Shizhe Shengcun (Survival of the Fittest): The Origin and Adaptation of Social Darwinist Concepts in Modern China

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Wang, Jun
Social Darwinism , China , Shizhe Shengcun , Survival of the Fittest
Shizhe shengcun was the best-known Chinese phrase associated with Darwinism and Social Darwinism during the twentieth century. It has remained in use to this day, and continues to be accepted as the best translation of the “survival of the fittest.” Variation in use of the term shizhe shengcun reflects the rise and fall of social Darwinist ideas in China. By tracing a thread in the development of social Darwinist terminology in modern China, this study illuminates the intellectual lineage of Chinese social Darwinist thought. Two modes of thought in Chinese philosophy have been identified as relevant to the reception of Darwinist concepts, namely the materialistic worldview of Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) and the primitive theory of evolution expounded much earlier by Zhuangzi (370-287 BC). These two modes of thought contributed to a conceptual framework for the reception of Darwinist and social Darwinist ideas in China. In the last a few decades of the nineteenth century, Darwinist and social Darwinist terms began to be translated into Chinese. As this thesis points out, an essay composed by Zhong Tianwei in 1889 was the first work in Chinese to convey identifiable social Darwinist terms, and Yan Fu’s book Tianyan Lun (1898) was the first to express social Darwinist ideas in detail. The thesis argues that Zhong and Yan both introduced terms associated with evolution while placing them within the framework of Chinese philosophy. Through discussion of the emergence and acceptance of shizhe shengcun and other terms, this study constructs a new explanation of the introduction and changing usage of social Darwinist concepts in China. There has as yet been no comprehensive study of how Chinese intellectuals introduced and understood the key terms and concepts associated with Darwinism and how their work led to the coalescence of a conceptual system associated with Social Darwinism. In further discussion, the thesis presents a case study of the approach to suzhi jiaoyu, a concept based on Herbert Spencer’s educational principles. The case study illustrates the application of social Darwinist ideas in contemporary China.
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