An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Gu Yanwu 顧炎武

Mar 21, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682), original name Gu Jiang 顧絳, courtesy name Zhongqing 忠清, later changed to Ningren 寧人, style Tinglin xiansheng 亭林先生, self-designation Jiang Shanyong 蔣山佣 and Gu Guinian 顧圭年, was an early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) philosopher.

He hailed from Kunshan 昆山, Jiangsu, and became a member of the Revival Society (fushe 復社) in his early years. Gu Yanwu failed several times in the provincial examination and therefore gave up official career. When the Manchus took over the Ming empire 明 (1368-1644) and founded the Qing dynasty, Gu Yanwu followed the advice of his mother, never to serve two masters, and took part in local armed resistance against the Manchus. In 1657 he sold off his family's property and began a life of travels through northern China, during which he visited a lot of renowned scholars. With the age of 60 sui, he settled down in Huayin 華陰, Shaanxi.

In 1671, Xiong Cilü 熊賜履 (1635-1709) asked him whether he would be willing to participate in the compilation of the official history of the Ming dynasty, the Mingshi 明史, but Gu Yanwu refused. A proclamation of the Kangxi emperor 康熙 (r. 1661-1722) in 1678 to invite worthy scholars to participate in the administration of the Qing empire, was likewise ignored by him.

Gu Yanwu had a wide knowledge of scholarship, literature and administrative matters and had studied the Confucian Classics, the various masters, philology, history, geography, astronomy, and many aspects of government. The late Ming and early Qing period was an era when the traditional Neo-Confucianism lost is predominant status as the only valid Confucian doctrine. Scholars began not only criticizing the Ming period philosopher Wang Yangming 王陽明 (Wang Shouren 王守仁), but also the eminent Song period 宋 (960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) and his forerunners.

Gu Yanwu was also critical towards the Neo-Confucian "teachings of the universal principle" (lixue 理學) and developed his own ideas about the cosm and human nature. He went back to the early Song philosopher Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077) and his postulation that the "great void" was nothing else than matter (taixu ji qi 太虛即氣), assuming that everything between Heaven and earth is filled with substance (qi 氣). Any change between shape (youxing 有形, i. e. concrete objects and persons) and non-shape (wuxing 無形, i. e. primordial or ideal existence) was nothing else than a change in the density of matter. He also stressed that without a "vessel" (qi 器) to live in, the universal Way (dao 道) cannot exist. This contradicted the Neo-Confucians who had assumed that the universal principle (li 理) or Way existed before the creation of the "ten thousand things" and was not tied to concrete objects.

Gu Yanwu likewise did not follow the assumption of the Neo-Confucians that human nature was basically good. He said that there might be persons whose character was bad from the beginning, and that some naturally good persons might change and become evil, and vice versa. The nature of human character was influenced by man's emotions and desires. Man is able to become a worthy persons by studying social skills, the way of the ancient kings, and contemporary matters. By "illuminating the Way" he might be able to save the world (ming dao jiu shi 明道救世), just like Confucius had believed. In a social context, the most important moral principle was an awareness of shame (chi 耻) and responsibility (ze 責). Righteous behaviour could, in Gu Yanwu's eyes only be learnt by studying (xue 學) the ancient writings, and not by analyzing one's own heart (xin 心), as the Neo-Confucian believed.

A study of the Confucian Classics required a life-long learning, and even then, perfectness might not be achieved. Finding the Way by contemplating one's own heart was, Gu Yanwu said, simply impossible, and was a method resembling the meditation practices of Chan (Zen) Buddhism (chanxue 禪學). Zhu Xi's disciples had only learnt from discussions with their master (yulu 語錄), and not by studying the Confucian Classics. Neo-Confucianism was pure speculation and not based on the words of Confucius. Gu Yanwu thus belonged to those Confucian scholars who advocated a study of the Classics (jingxue 經學) instead of speculating about the universe.

Philological research was an integral part of Classical studies because it was essential to analyze the real meaning of texts of an age of more than a thousand years. Phonetics and semantics therefore became part of Confucian studies in the Qing period.

Gu Yanwu's philosophical ideas are included in the notebook-style writing Rizhilu 日知錄. He has also written studies to various Classics like Yinxue wushu 音學五書, Zuozhuan Du jie buzheng 左傳杜解補正, Jiujing wuzi 九經誤字, a geographic work called Zhaoyuzhi 肇域志, an administative analysis of the empire, Tianxia junguo libing shu 天下郡國利病書, and, finally, compiled a lot of prose writings that are collected in the Tinglin wenji 亭林文集, and poetry, assembled in the Tinglin shiji 亭林詩集.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 201.