Printer Friendly

Yan Fu's (Mis)translation of "Feudal/Feudalism".

In the Preface to her celebrated book, Translingual Practice, Lydia Liu raises many profound and provocative questions concerning cross-cultural studies:
Are languages incommensurate? If so, how do people establish and
maintain hypothetical equivalences between words and their meanings?
What does it mean to translate one culture into the language of another
on the basis of commonly perceived equivalences? For instance, can we
talk, or stop talking, about 'modernity' across the East-West divide
without subjecting the experience of the one to representations,
translations, or interpretations by the other?" (xv)

Instead of discussing a philosophical question like whether languages are essentially commensurate or not, I am going to explore a number of concrete questions centered upon the translation of a key term in modern China: how the English word "feudal/feudalism" were translated into the Chinese word fengjian [phrase omitted] in the late Qing (1895-1911) and early Republican eras (1912-1927)? How were "hypothetical equivalences" between the two different words created? What historical occurrences shaped and maintained these equivalences, and what impact did they exert upon modern Chinese historiography and Chinese intellectuals' pursuit of modernity? Lydia Liu herself has also noted the influential yet problematic translation of "feudal" into fengjian. She writes at the end of her book: "Since [phrase omitted] ('feudal?') happens to be one of those seminal translations in modern translingual history that have provoked much controversy surrounding Marxist interpretations of pre-capitalist Asian societies and consequently exerted a huge impact on these societies' perceptions of their own past, the etymology of the term deserves more than casual attention" (261-2). However, as her focus is placed on literary texts, she does not address this historical term in any detail. Arif Dirlik has investigated the historical process of this semantic change, arguing that the confusion is largely derived from the importation of Marxist historiography in the 1930s which twisted Chinese history to fit a European historical model. (1) Viren Murthy examines how fengjian was likened to Western local autonomy and reinterpreted by late-Qing intellectuals to implement a radical political reform. (2) Praesenjit Duara looks into how the reinterpreted fengjian was denigrated and abandoned as a usable political tradition due to the rise of nationalism in the early 20th century of China. (3) Their works undoubtedly shed light on the process of establishing the problematic "equivalence" between fengjian and feudalism and its relationship with modern Chinese historiography, but their research does not examine the role of translation and translator in this historical process. Several Chinese scholars (Ri Zhi, Feng Tianyu, Zhou Zhenhe and Nie Changshun) to some extent make up for this inadequacy, but all of them tend to treat translators as transparent and unproblematic mediators.

In this paper, I will focus on how Yan Fu (1854-1921), one of the most influential translators and intellectuals in the late Qing period, rejected and reaffirmed the equivalence between fengjian and feudal. Instead of taking Yan Fu as an unproblematic and transparent language transmitter, I will take a close look at his translations and translator's notes and commentaries to demonstrate how he changed and appropriated the original texts and his own translations to make his intervention into the late Qing political and intellectual scene. This particular focus not only allows me to explore an understudied academic question but also to uncover the historical richness of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic encounters.


Fengjian [phrase omitted] is a classical Chinese word composed of two characters, i.e., feng [phrase omitted] and jian [phrase omitted] According to Feng Tianyu, feng originally means planting trees and raising mounds. Then its meaning was broadened to the granting of land by a king to his relatives and subordinates. The former meaning is closely related with the latter one, because planting trees and raising mound often functioned as marking the border of one's land in pre-imperial China. Jian [phrase omitted] means "establishment." These two characters were more often than not used separately in the early Zhou Dynasty (around 12th century, B.C). When put together, fengjian initially referred to the division of land, as in this passage from the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Zuo Zhuan), a key text of early Chinese historical writing: "The Duke of Zhou lamented fact that his two younger brothers did not die a natural death and hence widely gave (fengjian) land to his relatives to form a protective shield around the state of Zhou" ([phrase omitted]) (Feng 10-17). The political event mentioned here took place about 1073 B.C, when the Western Zhou Dynasty divided its land to its family members and made them establish their own states to protect the dynastic territory and the Zhou king. Because there was no technological means to achieve an effective direct control of the vast dynastic territory, dividing the land among trusted family members was regarded as a feasible means of governmental control. In so doing, the Zhou king could realize an indirect rule of his vast territory together with his family members.

Subsequent Confucians made extensive exegesis on the above-mentioned passages in Chinese classics, extending the meaning of fengjian from a political event to a political ideal of decentralized political system. Under this system, a king grants his land to his relatives, who recognize the king as their master and perform certain military and financial services in return for his favors. In so doing, the king shares his power with his subordinates and maintains a harmonious and prosperous dynasty. However, as the power of the newly-established states was increasing, they became more and more independent from the Zhou king during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States eras. Fengjian as a political system was finally abolished in 221 B.C. by Qin Shihuang, the first Emperor of Qin Dynasty, and replaced by junxian [phrase omitted] a prefectural system under which 36 prefects were established and brought under emperor's direct control. From then on, junxian was implemented by most dynasties for the next two thousand years in China. However, fengjian did not disappear from the political and intellectual discourse. Instead, it was often brought up as an alternative political system to reform or replace the centralized imperial rule of junxian when a dynasty was faced with a severe political crisis.

