Qian Mu: Guardian of Chinese Tradition in the Shadow of Communism (Part 1)

Illustration of Chinese scholar Qian Mu, wearing traditional clothing and glasses.

Prominent Chinese historian Qian Mu staunchly defended and worked to preserve traditional Chinese culture. (Image: via Public Domain)

In 1949, as the Communist Party was poised to take control of mainland China, with the Nationalist government retreating to Taiwan, many influential intellectuals found themselves at a crossroads: to stay or to leave. The majority chose to remain, preparing to construct a “New China” with the Communist Party. Qian Mu, however, made a different choice. He decided to leave the mainland and settle in Hong Kong, which was still under British rule at the time.

Despite pleas from colleagues and respected peers to stay and help shape the new China, Qian Mu held reservations. He saw in the rhetoric and policies of the incoming Communist leadership a disregard for the intellectual freedom and diversity that he valued highly. His decision to leave was shaped by his belief that the coming regime would not be an environment where he could thrive or contribute meaningfully. Thus, he entrusted the care of his family to the city defense commander of Suzhou and embarked on his journey to Hong Kong in October 1949, beginning a new chapter in his life.

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Self-made scholar

Qian Mu is one of modern China’s four prominent historians. Born into a scholarly family in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, on July 30, 1895, he displayed extraordinary memory and talent for study from a young age. Due to the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the school he attended was closed, which ended his formal education. Nevertheless, he continued to learn independently, teaching at primary schools for 10 years, middle schools for eight years, and eventually becoming a respected professor at several universities.

Due to the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the school he attended was closed, which ended his formal education.
Due to the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the school he attended was closed, which ended his formal education. (Image: Carmentianya via Dreamstime)

Over his lifetime, Qian Mu held professorships at several prestigious institutions, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Yanjing University, Southwest Associated University, Wuhan University, and many others. A lifelong devotee of traditional Chinese culture, Qian Mu dedicated his life to the study, research, and revival of Chinese traditions. He left an indelible mark with nearly a hundred academic works, totaling approximately 17 million words. His significant works include Chronology of Pre-Qin Philosophers, The Academic History of China in the Last Three Hundred Years, Outline of National History, and New Case Studies on Zhu Xi.

Guardian of traditional culture

As the mainland fell under Communist rule and traditional Chinese culture faced unprecedented challenges, Hong Kong and Taiwan emerged as important safe havens for preserving these cultural traditions. Qian Mu established himself as one of the most prominent scholars in these regions, tirelessly working to carry forward China’s rich cultural legacy.

In 1950, Qian Mu, together with friends, founded the New Asia College in Hong Kong. In the school’s journal, he made his mission clear. Qian Mu wrote: “The foundation of this college in the autumn of 1949 was inspired by our concerns about the Communist Party’s deliberate destruction of our national culture on the mainland. Therefore, the promotion of Chinese culture is the highest goal of our education… Under today’s struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, Chinese youth should have a correct understanding to avoid going astray, which would not only compromise their own futures but also harm our nation and world peace.”

In the beginning, New Asia College was small, with only a few dozen students, and just three in the first graduating class. However, through the persistent efforts of Qian Mu and his colleagues, the institution grew in size and reputation. By 1963, under the auspices of the colonial government in Hong Kong, New Asia College merged with Chung Chi College and United College to form the Chinese University of Hong Kong, with Qian Mu serving as its first Vice-Chancellor.

Campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong with students walking toward one of the buildings.
By 1963, New Asia College merged with Chung Chi College and United College to form the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Image: Yl Law via Dreamstime)

Through his dedication to education and cultural preservation, Qian Mu became a stalwart defender of Chinese traditions, contributing significantly to the continuity and vibrancy of Chinese cultural heritage.

Rejecting the Communist regime

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), during its rise to power and the years following, employed various political strategies and ideological tools to consolidate its rule and bring about societal transformation. One such strategy was the “United Front” — an alliance or coalition tactic used by the CCP to collaborate with, and then gradually subsume or diminish, other political factions.

One key aspect of the CCP’s ideological reform was a process known as “thought reform” or “ideological remolding.” This involved extensive campaigns for self-criticism and reeducation, targeted not only Party members, but also intellectuals and other segments of society. Individuals were encouraged, often under pressure, to criticize their past beliefs and behaviors, align themselves with Party doctrines, and express loyalty to the new regime.

The CCP promoted Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism as the ideological bedrock of the new China. These Western-origin ideologies were a departure from, if not a rejection of, the country’s native cultural and intellectual traditions. To many intellectuals like Qian Mu, recognizing Marx, Lenin, and Stalin as ideological “ancestors” signified a severing of ties with China’s thousands of years of cultural tradition.

Qian Mu was approached with invitations to return to the mainland, but he refused. He reasoned that although he may not face physical punishment, he would be required to undergo a transformation of thought and identity that he found untenable. Witnessing respected colleagues like Feng Youlan and Zhu Guangqian undergo ideological transformation and self-criticism, he felt such a path would strip him of his dignity and personhood. He was not willing to live under a regime where he saw the traditions of his homeland being subverted and interrupted.

After leaving the mainland, Qian Mu remained an outspoken critic of the Communist Party’s misrule. In 1957, he wrote an article titled Historical Truth and the Business of Killing, in which he stated: “Mao Zedong may have settled scores with Chinese history and the Chinese people, but does that mean Chinese history and the Chinese people will not settle scores with Mao Zedong? … To kill with impunity, dare to kill, and kill in large numbers is not historical truth. If killing becomes historical truth, there will be no humans left, and humans will have no history … By applying objective statistical methods to check past history, … which of the mass murderers has not been accounted for by the truth, both before and after their deaths?”

Through his actions and words, Qian Mu remained a staunch defender of Chinese culture and a fearless critic of the Communist regime, reflecting his dedication to truth, justice, and the continuity of Chinese cultural traditions.

See Part 2 here

Translated by Chua BC

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