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Political and Social Philosophy

After the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China entered into the period that one might call Modern Chinese Philosophy where there was an influx of texts and ideas from the Western world. Yan Fu became the most influential translator of Western works in China. In fact, Yan was not only the greatest authority on Western philosophy in China at the beginning of the 20th century, but also he was the first scholar to systematically introduce Western philosophy by translating a significant number of works: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (1893), published in Chinese in 1898; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), published in Chinese in 1902; Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology (1872) and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), both translations published in Chinese in 1904; Charles de la Secondat de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic (1843), translated in 1905, and William Stanley Jevon’s The Theory of Political Economy (1878), translated in 1909.

Yan was a true cultural intermediary who, at a critical moment in history, sought to make European works of philosophy and social science accessible to a Chinese readership. He put forward a form of Social Darwinism according to which social organization is also a product of evolution and subject to its same laws and processes.

He declares that both the Western powers and Japan, which had invaded and exploited China, were nevertheless morally and intellectually “superior.” In his view, China had become “inferior” as a result of its inability to excel in the international competition of worldviews, technology, and socio-political structures. He made his thought clear that in order for China to fare well in global competition with other nations it must alter its societal structure.

Yan claimed that the reason why China was weaker and less able to compete compared to the Western nations was its lack of liberty for its people. Yan not only accepted Mill’s view in On Liberty that the strength of a body politic lies in its commitment to the discovery of truth but he also recognized that liberty of expression and inquiry is essential to pursuit and recognition of truth. Accordingly, he extended the point to claim that liberty is essential in order to produce a strong nation.  When people lack liberty, they will not be motivated to fight for the state or work hard in order to create a productive society.

Prior to Yan Fu, the concept of liberty that he was drawing from Mill does not mean doing whatever one wants. Society has genuine interests that might be harmed by indiscriminate freedom of action. Moreover, society has a right to transmit a set of values and cultural practices that can limit freedom of the individual. But Yan cautions that China’s highly structured moral beliefs and social rituals can overwhelm liberty if not properly watched.

To this point, there had not been any rigorous analysis of the nature and place of liberty in Chinese political philosophy. While some philosophical defenses of remonstrance with parents or rulers can be found in the history of Chinese philosophy, the function of this concept is much different than what Mill means by one’s individual free expression of lifestyle. Accordingly, when Chinese intellectuals began reading Mill and Yan’s commentaries on the translation, a new way of looking at society and a person’s place within it came into view.