Wang Guowei

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Wang Guowei (Traditional Chinese: 王國維; Simplified Chinese: 王国维; Wade-Giles: Wang Kuowei) (December 2, 1877 – June 2, 1927), courtesy name Jingan (靜安) or Baiyu (伯隅), was a Chinese scholar, writer, philosopher, and poet. A versatile and original scholar, he made important contributions to the studies of ancient history, epigraphy, philology, vernacular literature and literary theory. Wang Guowei was the first to introduce to China the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant, and initiate the comparative study of Chinese and Western aesthetics. He was also highly celebrated as a poet in the classical form of ci lyrics that had earlier flourished in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

At the age of twenty-two, Wang went to Shanghai and became a protégé of Luo Zhenyu, a Chinese antiquarian who encouraged his interest in ancient Chinese script and vernacular literature. Sponsored by Luo, he spent a year in Japan in 1901, studying natural science. On his return, he devoted himself to the study of German idealism, and developed a theory of aesthetics which synthesized Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art with Daoism. His ability to understand both Eastern and Western culture enabled him to develop remarkable insight. He fled to Japan during the Revolution of 1911, returned to China and worked as a writer and an educator, but remained loyal to the overthrown Manchu emperor. In 1927, he drowned himself in Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace as the revolutionary army was about to enter Beijing.


Wang Guowei was born December 2, 1877, in Haining, Zhejiang. At the age of sixteen, he entered Hangzhou Zhongwen College, where he was known as one of the “four talents from Haining.” At seventeen he passed the imperial civil service examination at the county level. In 1898, after failing to pass the Imperial Examination at the next level, he went to Shanghai, became a clerk and proofreader of Current Affairs, and studied in the Dongwen Xueshe (東文學社), a Japanese language teaching school, where he became a protégé of Luo Zhenyu, Sponsored by Luo, he left for Japan in 1901, to study natural sciences at the Tokyo Physics School in Tokyo.

He returned to China one year later and taught at Tongzhou Normal College and Suzhou Normal College. He was influenced by the New Learning and the Western Learning, and devoted himself to the study of German idealism. In 1906, he went to Beijing, where he studied ci poetry of the Song Dynasty and the popular verse of the Yuan Dynasty. After 1907, he held many scholastic posts. He studied the inscriptions on the oracle bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (sixteenth to eleventh century B.C.E.), and inscriptions on the bronze objects and bamboo slips of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.).

When the Xinhai Revolution took place in 1911, he fled to Japan with Luo. He returned to China again in 1916, but remained loyal to the overthrown Manchu emperor. He became editor of the journal “Academic Library.” In 1922, he was engaged as supervisor of correspondents. In 1924, he was appointed a professor by the Tsinghua University. In 1927, he drowned himself in Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace as the revolutionary army was about to enter Beijing.

Luo Zhenyu

Luo Zhenyu (Chinese: 羅振玉 courtesy name: Shuyun 叔蘊) (1866 - 1940) was a Chinese epigrapher, antiquarian, and book collector. A native of Suzhou, he began to publish works of agriculture in Shanghai after the First Sino-Japanese War. With his friends, he set up Dongwei Xueshe (東文學社), a Japanese language teaching school in 1896, where he taught Wang Guowei. From 1906 onwards, he held several different government posts, mostly related to agriculture. Being a loyalist to the Qing Dynasty, he fled to Japan when the Xinhai Revolution took place in 1911. He returned to China in 1919, and took part in the restoration activities. He worked for the Manchukuo for some time.

Luo toiled throughout his life to preserve Chinese antiques, especially the oracle bones, bamboo and wooden slips (簡牘 jiandu), and Dunhuang scrolls, all of which have become invaluable material for the understanding of ancient China. He was one of the first scholars to decipher the oracle bone script, and produced many important works of bronzeware script.

Thought and Work

Wang focused on the studies of Chinese vernacular literature during the early years of his career. He used Schopenhauer's philosophy in his criticism of the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as writing a concise history of the theater of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Later he changed his academic direction, focusing on philology and ancient history. He was the first scholar to combine the data provided by new archaeological findings, such as the oracle bones, and the information gleaned from the ancient texts that were used for studying ancient Chinese history.

Wang Guowei’s Aesthetic Thought

In his aesthetics and literary criticism, Wang Guowei was inspired by the German idealism of Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and by the traditions of Chinese art. His appreciation of Chinese literature was marked by a preference for ci poetry. His philosophy of criticism gave a central role to the value of art. He believed that even though pure art served no practical purpose, it was crucially important as a means of enlightenment which had aesthetic, philosophical, ethical and spiritual aspects. The philosophical aspect was the universal Ideas expressed through imagery and symbolism, which could be understood by any human being, from any cultural background, who contemplated the art. The aesthetic aspect lay in the way that contemplation of art carried a person beyond mundane, everyday preoccupations and secular desires to a serene, aesthetic state of mind in which a form of infinite delight could be experienced. The ethical aspect was the way in which art sheltered the mind from worldly anxieties, and sought not only to depict human misery, but to offer suggestions of hope and self-enlightenment that could help to extricate the viewer from his human predicament. The spiritual aspect was the way in which art unleashed the suppressed emotions that cause pain and depression, and offered consolation, solace and relief from the feeling of the meaninglessness of life.

