum and member of the compiling committee of Archives of the Warehouse of the Cabinets of the Ming and Qing. On February 22, 1937, Hú Shì (胡适) wrote in his diary: “In today’s historic studies, Yínkè is the one who is most knowledgeable, most visionary and the best in using materials. Yet, there is something to be demanded in his writing, and his way of using punctuation is to be improved.” Beijing fell in July 1937. Chén’s father refused to eat as a way of protest. After the father passed away, the whole family moved to Chángshā in November.

He came to Kūnmíng in April 1938 and taught the history of the two Jin Dynasties and the South and North Dynasties, the history of the Sui and Tang, and Studies of Bái Jūyì (白居易) at the Southwest United University. He went to Chóng Qìng, the war-time capital of China, at the beginning of 1940 to attend a meeting of the Central Academy, he said the purpose of going there was to vote for Hú Shì as the new president, because Cài Yuánpéi, the then president, had passed away in Hong Kong. He taught briefly at the Guǎngxī University before he went to Chéngdū and taught at the Yànjīng University there. By the spring of 1945, he had almost lost his eye-sight, and in September he went to London for an operation, which turned out to be a failure. He resigned the post of Lecture Professor of China Studies from the Oxford University and returned to Beijing in October 1946 and did some teaching at the Qinghua University. He flew to Nánjīng with the Hú Shì couple in December 1948. Starting from January 1949, he had been teaching at the Lǐngnán University in Guǎngzhōu, and he passed away at his residence at the Zhòngshān University in Guǎngzhōu.

In historic studies, Chén stressed on textual checking and vindication, having inherited the scientific approach of scholars in the Qiánlóng and Jiājìng periods of the Qīng Dynasty in attaching importance to facts and textual research, he also utilized the western method of “historic evolution” in tracing sources and origin of some material and in double-checking the accuracy of related material. In this way, he paid attention to comprehensive analysis of historic facts, and he was able to single out key factors of facts from among the relations of matters, thus solved a series of issues and found out some truth in history.

In one semester in Qinghua, he taught only Bái Jūyì’s “Song of Eternal Hatred”. With related descriptions in the poem, he tried to vindicate the social outlook of the Tang Dynasty. Chén played a key role in the research of the Tang History. His “An Abstract of the Origins of Social Systems in the Suí and Táng Dynasties” talks about the legal history, his “Discourses on the Political History of the Táng Dynasty” talks about the political history and his “Annotations to the Poems of Bái Jūyì” talks about the social history of the Táng, thus constitute a complete series of the history of the Táng and exerted far reaching influence on later studies of the history of the Táng.

Chén chose to remain on the mainland in 1949 and taught at the Zhòngshān University. He lost his eye-sight and had a serious leg problem in his later years. He refused to go to Táiwān or out of the southern area of the Five Ridges even under high political pressure. In stead, he was concentrating on writing of “The Biography of Liǔ Rúshì”, and he wished “to look for things about Liǔ and (her lover) Qián from the ruins, so that we could see what was their regret and to see if we could not help from being touched; we would find such will as to ‘destroy the Qín even if there are only three households left’ and cries such as in the Nice Chapters and Lament on Lose of Yíng were shouted by the scholars of the day. These are things we should treasure and expand to magnify the independent spirit of our nation and the freedom of thinking. What is more, such voices were also made by a young and beautiful girl and a young lady who plays string instrument with deep feelings, yet both were seriously smeared by men of pedantry of the time and by the frivolous of later generations!” (Quoted from “The Different Biography of Liǔ Rúshì”)

Chén had always put integrity before everything else. He never made a slightest concession under high ideological pressure. In 1953, the Academy of Sciences intended to appoint him as the Director of the Second Institute of Historic Studies, he wrote to the academy and put forward two conditions, the first is to “allow the institute not to believe in Marxism and Leninism, not to engage in political studies;” the second is to “ask Mr. Máo or Mr. Liú to write a letter saying they have agreed to let us do so…because Máo is the highest political authority and Liú is the highest responsible person of the party. I do deem that the highest authorities should share the same view with me, and agree to my theory; otherwise, there would be no academic research to conduct.” Naturally, he didn’t become the director and still continued with his teaching at the Zhòngshān University. In those days he was the only person who dared saying things like the foregoing.
A Few Words about Mr. Chén Yínkè By Yú Dàwéi

wish, today, to state briefly the methods Mr. Chén Yínkè used in his research and his experience in studies to all colleagues at the Institute of History and Language of the Central Academy, as I have been asked to do so by my old school mate at Harvard Mr. Lǐ Jì (李济) .

