Twitchett Chinese Biographical Writing Assignments

Denis Crispin Twitchett, British historian (born Sept. 23, 1925, London, Eng.—died Feb. 24, 2006, Cambridge, Eng.), was one of the world’s foremost scholars of early Chinese history, most notably the T’ang dynasty (ad 618–907), and principal editor of the comprehensive 15-volume Cambridge History of China. Twitchett learned Japanese during his World War II military service, and after the war he studied Chinese history at the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1949; Ph.D., 1955). He taught at the Universities of London (1954–56; 1960–68) and Cambridge (1956–60; 1968–80) and at Princeton University (1980–94), where he was the first Gordon Wu Professor of Chinese Studies. In 1966 Twitchett and Harvard University professor John K. Fairbank planned what they originally conceived of as a six-volume history of China. The first volume, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 BC–AD 220 (1986), was coedited by Twitchett. Volume 15, covering 1966–82, was published in 1991. During his long career, Twitchett wrote extensively, including contributions to Encyclopædia Britannica. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1967.

Research on Yap Ah Loy was funded by the following sources which are gratefully acknowledged: the Beloit College Cullister Fund (Summer 1982); a Fulbright Faculty Research Abroad Grant (1983–84); and a grant for use of the Hoover Collection at Stanford University (June 1985). This paper was presented in somewhat different forms at the Universiti Malaya, Beloit College, Northern Illinois University, Rutgers University and the University of Chicago. I am grateful for criticism and questions from these audiences and for particularly helpful comments on a later draft by Carl Trocki and Changtai Hung. All opinions and errors remain, of course, my own.

1Marcus and Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 106.

2 For a more detailed description and evaluation of the Chinese biographic tradition, see HowardRichard, “Modern Chinese Biographical Writing”, Journal of Asian Studies21 (1962): 465–75; NivisonDavid S., “Aspects of Traditional Chinese Biography”, Journal of Asian Studies21 (1962): 457–63; TwitchettDennis, “Chinese Biographical Writing”, in Historians of China and Japan, ed. BeasleyW.G. and PulleyblankE.G. (London, 1961), pp. 95–114 and “Problems of Chinese Biography”, in Confucian Personalities, ed. WrightA.F. and TwitchettD. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), pp. 24–39; and GungwuWang, “The Rebel-Reformer and Modern Chinese Biography”, in Self and Biography: Essays on the Individual and Society in Asia, ed. GungwuWang (Australia: Sydney University Press, 1975), pp. 185–206. While Wang Gungwu and others have bemoaned the lack of individuality presented in official Chinese biographies, the stereotyped formats reveal cultural ideologies of great interest to the anthropologist.

3 See, for example, EberhardWolfram's essays on the interrelationship between Chinese temples, theatre, and popular history in Studies in Chinese Folklore and Related Essays (Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center for the Language Sciences, 1970).

4 See, for example, JohnsonDavid's pioneering article, “Communication, Class, and Consciousness in Late Imperial China”, in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, ed. Johnson, Nathan, and Rawski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 34–72.

5 For the purposes of this paper, I use the words myth and legend interchangeably to refer to culturally stereotyped stories of heroic deeds usually based on some sort of supernatural assistance.

6 My main source is S.M. Middlebrook's biography which was based largely on family documents. Begun in the 1930s and completed by J.M. Gullick after Middlebrook's death, it gradually came to be considered the standard biography by most writers. See MiddlebrookS.M., “Yap Ah Loy (1837–1885)”, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS)24, no. 2 (1951): 1–127.

7 Renditions of Chinese personal names in the following account are based on commonly used Chinese Malaysian romanizations which follow dialect pronunciations. All other Chinese terms and the names of Chinese authors cited in this article use Pinyin romanization. Please consult the glossary for character references.

8 On Kudin, see GullickJ.M., “Tunku Kudin in Selangor 1868–1878”, JMBRAS54, no. 2 (1986): 5–50.

9 On the British and Yap Ah Loy, see ChewErnest, “Frank Swettenham and Yap Ah Loy: The Increase of British Political Influence in Kuala Lumpur, 1871–1885”, JMBRAS57, no. 1 (1984): 70–87.

10 The one possibility for a local Chinese obituary would have been in the Lat Pao, a Chinese newspaper which began publication in Singapore in 1881. Unfortunately, there are no extant copies of this newspaper before 1887, but judging from later editions, it seems highly unlikely that the Lat Pao would have printed an obituary of the Kuala Lumpur-based Kapitan.