Fengjian and junxian as two alternative political systems thus became an enduring political polemic in pre-modern China. Considering the unchecked expansion of monarchial power and the fall of the Ming Dynasty, several late Ming intellectuals, such as Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), Huang Zongxi (1610-1695) and Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692), mounted harsh attack against despotic rule, fengjian was put forward again to reform junxian. For instance, Gu Yanwu argued for "infusing the prefectural system [i.e. junxian] with the spirit of fengjian principles," by means of which "the world would be well-governed" (qtd. in Murthy, 156). It must be pointed out that despite the fact that fengjian took effect only in the Zhou Dynasty, it had been mainly considered as a political system instead of a mere historical phase and invested with a strong sense of political idealism in the Chinese intellectual and political discourse prior to the 19th century. At first sight, the Chinese fengjian bears some resemblance to the European feudalism in terms of a division of authority between central court and regional powers. But drawing on the recent archaeological discoveries, Li Feng has concluded that "in each respect, the Western Zhou presents a sharp contrast to what Susan Reynolds defines as the 'feudo-vassalic' institutions of medieval Europe" ("Feudalism and Western Zhou China" 117). (4)

However, it was impossible for those experiencing the early extensive China-West contacts in the 19th century to gain such a professional historian's insightful perception of the difference between fengjian and feudalism. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to learn that the apparent similarities between fengjian and feudalism caused Chinese intellectuals and western missionaries to draw a parallel between them as a way of understanding and describing their counterpart's pre-modern history. For instance, Xu Jiyu (1795-1873), a Qing official and intellectual, compiled Yinghuan zhilue [phrase omitted] (A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit) in 1849, which offered a detailed introduction to the geography and history of the world, with an emphasis on Western Europe. He compared German political system to China's fengjian in the Three Dynasties:
Germany is in the middle of Europe and like Luo Yang in China.... Its
dividing lands and establishing lords is similar to fengjian in Three
Dynasties. Each lord has his own land and makes himself a king. While
Austria is constantly expanding its land, it is no longer the common
head of lords. There are a dozen of dukes who bequeathed their lands to
their offspring, but other powers do not intend to annex them. This
shows the persistence of ancient significance, (qtd in Nie; 62)

[phrase omitted]

James Legge, a British missionary in China who translated many Chinese classics, also noticed the seeming similarity between Zhou dynasty in China and feudal times in Europe. In his preface to the translation of Mencius, he refers to the Zhou Dynasty from 721 B.C to 480 B.C as a "feudal kingdom" (7); in his introduction to his translation of Wang Zhi [phrase omitted] (Royal Regulations) in Liji [phrase omitted] (Classic of Rites), he regards the aristocrats in the Three Dynasties as "feudal nobles" or "feudal lords" (29). He interprets Wangzhi as a chapter which "professes to give the regulations of the early kings on the classes of the feudal nobles and officers and their emoluments, on their sacrifices, and their care for the aged" and Ming Thang Wei as a place where "the kings halted in their tour of inspection to receive the feudal lords of the different quarters of the kingdom" (18). Another well-known missionary William Alexander Parsons Martin in 1883 published International Law in Ancient China in which he describes the political system of Zhou Dynasty as a "feudal system":
The period during which they rose and fell was the latter half of the
dynasty of Cheo (Zhou).... was an age of intense political activity.
The normal form of government for the empire was the feudal, the
archetype of that which prevailed in Japan until swept away by the
revolution of 1868. The several States were created by the voluntary
subdivision of thenational domain by the founder of the dynasty, who,
like Charlemagne, by this arrangement planted within it the seeds of
its destruction, (emphasis mine; 115)

Martin draws an analogy between Zhou Dynasty, pre-1868 Japan and feudal Europe under Charlemagne's rule without making any distinction between them. Wang Fengzao (1851-1918), a translator working closely with Martin, translated the word "feudal" in Martins book into fengjian without showing any suspicion of their equivalence.

The humiliating failures in the Sino-French (1884) and the Sino-Japanese War (1895) alerted Chinese officials and intellectuals to the fact that the narrow focus on learning Western technology and weaponry advocated by self-strengtheners (yangwupai) since the First Opium War (1840-1842) could not lead China to power and wealth, and that what was really needed was a radical and comprehensive political reform based on a Western model. Because they thought that one major reason for the power of the West was its superior political institutions, which established local assemblies and parliaments, realized local autonomy, and facilitated the communication between people and government, all of which contributed a great deal to the formation of a powerful nation-state. Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a leading late Qing reformer, argued that local autonomy was not unique to the West. Instead, it was also contained in the pre-modern fengjian in China. In his words, "local autonomy is none other than ancient fengjian" [phrase omitted] (27). In "Citizens' Self-Rule," he responded to the centuries-old critique that fengjian in China often led to wars and chaos:
In the era of ancient fengjian chaos, power was given only to one
person; In todays fengjian, power is granted to many people who are
allowed for self-rule and public discussion. Every person pursues
public interest in his/her own way. As a result, benefit of land and
human resources are greatly advanced; good manners and fine talent come
out; the autonomy of states and counties in the United States is the
fengjian of ancient great kingdoms in China and the same as federalism
in Germany. (28)