I was an alumni of Yínkè for seven consecutive years, first at the Harvard and then at the University of Berlin in Germany. The mother of Mr. Yínkè is my aunt and his kin sister is my wife. His father Chén Sānlì was a famous poet in the late Qīng period, and his grandfather Chén Bǎozhēn was the Governor of Húnán during the reform period. Mr. Bǎozhēn was a very gifted person, well known for his literary proficiency. Zēng Guófān regarded him highly when he was helping his father to train local armed corps, and invited him several times into his office as a councilor. Zēng also wrote a couplet for him, Mr. Yínkè only remembered half on the left, which went: “there is still half a glass of nice wine to be warmed with your hands”. We could see how much importance Zēng attached to Bǎozhēn. Zēng also wrote “Discussions with Governor Chén Bǎozhēn on Writing of Official Documents”, which was included into “Continuation of Ancient Dictionaries” compiled by Wáng Xiānqiān (王先谦) . My mother was the granddaughter of Zēng Guófān. My uncles Yú Míngzhèn and Zēng Guǎngjūn were good friends of Zēng and father and grandfather of Chén. So, there are marriage links for two generations and close relations for three generations between our two families and myself, a seven year school mate of Chén.


Now let me come to Chén Yínkè’s way and experience of learning. From the time he started to learn till the time he returned from his first visit to Germany and France, aside from his studies of European languages in general, in the field of China studies, just as he used to say: “You got to know characters before you are able to read books,” he studied very hard “Interpreting and Decoding Characters” and the exegesis made by the father and son of the Wáng family at Gāoyóu . During his middle and late years, he made some slight revision of his viewpoints in the early years, mainly because of influence exerted on him by two great masters. One being B. Karlgren, the Swedish Sinologist, whose theory of characters with a falling tone and whose usage of phonetic load characters changed much of his thoughts on characters; and the other is Wáng Guówéi, whose studies on inscriptions on oracle bones nourished his thinking, and mutually, Wáng was influenced by his studies on the Sanskrit and other languages of the western regions.


Before we talk about his China studies, we should look at his purpose and key areas of his research. History was his key area. His purpose was to find out historic lessons from history. He used to say, “we should seek historic knowledge from history.” Why dynasties fell and rose? Relations with nationalities in the bordering areas, the evolution of legal systems in dynasties, the cause and effect among social customs, livelihood of people with economy and why Chinese culture could last so long were all subjects of his study. He showed almost no interest to metaphysics.


We usually divide our traditional classics into “classics”, “history”, “and works of masters” and “collection of writings”. Let’s look at his attitude towards the “classics” first. He once said, “The Book of Songs” and “Documents of History” embody the wisdom of our ancestors, should be read by everybody regardless of personal inclinations. As far as the old version and the modern version of “Documents of History” is concerned, he said that the old version couldn’t be cooked up by one individual, it was most probably a classic pieced together after the fall of the Qín Dynasty; we should therefore trace the source of the so called “fakes” and verify the reliability of the material they used before we can draw a conclusion; we could not say arbitrarily that it was totally a fake. We can see from this fact that Mr. Yínkè is a prudent scholar and not a narrow-minded sinologist. I said in the foregoing that he was not really interested in metaphysics; he was deeply averse to abstract and empty talks, and I had never heard him mentioning the metaphysics contained in “The Book of Changes”.

Speaking about “The Spring and Autumn Annals”, he was not as ridiculing as Wáng Jǐnggōng who termed the book as “rotten reports on regimes”, aside from Zuǒ’s Commentary, which he regarded as beautiful literature; he was not really interested in the three paragraphs and nine points discussed in the Gōngyáng’s commentary, as for Gǔliáng’s commentary, he only mentioned once the explanation made by Fàn Níng (范宁) .

As far as “Eryǎ Dictionary” is concerned, he regarded it as in the same category of “Interpreting and Decoding Characters”. He held that “The Book of Filial Piety” was a good book, yet its size was too small, its length was only that of one piece in “The Book of Rites.”

