Translation of “Enlightenment” in Late Qing and Republican China Political Thought

My research as a Fulbright grantee at Harvard University concerns the appropriation of political terminology from the West in late Qing and Republican China. Here is a small section of my work, to give an idea of the research my Fulbright grant supports.

In recent research, LuoZhitian 羅志田 has argued that during the integration of Western culture, modern China showed some ambiguity in the translation and utilization of imported words. Most understanding towards European historical events took place either through literal translation or through definitionof the meanings of terms, such as “qimeng yundong”(used most often to correspond to ‘Enlightenment’) andit became a core idea of the Chinese translation.The widespread usage of the word “qimeng yundong”started in the late 1920s, and hasbeen widely usedsince then. Most sinophone usage of “qimeng yundong”, refers to its meaning in the Chinese context rather than its original reference to the Enlightenment in European history.

      “qimeng+ “yundong” =qimeng yundong

Three prevalent meanings circulated within the intellectual field of the late Qing dynasty for the term “yundong,”(運動), which could be translated ‘movement’ in Chinese today. The first meaning refers to physical movementor exercise form, the second “yundong”refers to movement relevant to the observer, as adescription of the observation of the object,such as mechanical movement or the movement of heavenly bodies,while the last meaning refers to the meaningful social activities or propagandas among the peers, which resembles to the presentsocial action. According to Rudolf G. Wagner, “yundong”became a globalized conceptof social action afterthe May Fourth Movement. Lydia Liu further points out that “yundong”was a loan word from Japanese. It is thus likely that “qimeng yundong”= “qimeng”+ “yundong”actually originated from Japanese usage. Additionally, “qimeng yundong”has retained an element of the classical Chinese usage of “qimeng”, despite primarily being a modern Chinesenew-coined termthrough Japanese medium.

As for the use of “qimeng yundong”in the historical literature of late Qing dynasty, it was sometimes described as the causefor French Revolution, for example in WangTao’s王韜(1828-1897)The Revised Edition of the Distract Annals of France 重訂法國志略(1890): “in the year 1774, Louis XV of France passed away from disease; his grandchild Louis XVI of France inherited the crown. Thereafter Louis XVI centrally occupied the powers and wasted the [state] fortune. This blameworthy behavior had provoked and triggered many famous intellectuals to write and protest against him, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. Their protests against Louis XVI were so persuasive and intriguing that many people joined their party.”This is the common description of Enlightenment in the literature of late Qing dynasty. Late Qing intellectuals did not realize that the European Enlightenmentwas a special historical eventor historical period, and they were not awareof the fundamental diversity inherent within what is known as the European Enlightenment.

As mentioned earlier, “qimeng yundong”termoriginally was a Japanese word imported into China. According to Douglas Howland, until 1870 there were no equivalents of “Enlightenment” in Japanese texts.However, there was “enlightened開化”recorded in Iwakura Tomomi’s 岩倉具視 (1825-1883) diary in 1871, who described Great Britain as an “enlightened civilization.”The early Meiji intellectuals rendered “enlightened”with the same word as “civilization 文明.”In 1886, JapaneseEnglish Dictionary; with an English and Japanese Index 和英語林集成 by James Curtis Hepburn (1815-1911), he referred to “Enlightenment”as “Bunmei”(civilization 文明) as a second translation.

In 1912, Inoue Tetsujiro introduced the German term“Aufklärung”as a reference to “Enlightenment,”and described it as the “elimination of superstition,”however, he only addressed the intellectual coreof the “Enlightenment,”but did not use this termto describe “Enlightenment”as Europeanhistorical eventor historical period. Therefore, Douglas Howland concludedthat the Japanese term “Keimo” (Enlightenment 啓蒙) was a 20th century invention. Douglas Howland haddescribedthe circulation of the idea of “Enlightenment” within the coterie of Meiji intellectuals. However, he neglected the fact that prior to the mid-late Meiji times, there was one scholar who already translated the German term“Aufklärung”into “Enlightenment,”and further referred it to the famous 18th century European Enlightenment. This scholar was Onishi Hajime 大西祝 (1864-1900), sometimes known as the Japanese Kant. His famous work AHistory of Western Philosophy 西洋哲學史 (1895) illustrated how the 18th century French intellectualtrend was vividly affected by the 17th century Great Britain intellectual movements, and he usedthe term “Enlightenment” to describe the intellectual transformation France was undertaking. After the publication of thisbook, Onishi Hajime published another articlein 1897 named “On the Spirit of the Enlightenment.”In this article, he explained the original source of the term“Enlightenment”and referred it to the German “Aufklärung.”Onishi Hajime indicated that there was a tight connection and affinitybetween the Japanese Meiji restoration and 18th century French Enlightenment.

Entering the period of Republican China, in 1919, Chen Qun 陳羣 ( 1890-1945), a former Chinese student studying in Japan, wrote an article on the development of European literature in the 19thcentury, translating Enlightenment into “qimeng shidai 啓蒙時代.”This translation is the earliest usage of Enlightenment in Republican China.  In 1925’s Xueheng 學衡, we could find an article written by Irving Babbitt. The translator of this article chose to use “kaiming yundong” to signify the intellectual activity in the 18th century Europe. In addition, we also could find the usage of “qiming yundong 啓明運動” in the literature of Republican China. In 1940, famous philosopher Zhu Qianzhi 朱謙之 used this translation in his work. He further explained the 18th centuryas “the age of philosophy 哲學的時代.” The philosophers in this milieu, according to his translation, should be known as “qiming zhuyi zhe 啓明主義者.” Quite obviously, then, one could find various translations of Enlightenment in modern Chinese context. These different translations prove the “polyphonic” condition of “qimeng yundong” in modern China. We could conclude that the concept and meaning of Enlightenment was at least partially understood by 1920s Chinese intellectuals, but the common usage of the present “qimeng yundong” to refer both to the European Enlightenment and to aspirations for a Chinese Enlightenment, was not firmly established.

Good pieces need to be seen.


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Chien-Shou Chen 陳建守

Chien-Shou Chen 陳建守

Chien-shou Chen is the PhD candidate at National Taiwan University and is currently visiting fellow at Fairbank Center, Harvard University. Chien-shou Chen will be working on his dissertation, "The Making of Historical Terms: the Transmission and Appropriation of 'Renaissance' and 'Enlightenment' in Late Qing and Republican China." This project explores how the Western concepts of the “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment” have been absorbed and appropriated in modern China, and how these concepts have, in turn, been transformed into an internal intellectual resource.  This project also probes the social context and time framework surrounding the terms. Modern Chinese intellectuals who appropriated the terms of the “Renaissance” and the “Enlightenment” used these conceptual terms to express experiences, expectations, and actions in ways that integrate and transcend social class, intellectual spectrum and political faction.

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