Darwin the Confucian

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:38 am

As today is Darwin Day I thought I would post something on China’s reception of Darwin’s work. He tended to be confused with Spencer at first, and Elman gives some examples of how his work continued to be misunderstood for a very long time. Still, it is not surprising that Chinese tended to see Darwin through Spencer. Spencer was big in the West, and for those obsessed with the survival of nations rather than the survival of species Spencer would seem more to the point. Yan Fu‘s On Strength first appeared in 1895 and was the first serious account of Darwin published in China.

Darwin is an English biologist. Heir to his family’s scholarly traditions, he traveled around the world as a young man, amassing a rich collection of rare and curious plants and animals. After several decades’ exhaustive and subtle reflection upon them, he wrote The Origin of Species. Since the publication of this book, of which nearly every household in Europe and America now has a copy, there has been a tremendous change in the scholarship, politics, and religion of the West. The claim that the revolution in outlook and intellectual orientation occasioned by Darwin‘s book exceeds that of Newtonian astronomy is hardly an empty one.

His book says that for all their diversity, the species originated from a single source and that their differences developed slowly, for the most part in connec­tion with changes in the environment and an abiding biological tendency to­ward incremental differentiation. Eventually divergence from the remote source led to vast and irreversible differences, but these were brought about by natural processes in later ages and were not inherent in life at its origins.

Two chapters of the book are particularly noteworthy. . . . One is called “Competition” and the other, “Natural Selection.” “Competition” refers to the struggle of things to survive, and “Natural Selection” is the retention of the fit. The idea is that people and things exist in profusion, surviving on what the natural environment provides, but when they encounter others, peoples and things struggle over the means of survival. At first species struggled with species, and when they advanced somewhat, one group (jun) struggled with another.

Not bad, in my opinion, although I think he may overestimate Darwin’s sales figures a bit. At the end of this reading he is already leaving Darwin’s interest in species to look at the competition among “groups.” Here he is pretty clearly influenced by Spencer



Upcoming Asian History Carnival

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:05 am

I’ll be posting the 19th Asian History Carnival at Frog in a Well – Korea on the evening of February 14th, Seoul time. Learn more about the Asian History Carnival here.

Nominate posts for the carnival here or use the tag http://del.icio.us/tag/ahcarnival/. If you find useful online resources related to Asian history you can tag them with http://del.icio.us/tag/ahresources

I am also really hoping we’ll get some volunteers to host the next few carnivals. Please send me an email at kmlawson at froginawell.net if you are interested in hosting the next carnival, which will be held, ideally, April 4th, with the next one on June 6th.

Comparative Colonialism-Taiwan

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:06 am

 Japan Focus has a nice article by Anne Booth on Japanese colonialism in Taiwan (and Korea) The standard view is that the post-war development of both places has a lot to do with the economic transformation created under colonialism. Booth compares Taiwan and South Korea to the European colonies in S.E. Asia and finds very little systematic difference. Yes, Taiwan did double its value added in agriculture, and both places were insulated from the Great Depression more than the European colonies, but the Japanese colonies do not consistently stand out. She looks at a lot of other data, but here are her 1938 GDP per capita figures

Philippines 1522

Korea        1459

Malaya      1361

Taiwan      1302

Indonesia  1175

Thailand      826

Burma         749

I don’t have much to say about it, but it is an interesting paper.

Via Michael Turton


Obama for Minister of the Left

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:01 pm

Some historians have gone so far as to endorse Barak Obama for the office of President of the United States. Lots of people who seem to have very little affinity with the policy positions Obama has advanced on his website find him to be attractive. How can this be? Is not democratic politics a matter of picking the candidate whose policy positions you find most compatible and then voting for them?

Well, yes and no. At least some of choosing a president is choosing a symbol of the nation. Thus the suitably of a candidate to be a flattering self-reflection is also important. Most of the time we Americans select our politicians (if we give the matter any thought at all) on what promises they make and what things they say they will do. The moral qualities of an official are not something we worry about too much. On the other hand, we do occasionally tend to think some politicians are more than just a set of checkmarks on a list of policies1 but rather symbols of whatever an American is (Kennedy and Reagan come to mind)
Americans seem to have problem with this, as our political language is not well suited to this type of talk. Jounalists do ask, incessantly, the silly question of which candidate you would most like to have a beer with2 I think Dukakis ran an ad pointing out that politicians and beer buddies are not the same thing.

In China things are a bit easier, in part because one does not need to worry about electing leaders all the time and in part because traditionally Chinese politics had a lot to do with moral qualities. One of these is friendship, which is both one of the five bonds of Confucianism and crucial to understanding much of Chinese political history. Somebody said that nations do not have permanent friends, only permanent interests, but members of the Chinese elite did have friends. Wyatt talks a lot about the role of friendship in The Recluse of Loyang, a study of Shao Yung (1011-1077) whose political role in the Song centered around his friendship with powerful men and their desire to be friends with a man like Shao Yung. As Shao put it in a 1074 poem

A man mustn’t seek his reflection in flowing water;

He must seek it in water that is still.

Flowing water has no fixed form,

While still water provides a fixed entity.

[But] neither should a man seek his reflection in water [at all].

He should seek his reflection in other men.

Water’s mirror may show a man’s face,

But a human mirror exposes a man’s spirit.

(Wyatt)This poem encapsulates a code that is simultaneously exclusionist and yet immanently social. Shao the recluse could not conceive of passing through life alone; still, he was unwilling to settle for anything less than full perfectibility in his prime relationships.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of Obama by this website, Shao Yung, or myself, but I think this poem does a lot to explain the Obama phenomena. Much better to look in the mirror and see Obama then to see (insert name here.) I suspect that democratic politics in China, if it ever comes to be, will be rather different than that in the U.S.

For Su Fei’s Chinese take on American politics look here.

  1. As Mitt Romney is discovering []
  2. Bush, obviously. Being rich he would pay and as he does not drink I would get both beers. []

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