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Persons in Chinese History - Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛

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Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛 (1892-1980) was a philosopher of the early 20th century. He is most famous for his series Gushibian 古史辨 in which he criticized the mythologism of ancient historiography. He enrolled in 1913 at Peking University 北京大學 and graduated in 1920 in philosophy. He then became a teacher at Peking University and also lectured at Xiamen University 廈門大學, Zhongshan University 中山大學, Yanjing University 燕京大學, Yunnan University 雲南大學, Qi-Lu University 齊魯大學, Zhongyang University 中央大學, Fudan University 復旦大學, the Shehui jiaoyu xueyuan 社會教育學院 and Lanzhou University 蘭州大學等. He was publisher of the journals Zhongshan daxue yuyan lishi yanjiusuo zhoukan 中山大學語言歷史研究所週刊, Yanjing xuebao 燕京學報, Yugong 禹貢, Bianjiang 邊疆, Qida guoxue jikan 齊大國學季刊 and Wenshi zazhi 文史雜誌. After the take-over by the Communists he became a researcher at the Historical Department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Zhongguo kexueyuan Lishi yanjiusuo 中國科學院歷史研究所), Vice Chairman of the Research Group for Literature and Arts among the People (Zhongguo minjian wenyi yanjiuhui 中國民間文藝研究會), and 第二、三屆全國政協委員,第四、五屆全國人大代表。.
Gu Jiegang was influenced by the historian and philosopher Hu Shi 胡適 who had advocated a restructuring of historiography according to scholarly criteria. Gu Jiegang therefore began in the 1920 to critically investigate ancient writings and to divide history from mythology. With the help of Western scholarly disciplines like sociology or archaeology he reviewed traditional views on Chinese history. Together with Qian Xuetong 錢玄同 he initiated a broad discussion about traditional historiography, both in private letters and in publications. The contributions of various historians have been published in the eight volumes long series Gushibian 古史辨. Gu Jiegang's most important observation was that historiography had tended to invent a pre-historical past that was prolonged by each progressing age. During the time of the Western Zhou 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), for instance, the oldest person was believed to have been Yu the Great 大禹. During the time of Confucius, Yu's predecessors Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 had been invented; during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 and the Divine Husbandman 神農 became popular figures; and during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), prehistory was stretched back to the mythical creator Pan Gu 盤古. Gu's conclusion was that everything before the age of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) must have been pure mythological inventions. He also proved that Confucius' prepositions of how rituals hold together a society, had nothing to do with the real world around him. The so-called Six Classics (liujing 六經) were by no means a compilation of Confucius in imitation of the situation of the "golden age" of the past. Gu doubted that the Six Classics had any historiographical value. He also criticized the traditional view of ancient China as a culturally, ethnically and politically unified sphere thought to have been administered by one single dynasty, as supposed in the history Shiji 史記.
Gu Jiegang's doubts about the historical value of the Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" must be somewhat attenuated. It is especially for the early Zhou period that the texts of the Shangshu are very consistent with statements in bronze vessel inscriptions. His philosophy and re-interpretation of history must be seen in the context of the May Fourth Movement 五四運動 during which all traditional views, especially Confucianism, became subject to a harsh critique, and were seen as a cause for China's long backwardness in comparison to Western States. Gu Jiegang's research is nevertheless very important for the creation of a modern type of historiography.
Gu Jiegang's most important writings are Handai xueshu shilüe 漢代學術史略, Qin-Han de fangshi yu rusheng 秦漢的方士與儒生, Shangshu tongjian 尚書通檢, Zhongguo jiangyu yange shi 中國疆域沿革史 and Shilin zashi 史林雜識.

Source: Pang Pu 龐樸 (ed. 1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 315.

March 28, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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