Interview | Xu Zhuoyun: To be free and open-minded; Have a vision and surpass what you have not seen.

2020-07-10 | By Historian | Filed in: Character.

Xu Zhuoyun (July 10, 1930-), born in Xiamen, Fujian, China, originally from Wuxi, Jiangsu, is a historian and is currently an emeritus professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and an academician of Academia Sinica. Xu Zhuoyun has studied Chinese and Western cultures and has taught in many institutions of higher learning in Taiwan, the United States and Hong Kong successively. He is good at using social science theories and methods to govern history. His research fields are mainly in Chinese cultural history, social and economic history and ancient Chinese history. His representative works include “On Ancient Chinese Social History”, “Agriculture of Han Dynasty”, “History of Western Zhou Dynasty” and “Rivers of All Ages”.

Xu Zhuoyun is a person living between the two civilized systems of China and the West. He is not only bathed in the sunset of the old Chinese culture, but also trained by the modern western knowledge system. This kind of learning and living experience between China and the West endows him with the greatest characteristics of his research. Although Xu Zhuoyun focuses on the social and cultural history of ancient China, his eyes have never been limited to the ancient past of China. He looks at the future of this country from its past and observes the history and development of the whole human society from this country.

Scholar Jun compiled and sorted out.

I. Bystander

On July 10, 1930, Xu Zhuoyun was born in Jiangnan clan. Unfortunately, he was born with a disability, congenital deformity of his limbs, varus of his hands and feet, and needed double crutches to walk. However, his twin brother Xu Yiyun, who was born at the same time, is in good health, which is also very rare in medicine.This kind of physical condition makes Xu Zhuoyun unable to receive normal education like other children. Fortunately, Xu Zhuoyun was born in a large family. There are eight of his brothers and sisters, who take good care of him and often answer his questions when reading. His father’s bookshelf also has many books on history and geography for him to read at any time.
The Four Brothers of Xu Shi during the Anti-Japanese War
Almost all the Xu family’s children have achieved great success. Xu Yiyun, Xu Zhuoyun’s twin brother, studied chemical engineering and later became a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering of Taipei University. His eldest sister, Xu Liufen, studied economics, was the director of the Taipei Institute of Commerce, and was also the grandmother of famous Chinese singer Wang Leehom. As Wang Leehom’s uncle, Xu Zhuoyun also quipped at the lecture: “Wang Leehom, you know, he is my grandson and his songs are quite superficial.”

Wang Leehom and His Uncle Xu Zhuoyun

Xu Zhuoyun’s father, Xu Fengzao, was a naval officer in the late Qing Dynasty and later a naval general of the national government. He participated in the 1911 Revolution.Xu FengzaoOn the one hand, he was educated by the traditional family and on the other hand, he was nurtured by the gentlemanly manner of the British navy. Although he was a military commander, he had great humanistic and academic qualities. When the Anti-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Xu Zhuoyun’s family lived in Hubei, which was quite close to the front line, and took refuge year after year. His brothers and sisters followed the refugee school and moved thousands of miles on foot, changing places in two or three months. Xu Zhuoyun moved around with his parents. After reading the newspaper every day, my father would insert tacks on the map to think about the situation of the war. He not only cared about the situation of the Chinese battlefield, but also paid attention to the situation of the European battlefield. Young Xu Zhuoyun often stayed beside his father, who would briefly tell his son his opinions from time to time. This daily father-son conversation had a great impact on Xu Zhuoyun’s lifelong interest in learning. “To sum up, although I dropped out of school for a long time during the Anti-Japanese War, every cloud has a silver lining actually got some opportunities that ordinary teenagers could not get.”

“Anti-Japanese War is a very important memory for me. Seeing people displaced, seeing death, seeing war, knowing what hunger is and what fear is, this is an irreplaceable experience.”

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, naval officers took photos, and Xu Fufeng Zao Gong was the second on the left in the back row.

In 1937, the Anti-Japanese War broke out in full swing. Xu Zhuoyun’s childhood experience of the War of Resistance was unforgettable all his life.

