Fortress Village - The Ethnic Minorities of Southwest China  

Wu Ding-Liang
Wu Ding-Liang and the Anthropology Division of the Institute of History and Philology

Wu Ding-Liang (1893-1969) had the byname Junyi and was born in Jintan, Jiangxi Province. After graduating from Nanjing Higher Normal Institute, he was accepted by the University of London, where he received his Ph.D. degrees in Biostatistics and Anthropology. He later worked at a local biometrics and eugenics laboratory. Wu returned to China in 1934, and served as a professor of statistics at Peking University, the head of the Anthropology division of the Institute of History and Philology at the Academia Sinica, as well as the director of the Institute of Physical Anthropology Preparatory Office. He collected large amounts of data by carrying out anthropometric measurements on the ethnic minorities living in Jiangsu, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Zhejiang provinces, which is a significant contribution to the study of the origin and formation of ethnic groups in China (Wang 1997).

Wu Ding-Liang was born into an open-minded family. His father was a famous local doctor of Chinese medicine specializing in otolaryngology. He had two brothers and three sisters, and ranked fifth among his siblings. His mother passed away when he was young, and his father remarried. Unfortunately, his stepmother forbade him to go to school, and made him stay at home to help around the household. Ultimately, his father persuaded his stepmother to let him study Chinese at a private school. Wu’s father also found him a private English and mathematics tutor, hoping to transform him into a doctor like himself. Sadly, Wu’s father grew ill and died when he was twelve, and his stepmother began to treat him even more badly, forcing Wu to leave home to survive on his own. He had been diligent and studious since childhood, and his difficult childhood and adolescence shaped his persevering and tolerant personality. (Source: Biographies of Famous Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology.)

In 1920, Wu Ding-Liang passed the entrance exam and got into the Department of Educational Psychology at Nanjing Higher Normal Institute (which later became Southeastern University). He graduated in 1924 and stayed as a teaching assistant. In 1926, Wu won a scholarship provided by the Jiangsu Province government and went to study at Columbia University in New York, pursuing statistics in the Department of Psychology. The following year, he transferred to The University of London’s School of Humanities and continued to major in statistics. Under the instruction of renowned statistician Karl Pearson, Wu published several papers on statistics. He received his doctoral degree in 1928, and in 1930 he became the very first Chinese member of the International Statistical Institute, thanks to the introduction provided by British statistician O. U. Yule. (Source: Biographies of Famous Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology.)

There are two possible reasons explaining Wu Ding-Liang’s switch from studying statistics to anthropology. The first explanation has to do with the 1929 discovery of the first remains of the Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis) at Zhoukoudian. At the time, Wu was working at the biometrics and eugenics laboratory hosted by Professor Pearson, and while he was very excited and proud of the discovery, he also regretted that foreign scholars were the ones leading the research on a particularly Chinese development. It could have been then that he made up his mind to pursue anthropology. (Source: Biographies of Famous Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology.) The other explanation is that although Pearson’s laboratory was a forum for modern statistical theories and techniques, the biostatistics lab was also involved in anthropological measurements, and it is possible that Wu Ding-Liang had received some training in physical anthropology there (Wang 1999: 173-177).

In the summer of 1934, Wu Ding-Liang returned to China. That year the Ethnological Society of China had its founding ceremony at National Central University in Nanjing. The Society’s mission statement was “to study the people and culture of China.” Wu served as the Society’s director, and during the annual meeting held the following year, he presented his work. He also presented his work at the first International Symposium for Anthropology and Ethnology (Wang 1997: 188-189). That same year, Tsai Yuan-Pei, head of Academia Sinica, hired Wu to be the head of the Anthropology division of the Institute of History and Philology and the director of the Institute of Physical Anthropology Planning Committee, although he had originally planned to ask Wu to be a researcher in the field of statistics instead (Wang 1997:190 and Annual Report of the Academia Sinica 1934:124). Wu married Shi Jiu-Zhuang, who had recently graduated from the Department of Biology at National Central University and become a teaching assistant there. Biographies of Famous Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology, which was published in mainland China, describes Wu Ding-Liang as follows:

Wu Ding-Liang’s ambition was to establish and develop an anthropological discipline in China. Under difficult conditions such as poor facilities and shortage of assistants, Wu spent his life among ethnic minority groups doing physical studies, while at the same time actively planning the establishment of the Institute of Physical Anthropology as the institute’s director. Throughout his career at Academia Sinica, Wu published over ten papers on physical anthropology and was the founder and editor-in-chief of Chinese Anthropological Journal (中國人類學志), opening doors for China’s anthropological studies.

Biographies of Famous Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology is highly approving of Wu Ding-Liang; not only does it praise his achievements at Academia Sinica, it also calls him “the main founder of Chinese anthropology.” However, from the point of view of the Institute of History and Philology, Wu appears to be a different person. According to Shi Zhang-Ru, Wu joined the Institute in 1934, when it was still located in Sichuan. From the 1934 Annual Report of Academia Sinica we understand that Wu was hired to join the anthropology division due to his promotion of scientific methods in research. Statistics was Wu’s specialty, and therefore the projects that he was invited to work on often relied heavily on statistical analyses and precise measurements to find related coefficients, such as research on Sui and Tang dynasty human skulls, hands and fingerprints, the anatomy of Sichuan people, and children’s physical development, etc. The results of these projects were compared with the studies published in prestigious American and European periodicals in order to solve questions of racial difference. As both Shi Zhang-Ru and Wang Dao-Huan pointed out, there was not much connection between Wu Ding-Liang and Li Ji (Wang 1998:173). The fact that Wu agreed to take charge of the anthropology division of the Institute, in addition to so many physical anthropology projects, probably had a lot to do with his background in statistics. Using statistical methods to calculate coefficients was considered the “most scientific way” to study ethnic groups, and it was also when Wu joined the Institute that physical surveys, measurements, and surveys of ethnic culture began to be conducted (Wang 1997:247-248).

Shi Zhang-Ru recalled that at the time, he could always hear the sound made by a manual calculator coming from Wu’s office, because there were always loads of data to be processed. At the time, a technician named Hu Shao-Yuan was responsible for operating the manual calculator. (The technician Yong Shi-Heng, who worked with Ling Chun-Sheng and Rui Yi-Fu, specialized in photography.) The human skulls data did not come from the Institute’s archaeological findings in Anyang, but were provided by Wu himself instead. The data from Anyang were said to be processed by Yang Xi-Mei in the end. Wu’s research work at the Institute did not garner much recognition in the end, and now there are no written works of his to be found. Although he was very active in founding the Institute of Physical Anthropology, after a short period of time this institute was removed due to lack of funds, lack of cooperation from the staff, and lack of achievement. By the time Academia Sinica was relocated to Nanjing, Wu’s name was no longer on the research staff list. After Wu Ding-Liang left the Institute of History and Philology and went to Zhejiang University, he began to devote himself to the collecting of ethnology-related artifacts (Wang 1997:208).

1997 中國民族學史(上)。昆明:雲南教育出版社。
1998 史語所的體質人類學家:李濟、史祿國、吳定良、楊希枚、余錦泉。刊於〈新學術之路:中央研究院歷史語言研究所七十週年紀念文集〉,頁163-187。台北:中央研究院歷史語言研究所。
1934 國立中央研究院二十三年度總報告。南港:中央研究院。
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