The book, ‘In Search of Wealth and Power – Yen Fu and the West’ is an exceptionally good biographical piece of one of China’s foremost modern intellectual, Yen Fu, written by an equally veteran scholar, Benjamin Schwartz. The writer describes and comments on the various shades of the protagonist. To understand Yen Fu more, readers should know about the time he lived in. Yen Fu was born and brought up at a time when China was at its lowest ebb with the Opium War and also the shocking discovery of another civilization seemingly higher and powerful than theirs. After his encounter with the West due to a brief stint with the Naval Academy in England at an age of 23,Yen Fu, like any young educated thinker began to unearth the reasons why China missed the industrial revolution and what the country can do to enter the exclusive club of wealthy and powerful countries.
In the book, the author explains in detail about the dogmatic faith of Yen Fu i.e. whatever the British uphold is the only model or way to get China out of the poor and sorry state. Though his job was just to translate the works of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Adam Smith and the like, Yen Fu went a little further and interpreted at the cost of distorting the actual context, in order to fit in with the Chinese sensibilities. In other words, this book deals with the convergence and divergence of Yen Fu’s interpretations with the actual works and its rightful context.
The author explains, that Yen Fu sounded more anti-traditionalist when he regarded Confucianism as the stumbling block towards China’s achievement of independence and power. Another instance is Yen Fu’s blatant praise of the Western ‘public spirit’. Benjamin describes how Yen Fu was not only impressed with liberty, growing equality of opportunity, self governance, but also with a value that ‘encompassed and amalgamated all these others’, the value of public spirit. He firmly believed that the miracle of the West (particularly Great Britain) lies in its ability to promote the constructive self interest of the individual, to release individual energies and yet harness these energies towards collective goals. Yen Fu’s confirmation of the ‘public spirit’ as the epitome of social virtues that catapulted England to its zenith comes at the cost of charging the long traditional values of Confucian China as selfish and narrow with very little sources to generate wealth and power.
When observers were set to label him as an anti-traditionalist, he did the unthinkable by condemning the Judeo Christian theology as completely erroneous, which, by the way, forms the foundation of all western virtues. His rejection of the western theology propelled one to think of the dormant influence of Confucianism which advocates non-divinity. This side of his story forbids historians to tag him as an anti-traditionalist and rather define him as man whose western influence could not shed off his innate Confucian upbringing. Nevertheless, the author describes him as a man who tried to do away everything Confucianism with the sole explanation of generating wealth and power in China.
Yen Fu was narrated as spending enormous time analysing the work of Herbert Spencer, who is his all-time favourite mentor. Yen Fu’s take on J S Mill’s liberty, Adam Smith’s wealth of nation, Darwin’s concept on evolution and many others are well discussed in the book and how Yen Fu distorted the text according to his convenience and beliefs has been mentioned vividly by the author.
Benjamin Schwartz’s book is not an easy one to read and one needs to do a little bit of research before reading the book. The arguments could be difficult to understand the first time around. But it is still a great book for those who want to understand and know more about Eastern and Western philosophies.
By Halley Nongmaithem