These four aspects of artistic value were essential to all of Wang Guowei’s aesthetic explorations. His aesthetic scholarship was grounded in his Chinese heritage, but greatly benefited from his ability to understand both Eastern and Western culture.

Beyond East and West: An Intercultural Transformation

Wang Guowei’s positive attitude towards both Chinese and foreign culture can be attributed to his insight into the universal nature of all forms of learning. He observed that ambiguity of meaning was a feature of Chinese language, and therefore Chinese modes of thought appeared logically weaker than ways of thought fostered by Western languages. Because Western culture placed greater emphasis on scientific speculation, it had a greater capacity for abstraction and classification. Western thought applied the strategies of generalization and specification to both visible and invisible nature, while more pragmatic Chinese thought was easily contented with common factual knowledge. The Chinese rarely practiced the theoretical specification of things unless it was imposed by practical needs.[1] Wang attempted to verify this observation by employing a strategy of intercultural transformation to examine three basic issues of Chinese philosophy: the questions of xing (human nature), li (principle) and ming (fate).

Aesthetic Education as a Critical Necessity (meiyu shuo)

The Western notion of aesthetic education (meiyu) was first introduced to China by Wang Guowei and then effectively promoted by Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) in the social and academic spheres. Both sought to revive and reconstruct the declining institutions of old China by means of modern education. Drawing inspiration from German idealism, especially from Friedrich Schiller, they emphasized the integral wholeness of the physical, intellectual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of education, and enthusiastically advocated the importance of the aesthetic dimension. Wang Guowei’s influence was confined to academic research, but Cai Yuanpei, as an administrator and renowned educator, was able to spread his ideas through an administrative renovation of Peking University. He was especially known for his motto, “replacing religion with aesthetic education.” Wang Guowei and Cai Yuanpei hoped to reform the obsolete Chinese educational paradigm by minimizing the excessive emphasis on rote memory work and one-sided learning. They aimed to reshape national identity through aesthetic education by encouraging spiritual freedom instead of superstition, and nourishing a popular concern for good taste and human dignity to combat social ills, such as opium addiction and wanton pleasure-seeking.

Art as a Refuge from Suffering (jietuo shuo)

The traditional Chinese attitude towards life is expressed in aphorisms such as “human existence is saturated with hardship and misery” (hanxin ruku) and “the life of men is troubled and short” (rensheng kuduan). Early Daoists attributed man’s suffering to the desires of the physical body, and warned against “enslavement by external things.” Daoism fostered among Chinese literati a spiritual inclination to take refuge from the miseries of earthly life in the silent beauty of the landscape as well as in the beauty of works of art. These ideas were all too familiar to Wang Guowei, who suffered from depression as a consequence of his bitter personal experiences of life, poor health and his philosophical preoccupation with human condition.[2] He portrayed life in terms of care and toil, and was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimism and promotion of art as fundamental to the solution of the problem of existence. Wang Guowei made great demands on art, suggesting that fine arts aimed to illustrate the suffering of life and the Dao of extricating us from this suffering; artworks were thus intended to save human beings from the spiritual shackles of this world and to free them from conflict with the desire to live in order to achieve temporary peace.[3][4]


  1. Wang, 1905, “Lun Xinxueyu Zhi Shuru” [On the New Terminology Imported from the West]
  2. Wang, 1907, “Zixu” [A Brief Autobiography]
  3. Wang, 1904, “Honglou Meng Pinglun” [A Review of The Dream of the Red Chamber]
  4. Wang Keping, Wang Guowei’s Aesthetic Thought in Perspective, This paper was delivered at Oxford University in 2000 and partly published in the following book: Chung-ying Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin (eds.), Contemporary Chinese Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002), 37-56.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bonner, Joey. 1986. Wang Kuo-wei an intellectual biography. Harvard East Asian series, 101. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674945948
  • Cheng, Zhongying, and Nicholas Bunnin. 2002. Contemporary chinese philosophy. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 063121724X
  • Hightower, James Robert, and Jiaying Ye. 1998. Studies in Chinese poetry. Harvard-Yenching Institute monograph series, 47. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 0674847075
  • Rickett, Adele Austin. 1977. Wang Kuo-Wei's Jen-chien tz'u-hua a study in Chinese literary criticism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9622090036
  • Wang, Guowei. 1969. Poetic remarks in the human world Ren jian ci hua. Taipei, Taiwan: Chung Hwa Book Co.
  • Wang, Guowei. 1977. Wang Guo-wei's Renjian cihua a study in Chinese literary criticism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9622090036


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