- In MemoryYing-shih Yü (1930–2021)
Ying-shih Yü (Yu Yingshi), who died this past summer, was an irreplaceable member of the China field. Professor Yü was the complete Chinese historian, publishing on virtually every period, on topics ranging from the concept of afterlife in the Han through the principle of human rights in contemporary China. In an age of specialists, he was a generalist, comfortably moving through text and context in each era. He was able to do this because of his remarkable education. After spending the war years in Anhui, he joined his father, also a historian of China, in Hong Kong. There he attended New Asia College. Although New Asia later became one of the foundation colleges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in the 1950s it began as a college devoted to the preservation of Chinese culture in the twentieth century. When Professor Yü was a student there, New Asia had attracted an extraordinary cohort of émigré scholars, including Qian Mu (1895–1990), Tang Junyi (1909–1978), and Mou Zongsan. (1909–1995). Professor Yü studied with Qian Mu, whose broad intellectual vision was passed on to his students. From New Asia, Professor Yü moved on to do his graduate work at Harvard.1
A full account of his contributions would be beyond the scope of a short piece. Readers of Late Imperial China will most appreciate two streams of Ying-shih Yü's scholarship, his work in the 1980s on the origins of evidential studies (kaozheng xue), and his articles on commercialization and Confucian thought in the late Ming. Until the 1970s, the dominant image of Qing intellectual history posited a radical break between the metaphysical speculation dominant in the Ming, and the empirical research that was prized during the Qing.2 Drawing on Qian Mu and Feng Youlan, Professor Yü proposed in a series of [End Page 7] articles in the 1970s and early 1980s that Qing scholarship represented a development within Neo-Confucianism, rather than a radical break from it. In an early article, he demonstrated that some of the earliest empirical work grew out of metaphysical conflicts, in which Ming intellectuals like Wang Yangming turned to classical texts to prove their points.3 The culmination of this research stream was a volume entitled Lun Dai Zhen yu Zhang Xuecheng, published in Hong Kong in 1976. Five articles on Qing intellectual history are included in Volume 2 of the convenient English collection of Professor Yü's articles, Chinese History and Culture.4
A second stream of Ying-shih Yü's scholarship that significantly contributed to late imperial Chinese history was his argument in a series of articles and a book in the 1980s and 1990s that commerce and Confucianism were compatible, particularly in the great commercial era of the late Ming. Studying a new genre of epitaphs in late Ming and Qing, written by scholars for merchants, Professor Yü argues that the boundaries between scholars and merchants were collapsing in the late imperial period. With a magisterial survey of Chinese economic and social thought, he also takes on Max Weber's famous conclusion that Confucians were not fit for capitalism.5 Professor Yü's work on late-Ming thought included a reassessment of Wang Yangming's social thought. Taken together, this work represents a substantial contribution to late Ming and early Qing intellectual history.
Kind and generous with his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of issues and sources in Chinese history, Professor Yü supervised dissertations covering topics ranging from Sima Qian through eighteenth-century [End Page 8] issues. He also proved knowledgeable about topics in western intellectual history, and his articles are studded with references to the debate between faith and reason in early church history, Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes, and Arnold Toynbee. For all these reasons, a trip to his office was nearly always rewarding, and sometimes spectacularly so. My life was changed forever one day in 1975 when I went to his office to ask his advice on dissertation topics. I explained that I had been reading in Russian history about nineteenth-century intellectual alienation. I wondered whether it would be possible to find...