11 For a complete description of the Yap family documents, many of which can no longer be located, see Middlebrook, “Yap Ah Loy”, pp. 120–24.

12 A text of the document referred to (titled “Translation of Extracts from a Record made in Chinese by Yap Ah Loy relating to the War in Selangor before the year 1874”) was first published in 1957 in English and Chinese in the Journal of the South Seas Society 13, no. 1: 1–26. The compilation of such a biographical record by one's descendants, known as xingzhuang or “accounts of conduct”, in addition to epitaphs and sacrificial odes, was not an unusual practice for wealthier families in China, where it formed part of the highly elaborated ancestral cult. See Nivison, “Aspects of Traditional Chinese Biography”, p. 459. Such family records might have been used by historians writing biographical entries for official histories, particularly if the man had filled an important official position. See Twitchett, “Chinese Biographical Writing”, pp. 103–107. Yap Ah Loy's family records never saw such use. Although he was the wealthiest and most powerful Chinese in Selangor during the later years of his life, holding the title of Kapitan of Selangor, this office was not recognized by the Qing government, and Yap Ah Loy received no mention in the Hui Zhuo Gazetteer of 1882 which was the last edition published. See Hui Zhuo Fuzhi (Taipei, 1970 reprint).

13Straits Times, 20 041885.

14 It is unclear from this description whether the biography circulated was primarily in written or oral form or both. The verse format and the relatively short length (about twelve hundred words) suggest that it may have been included in the repertoire of local storytellers, but there is no way to substantiate this.

15C.K., “Yap Ah Loi”, The Selangor Journal12, no. 1 (1893): 184–85.

16RuhlmannRobert, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction”, in The Confucian Persuasion, ed. WrightArthur F. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960), pp. 155–61.

17 Stories about Hon Chin are included in many accounts of Yap Ah Loy, where he is painted as a degenerate and profligate heir. Similar stories were related to me by Hon Chin's son, Yap Swee Hin, in conversations in Kuala Lumpur in 1982 and 1984.

18 The translation of this article, entitled “The Biography of Yap Ah Loy”, is located with the Middlebrook papers in the National Library of Singapore. No source is listed for the twenty-nine page manuscript except for a handwritten notation saying it came from a Kuala Lumpur periodical around 1927. There is no record of any Chinese periodicals published in Kuala Lumpur during this period other than the two Chinese newspapers Yit Khuan Po and Nanyang Siang Pau. No extant copies remain of the first for this time, and I was unable to find this article in the second.

19Twitchett, “Problems of Chinese Biography”, p. 28.

20Anon., “The Biography of Yap Ah Loy” (1927), p. 1.

21 For example, two biographies of Yap Ah Loy published in Taiwan during the late 1950s attempted to claim the virtues of filial piety for their hero by noting that the young Yap Ah Loy, on learning of his mother's illness while in Malaya, returned to China to nurse her, staying on until her death and arranging a proper funeral before returning to his life in Malaya. Making heroes conform to the stricter tenets of filial piety may have fit well with the political ideology of Taiwan in the 1950s, but it is not surprising that no such stories ever appeared in Malayan Chinese versions, for to demand such traits in their heroes contradicted the realities of overseas immigration, which often meant leaving the family home for good. YujingSun, Ye Delai (Taipei: Haiwai wenku chubanshe, 1956); Anon., “Ye Delai”, in Malaia huaqiao zhi (Taipei: Huaqiao zhi piancuan weiyuanhui pianyin, 1959), pp. 288–91.

22 A short account of about five hundred characters was published in a high school Malayan geography textbook in 1939. The story-line followed none of the versions so far described, but was related to a new heroic tale which first appeared in Shanghai in the 1920s. LiqianZhang, “Ye Lai”, Malaia dili keben (Singapore: Zhonghua chubanshe, 1939), pp. 33–34.

23 The absence of a scholarly elite is a common observation made about overseas Chinese communities. See, for example, GungwuWang, “Traditional Leadership in a New Nation: The Chinese in Malaya and Singapore”, in Community and Nation: Essays on Southeast Asia and the Chinese (Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd., 1981), pp. 159–72. Given that the great majority of Chinese immigrants came from poor and uneducated backgrounds in China, the overall literacy rate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries must have been lower than the 30–45 per cent estimated by Rawski for the Chinese mainland. RawskiEvelyn, Education and Popular Literature in Ch'ing China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), p. 23.

