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Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 December 2018

Program in History and Philosophy of Science, 453 Geddes Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, 46556, USA. Email:


Darwinian ideas were developed and radically transformed when they were transmitted to the alien intellectual background of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China. The earliest references to Darwin in China appeared in the 1870s through the writings of Western missionaries who provided the Chinese with the earliest information on evolutionary doctrines. Meanwhile, Chinese ambassadors, literati and overseas students contributed to the dissemination of evolutionary ideas, with modest effect. The ‘evolutionary sensation’ in China was generated by the Chinese Spencerian Yan Fu's paraphrased translation and reformulation of Thomas Huxley's 1893 Romanes Lecture ‘Evolution and ethics’ and his ‘Prolegomena’. It was from this source that ‘Darwin’ became well known in China – although it was Darwin's name, rather than his theories, that reached Chinese literati's households. The Origin of Species itself began to receive attention only at the turn of the twentieth century. The translator, Ma Junwu (1881–1940), incorporated non-Darwinian doctrines, particularly Lamarckian and Spencerian principles, into his edition of the Chinese Origin. This partially reflected the importance of the pre-existing Chinese intellectual background as well as Yan Fu's progressive ‘evolutionary paradigm’. In this paper, I will elucidate Ma Junwu's culturally conditioned reinterpretation of the Origin before 1906 by investigating his transformation of Darwin's principal concepts.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2018 

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An earlier version of this paper was presented in the 2017 History of Science Society Annual Meeting, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. For their insightful feedback, I am indebted to Phillip Sloan, Thomas Stapleford, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Grace Shen, Robert Richards and Bernard Lightman. I am also grateful for the valuable comments from my anonymous reviewers, and for the advice and help of Charlotte Sleigh and Trish Hatton throughout the review process. I thank the Interlibrary Loan officers at the library systems of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago for securing copies of the old, rare materials, particularly the copies of Ma Junwu's early translation of the Origin. Appreciation also goes to the Notre Dame Program in History and Philosophy of Science.


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17 Anon., ‘Xiboshi xinzuo renben yishu (A Western doctor's new publication: descent of man)’, Shen bao (21 August 1873) 404, p. 2.

18 On evidential research see Elman, Benjamin, On Their Own Terms, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, Part IIICrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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20 Fryer, op. cit. (19), pp. 6–7.

21 Martin, William, “Xiexue kaolue’ (Brief introduction to Western learning), in Xuxiu siku quanshu (The Continuation Books of Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Works Publishing House, 2002, pp. 739740Google Scholar.”

22 See Møllgaard, Eske J., The Confucian Political Imagination, Berlin: Springer, 2018, pp. 102105CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Elman, op. cit. (18), p. 328.

24 Yang, op. cit. (9), pp. 187–188.

25 Elman, op. cit. (18), pp. 372–375.

26 Fu, Yan, ‘Yuan qiang’, Zhi Bao (4 March 1895) 32, p. 1Google Scholar.

27 Yan, op. cit. (26), p. 1.

28 See Offer, John (ed.), Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments, vol. 2, Abingdon: Routledge, 2004, Part FourGoogle Scholar.

29 Yan, ‘Yuan qiang’, Zhi Bao (5 March 1895) 33, p. 2. See also Zunke, Ke and Bin, Li, ‘Spencer and science education in China’, in Lightman, Bernard (ed.), Global Spencerism, Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 78102, 89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Huxley's 1893 lecture, ‘Evolution and ethics’, was the second in the series of the prominent Romanes Lectures, given annually at Oxford University. Published as an essay in the following year, the forty-one-page lecture is prefaced by a forty-five-page ‘Prolegomena’, supplemented by thirty pages of footnotes exhibiting a remarkable range and depth of knowledge of philosophy in particular. See Himmelfarb, Gertrude, ‘Evolution and ethics, revisited’, New Atlantis (2014) 42, pp. 8187, 83Google Scholar.

