He believed that Chinese tradition was more varied and tolerant than critics, and some admirers, thought it to be, and that in modern times it could be a vessel for enlightened values and democratic progress. And he maintained that intellectuals, as custodians of those ideas, had a responsibility to advance those ideals.
After the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Princeton began an initiative to take in exiled Chinese intellectuals. Professor Yu was a strong supporter who spoke to them about the importance of their cause.
“He was a major scholar, so his words carried more weight when he spoke out,” Su Xiaokang, a Chinese journalist and documentary filmmaker who was among the exiles at Princeton, said in an interview. “Nobody doubted his scholarship, so when he spoke out, the Chinese Communist Party could do nothing and didn’t dare criticize him.”
After retiring from Princeton in 2001, Professor Yu continued lecturing, writing and giving interviews to voice his support for democracy in Taiwan. He also lamented the recent draconian crackdown in Hong Kong. He visited mainland China as part of a delegation in 1978, but never felt inclined to return.
His survivors include his wife and two daughters, Judy and Sylvia Yu.
The Library of Congress catalog lists Professor Yu as the author of 102 books in English and Chinese, including editions published in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“The kind of humanistic scholarship he personified will always garner enormous respect, perhaps especially in certain Chinese circles, but it is increasingly rare these days and sometimes dismissed as not ‘useful’,” Professor Waley-Cohen said. “He would probably ask, Who are we to predetermine what ‘useful’ means?”
Liu Yi contributed research.