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From the Archives: 独立宣言–The Declaration of Independence in Chinese

Tomorrow is Independence Day, and on that glorious morning July 4, 1776…not much happened. The Declaration had been completed two days earlier and as John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“July 2nd will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Okay, so he was two days off. Actually the final vote to declare independence and ratify the document did happen on July 4. After which the assembly sent the declaration out to the printers, adjourned for lunch, and then went home to wait for the British to invade Pennsylvania and very politely hang them.

Original text of the Declaration of Independence

It was a bold document, but does its boldness translate linguistically or philosophically?

A good article on translating the Declaration into Chinese was published in 1999 by Frank Li of CASS in the Journal of American History. According to Li, the first full formal translation of the Declaration appeared in the Guomin Bao (国民报), a journal produced by Chinese students in Tokyo.

Originally entitled 独立檄文 (duli xiwen) or “Call to Arms for Independence,” the flowery writing and powerful rhetoric were not easily rendered into the precise forms and vocabulary of Classical Chinese. His research cites numerous points where the linguistic and philosophic gaps needed to be bridged, tenuously at times.

(A similar problem gave early Buddhist scholars fits as they tried to render Sanskrit into Chinese a millennium earlier.)

Just to give a few of the many examples cited in the article: The translation of “pursuit of happiness” was rendered as “pursuit of benefit” (利益 liyi). The word 幸福 xingfu, found in the current translation, was an early 20th-century neologism not in widespread use at the time of the first translation. One could argue that despite different concepts of religion and the divine, replacing “endowed by their Creator” with “bestowed by Heaven,” (天赋 tianfu) makes a certain amount of sense. Interestingly, “All men…” is translated as “countrymen/people” (国人 guoren), a point worth mentioning when one considers the debate between particularism and universalism in Chinese historiography of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Li also sketches a brief history of the document in China. Following the 1901 publication in the Guomin Bao, the language and ideas of the Declaration influenced a number of people, notably the anti-Manchu revolutionary Zou Rong. Zou referenced the Declaration in his Revolutionary Army published in 1903. Sun Yat-sen appropriated the language and ideas of the Declaration for his 1904 English-language book/fund-raising brochure: An Appeal to the People of the United States. A more modern translation of the Declaration was completed by Hong Kong University Professor Yang Zonghan in the early 1960s, based on Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence.

Li argues that part of the problem in translating the Declaration is that Chinese culture lacks the concept of ‘natural rights.’  A point which raises all kinds of thorny issues past and present.

The following passage is from Baidu, which has the complete text in translation. Sinologists are welcome to get nit-picky as they see fit. In the interest of (relative) brevity, I’ve only posted what is, for me, the best part.

我 们认为下面这些真理是不言而喻的:人人生而平等,造物者赋予他们若干不可剥夺的权利,其中包括生命权、自由权和追求幸福的权 利。为了保障这些权利,人类才在他们之间建立政府,而政府之正当权力,是经被治理者的同意而产生的。当任何形式的政府对这些目标具破坏作用时,人民便有权 力改变或废除它,以建立一个新的政府;其赖以奠基的原则,其组织权力的方式,务使人民认为唯有这样才最可能获得他们的安全和幸福。

And in case anyone was sleeping or passing notes during fifth grade Social Studies class, the original:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Happy Fourth of July.


A version of this post originally appeared on July 3, 2007.


Li, Frank. “East is East and West is West: Did the Twain Ever Meet? The Declaration of Independence in China,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 4. (Mar., 1999), pp. 1432-1448.  (A summary of that roundtable is available for free online via The Center for History and New Media.)

McCullough, David. John Adams. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001)
(courtesy of The Bookworm)

3 Comments on From the Archives: 独立宣言–The Declaration of Independence in Chinese

  1. A declaration of genius for its content, brevity, and construction. Gives me chills every time I hear/read it. Zhongnanhai take note.

  2. I don’t know what you mean by ‘the best part’: whether it is the ‘part with the best translation’ or the ‘best part of the (original) Declaration’. Anyway, to me, the best part is the first sentence:

    “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

    Always gives *me* chills.

    I wish more Taiwanese would read (and re-read) this.

  3. Philip,

    Sorry to be unclear, it’s my personal favorite part of the declaration. Though I can see why the passage you suggested might have particular relevance for those living in Taiwan.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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