Natural Theology and Neo-Confucianism in Timothy Richard and Ren Tingxu’s Translation of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man


Dadui Yao

Religions 2023, 14(9) – Special Issue on History and Theology of Chinese Christianity

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Abstract: Voltaire praised Alexander Pope’s poem, An Essay on Man, as a magnificent and profound philosophical work that garnered widespread popularity and had a significant impact. It was believed that the poem’s philosophical concepts were influenced by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who drew inspiration from Jesuit writings and regarded Neo-Confucianism as China’s “natural theology”. In December 1897, Yan Fu translated six lines from Pope’s poem into Chinese as a part of his translation of Tianyan lun. Subsequently, Timothy Richard and Ren Tingxu collaborated for five months to translate An Essay on Man into Chinese, known as Tianlun shi (A Poem of Heavenly Ethics), which was published in mid-summer 1898. This Chinese translation became the first extensive Western poem to be translated into Chinese. It consisted of four parts, with over 1300 lines in its original form and approximately 17,200 Chinese characters in translation. Ren rendered Pope’s heroic couplets into a quatrain-style Chinese poem. The term “Tianlun” (Heavenly Ethic) was derived from Young John Allen’s theory, which aimed to supplement Confucian ethics by illustrating the “man and heaven” (or “man and God”) relationship. The poem successfully intertwined Christian and Confucian ideas, harmoniously blending the two discourses of natural theology and Neo-Confucianism. Ren’s literary embellishments played a significant role in this remarkable achievement. Richard and Ren’s translation of the poem served various purposes, including introducing Western knowledge to China and promoting political reform.

About the author:  Dadui Yao was a HYI Visiting Fellow from 2011-12.