Feng Youlan

Feng Youlan (Template:Zh-stpw; also: Fung Yu-Lan; 1895–1990) was a Chinese philosopher who was important for reintroducing the study of Chinese philosophy.


Early life, education, & career

Feng Youlan was born on 4 December 1895 in Tanghe, Henan Province, China, to a middle-class family. He studied philosophy at Shanghai University, then at Beijing University where he was able study Western philosophy and logic as well as Chinese philosophy.

Upon his graduation in 1918 he travelled to the United States, where he studied at Columbia University on a Boxer Indemnity grant. There he met, among many philosophers who were to influence his thought and career, John Dewey, the pragmatist, who became his teacher. Feng gained his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1925, though he spent the last two years working on his thesis (A Comparative Study of Life Ideals) back in China.

He went on to teach at a number of Chinese universities (including Guangdong, Yanjing, and Tsinghua (in Beijing). It was while at Tsinghua that Feng published what was to be his best-known and most influential work, his History of Chisese Philosophy (1934, in two volumes). In it he presented and examined the history of Chinese philosophy from a viewpoint which was very much influenced by the Western philosophical fashions prevalent at the time, which resulted in a distinctly positivist tinge to most of the philosophers he described. Nevertheless, the book became the standard work in its field, and had a huge effect in reigniting an interest in Chinese thought.

In 1939 Feng brought out his Xin Li-xue (New Rational Philosophy, or Neo-Lixue). Lixue was a philosophical position of a small group of twelfth-century neo-Confucianists (including Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, and Zhuxi); Feng's book took certain metaphysical notions from their thought and from taoism (such as li and tao, analysed and developed them in ways that owed much to the Western philosophical tradition, and produced a rationalistic neo-Confucian metaphysics. He also developed, in the same way, an account of the nature of morality and of the structure of human moral development.

War and upheaval

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out, the students and staff of Tsinghua, Beijing, and Nankai Universities fled Beijing. They went first to Hengshan, where they set up the Changsha Temporary University, and then to Kunming, where they set up Southwest Associated University. When, in 1946 the three Universities returned to Beijing, Feng instead went to the U.S. again, this time to take up a post as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania

While he was at Pennsylvania, news from China made it clear that the communists were on their way to seizing power. Feng's friends tried to pesuade him to stay, but he wasa determined to return; his political views were broadly socialist, and he thus felt optimistic about China's future under its new regime.

Once back home, Feng began to study Marxist-Leninist thought, but he soon found that the political situation fell weell short of his hopes; by the mid-1950s his philosophical approach was being attacked by the authorities. He was forced to repudiate much of his earlier work, and to rewrite the rest – including his History – in order to fit in with the ideas of the Cultural revolution.

Despite all this, Feng refused to leave China, and after enduring much hardship he finally saw a new relaxation, and was able to think and write with a certain degree of freedom. He died on 26 November 1990 in Beijing.

Feng Youlan continues to be known mostly for his History of Chinese Philosophy, which is still in print, but he was in fact an original and influential philosopher in his own right, deserving of greater attention.


Monographs & collections of essays

  • 1934: A History of Chinese Philosophy
    • 1983: translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) ISBN 0691020213
    • 1997: A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (Free Press) ISBN 0684836343
  • 1939: Xin Li-xue (New Rational Philosophy) (Changsha: Commercial Press)
    • 1997A New Treatise on the Methodology of Metaphysics (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press) ISBN 7119019473
  • Selected Philosophical Writings of Fung Yu-lan (Beijing: Foreign Language Press) ISBN 7119010638
  • Xin yuan ren (A New Treeatise on the Nature of Man (Chongqing: Commercial Press)
  • 1946: Xin zhi yan (A New Understanding of Words) ((Shanghai: Commercial Press)
  • 1947: The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy transl. E.R. Hughes (London: Kegan Paul)
  • 1961: Xin yuan dao (A New Treatise on the Nature of Tao) (Xiang gang: Zhong-guo zhe-xue jan jiu hui)

As translator

  • 1991: A Taoist Classic: Chuang-Tzu (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press) ISBN 7119001043


  • 2004: Peter J. King One Hundred Philosophers (Hove: Apple) ISBN 1-84092-462-4
  • 2001: Francis Soo “Contemporary Chinese Philosophy”, in Brian Carr & Indira Mahalingam [edd] Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy (London: Routledge) ISBN 0-415-24038-7

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