Yu Ying-shih (余英時), one of the world’s leading China researchers and a fellow at Academia Sinica, passed away in his sleep at his home in New Jersey on Aug. 1 at the age of 91.
Yu — who studied under Qian Mu (錢穆), regarded by many as the master of Sinology — specialized in the history of Chinese thought and culture, and was known for his unique insights throughout his many publications.
Among his many awards are the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity and the Tang Prize in Sinology, which he won in the award’s inaugural year.
In addition to his academic insights, Yu was never reluctant to express his political opinions, criticizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship, and supporting democracy movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He was regarded as the most influential public intellectual in the Chinese-speaking world, and his sudden death deeply saddened many.
As a typical Chinese academic, it was natural that Yu had a strong bond to Chinese culture, yet at the same time, he was able to avoid the trap of nationalism that ordinary historians easily fall into. He was a culturalist who clearly separated political orthodoxy represented by the CCP regime from culturally inherited Confucian orthodoxy, hoping that Confucianism would restrain political orthodoxy.
For this reason he regarded the CCP as separate from China and preserved his fascination for its culture.
Yu said that CCP rule amplified what is bad about Chinese culture, while discarding what is good.
Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) role in history was incriminating, Yu said, adding that “from ancient times to today, there has never been anyone [who was] a more evil person than Mao.”
Yu said that the CCP’s destruction of culture and persecution of intellectuals had set it on an “anti-civilizational path.”
In a long article titled “Anti-intellectualism and Chinese political tradition” (反智論與中國政治傳統) published early in his career, Yu thoroughly criticized Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
An anti-intellectualism that denies academic expertise and banishes intellectuals is an obscurantist weapon that is commonly used by dictators to deceive the public.
Thanks to his clear decoupling of political orthodoxy from Confucian orthodoxy, and of the CCP from China, Yu was not deceived by the nationalism and the CCP’s “Chinese dream.”
Upholding the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” clamoring for forced unification with Taiwan and engaging in “wolf warrior” diplomacy against the Western world are the tricks that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the “Little Pinks” — young, jingoistic Chinese nationalists and socialist on the Internet — use to disguise their hegemonic ambitions and summon the evil spirit of Chinese nationalism.
Yu understood all this and warned the world that the CCP wants to deploy nationalism to finalize political control, take China toward Nazi-style rule to create “Nazism with Chinese characteristics.”
For Yu, national interests and glory are meaningless compared with freedom, democracy and humanity.
Therefore, in contrast to Xi’s Chinese dream with its emphasis on power and nationalism, Yu said: “My dream is that everyone can live in peace, do whatever they want and say whatever they want. This kind of society is my dream.”
This seemingly plain and ordinary, yet solid dream is the dream of a free person, and it shatters any dictator’s illusion.
Yu’s support of democracy movements in the Chinese-speaking world is also worth mentioning. With regard to Taiwan’s democracy movement, Yu published in the New York Times in support of members of the dangwai (黨外, “outside the party”) opposition movement such as Huang Hsin-chieh (黃信介), Chen Chu (陳菊) and Lin I-hsiung (林義雄), who were facing military trial over the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Yu raised funds to establish the Princeton China Initiative to help Chinese students and intellectuals in exile, and to publish supportive advertisements in the media.
More recently, Yu supported Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower movement, which he praised as being “extremely impressive,” as well as Hong Kong’s democracy protests.
He encouraged Hong Kongers to fight for freedom and democracy, saying that they “cannot just be submissive grandsons” or they would end up being “100 percent slaves.”
He affirmed the “civil disobedience” of Hong Kongers, and emphasized that although there would be a price to pay, “going to jail for this would be a very honorable thing.”
He admired and had high hopes for the success of Taiwan’s democratic transition. Coming from backward and authoritarian China to the liberal and democratic US, Yu believed that democracy was the only system that could guarantee a peaceful handover of power without bloodshed. From this point of view, Yu believed that the democratic transition of Taiwan, despite being a small nation, was of great significance for China and could serve as a reference point.
Based on his love for Taiwan’s democracy, he called for safeguarding the nation against the CCP’s all-out “united front” strategy and ambition to annex Taiwan, calling it the last place where Chinese people could enjoy freedom and democracy.
For this reason, he decisively criticized former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) for his pro-China stance, saying that it was based on “fear of the CCP, and was extremely unpromising and embarrassing.”
After Chinese historians were fettered by old conventions and began coveting prosperity and wealth, they easily became advocates for the “Greater China” hegemony and began defending and justifying the CCP’s autocratic dictatorship.
Countless academic authorities have surrendered to the dictator, replaced their scholarship with flattery for the regime, which is truly disgraceful.
However, Yu demonstrated great fortitude and strong intellectual character. He stood on the side of the people and criticized the government, pointing out that China’s way out is democracy, and that the CCP does not equal to China.
Commendably, Yu admitted in his memoirs that as a young man, just like his idealistic leftist peers, he also contracted a religious-like fanaticism and “leftist naivety,” with unrealistic fantasies about what the CCP might achieve.
Having witnessed atrocities committed by the Soviet Red Army and the CCP, he quickly awakened from this misconception, but he still felt ashamed of himself 60 years later when he recalled this part of his past.
Having awakened from that dream, Yu plunged into the sea of Chinese philosophy and culture. Over time, he developed a unique system of thought, and became one of the masters of our time and an intellectual who penned the most insightful criticism of an autocratic regime.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai