Yan Fu’s Lessons on the True Mission of Liberalism

Lanju Fotografie/Near the peak

With reactions ranging from sympathy to alarm, Western observers in recent years have remarked on Chinese intellectuals’ growing interest in illiberal thinkers from the canon of Western political theory such as Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Elements of Western thought critical of liberal democracy have an obvious appeal in China, where liberalism’s domestic prospects seem bleak, and from the vantage of which the liberal democracies of North America and Europe appear increasingly weak and divided. In the West, both liberalism’s critics and its embattled defenders can find in Schmitt’s Chinese reception a confirmation of the sense that the form of regime characteristic of the modern West is in crisis, threatened by authoritarian states abroad and a collapse of legitimacy at home.

But perhaps the most significant challenge to the complacency of contemporary Western liberals can be found not so much in the recent Chinese vogue for illiberal thinkers, as in Chinese intellectuals’ long-standing engagement with the mainstream of the Western liberal tradition. Yan Fu was the first Chinese thinker to undertake a comprehensive study of liberalism, and an advocate of liberal ideals from freedom of speech to laissez-faire economic policy. His project complicates any facile acceptance or dismissal of what we assume to be the liberal tradition, and his interpretation of liberalism returns us to a neglected but fundamental aspect of the heritage of Western political philosophy. Even in its most apparently individualistic aspects, such as the defense of personal freedoms against the state and society, this tradition has always been concerned with transforming the moral character of citizens for the benefit of the collective.

Yan’s first major work, a translation of John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty,” reveals that freedom of speech is a means to the end of state power. If this point has rarely been noted in Western societies’ ongoing debates about the erosion of free speech, it is because neither liberals nor their opponents are used to thinking about liberalism in such terms. We usually imagine liberalism as reducing or restraining state action, protecting citizens from government, and allowing individuals to pursue their own ends without reference to a common good or shared values.

The perspective of Yan Fu was analyzed by historian Benjamin Schwartz in his classic study In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the Modern West (1964) and Max Ko-Wu Huang in his more recent monograph, The Meaning of Freedom: Yan Fu and the Origins of Chinese Liberalism (2008). Through Yan’s eyes, we can see liberalism afresh—as a means of producing certain kinds of subjects whose apparently liberated selves serve the interests of the state. As the continued existence of liberal democracy becomes ever less certain, it is of vital interest to liberals to appreciate their own intellectual tradition—and political situation—from Yan’s perspective.

Yan Fu’s Quest for a New China

Yan is a key figure in modern intellectual history and one of the most discerning interpreters of liberalism. His life, however, was in many ways a failure. Born in 1854 into a family of doctors in Fujian, he spent his childhood in preparation for the notoriously difficult civil service exams that were a prerequisite for a career in the imperial bureaucracy. But when Yan was twelve, his father died, leaving his family destitute. Unable to afford further traditional studies, his mother sent him to be educated at the experimental Fuzhou Navy Yard School.

This new institution had been created to train future officers in navigation, natural sciences, and Western languages. This was part of a broader effort to re-equip China’s inadequate military after the disastrous defeat of the First and Second Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. In the war, the British navy had established itself as the master of China’s coasts and navigable rivers with humiliating ease. Britain was then the center of global naval, economic and scientific power, and the young Yan was eager to learn how it had become so powerful. He mastered English, toured Britain at the end of his studies, and returned to the Fuzhou school as a teacher in 1879. His dream was to train a new generation of Chinese officers to catch up with Britain’s achievements and resist its colonial ambitions.

From there, however, Yan experienced a series of disappointments. His students, he complained, were of poor intellectual quality. Their lackluster careers did little to advance China’s military and scientific modernization once they had graduated. Reflecting on his career as a teacher, he wrote to a friend in 1918 that, “frankly, I never trained any student that I felt proud of.” His attempts to find other employment by ingratiating himself with reformist political leaders were also less than successful. He gained the favor of Li Hongzhang, the hero of the Qing state’s victory over the mid-19th century Taiping Rebellion and a viceroy with wide powers over the modernization agenda in northern China. Li promoted Yan to an administrative position at the naval college in Tianjin.

But his possibilities for further advancement in Tianjin were compromised by factional hostility and suspicion against southern Chinese like himself. In frustration, he tried to get the support of Zhang Zhidong, a viceroy in southern China, but Zhang was suspicious of what he saw as Yan’s overly radical and Westernized views. Apparently unable to train competent students or gain the support of policy-makers, Yan tried to return to the traditional path. He took and failed the civil service exam several times in the 1880s and ’90s.  During this time, his growing despair led him into a life-long addiction to opium.

The year after Yan’s final failed examination in 1893, Japan launched a coup in Korea, which had long been a Chinese client-state. The Chinese army in Korea was crushed, and the Chinese navy, the modernization of which had been a priority of the Qing government, was nearly annihilated. Li Hongzhang’s forces proved inadequate against the Japanese. He was forced to cede China’s influence in Korea and to surrender Taiwan to a newly assertive and powerful Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. This defeat was a tragedy for Yan personally; many of his students and colleagues from the Fuzhou and Tianjin schools were killed during these naval battles. As Japan established itself on the global stage as a modernizing colonial empire, both the Chinese navy and China’s broader efforts at modernization appeared utterly insufficient.

Yan responded to this crisis by becoming a public intellectual. Abandoning the hope that he could carry out reform directly as a policy-maker or through the influence of his students, he tried instead to spread his ideas. He wrote a series of essays criticizing the Chinese state for clinging to an outmoded top-heavy political regime that stifled reformers’ initiative. He also criticized the civil service examination system for rewarding the rote learning of the literary and moral classics rather than useful knowledge. He even wrote essays on the epidemic of opium addiction and in criticism of the imperial exams, problems he knew intimately.

For a brief moment, it seemed that Yan’s essays might catch the attention of China’s leaders. During the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898, the Guangxu Emperor tried to accelerate the transformation of China’s institutions. His initiatives were supported by intellectuals like Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei. Yan was summoned for an audience with the Emperor to discuss his ideas. But the reform movement was soon thwarted in a palace revolt. Conservatives, led by the Empress Cixi, returned to power. They sidelined Yan, ending his hopes for a reformist imperial regime. However, Yan was fortunate to be merely marginalized; the Emperor himself was a prisoner in the palace, and several reformist intellectuals were killed.

In a poem written shortly after the conservative coup, Yan despaired that “the quest for good government has become a crime.” Unable to contribute to the changes that China needed to compete with the industrialized powers through either teaching or activism, he turned instead to scholarship. Yan undertook translations of the major texts of English-language political and economic theory. His efforts were motivated by a practical concern to discover the sources of the West’s economic and military power, so that China could cultivate them in order to resist Western and Japanese imperialism. He began in 1899 with Mill’s “On Liberty”, and continued over the next few decades with a series of other translations that introduced seminal figures like Adam Smith and Montesquieu to Chinese readers.

For a generation or so, Yan’s translations, written in an experimental and widely-praised style that tried to express the new ideas of liberalism in terms from the Confucian classics, were noted for their beauty, fidelity to the original texts, and political importance. But by the time of his death in 1927, Yan was already an anachronism. His neoclassical style was becoming incomprehensible to a new generation of readers. Worse still, his texts, a later generation discovered, were not so much accurate translations as interpretations, with additions and modifications to the original words. And liberalism itself seemed increasingly irrelevant to Chinese intellectuals more inspired by Marxism and fascism. The ideologies of the Soviet Union and the rising powers of Europe seemed to hold more promise than that of the apparently stagnant British Empire. After the overthrow of the Qing state in 1912, China’s modernization would take a distinctly illiberal path in Nationalist and then Communist hands, little influenced by Yan’s ideas.

Liberal Individualism as a Collective Strategy

Yan was unable to shape either the policies of the Qing state or its successor, the Republic of China. His interpretation of liberalism, however, represented an epochal turn in Chinese intellectual history, and has served as a resource—and a subject of controversy—for later Chinese thinkers interested in protecting some degree of personal freedom. In the West, however, his ideas have been largely ignored except by academic specialists. Western liberals have shown little awareness of, or interest in, his insights into the classic texts of liberal political theory.

The West, unfortunately, now has reason to look to the end of the Qing Empire and the lessons of its reformist intellectuals. Increasingly Europe and the United States seem to occupy a vulnerable position of stagnation and incapacity relative to a rising China. Perhaps we have already begun our own century of humiliations. Yan saw the desperate urgency of transforming his country’s ossified political and intellectual structure, which was incapable of resisting the military and economic power of rival states. He saw liberalism’s insistence on individual freedom as the means to that end.

It was in this spirit that Yan began his translation of “On Liberty”, amid the ruins of his hopes for reforming the Qing state. At first glance, Mill’s 1859 essay is of little use for anyone looking for principles by which to strengthen a relatively backward state against its imperialist enemies. “On Liberty” is ostensibly about the rights of individuals to express their own views and follow their own course of life, against the oppression not only of the state but also of majority opinion. Mill feared official censorship and social intolerance as obstacles to people’s personal happiness. His treatise may seem relevant to contemporary debates about so-called “cancel culture,” but hardly to matters of state power. The genius of Yan, however, was to see past the exterior and into the center of Mill’s thought, where the interests of individual freedom and the state are joined.

Mill argued that freedom of expression is threatened by “men of narrow capacity” who are sure that whatever they believe is not only right, but must be “inculcated, and in many ways acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world.” Such people must be restrained from imposing their views on others, and indeed, must be “forced to listen to both sides” of arguments for and against their views. Freedom of speech, as Mill saw it, is thus not simply a matter of the state stepping back from the regulation of what can be said. Rather, it is a kind of violent intervention by which individuals are transformed against their will from narrow-minded and weak-willed subjects, fearfully attached to their old opinions, into more strong-minded and dynamic ones capable of considering a range of views.

For Mill, politics is the art of producing citizens with certain desirable cognitive capacities and emotional qualities. Any particular policy needs to be justified by its contribution to the “mental education” of citizens and its “strengthening [of] their active faculties.” Mill’s ideal citizen is full of energy and ambition, insistent on developing their own opinions and acting according to their own moral standards. Resolutely individual, such citizens differ greatly from each other—they are each conducting personal experiments in living. But they are not irrational or hedonistic, nor do they merely tolerate each other’s different lifestyles. Instead, they are each able to discipline themselves and critique each other. They listen to reason, both in the sense of bridling their own passions and in the sense of appealing to a higher, super-individual logic as they think to themselves and with others about what they ought to do.

These qualities of mind are crucial, Mill claimed, not only to personal flourishing but to the power of the state. Mill argued that censorship and conventions stifle our “feelings and desires.” But if permitted to express themselves in productive competition, our drives and ambitions would contribute to social progress. Feelings and desires, he insisted, are “another name for energy,” and the task of politics is to incite and harness individual energy for social purposes—not to drain that energy away with clichéd moralisms and socially obligatory routines. Individuals with strong impulses should be allowed to lead their own lifestyles, to express their own ideas, and to disagree vociferously with others. Society needs such “strong natures,” which are “the stuff of which heroes are made,” not only because such independent thinkers are the ones who make contributions to the progress of science, technology, and culture, but also because they possess the virtues necessary for leadership. Capable of making choices and setting standards for their own lives, they have the psychological wherewithal to inspire and govern others.

Thus for Mill, citizens with bad characters threaten this process by imposing their small-minded prejudices through legal or social sanctions which prevent the expression of people’s productive energies. Such narrow-minded citizens must be forcibly restrained and made to become the kind of magnanimous people who can participate in rational, spirited debate and tolerate living alongside those who do not share their views or ways of living. Those with good characters and energy must be helped to become still more virtuous, and even heroic. They must contribute to society’s progress with their ideas and provide leadership in all those fields—from education to the military to politics—in which such energetic, autonomous and responsible personalities are necessary. They must only be limited or restrained where their ambitions start to conflict with the full expression of the productive drive of others to the detriment of the whole. Liberalism, from this point of view, is a series of techniques for restraining bad characters, rewarding good ones, creating productive competition, and teaching citizens how they can be both most authentically individual and usefully social. 

Few of Mill’s modern commentators in the West have caught the importance of this point. Perhaps the sharpest observer to have done so is the American philosopher Elijah Millgram. He notes in his 2019 book John Stuart Mill and the Meaning of Life, that Mill argued for liberal “policies and institutional innovations” because of the “effects that they would have on people’s characters.” Liberalism, with its focus on restraints on the state’s interference in people’s private lives, was not as such a means of setting individuals free from social control. Rather, it allowed them to contribute to social and economic progress through the removal of harmful restraints and the transformation of individuals into “strong-willed agents.” Their energies, released from convention and censorship, would also ultimately contribute to the power of the very state from which they had only seemed to be emancipated.

Yan captured the essence of Mill’s insights. His understanding of Mill’s inner teaching was expressed in a number of ways, including his translation of key terms from English to Chinese. For example, as Max Ko-Wu Huang notes, Yan translated the concept of “individuality,” so central to Mill’s thinking, with a number of Chinese terms that stress his understanding of individuality as a kind of moral power. Yan sometimes translated “individuality” as tecao duxing (“a distinctive personal bearing and independence of behavior”), or teli duxing zhi shi (“an educated person who stands and acts on his own”) or haojie feichang zhi ren (“an extraordinary, heroic person”). Huang notes that Yan borrowed the latter two terms from the Confucian Book of Rites and the writings of Mencius, the ancient philosopher who was Confucius’s great intellectual heir. These terms “were widely used to indicate a person’s moral autonomy…defining the ideal character the Chinese ought to pursue.”

This was no simple adjustment of liberal individualism to Chinese tradition. In our cultural stereotypes, we may imagine the West as a civilization of individualistic, self-directed people who pursue their personal ambitions and pleasures, in contrast to the collectivism and conformism of Confucian societies. However, Mill’s point, amplified in Yan’s additions to the original text, was that “individuality” is not just a set of eccentricities, but a force by which one takes responsibility for one’s own life and exerts oneself to attain an ideal.

Like Mill, Yan feared that cultural norms and state censorship were holding back individuals from expressing new ideas, experimenting with new ways of living and institutions, and seeing themselves as responsible agents. A culture and state organized on the principle of conformity to static norms, he worried, suppressed people’s dynamism.  It thus suppressed their ability both to contribute to the economic and scientific progress of their society and to constitute themselves as magnanimous, public-spirited citizens. People afraid of officials’ or neighbors’ judgments about their opinions and lifestyles would lead small, narrow, timid lives and never activate their inner energies that might have made their nation stronger.  Such people respond to social pressure, Yan warned, “by rejecting their own talents and eventually they have no talents to reject. So the unique talents heaven blessed them with dry up…We follow the common practices throughout our lifetimes and then pass away…To live this way is to lack a self.”

Living in conformity to others’ expectations not only suppresses freedom and happiness, but also the capacity to contribute to society in ways that go beyond established convention. Yan argued that “making myself good and so helping others becoming increasingly good thus depends on morally independent action, as opposed to becoming corrupted by convention.” We should not understand Yan’s understanding of being “good” as the mere following of social rules, which he identified with corrupt conventions; instead, it refers to being good for a range of activities, pursued with the highest possible degree of individual initiative and personal responsibility. Only someone who is good for their own pursuits in such a way can also be good for their society.

Yan presented these concerns in a combination of Darwinian and traditional Chinese discourses that might be jarring for contemporary Western liberals. After describing how an illiberal society ruins personal happiness and prevents people from freely developing their talents, he asked rhetorically whether this was any way for a society “to make itself fit for the struggle for survival, for a person to pursue the True Way by which people should live?”

We are not used to thinking of liberalism as offering individuals a “True Way,” and often see it as based instead on a resolute neutrality or even indifference towards the common good. Yan, however, like Mill, believed that the point of political freedom was to allow people to discover and productively follow their own natures as far as this was consistent with other people doing the same, and that only under such conditions can people lead an authentic moral life, responsible for their own opinions and actions. Developing this internal ethical core of agency is the “True Way.” From this perspective, liberalism is not a refusal to legislate morality, but precisely an effort to compel citizens to pursue a vision of the good, understood as a certain ideal of character.