31 Fu, Yan, Tianyan lun, 2 vols., Mianyang: Lushi Shenshi Jizhai, 1898, vol. 2, p. 50Google Scholar.

32 Huxley, Thomas, Evolution & Ethics, and Other Essays, London: Macmillan, 1894, 4Google Scholar.

33 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 1, p. 39. Tihe 體合 literally means ‘adjusting the body to meet environmental needs’.

34 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 1, pp. 40–41.

35 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 2, p. 50.

36 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 2, p. 50.

37 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 1, p. 40.

38 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 1, p. 41.

39 Yan, op. cit. (31), vol. 2, p. 50.

40 Jianghong, Han, Yanfu huayu xitong yu jindai zhongguo wenhua zhuanxing (Yan Fu and the Cultural Transformation of Modern China), Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2006, p. 18Google Scholar.

41 Juren, Cao, Zhong guo xueshu sixiang suibi (Essays on Chinese History of Academic Thinking), Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003, p. 112Google Scholar.

42 Shi, Hu, The Autobiography at the Age of Forty, Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing, 2005, p. 93Google Scholar.

43 An eight-legged essay or bagu wen (八股文) is normalized with eight parts – opening, amplification, preliminary exposition, initial argument, central argument, latter argument, final argument and conclusion – breach of which is not allowed. This essay style, in late imperial China, was necessary for passing the imperial examination. See Sun, Weiping and Zhang, Mingcang, The ‘New Culture’: From a Modern Perspective, Berlin: Springer, 2015, 151Google Scholar; see also Elman, Benjamin, Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, Chapter 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 Schwartz, Benjamin, In Search of Power and Wealth, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1964, p. 25Google Scholar.

45 Pusey, op. cit. (6), Chapters 1, 6 and 7, has explored the evolutionary ideas of Kang, Liang and Sun.

46 Pusey, op. cit. (6), p. 19.

47 On the Hundred Days Reform see Karl, Rebecca E., Zarrow, Peter, Belsky, Richard, Hon, Tze-ki and Hu, Ying (eds.), Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asian Center, 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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49 Junwu, Ma, ‘Gui Guilin tuzhong’ (The way back to Guilin) (1900), in Guangxi Council of Ma Junwu's Anniversary (ed.), Ma Junwu Shixuan (The Selected Poems of Ma Junwu), Guilin: The Council for Ma Junwu's Anniversary, 1981, p. 13Google Scholar.

50 Pusey, op. cit. (6), p.154.

51 Hsu, Cho-yun, China: A New Cultural History (tr. Duke, Michael and Baker, Timothy), New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 547CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Quoted in Bergère, Marie-Claire, Sun Yat-sen (tr. Lloyd, Janet), Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 384Google Scholar.

53 Junwu, Ma, ‘Xinpai shengwuxue (ji tianyan xue) jia xiaoshi’, Sein Min Choong Bou (1902) 8, pp. 918Google Scholar.

54 The titles of Wujing pian 物競篇 (On the Struggle for Existence) and Tianze pian 天擇篇 (On Natural Selection) were the direct products of Yan Fu's provocative evolutionary slogans in Tianyan lun, wujing (物競) and tianze (天擇).

55 At the end of his first semester at Kyoto Imperial University (autumn 1903), Ma, then a twenty-three-year-old freshman, published the monograph entitled Daerwen wuzhong youlai, yijuan (Darwin's Origin of Species, vol. 1), which included the translation of the first five chapters and the ‘Historical sketch’. The monograph, priced at one silver dollar, was printed on 1 November 1903, and circulated on 1 December 1903. This was distributed by two companies in Shanghai – Wenming Book Company and Guangyi Book Company. Guangyi Book Company was essentially the propaganda vehicle for Sun Yat-sen's Chinese Revolutionary Alliance. This monograph was then reprinted in 1906, in the summer of which Ma left Kyoto Imperial University, returned to Shanghai, and became the academic dean at the China Public College. Meanwhile he acted, secretly, as the president of Sun Yat-sen's Chinese Revolutionary Alliance's Shanghai Branch.

