Wutuobang as Utopia


Silk Tapestry of Three Deities with Qianlong Inscription, c. 1782

From The Historical Journal:

A peculiar idiosyncrasy marked the appearance of the word ‘utopia’ in Chinese. Echoing utopia’s playful etymology, the calque wutuobang 烏托邦 entered the Chinese lexicon as an empty signifier: it pointed at something that was not there. Coined by the late Qing scholar and translator Yan Fu 嚴復 (1854–1921) in his translation of Thomas H. Huxley’s Evolution and ethics of 1894–5, wutuobang had no direct equivalent in Huxley’s source text, in that nowhere in Evolution and ethics is the word ‘utopia’ used. Yan Fu deployed the neologism wutuobang as the title of one of the fifteen prolegomena that Huxley added to the 1894 edition of his original lecture from 1893. In the sixth of these prolegomena, Huxley restates his argument for humanity’s emancipation from the laws of Darwinian evolution by means of a metaphor: similarly to the way a properly managed garden can shield its plants from the struggle for survival in the natural world, so humanity can emancipate itself from the ‘state of nature’ via the establishment of properly administered ‘colonies’. The ideal goal of humanity, Huxley concludes, would therefore be ‘the establishment of an earthly paradise, a true garden of Eden, in which all things should work together towards the well-being of the gardeners’. In his translation titled Tianyan lun 天演論 (The theory of natural evolution), Yan Fu then glossed Huxley’s ‘garden of Eden’ by adding that ‘the Chinese call this Huaxu 華胥 [Land of dreams], while the Westerners call it wutuobang’.

Yan Fu was among the first late Qing literati to study abroad – ‘Great Britain was to become his ideal model, and English ideas were to dominate his intellectual development’ – and therefore his familiarity with the English language and literary tradition should not come as a surprise. Yet because Thomas More’s Utopia would not make its appearance in Chinese until much later – with Liu Linsheng’s 劉麟生 1935 translation – Yan’s choice of words in Tianyan lun remains remarkable. Why did he decide to coin a specific, hitherto unused neologism in order to elucidate an image – the garden as colony/enclave – that was in itself quite self-explanatory? Furthermore, wenyan 文言, that is to say the variety of literary Chinese used by Yan Fu in his translation, already offered a meaningful array of lexical choices that could better approximate Huxley’s botanical metaphor: from the biblical leyuan 樂園 (‘garden of delights’ or ‘earthly paradise’) and yidian yuan 伊甸園 (‘garden of Eden’), and the Buddhist jingtu 净土 (the ‘Pure Land’ of Amidism), to the autochthonous letu 樂土 (‘happy land’) and leguo 樂國 (‘happy state’) used as early as in the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry, eleventh to seventh century bce), the Confucian datong 大同 (‘great harmony’) and xiaokang 小康 (‘small tranquillity’), and the Daoist taiping 太平 (‘great peace’), if not classical China’s very own utopian archetype, taohua yuan 桃花源 (‘Peach Blossom Spring’). The sudden emergence of wutuobang as utopia from the sea of Chinese lexicon towards the end of the nineteenth century seems rather to suggest that this word fulfilled a particular cultural need at a precise moment in Chinese history.

The recoinage of autochthonous taohua yuan as wutuobang in early modern China, though on the surface an individual translator’s quirk, calls for the re-evaluation of utopia in light of its transcultural circulation. On the one hand, the reasons for utopia’s transcultural reframing are embedded in the idea itself: whether it be qualified as Platonic Politeia, Confucian datong, Daoist taohua yuan, or Morean Nusquama, utopia demands a leap of imagination beyond the limits of one’s own culture and towards the nowhere-else that it posits. On the other, as this article tries to demonstrate, utopianism as a modality of thinking and practice seems to surface with substantially similar features ‘through all the provinces of history’ at certain crucial times. Yet because, as Quentin Skinner warns, setting out the ‘ideal type’ of any given notion would risk hypostatizing it into a ‘fully developed form … always in some sense immanent in history’, and because the idea of utopia already posits in itself an ideal type of sorts – utopia is by self-definition immanent in history – its transcultural recurrence must be contextualized.

“Utopia/Wutuobang as a Travelling Marker of Time”, Lorenzo Andolfatto, The Historical Journal 

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