Kang Youwei's reinterpretation of fengjian stayed in tuned with the Chinese tradition that once a dynasty was confronted with a severe crises or collapse, the implementation of a reformed fengjian was put forward as a solution. What distinguished Kang from previous proponents of fengjian was his injection of Western autonomy into this ancient political system and his efforts to transform China from an empire into a modern country in the world of nation-states. In Kang Youwei's reformulation, fengjian is still imbued with a sense of political ideal rather than a mere descriptive category to indicate a backward historical stage.

Liang Qichao (1873-1929), another well-known late-Qing reformer, replaced the traditional dynastic periodization of the past with a universal notion of progressive history that divided history into three periods that all countries have and will go through: the age of many rulers, the age of one ruler, and the age of people. The first age is subdivided into the tribal age and the fengjian age, both of which are characterized by the rule of many lords and leaders. In a series of important articles of rewriting Chinese history such as "On the Evolution of Autocratic Politics," "On the Difference between Chinese and European Polities" and "An Account of Chinese History," Liang Qichao uses fengjian, loosely defined as a decentralized political system, as a universal category which applies to all the countries in the world, differentiating himself from previous late Qing intellectuals who merely draw some parallel between Chinese fengjian and Western feudalism. (5) Like his teacher Kang Youwei, Liang does not make any internal distinction between fengjian and feudal systems; to him, the difference lies only in the different developments of fengjian in different countries. According to Liang, in China fengjian ended in Qin dynasty (3rd century B.C) while in Europe it lasted until the 17th and 18th centuries; secondly, in China the fall of fengjian is followed by the rise of monarchial power, while in Europe and Japan it is followed by the rise of people's civil rights. In Liang Qichao's writings, then, fengjian becomes a mere descriptive term to mean a historical epoch and is deprived of the sense of political ideal associated with it and no longer a useful political tradition that could be drawn upon to form a new political order. In spite of this, fengjian is not a very derogatory term with much of a negative sense in Liang Qichao's writings.

As shown above, before Yan Fu's translation, "feudal" had been translated into fengjian, and as a political system, fengjian had often been compared to Western feudalism. As a scholar well versed in both Chinese and Western learning, Yan Fu must have known this translation and the parallel frequently drawn between them by the then intellectuals. Nevertheless, at the very beginning of his translating career, he rejected this translation and equation. While late Qing reformers are known for their call for learning from the West, they came to know Western knowledge mostly gained through reading a limited number of translations and often did not gain a profound understanding of the West. Moreover, the urgency of national crisis and their eagerness to carry out political reform deprived them of the time needed to make an in-depth study of the West. However, this does not follow that the intense political atmosphere made all the Chinese intellectuals lose sight of the differences between the Chinese fengjian, the Western feudalism, and local autonomy.

Unlike most of his contemporaries on the intellectual scene who were mainly trained in the Chinese classics, Yan Fu began to learn western languages and technology at the age of 14 at the Fuzhou Ship-Building School. In 1877, he was sent by the Qing government to study naval technology at Royal Naval College in Greenwich in the U.K. Unlike his fellow Chinese students there, Yan Fu was not only interested in natural science and technology, but also in western humanities and social sciences. He was an avid reader of Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Thomas Huxley. In his spare time, he often went out of school to visit British courts of law and Parliament. He gradually came to believe that what empowered the U.K. was not merely its advanced science and technology, but its modern political and economic institutions. (6) After returning to China, he became a teacher in Beiyang Naval School and continued to study both Chinese and western classics passionately. His knowledge of western knowledge and culture was far better than contemporary self-strengtheners and reformers. In Liang Qichao's words, Yan Fu "is a top scholar of both Chinese and western learning in our country" (Sun, 174). But unlike other late Qing reformers, he did not think that China's problems could be solved through a drastic grafting of western political system onto the Chinese context. To him, the fact that the political system worked well in the West does not mean that it would also be effective in China, because its effective functioning depends on superior Western education, rigorous scholarship and enlightened people. It could not bring wealth and power to China without solid academic research and a well-educated population. Therefore, to Yan Fu, the first and foremost project for China is not a radical political reform, but to "develop people's power," "enlighten people's mind," and "renew people's morality" (Yan Fu 1: 12-14). Translating western scholarly works and spreading western knowledge is an important initiative Yan Fu took to enlighten Chinese people's mind and save his country. In his letter to his close friend, Zhang Yuanji, Yan Fu wrote:
Neither implementing reform nor keeping tradition can succeed without
peoples enlightened mind.... If ordinary people and young people could
know the real situation of China and the West, then Chinese race would
not fail; even if plunged into a plight, they can revive. Therefore, I
decide to do nothing but translate for self-encouragement. (Yan Fu 3:

