Academic journal article Humanitas

Chinese Reactions to Babbitt: Admiration, Encumbrance, Vilification

Academic journal article Humanitas

Chinese Reactions to Babbitt: Admiration, Encumbrance, Vilification

Article excerpt

Irving Babbitt, the great American humanist, was bound to the modern Chinese culture even though Babbitt himself might not have been aware of it. His erudition and glamour enticed a dozen young Chinese scholars into Harvard University to seek instruction from him. He powerfully influenced those students, who would become major participants in the construction of modern Chinese culture. Among them the most famous are Wu Mi (1894-1978) and his Xueheng (Critical Review) colleagues, as well as Liang Shiqiu (1902-1987), the best-known humanist intellectual in the 1930s. Writing in classical Chinese, the Xueheng Society (or the Critical Review Group), the best-known conservative society in the China of the 1920s, introduced Babbitt into China during the great mass fervor of the New Culture Movement. Their introduction of Babbitt had the effect of associating his humanism with Chinese-style conservatism, which was not entirely helpful at a time when things new were much in fashion. The Xueheng writers' use of the highly elaborate classical Chinese style, which by then had been abandoned by most other intellectuals, led to further confusion about Babbitt's real views, limiting the attention that those views might have received. It was Liang Shiqiu who first called attention to the damage to Babbitt's reputation among competing groups of Chinese intellectuals that might be attributed to his being associated with the Xueheng group. Yet, whatever misunderstanding of Babbitt's insights that may have stemmed from the efforts of the Xueheng scholars, Liang himself probably inflicted at least as much damage on Babbitt by using the latter's writings as a weapon against Lu Xun (1881-1936), one of the most well-known and most respected Chinese writers of the twentieth century, in a way that Babbitt himself, who actually agreed with some of what Lu Xun advocated, might have regretted. Babbitt, through no fault of his own, became known as hostile to Lu Xun, which has led to a demonization of Babbitt among many intellectuals in China. Despite these and other misunderstandings concerning Babbitt, his ideas have exerted a major cultural influence in China that persists to this day. Yet the paradox is that, thanks to all the confusion that still surrounds Babbitt's ideas in China, it can truly be said that his humanism has yet to be properly introduced, let alone accurately expounded, in that country.

I. Admiration for Babbitt among Chinese Intellectuals

Babbitt was a magnet to most of the Chinese intellectuals at Harvard University in the 1910s and 1920s; they were attracted by his erudition and personal appeal. Mei Guangdi (1890-1945) was one of the first Chinese to study with Babbitt. Following his graduation from Northwestern University, he continued his studies at Harvard. After reading Babbitt's works, Mei came to think of Babbitt as a modern saint, and this fired his determination to become one of Babbitt's students. (1) He had a more intimate connection with Babbitt than other Chinese students. His academic record, preserved at Harvard University, explicitly states that he was under the supervision of Babbitt while he was studying at Harvard's graduate school. (2) In 1924 when Mei returned to Harvard to teach Chinese Language, he had frequent contact with Babbitt. Perhaps as a result of this association, Babbitt discussed in his works Taoist theory about humanity, justice, propriety, wisdom and faith, and the notion of "non-action (Wu-Wei)" as well as the impact of Taoism on modern Chinese culture. (3) Another student who had a close relationship with Babbitt was Wu Mi, the founder and key figure of the Xueheng Society. Babbitt's signature as Wu's supervisor can still be found on Wu's study plan at Harvard. (4)

In the 1990s, there occurred a major revival of scholarly interest in Chen Yinque (1890-1969), a renowned historian and a close friend of Wu, which led to an accompanying revival of interest in the latter writer, whose work had been long-neglected in mainland China. …

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