Book Review: Benjamin Schwartz – In Search Of Wealth And Power

In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.


In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that  contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

Of course while finding a balance between Confucianism,  Legalism, and Taoism seems to be hard enough, meeting the challenge of Western ideas is all the more so. Possible consequences include the very extinction of certain Chinese intellectual traditions, for whereas “one could conceive of wealth and power as an outer rampart for the inner sanctum of essential Confucian values and institutions only so long as the requirements of one were not incompatible with the demands of the other.” But what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?

This dilemma reflects one universal to all non-Western conservatives who realize their country’s backwardness. For instance, Nikolai Trubetzkoy would lay out precisely this dilemma in his seminal 1918 tract Europe and Mankind, where he noted that whereas Romano-Germanic nations could “move along a well-worn path, looking neither to the right nor left and concentrating its efforts on the coordination of elements from a single culture” and the rest of the world had to manage the culture clash of its own traditions with these European imports. Staying still is not an option because of the West’s military threat; on the other hand, the permanent culture clash involved in copying the West, the so-called “duel logique”, expends precious energy and reinforces the permanent gap between the Romano-Germanic world and the country attempting to modernize. Eventually the situation becomes desperate and the lagging country attempts a “long leap”, covering in a few years what took decades or centuries of organic development in the original countries. But the consequences of these leaps tend to be terrible, according to Trubetzkoy, because it is followed by “a period of apparent (from the European standpoint) stagnation, when it is necessary… to coordinate the results achieved by a leap in a particular area with other elements of the culture.”

Yan Fu stares this dilemma straight in the face. On the one hand, it is necessary to modernize, and – he believes – modernization has to be full-spectrum, and not in just the narrow military sense that he senses will lead to ruin, as with Peter’s Russia.  He is a proponent of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, and applying biological laws to that of society; individuals and nations are evolving, competing, progressing… unfortunately, the process hadn’t taken off in China. So paradoxically, China had to kick-start it via Great Men and legislators, a hopeless task according to at least two of Yan Fu’s Western philosophers – the Master himself, for Spencer believed that social evolution was a natural process that was outside human influence; and Montesquieu, who held that riverine civilizations located on great plains have a natural tendency towards despotism. No wonder then that Yan Fu cardinally reinterpreted Spencer to create a kind of “Evolution and Ethics with Chinese Characteristics,” and vigorously argued against Montesquieu’s crude geographic determinism and understandable lack of foreknowledge about technological changes that would shrink the world and make it more generally conductive for the evolution of democracies. It is stressed throughout the book that Yan Fu’s commentaries on these Western philosophers, his attempts to reconcile them with contemporary Chinese realities as well as its own intellectual tradition, were every bit as significant or even more so to the intellectual atmosphere in China than the actual translations that he performed.

Personally conservative and patriarchal; supporter of a strong state, but also one with liberal elements and public spirit – one gets the impression that disillusioned as he was by the 1910’s, Yan Fu would have had his faith restored by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The state there was not a full democracy, but a managed democracy that maintains fairly strict social mores under a liberal economic environment. He would not have had too many issues with Taiwan either, where a dictator governed until the 1980’s, when – as he might see it – the people had become advanced enough to run the country themselves. As a man who loathed the idea of sudden, jolting changes he would have been aghast at the Maoist model, which developed by Trubetzkoy’s playbook: Importation of a Western ideology (Marxism) in one of its more extreme forms, and its attempted marriage to Chinese cultural traditions (some, like Confucianism, were repressed; others, like Legalism, were not, as Mao indeed was an admirer of Shang Yang’s methods); attempts to “leap forwards” (literally so, in 1959-62); a period of cultural clashes (Cultural Revolution 1966-76) and relative stagnation.

Even so, in a way the Communist Party did introduce important elements of Western thought and habits. There was a real emphasis on development, even if in practice was very inefficient until the late 1970’s. Concepts such as subsistence as the ideal were decisively rejected (in theory if not quite in practice). And one can even argue that the Communists introduced a kind of public spirit with the economic system of rural collective farms and urban danwei system and Maoist songs such as Comrade in Arms and The East is Red (equivalent in some ways to choral songs under Christian civilization). However this sense of community broke up pretty quickly after the 1970’s, people no longer call each other 同志, which formerly meant comrade but now denotes homosexuals in popular parlance, but things such as corruption and greed are also believed to have increased under the new capitalist order. Ironically however a similar process took place in the West, e.g. community life and public spirit is held to have declined since the 1960’s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc) and intangible. So in a sense China and the US are converging towards being richer, more atomized societies. Perhaps Yan Fu would have seen this as a vindication of Spencer’s original vision after all, though then again, it’s not like the “power” part of “wealth and power” is exactly irrelevant today what with an incipient naval race between the US and China in the West Pacific.

