Hu Shih and His Shui-ching Chu Scholarship

Vol. 27 No. 2   6/1997  


Hu Shih and His Shui-ching Chu Scholarship


Benjamin Wai-ming Ng









Key words

Hu Shih, Shui Ching Chu, Intellectual history of modern China


      For a long time, people do not understand why Hu Shih (1891-1962) spent his last twenty tears studying the Chinese classic work, Shui-ching chu (Commentary on the Classic of the Waterways). Was this ambitious academic project a departure from his early mission as a westernizer? Was the Shui-ching chu his ivory tower? Why did he try so hard to prove that Tai Chen (1724-1777) was innocent of plagiarism?

    This paper will attempt to answer a number of such questions which have puzzled scholars about Hu Shih, the Shui-ching chu, and Ch’ing scholarship through a case study of the Shui-ching chu controversy. The focus of the controversy is the question of whether Tai Chen plagiarized Chao I-Ch’ing (1709-1764) or Ch’üan Tsu-wang (1705-1755). Hu argued that Tai arrived at identical results as chao and Ch’üan independently because these three midCh’ing scholars employed the same research method of textual criticism.

    This research indicates that Hu’s main intention in studying the Shui-ching chu was not to defend the cultural heritage of his homeland, to prove his ability in reading classics, to hide himself from the punishing reality, or to fight for justice.

    Rather, he used this issue as an ideological weapon to fight with cultural conservatives and to advocate the aspects of modernity, such as objectivity and scientific spirit, that he found in Ch’ing scholarship. Tai Chen was a hero to Hu because he represented a cultural heritage which could be utilized in modern China for an epistemological and methodological revolution.

   Hu’s scholarship on the Shui-ching chu is controversial. His collation and examination of more than sixty different editions of the ext was perhaps his most important contribution to Shui-ching chu studies. No one has examined the Dhui-ching chu controversy more comprehensively than Hu. However, Hu did not make a real breakthrough. His handwritten manuscripts are loosely organized and badly written. He shifted the attention of scholars away from more important areas in Shui-ching chu studies. His research was also far from being neutral and objective. He was too lenient toward Tai Chen and to harsh on Tsh’s critics. He also failed to respond directly to the unfavorable arguments raised by Tai’s critics.



Author: Benjamin Wai-ming Ng
Genre: Article