June 1, 2010
On the occasion of the establishment of the University of Chicago Confucius Institute
Older readers, especially those familiar with the University of Chicago, will recognize my title as an allusion to our own Herrlee Creel’s Confucius: The Man and the Myth, which did much to introduce Confucius to earlier generations of Chicagoans and, indeed, people throughout the English-speaking world. Herrlee Glessner Creel was the Martin A. Ryerson Emeritus Distinguished Service Professor of Chinese History at our University. According to that most authoritative of sources, Wikipedia, which even I am finding hard to avoid consulting these days, he “was regarded as a giant among specialists on early Chinese civilization, and was described in various circles as ‘the doyen of American sinologists.’” The entry goes on to credit Creel with establishing the University of Chicago as a leading center of East Asian Studies; about that, at least, there can be no debate. Creel spent his entire life at the University, taking B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees (in 1926, 1927 and 1929). Then, after spending several years in China, accepted a teaching position here in 1936. He won early fame among both academics and general educated readers with his book The Birth of China, published in the year that he began teaching here. This book introduced the first fruits of archaeological work then on-going in the vicinity of Anyang, the final capital of the Shang dynasty, China’s first historical dynasty. Over the course of nearly forty years of teaching at the University, he turned his attention increasingly to philosophical and administrative questions. His final book, published by the University of Chicago Press the year after he retired in 1973, was entitled Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C. (1974), in which he employed a quasi-archaeological methodology to claim for China the origins of administrative bureaucracy. There will be other occasions for us to explore in detail the scholarly work and legacy of Professor Creel. For today, it seems appropriate to comment on just his book Confucius: The Man and the Myth, published in 1949, after he had returned to the University from military service during the Second World War.