Yan Fu 严复

A thinker who seeks truth from the West


Chinese Name: 严复

English Name: Yan Fu

Other Names: Yan Zongguang 严宗光, Yan Youling 严又陵, Yan Jidao 严几道

Born: January 8, 1854

Died: October 27, 1921


Advocate the translation standard of “faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance” 首倡“信、达、雅”的译文标准

President of Fudan Public School 复旦公学校长

Main Works:

Tianyan Theory 《天演论》

Yan Fu 严复
Yan Fu 严复

Brief Biography of Yan Fu

Yan Fu is an influential bourgeois enlightenment thinker in modern times, a famous translator, educator, and a representative of the New Legalists.

Yan Fu (January 8, 1854 – October 27, 1921), originally named Zongguang 宗光, courtesy name Youling 又陵 and Jidao, was from Houguan County 侯官县, Fujian Province 福建省.

He graduated from Fujian Shipbuilding School and the Royal Naval Academy successively. He once served as the chief officer of the Translation Bureau of Beijing Normal University, the president of Fudan Public School in Shanghai, the president of Anqing Higher Normal School, and the chief editor of the Mingci Hall of the Qing Dynasty.

Yan Fu 严复
Tianyan Theory 天演论

During the teaching period in the Beiyang Naval Academy founded by Li Hongzhang, he trained the first batch of naval talents in modern China, translated Tianyan Theory 《天演论》, and founded Guowen Newspaper 《国闻报》, systematically introduced western democracy and science, publicized the reform ideas, and introduced western sociology, politics, political economics, philosophy and natural science to China. He published Yan Fu’s Complete Works 《严复全集》.

On October 27, 1921, he died at Langguan Lane Residence in Fuzhou 福州 at the age of 67.

Yan Fu’s translation criterion of “faithfulness, expressiveness, and elegance” has had a profound impact on the translation work of later generations. He was an influential bourgeois enlightenment thinker in the late Qing Dynasty 清朝 and one of the “advanced Chinese” who sought truth from western countries in modern Chinese history.

Personal Life and Major Contributions

Early life experience

Yan Fu was born on January 8, 1854 (December 10, the third year of Xianfeng) in a family of traditional Chinese medicine in Yangqi Village 阳岐村, Gaishan Town 盖山镇, Houguan County 侯官县, Fujian Province 福建省.

In 1866 (the fifth year of Tongzhi 同治’s reign), Yan Fu’s father died of illness and Yan Fu dropped out of school. He gave up the “right path” of the imperial examination.

Yan Fu 严复
The statue of Yan Fu 严复塑像

In 1867 (the sixth year of Tongzhi’s reign), he entered Fuzhou Shipbuilding School to learn how to drive. He was renamed Zongguang 宗光, courtesy name Youling 又陵.

In 1871 (the 10th year of Tongzhi’s reign), he graduated from Fuzhou Shipbuilding School and was the first graduate of the school. He practiced in the “Jianwei” and “Yangwu” ships for five years.

In 1872 (the 11th year of Tongzhi’s reign), he obtained the qualification of selecting Taoists and changed his name to Fu 复, courtesy name Jidao 几道.

Advocate Western knowledge

Yan Fu advocated western learning and he has repeatedly compared Chinese learning with western learning and proposed the asset stage education policy of “taking freedom as the body and democracy as the harmony”.

He specified the teaching contents and methods of each stage in the envisaged school system. He believed that in the primary school stage, the “simplest and most practical general learning” of Western learning should be used as auxiliary reading material. In terms of teaching methods, more explanations are used to reduce recitation effort.

In the middle school stage, “Western learning should be the focus”, “seven-tenths of foreign language lessons and three-tenths of Chinese language lessons”, and “everything should be taught in a foreign language” should be stipulated.

Yan Fu 严复
The former residence of Yan Fu 严复故居

In the higher school stage, I mainly studied “Western learning”. For teenagers, we should guide them to analyze and learn some specialized knowledge, so that they can benefit from it, understand by analogy and find both sides of the coin.

He believes that induction and deduction are two important means to establish science. For thousands of years in China, there have been many “deductions” and few “induction”. Yan Fu paid more attention to induction and advocated “personal observation and investigation”.

Translation theory

Yan Fu is an epoch-making translator who has learned both Chinese and Western knowledge in modern Chinese translation history and is also the pioneer of China’s first complete translation standard. Yan Fu absorbed the essence of ancient Chinese Buddhist sutra translation thought and combined his own translation practice experience, he clearly put forward the translation principles and standards of “faithfulness, expressiveness, and elegance” in the translation examples of Tianyan Theory 天演论.

Yan Fu 严复
Yan Fu’s calligraphy 严复的书法

“Faithfulness” means to convey the content of the original text faithfully and accurately.

“Expressiveness” refers to the smoothness of translation.

“Elegance” can be interpreted as an elegant translation.

This famous “Three Character Classic” has a great influence on the translation theory and practice of later generations, and Chinese translators in the 20th century are deeply influenced by these three words.

Video: Special Tour In Yan Fu Resident – The Greatest Enlightenment Thinker In Modern Chinese History

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