His translation of Huxley's Evolution and Ethics (Tian yan lun [phrase omitted]) conveyed the central message of "survival of the fittest" that inspired Chinese intellectuals to compete with Western powers. This translation exerted a huge impact upon Chinese intellectuals and elevated Yan Fu from an obscure teacher to a well-known translator and scholar. Nevertheless, Yan Fu was often criticized for distorting the original text and adding his own ideas into translations. In spite of this, he was very careful with translating key terms. He says in the translator's preface to Thomas H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics that "it often takes me one month to choose a word in translation " (Yan Fu 5: 1322). He refused to identify two words as equivalent simply because of some semantic parallel between them: "there are plenty of western words. It is vain to find one word in Chinese to match an English word. Even if they display some similarity, I am still dissatisfied with their divergence and difference" (Yan Fu 5:1322). It is his rich knowledge of Western learning and rigorous attitude that enabled him to spot the difference between the Chinese fengjian and the western feudalism and refuse to equate the former with the latter at the beginning of his translation career.

The first time Yan Fu met the word "feudal" in the book he intended to translate for publication was in 1899 when he was rendering Stuart Mill's On Liberty. "Feudal" appears only once in Mill's book. In Chapter III, Mill discusses the change of freedom from medieval times to modern age: "in ancient history, in the middle ages, and in a diminishing degree through the long transition from feudality to the present time, the individual was a power in himself" (118). Yan Fu's translation is: "Looking into history, we found that it was not difficult for a person to see himself as a power from archaic to feudal times in Europe" ([phrase omitted]) (58). In Mill's original text, "feudality" was referring to a historical era. Yan Fu transliterated it into fute [phrase omitted], a compound with no particular meaning of its own, without making any explanation. Besides translating On Liberty, Yan Fu was at the same time rendering Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations into Chinese. The word "feudal" appears 13 times in Smith's book, but Yan Fu persisted in denying the identification between fengjian and feudal. But this time he offers a long translator's note to explain the feudal system in Europe:
A close examination of European history reveals that races in Europe
emigrated from Ancient Persia and the West of China. At the very
beginning, they were nomads and then converted to an agricultural life
style. They raised livestock and settled down. Accordingly their
population grew. The founding of their country differed greatly from
China in that they did not necessarily divide the land. The dividing of
land led to the dividing of people, which formed the practice of fute.
One country was divided into several fute. Each fute has its own lord.
Those who were allotted a patch of land from the lord should fulfill
the duty of some public services, the most important of which was
military service. Under fute system, people only obey their lord
without necessarily knowing their king. As a result, the power of king
cannot directly rule the land and the people. (emphasis mine; 335-6)

Here Yan Fu looks at western history from a comparative perspective, but recognizes the difference between Chinese and European histories. The last two sentences merit our special attention. To quote some well-known lines from the ancient Book of Songs (Shi jing), in Chinas fengjian system, "under the whole heaven, every spot is the sovereign's ground; to the borders of the land, every individual is the sovereign's minister." It is true that the kings under the fengjian system did not enjoy as much power as the emperors under junxian system, but they held much more control of the regional rulers and people than the feudal kings in the medieval Europe. The former are only "functionaries of the Western Zhou state" (Li 118). It is hard to imagine that a king in preimperial China was not known to his subjects. Yan Fu's note manifests his acute awareness of the different political systems represented by fengjian and feudalism, which led to his refusal to identify the former with the latter.

At the end of 1901, however, he began to equate fengjian and feudalism. He translated "feudal times," "feudal ages" and "feudal ages" into Chinese as fengjian. In the passage about the advantage of comparative method in sociological study of feudal system, Spencer writes: "Whatever conflicts there may be among accounts of events that occurred during feudal ages, comparison of them brings out the incontestable truth that there was a Feudal System" (112). Yan Fu's translation of the above passage is: [phrase omitted] (emphasis mine; 84). In the original text, Spencer does not mention China's fengjian system, but Yan Fu adds it for comparison: [phrase omitted] (In the East there is fengjian; in the West there is feudalism). It is interesting to note that in the original text, Spencer emphasizes that despite some differences between societies, there is an "uncontestable truth that There was a Feudalism system," which exhibits his firm belief in the universality of A feudal system. However, Yan Fu deletes Spencer's words "the uncontestable truth" and the capitalized phrase "a Feudal System," which softens the absolute tone of Spencer's statement about the universality and uniformity of "feudal system." In Yan Fu's translation, he only says that "comparison of different societies makes it possible for feudalism to be described" ([phrase omitted]). which demonstrates his doubt on the universality and uniformity of European feudalism. Moreover, by adding China's fengjian for comparison, Yan Fu's translation seems to suggest that the European notion of feudalism should be modified and extended by taking Chinese fengjian into consideration and there may not be only "a Feudalism," but "many feudalisms."

