Feng Guifen vs Yan Fu

Towards the end of class today, we read two documents expressing the two different perspectives of implementing technology into the Chinese culture. The first author we read was Feng Guifen, who made an argument that the Chinese should adopt Western technology and sciences while keeping true to their Chinese values, such as Confucianism. He believed that the Chinese had the superior intellect compared to the “barbarians,” and that they needed to figure out a way to use it to add onto the already established “methods” of the Westerners. While he did acknowledge them and their effective ways, he still downplayed their intelligence in reference to that of his own people. On the contrary, Yan Fu suggested that such an integration of technologies and sciences from the West could not mix successfully with the culture and already-valued traditions of Chinese culture. He said “If the two are separated, each can be independent;” but “if the two were combined, both would perish.” He felt that if Western technology were to be borrowed, then the Western government, sciences, etc. would also have to be adopted. Throughout the 19 and 20th centuries, it was a widely debated topic amongst Chinese thinkers. To this day, it is still a heavily debated topic as well. We did not get the opportunity to talk about this debate that much in class today, so I was wondering, what is everyone else’s thoughts on it?

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5 Responses to Feng Guifen vs Yan Fu

  1. Trevor J says:

    Alex, I am glad that you decided to continue this discussion! While Feng Guifen’s argument does have some legitimacy, I believe that a country can’t simply adopt another country’s more advanced technologies and sciences without there being a large social effect on the people of that country. As Thomas Paine says, “Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.” The power of technology, and science is a beacon of light in an otherwise dark, and meaningless existence. The knowledge that people gain from the utilization of the sciences and greater technologies helps to expel ignorance, which consequentially leads to the masses questioning the world around them. As shown in the enlightenment, science/technology leads to societal progress, thus if more advanced sciences and technologies were brought to a less progressive country there would be inevitable progress in the way people think. A perfect example of this is North Korea today. The North Korean government constantly puts technological barriers in front of its people so that they will remain in the dark, and ignorant of Western ideas/thinking, which would result in progressive thinking and possibly revolution. North Korea is just one example, however, and many others exist in the Middle East, as well as China. Although it is definitely possible to adopt different forms of technology and science without losing the essence of who you are, it is at the same time impossible to do so without any societal change occurring.

  2. sweiswasser2015 says:

    Alex and Trevor, while I definitely agree with your theories on inevitable progress as a result of the utilization of sciences and technology, I think that this change is in fact ironic. According to Feng Guifen’s theories on the utilization of western sciences and technologies, Guifen essentially states that in order to preserve traditionalism in China and protect China from westerners by overcoming the “barbarians”, China must adopt certain western technologies and elaborate on them to better protect traditional Chinese culture and society. For instance, in: “On the Adoption of Learning” by Feng Guifen, Mr. Guifen states: “What could be better than to take Chinese ethical principles of human relations and Confucian teachings as the foundation, and supplement them with the techniques of wealth and power of the various nations?” Mr. Guifen here explains that to better enforce Confucian teachings, the Chinese should use the techniques of wealth and power, in other words using knowledge from Confucianism and applying it to power and governing, an idea inspired by the Enlightenment in the west. It is therefore quite ironic that Mr. Guifen is essentially stating that in order to further benefit China and preserve Chinese traditionalism, the Chinese should adopt western techniques.

  3. Heather Milke says:

    I agree with Yan Fu and his belief that if Western technology and the traditional ideas of Chinese culture mixed that both would collapse. China’s traditional culture is largely based on Confucianism. Similar to what Trevor was talking about, in order for Western technology to become part of a society, that society has to have the same western beliefs too. In Document M, Yan Fu mentions that “Westerners consider that daily progress should be endless, and that what has already been prosperous will not decline.” We talking about this quote expressing the Enlightenment ideal of constant progress. If China is adapting Western technology in order to achieve the constant progress and other Enlightenment ideas, then fundamental Enlightenment beliefs about liberty and equality must be adapted too. These fundamental principles of the Enlightenment go against the very hierarchal beliefs of Confucianism, and therefore Confucianism cannot exist under these Western Enlightenment ideals. I agree with Trevor that two different cultures that are based on different sets of beliefs cannot merge successfully because the incorporation of one culture would cause the fundamental beliefs of the other to change.

  4. Will says:

    It is an interesting question you pose, Alex. It raises the relationship between ti (the foundation of Chinese society) and yong (technology and innovation) in Chinese culture. Are ti and yong inextricably intertwined? Does changing the yong ultimately affect the ti in a negatively? Feng Guifen did not think so, in fact, he even believed that Western yong could only improve the Chinese ti. In “On the Adoption of Chinese Learning” Guifen rhetorically asked, “What could be better than to take Chinese ethical principles of human relation and Confucian teachings as the foundation, and supplement them with the techniques of wealth and power of the various nations?” I agree with Guifen – I think that employing and adopting western technology in Chinese society would not destroy Confucian ideals, but would rather enhance and stabilize Chinese life. In turn, this could help to prevent a break from traditional Confucianism because in a stable and prosperous society, there would be little need or desire for change. Yan Fu argued the opposite belief in his “Learning from the West.” Fu stressed, “The foundation and the use mean the same thing,” and that Chinese and Western “knowledge” have their own specific niches, that are immutable, when it comes to “foundation and function.” I personally believe that this was a rather myopic belief that stemmed from Chinese ethnocentrism which inhibited the Chinese people’s ability to advance and improve their own society by drawing on the achievements of other cultures. This sentiment is clearly displayed in Emperor Qianlong’s edict to George III, where it is made clear that the Chinese believed they were superior to the Europeans and that their culture and society could not possibly be improved by “barbarians.” In retrospect, however, I believe that had the Chinese been willing to incorporate some of the Western yong into their culture they would have flourished and even potentially bypassed the large period of time when they were subjugated to European powers and spheres of influence.

  5. Madison says:

    Alex,
    Your post about balancing Western technology and ideology with Chinese culture actually came up during my spring break. I went with the Marine Biology research team from the University of Miami on a day-long trip to study sharks and their behavior. One of the researchers on the trip mentioned to me how shark populations are endangered especially in and near Chinese fishing waters because of Chinese cultural traditions. Shark Fin Soup, a delicacy in China, is becoming more and more popular. According to the biologist, the soup used to be only served to the select few who could afford it but a rising bourgeoisie class has begun to enjoy this delicacy as well. As a result, more and more sharks are captured and killed for their fins. Here, the Chinese cultural tradition conflicts with Western ideology of protecting this endangered animal. The conflict between cultural traditions and Western technology and ideology is still prevalent today.

    For more information about the shark program, visit: http://rjd.miami.edu/

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