Chen Mengjia (simplified Chinese: 陈梦家; traditional Chinese: 陳夢家; pinyin: Chén Mèngjiā) (1911–1966) was a Chinese scholar, poet and archaeologist. At the height of his career Chen was Professor of Chinese at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He was married to Chinese poet and translator Zhao Luorui (aka Lucy Chao). Chen committed suicide in 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution after being labeled a "capitalist intellectual" and Rightist, having criticised Chinese leaders in 1957.
In his youth Chen had been a poet, under the pen name Wanderer, his first poem was published when he was 18. He was a member of the Crescent Moon Society, a group of well-known romantic Chinese poets during the early 20th century. In 1932 he joined the resistance in Shanghai, against the Japanese invasion of China in January 28 Incident. At that time he also studied law in Nanjing, but in 1932 began to research classical Chinese literature and religion, before turning to the study of Chinese writing and archaeology at Yenching University in Beijing, where he specialised in the study of oracle bones and ancient Chinese bronzes. Chen and his wife moved to Kunming in the mid 1930s, where had a position at the National Southwest Associated University.
In 1936, Chen published an influential article on the religion and magic of the Shang Dynasty, in which he compared the list of the kings of the Xia Dynasty (the first dynasty of China in the traditional recorded history, often thought to be legendary) with that of the Shang Dynasty that followed it, and argued that the (legendary) Xia were just a "duplication" of the (real) Shang. He also argued that the Yellow Emperor and Yu the Great were originally the same personage.
In 1944 Chen and his wife were both awarded humanities fellowships by the Rockefeller Foundation to study in the USA at the University of Chicago. Chen also received financial support from the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Chen traveled around the USA, as well as making trips to Canada and Europe studying both private and public collections of ancient Chinese bronzes. His study, with descriptions of over 850 bronze vessels, was turned into a draft for a book, possibly to be published in the USA. In 1947 Chen returned to China (his wife the following year), and the book remained unpublished in USA.
The book was eventually published in China in 1962 under the title Our country’s Shang and Zhou Bronzes Looted by American Imperialists, edited by the Chinese Institute of Archaeology. Chen himself, however, did not choose the title, and indeed his name is not written on the cover. The book had been considered important to publish, even though its author was a "Rightist", who were not allowed to publish. Among the "American imperialists" listed in the book are the Saint Louis Art Museum, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt of New York, Miss Doris Duke of New York, Avery Brundage of Chicago, and Alfred F. Pillsbury of Minneapolis.
Before his problems with the Chinese authorities Chen published in 1956 the work A comprehensive study of the divination inscriptions from the Ruins of Yin. The inscriptions, made on oracle bones at Yin, the last Shang capital near today's Anyang (Henan), were recognized at the time (and, largely, still are) as the earliest examples of Chinese writing.
Chen Mengjia and his wife collected Chinese antiques, especially furniture. These were later donated to the Shanghai Museum by Zhao Jingxin, the brother of Zhao Luorui.
Chen Mengjia's work has long been well known to Shang Dynasty experts worldwide. His life and achievements became known to wider audience outside China with the publication in 2006 of Peter Hessler’s book Oracle Bones.
In the 1950s, when the government decided to simplify more than 2,000 characters, Chen opposed the reform project. Accused of being a "rightist" and sent to a labour camp, he committed suicide in Beijing in 1966 after being subjected to public criticism sessions at the start of the Cultural Revolution.
- Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones, Harper Collins, New York, 2006. ISBN 0-06-082658-4.
- Allan 1991, pp. 63–65
- See e.g. the index and the bibliography section of: Allan, Sarah (1991), The shape of the turtle: myth, art, and cosmos in early China, SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture, SUNY Press, ISBN 0-7914-0460-9
- South China Morning Post. "SCMP." Character reformers set off a brush fire of controversy, and retreat. Retrieved on 2009-10-21.