56 Ma's full translation of the Origin was published by Zhonghua Book Company in September 1920.

57 See Peckham, Morse (ed.), The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006Google Scholar.

58 The first and the second editions could be excluded because Ma translated Darwin's ‘Historical sketch’ which had been added in the third edition in 1861; Ma mentioned both natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’. As is commonly known, Darwin added the Spencerian phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ for the first time to his fifth edition of the Origin (1869). Hence Ma's translation could be of either the fifth or the sixth edition; Chapter 4 of the sixth edition includes a subsection entitled ‘Convergence of character’, which the fifth edition does not. Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, London: John Murray, 1872, p. 101Google Scholar. Ma translated the heading of this subsection as Texing zhi guiyi 特性之歸一 (‘Convergence of character’). Junwu, Ma, Tianze pian, Shanghai: Kaiming Book Company, Wenming Book Company and Guangzhi Book Company, 1902, p. 49Google Scholar.

59 Junwu, Ma, Wujing pian, Shanghai: Kaiming Book Company, Wenming Book Company and Guangzhi Book Company, 1902, p. 2Google Scholar. The original Chinese text is: 變異何謂?請由初始之種以變為良好分明之種也。同是一類之物何能獨與其餘別乎?曰有生命即有競爭,有競爭即變異。其變異甚微,有原因之為先,其種類之一個,因必如是乃能自利也,則自然變異以從之。其變異也,所以自保衛其生命也。種類中之一個既變異,其子孫嗣續又因爭自存之故而益變異焉。其不能變異以適生存者滅絕。

60 Darwin, op. cit. (58), pp. 48–49. The original text is: ‘It may be asked, how is it that varieties, which I have called incipient species, become ultimately converted into good and distinct species, which in most cases obviously differ from each other far more than do the varieties of the same species? How do those groups of species, which constitute what are called distinct genera, and which differ from each other more than do the species of the same genus, arise? All these results, as we shall more fully see in the next chapter, follow from the struggle for life. Owing to this struggle, variations, however slight, and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving’.

61 Vorzimmer, Peter, Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1970, pp. 4546Google Scholar; see also Browne, Janet, Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography, New York: Grove Press, 2008, p. 54Google Scholar.

62 Junwu, Ma, Daerwen wuzhong youlai, vol. 1, Shanghai: Wenming Book Company and Guangyi Book Company, 1906, p. 106Google Scholar; Ma, op. cit. (58), p. 4.

63 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 98.

64 Bowler, Peter, Darwin Deleted, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 245CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 Marwa Elshakry, ‘Spencer's Arabic readers’, in Lightman, op. cit. (29), pp. 35–55, 38.

66 Spencer, Herbert, Social Statics, New York: D. Appleton, 1882, p. 80Google Scholar.

67 Darwin was ambiguous about progress in the ‘descent with modification’; one of the reasons was that the laws of heredity remained unfledged during his lifetime. Steven Gould (1941–2002) and Ernest Mayr (1904–2005) have depicted Darwin's principles as anti-progressivist, a claim that has been utilized to protect the heritage of neo-Darwinism developed in the postmodern synthesis period. Gould claimed, ‘The theory of Natural Selection did not triumph until the 1940s. Its Victorian unpopularity, in my view, lay primarily in its denial of general progress as inherent in the working of evolution. Natural selection is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments. It proposes no perfecting principles, no guarantee of general improvement’. Gould, Steven, Ever since Darwin, New York: W.W. Norton, 1992, p. 45Google Scholar. However, such a viewpoint is rejected by other scholars, like Robert Richards (1942–) and Dov Ospovat (1947–1980). Richards articulates his objection as follows: ‘The historian–scientists [Gould], can, I believe, become too easily beguiled by the power of present scientific theory and consequently imagine that its ancestor theory carried the same logical implications’. Richards, Robert, The Meaning of Evolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 85Google Scholar. Richards, op. cit., p. 89, argues that Darwin thought natural selection would produce even more progressive types. Although Darwin once promised that he would never use the words ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, he did write, in the Origin, ‘modern forms ought, on the theory of natural selection, to stand higher than ancient forms’. Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 308. Nonetheless, the question is: what is higher, or what is Darwin's criterion for judging ‘progressiveness’? A convincing answer is that Darwin might have adopted French zoologist Henri Milne-Edwards's (1800–1885) criterion. See Ospovat, Dov, The Development of Darwin's Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 210221Google Scholar; Nyhart, Lynn, ‘Embryology and morphology’, in Ruse, Michael and Richards, Robert (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to the ‘Origin of Species’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 210212Google Scholar; Richards, op. cit., pp. 141–142. Darwin's idea of progress may also relate to his ‘principle of divergence’. See David Kohn, ‘Darwin's keystone’, in Ruse and Richards, op. cit., p. 87; and Ospovat, op. cit., p. 210.