Due to his physical disability, he could not run and play like other children. As a young child, he was always placed on stone piers or small benches to watch life:

“The eight-year War of Resistance has been running around except for settling down in Chongqing for more than the last year. Therefore, I was lucky to see China’s deepest rural areas in the mainland and the original appearance that has not been touched by the outside. It is not only the scenery of mountains and rivers, but also the life of the people. As an onlooker, I am often placed on a mound, on a stone mill, moving a small bench and watching people work, so I can read every detail of the farming carefully. “

Later, when completing the important book “Han Dynasty Agriculture” on ancient Chinese agricultural society, Xu Zhuoyun’s childhood experience of fleeing various parts of the mainland of China gave him advantages that no one else could have, because he had thoroughly observed and understood the life of farmers and the social organizations in the countryside, and he knew what real farming was like.

“We live in the location of the river defense headquarters, here a few young naval officers with explosives, ready to row a small fishing boat set out in the middle of the night, even people with boats to bomb Japanese warships… We saw off the officers, got up in the middle of the night, said captain Liao was going to leave, mother to send him, father to salute him as a general, strong men will never return! This kind of experience did not exist in Chongqing, nor did Yu Yingshi in the mountains of Anhui. So, I hate the Japanese. However, I am opposed to war. “

When he was young, Xu Zhuoyun witnessed the brutal acts of the Japanese army in China, which made him have very strong national feelings as a teenager. However, with the increase of age, experience and knowledge-especially what he is engaged in is a worldwide comparative cultural study, he gradually realized the limitation of nationalism, and he realized that this strong feeling must be controlled to a certain extent, otherwise it may lead to blindness and shortsightedness:

“I didn’t put aside my patriotic thoughts until I was 50 years old. I felt that I couldn’t blindly love my country. I vowed to care for the dignity of human beings and individuals all over the world. Only all and individual individuals in human society have real significance of existence. Countries and races, as well as various communities, are constantly changing and not real existence. It was not until I was 50 years old that I understood that the patriotic thoughts I was beaten up by the Japanese during the Anti-Japanese War were certainly beyond doubt, but after I was 50 years old, I understood how many crimes in the world were carried out in the name of the country. “

Second, inside and outside the study

Xu Zhuoyun moved to Wuxi with his family in 1946. With the help of Li Kangfu, then director of Furen Middle School, he was given the opportunity to study in the school. In 1948, the situation became increasingly tense and the Xu family decided to move to Taiwan. In 1949, Xu Zhuoyun was admitted to the Department of Foreign Languages of Taiwan University, but his achievements in Chinese and history attracted the attention of the marking teacher. The answer sheet was presented to President Fu Sinian. After reading it, Fu Sinian said that he should go to the Department of History. A year later, under the personal persuasion of Fu Sinian, Xu Zhuoyun transferred to the Department of History and took history as his career all his life.
Fu Sinian (March 26, 1896-December 20, 1950)

During Xu Zhuoyun’s study at Taiwan University, Fu Sinian paid more attention to and encouraged him, making the top student “get some quite different treatment” during his study at the university. In Xu Zhuoyun’s memory, the president was very “friendly to the people”:

“He often toured all parts of the school and sometimes met on campus. He went to our dormitory to see what we had to eat and sighed. He and the driver were playing chess at the door, and we were watching around. There is no such principal today.”

During his study at Taiwan University, a series of archaeological articles by Fu Sinian had a great influence on Xu Zhuoyun. Other teachers at Taiwan University, such as Lao Zhenyi’s Qin and Han Dynasties, Li Zongdong’s Pre-Qin History, Li Ji and Ling Chunsheng’s archaeological anthropology, all gave him great inspiration.

Xu Zhuoyun graduated from Taiwan University in 1953.Enter the research institute of Taiwan University to study. The following year,Xu ZhuoyunHe won the Li Guoqin Scholarship set up at that time to subsidize young students to study in the United States with the result of first place. However, the investor required only those who were physically and mentally sound to receive the bonus. Taiwan University President Qian Siliang felt aggrieved by Xu Zhuoyun and asked Hu Shi to raise the bonus. In the summer of 1957, Hu Shi visited Mr. Xu Mingxin, an overseas Chinese, on four occasions in the suburbs of New York, and finally advised him to allocate a humanities scholarship to Xu Zhuoyun among the scholarships donated to the China-US Association.Although Hu Shi did not directly teach Xu Zhuoyun, he always regarded Hu Shi as his mentor.
At the University of Chicago, Xu Zhuoyun studied for a doctor’s degree from Herrlee G. Creel. The University of Chicago has an open style of study and emphasizes the cultivation and training of students’ problem consciousness. Xu Zhuoyun’s courses are arranged entirely according to his interests. Gu Liya and the Eastern Department do not impose any restrictions on him. Therefore, in addition to his major, he took courses such as ancient Egyptian history, archaeology of the two rivers, and ancient religion. At that time, Weber’s theory was being introduced into American academia by the University of Chicago, and Xu Zhuoyun also chose Peter Blau’s “Bureaucracy” course. At this time, Xu Zhuoyun’s academic experience was already quite numerous and jumbled. Weber’s theory helped him to combine many messy subject knowledge into a relatively complete theoretical system. Taking this as a method, his research work is generally focused on a series of special topics from the methods and angles of different disciplines.

