Herrlee Glessner Creel

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Herrlee Glessner Creel (Chinese: 顧理雅; pinyin: Gù Lǐyǎ; January 19, 1905 – June 1, 1994), usually known as H. G. Creel, was an American sinologist and philosopher who specialized in Chinese philosophy and history, and was a professor of Chinese at the University of Chicago for nearly 40 years. Creel was regarded as a giant among specialists on early Chinese civilization, and was described in various circles as "the doyen of American sinologists".[citation needed]

In his 35-year career as a professor there, Creel established the University of Chicago as a leading center of East Asian Studies in the United State. His career was marked by the longevity of his publications. Although he published for half a century, most of his major books remained in print at the time of his death. The quality of his scholarship was accompanied by a prose style that was deemed to have high levels of cogency, lucidity, and grace that made his work easily accessible to the reader.[citation needed]

Creel was an outspoken proponent of the theory that Chinese characters are inherently ideographic in nature.[1] Creel was primarily opposed by sinologists Peter A. Boodberg and Paul Pelliot, who believed that phonetic principles played a large role in the early history of Chinese characters,[2] and Creel's arguments in favor of his theory have been largely discredited by subsequent scholars.[1]

Early years[edit]

Creel was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 19, 1905. His entire tertiary education was at the University of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor of Philosophy in 1926, an M.A. in 1927 and a PhD 1929 in Chinese Philosophy. He began his postdoctoral career as an assistant professor of psychology at Lombard College from 1929 to 1930. He was awarded fellowships by the American Council of Learned Societies (1930–1933), the Harvard-Yenching Institute (1931–1935) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1936, 1945 –1946). In 1936 he accepted a post at the University of Chicago, where he was an instructor in Chinese history and language from 1936 until he was appointed Assistant Professor of early Chinese literature and institutions in 1937. Creel was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 1941 and full Professor in 1949. He served as a Lieutenant Colonel of military intelligence in the United States Army from 1943 to 1945 during the Second World War. He remained as a professor until 1964, when he became the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Chinese History until 1974).

Societies and publishing[edit]

Creel was a member of the Committee on Chinese Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies, a member of its Committee on Far Eastern Studies, and the President of the American Oriental Society. He also held membership of the Association for Asian Studies and of the American Philosophical Society. The most influential of Creel’s books include The Birth of China (1936), the first detailed account on the significance of the archaeological excavations at Anyang, which quickly attracted global interest; Studies in Early Chinese Culture (1937) which was an influential collection of monographs; Literary Chinese by the Inductive Method, vols. 1–111 (1938–52), a groundbreaking and controversial attempt to teach literary Chinese through carefully glossed excerpts from standard classical texts; Newspaper Chinese by the Inductive Method (1943), an effort to apply identical pedagogical techniques to the analysis of Chinese newspapers; Confucius, the Man and the Myth (1949), a critical analysis of the philosopher Confucius; Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung (1953), a survey of Chinese thought; The Origins of Statecraft in China, Vol. 1: The Western Chou Empire (University of Chicago Press, 1970), a judicial account of the polity of the Western Chou dynasty; What is Taoism? and Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 1970) and Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosophy of the Fourth Century B.C. (1974), an important monograph on an obscure early Chinese specialist on administrative technique


Creel came from a generation of sinologists who learned Chinese before any of the modern language pedagogy techniques had been developed, and before there were any reliable dictionaries to assist an understanding of the classical Chinese, rather than modern Chinese, meaning of the Chinese characters in a particular text.

His insistence on introducing students to Chinese through the ancient classical texts, without prior exposure to the modern language, remains a point of controversy. His arrival on the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1936 placed it prominently on the sinological map, where it has enjoyed a prominent place ever since.

Although Creel styled himself as a specialist on early Chinese history, the history of Chinese philosophy, and the history of Chinese ruling institutions, his scope of work was much broader, and included work in archaeology and anthropology; epigraphy, philology and linguistics; cultural, intellectual, economic and institutional history; and philosophy, literature and art.

Creel died at his home in Palos Park, Illinois, after a long illness, on June 1, 1994 at the age of 89.

Selected works[edit]

  • The Birth of China (1936). London: Jonathan Cape. Rpt. New York: John Day, 1937; New York: Frederick Ungar: 1954.
  • "On the Nature of Chinese Ideography", T'oung Pao 32 (1936): 85-161.
  • Literary Chinese by the Inductive Method, 3 volumes (1938, 1939, 1952). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Confucius, the Man and the Myth (1949). New York: John Day. Rpt. under title: Confucius and the Chinese Way, New York: Harper, 1960.
  • Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung (1953). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • What is Taoism? and Other Studies in Cultural History (1970). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • The Origins of Statecraft in China, volume 1 (1970). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Shen Pu-hai (1974). Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.


  • Honey, David B. (2001). Incense at the Altar: Pioneering Sinologists and the Development of Classical Chinese Philology. American Oriental Series 86. New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society. ISBN 0-940490-16-1. 
  • Roy, David T. (November 1994). "Obituary: Herrlee Glessner Creel (1905-1994)". Journal of Asian Studies 53 (4): pp. 1356–1357. doi:10.1017/s0021911800045526. 

External links[edit]

  1. ^ a b Honey (2001), p. 297.
  2. ^ Honey (2001), p. 298.