Following his translation of Study of Sociology, Yan Fu began and finished his translation of Edward Jenks' A History of Politics in 1903. In this book, Jenks divides human history into three phases, that is, "the savage, the patriarchal, and the military (or political in the modern sense)"(20). In Chapter VIII "The State and Feudalism," Jenks describes the features of feudalism and defines it as a transitional period from the patriarchal society to the modern political society: "feudalism.... is connecting link between purely patriarchal and purely political society" (411). Yan Fu translates the title of this chapter into fute fengjian [phrase omitted] and the above sentence into [phrase omitted] (runwei) [??]" (Feudalism.... is an unorthodox link between patriarchal and political society), both of which shows his equation of fengjian and feudalism. While keeping the transliteration of feudalism/feudal into fute in some other passages of his translation, Yan Fu uses the two words interchangeably without making any distinction as he used to do. Moreover, in the above-mentioned sentence Yan Fu translates the neutral phrase "connecting link" into runwei ([phrase omitted]), a classical Chinese word which refers to an "unorthodox" and "illegitimate" ruler. This alteration of the original text reflects Yan Fu's critique of fengjian/feudalism. In addition, in his note on the section of "Value of Local Government," Yan Fu emphasizes that "there is no tradition of local autonomy in Chinese history. Fengjian in the Three Dynasties, is fute, not autonomy" which implicitly criticizes Kang Youwei's linking fengjian to develop modern local autonomy in China (Yan Fu 4: 932). Unlike late Qing intellectuals such as like Feng Guifen (1809-1874) and Kang Youwei who sought to draw on the tradition of decentralized fengjian to promote local autonomy and democracy, Yan Fu did not take it as a usable past for Chinas pursuit of modernity. On the contrary, he saw it as a damaged tradition from which China must be rescued. In his preface to his translation, Yan Fu holds the extraordinarily long duration of fengjian responsible for China's backwardness and weakness.

How, then, to account for Yan Fu's change of translation? What impelled him to establish the "equivalence" between fengjian and "feudal," an equivalence that he used to reject? Moreover, in his early translations and translator's notes, fengjian is a neutral descriptive category to periodize the Chinese history, but in his later years it becomes a derogatory historical term. Then how to understand this change of attitude toward fengjian?

A quick answer is that Yan Fu must have been convinced by Jenks' conception of a universal history as proposed in A History of Politics, which led him to ignore the distinction he used to make between fengjian and feudalism. This explanation makes sense, but seems to suggest that Yan Fu is an uncritical reader and unproblematic translator. However, this is far from being the case. Yan Fu is noted as translator who often altered and commented on authors' views. For instance, in his translation of Evolution and Ethics, he added many translator's notes to criticize Huxley's insistence on the difference between the evolution of the cosmos and human society. But in his translation of Jenks' book, no translated passages or translator's notes conflict with the author's idea of a universal history. On the contrary, in his translation Yan Fu gives an absolute endorsement of a universal history that Jenks had only proposed. Jenks did indeed put forward a universal periodization of human history, but his tone was far from absolute:
We shall endeavor to trace a normal course for the development of
societies, a course which every community tends to follow, unless
deflected from its natural path by special circumstances. (4; emphasis

Yan Fu's translation of the last sentence goes like this: "As a thing, every society, once created must have a course to pursue and a track to follow; Otherwise, there must be other causes for explanation. The development of a society could not be in such a disorder" ([phrase omitted]) (4-5). Jenks thinks that what he offers to do is "to trace a normal course", a course that every human society only "tends to follow." Obviously, Jenks leaves room for exceptions to his proposed universal periodization and categorization. However, in Yan Fu's translation, "a course which every society tends to follow" in the original was changed to a course that "every society must pursue" and "a track that every society must follow" ([phrase omitted]). In his preface to the translation, Yan Fu reinforces Jenks' periodization of history by making it like something natural and universal without any exceptions:
All human societies have in accordance with the stages of evolution
begun in a totemistic stage, passed through a patriarchal stage and
evolved into the state--this sequence has been as certain as the
sequence of the four seasons in nature or as infancy, youth, maturity,
and old age (IX).