Take a picture at the University of Chicago,

In the 1960s, ideological trends and movements surged all over the world. At this time, the United States was mired in the tropical jungle of Vietnam War, and civil rights movements in the country continued one after another. Xu Zhuoyun is not a scholar in the study. Apart from studying his lessons, he also pays close attention to the society outside the campus. During his study at the University of Chicago, Xu Zhuoyun, who was unable to move, often drove a small tram and went to the railway station with the students of the seminary to meet the black people in the south, telling the black people where their rights were. He also supervised the voting with the local students during the election. After graduating in 1962, he returned to the Institute of History and Language of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica. He still took the liberal atmosphere he studied at Chicago University and struggled to safeguard academic freedom and independence under the autocracy of the Kuomintang. In February 1963, after the publication of Free China was suspended and Lei Zhen was sentenced to 10 years for “knowing bandits but not reporting” and “publicizing for bandits”, Taiwan’s academic circles were shrouded in a dull atmosphere. Xu Zhuoyun and a group of young friends who cared about the current situation and loved learning jointly founded the magazine “Thinking and Words”, insisting on the folk stand and expressing the spirit of independence.

In the 1960s, while teaching at the National Taiwan University,

During this period, Li Ao was studying at Taiwan University,There are many disagreements between Xu Zhuoyun and Li Ao,. In Taiwan, Li Ao is a figure that ordinary people dare not easily provoke. In 2010, Xu Zhuoyun mentioned in his speech record published in mainland China that“Li Ao was more clever, disorganized, lied and stole books. When Li Ao was about to graduate, I didn’t stamp it, so he didn’t graduate…”As a result, Li Ao later sued him for slander. Correspondingly, Li Ao also made many remarks about Xu Zhuoyun in his book.

Xu Zhuoyun does not seem to think that intellectuals should only keep their desks. In his later research and research, he also wrote a large number of popular general history works, publicized academic achievements to the public, and participated in the establishment of various scholarships to train and support future generations. He also proved with his academic achievements such as works that participating in social activities does not seem to harm a scholar’s academic life.

Xu Zhuoyun once said when evaluating the American intellectual community:

“There are no intellectuals in the United States now, only experts. Originally enjoying more preferential treatment than others, they had the responsibility to pay more, but these people did not have a conscious sense of responsibility, nor did they have a conscious awareness. Without intellectuals, there would be no criticism. Criticism and creation are two legs. A group of people create and a group of people criticize. Without criticism, the society would be at a standstill. Therefore, intellectuals should be conscious. Unconsciously, he traded his special knowledge for fame and fortune. “

However, such problems do not seem to be unique to American academic circles.

Above: In 1969, Xu Zhuoyun’s family took a photo. Below: Xu Zhuoyun and his wife got married and took a photo after marriage,

During his tenure at the Institute of History and Language, Xu Zhuoyun met an important partner in his life: Sun Manli, who has just graduated from the History Department of National Taiwan University for two years. The two changed from teachers and students to lovers and finally walked on the red carpet in 1969. Speaking of his wife, Xu Zhuoyun was very grateful to her for her help in life and academia. “I have three most important ‘guarding angels’ in my life, namely, my mother, younger brother and wife. My mother gave birth to me and raised me, my younger brother played my hands and feet, and my wife paid for me wholeheartedly and stayed with me. “So I said I was lucky all my life: God was not good to me at first, but it was really good to me later.”

