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Research Fellow: Leon Rocha (2011–14) – Ye Dehui: Chinese Book-Collector and Philological Scholar

For Leon Rocha (Research Fellow) a key question drives his research projects: 'How do people come to know what they know about China, and why do they think about China in a particular way?'

Leon wrote in the Emmanuel Review in 2012:

In other words, I am not only interested in finding out ‘historical facts’ about China, but I am also investigating the processes and the socio-political contexts in which knowledge about China is produced.

My starting point was Joseph Needham’s monumental series Science and Civilisation in China. I wanted to discover how Needham came to know what he knew. What textual and archaeological evidence did he draw from, and what networks of expertise did he mobilise? One crucial source for Needham, with regard to the history of Daoism, medicine and sexuality, turned out to be a late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century literatus called Ye Dehui. My current research involves an extensive study of Ye’s life and works.

Born in 1864, Ye Dehui came from one of the wealthiest families in the Hunan region. He attended the prestigious Yuelu Academy and was eventually awarded the jinshi chushen (‘of presented scholar background’) status in the 1892 Palace Examination. He was immediately appointed a secretary of the Ministry of Personnel and Civil Appointments, but his career as a Beijing official was short-lived. Resigning from his post and returning to his native Changsha, Ye became thoroughly enmeshed in the network of Hunanese elites. He controlled major agricultural and commercial enterprises, and became one of the most prominent gentry rice and salt merchants in southern China. His considerable wealth financed an enormous collection of rare books and manuscripts, paintings and calligraphy, jade and fine jewellery, precious metals and bronze antiques, wines and other luxury items. Ye’s collection of books – an estimated 200 000 volumes – was one of the largest in China at that time.

Ye fashioned himself as a vanguard of Chinese traditions. He staunchly defended the social organisation and political institutions of the Qing Dynasty. While he acknowledged that the West might have some useful technologies, which China ought to adopt selectively, he insisted on the absolute superiority of Chinese culture. He thought Confucianism represented ‘the supreme expression of justice in the principles of Heaven and the hearts of men’ and predicted a future world in which Confucianism would replace all other beliefs in ‘civilised countries of both East and West’. For Ye Dehui, China’s repeated ‘humiliation’ by foreign powers since the Opium Wars was not because something was inherently wrong with Chinese values, but because the Chinese were not Chinese enough. Everything that was wise and useful had already been said millennia ago by Chinese sages, Ye argued, so the solution to any social malaise or political decline was a return to classical texts. Indeed, it was this conservative mentality that earned Ye the label ‘a thinker from the die-hard school’.

It is unsurprising, given Ye’s outlook, that he devoted his research to Chinese philology, particularly so-called ‘elementary studies’, which combined phonetics, semantics, etymology and the analysis of Chinese characters. His aim was to determine the correct pronunciation, appearance and meanings of words, which would then enable the accurate transmission of ideas. This went hand-in-hand with Ye Dehui’s bibliographic project, the authentification and rectification of classical texts, as well as the restoration and reconstruction of standard, canonical editions. In short, he was interested in the study of the medium carrying the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient sages.

Ye’s reputation as a prolific scholar with an encyclopaedic knowledge about the Chinese language attracted young students from as far as Japan. The linguistician Morohashi Tetsuji, who created the Dai Kan-Wa jiten (1955–60, the Japanese/Chinese counterpart of the Oxford English Dictionary), visited Ye Dehui in 1920. Morohashi set out to investigate continuing intellectual debates about democracy, women’s rights, language reform and the modernisation of China. During his travels in 1919–21, he met famous Chinese intellectuals such as Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu, but was unimpressed by all of them as they seemed too ‘Westernised’. He preferred conversing with the ‘old school’ Confucian scholars and eccentric men who seemed stuck in time, like Ye Dehui.

While the intellectual exchange between Morohashi and Ye was brief, other Japanese disciples stayed much longer. Literature scholar Shionoya On, for instance, remained in Changsha for two years to learn Yuan Dynasty drama under Ye’s tutelage, while Sinologist Matsuzaki Tsuruo lived in Ye’s home for nine years to study the history of the Chinese book. When Ye died in 1927, a memorial service was held in Tokyo, attended by some of the most well-known Japanese Sinologists. Despite Ye’s professed Sinocentrism, he was remarkably cosmopolitan, and his bibliographic work and book collection depended on these scholarly networks that stretched between China and Japan.

Although Ye Dehui’s philological scholarship is largely forgotten, his bibliographical works and histories of Chinese bookmaking have continued to attract attention. His most important work, Plain Talks on the Forest of Books (Shulin qinghua, 1911), details the history of the book from the Tang and Song Dynasties onwards, with meticulous research on technical standards, preservation and collection, and the evolution of designs and technologies. Another work, The Bookman’s Decalogue (Cangshu shiyue, 1911, translated into English by the brilliant Harvard Sinologist Achilles Fang), contains Ye’s advice about the purchase of books and manuscripts, restoration and display, and so forth. This work offers rare glimpses of the culture of refinement among bibliophiles in Late Imperial China. Cambridge historian Joseph McDermott states that Ye’s books ‘remain today, a full century after their first publication, important first-call reference works for all serious students of Chinese history’.

I am currently writing a lengthy analysis of Ye Dehui’s Shadow of the Double Plum Tree Anthology (Shuangmei jing’an congshu, 1903–14). This is a curious collection of texts, containing reconstructions of treatises on Daoist alchemical practices, specifically those concerning sexuality and immortality, from the Han to Tang Dynasties. These texts, for instance The Classic of the Plain Girl (Sunu? jing), discuss pleasure and desire, the cultivation of essence, the maintenance of health and the attainment of longevity. Ye reconstructed these texts from fragments recorded in Ishinpo, the oldest surviving medical work from tenth-century Japan.

Why did Ye Dehui reconstruct these texts? To resist Western science and medicine. He argued that the ‘Art of the Bedchamber’ described in these works were superior to Western inquiries into sexual behaviour, that they anticipated eugenics and birth control. Ye’s goal was to recreate and put back into circulation a canon of ‘Chinese sexology’. The Double Plum Anthology became an important source for Western Sinologists including Joseph Needham and Robert van Gulik. The argument that Needham and van Gulik made using Ye’s anthology was very interesting: they insisted that there was a Chinese sexual culture far healthier and less repressive than Western sexualities.

The study of Ye Dehui’s career and works, and their reception, illuminates questions about the circulation of books, the movement and exchange of ideas, and translations and creative appropriations. I hope that my work in Sinology and the history of Sinological scholarship enriches understandings of how different groups of intellectuals and scholars came to say what they did about China.

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