In his study of Yan Fu's translation of A History of Politics, Benjamin Schwartz claims that "Yan Fu is as profoundly committed to a unilinear, universal account of the evolution of the human race as are the Communist historians of a later period" (176). It is true that since his translation of Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, Yan Fu had been ardently promoting an evolutionary and progressive conception of history to replace China's traditional circular or regressive notion of dynastic history. However, at the very beginning he did not take Europe's scheme of stadial history as something that "all human societies" have to go through. What, then, motivated Yan Fu to absolutize Jenks' notion of a universal history? Due attention must be paid to the historical moment at which Yan Fu changed his translation. It took place in 1901, a humiliating year for China: the Boxer Rebellion broke out, after which the capital of China was occupied by Western powers. Yan Fu was not only shocked by the horrendous cruelties of Western armies, but also by the Chinese rebels' and anti-Manchu revolutionaries' hysterical xenophobia, which was on display during and after the rebellion. In Yan Fu's word, "the change of 1901 changed everything" (Sun 169). According to Jenks, one of the defining characteristics of patriarchal society is its "clannishness" and "exclusiveness" (19). The anti-foreign and anti-Manchu frenzy stroke Yan Fu so deeply as those in patriarchal societies that he came to the conclusion that "in view of the Chinese people's way of thinking, China at that time remained a patriarchal society." Yan Fu warned that "China cannot compete with others without getting out of its patriarch society" (Sun, 223). How, then, to stop China from continuing to be a backward society? Rewriting of history is, among others, a favored solution. Yan Fu also pointed out that "the way of overcoming the crisis and enlightening the people is to help them realize their backwardness and then urge them to progress" (Yan Fu 1: 187). In his Translator's Preface to A History of Politics, he writes:
Although Asia and Europe have different names, they are in the same
continent and have the same origin. I am groaning at the fact that
China got out of fengjian long time ago, but grew very slowly [after
that], while Europe abolished fengjian very recently but has made
considerable progress since then. (X)

It seems to Yan Fu that to reorganize the Chinese history in accordance with a universal evolutionary history of Europe could help to bring China's backwardness and stagnation into the spotlight, thus compelling Chinese people to move towards modernity more actively and more quickly. When explaining Yan Fu's purpose of translating A History of Politics, Benjamin Schwartz writes: "it was precisely the static nature of Montesquieu's analysis which impelled him to cast about for a manageable tract which would serve as a corrective by providing a succinct account of human history in terms of a universal, unilinear scheme of social development" (174). Schwartz's explanation situates Yan Fu into the western intellectual context. However, Yan Fu made it very clear that his purpose in studying and translating western knowledge was to enlighten the Chinese people and empower his country. Throughout his career, he shows little interest in getting involved in western academic polemics. Schwartz is right only in the sense that it is indeed the static nature of something that impelled Yan Fu to translate Tenks' book, but it is not the static nature of Montesquieu's analysis but the static nature of China's past and present which motivated Yan Fu's translating efforts.

Another contributing factor which may have triggered Yan Fu's establishment of equivalence between fengjian and feudalism relates to doubts he was having about his earlier efforts to save his country and people. Having witnessed the cruelties and xenophobia of the Boxer Rebellions, Yan Fu expressed his disappointment with the result of his previous efforts. In his letter to a friend, he says:
Over the last 30 years, I have devoted myself to searching for the
knowledge about heaven and the human world. The current disasters are
what I have always been striving to prevent. But few listened to my
opinion. I have neither family wealth nor those in power to recommend
me. The people remained indifferent. It seems to them that nothing has
happened. I have no idea where the value of my knowledge is and whether
it can really serve my people. (Yan Fu 3: 565)

As is pointed out, the method he adopted to save his people and country was primarily to render Western books and disseminate western knowledge. His translations did indeed exert a major impact, but it was mostly restricted to the intellectual field. One reason for the limited impact of his translations, among others, is his insistence on the use of classical Chinese of the pre-Qin style, a type of classical Chinese used before Qin Dynasty and even more difficult than post-Qin classical Chinese. The difficulty and obscurity of this language had hurt his translations' comprehensibility and dissemination. But Yan Fu responded that the refined and sophisticated arguments in western scholarly works cannot be conveyed through vulgar vernacular Chinese but only by the refined and sophisticated classical Chinese. (7) To him, translation's rigor, fidelity and elegance come before its comprehensibility and effect. However, the Boxer Rebellion served as a painful reminder of the gap between his ends and means. To achieve his goal of enlightening Chinese people (not just intellectuals), he had to pay more attention to the reception and intelligibility of his translations. After 1901, Yan Fu employed fewer words and phrases from pre-Qin Chinese classics in his later translations, which facilitated their understanding and circulation. Although fengjian was originally a classical Chinese phrase, it had been widely used in both scholarly and vernacular writings for a long time and thus could be understood more easily than his previous transliteration fute.

Furthermore, Yan Fu's change of translation is associated with the change of his professional identity. Prior to 1902, Yan Fu had been already known as an eminent translator, but his primary job was teaching in Beiyang Navy School in Tianjin. Translation for him was mostly a personal activity. In 1902 when he was translating Study of Sociology and History of Politics, Yan Fu was appointed the General Director of the Translation Bureau of Imperial University of Peking. This bureau was founded by Qing government in 1902 to translate western textbooks for Chinese students (Pi 230-35). In the Constitution of the Bureau, Yan Fu emphasized the importance of intelligibility and consistency of translating western terms. He dictated the guidelines for the choice of books: "There are both easy and difficult Western books. What we choose for translation today are all the shallow and easy ones to meet the needs of ordinary people" [phrase omitted]) (Yan Fu 1: 130). Considering the confusion caused by translation and transliteration of the same words at that time, Yan Fu called for unifying translation terminology to avoid confusion (Yan Fu 1: 131).

