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Book Review: In Search Of Wealth And Power-Yen Fu And The West

The book, ‘In Search of Wealth and Power – Yen Fu and the West’ is a superlatively well researched biographical piece of one of China’s foremost modern intellectual, Yen Fu, written by veteran scholar, Benjamin Schwartz. In the book, the writer describes intricately the various shades of the protagonist. To understand Yen Fu more, readers were enlightened about the time the protagonist lived in. Yen Fu was born and brought up at a time when China was at its lowest ebb with the Opium War and the fateful discovery of another civilization seemingly higher and more powerful. With a brief stint at the Naval Academy in England under his belt at the young age of 23, Yen Fu began to unearth and examine the reasons why China missed the industrial revolution and what it can do to enter the exclusive club of the wealthy powers.

In the book, the author explains in detail about the dogmatic faith of Yen Fu i.e. whatever the British uphold is the only model or way to get China out of the poor and sorry state. Though his job was just to translate the works of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Adam Smith and the like, Yen Fu is said to go a little further and had interpreted at the cost of distorting the actual context, in order to fit in with the Chinese sensibilities. In other words, this book deals with the convergence and divergence of Yen Fu’s interpretations with the actual works and its rightful context.

The author explains in his Book ‘In Search of Wealth and Power – Yen Fu and the West’ that Yen Fu sounded more anti-traditionalist when he regarded Confucianism as the stumbling block towards China’s way to wealth and power. Another instance is Yen Fu’s blatant praise of the Western ‘public spirit’ and its ability to promote the constructive self interest of the individual. Yen Fu’s affirmation of the ‘public spirit’ as the epitome of social virtues that catapulted England to its zenith came at the cost of relegating the long traditional values of Confucian China as selfish and narrow with little sources to generate wealth and power.

When observers were set to label him as an anti-traditionalist, he did the unthinkable by condemning the Judeo Christian theology as completely erroneous, which formed the foundation of all western virtues. His rejection of the western theology propelled one to think of the dormant influence of Confucianism which advocates non-divinity. This side of his story forbade historians to tag him as an anti-traditionalist but rather define him as a man whose western influence could not shed off his innate Confucian upbringing. Nevertheless, the author described him as a man who tried to do away everything Confucianism with the sole explanation of generating wealth and power for China.

The book also said that Yen Fu spent enormous time analysing the work of Herbert Spencer, who was supposedly his all-time favourite mentor. Yen Fu’s take on J S Mill’s liberty, Adam Smith’s wealth of nation, Darwin’s concept on evolution and many others are well discussed in the book and how Yen Fu distorted the text according to his convenience and beliefs has been mentioned vividly by the author.

Benjamin Schwartz’s book is a great book for those who want to understand and know more about East and Western philosophies as well as the intellectual currents that ran in China during Opium war and the aftermath.