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In Search of Wealth and Power

January 29, 2010

Benjamin Schwartz. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964.

Ellen Huang (2003)

First published in 1964, this masterful study of China’s foremost translator of Western political thought broke new ground. Based on Yen Fu’s translations and commentaries written between 1895 and 1908, Benjamin Schwartz examines the transmission of British and French liberal thought into China. By examining the encounter of China and the West through the eyes of an indubitably influential individual, Schwartz is able to illuminate the introduction of social Darwinism into China and the dangers of such thought to a free society. In short, Schwartz’s account is a critique of Chinese thought as well as the West’s.

Like other studies of Chinese history published at the time of this book, Schwartz focuses on the contact between the “modern West” and “traditional China.” Schwartz’s approach, however, is different: he attempts to move away from positing a known “Western culture” against an unknown, static “Chinese culture.” Instead, his main point is that two strands of thinking are distinguishable, though interrelated, in modern Western thought: one strand that emphasizes growth, progress, and the rationalization of society and the other concerned with freedom and equality. Given the concerns of a Chinese intellectual living in post-Opium War and post Sino-Japanese War (1895) China, Yen Fu was preoccupied with restoring wealth and power to China. Through his understanding of the seminal works of Spencer, Huxley, Smith, Montesquieu, and Mill, Yen Fu identified the secret to Great Britain’s wealth in Herbert Spencer’s views of dynamism, progress, and evolution. To him, the difference between West and East, seen as social organisms, lay not merely in weapons or technology, but in “an entirely different vision of reality.” Thus, Yen Fu is attracted to the first strand of Western thought and action in which dynamic energy and the ideology of development dominates. Yen is also interested in freedom and equality, but only as a means to “advancing the wealth and power of the state” and not as ends in themselves. Because of his concern with state power, Yen thus subsumes human freedom for the sake of building the state.

The genius of Schwartz’s analysis is in his critique of Western liberal thought. Through the lens of an outsider’s perceptions of Western progress, the author shows how the evolution of Western society did not result from the inevitable forces of history, but through human “struggle for existence.” Schwartz follows Yen Fu’s interpretation that the concerted effort of individuals in society achieved the strength and power of Western nations. As such, evolution of the “social organism” in the form of a nation, can easily be prioritized over individual freedom. Yen Fu’s understanding reveals that the very danger of subsuming the interests of the individual to those of the state is already inherent in the relation between the two strands of Western liberal thought. In this sense, Schwartz’s book is an early critique of modernization theory, reminding us that freedom can easily be curtailed in any modern state that over-emphasizes the “achievement of modernization.”

Contemporary reviewers recognized this work’s importance (Pacific Affairs, 38.1: 69-70, JAS, 24.1: 150-151). Schwartz should be credited for perceiving Yen’s significance in foregrounding such themes as “struggle” and “development” in modern Chinese thought and social practice. Still, some criticisms must be made from the vantage point of current trends in historiography. In his analysis, Schwartz assumes that the European meanings of such abstract words as “social” or “individualism” had equivalent meanings in Yen Fu’s thought. As Lydia Liu has pointed out, in dealing with the translation of Western ideas, the very act of translating must be problematized as a process. Thus, Schwartz’s conclusion that Yan Fu subordinated the individual to the “social” may not be justified, as late Qing intellectuals might not have thought in terms of a binary distinction between “individual” and “social.” Furthermore, the judgment of Yen Fu’s withdrawal from politics as a return to “traditionalism” or “conservatism” results from conflating any definition of “social” with “nation.” This conceptual equating neglects that prior forms of “social” may have existed and persisted in Yen Fu’s thought.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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