Darwin the Confucian

As today is Darwin Day I thought I would post something on China’s reception of Darwin’s work. He tended to be confused with Spencer at first, and Elman gives some examples of how his work continued to be misunderstood for a very long time. Still, it is not surprising that Chinese tended to see Darwin through Spencer. Spencer was big in the West, and for those obsessed with the survival of nations rather than the survival of species Spencer would seem more to the point. Yan Fu‘s On Strength first appeared in 1895 and was the first serious account of Darwin published in China.

Darwin is an English biologist. Heir to his family’s scholarly traditions, he traveled around the world as a young man, amassing a rich collection of rare and curious plants and animals. After several decades’ exhaustive and subtle reflection upon them, he wrote The Origin of Species. Since the publication of this book, of which nearly every household in Europe and America now has a copy, there has been a tremendous change in the scholarship, politics, and religion of the West. The claim that the revolution in outlook and intellectual orientation occasioned by Darwin‘s book exceeds that of Newtonian astronomy is hardly an empty one.

His book says that for all their diversity, the species originated from a single source and that their differences developed slowly, for the most part in connec­tion with changes in the environment and an abiding biological tendency to­ward incremental differentiation. Eventually divergence from the remote source led to vast and irreversible differences, but these were brought about by natural processes in later ages and were not inherent in life at its origins.

Two chapters of the book are particularly noteworthy. . . . One is called “Competition” and the other, “Natural Selection.” “Competition” refers to the struggle of things to survive, and “Natural Selection” is the retention of the fit. The idea is that people and things exist in profusion, surviving on what the natural environment provides, but when they encounter others, peoples and things struggle over the means of survival. At first species struggled with species, and when they advanced somewhat, one group (jun) struggled with another.

Not bad, in my opinion, although I think he may overestimate Darwin’s sales figures a bit. At the end of this reading he is already leaving Darwin’s interest in species to look at the competition among “groups.” Here he is pretty clearly influenced by Spencer

In its constitution, the structure and function of a social body are no different from those of an animal’s body; despite the difference in size, there is a coordination of the faculties, so that if we understand how life is maintained in our bodies we can understand how societies can exist; if we understand longevity in individuals, we can understand how the vitality of a state can en­dure. Within the individual, body and spirit support each other. Within a so­ciety, power and virtue complement each other. The individual values his free­dom, the state values its autonomy. The similarity of life-forms to societies consists precisely in the fact that both are conscious organisms. Thus all learn­ing converges on sociology and only when sociology is understood can political order and chaos, prosperity and debility, be understood, and personal cultiva­tion, the regulation of society, the governance of the state, and the ordering of the world be effective. …

The conclusions he draws from this are not too surprising for a Confucian. What modern science teaches him is that the success of the West is based on what might be called ‘managed competition’ creating a society were all are in competition and gaining its advantages without destroying society. The Westerners

They both use and dispense with regulations, and in both ways they excel us. With respect to their liberty and equality, they reject taboos, discard onerous obligations, and eliminate cover-ups. People pursue their aims and speak their minds. There is no great gulf between the power of rulers and ruled; monarchs are not overly honored nor are the people too lowly. Rather, they are linked as in one body. This is how they excel by dispensing with regulations. But from the standpoint of clear and complete rules regarding officials, workmen, soldiers, and mer­chants, everyone knows his job and does it without monitoring, and the most minute tasks are all completed according to the proper sequence. Orders issued from far or near are acted upon within the day, and no one finds it oppressive. This is how they excel in using regulations. . . .

In all their affairs they rely on learning, and all their learning is based on direct consideration of the facts, building up layer on layer of knowledge to develop the best-considered and most-extensive course of action. Hence there is no matter in which their theories cannot be put into practice. The reason is that they take freedom as the essential principle and democracy as its applica­tion. The peoples of one continent have spread over seven or eight, vying with each other as they advance together, honing each other’s skills, beginning as adversaries but ending in mutual development, each employing his intelligence to the fullest, so that one’s daily progress is matched by another’s monthly innovations. Thus they can use regulations without being hampered by their defects. This is what is awe-inspiring.

From De Barry Sources of Chinese Tradition

How does one attain this state of unity? “Three principles: promote the people’s strength, expand their knowledge, and revive their virtue”i.e good old fashioned Investigation of Things and moral reform.


  1. I’ve always been struck by the way in which Spencer’s ideas gave great hope to reformers in China and Japan. It’s quite a challenge, explaining how important he was to students who have no idea what an influential intellectual looks like.

    I know, Darwin isn’t Spencer, and vice versa, but as you point out, Yan Fu doesn’t completely distinguish them….

    It’s also interesting to see how admiring he was of Western society, but without being willing to abandon traditions entirely.

  2. The exaggeration of Darwin’s sales seems to be the translator’s. I’ve just check the text in which Yan Fu simply said that “nearly everyone has read it in Europe and America”. Still, that’s overestimated a bit.

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