Reopening the Classics With New Machines

It is disorienting to think of liberalism’s individual rights, freedom of speech, and culture of tolerance as a means to state power rather than emancipation from it. Thinking through the implications of this change in perspective requires a shift akin to that which was demanded of Qing dynasty intellectuals towards their own Confucian traditions. For Yan, studying Western ideas did not mean abandoning China’s intellectual heritage, but it did mean seeing that heritage in new ways. Yan had ruined his prospects for employment under Zhang Zhidong by criticizing the latter’s formula Zhongti-Xiyong (Chinese essence, Western technique), in which specific Western scientific and technological innovations could be adopted without challenging the civilizational core of traditional Confucianism. Yan, in contrast, argued: “With regard to the ancient doctrines, some of them are unchanging principles and some of them are useful only under certain circumstances…the most durable and flawless political theory is found in the works of Confucius. The Four Books and the Five Classics are like abundant mines; nevertheless, we have to use new machines to open them up.” Western political theory, properly interpreted, was a hermeneutic tool for reinterpreting the Confucian canon.

In a similar spirit, Benjamin Schwartz, a historian of Chinese intellectual history at Harvard, insisted in his pioneering 1964 biography of Yan Fu that the latter’s interpretation of liberalism had the power to shatter our complacent understanding of our own political traditions. When Westerners look outward to the non-Western world, Schwartz noted, we imagine that we are shifting our gaze from the familiar to the foreign. In fact, we hardly know ourselves. We live in a “deceptive clarity” about the “inner meaning of modern Western development.”But insofar as one can even speak of “the West,” this civilization is not so much a coherent entity as a site of contending forces in a dynamic tension.

If the West is, as Schwartz argued, a “vast, ever-changing, highly problematic area of human experience,” then any attempt to understand it is also an intervention in its ongoing transformation. Its history is too extensive and varied to be expressed in any synthesis, however nuanced. This means that any attempt at such a synthesis must emphasize particular elements and neglect others. The choice of what to emphasize and what to neglect in one’s story about what the West is and how it got that way is necessarily a political choice, recognizing and validating some of the West’s possibilities at the expense of alternatives. If we climb to the vantage point of Yan Fu’s writings, it is not so much because his work offers a more objective or comprehensive view of the West in all its complexity, but because it orients our attention to aspects of Western civilization that are particularly useful for the present moment, as the West comes to face an analogous situation to late Qing China. To see oneself with the help of the other is an opportunity both to know oneself and to transform oneself.

From this perspective, the question that liberals such as Mill and Yan have been trying to answer is not, how to protect individuals from the power of the state, but rather how to increase the power of individuals and the state in a dangerous world. The liberalism of the modern West no longer seems to produce the kind of dynamic, independent-minded agents that Mill and Yan expected it to. Indeed, Westerners—and especially young elites in prestigious Western universities—seem increasingly conformist and censorious. 

If Mill and Yan are right, such censorious personalities are not capable of competently managing institutions and ensuring social and economic progress in a world full of rival states. The challenge for Western liberals is, with Yan’s help, to reinterpret the sources of our tradition, just as he reinterpreted Confucianism with the help of Mill. With both liberal ideology and institutions in potentially terminal decline, Yan’s words on the Confucian classics apply to the liberal canon as well: we have to use new machines to open them up.

Liberalism’s perennial but long-concealed imperative was to produce virtuous individuals who could contribute both to the good of society and the dynamism of the state, precisely because they are liberated from the censorship and conformity that the latter may impose. Even if the West maintains a firmly liberal self-conception through our coming crisis, it can and should be a liberalism of heroic action unleashed from small-minded censorship and procedural restraint, rather than the inertia that has come to characterize our society, as it did imperial China in its decline. Yan Fu failed in his quest for good government and liberal reform in late Qing China, but he could still succeed in the West.

Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, a historian of modern Europe, and translator of contemporary francophone fiction.