Yu Ying-shih

This is a Chinese name; the family name is Yu.
Yu Ying-shih
Born (1930-01-22) 22 January 1930
Tianjin, Republic of China
Institutions University of Michigan
Harvard University
New Asia College
Yale University
Princeton University
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Alma mater Yenching University
New Asia College
Harvard University
Doctoral advisor Yang Lien-sheng
Doctoral students Ray Huang
Influences Ch'ien Mu
Notable awards 2006 Kluge Prize
Yu Ying-shih
Traditional Chinese 余英時
Simplified Chinese 余英时

Yu Ying-shih (Chinese: 余英時; born January 22, 1930) is a Chinese American historian and Sinologist known for his mastery of sources for Chinese history and philosophy, his ability to synthesize them on a wide range of topics, and for his advocacy for a new Confucianism. He was a tenured professor at Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University, and is an Emeritus Professor of East Asian Studies and History, Princeton University.

He is the elder brother of philosopher and educator Paul Yu.

Prizes and honors

On November 15, 2006, Yu Ying-shih was named the third recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. He shared the 2006 prize with John Hope Franklin. He is the inaugural winner of the Tang Prize in Sinology, which recognizes scholars conducting "revolutionary research" and is selected by the Academia Sinica.[1] Yu used his Tang Prize winnings of NT$10 million to establish the Yu Ying-shih Fellowship for the Humanities.[2]

Early life

Yu's father, who had studied at Harvard, taught history in Tianjin, and at the start of the second Sino-Japanese War sent him to live with his aunt from 1937 through 1946 in rural Anhui province, where they would be safe from Japanese invasion.[3] He later recalled that “although rujia 儒家 [Confucian] culture was in a degenerate state, it nevertheless controlled the activities of daily life: by and large, all interpersonal relationships—from marriage and funeral customs to seasonal festivals—adhered to the rujia norms, supplemented by Buddhist and Daoist beliefs and practices.”[4] Wartime shortages meant that sometimes the family had no money for rice, forcing them to eat potatoes. "I hate potatoes," he later told an interviewer. The situation was too chaotic for him to attend school, so he read whatever material he could find, for instance, his aunt's popular novels.[3]

Academic career

In 1949, he enrolled in the department of History in Yenching University, but in 1950 came to Hong Kong for reunion with his family. He then studied in the newly founded New Asia College, later incorporated into Chinese University of Hong Kong. The founders of New Asia College, which Yu joined as a student, were staunchly anti-Communist, rejected the iconoclastic New Culture Movement but did not see Western liberal thought as the alternative. Yu studied with Ch'ien Mu, a scholar rooted in traditional Chinese philosophy, and became the first graduate of the college. He is remembered both as an international prodigy at weiqi (or Chinese chess) and for the number of cigarettes he smoked.

On Ch'ien's recommendation, he came to Harvard University in the United States in 1955, and received his PhD in 1962. He then taught at various universities including University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale University and Princeton University. As Yale historian Jonathan Spence commented, Yu is one of the few people to have been tenured at these three Ivy League universities. In 1973, he came back to his alma mater, New Asia College. He became the Head of the College and also the Pro Vice-Chancellor of University, before returning to Harvard, then moving to Yale in 1977, and then to Princeton in 1987. When asked later why he had moved to Princeton he said: "They had a really interesting library." He retired from Princeton in 2001.[3]


While still in Hong Kong, Yu started to write books and pamphlets in Chinese commenting on the problems of intellectuals and democracy in the People’s Republic.[5] He was particularly tenacious over the years in presenting the achievements of Chen Yinke (1890–1969), the greatest modern scholar of Tang dynasty China, who was at first supported and then hounded to death by the revolution. His Harvard PhD thesis was published as Trade and Expansion in Han China; a Study in the Structure of Sino-Barbarian Economic Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). Scrupulous and thematically relevant monographs, mostly published in Chinese, explored the role of intellectuals, especially early modern moral and political critics such as Fang Yizhi (1611–71), Dai Zhen (1723–77), and Zhang Xuecheng (1738–1801), who had been neglected in earlier scholarship. Yu also mastered the scholarship around Honglou Meng, the novel known in English as Dream of the Red Chamber, a masterpiece exploring the decline of a rich family at the height of the Qing empire in the late 18th century.