24 See HockChen Mong, The Early Chinese Newspapers of Singapore 1881–1912 (Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1967); ZibaiWang, “Malaixia huawen baoye xiaoshi [A brief account of Malaysia's Chinese newspapers]”, Nanyang wenzhai6, no. 7 (1965): 31–35; LentJohn A., “Malaysian Chinese and their Mass Media: History and Survey”, Asian Profile2, no. 4 (1974): 397–412.

25YunkeCheng, “Pianji nanyang mingren jichuan luchi” [Editorial preface to collected chronicles of famous men of the Nanyang], in Nanyang mingren jichuan, Vol. 1, ed. AiLin Bo, et al. (Penang, 1922), pp. 1–2.

26 Wang Gungwu similarly places merchants at the top of the overseas Chinese social hierarchy for this period, while Yong Ching Fatt has observed that in Singapore from 1900–1941, Chinese leaders were either English-educated professionals and businessmen or Chinese-educated merchants. GungwuWang, “Traditional Leadership in a New Nation: The Chinese in Malaya and Singapore”, p. 162; FattYong Ching, “A Preliminary Study of Chinese Leadership in Singapore, 1900–1941”, Journal of Southeast Asian History9 (1968): 258–85.

27 Although Chinese informants told me that Yap Ah Loy's absence may have been due to lack of interest among his own descendants, I was also told that other famous Chinese had their entries inserted gratis in order to increase the prestige of the publication. Why these men should appear and not Yap Ah Loy is most likely related to the stated social values of the editors.

28GodleyMichael, The Mandarin Capitalists from Nanyang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 61–63.

29Godley, Mandarin Capitalists; Ching-hwangYen, The Overseas Chinese and the 1911 Revolution (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1976).

30 The most useful bibliography of modern Chinese writing about Southeast Asia is that compiled by Nanyang University published in Singapore in 1968 entitled Nanyang yanjiu zhongwen qikan ziliao suoyin 1905–1966 [Index to Chinese Periodical Literature on Southeast Asia 1905–1966]. For further discussion of this source and other Chinese publications on Southeast Asia during this period see CarstensSharon, “Chinese Publications and the Transformation of Chinese Culture in Singapore and Malaysia”, in Changing Identities of the Southeast Asian Chinese since World War II, ed. GungwuWang and CushmanJennifer (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming 1988).

31Howard, “Modern Chinese Biographical Writing”, p. 465.

32Ibid., p. 467.

33QichaoLiang, “Zhongguo zhimin ba daweiren chuan” [Chronicles of eight famous Chinese colonizers], Xinmin zongbao3, no. 15 (1905): 81–88; ZongfeiWen, “Ye Lai chuan” [The chronicle of Ye Lai], in Nanyang huaqiao tongshi (Shanghai, 1929), pp. 249–53; ChuanchaoGu, “Ye A Lai: Kaishi nanyang zhi shiwu weiren shilu” [Ye A Lai: Stories of fifteen great men who opened up the nanyang], Nanyang qing bao1, no. 1 (1932): 19–20; YingchuHuang, “Ye Lai” in Huaqiao mingren gushi lu (Changsha: Shangwu yinshu guanfahang, 1939), pp. 32–34.

34JiangHuang, “Ji Ye Delai” [Remembering Ye Delai], in Malai hongxue lu (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1928), pp. 94–96; KangchuJiang, “Ye A Lai Shi” [The Undertakings of Ye A Lai] in Nanyou huixiang ji (Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 1928), pp. 24–25; ZhangchuanLi, “Sihui zhi huodong ji Ye A Lai shi” [The activities of secret societies and the affairs of Ye A Lai] in Nanyang huaqiao shi (Shanghai: Guoli jinan daxue nanyang wenhua shiyebu, 1929), pp. 51–54; ZhaowenLiang, “Jilengpo yu Ye Lai” [Kuala Lumpur and Ye Lai] in Nanyang luxing manji (Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 1924), pp. 121–23.

