Chinese Canon wars



From Xiaoqun Xu1  we get a wonderful description of a battle over the Chinese canon between Liang Qichao and Hu Shi. This took place in the pages of pages of Qinghua Weekly and Chenbao Fukan in 1923 and, as far as I know 2 Xu’s is the only account of this battle between the preeminent Late Qing intellectual and the preeminent May 4th intellectual over the foundation of a proper Chinese education.

Liang’s section on “moral cultivation and intellectual history” includes Analects and Mencius (which should be learned by heart) Changes, Rites, the classical philosophers Debates on Salt and Iron, Bao Bu zi and more. The list runs through Chinese history all the way to the present, where he recommends some of his own works and also some of Hu Shi’s.

The early part of the list shows a bit of a change in Liang’s thinking, since he had been harshly critical of much traditional historical work. At one point ( i.e. the 1902 Xin shixue ) he had wanted to get away from moralizing history and the history of elites and create a “people’s history” that would serve the needs of the nation.3 In 1923, however, he was critical of Hu Shi’s list of key texts4 which left out history entirely and was, apparently,  far more technical and “modern.”

“In Liang’s view, Hu Shi’s error came from his doubt of ancient records (yigu). Having doubts was a good methodology, but an excessive doubt would also be problematic. If one would totally discard Book of Rites, Classic of Books, and Spring and Autumn Annals in discussing ancient Chinese history, it would amount to throwing away a larger part of Chinese heritage.”

While Liang may have been critical of traditional history as scholarship, he was very much in favor of the idea of classic texts as a means of self-cultivation and as a way of creating a patriotic spirit. He himself remembered listening to his grandfather tell him about the “wise words and noble deeds of heroes and philosophers from history” especially in times of national crisis at the end of the Song and Ming. ( (Luo Zhitian “the Marginalization of Classical Studies and the Rising Prominence of Historical Studies during the Late Qing and Early Republic: A Reappraisal” in Moloughney, Brian, and Peter Zarrow. Transforming History: The Making of A Modern Academic Discipline in Twentieth-Century China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2012. p.67  ))  It is notable that he recalls studying with his grandfather during the day, but then hearing the stories at night. He is thus seems to be dividing scholarship (written, studied, in the daytime) from moral education/patriotism (oral, experienced, at night). This may help explain why he wants students to memorize (and presumably recite) Analects and Mencius. You can do scholarly work on those texts without memorizing them, but you can’t fully claim them as texts of self-cultivation if you have not memorized them.

Liang makes the distinction between scholarship and self-cultivation even more clear by providing a shorter list of books which everyone, even if they do not wish to be a scholar of National Studies, should learn.  You have to study these, or you ” cannot truly be a learned Chinese (zhongguo xueren)” While it was fine for students to go abroad and learn Geology or whatever, they had to study (and memorize) the classics to remain Chinese. 

“Being a member of a nation, one must have some understanding of his nation’s good literature. Only learning by heart, can [it] stay in our ‘sub-consciousness,’ take root, and gradually ferment without us realizing it. Sage’s sayings help cultivate our body and soul, and some of them have long since formed the common consciousness in our entire society. Since [we] are members of this society, we should grasp the common consciousness thoroughly so that we do not have a barrier separating us from it. … If you become the best American scholars in body and soul, I am afraid you will have no influence on Chinese culture. If you would have [such influence without any knowledge of national learning], we could have just invited [to China] one hundred and scores of blue-eyed American Ph.D.s, and why would we need you?”

I am somewhat surprised that nothing has yet been written in English about this debate between Liang and Hu. There are of course accounts of debates on how Chinese history should be researched and written, but not much on how and why it should be taught. I suspect that this little exchange caught my eye because I remember the American Canon Wars of the 80’s and 90’s where a great deal of ink was spilled over what books/authors should be considered canonical. Even at the time I thought it was a pretty pointless debate, since they were arguing over what books should be used if the process of American undergraduate education consisted of small groups of people deeply studying important books. As a T.A. at a big state university I knew full well how unrealistic that was. Such lists do, however, make a nice proxy for debating the Soul of Our Culture.

  1. Xu, Xiaoqun. Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Individualism in Modern China: The Chenbao Fukan and the New Culture Era, 1918-1928. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.  

  2. which is not very far 

  3. Wang, Q. Edward. Inventing China through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. p. 45-48 

  4. Xu does not reproduce this, and a quick search has not found it for me. Does anyone know where to get a copy of the lists?  


  1. Hu Shi’s list of key text s can be found in Ouyang zhesheng ed., Hu Shi wenji, vol. 3, pp.87-123. This also includes Liang’s response to Hu’ list.

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