68 Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste, Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals (trans. Elliot, Hugh), London: Macmillan, 1914, p. 70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Lamarck, op. cit. (68), p. 73.

70 Ospovat, op. cit. (67), p. 213.

71 Ospovat, op. cit. (67), p. 217.

72 Richards, Robert and Ruse, Michael, Debating Darwin, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 157CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Darwin, Charles, The Works of Charles Darwin, vol. 12, New York: New York University Press, 1989, p. 18Google Scholar; see also Richards, op. cit. (67), p. 142.

74 Ospovat, op. cit. (67), p. 218.

75 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 99.

76 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 145. The original Chinese text is: 若極細微之水蟲 [Infusorian animalcule],若腸蟲 [Intestinal worm],若蚯蚓,誠下等生物矣。而自宜于所處之地位而言,則是數者之機體亦可謂之至高。惟至高也,故能仍存於今日而無恙。苟不然者,設是與其處境不宜,而有更良之生物與之爭土,則彼已早為天擇所滅矣。究地質之學,可知極細微水蟲及根足類 [Rhizoids], 二者虽属极下等生物,由初生以至今日,其不变仍能存者甚多。我不能据以为天择病也。

77 Ma, op. cit. (58), p. 20.

78 Ma, op. cit. (58), p. 13.

79 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 14.

80 Ma, op. cit. (62), p.10. The original Chinese text is: 於此得一公理焉,曰物類日益發達,以趨於美善。然物類之展變其微至不可覺察,而由一定之群類以遞進焉。其變也,一循自然,以日進與美善。万類之形色,皆由變化以成其自然之宜。如非洲之芝獵狐 Giraffe, 特戴一長頸者,所以便其食其高樹之叶也。其理解無他解焉,曰自然而已。

81 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 9.

82 Ma, op. cit. (59), p. 2.

83 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 32. For Darwin, the law of correlated growth, borrowed from the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), became one of the explanations for variation; he also cited August Weismann's (1834–1914) theory for explaining the cause of variation; see Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 7.

84 Spencer, op. cit. (66), p. 241.

85 Junwu, Ma, ‘The comparison between socialism and evolutionism’, in Ma, Ma Junwu Ji (The Essays of Ma Junwu) (ed. Shixiang, Mo), Wuhan: Huazhong Normal University Press, 1991, pp. 8393, 86Google Scholar.

86 Ma, ‘The comparison between socialism and evolutionism’, op. cit. (85), p. 90.

87 Ma, ‘The comparison between socialism and evolutionism’, op. cit. (85), p. 86.

88 Ospovat, op. cit. (67), p. 73.

89 Ma, op. cit. (59), p. 1.

90 Schwartz, op. cit. (44), pp. 95–96.

91 Ma, op. cit. (58), p. 2.

92 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 105. The original text is: 莽莽平原,生物繁蕪。好學之士深察其變,見夫變動不居、與地相宜者莫不保存,其劣者莫不消亡。若有法律以判之,司法者以監之者。然其故維何?曰天擇 [natural selection] 或曰最宜者存 [survival of the fittest]。天擇之本然固不覺。此一種為優,彼一種為劣,而一一擇也。大理流行,為生於其中者所不能自外。世間劣種雖繁,莫不為此理所消,其餘存者,惟寥寥然變動不居之種。

93 See Darwin, op. cit. (58), pp. 62–63. The original text is: ‘We may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left either a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in certain polymorphic species, or would ultimately become fixed, owing to the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions’.

