Criticism of Chen Mengjia by fellow scholars

Reading on the history of simplified characters I came across a small book called 1957年文字改革辩论选辑 (Shanghai: Xin zhishi, 1958) which contains a series of articles from contemporary periodicals about the writing reform. I was surprised to find two vicious articles criticizing Chen Mengjia 陳夢家 (1911-1966), the famous archaeologist and palaeographer, for his opposing the simplification of Chinese characters. I knew about him encountering such criticism during the Cultural Revolution that eventually led to his suicide in 1966, what surprised me about these two articles that they were written by the eminent linguists Tang Lan 唐蘭 (1901-1979) and Wang Li 王力 (1900-1986).

Tang Lan’s article is titled “Is the rightist Chen Mengjia a ‘scholar’?” 右派分子陈梦家是“学者”嗎? (I am reproducing the characters as they appear in the book: you can see that this was written between the two large waves of simplification, with some characters simplified, others not). Right in the first paragraph, Tang Lan answers the question whether Chen can be called a scholar at all with a definite “No!” and explains that he is a “counterfait scholar, in fact an overzealous and unscrupulous carreerist, an opportunist always on a lookout for personal gain, only pretending to know things, a swindler who has gained his fame by deceiving the world.” Wow! — was my reaction to this short introduction. But the rest of the article continues along these lines, for a total of 15 pages. And this was written by Tang Lan, one of the top palaeographers of modern China, whose works are still being used by new generations of linguists and philologists.

Wang Li’s article is called “Criticizing the rightist Chen Mengjia for his absurd views against the reform of writing” 批判右派分子陈梦家关于反对文字改革的荒謬言論. This text is not as malicious as that by Tang Lan, yet it is still a direct criticism of Chen, seeing his opposition as a covert attack on the Communist Party. I am sure in later years, after the Cultural Revolution was over and China began its economic reforms, Wang Li was not proud of this article. Since Tang Lan died in 1979, he might have not lived to regret his attitude.

These were the kinds of attacks that eventually led to the suicide of Chen Mengjia. Many of his attackers are still alive, fulfilling important academic positions. Of course, we can claim that Chen was overly sensitive — he was a poet and an aesthete, apparently not the surviving type. But judging from the amount of criticism that survives about him from the 1950s, he must have been under tremendous pressure.

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2 Responses to Criticism of Chen Mengjia by fellow scholars

  1. erunner says:

    Do you think the critical articles might have been written by the authors for self-preservation reasons? They may have wanted to attack Chen because he had been tagged as a “Rightist”, and in so doing prove that they were not at all like him. Just a simplistic deduction from what little I know about that period.

  2. imre says:

    That thought never occurred to me but I guess it is possible. Although in Chen Mengjia’s case it did not work out because we know that in the end he actually committed suicide. Which is not entirely a counter-argument, as it may just be that despite all his efforts he could not bear the situation anymore. Another thing to consider is why would he use his colleagues’ and students’ names to write self-accusing articles? In a way, he would be incriminating those people, at least in the eyes of posterity. In any case, it is a possibility and as such I am sure it happened from time to time, even if not in each and every case.

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