The insistent, modest, meticulous voice of history which Yu developed in these studies was the one he used in the debates over democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Some people, including both the defenders of the state in Beijing and western modernization liberals, still insisted that democracy and Confucianism were incompatible. But Yu developed the philosophical and historical arguments perhaps implicit in the thought of his mentors: liberal Confucian values, once freed from the imperial ideology of the dynasties, are essential to democracy: The independent spirit of the scholar both models and creates responsible criticism of politics. Confucian values had always insisted on the critique of political power, moral judgment grounded in historic comparison, the voice of the people in governance, the contingent nature of the political mandate, public discourse, the responsibility of the individual for social action, and could even be developed for a contemporary view of women’s rights.[6]

Yu developed a critical view of the revival of Confucianism in mainland China. He commented "the Chinese Communists are not Confucianists." [7] He held that there were two kinds of Confucianism to be found in China's history: "the Confucianism that had been persecuted, the other is the Confucianism that has persecuted people." He termed the state sponsorship of Confucianism in China today "the kiss of death." Yet at the same time he argued that democracy had been practiced in China and was therefore not an importation from the West.[8]

In October 2014 it was reported that Beijing had ordered the banning of works by Yu Yingshi.[9][10]

Major works

  • Vol 1 史學、史家與時代 (history, historians and their times)
  • Vol 2 中國思想傳統及其現代變遷 (Traditional Chinese Thought and its present day transformation)
  • Vol 3 儒家倫理與商人精神 (Confucian ethic and the spirit of capitalism)
  • Vol 4 中國知識人之史的考察 (Chinese intellectuals and their historical investigations)
  • Vol 5 現代學人與學術 (Modern scholars and scholarship)
  • Vol 6 民主制度與近代文明 (Democracy and modern civilization)
  • Vol 7 文化評論與中國情懷(上) (Cultural critique Pt I)
  • Vol 8 文化評論與中國情懷(下) (Cultural critiques Pt II)
  • Vol 9 歷史人物考辨 (Historical textual studies)
  • Vol 10 宋明理學與政治文化 (Studies in Song and Ming Lixue and political culture)


  1. Historian Yu Ying-shih Named Winner of the 2014 Tang Prize in Sinology
  2. Hsu, Elizabeth (23 August 2015). "Yu Ying-shih Fellowship open for applications". Central News Agency. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 "Yu Ying-shih: The humble Scholar". New Jersey Star Ledger. December 31, 2006..
  4. quoted in John Makeham, Lost Soul: "Confucianism in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse (Harvard University Press, 2008): 1.
  5. Ziyou Yu Pingdeng Zhi Jian [Between freedom and equality](Jiulong: Ziyou chuban she, 1955); Minzhu Geming Lun : Shehui Chongjian Xin Guan[On democratic revolution: new views on social reconstruction] (Jiulong: Ziyou chu ban she, 1954).
  6. Yingshi Yu, Democracy, Human Rights and Confucian Culture (Oxford: Asian Studies Centre St. Antony's College, 2000).
  7. Yu Ying-shih, "The Chinese Communists Are Not Confucianists," China Change July 1, 2015
  8. Crane,, Sam (2015). "Thoughts on Yu Ying-Shih's Brief Reflection on "Confucianism's Kiss of Death"". Useless Tree.
  9. Cao Guoxing (11 October 2014), SARFT bans several authors Radio France Internationale
  10. "China bans books by pro-Hong Kong protest author". Washington Post. Associated Press. 13 October 2014. Retrieved 14 October 2014.

References and further reading

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