The Meaning of Freedom: Yan Fu and the Origins of Chinese Liberalism (review)
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Reviewed by
Max Ko-wu Huang. The Meaning of Freedom: Yan Fu and the Origins of Chinese Liberalism. Foreword by Thomas A. Metzger. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2008. 408 pp. Hardcover $64.95, ISBN 978-9-629-96278-4.

Yan Fu (1854–1921) was a pivotal Chinese thinker and translator of great influence in the intellectual history of China. He was responsible for introducing modern Western thought into China’s intellectual discourse through his translations, but Max Huang’s volume is no mere intellectual biography. In that he deals with a multitude of complex issues with nuance and subtlety, this multifaceted work of intellectual history is not easily characterized or summarized. His major argument is that Yan Fu’s thought had a basic continuity with Chinese tradition that decisively shaped his understanding and misunderstandings of the European books he translated and commented upon. Therefore, unlike the still common image of a Yan as someone who rejected his Confucian core heritage in favor of a worldview based primarily on Western values, Huang sees a Yan whose ever-vital Confucian (and Daoist) heritage was a (or the) fundamental part of a new worldview that also incorporated Western values.

The book might also be characterized as an expansion and elaboration in both scope and methodology of Huang’s previous Chinese-language books on Liang Qichao and on Yan Fu. This English-language book incorporates and strengthens their arguments excellently. For instance, fundamental to Huang’s book on Liang Qichao1 is the distinction between transformative and accommodative thinking, developed and utilized by his mentor Thomas A. Metzger.2 In modern China, this is similar to the distinction between the utopian revolutionary and gradualist reformist traditions. The epitome of the former would be Mao Zedong and of the latter would be, perhaps, Liang Qichao, the founder of the twentieth-century reformist accommodative approach. Huang submitted that twentieth-century mainstream intellectuals tended toward the former, while rejecting the latter. Recapitulating his interpretation of Liang (pp. 42–45) in The Meaning of Freedom, Huang links this distinction with that of Rousseauian revolutionary tradition and the liberalist tradition of John Stuart Mill, one of the classic European thinkers whose works Yan translated. Yan himself advocated an accommodative, gradualist approach. Huang claims that Millian liberalism failed in China because of these [End Page 194] same traditional forces, and how these forces were a factor the twentieth-century Chinese intelligentsia’s proclivity for transformative, revolutionary solutions to China’s problems.

Western liberal thinkers, and post-Descartian Western thought in general, tend to be increasingly epistemologically pessimistic; modern Western classical liberal political theorists, such as Mill, have been relatively pessimistic about human nature and have been greatly heedful of its dark, selfish side. The dominant Mencian tradition of Confucian thought, however, tends to assume the best about human nature and its perfectibility, while making the assumption that absolute truth and moral standards exist objectively and can be ascertained through education and self-cultivation. These prevented Yan from fully grasping Mill’s essential meaning. The Chinese traditional assumptions also inclined Yan toward positive freedom (a convergence of individual and state interests) rather than Mill’s emphasis on negative freedom.3

In his 1998 Chinese-language book on Yan Fu,4 which, like The Meaning of Freedom, concentrates on Yan’s translations of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty,5 Huang argued that, contrary to Benjamin I. Schwartz’s position in his authoritative classic 1964 work,6 Yan did, indeed, view the freedom and dignity of the individual as ends in themselves, not as mere means to statist ends.

I think Huang’s concern, like the majority of offshore Chinese intellectuals for the last sixty years and now a burning concern of intellectuals on the mainland, is the possibility of an emergence of a Chinese liberal, democratic society and state. This was clearly on the minds of many Chinese intellectuals, even if they did not publish on it.7 This topic, in various guises, has been the subject (or, more often, subtext) of many historical studies by Chinese historians over the past eighty years. Often these studies looked to the compatibility or incompatibility of traditional Chinese thought and...