As is shown above, the translation fengjian and Yan Fu's transliteration fute coexisted at the turn of 20th century. In order to unify translated terms and facilitate intelligibility, Yan Fu decided to make an identification between fengjian and feudalism, an identification he once rejected because of perceived incommensurability. Yan Fu's translation of History of Politics was widely read and had a far-reaching and wide-ranging influence on Chinese people's perception of history. His critique of revolutionaries' anti-Manchu sentiment as the mentality of a patriarchal society, for example, sparked a great controversy. (8) His promotion of a universal history and his argument that China is still stuck in a patriarchal/feudal society were accepted by major intellectuals of the New Culture Movement in the 1910s and 1920s. In their widely-circulated articles deploring Chinese tradition and fengjian, Wu Yu, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao depended on the periodization of history and historical terms borrowed from Yan Fu's translation to attack Chinese tradition and familial system. For instance, Wu Yu said "Europe has escaped from patriarchal society for a long time, but our country is still dragged down by a patriarchal society and is making no progress" (211). Chen Duxiu attacked zhongxiao [phrase omitted] (loyalty and filial piety) as the moralities of patriarchal and feudal societies. Yan Fu's translation, then, provided New Culture Movement intellectuals with a universal historical framework and discursive categories for their rewriting China's past and pursuit of China's modernity. Although Yan Fu strongly opposed their calls for radical westernization and blind rejection of Chinese tradition, he was nevertheless not able to prevent his translations and notes from being appropriated for purposes contradicting his expectation.

As one of the most influential translators of the late-Qing and early Republican eras, Yan Fu served to consolidate the equation of fengjian and feudalism and to advance efforts to rewrite Chinese history after a Western model. This constructed equivalence also paved the way for Chinese Marxist historians' further reconceptualization of Chinese history in line with a European paradigm. In 1930, Guo Moruo, a prominent Marxist historian, published A Study of Ancient Chinese Society in which fengjian is used to refer to the two millennia after Qin Dynasty. Guo's use of fengjian is obviously influenced by Marxist historiography which defines fengjian not as a political system but primarily as an economic system and mode of production characterized by private land ownership and landlords' exploitation of landless peasants, two features which Guo regards as typical of post-Qin Chinese society. This periodization struck many scholars as very strange because, although they may have disagreed about the exact times at which fengjian began and ended in China, scholars had all agreed that fengjian was abolished in the Qin Dynasty. Guo's confusing naming could be better understood if the translation process is taken into consideration. Since the linguistic equivalence between fengjian and feudalism had been established by Yan Fu's translation, the established equivalence makes it possible for the semantic extension of feudalism from a political system to an economic system by Marxist historiography in the West to be applied in China.

Guo's use of fengjian and periodization of history was inherited by Mao Zedong in his well-known article "The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party." As the Chinese Communist Party took power in the 1940s, this definition of fengjian referring to post-Qin China was promulgated and canonized in textbooks, official documents and mass media. Apparently, the manipulation of the Chinese word fengjian constitutes yet another move to model Chinese history after a European model, which, according to Dirlik, served only to reinforce western cultural and ideological hegemony. Dirlik argues that in order to make a counter-hegemonic move, Chinese historians need "a reworking of the Eurocentric idea of feudalism, which is made possible by the deterritorialization of feudalism from its European grounds to be rendered into an abstract concept that transcends any particular history, to be reterriotorialized in particular histories in its various manifestations" (264). I applaud Dirlik's call to counter the Eurocentric history model and give more consideration to the particularities of Chinese history, but I want to add that to pursue such a worthwhile project, we should not forget the translations and thoughts of Chinese translators. As I have demonstrated, Yan Fu had been actively engaged with the the problem linguistic equivalence through his translations of and commentaries on western scholarly works. Therefore, to talk about modernity and power structure in cross-cultural studies, it is quite necessary for us to delve more deeply and historically into what Chinese translators had done in engaging with cross-cultural contacts.


(1.) See Murthy 151-76.

(2.) See Duara's "Social Formations in Representations of the Past: The Case of 'Feudalism in Twentieth Century Chinese Historiography." (Review-Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations.19:3 [1996]: 227-67).

(3.) See Duara's chapter "Provincial Narratives of the Nation: Feudalism and Centralism in Modern China." (Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995).

(4.) Li argues that under fengjian in China, "the relationship between the king and the regional rulers was one between ruler and subject, not that between the medieval lords and their vassals." Secondly, "the fief of medieval Europe, which was associated with limited rights and clearly defined social obligations had no parallel in Western Zhou China" (132). Thirdly, "the medieval army was loosely bound body of soldiers who, though professional warriors by nature, served the lords and kings only for fixed terms and on a conditional basis while the western Zhou army was composed of soldiers who stood always for the king in a system that was routinely managed and financed by the king" (140). Fourthly, "the medieval feudalism was something new added to an existing government. Its purpose was to maintain the government by strengthening the personal ties between the king and his officials while Chinese fengjian was a system to organize government and distribute power" (142).

