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The Spread of the European Concept of “Civilization” to Japan and China and Its Localization

An Analysis Centering on Fran?ois Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Fukuzawa Yukichi and Liang Qichao

By Liu Wenming

Published in Historical Research, Vol.331, No.3(2011),pp.66-77

Full text in Chinese


Western Europe in early 19th century and Fran?ois Guizot’s view of “civilization”

Franois Guizot explained the meaning of “civilization” in his books General History of Civilization in Europe (1828) and History of Civilization in France (1830). He said that “civilization is just as much a fact as any other”, “Two elements, then, seem to be comprised in the great fact which we call civilization;—two circumstances are necessary to its existence—it lives upon two conditions—it reveals itself by two symptoms: the progress of society, the progress of individuals; the melioration of the social system, and the expansion of the mind and faculties of man. Wherever the exterior condition of man becomes enlarged, quickened, and improved; wherever the intellectual nature of man distinguishes itself by its energy, brilliancy, and its grandeur; wherever these two signs concur, and they often do so, notwithstanding the gravest imperfections in the social system, there man proclaims and applauds civilization.”

Guizot compared European civilization with other civilizations, said that “While in other civilizations the exclusive domination, or at least the excessive preponderance of a single principle, of a single form, led to tyranny, in modern Europe the diversity of the elements of social order, the incapability of anyone to exclude the rest, gave birth to the liberty which now prevails.”

So the core of the word “civilization” is that “the progress of society, the progress of individuals; the melioration of the social system, and the expansion of the mind and faculties of man.” European civilization owned superiority over other civilizations. Such view of civilization was a reflex of European early modern history and European overseas expansion, it concluded from European experience. But such concept of “civilization” diffused to Japan and China in the process of European expansion, and with its translation into Chinese word文明, the original meaning of 文明 was changed in China.

Fukuzawa’s adoption of Fran?ois Guizot’ view of civilization and his effort to adjust it to Japanese society

Fukuzawa Yukichi translated the word “civilization” into Chinese character文明 in his work Seiyō Jijō (Things western)(1867), then gave its meaning a full discussion in Bunmeiron no Gairyaku (An Outline of a Theory of Civilization) (1875), in which he adopted the basic contents of “civilization” narrated by Fran?ois Guizot and detailed his own theory of civilization.

In the localization of the word “civilization”, Fukuzawa’s view of civilization different from Guizot’s in four aspects: 1) He emphasized “barbarian” as an opposite concept to understand the meaning of civilization, and accepted European world view of late 19th century that there was a “ladder of civilization” in the world which composed of the civilized, the semi-civilized and the barbarian. 2) He emphasized that civilization is relative to time and circumstance, as well in comparison, so Japan could catch up with Europe and at last exceeded in civilization. 3) Fukuzawa emphasized knowledge and virtue as a more important factor of civilization, though he acknowledge that material progress is one of its factors. 4) He put forward that “civilization” is a way to achieve independence of Japan, so a “Japanese civilization” should be constructed.

Fukuzawa Yukichi introduced European “civilization” to Japan and tried to localize it. As a result, European “civilization” as an imperialist ideology advocated by Fukuzawa Yukichi found its way in Japan. “Civilization” became an ideological tool for Japan to invade other Asian countries.

Fukuzawa’s role as a medium between Europe and China and Liang Qichao’s view of civilization

Huang Zunxian may be the first Chinese to use the word 文明 with the meaning of civilization, who published Ri Ben Za Shi Shi (“Poem about Japan”) in 1879, in which he used the word “civilization”. But Liang Qichao made the word “civilization” popular in China. Liang Qichao’s understanding of civilization was affected heavily by Fukuzawa’s thought, but he explained the word “civilization” in Chinese cultural tradition.


European concept of “civilization”, with its attribute of imperialist ideology in 19th century, diffused to Japan and China in the process of European expansion in late 19th century. Fukuzawa Yukichi accepted the basic contents of “civilization” narrated by Fran?ois Pierre Guillaume Guizot, and affected Liang Qichao in his view of “civilization”. There is a clear clue between them. European “civilization” as a worldwide discourse in 19th century was not just a word or a concept, but a universal value led to a social development of European mode. Fukuzawa Yukichi and Liang Qichao introduced it to their own countries respectively and tried to localize it. However, the outcome of the localization of western “civilization” was quite different in Japan and China.