The PRD Genius: Chen Li

Proving that exams aren’t everything, this local Guangdong scholar failed plenty of tests and instead spent his life showing why it didn’t matter.

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The Pearl River Delta has always produced eccentric and innovative thinkers. There are 80 million Cantonese speakers. The distinctive culture and geographic orientation of the province were a profound influence on the figures who emerged from the hills and deltas of Southeast China.

Spanning history, there have been many famous sons of Guangdong. Some, like Sun Yat-sen or Hong Xiuquan, are relatively well known. One of the most important scholar-officials to emerge from the region in the 19th century was the philosopher Chen Li.

Although his father was from Nanjing, Chen Li was born in Fanyu, Guangdong in 1810 and was the first member of his household registered as a resident of the province. Despite his ancestral home being located far away in central China, Chen Li became famous for his passionate studies of Guangdong and Cantonese culture.

Chen Li enjoyed a long career as a thinker, writer, geographer and administrator, even though his academic career began in stark failure. He passed the provincial exam at age 22, but failed all six times he attempted the Metropolitan (Jinshi) Exam that’s given every three years at the capital in Beijing.

Unable to qualify for the highest echelons of officialdom, there were two career paths open to scholars like Chen. He could work as a clerk or secretary attached to one of the local imperial offices or he could teach.

In the years leading up to the Opium Wars of 1840-1842, some of their scholars even advocated for the legalization of the opium trade, arguing that interdiction resulted in criminality and deprived the government of a possibly lucrative source of revenue.

Chen Li first tried serving one of the magistrates overseeing the government schools in Heyuan, Guangdong. He didn’t last long in the job. Chen Li was not well suited for political life and fell out with his boss when the young Cantonese scholar became convinced that the magistrate was shirking his duty to subdue a local gang of bandits.

Chen was then appointed to a position at the Sea of Learning Academy near Guangzhou. Scholars there had a reputation for their progressive approaches to Chinese philosophy and politics.

In the years leading up to the Opium Wars of 1840-1842, some of their scholars even advocated for the legalization of the opium trade, arguing that interdiction resulted in criminality and deprived the government of a possibly lucrative source of revenue.

Chen Li taught at the Sea of Learning Academy, as well as several other schools in Dongguan and the larger Guandong area. The magistrate of his home county asked Chen to help compile a gazetteer and history of the region; a project that Chen worked on and off for nearly a decade before completion. His research was interrupted in 1856 for a time by the ferocity of the Second Opium War. As the British were bombing Guangdong, they also destroyed the Sea of Learning Academy, which forced many of the scholars there, like Chen, to flee to the relative safety of the countryside.

When the war ended, Chen returned to the Pearl River Delta. From his new post at the Longxi Academy in Dongguan, Chen began another ambitious project. This time it was a 106-map atlas of Guangdong Province.

While Chen was well known in his local community for his scholarship and research projects, he also developed a national reputation as a Confucian scholar. Guangzhou was a center for eclectic philosophical ideas. The Cantonese philosophers of Guangdong and the Pearl River Delta—then as now—reveled in their outsider status. At the time, Confucian learning was riven with controversy. Scholars debated the authenticity and interpretation of texts in the Confucian Canon. Chen wrote over 60 philosophical works, displaying a broad understanding of Confucianism while eschewing the rigid partisanship of the day.

Scholars pored over versions of the Confucian texts, which dated from the Han Era (206 BCE – 220 CE) and the Song Era (960 CE – 1279 CE), doing a detailed analysis of the characters in the texts and their original meaning. Chen also participated in these rigorous philological inquiries, but concurrently argued that it was equally important to understand the social and intellectual context and moral concerns of the earlier scholars and philosophers.

When Chen died in 1882, he left behind an extensive collection of his works. Unfortunately, the wooden printing blocks and several of his manuscripts were destroyed in the 1927 battles between Chiang Kai-shek and local warlords for control of Guangdong.

Even today, commentaries and essays on this son of the Pearl River Delta and Dongguan find admiration for his ability to break through the rancor and discover fresh approaches to Confucian studies.

0816_why-back-when1Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinoligist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio.

Category Way Back When