Yen Fu

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Yen Fu

Yen Fu (1853-1921) was a Chinese translator and scholar. His translations and annotations were enormously influential in introducing European thought regarding political theory and sociology to China.

Born in Fukien Province to a scholar-gentry family, Yen Fu was early exposed to China's traditional learning. This education, which would have led to competition in the civil service examinations and an official career, was aborted when his father died in 1866, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. Young Yen then continued his education as a student in the school of the Foochow Shipyard. There he learned English and studied Western science. He also traveled extensively, visiting Singapore and Japan, and in 1877 went to England, where he studied at the Greenwich Naval College. Thus at the age of 26 he was, among Chinese, one of the best-informed about the Western world.

Throughout most of the ensuing years, until 1906, Yen served as superintendent of the Tientsin Naval Academy. But even before his trip to England in 1877, he had become obsessed with the weakness and humiliation of China, and he devoted most of his mature years searching for the secret that had brought wealth and power to Europe generally and to Great Britain in particular. Having read widely in English, Yen almost completely rejected his Chinese intellectual heritage. He developed a strong aversion for Confucianism and all those elements of traditional China that seemed to obstruct China's progress to wealth and power. This rejection of traditional values placed Yen in stark contrast to nearly all his contemporaries, who at this time still hoped that they could preserve China's traditional culture by adopting minimal increments of the West's material technology.

The strongest influence upon Yen's intellectual development was Herbert Spencer, whose concepts of evolution, struggle, and dynamic individualism Yen eagerly accepted. He became convinced that Great Britain had become strong because the people possessed freedom, as a consequence of which the driving, creative energies of individuals were released. These energies had, in turn, led to the development and strength of knowledge, industry, and military force in the Western nations.

After the devastating defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Yen determined to make his insights regarding the sources of wealth and power known to his fellow countrymen. He wrote some essays, but his most effective medium was through the translation of important Western works. Between 1895 and 1908 he translated eight major pieces, among which were T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics (1896), John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1899), Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1900), Spencer's Study of Sociology (1903), and Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (1905).

Yen's concept of gradual, evolutionary progress caused him to oppose the revolutionaries who ultimately overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1912. After the revolution, he progressively retreated from the "radical" ideas of his earlier years. He lent his reputation and advice to the unsavory regime of Yüan Shih-k'ai. And, as a result of the butchery of World War I, Yen became utterly disillusioned with the West and concluded that the nondynamic values of traditional China were of greater benefit to human welfare than were the Promethean drives of the Europeans. He died in 1921, completely pessimistic regarding the effects of historical evolution on China.

Further Reading

The only study of Yen Fu in English is Benjamin I. Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West (1964). This work is an intellectual biography that treats Yen's life only sketchily; it does, however, offer deep insights into the nature of the cultural conflicts that occurred when China was confronted with the challenge of the West. □