The Chinese language did not know a word for "liberty" before the nineteenth century. The modern translation of "liberty," ziyou (meaning, literally, self-determination), had to be coined in response to the reception of Western ideas. The closest classical term, ziran (meaning, literally, "the natural"), denoted a Taoist sense of harmony with nature. This is not to say that the idea of personal freedom was totally foreign to classical Chinese philosophy. Confucian belief in human perfectibility, however, concerned interior spiritual freedom, differing from the Western political and social concept. Likewise, freedom as a right was not conceptualized until the nineteenth century. Kang Youmai (1858–1927) was one of the first Chinese intellectuals who introduced the Protestant idea of free will. His Complete Book of Substantial Principles and General Laws (written between 1885 and 1887) described human beings as owners of the "right of autonomy" (zizhu zhi quan), thereby adopting the language of rights.
The Chinese encounter with the Western idea of liberty may well be illustrated by the translation of the works of nineteenth-century English intellectuals by Yan Fu (1854–1921). He became widely known for his translation of T. H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, which introduced evolution theory to the Chinese intellectual world at the turn of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Deeply inspired by Herbert Spencer's (1820–1903) concept of social organism, Yan Fu maintained that the individual's pursuit of self-interest would generate a Darwinian struggle for survival that should result in the evolution of a more harmonious society. Yan Fu claimed to have derived from Spencer his own notion of human freedom denoting the release of an individual's "energy." His Spencerian liberalism was a radical departure from the orthodox Confucian ethic that regarded the pursuit of self-interest as the source of evil, while his translations also distorted the original meaning of other writings from the West. One such case is his translation of Mill's On Liberty: Yan Fu bent Mill's original conception of liberty to meet his own political purposes. Mill considered liberty of the individual as an end in itself. However, Yan Fu's Spencerian outlook produced a distorted understanding of Mill's concept as a means to the advancement of the people's virtue and intellect, ultimately to achieve the freedom of the state.
One of the powerful promoters of individual liberties (ziyou) and rights (quanli) in the Late Qing China was Liang Qichao (1873–1929). He absorbed a wide range of Western philosophy and social sciences through Japanese translations, but he endeavored to anchor the ideas of liberty and rights in the Confucian intellectual heritage. It has been debated how the Chinese reception of social and political concepts and discourses from the modern West relates to classical Chinese traditions. For instance, freedom of thought is at the heart of contemporary Western liberal democracy, while "harmony and unity of thought" (tongyi sixiang) is celebrated in post-socialist China. This contrasting attitude toward freedom of thought has received scholarly attention in connection with the lingering Confucian tradition.
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