What this book exudes in academic dryness it easily makes up in lucidity and erudition. (This is a 1960s Harvard man, writing well before it became widely acceptable to substitute genuine research with meaningless PoMo-babble). Unfortunately the Wade-Giles system is used throughout, but again that’s standard for that time. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, unlike Arthur H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics, but definitely recommended for those who wish to delve into modern Chinese intellectual history, China’s “encounter” with the West more general, and the interplay of traditional Chinese philosophies with interloping Western ideas.


  1. Mr. A. Karlin,

    I recently discovered your blog via your writing on Sino-Russian relations. I must say that I found your writings on Russia a breath of fresh air.

    back to the topic, Yan Fu would represent the typical elite from the traditional culture when confronted by relentless pressure of the modern West. Despite all the intellectual angst about what is essentially Chinese and what is Western value, China itself continues to marches on the road of Modernization/Westernization (It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s the same thing).

    China today would look shockingly “Western” to a Chinese person living in 1970s. I know, because I lived in China in 1970s as a kid.

    I happened to think Kenneth Pomeranz nailed “The Needham Question” in his book “The Great Divergence” on why China lagged behind Western Europe in recent times. But we now live in a Age of Great Convergence,whereby China is finally catching up by adopting Western technology and institutions (or rather adopting the Japanese model of development of copying the West). Even today there are still some who worry that ‘ what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?’. But hey, who cares if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice, right?

  2. “…much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit…”

    If by public spirit he meant trust towards non-relatives, then he was wrong about its origins. That sort of public spirit is nearly absent in some Christian countries and present in huge quantities in others.

    “But what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?”

    From the outside it seems that Japan has mostly succeeded at it. And the Chinese are well on their way. I think that deep cultural differences mostly reflect biological ones, and biology is slow to change.

    “…technological changes that would shrink the world and make it more generally conductive for the evolution of democracies.”

    I don’t think there’s a lot of democracy in the modern world. There’s a lot of “democracy” – aping of old British and American institutions, long after they lost most of their original meaning in Britain and America. There are a lot of parliaments and elections, but those can be easily made into a sham. I suspect that there was more democracy in the world a thousand years ago (in the form of “things”, veches and similar gatherings) than there is now.

    “Yan Fu would have had his faith restored by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The state there was not a full democracy, but a managed democracy…”

    I think that real democracy was a European peculiarity. And already at the beginning of the extensive written record in Europe, in classical Greece, it was difficult to translate it from the level of tribal gatherings to the level of real states. Real democracy rarely survived that transition even in pre-modern Europe. I think Iceland is a good example of such non-survival. I don’t think that democracy ever had a chance anywhere outside of Europe. The sort of thing that’s described by the “Jante Law” is one of the psychological foundations of democracy. The indiscriminate application of the who-does-he-think-he-is attitude – that’s purely European, mostly northern European. The distaste for flattery – same thing. Democracy was fragile even in societies in which almost everyone instinctively subscribed to such attitudes. It suffered from the weakest-link problem. Why should people who are capable of dictating their will to others abstain from doing so? Through a local understanding of conscience? In a large enough group, just through random mutation, there were always going to be a few people who were both deficient in conscience and overflowing in leadership qualities. What typically happened, even in pre-modern northern Europe, was that democracy was subverted by such individuals. But the populace had an instinctive attachment to democracy, so a phony facade was kept up to appease it. Outside of the West people don’t even have an instinctive attachment to Jante’s Law type feelings. Democracy could have never been anything but a sham there.

    I suspect that the smartest thing for the Chinese to do is to continue to catch up technologically while looking towards their own past for political models and ideological direction. The political organization and ideologies of China’s past fit the local mindset. They were organically born out of the Chinese mindset, so they must necessarily fit it. There are many human natures. Trying to graft foreign ideologies leads to either violence or hypocrisy.