How Do You Translate a Declaration of Independence into Chinese?

The linguistic intricacies of translating the United States' Declaration of Independence into Chinese

0 0
5:16 PM HKT, Thu July 4, 2019 3 mins read

Today is July 4, American Independence Day. On this date in 1776… not much happened. The document had been completed two days earlier. 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. The assembly then sent the declaration out to the printers, adjourned for lunch and then went home to get ready for the British to invade Pennsylvania and politely hang them.

Most signatories waited until August 2 before putting their names on the document and it would be a little while after that before the British court got around to reading it.

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

An article on the process of translating the Declaration into Chinese was published in 1999 by Frank Li of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) for a roundtable edition of the Journal of American History. According to Li, the first full formal translation appeared in the Guomin Bao (国民报), a journal published by Chinese students in Tokyo, in 1901.

Originally published as the 独立檄文 (duli xiwen) or “Call to Arms for Independence,” the flowery writing and powerful rhetoric was not easily translated using the forms and available vocabulary of classical Chinese. Li’s research cites numerous points where the linguistic and philosophic gaps needed to be bridged — tenuously at times. (A similar problem befell Buddhist sutras a millennium earlier.)

Just to give a few of the many examples provided by Li in his article: The translation of “pursuit of happiness” was rendered as “pursuit of benefit” (利益 liyi). The word 幸福 xingfu, used 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 book Revolutionary Army published in 1903.

The language and ideas of the Declaration were also used by Sun Yat-sen in 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 book The Declaration of Independence.

In his article, Li does argue that part of the problem in translating the Declaration is that Chinese culture lacks the concept of “natural rights.” It’s an interesting question to be sure. Perhaps I give way to my Western biases in believing that all people, regardless of where they are born or in what circumstances, are endowed with certain fundamental human rights. How best to define what those are or how they are to be protected forms the core of the debate between China and the U.S. over human rights and civil liberties.

The following translation is from the U.S. Embassy in China’s website which has the complete text online. It’s not the most beautifully written Chinese ever, but I think it gets the point across. (Sinologists out there are welcome to get nit-picky with the translation as they see fit in the comments below.) The website also contains other documents from U.S. history translated into Chinese. 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 fourth 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.”


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.)

A version of this article originally appeared on Jeremiah’s blog Jottings from the Granite Studio.

Join the Conversation
Write comment

Frustrated? Maybe stop looking at a screen and go outside