Chinese reactions to Babbitt: admiration, encumbrance, vilification.

Author:Zhu, Shoutong
Position:Irving Babbitt

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.

  1. 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. Unfortunately, some accounts of Wu's life contain much false information and many distortions. Instead of ascertaining facts, some scholars have resorted to conjecture. An example concerns when and how Wu got to Harvard. Wu's entering that institution is often attributed to two factors: Mei's invitation and Wu's admiration for Babbitt. (5) Yao Wenqing, Wu's self-styled bosom friend, gives such a description in Anecdotes of Wu Mi: "Wu attended the University of Virginia when he arrived in America. Later, at Mei's suggestion, he turned to Harvard for further studies with Babbitt as his professor." (6) Yet closer examination reveals that such statements are not true. Wu Mi's Self-Compiled Annals has a clear and detailed description of his meeting with Mei. It was only after Wu arrived at Harvard that he, through the introduction of his Qinghua College classmate Shi Jiyuan, became acquainted with Mei. "If I had not come to Harvard to study, I would not have had the chance to meet Mei Guangdi in America." (7) From this it is plain that the often-repeated story that Wu went to Harvard at the urging of Mei was pure speculation. All too often such gossip has been spread through what are supposed to be scholarly works.

    Babbitt's acceptance of Wu as a student may well have been due to Mei's recommendation. Wu's September 9, 1918, diary entry reads in part: "The university authorities have arranged for Prof. Babbitt to be my adviser--following my request." (8) Irving Babbitt was Wu's one and only adviser. One researcher recently claimed: "At Harvard, Wu Mi had two advisers--Irving Babbitt, a famous professor of French literature, and Paul Elmer More, a famous literary critic." (9) This is simply mistaken. It is true that Paul Elmer More was Babbitt's academic partner and close friend, and that Wu greatly revered More, as is indicated in Wu's diary entry of July 24, 1919: "Since I came to this university this summer, I have been reading Shelburne Essays by Paul E. More, apart from my courses. There are nine volumes altogether, and I have just finished them today. I have benefited a lot from his teachings." (10) This joint admiration of Babbitt and More explains why Wu often mentioned the two together in his later works. For example, a line in one of Wu's poems declares, "I've benefited from the teachings of Babbitt and More," (11) and a verse says, "I learned about Humanism from Babbitt and More when I was young." From these words taken alone, a reader might well draw the conclusion that Wu had two advisers at Harvard, but in fact More was only his intellectual-spiritual inspirer, not an adviser in the formal sense. In his early years Paul Elmer More worked as a teaching assistant at Harvard, teaching Sanskrit, but he left Harvard to work for a magazine in New York. He was never a professor at Harvard and could not have been one of Wu's two advisers. Wu's diary is quite clear: "He [More] is my adviser's close friend, and the two are the greatest scholars in America today." (12) Crossing the Pacific to ascertain More's curriculum vitae is too much to ask, but the author of a book on Wu should take the trouble of consulting Wu's diary.

    During that period there were also other Chinese scholars who went to Harvard who may have been attracted to Babbitt. One of them is Tang Yongtong, a very famous scholar in modern China. Yue Daiyun, a leading Chinese scholar in comparative literature, surmises: "Tang Yongtong, who had studied philosophy at Hamlin University, transferred to Harvard to work on Buddhism, Sanskrit and Balinese. Obviously Tang was attracted to Babbitt, because Babbitt focused much of his attention on the study of Buddhism while being also proficient in Sanskrit and Balinese...." (13) Yue does not give any direct evidence here that Babbitt's knowledge of Asian languages and religions was crucial to Tang's decision to go to Harvard, but as his daughter-in-law as well as a serious and trustworthy scholar in her own right, her remarks should be reliable. If her surmise is credible, it may apply also to Chen Yinque. He entered Harvard in 1919 to "study Sanskrit and Balinese under the guidance of Lanman...." (14) Charles Rockwell Lanman (1850-1941) was a famous expert in Sanskrit. It is possible that Babbitt was another attraction at Harvard to Chen Yinque.

    Thanks to the influence, direct or indirect, of such precursors as Mei and Wu, a growing number of Chinese scholars subsequently became familiar with Babbitt and chose for that reason to study at Harvard. Zhang Xinhai as well as Lou Guanglai, who later became a senior government official and a renowned scholar, went to Harvard on Wu's recommendation. In his September 18, 1919, diary entry, Wu writes: "Since the first two months this spring (lunar calendar), these two [Zhang and Lou] wrote me several letters asking about literature and I gave them much information. They expressed great admiration after they had read books by my adviser Babbitt, and then they decided to transfer to Harvard." (15) By contrast, it was only through the indirect influence of Mei, Wu, and their group that another Chinese scholar, Liang Shiqiu, first became acquainted with Babbitt and his humanism. More specifically, it was through the journal Xueheng, created and run by Wu and Mei, that Liang learned of Babbitt and his writings. As a youth who "was swept off his feet by so-called 'Tides of New Thinking,'" Liang vigorously disagreed with Babbitt at that time. He chose Harvard on account of Babbitt, but his original purpose was not to study under him but to "challenge" him. (16) Yet so tremendous was the impact of Babbitt's ideas and so powerful his spiritual charm that a young and vigorous challenger soon turned into a disciple whose admiration was limitless.

  2. Coloration and Encumbrance

    Lin Yutang (1895-1976) was another...

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