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.