Gu Hongming (Chinese: 辜鴻銘; Wade-Giles: Ku Hung-ming; courtesy name: Hongming; ordinary name: 湯生 in Chinese or Tomson in English) (July 18, 1857 – April 30, 1928) was a Malaysian Chinese man of letters. He also used the pen name "Amoy Ku".
Gu Hongming was born in Penang, Malaysia, the second son of a Chinese rubber plantation superintendent, whose ancestral hometown was Tong'an, Fujian province, China, and his Portuguese wife. The British plantation owner was fond of Gu and took him, at age ten, to Scotland for his education. He was then known as Hong Beng (Hongming in Min Nan dialect). In 1873 he began studying Literature at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in the spring of 1877 with an M.A. He then earned a diploma in Civil Engineering at the University of Leipzig, and studied law in Paris.
He returned to Penang in 1880, and soon joined the colonial Singapore civil service, where he worked until 1883. He went to China in 1885, and served as an advisor to the ranking official Zhang Zhidong for twenty years.
From 1905 to 1908, he was the director of the Huangpu River Authority (上海浚治黄浦江河道局) in Shanghai. He served in the Imperial Foreign Ministry from 1908 to 1910, then as the president of the Nanyang Public School, the forerunner of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He resigned the latter post in 1911 as a sign of his loyalty to the fallen imperial government. In 1915 became a professor at Peking University. Beginning in 1924 he lived in Japan for three years as a guest lecturer in Oriental cultures. Then he returned to live in Beijing until his death.
An advocate of monarchy and Confucian values, preserving his queue even after the overthrow of Qing Dynasty, Gu became a kind of cultural curiosity late in his life. Many sayings and anecdotes have been attributed to him, few of which can be attested. Literary figures as diverse as Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Somerset Maugham and Rabindranath Tagore were all drawn to visit him when they were in China. No scholarly edition of his complete works is available.
His English works include:
- Papers from a Viceroy's Yamen: a Chinese Plea for the Cause of Good Government and True Civilization (1901)
- ET nunc, reges, intelligite! The Moral Cause of the Russia-Japanese War (1906)
- The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement (1910)
- The Spirit of the Chinese People (1915)
He acquired Chinese only after his studies in Europe, and was said to have a bad Chinese hand-writing. However, his command of the language is far above average. He penned several Chinese books, including a vivid memoir recollecting his days as an assistant for Zhang Zhidong. He translated some of the Confucian classics into English, notably The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius and The Universal Order or Conduct of Life; and rendered William Cowper's narrative poem The Diverting History of John Gilpin into classical Chinese verse (known as 癡漢騎馬歌). Gu Hongming was born in 1857 in Penang, Malaya. According to a report by Xiamen Daily, his ancestral hometown was in Xiangan, Xindian, Puwei (翔安新店浦尾). His father was a manager working in a spice plantation owned by Mr Brown, a British subject who adopted Gu Hongming as his son. At the age of 13, Gu Hongming followed Mr Brown to Britain to receive his formal education. He achieved outstanding results and the University of Edinburgh awarded him a master’s degree in literature. Thereafter, he went to Germany to study civil engineering and obtained a diploma from the University of Leipzig. Subsequently, he enrolled himself in the University of Paris to study French. He returned to Penang in 1880 and came to Singapore to work as an assistant secretary for the Straits Government. In Singapore, he met Ma Jianzhong, a scholar learned in the Chinese culture. He was awakened by him and finally realized the importance of the Chinese language and culture. Three years later, he resigned from his post and returned to Penang where he started learning the Chinese language through private tuitions.
In 1882, he went to Hong Kong to further his studies, making much progress after several years of painstaking research. Though still could not gain full understanding of the profound ancient classics, he had already laid a solid foundation in mastering the Chinese language.
In 1885, he went to China and was invited to join the staff of Zhang Zhidong, to be in charge of western affairs. He was highly praised and entrusted with heavy responsibility. In 1905, the “Huangpu Jun Governance” in Shanghai appointed him as Superintendent. He served in the governance for three years. When Xuantong Emperor was restored, he was appointed as a “She Lang” and thereafter as a “Zoucheng” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In January 1910, the Qing government conferred him the title of “Jinci” and in the same year, he relinquished all duties in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and assumed the post of Director of the Shanghai Nanyang College.
After the Xinhai Revolution, he pledged his loyalty to the Qing Dynasty. He gave up all his official duties and went to Beijing. In 1915, he was appointed as a professor lecturing English Literature at the Beijing University. Being a conservative, he advocated Confucianism and Taoism. During the “May 4th” Movement, he wrote many articles in English condemning the New Cultural Movement. In 1924, he accepted the invitation by Dadong Cultural Association to lecture on “Oriental Culture” in Japan for three years. During which, he went to teach in Taiwan also. In the autumn of 1927, he returned to China from Japan and died in Beijing on 30 April 1928 at the age of 72.
Gu Hongming was a talented linguist fluent in English, German, French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Malay and many other languages. In particular, he commanded exquisite skills to write and speak English, German and French eloquently. His literary works were mostly written in English and his proficiency in English language reached such a height that even the British admired him greatly. Lin Yutang had commented that in the past 200 years, none had surpassed the level of English language proficiency as that achieved by Gu Hongming.
- Huang Xingtao 黃兴涛 (1995). Wenhua guaijie Gu Hongming (文化怪杰辜鸿铭 "Gu Hongming: a cultural eccentric"). Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company.
- Kong Qingmao 孔慶茂 (1996). Gu Hongming pingzhuan (辜鴻銘評傳 "A biography of Gu Hongming"). Nanchang: Baihuazhou wenyi chubanshe.
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