35XianglinLo, “Malaibandao jilengpo kaibi zhe Ye Lai chuan” [The chronicle of Ye Lai, developer of the Malayan Peninsula's Kuala Lumpur], Nanyang yanjiu5, no. 4 (1935): 105–106; XianglinLo, “Ye Lai chuan”, Zhongguo xinlun2, no. 3 (1936). I have been unable to locate the editions of these journals; however, Lo Xianglin continued to write biographies of Yap Ah Loy in the 1950s and 60s which adhere to one basic story-line, and it is not unlikely that the 1930s articles followed the same plot. See XianglinLo, “Ye Lai” in Huaqiao mingren chuan, ed. XiuxiaJu (Singapore: Nanyang daxue tushuguan, 1955), pp. 37–50; XianglinLo, “Jilengpo kaibi zhe Ye Lai chuan” [The chronicle of Kuala Lumpur's developer Ye Lai], Xin xiwang63 (1955): 4–5; XianglinLo, “Jilengpo kaibi zhe Ye Lai chuan” in Yi tang wen zun (Hong Kong: Zhongguo xueshe, 1965), pp. 20–36.

36 For further comments on Liang Qichao's article in reference to Chinese history writing about Southeast Asian Chinese, see GungwuWang, “Southeast Asian Hua-Ch'iao in Chinese History Writing”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies11, no. 1 (1980): 1–14.

37 It is unclear where Liang Qichao obtained his information; possibly he obtained some notes during his brief visit to Singapore in 1900. The notation at the end of the piece indicated oral sources, and he lamented in an afterword his inability to obtain further information from villagers (xiang-ren) whom he said must have known the story. Whether he meant villagers in China or Malaya is not clear.

38QichaoLiang, “Yingshi haixia zhimindi kaibi zhe Ye Lai” [Ye Lai: Developer of the British Straits Settlements], Xinmin zongbao3, no. 15 (1905): 85.

39QichaoLiang, “Zhongguo zhimin ba daweiren chuan”, pp. 86–87. For a more detailed discussion of Liang Qichao's interest in and use of the biographic form see HowardRichard, “Modern Chinese Biographical Writing”, pp. 469–72; LevensonJoseph, Liang Ch'i-Ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), pp. 105–109.

40Ruhlmann, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction”, p. 157.

41JiangHuang, “Ji Ye Delai” [Remembering Ye Delai], Malai hongxue lu (Shanghai: Shanghai yinshuguan, 1928), pp. 94–96.

42XiongfeiWen, “Ye Lai chuan”, pp. 249–53.

43Wen, “Ye Lai chuan”, p. 249.

44Ibid., pp. 250–51.

45LiuJames J.Y., The Chinese Knight-Errant (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. xii.

46LinkPerry, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: Popular Fiction in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Cities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

47Link, Mandarin Ducks, p. 22.

48 Zhang Liqian, “Ye Lai”. See Note 23.

49Anon., “Ye Delai xiansheng yishi” [Anecdotes of Mr. Ye Delai] in Malaia huiqiao zonglan (Singapore: Dahuo chubanshe, 1949), pp. 59–61; Anon., “Ye Delai”, in Pili Keshi gonghui kaimu jinian tekan (Ipoh, 1951), pp. 509–511.

50Anon., “Ye Delai chuan”, in Nanyang nianjian, ed. ShugunYou (Singapore: Nanyang baoshe youxiangongce, 1951), p. 96.

51HanLao, “Ye A Lai da zhoufu de gushi”, Xingqi liu24 (1950): 6.

52HanLao, “Ye A Lai….”, p. 6. Ruhlmann notes that in Chinese popular fiction the birth of founders (of dynasties, etc.) is typically accompanied by supernatural omens. Ruhlmann, “Traditional Heroes in Chinese Popular Fiction”, p. 159.

53HanLao, “Ye A Lai….”, p. 6.

54 Note, however, the changing attitude of Swettenham towards Yap in Chew, “Frank Swettenham and Yap Ah Loy”.

55ZhiyuanWang, “Ye Delai chuan”, Xingqi liu345/368 (1956). (Published in book form, Kuala Lumpur: Yihua chuban yinshua youxiangongce, 1958.)

56BaiyeLu, “Jilengpo kaiji ren Ye A Lai” [Kuala Lumpur's founder: Ye A Lai] in Malai Sanji (Singapore: Xingzhou shijie shuju youxiangongce yinhang, 1954), pp. 39–49.

57ZuXiang, “Ye A Lai yu shiye miao” [Ye A Lai and the shiye temple], Xingzhou zhoukan153 (1954): 5.

58SiYu, “Jilengpo wang Ye Delai” [The king of Kuala Lumpur: Ye Delai], Xingzhou zhoukan150 (1954): 16–17.