He paid much attention to the three books in the “Rites”. Even though he agreed with most people’s view on “The Rites of Zhou”, he didn’t think it was written by the Duke of Zhou, neither was it completed by only one person. As for the ancient characters used in “The Rites of Zhou”, he thought it was ridiculous to believe that Liú Xīn (刘歆) fabricated the inscriptions on the stone tablet and tried to bury them everywhere.

He held that “The Rites of Zhou” is the one that most comprehensively recorded ancient legal acts and codes. Thus, the book must be read no matter it is authentic or false. He highly recommended “The Right Connotation of the Rites of Zhou” written by Sūn Yíràng (孙贻让) As for “The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonies”, Mr. Yínkè held that both rites and law are factor for social stability. The fundamentals of the rites should never be casted aside even though rites and law may change with time and customs. He often mentioned the position ethics and rites had in “Annotations of the Laws of the Tang唐律疏议” ; he said everyone should attach importance to this position. As for his views on “The Book of Rites”, he thought it was odds and ends put together by Confucian scholars, yet they contained the most incisive theories of the Confucianism. Aside from those explaining “The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonies” and other issues, the writings of common concern such as “The Great Learning”, “Doctrines of the Mean”, “Rites Executed礼运”, “Decoding Classics经解”, “Record of Music乐记” and “Record of Moral Education坊记” are splendid works, not only in China, and in the world as well. We should not only read them, we should also remember them by heart.

Now, about the “Four Books”. I shall not repeat that “The Great Learning” and “Doctrines of the Mean” were originally two pieces of writings in “The Book of Rites”. The importance of “Analects of Confucius” lies in its expounding of “humanness”, and the book was compiled by the disciples of Confucius, not a philosophical paper written personally by Confucius himself. When philosopher Hegel read the Latin version of “Analects of Confucius”, he thought it was an ordinary book, not even as good as “De Officiis” by Cicero. Mr. Yínkè liked very much “Discourses of Mencius”. Yet, he didn’t think what Mencius mentioned about legal systems and some historic facts are reliable. For instance, Mencius said, “Because the disciples of Confucius didn’t talk about Duke Huán of Qí and Duke Wén of Jìn , so there are no biographies of them.” (This is certainly not true.)

Learners like us could recite “The Four Books”, “The Book of Songs” and “Spring and Autumn Annals with Zuǒ’s Commentary”. Mr. Yínkè was different; he could remember by heart almost all of the thirteen classics. What’s more, he tried to get a correct understanding of each word. Thus, “Annotation of Classics by the Hall of the Ocean of Learning” and its follow-up were the books he often studied.


History had always been the focus of Mr. Yínkè’s life-long studies. He would read everything about history. Unlike others, he paid special attention to “records” and “memoirs”. For instance, “Astronomy” and “Lives of Businessmen” in “The Record of History”; “Records of Arts and Literature in the Han History汉书艺文志”; “Records of Astronomy in the Historic Book of Jin晋书天文志”; “Records of Criminal Law in the Historic Book of Jin晋书刑法志”; “Records of Astronomy in the Historic Book of Sui隋书天文志”; “Records of Classics in the Historic Book of Sui隋书经籍志”; “Records of Geography in the New Historic Book of Tang新唐书地理志” and so on. He also attached importance to history of specific dynasties, for instance “History of the Five Dynasties五代会要”. He was particularly interested in “The Three General Historic Books三通” . He could recite the preludes of all these three general historic books. He read most extensively other kinds of historic books; please allow me not to mention them in details. Mr. Yínkè was most interested in the view points of others on history, as I said before that he admired Liú hījǐ(刘知几) and Zhāng Shízhāi (章实斋) . He adored Sīmǎ Guāng (司马光) ’s views in “The Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government资治通鉴”. Any one who has read his “Discourses on the Political History of the Táng Dynasty” could find out about the foregoing. I personally think Mr. Yínkè’s knowledge in history surpasses anyone before him and he is the one who “catches up from behind.”


Mr. Yínkè didn’t like metaphysics. He seldom mentioned works by masters, except those about social systems. Yet, he liked the articles written by Zhuāngzǐ (庄子) , he also attached importance to Xúnzǐ (荀子) , thinking that Xúnzǐ was an orthodoxy successor of Confucianism. Such an attitude of his might had been a result of the influence of Wāng Zhōng (汪中) . He occasionally mentioned a few rarely known works of masters, such as “Questioning Mr. Bào” in “Bào Pǔ Zǐ抱朴子” and “Questioning Tāng” in “Lièzǐ列子” . He did not regard highly the works adored by other scholars such as “On Balance论衡” .


