Gu Jiegang (8 May 1893 – 25 December 1980) was a Chinese historian best known for his seven-volume work Gushi Bian (《古史辨》, or Debates on Ancient History). He was a co-founder and the leading force of the Doubting Antiquity School, and was highly influential in the 20th century development of Chinese history.

Gu Jiegang
Gu Jiegang 1954.jpg
Portrait of Gu Jiegang in 1954.
Born(1893-05-08)8 May 1893
Died25 December 1980(1980-12-25) (aged 87)
Beijing, China
Alma materPeking University
Known forYigupai
Scientific career
FieldsChinese historian
InfluencesLiang Qichao, Zhang Binglin, Kang Youwei, Zhang Sizhao, Hu Shih
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese顧頡剛
Simplified Chinese顾颉刚
Gu Jiegang at his apartment in Wukang Road, Shanghai, in 1954.


Gu Jiegang was born two years before China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. The country during his early years was wrought with turmoil. During high school, Gu briefly joined a revolutionary group during the 1911 Revolution. However, he soon realized that he had "no personal aptitude for politics, and no ability in promoting great social movements". He developed an interest in history while being a student at Peking University, and resolved to use a new historical narrative to calm his country's social and political turmoil.[1] He evacuated to Chongqing in the Second Sino-Japanese War and started studying the ethnic minorities in China, Muslims in particular.[2]

When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, Gu was labeled a Reactionary Scholarly Authority. He had to wear a dunce cap and was subjected to struggle sessions. He had to labor at the History Department every day until he was freed in the early 1970s.


Gu has been viewed as something of an enigma by many scholars. His work has been characterized as scientific and anti-tradition, while at the same time showing pride in Chinese culture and believing that the Chinese identity would withstand modernization. The German scholar Ursula Richter characterized this discrepancy by labeling Gu "the traditional and yet modern scholar who was true to tradition also in that he 'obeyed yet resisted'".[3]

According to Laurence Schneider, the "most persistent theme" in Gu's writings is "the central role of the intellectual in Chinese history, and the centrality of history to the Chinese intellectual".[4] He attributed China's failure to modernize to opportunistic intellectuals who allied with the aristocracy, rather than pursuing truth. In order to restore China to greatness, Gu, along with his mentor Hu Shih, advocated a non-political role for Chinese intellectuals, against the emerging trend of Marxist histories.[5]

The modern Chinese nation must rethink its history in order to survive. To this end, Gu used textual criticism to challenge traditional Chinese historiography. One example is the myth of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, a supposed golden age in China's antiquity that had scarcely been doubted up to the early twentieth century. Gu questioned the historicity of this myth not only to rectify errors in understanding, but also to destroy the entire philosophy of history that revolved around looking back to this supposed golden age.[6] Gu debunked the spurious past, says Schneider, to redefine “the idea of ‘Chinese’ through a process of reordering the relation of past and present”. Yet he believed China’s true past yielded “sources of radical inspiration both for destroying the old traditions and for creating and authorizing new ones.”[7]

Gu also sought to provide the basis for a new national history with his theory of Chinese diversity, as opposed to continuity and homogeneity, the main assumptions of nationalist Sinocentrism. Gu took special delight in suggesting that there was barbarian blood under the skin of Sage King Yu of the Xia dynasty, whose existence he doubted in any case.[8] Gu, observes Schneider, thought that “if a periodically failing Chinese civilization was revived by infusions of barbarian blood or culture, then how could it be said that the subsequent product was Chinese? How could it be said that it was a continuous, coherent tradition?” Gu thus wanted to destroy at its root “the idea that from time immemorial there was a transcendent unchanging Chinese essence.” For Gu, Chinese history was not merely the history of Confucianism; the content of the Chinese identity was “always in a state of change”.[9]


  • Ku, Chieh-kang (1931). The Autobiography of a Chinese Historian: Being the preface to a Symposium on Ancient Chinese History (Ku shih pien). Translated by and with an Introduction by Arthur W. Hummel. Leiden: Brill; reprinted: Taipei: Ch'eng-wen, 1971.

Relationship with Lu XunEdit

In 1927, Gu Jiegang threatened to sue his former colleague Lu Xun because he believed, quite correctly, that he was being mocked in Lu Xun's short story "Taming the Floods" (理水).[10]


  1. ^ Hon, Tze-Ki (1996). "Ethnic and Cultural Pluralism: Gu Jiegang's Vision of a New China in His Studies of Ancient History". Modern China. 22 (3): 315–339. doi:10.1177/009770049602200303. ISSN 0097-7004. JSTOR 189190. S2CID 144617026.
  2. ^ Jonathan N. Lipman (1 July 2011). Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China. University of Washington Press. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-295-80055-4.
  3. ^ Hon (1996), pp. 315-316.
  4. ^ Schneider, Laurence A. (1969). "From Textual Criticism to Social Criticism: The Historiography of Ku Chieh-kang". The Journal of Asian Studies. Association for Asian Studies. 28 (4): 771–788. doi:10.2307/2942411. JSTOR 2942411.
  5. ^ Schneider (1969), pp. 771-772
  6. ^ Schneider (1969), p. 772
  7. ^ Schneider (1971), p. 2.
  8. ^ Schneider (1971), pp. 223–232, 229.
  9. ^ Schneider (1971), pp. 14–15.
  10. ^ Pollard, David E. The True Story of Lu Xun.

Further readingEdit