- Gu Hongming's Eccentric Chinese Odyssey by Chunmei Du
Gu Hongming (1857–1929), the author of The Spirit of Chinese People (1915) was a cultural icon in early twentieth century Western imagination of the East. With his anachronistic pro-Manchu queue, his iterative denunciation of western civilization, and his advocacy of Confucianism, he appeared as a crazy or pathetic figure to some and as a "spokesman of the East" to others. "I am the last representative of the old China," he once boasted. But was he really? Exploring his eccentric odyssey offers a much more complex picture. Born in Penang (today Malaysia) in a family of Chinese ancestry, he was educated in humanities at Edinburgh University. Then, tired of being "the imitation of a Western man," and incapable of finding either satisfying position or reconnaissance in the British colonial order, he tried his best to "become a Chinaman." In 1885, he started to work as a secretary under the Viceroy Zhang Zhidong. After the collapse of the Chinese Empire, he was hired as Professor at Beijing University. He would end his life touring in Japan claiming that the Empire of the rising sun was the true depository of Chinese culture. This brief biography already underlines that Gu was a hybrid and global figure worth inquiring into.
Du Chunmei's monograph is articulated around themes-based chapters: a specific event or text of Gu always serves as a departure point to delve into a larger issue. The first part of the book focuses more on his writings, while the second explores his psychology, behavior, and social performance. As such, Gu Hongming's Eccentric Chinese Odyssey is no biography. The chronology is not respected—which impels unfortunately a few repetitions—but the analysis often goes far beyond Gu. I would even dare to say that many passages concerned with how non-Chinese intellectuals, novelists, missionaries, and political men mobilized his discourse or his figure in their own productions are much more interesting and original than the exegesis of Gu's ideas. The book provides in fact two important outputs: first, it localizes Gu's works in various transnational networks of peoples and intellectual circulation; second, it minutely investigates into the role played by psychological projection and symbolic exchange among translational cultural elites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gu Hongming and his sulfurous personality are here entry doors to explore the co-construction of the West and Orient metacategories. [End Page 823]
Regarding the man at the core of this monograph, Du Chunmei has tried to understand Gu with the notion of "trickster." This approach is illuminating: it underscores that Gu, in both his textual productions and daily practices, was "a performer of his self-directed show" (p. 152). By dwelling into his inner complexion, she also successfully touches sore spots and displays how constructing one's identity of a "Chinaman" entailed navigating within conflicting transnational and sociopolitical narratives as well as throughout traumatic personal ordeals. Her remarks on the intertwined relationship between the issues of body representation, sexuality, gender, racism, and colonialism are remarkable for they shed new light on Gu's intellectual trajectory, while expanding our understanding of Orientalism and self-exoticism. However, I regret that her notion of "cultural amphibian" deserves the points she wants to make. It appears to me methodologically precarious for it implies that cultures are antecedent to individuals, who are but circulating from one to the other. In this regard, the author should have paid more attention to the theoretical debates in transcultural studies. Her conclusion that presents Gu as someone who elaborated his identity on a cultural Möbius strip is a better suited metaphor. Nonetheless, I am far from certain that Du Chunmei has completely succeeded in turning her back to ontological orientalism.
Thanks to her detective work that led to the discovery of unknown documents, Du accomplishes a real tour de force and provides a new pathway throughout the tangled debates and preposterous tales regarding Gu...