94 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 107.

95 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 109.

96 Ma, op. cit. (62), pp. 108, 117.

97 Ma Junwu, ‘On the deterioration of Chinese's morality and its solutions’, in Ma, Ma Junwu Ji, op. cit. (85), pp. 128–135, 128.

98 Ma, op. cit. (62), pp. 139–141. The original Chinese text is: 以A、B、C、D、E、F、G、H、I、K、L代十一物種;其所據之位,如圖字相離之位。諸種錯居,必有變者,有不變者,有勝者,有敗者矣。今以A代變則胜者,於是其種大增。圖中由A發出之虛線,其長不等者,皆甲乙所傳之種…又設如圖中之I,亦善變而能自保之種。歷一萬四千代而傳至n14,v14,y14,w14,x14,z14諸種,是皆能變以自爭存者也。B、C、D、G、H、K、L九種不能變。多間時而滅亡,惟E、F傳種稍久耳。

99 The corresponding text of the rest of Ma Junwu's translation is: ‘Let A to L represent the species of a genus large in its own country; these species are supposed to resemble each other in unequal degrees, as is so generally the case in nature, and is represented in the diagram by the letters standing at unequal distances … Let (A) be a common widely diffused, and varying species, belonging to a genus large in its own country. The branching and diverging dotted lines of unequal lengths proceeding from (A), may represent its varying offspring [Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 90] … In the diagram I have assumed that a second species (I) has produced, by analogous steps, after ten thousand generations, either two well-marked varieties (w10 and z10) or two species, according to the amount of change supposed to be represented between the horizontal lines. After fourteen thousand generations, six new species, marked by the letters n14 to z14, are supposed to have been produced [Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 93] … Species (A) being more nearly related to B, C, and D, than to the other species; and species (I) more to G, H, K, L, than to the others … We may suppose that only one (F), of the two species (E) and (F) which were least closely related to the other nine original species, has transmitted descendants to this late stage of descent [Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 94] … It is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on the character of the new species F14, which is supposed not to have diverged much in character, but to have retained the form of (F), either unaltered or altered only in a slight degree [Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 95]’.

100 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 95.

101 Ma, op. cit. (62), pp. 141–142.

102 Darwin, op. cit. (58), p. 429.

103 Ma, op. cit. (62), p. 108. The original Chinese text is: 各國之居民相聚競爭,其能自存而不敗者,必有相等之力以抵禦外侮。其種類之構造、習俗自微變矣適於與他种相戰爭。變而愈變,無有止期,增己種之利益,以自養以自衛。今天下之國,未有一國能謂其居民已變化盡善而與其地之生活情形咸宜,遂不需改良以進於善也。何以故?無一國可不與他國相交通者,新種之遷來日繁而不可禁,則戰爭無日可止。本土之種而能變新自利乎,可以抵制遷入之新種而無懼矣。

104 Darwin, op. cit. (58), pp. 63–64. The original text is: ‘For as all the inhabitants of each country are struggling together with nicely balanced forces, extremely slight modifications in the structure or habits of one species would often give it an advantage over others; and still further modifications of the same kind would often still further increase the advantage, as long as the species continued under the same conditions of life and profited by similar means of subsistence and defence. No country can be named in which all the native inhabitants are now so perfectly adapted to each other and to the physical conditions under which they live, that none of them could be still better adapted or improved; for in all countries, the natives have been so far conquered by naturalised productions, that they have allowed some foreigners to take firm possession of the land. And as foreigners have thus in every country beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted the intruders’.

105 Elshakry, Marwa, ‘The cultural politics of modern science translations in Arabic’, Isis (2008) 99, pp. 701730, 701CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China
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Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China
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Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China
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