The writings in the “Collection of Writings” are as vast as an ocean, so for anyone, it is difficult to obtain an extensive knowledge of these writings. Yínkè paid attention to any writing that contained information on legal and social systems in this category.

In the aspect of literature, poetry and Cí poetry, Yínkè adored Ouyáng Xiū (欧阳修) , Hán Yù (韩愈) , Wáng Anshí (王安石) , GuīZhènchuān (归震川) , Yáo Nài (姚鼐) , Zēng Guófān (曾国藩) and other masters. He held that Yáo Nài’s writings were neatly composed, yet it lacked the vigor and vitality you could often find in Zēng’s. I also felt the same way at the time. It was just like what Yuán Zǐcái (袁子才) commented on the writing of Fāng Bāo (方苞) and poems of Wáng Yúyáng (王渔洋) : “Much is to be desired in their talents despite of their authoritative positions…” Yet, Zēng was different, take his inscriptions on the tomb stone for Luó Zénán (罗泽南) : “a gallant student, followed me in the expedition, fought hard in the morning and disseminated doctrines when returned in the evening.” You just can not find such heroic and remarkable words in the ordinary writings of the Tongchéng School .

In the field of poetry, Yínkè admired Táo Yuān míng (陶渊明) and Dù Fǔ (杜甫) . Of course, he liked Lǐ Bái (李白) and Lǐ Yìshān (李义山) , but he didn’t think their poems were in the first grade. If Yínkè was to re-write “Grades of Poetry诗品” , he would had ranked the two Lǐs in the second class. He was particularly fond of poems liked by the common folks, therefore, he adored Bái Jūyì (白居易) very much. That was why he wrote in his “The Fate of Re-Born论再生缘”, “The style of my poems is also similar to folk songs.” As far as Cí poetry is concerned, aside from a few Cí poems by the Sòng Dynasty poets, he often mentioned three among the Qīng Dynasty poets, namely Gōng Zìzhēn (龚自珍) , Zhū Zǔmóu (朱祖谋) and Wáng Guówéi (王国维) . We could say that Cí poetry wasn’t his cup of tea. He didn’t write much poetry, but those he wrote were excellent. The long poems in condolence of Wáng Guówéi was well known both home and abroad, and favored by the learned and well educated people and is one of the master pieces of poems written by our generation.


Let’s now go beyond the scope of Yínkè’s China studies. He pursued his studies of Sanskrit and Pali with Mr. Lanman at Harvard University for two years; he then did the same with Mr. Lueders at Berlin University for five years. After he returned home he continued his study of Sanskrit with Baron A. von Stael-Holstein for another four or five years, and altogether, he spent over ten years on Sanskrit and Pali, so he was most proficiency in these languages. But his focus was the influence Buddhism had on China’s society and thinking in general. He didn’t show much interest in India’s Hetuvidya and Dialectics. I still remember he was transiting from Nánjīng on his way to the Qinghua Institute after the victory in Resisting the Japanese, and he stayed at my house for a short while when I read excerpts of “The Dialectic Method of Nagarjuna [Vigraha-vyavartani]” translated by Tucci from Tibetan and part of the Hetudidya by Dharmakirti, he wasn’t really interested.

Yínkè often said that in his studies of Sino-Western relations, and in particular, cultural exchanges, the spreading of Buddhism, the history and geography of Central Asia, he had been very much influenced by western scholars such as P. Pelliot in France, F. W. K. Mueller in Germany, W. Barthold in Russia and others. Yet, owing to his firm grasp of China studies, his profound knowledge in the history of China, and his ability in making good choices, his opinions had been highly recommended by scholars home and abroad.


Yínkè’s knowledge of languages used in the border areas and western regions is next to nobody among Chinese scholars. Aside from the Sanskrit, he also learned Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchu language, Persian and Turkish. Language is a tool in the study of history. Take the history of the Yuán Dynasty. We all know that the earliest version was completed in a rush and there were much to be desired in terms of facts and details, and had been criticized by many later scholars. Therefore quite a number of historians determined to re-write it. In short, the re-writing was in the following three phases.