(5.) See Liang, 96-98, 312-315,448-454.

(6.) See a detailed account of Yan Fu's life in U.K. in Pi Houfeng's biography, 29-60.

(7.) See Yan Fu's correspondence between Liang Qichao, Huang Zhunxian and Wu Rulun (Collected Works by Yan Fu; 516, 1571 and 1560).

(8.) For a discussion of this controversy, see Wang 190-207.

Works Cited

Dirlik, Arif. Revolution and History: The Origins of Marxist Historiography in China, 1919-1939. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

--. "Social Formations in Representations of the Past: The Case of 'Feudalism in Twentieth Century Chinese Historiography." Review-Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. 19:3 (1996): 227-67.

Duara, Prasenjit. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995.

Feng Tianyu. Fengjian kaolun [phrase omitted] (An Investigation into Fengjian). Wuhan: Wuhan daxue chubanshe, 2006.

Hou [phrase omitted] Zhongguo sixiang tongshi [phrase omitted] (General history of Chinese thought). Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1950.

Jenks, Edward. A History of Politics. London: Macmillan, 1900.

Kang Youwei [phrase omitted] Kang Youwei quanji [phrase omitted] (Complete Works by Kang Youwei). Bejing: Zhongguo renmindaxue chubanshe, 2007.

Li Feng. "Feudalism and Western Zhou China: A Criticism." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 63.1 (2003): 115-44.

Legge, James. The Chinese Classics with a Translation, Critical and Exegetical Notes, Prolegomena, and Copious Indexes. Taibei: Wenxing shudian, 1966.

Liang Qichao [phrase omitted] Qiang Qichao quanji [phrase omitted] (Complete Works by Liang Qichao). Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 1999.

Liu, Lydia H. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity--China, 1900-1937. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Martin, W.A.P. International Law in Ancient China. Shanghai: Tientsin Press, 1894.

Mill, Stuart. On Liberty. London: John W Parker and Son, 1859.

Murthy, Viren. "The Politics of Fengjian in Late-Qing and Republican China." Beyond May Fourth Paradigm: In Search of Modernity. Ed. Kai-Wing Chow et al. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Nie, Changshun [phrase omitted] "Jindai zhongguo yiming 'fengjian' xintan" [phrase omitted] (A New Exploration of the Translated Term Fengjian in Modern China). Hebei shifandaxue xuebao [phrase omitted] (Academic Journal of Hebei Normal University) 36:2 (2013): 61-66.

Pi, Houfeng [phrase omitted]. Yan Fu Da Zhuan [phrase omitted] (A Biography of Yan Fu). Fuzhou: Fengjian renmin chubanshe, 2003.

Ri, Zhi [phrase omitted]. "Fengjian zhuyi [phrase omitted] (The Issue of Fengjian). Shijie lishi [phrase omitted] (World History). 20:6 (1991): 30-41.

Schwartz, Benjamin. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yan Fu and the West. NY: Harper & Row, 1964.

Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology. London: Henry & King & Co., 1873.

Sun, Yingxiang [phrase omitted] Yanfu nianpu [phrase omitted] (A Chronicle of Yan Fu's Life). Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chubanshe, 2003.

Wang, Xianming [phrase omitted] Yuyan, fanyi yu zhengzhi: Yanfu yi shehuitongquan yanjiu [phrase omitted] (Language, Translation and Politics: A Study of Yan Fu's Translation of A History of Politics). Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2005.

Yan, Fu. Yan Fuji [phrase omitted] (Collected Works of Yan Fu). Ed. Wang Shi [phrase omitted] 5 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986.

--. Qunji quanjielun [phrase omitted] (A Translation of Stuart Mills On Liberty). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981.

--. Qunxue yiyan [phrase omitted] (A Translation of Herbert Spencers A Study of Sociology). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981.

--. Shehui tongquan [phrase omitted] (A Translation of Edward Jenks' A History of Politics). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981.

--Yuanfu [phrase omitted] (A Translation of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981.

Zhou, Zhenhe [phrase omitted] "Shijiu ershi shiji chu de zhou ri ou yuyan jiechu yanjiu" [phrase omitted] (A Research into the Linguistic Contact of European, Japanese and Chinese Languages at the Turn of 20th century). Chuantong wenhua yu xiandaihua [phrase omitted] (Traditional Culture and Modernization) 30: 6 (1996): 48-54.

Gengsong Gao


[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
COPYRIGHT 2015 Texas Tech University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gao, Gengsong
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Previous Article:Meaning, Reception, and the Use of Classics: Theoretical Considerations in a Chinese Context.
Next Article:The Spread of Leo Strauss's Thought and the Flowering of Classical Political Philosophy in Post-Socialist China.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters