Saturday, 21 November 2009

Charles Darwin Inspired Chinese Revolutionists

Charles Darwin’s ideas inspired Chairman Mao. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

Nature continues its celebration of Darwin year by relating how his ideas reached China at the end of the 19th century. A naval engineer called Yan Fu studied in England from 1877 to 1879. After returning to China, he introduced the ideas of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley to his countrymen.

James Pusey, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Bucknell, surveys the early days of Chinese Darwinism. He points out that Yan Fu misunderstood some of Darwin’s key concepts. Thus, natural selection became natural elimination and evolution became jinhua lun or the theory of progressive change.

The Western powers used Darwin’s ideas to justify imperialism. The writings of this Victorian gentleman inspired them to oppress those who were weaker than them.

China, embroiled in inner turmoil and a prolonged struggle against Japan and the European powers, began to see evolution as change.

Inspired by Darwin, Lenin and Marx, the revolutionaries fought against the Emperor’s forces that had been weakened by war and unrest, believing that the more powerful would eventually overcome their weaker adversaries.

Professor Pusey apologizes that the Chinese adopted the European view that some races are fitter than others.

However, the racist view stems from Darwin’s book Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) in which he predicted, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

In other words, racism is part and parcel of Darwinism.

The Chinese felt that the Western powers had let them down at the Treaty of Versailles (1919), by giving Japan the Chinese areas occupied by Germany. Darwin’s ideas, flavoured by Marxism, came to their help. They could now only put their trust in power.

Pusey thinks that China would not have embraced Marxism if Darwin's thoughts had not prepared them for a revolution.

”A tree is known by its fruit”, said Jesus (Matt. 12:33). The Cultural Revolution and other experiments remind us of the sombre fact that even in China the fruits of Darwinism were rotten.


Pusey, James. 2009. Global Darwin: Revolutionary road. Nature 462:7270, 162-163.