University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

IAS Thursdays Oct 10 2013: Yan Fu Between Tradition and Modernity

Available for download as audio or video.


Available for download as audio or video.

2013 Yan Fu Kirill ThompsonDaoism, translation, and science on the cusp of the modern era.
Yan Fu (1853-1921) translated important philosophic and scientific texts of Victorian England into refined Classical Chinese, interlacing these modern works with comparisons to ancient Chinese texts.  Thus, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, and others became palatable to Chinese intellectuals.  In later life, Yan Fu returned to the Laozi and Zhuangzi as offering important insights lost to modern society.

Kirill Thompson, Foreign Languages and Literature Department, Associate Dean for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, National Taiwan University, teaches Philosophy and Literature and is currently compiling a source book on Chinese Humanism: Humanitas Sinica.

This talk took place Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 4:00 pm in 125 Nolte.

Yan Fu Between Tradition and Modernity
Kirill O. Thompson, IHS, National Taiwan University
Yan Fu (1853-1921) translated important philosophic and scientific texts of Victorian England into refined Classical Chinese.  He made the ideas palatable to Chinese intellectuals by interlacing the texts with comparisons with ancient Chinese texts, offering reassessments of the traditional positions and sometimes questioning or augmenting the modern conceptions.  In later life, he returned to the Laozi and Zhuangzi as offering important insights lost to modern society.

Yan Fu was classically trained in childhood, and educated in math and science in youth.  He was selected to study naval studies at Portsmouth, England.  While there, he witnessed the UK’s industrialization, institutions, and society, and decided to begin translating major philosophic and scientific texts of the day into Chinese in 1894 or 1895. During the following decade, he translated Evolution and Ethics by T.H. Huxley, The Wealth of Nations by A. Smith, On Liberty by J.S. Mill, The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu, A History of Politics by E. Jenks, Logic by J.S. Mill, First Principles and Principles of Sociology by H. Spencer, etc.

In Evolution & Ethics (E&E), Huxley (1825-1895) had contrasted altruistic human ethics vs. ruthless natural law.  Yan preferred Spencer’s more realistic ethics of self- interest, which is consistent with the law of evolution.  Yan still liked Huxley’s global intellectual history and idea of a trans-cultural unity of human thought.  Since the early philosophers globally had faced the same basic problems of human life, Yan saw a basis for cross-cultural discussion.  In notes on E&E, Yan Fu identified a link between the East and Spencer, i.e., between Spencer’s idea of the “Unknowable” (不可思議) and some ideas of the Laozi 老子, the Zhuangzi 莊子, Buddhism, & Advaita Vedanta).  He noted that while in the Laozi & the Book of Change易 經, things arise from Non-being (無), for Spencer the world emerges from the “Unknowable.” While Huxley had criticized the moral indifference of Spencer’s universe, Yan defended Spencer, quoting Laozi, ch. 5:
Heaven and earth are not humane, they treat humanity as straw dogs;
the wise are not humane, they treat humanity as straw dogs.

He added that Laozi and Spencer hadn’t meant that nature is simply brutal but that nature is not biased and acts by impartial law.  Yan saw Huxley’s morality as artificial and limited and Spencer’s ethics as natural and comprehensive: Spencer’s law of Evolution explains the earth, the sky, and humankind, and justifies the self-assertion and enlightened self-interest of economic theory.  He concluded that Darwin’s evolutionism supported social Darwinism–and justified a revolution in values in China in the new twentieth century.

Yan Fu noted that Spencer identified two movements in nature: 1) Evolution (i.e., coagulation of matter with decreasing motion) and 2) Dissolution (with rising motion).  He showed that Laozi too had recognized both movements, but stressed Dissolution (into potential) at the expense of Evolution (in complexity), e.g. in ch. 40, which stresses reversal (fan).  Yan aligned this imbalance with Laozi’s primitivism.  For Laozi, good rule would return society to a primitive state by banishing complex forms of life.  Yan saw this position inconsistent with the law of evolution and with twentieth century trends.  He also criticized Laozi’s dismissal of knowledge: “The sort of freedom that comes from dismissing learning is not true freedom from care….  When chased, the African ostrich buries its head in the sand in order not to see the harm which may come.  Isn’t this like the Laozi’s dismissal of knowledge?”

Yan Fu however approved of Zhuangzi’s idea of freedom.  He considered that true freedom included ethical self-cultivation and sympathy (altruism): A truly free person would cultivate himself while controlling himself and respecting others.  At times, a free person would even willingly make sacrifices for humanity 仁 and appropriateness 義.  (Hence, a true freedom would support Confucius’ core values, which Yan regarded as trans-cultural truths.  At the same time, Yan viewed institutional Confucianism as reactionary.)  The Unknowable again comes into play:  One’s inner life is root of one’s moral sense and a refuge from suffering. To Yan, one’s inner life should be grounded in the Unknowable.  Such a grounded inner life would ensure that one doesn’t just follow the winds of society and other external forces but follows conscience.  Since the Unknowable is deeper than causality, it further grounds the possibility of freedom.

During World War I, Yan Fu felt deeply distressed by the brutal violence of the self-proclaimed advanced modern nations.  He began to accept the Laozi’s and Zhuangzi’s critique of the exploitive and destructive potential of technology, for it had come to pass in the terrible age of mechanized warfare: tanks, machine guns, trench warfare, gas attacks, aerial bombardments and massive warships, etc.  What’s worse, the new military tactics were aimed at not just defeating the enemy’s army but at scorching the enemy’s lands and decimating his people.  Zhuangzi’s old critique of clever sages who devised locks and chains became a mirror for Yan Fu to reflect on the destructive military power that had been unleashed by his treasured modern science.   In later life, Yan Fu deeply realized the dark side of science and technology, and lost much of his earlier confidence in evolution and progress.  He increasingly accepted Laozi and Zhuangzi’s Daoist perspective– and finally retired to life of seclusion.  At the very end of his life, he wrote, “Idling in my pavilion, I watch the clouds and listen to the rain… or kill time by practicing calligraphy… I rest here like dry wood and dead ash 槁木和死灰, nearly departed 快要走…” (1921).  (In the Zhuangzi, ch. 2., “dry wood and dead ash” stand for a deep meditative state.)  Yan Fu came to realize how science, technology, and industrialization could alienate man from nature, from society, and from himself, but that Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others offered ways to heal the rift and live holistically.

Co-sponsored by The University of Minnesota Department of Asian Languages and Literatures and the Center for Early Modern History.

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