The first phase was marked by the discovery of “The Secret History of the Yuán” and “The Personal Expedition by the Military Saint圣武亲征录”. The best version of the latter could be found in “Notes of miscellanies说郛” and it is only in Chinese. The former was in both Chinese and Mongolian. None of the historians on the history of the Yuán Dynasty, to name a few Qián Dàxīn (钱大昕), Hé Qiūtāo (何秋涛), LǐWéntián (李文田), Zhāng Mù (张穆) and Wèi Yuán (魏源), could read Mongolian. It was said that LǐWéntián took “Niucha Tuochaan” as two writers; actually it meant “a secret history” in Mongolian. Apparently such a mistake was caused by not knowing Mongolian.

The second phase is marked by use of translations from European languages. The representative work of this period is “Supplement of Proof in Translations to the History of the Yuán Dynasty元史译文证补” by Hóng Jūn (洪钧). Lù Rùnxiáng (陆润庠) said in the preface, “The proof is to proof what was wrong in writings about history and the supplement is to make up what was lacking.” This view point was very well presented and sounded refreshing. Yet, Hóng Jūn didn’t understand languages in the west regions; the material he used wasn’t originals, but indirect translations. “Mongolian History蒙兀儿史记” by Tú Jìngshān (屠敬山), “The New History of the Yuán Dynasty新元史” by Kē Fèngsūn (柯凤荪) were works of this period. Wáng Guówéi is the first rank scholar of our generation, the profoundness of his textual research is as good as the masters of the Qiánlóng and Jiāqìng periods, it was particularly so with his work on the history of Mongolia. However, Wáng only understood Japanese, so his works on the Yuán Dynasty didn’t use direct materials. Where Wáng was most meritorious was that he inherited traditions and nurtured the younger scholars. All younger scholars in the next phase were almost all influenced by him.

During the third phase, Chinese scholars began to study the northwest regions and central Asian languages, and direct reading of materials on the history of Mongolia was expected; however, a new history of Mongolia was not forthcoming due to various reasons. The representative of this phase is Yínkè. He knew all related languages, was equipped with all necessary tools; the only pity was the turmoil of the time he was in, and his life was unstable, he lacked the time he needed, and he was not able to fulfill his aspirations, that was to leave “The New History of Mongolia” to us. “Discourses on the Political History of the Táng Dynasty” and “An Abstract of the Origins of Social Systems in the Suí and Táng Dynasties” were completed in a rush. These two books in his eyes were only part of his studies of the national history. He had wished to write “A Complete History of China中国通史” and “Lessons from Chinese History中国历史的教训” for purpose of, as I said in the foregoing, seeking knowledge from historic facts. His great work (Magnum Opus) was not completed due to what he encountered in his late years and loses of his eye-sight. This is not only a tragedy of his, but one of our times as well. The writings by Rashid a-din contain rich original material on the history of Mongolia, but it has not been rendered into Chinese yet. I wish a Chinese version could be produced by Chinese scholars at an earlier date so that it could serve as a reference for studies of the history of the Yuán Dynasty.


Tang Yíng (唐莹), wife of Yínkè was the granddaughter of Tang Jǐngsōng (唐景松), the then Governor of Tái Wān in the year of 1894. Yínkè had three daughters, the elder and the second one stayed at my house when they attended Jīnlíng middle school and were looked after by their aunt. The all entered Qīnghuá University upon graduation from the middle school. I have no idea where Mrs. Chén and her three daughters are staying now, and I have no way to find it out. The news of Yínkè’s death came from Hong Kong several times, which all proofed to be wrong. I am not sure of this time. This is really “When I was about to offer sacrifice, I thought you might still be alive and share this moment with me even though you are way apart from me.” However, he is over eighty with such a frail health, and it is highly possible to pass away at a time like this. Thinking about this, I can not help myself from crying out, “with whom can I argue about state affairs now?” When I was in the states, I was determined to write down my conversations with Yínkè, and I would give notes to our talks just like what Péi Sōngzhī(裴松之) did for “The History of the Three-Kingdoms”. Yet, four decades have already passed, and I am now over seventy, I am afraid this wish will not be fulfilled. I am a close relative of Yínkè, we were like a teacher and a student, remembering this master today, I really can not stop my tears from running down.

Yínkè was born in June of 1890, I was born in December of 1897, and there is a difference of seven years. We were schoolmates in both the states and Germany for seven years. There might be omissions or mistakes in the foregoing description of his life. I wish his friends and students at Qīnghuá Institute, Hong Kong and Lǐngnán universities could make it up. But I think I am by and large right when I tried to remember his general attitude towards studies at the time.