Scholars and activists are mourning Yu Ying-shih, a noted scholar of Chinese history at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and vocal critic of the Communist government in Beijing, who died on Aug. 1 at age 91 at his home in the United States.
Wang Fan-Sen, an Academia Sinica scholar who studied under Yu at Princeton University, called him a thinker with conscience and strength of character who was a model for intellectuals.
“Professor Yu once said that back in his hometown in Anhui when he was young, there was a battalion commander who bullied the local people. He wrote a letter to report him, but for some reason that letter was leaked.”
Discussing the incident, Yu emphasized that ‘No one should bully anyone.’ This demonstrated his respect for and belief in human rights,” Wang said.
Yu was a lifelong critic of the Chinese Communist Party who had advocated for human rights, maintained strong concern for Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“The June 4th Tiananmen Incident dealt me the biggest blow,” Yu once told RFA.
“Before that, I did not go back to China because I really did not want to. But after that incident, I absolutely could not go back, on principle, because I cannot show any support for a government regime like that.”
As a historian, thinker, and political commentator, Yu Ying-Shih did not involve himself in politics.
“I do not wish to be in power and make others follow my commands,” he once said. “This is something I do not need. It is something I truly despise.”
He once told RFA’s “Viewpoint” program: “Wherever I am, China is there."
“I absorb anything that is positive in the Chinese culture,” Yu said. “Therefore, no matter where I am, whatever life I lead, the values I adopt are basically from China.”
“I do not believe that one has to return to China to have Chinese culture,” Yu added.
Wang added that he was studying under Yu when the 1989 Tiananmen military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters occurred and that Yu devoted himself to assisting students and scholars and protecting dissidents who had fled the regime.
On multiple occasions, Yu also expressed his support for Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central movement and for Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement in the 1980s.
Wang recalled that Yu was a poet by nature and had a good grasp of classical poetry and phonology, and noted that Yu had taught at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Wang believed that it pained Yu to see Chinese culture being destroyed and human rights suppressed under Chinese Communist Party rule.
Wang’s last phone call with Yu was around two or three months ago, Wang said. “Professor Yu asked me what I was calling about. I said that I hadn’t spoken to him for a while, and he told me not to worry that I hadn’t called for so long. At his age, it was a blessing just to be able to stay at home quietly and read,” he said.
Liao Chih-Feng, who published Yu’s memoirs in 2019, told RFA he had spoken with Yu by phone on July 25 and that he had sounded as energetic.
Liao said he had hoped to carry Yu’s Golden Tripod Award—the highest honor in Taiwan’s publishing industry—and the Hong Kong Book Prize that Yu’s memoir had received back to him in the United States, but now his wish would never come true.
Liao said that Yu had once stressed to him the importance of safeguarding Taiwan, the last land of freedom and democracy for Chinese-speaking people.
When Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese legal rights activist in exile, visited Taiwan in 2013, then-President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou and then-Ministry of Cultural Affairs Lung Ying-tai did not meet with Chen. Interviewed later by Taiwan’s United Daily, Yu criticized Ma and Lung for being “afraid of China.”
Born in Tianjin in 1930, Yu was sent by his father back to their hometown in Anhui province when the Sino-Japanese war erupted, and he spent nine years in rural China.
In 1949, he was admitted to the Department of History of Yenching University in Beijing, and he was later recruited to join the Chinese New Democracy Youth League, the predecessor of the Communist Youth League of China.
When he recalled this period in his memoir, Yu described it as a time of cult-like passion and a “naïve left-leaning ignorance.” He quickly changed his views, he said, but later said he still felt “deeply guilty” whenever he looked back over that period of his life.
Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement, once said that what impressed him most about Yu was that “stood true to what he believed was right” in supporting freedom and democracy and opposing dictatorship.
Yu knew a lot about real-world issues, Wang Dan said. And when speaking with him, one could see that it was knowledge, and not passion, that had been his foundation in finding his place in the world.
Yu had the temperament of a “true scholar,” open-mindedness, and a great sympathy for the younger generation, Wang Dan said.
Reported by RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Min Eu.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.