59Anon., “Ye Delai”, in Malaia tongshi: Malaia lianhebang huawen zhongxue keban disi zhi diwu xuenian shiyung (Kuala Lumpur: Malaia wenhua shiye youxiangongce yinhang, 1959), pp. 126–36; ChanghaoChen, “Jilengpo huaren jiabidan Ye A Lai” [Kuala Lumpur's Chinese Kapitan Ye A Lai] in Malaia lishi mingren chuan (Kuala Lumpur: Wenhua gongyingshe, 1958), pp. 36–41; JingwenZhang, “Xuelanou jiabidan Ye Gong De Lai fenjan shilu” [Historical accounts of the struggles of Selangor's Kapitan Ye Delai] in Jilengpo xiansishiye gong chuangmiao shilu (Kuala Lumpur: Yingxing yinwuju, 1959).

60YuxueChen, “Minzu yingxiong Ye A Lai” [Hero of the people: Ye A Lai], Nanyang wenzhai1, vol. 1 (1960): 55–56.

61RuluFeng, “Ye A Lai de fengyun jijui” [Ye A Lai's gathering of heroes] in Malaia shihua (Hong Kong: Xianggang shanghui shuju chuban zongfahang, 1961), pp. 151–55.

62JingMei, ed., “Zhuming de huaren jiabidan Ye A Lai” [The famous Chinese Kapitan Ye A Lai] in Malai mingren chuan (Singapore: Shanghai shuju youxiangongce, 1961), pp. 59–83; XiabingWu, “Sanjian jilengpo de Ye A Lai” [Three times builder of Kuala Lumpur: Ye A Lai] in Malaia diangu (Singapore: Xinjiapo dongya wenhua shiye youxiangongce, 1962), pp. 153–59. See also ZuMa, “Zhuming de huaren jiabidan Ye A Lai” [The famous Chinese Kapitan Ye A Lai]”, Nanyang wenzhai3, no. 1 (1962): 56–57 and Anon., Kapitan Yap Ah Loi (Singapore: The Commercial Press, 1962). This last is an illustrated children's book in Chinese and Malay. See illustration 3.

63 Parkinson, Gullick and Hawkins, and Dally described Yap Ah Loy as moral, courageous, and determined. Attributing his success to clever capitalist schemes, they praised him for carrying out his civic duty. Ann and ParkinsonCyril, “Yap Ah Loy”, in Heroes of Malaya (Singapore: Donald Moore Press, 1956), pp. 68–78; GullickJohn and HawkinsGerald, “Yap Ah Loy”, in Malayan Pioneers (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1958), pp. 22–28; DallyRanu, Yap Ah Loy: Capitan China (Singapore: Donald Moore Press Ltd., 1969). On a rather different note, more sensationalist articles in English newspapers and news magazines highlighted the “brutal and backward” nature of early Kuala Lumpur under Yap Ah Loy's leadership, contrasting this with the civility and modern amenities brought by the British. H.T.S., “Yap Ah Loy, Founder of Kuala Lumpur”, Straits Times (24 121960); DaviesDonald, “Yap Ah Loy, Capitan China”, Malayan Times (20 051962); DelikhanGerald, “Captain China: Forgotten Founder of a Capital”, Alice Magazine (3 031962).

64Carstens, “Chinese Publications….”


66 The two exceptions to this were KunChien, “Ye A Lai de yisheng” [The Life of Ye A Lai], Xingzhou re bao (28 021974): 1–5 and ZuMa, Jiabidan Ye A Lai huachuan [Illustrated chronicle of Kapitan Ye A Lai] (Kuala Lumpur: Fanma chuban youxiangongce, 1977). Publications in Chinese association books included: Anon., “Ye Delai yishi” [Anecdotes of Ye Delai] in Senmilan huizhou huiguan bainian jinian tekan (Negri Sembilan, 1971), pp. 5–6; Anon., “Ye Delai”, in Bingxiang yu keshigonghui sishi zhounian jinian kan (Penang, 1979); YelinLi, “Ye A Lai chuanlu”, [The chronicle of Ye A Lai] in Jilengpo guangdong yishan liushisan zhounian jinian tekan (Kuala Lumpur, 1978), pp. 15–16; ShuchenZeng, “Ye A Lai da zhoufu de gushi” [The story of Ye A Lai's founding of the capital] in Bashen keshu gonghui zhounian jinian tekan (Kuala Lumpur, 1965), pp. 31–48. This last account was reprinted in Nanyang keshu zonghui sanshiwuliu zhounian kan (Singapore, 1967).


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