Darwinism, Cultural Adaptation, and Translator’s Agency: A Study of the First Chinese Translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Abstract


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was composed during the 1860s in the UK, a time when Darwinism was ‘very much in the air, a pervading bad smell’. Despite incorporating various Darwinian metaphors, the author Lewis Carroll, an ordained Christian minister, subtly conveyed his disapproval of this pervading evolutionary philosophy. In contract, the first Chinese translation of Alice by CHAO Yuen Ren (赵元任, 1892-1982) in 1922 occurred at a time when China was under the influence of a radically transformed Chinese version of Darwinism. Darwinism was introduced by YAN Fu (严复, 1854-1912) after the Qing Dynasty suffered a succession of defeats against Western and Japanese powers. He adaptively translated Huxley’s ‘Evolution and Ethics’, combining deliberately selected concepts including not only Huxley’s advocacy of ‘human action to combat the cosmic process’, but more importantly, the ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘natural selection’ from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). He summarised a new emblematic slogan, ‘The competition among living beings is an intrinsic part of natural selection, where only the fittest survives (物竞天择, 适者生存)’, which then dominated Chinese understanding of Darwinism. Yan aimed to incite revolution and progress to prevent the natural elimination of the Chinese ethnicity, arousing an “evolutionary sensation” among the Chinese literati. Chao translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the influence of this transformed ideology. This paper first traced Chao’s attitudes towards Darwinism, starting from investigating primary documents including Chao’s autobiography, diaries, and the intentions he stated in the introduction of his translation. Based on this evidence, I closely studied his translation of evolution-related scenes and interpreted them within the social, historical and political context of early twentieth-century China. Therefore, Chao’s exercise of agency in supporting the struggle for existence is elucidated through the tension between the attitudes of the author and the translator towards Darwinism.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 23 Apr 2024
EventII Spring School in Translation Studies - Protugal, Lisbon, Portugal
Duration: 3 Jun 20248 Jun 2024


ConferenceII Spring School in Translation Studies


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