And now Yu Yingshi 余英時 is gone. Nobody wrote more broadly, more searchingly or more wisely than he about the intellectual class of China, from ancient times to now. Though you might think of him as a pillar of the establishment, with his teaching posts at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, his membership in august learned societies and his distinguished prizes, he was remarkable to me for his skepticism about the worldly rewards that are sometimes extended to writers and thinkers. He was not easily impressed and certainly not intimidated. He left Yale for Princeton because he liked the East Asia library there. When people around him got excited, he had the calm tone, the command of counter-examples and the long view. He was careful to know what he was talking about. Push-button solutions did not enchant him.
I was lucky to be his student, in a peripheral sort of way, when I was young, curious and confused. I knew I wanted to do something about ideas and language in China. Armed with not much beyond the Chinese-philosophy manuals of Feng You-lan and Alfred Forke, and a couple of neophyte observations about Chinese grammar which, like all early-stage language-learners, I thought explained big things about Chinese thought, I sat in on his “Song Dynasty Classicism and Philosophy” seminar at Yale. I didn’t always grasp what the classroom discussions were about and floundered through the readings, mostly in Chinese. But being there was like being a child at the opera: no idea what was going on, but such a lot of goings-on! I turned in a rather cookie-cutter paper about Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao’s interpretations of the Yi jing, processed through a simplistic understanding of John Austin’s performative/constative distinction. He read it, didn’t leave many comments, yet was always friendly and open to conversations thereafter. I suspect my paper wasn’t even wrong, but he took a long and charitable view of this awkward student who might do something someday, or might not.
He left Yale soon thereafter for Princeton, trained up many fine students, ran a kind of salon in his and Monica’s house, was a prominent voice for decency and democracy against chauvinism and oppression, and had the honor of seeing his books banned in the PRC. He had a long and admirable life and leaves behind the gratitude of those who encountered him. Even the contingent and confused, like me.
Another elephant gone. The forest is poorer.