Tan Teck Soon
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Tan Teck Soon (b. 1859, Singapore - d. 25 November 1922, Singapore) was a Chinese scholar and writer active in Singapore at the turn of the 20th century. He was a foundation member of the influential gentlemans debating club known as the Straits Philosophical Society (1893-1916), and the only one of two Chinese members, the other being Dr. Lim Boon Keng. Tan's most notable contribution as an intellect and writer was in reconceputualising Chinese civilisation as progressive and open to change, which challenged the prevailing Western idea that Chinese civilization was antiquated and unprogressive.
Tan Teck Soon was born the elder son of Tan See Boo, a Presbyterian convert from Amoy who came to Singapore to do missionary work. His mother was a student of Sophia Cooke, an Anglican missionary-teacher.
Tan attended the Raffles Institution where he was an outstanding student, particularly in the field of Chinese Studies. At the age of 14, he became the first Straits Chinese to win the Guthrie Scholarship for Chinese boys, and chose to go to Amoy to further pursue his studies. There he studied at the Anglo-Chinese College. This made him a rare exception at the time as he had chosen to pursue his further studies in China, rather than in Great Britain, which was the prevailing choice.
When Tan returned from his studies he worked in the government service before moving to the Siamese consulate department of the firm of Kim Ching and Co. During the 1890s, he was active in the fields of publishing, education and writing, working along with the Reverend Archibald Lamont of the Presbyterian mission. From 1890 to 1894, Tan was the editor and proprietor of the newspaper, Daily Advertiser, which he had bought with the Reverend Lamont. The Daily Advertiser helped to keep the Chinese community in Singapore informed of developments in mainland China. Tan and Lamont also ran the Singapore Chinese Educational Institute, a night school for working Chinese adults that offered courses in English and Chinese language and history, mathematics, and shorthand. In 1894, Tan and Lamont wrote a book on the lives of migrant Chinese in Singapore titled, Bright Celestials: The Chinaman at Home and Abroad. From 1898 to 1905, Tan was the general manager of an influential Chinese daily, the Thien Nan Shin Pao.
A great intellect and writer, Tan wrote and presented papers at the Straits Philosophical Society and also contributed articles in the Straits Chinese Magazine, a journal focusing on cultural concerns in Western and Asian society. He also gave public lectures on topics such as Chinese history and customs. Perhaps the most important intellectual contribution made by Tan was his advancement of the idea of the Chinese civilisation as progressive. He stressed that, contrary to Western stereotypes, Chinese culture and thought, rather than stagnant, was flexible, adaptive and complex. He saw the ability of Chinese to mix different schools of thought, such as Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, as a positive trait and a sign of the tolerant and liberal character of Chinese thinkers. The commonality of progressive thought in all cultures intrigued Tan.
While he admired much about Chinese thought and society, there were also reservations. Tan was a stringent critic of the Chinese patriarchal system and the Chinese imperial government. To him the Chinese patriarchy was oppressive, rigid and inflexible, prone to encourage infighting, and the Chinese imperial government, whom he frequently referred to as imbeciles, lacked leadership ability to foster China through the most challenging period in its history. In 1900, Tan presented his paper on the Reform Movement in China which had a rather positive take on foreign influence, believing that it had allowed the Chinese to assimilate and acquire progressive ideals. His criticisms were more directed to the Chinese ruling class, who he saw as too oppressive, recalcitrant, rapacious and greedy to accept these new ideas. Despite his positive assessment of the impact of foreign influence, Tan was also concerned about the encroachment of Western powers in China.In 1907, he presented before the Straits Philosophical Society an optimistic paper on the reform movement in China, which he saw as having transformative effect on the rest of the region, and perhaps the world, which was later published in the Straits Chinese Magazine. Using eye-catching phrases such as the "evils of extraterritoriality", the "menace of foreign interference" and the foreigner as "a source of irritation and disaster", Tan spoke critically against the Western imperialists.
Despite his influence on the intellectual scene at the turn of the 20th century, Tan is lesser known than many of his contemporaries, partly due due to his modest and unassuming personality and partly because he lived privately during the latter years of his life. However, the respect that he had among both the colonial and Chinese elites of the time speaks much to his strength both of character and intellect.
Hee En Ming
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The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.