Third, between China and the West

In 1970, Xu Zhuoyun taught at the University of Pittsburgh as a visiting scholar. His research direction gradually focused on ancient Chinese history, especially the history of the pre-Qin and Han Dynasties. In addition to his daily teaching, he also participated in joint research activities of different civilizations, which had a very important impact on his research and thinking direction. Wang Xiaobo, who is familiar to readers, was taught by Xu Zhuoyun when he went to the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Pittsburgh as a graduate student in 1984. Wang Xiaobo said in his article “Life Science and Deception”:
“As a Chinese, it is difficult to understand what science is because of its unique historical background. Professor Xu Zhuoyun, my teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, once said that the Chinese first regarded science as a scourge and then as witchcraft that calls the wind and rain. Until now, most people who study science still regard it as religion to worship, and he finally realized that science is a continuous learning process. “

Xu Zhuoyun, who grew up in Chinese and Western cultures, has always been a combination of disciplines and a comparison between cultures. The combination of Chinese and Western cultures is the greatest characteristic of his research.Xu Zhuoyun’s historical research can be basically divided into three categories: social history, cultural history and “China-foreign” relations. In the study of social history, Xu Zhuoyun paid attention to the phenomenon of social mobility, not only expressing the social state of a period in the horizontal direction, but also stacking these pictures and comparing the changes before and after in the vertical direction, so as to recognize the development process of society.

In the study of cultural history, Xu Zhuoyun believes that cultural characteristics are not only the result of choice, but also the process of continuation. A cultural characteristic formed by continuity is an important factor that distinguishes other cultures. After each culture forms its own characteristics, it continues and corrects continuously. This change is slow and slight, so that in a short period of time, it is easier to show its continuity than the fracture caused by long-term modification. He summed up the characteristics of ancient Chinese culture as “three primary colors”: the combination of groups based on kinship, the agricultural economy characterized by intensive cultivation, and the civil service system guided by Confucianism. These “three primary colors” are the remarkable characteristics of ancient Chinese culture that Xu Zhuoyun traced back to Chinese culture and obtained through comparison. They are also the guarantee for China to maintain its own unity. He believes that today’s Chinese culture needs to foster strengths and avoid weaknesses. It should not only base itself on its own nation and find a foothold for Chinese culture, but also contribute to the development of world culture.

The book “I and Others-Internal and External Divisions in Chinese History” (Joint Publishing, 2010) is Xu Zhuoyun’s most systematic and comprehensive summary of the “China-Foreign” relationship. Xu Zhuoyun believes that “China” is not only a representative of a political and cultural complex, but also a manifestation of a long-term process of change and transformation. It occupies the double coordinates of space and time. Xu Zhuoyun cut out different “China” profiles from the vertical axis of time. Starting from different “China” images, he analyzed different “China-foreign” relations in historical periods, defined various “I” and “others”, and superimposed the full connotation of “China-foreign” relations in the whole “China”. However, combing the connotation of the relationship between “I” and “others” and “China-foreign” in Chinese history, so as to understand the transformation and evolution process of China, a complex community, is actually serving the understanding of China and the world today.

“We human beings used to share the same origin. After spreading everywhere, we are converging into a common social body. Human beings everywhere have gone through different paths and finally moved to a common direction. We once had our own history. These unique histories are only different chapters in the common history of mankind.”

Although Xu Zhuoyun’s focus has always been on ancient Chinese society, his vision has never been limited to a period or a country, “to take the roads taken by human beings all over the world as one of the roads I have taken”. This is also the mind he should have when Chinese history moves forward.

Xu Zhuoyun at the Former Site of the Institute of History and Language of Nanjing Academia Sinica

IV. History and Present

On Chinese Academic Circles;

Today, the academic circles are very obviously worshipping foreign things and fawning on foreign countries, and they are also very obviously clinging to the remnants and keeping the gaps. The two are compatible. I can’t see the whole picture, so I worship foreign things and flatter foreign countries. I take things from outside to fill in. I have no spontaneous spirit. I have intelligence but dare not let go. I dare not use my intelligence to solve my mental troubles and hunger and thirst. This is something worth worrying about. Therefore, if the reform and opening up really have a sense of honor, the government must relax people’s thoughts at this time, must relax resources to encourage the wealth of the people, and also release some resources to encourage the work of finding and rebuilding values in academia and culture.

(Xu Zhuoyun and Li Huaiyu: Xu Zhuoyun’s Talk Record)

On Intellectuals:

In today’s world we are facing, there are only experts but not intellectuals. Compared with the contemporary European academic circles, the American academic circles lack intellectuals. American intellectuals are not among writers, journalists and intellectuals, but among open universities. There are only professional teachers and researchers in the institutions of higher learning. They only ask small questions and don’t ask big questions. Few people criticize and criticize the contemporary era, let alone a realm that should exist in the future. They only saw the confrontation between conservatism and freedom, but no longer asked how “freedom” should be redefined.


