Darwin in China, 1870-1935

Doctoral Dissertation


Darwinian principles do not develop in isolation from the people who use them. 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, instead, generated by Yan Fu’s (1854-1921) Tianyan Lun, a paraphrased translation of Huxley’s 1893 Romanes Lecture “Evolution and Ethics” and the “Prolegomena,” with extensive commentaries.

From this source “Darwin” became famous in China—albeit it was Darwin’s name, rather than his theory, that reached Chinese literati’s households. The Origin of Species began to receive attention only at the turn of the twentieth century. The translation process was haphazard between 1902 and 1920, with the full text of the sixth edition of the Origin published only in September 1920. The translator, Ma Junwu (1881-1940), originally had incorporated non-Darwinian doctrines, particularly Lamarckian, Spencerian and Huxleian principles, into his early translation of a portion of the Origin (before 1906). In part his work reflected the importance of the pre-existing Chinese intellectual background, particularly the progressive evolutionary paradigm presented in Tianyan Lun. I will elucidate Ma Junwu’s culturally-conditioned reinterpretation of Darwin’s Origin (before 1906), and situate his transformation of Darwin’s principal concepts within China’s broad historical context of the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were not a golden age for the reception of Darwinism. Historians developed the descriptor— the “eclipse of Darwinism”— to explain the state of affairs prior to the “modern evolutionary synthesis.” However, the “eclipse,” if it did happen, never delayed the pace of the development of biology in China. This explores the development of science, particularly biology, by describing the establishment of the Science Society of China in June 1914, and its official publication, Kexue (Science), which remained the major, if not the only, intellectual site for Chinese biologists to debate Darwinism in the 1910s. This study illuminates the dissemination of evolutionary ideas through the creative discussions in Kexue in the 1910s to test the hypothesis of an “eclipse” in a Chinese context and seek a possible answer to the question of why Chinese biologists had little interest in the translation of the Origin in the 1910s.

However, Ma Junwu, who was a chemist rather than a biologist, resumed his translation in the late 1910s, eventually publishing it in 1920. The differences between Ma’s first period of translation (before 1906) and that of the second period (1918-1920) are notable. In 1920, Ma judiciously resisted the progressive transformism in Tianyan Lun, and conveyed, relatively precisely, the original Darwinian principles in his new translation.

Ma’s complete Origin fulfilled one of the most substantial criteria of translation, that is, fidelity to the original text. However, it did not generate an evolution sensation like that Tianyan Lun had aroused. The Chinese Origin was published at a moment when the “eclipse” was still dominant, which partially explains why the Western-trained Chinese biologists did not respond enthusiastically to this publication.

Nonetheless, this disinterest in orthodox Darwinism did not deter the institutionalization of biology in China. A majority of Chinese universities established their biology departments in the 1920s, most of which were staffed or led by Western-trained biologists; meanwhile, China’s first biological research institution was established in 1922. That institutionalization of biology in China opened a new page for the reception of Darwinism in China. The “Eclipse of Darwinism” gradually faded away in the 1930s. Chinese biologists continued to be trained in the West, and a new age of biology, in China, was on its way.


Attribute NameValues
Author Xiaoxing Jin
Contributor Phillip Sloan , Research Director
Contributor Thomas Stapleford , Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline History and Philosophy of Science
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
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Defense Date
  • 2019-03-21

Submission Date 2019-04-08
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

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