Who is Yan Fu

Yan FuYan Fu (1854-1921) was the greatest enlightenment thinker in modern Chinese history. He introduced and translated the works of Adam Smith, T.H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and others into Chinese. He argued that the secret to Western wealth and power did not lie in Western technological advances, but in the ideas and institutions that lay behind these techniques. He was also a cultural traditionalist and firmly believed Chinese culture and philosophy can play a significant role to offset the unfettered greed of modern capitalism. His lifelong ambition was to try to integrate Chinese and Western cultures to forge a new way for China and world’s development. He devoted his life in education and took the presidency of Peking University, Fudan University, Beiyang Naval College and Anyang Teachers College. He was also considered a master of Chinese classic literature, poetry and calligraphy art. His translations of Western works had great influence on Chinese intellectuals at the time and later. In 1877, Yan Fu was sent to the UK to study naval techniques at The Royal Naval College in London, but he soon became interested in British government, jurisprudence, economics, and sociology. He returned to China in 1879. China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in 1895 prompted him to advocate liberal, social and political reform. He did so because he believed that the graduate reform of institutions could pave a way of strengthening the state. His understanding of Darwinism and Spencer’s sociology convinced him that change must come through a gradual shift in the thought of the Chinese elite, and then spread to the wider society and people. He rejected the radical revolution approach as he was a humanist and did not want to see China torn by the warlords and for innocent people lose their lives. Yan Fu wrote poetry in addition to his translations; two collections of his poetry were published posthumously. His calligraphy is also considered to be the best among the scholars of his time.

The timeline of Yan Fu’s life

Date Event
8th, January, 1854 Born in Fuzhou
1867: First admitted to Fuzhou Naval Yard School
1877: Yan Fu was sent to study at The Royal Naval College, London. Fellow students included Sa Zhenbin, Liu Buchan, Lin Yongsheng and Ye Zugui
1879: Returned to Fuzhou Naval Yard School as a teacher and later transferred to Tianjin Beiyang Naval College as a head teacher.
1890: Appointed the Principal of the Tianjin Beiyang Naval College
1894: The first Sino-Japanese War broke out
1895: Published a series of articles in Zhi newspaper in Tianjing to analyse why China failed at the war and to call for reform
1896: Began translating Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics into Chinese and published this in 1898. He coined the phrase – “Survival of fittest” in Chinese and warned China would collapse if it continued to reject reform.
1902: Compiled and published the Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation at the Translation Bureau of the Imperial University of Beijing
1903: Published the translation of Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
1904: Met Sun Yat-sen in London and discussed matters on the Chinese Revolution
1906: Appointed as the Principal of Anhui Teacher College and took the presidency of Shanghai Fudan Public School (the predecessor of Fudan University)
1912: Appointed as the first President of Peking University
1918: Returned to his hometown in Fujian and settled in Fuzhou Langguan Xiang
1921: Passed away in Fuzhou
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