Knowledge has become a commodity and a source of power. People who master knowledge manipulate the market. A new Brahmana class is emerging. In Indian civilization, Brahmins possess all privileges with their knowledge. They are noble species while others are base species. Brahmins finally cooperated with Dili (king), who held a sword and a sword, that is, the combination of knowledge and power. Today, our “kings” are those who have a lot of wealth, and everyone bows to wealth. Under such circumstances, we have only experts and no intellectuals.

(Xu Zhuoyun’s Speech at Taiwan University in 2006, “Intellectuals in History and Intellectuals in the Future World”)

On Western Civilization:

Today, individualism has developed to the point where it is difficult to repair: people have full freedom, but people can have almost no responsibility to others. This situation has caused several major economic crises in recent years, because people no longer trust each other. The society is nearly disintegrated, even the family may not exist, and there is a lack of intimate mutual promise between couples and parents. Under such circumstances, a society will only satisfy the plunder of desire and not support each other. This is a major deficiency that Western civilization is facing.

(Chen Xinxiang: “Leaning on a Staff to Listen to the Sound of the River-An Interview with Professor Xu Zhuoyun”)

On Today’s Chinese Culture;

The Chinese world takes people as its head. Without God, the heart of heaven is the heart of the people. Pangu is a human being, the sun in his left eye, the moon in his right eye, the sky above his head, the earth on the soles of his feet, the blood vessels on his body are rivers, and the bones are forests. This Pangu is a symbol, the three talents of heaven, earth and people, and people are expensive. No one’s eyes, no one’s knowledge, no one’s emotion, no one’s wisdom, there is no heaven and earth.

This is both China’s advantage and China’s defect. The biggest side effect is that the Chinese people talk about ethics, people-to-people relations, social relations, all kinds of close and distant relations, all kinds of superior and inferior relations, and upper and lower relations. This constitutes a difference between advantages and disadvantages.

For one example, We have never departed from the power of the emperor. With the emperor, there will be an internal court. With the internal court, the government will not exist. There will always be this confrontation between the internal court and the real ruling government. As a result, the country will definitely be divided. Then everyone wants to be the emperor, everyone wants to be the Taizu, and everyone wants to be the leader of the gang. It is not enough. There are also the second and third generations. It is not enough. Cousin and uncle have to go. This is deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, making it impossible for us to liberate ourselves and binding our spontaneous spirit.

(Xu Zhuoyun’s “Thirteen Invitations” Interview in March 2020)

On the Situation of “People” Today;

At present, the global problem is that people cannot find a purpose or the meaning of life, so they are at a loss. However, there are too many temptations in the world. How many scientific and technological products do we have in our daily life today? These things are not made at home but bought. You can’t live today without money. If you have to live this kind of life, you cannot be independent. Since you cannot be independent, you will run with everyone, what everyone uses, and what you follow.

Especially in today’s cyberspace, everyone influences each other, but it is rare for anyone to think about it. I heard a lot of information, but I don’t necessarily know how to choose, nor do I know which direction life is going and what people are doing in life. Only those who are disappointed and those who have no choice but to think about why I live, and those who live in prosperity will not think about it. Today’s life is too comfortable, and no one thinks about this problem.

(Xu Zhuoyun’s “Thirteen Invitations” Interview in March 2020)

[1] Xu Zhuoyun and Li Huaiyu: “Xu Zhuoyun’s Talk Record”, Guangxi Normal University Press, 2010.
[2] Chen Xinxiang: “Leaning on a Staff to Listen to the Sound of the River-An Interview with Professor Xu Zhuoyun”, “Bookstore” No.2, 2017.
[3] Tang Xiaobing: “Meeting the Republic of China”, Life, Reading and New Knowledge Joint Publishing, 2017.
[4] Chen Huijuan: “Research on Xu Zhuoyun’s Historical Thoughts”, Master’s Degree Thesis, Anhui University, 2016.
[5] Xu Zhuoyun Xu Zhiyuan: “Xu Zhiyuan Dialogue Xu Zhuoyun”, “Thirteen Invitations” Season 4, Issue 8, March 2020.

This article is reproduced from the public number:Human Scholar

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