K'ang Yu-wei

K'ang Yu-wei (1858-1927) was one of the most prominent scholars of modern China, particularly famous for his radical reinterpretations of Confucianism and for his role as the Emperor's adviser during the abortive Hundred Days Reform movement of 1898.

In the late 19th century the helplessness of China in the face of the imperialist powers was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Chinese literati, who in midcentury had been supremely confident of the superiority of China's traditional ways, were becoming aware in the 1880s and 1890s that their nation's political institutions and economic system must be reformed if China were to avoid becoming a colony of the Europeans.

K'ang Yu-wei was born near Canton to a scholarly and locally prominent family on March 19, 1858. Like his father and grandfather, K'ang prepared for a bureaucratic career by studying the Confucian classics in preparation for the civil service examinations. He passed the first series of examinations, but in 1876 he failed the provincial examinations. K'ang thereupon began 3 years of study under the scholar Chu Tz'uch'i. It was under Chu's tutelage that K'ang adopted an eclectic approach to the various schools of interpretation of the Confucian classics. In particular, K'ang learned to search for the ultimate truths in the words of Confucius himself, rather than in latter-day commentaries.

Early Intellectual Development

The period of study with Chu Tz'u-ch'i ended in late 1878, when K'ang experienced an emotional crisis. He suddenly sensed that his preoccupation with pedantic Confucian learning was suffocating his intellectual talents. He shut himself into his room and sat in solitary meditation, causing his friends to think he had gone mad. This retreat from the world ended after he suddenly received mystical enlightenment. "I perceived suddenly," he wrote later, "that I was in an all-pervading unity with Heaven, Earth, and all things. I beheld myself as a sage and laughed for joy. But thinking of the sufferings of mankind I suddenly wept in sorrow."

Now believing himself a sage destined "to set in order all under Heaven," K'ang broadened his studies to include governmental organization and political geography; he also read extensively in Mahayana Buddhism. Curious about the Western nations, he visited Hong Kong in 1879 and in 1882 toured the foreign concessions in Shanghai. Greatly impressed by the cleanliness and orderliness in these cities, he realized that the Europeans were different from the "barbarians" of Chinese antiquity. And in 1882 he began seriously studying the West through the relatively meager literature on the subject then available in Chinese.

"New Text" Interpretation

Between 1888 and 1890 K'ang acquired a new insight into the Confucian classics that was to provide the basis for his mature philosophy. He became convinced that the orthodox and officially sanctioned version of the classics had in large part been forged during the ascendancy of the usurper Wang Mang (ruled A.D. 8-23). Instead of these "Old Text" versions, K'ang favored the "New Text" versions—which had once been the basis of the Confucian orthodoxy during the Former Han Dynasty—probably because they could be more easily put to the service of a political reform movement.

Making selective use of the New Text interpretations, K'ang now wrote two of his most important books. In The Forged Classics of the Wang Mang Period (1891), he mobilized evidence to demonstrate that the orthodox texts of the classics were not authentic. And in Confucius as a Reformer (1897), he argued that Confucius was the real author of the classics—Confucius's statement that he was not the author but merely the transmitter of the teachings of the ancient sages had been Confucius's stratagem to win acceptance for his own teachings. K'ang therefore insisted that Confucius had been a reformer who believed that institutions had to be adapted to altered circumstances. K'ang's conclusion was that Confucius, had he been alive in the 1890s, would also have advocated the reform of the existing political and economic order.

K'ang Yu-wei opened a school in Canton in 1891, and many of the students, like Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, were in later years his most avid partisans. The course of study at the school contained K'ang's own interpretations of Confucianism but included also the study of the West, mathematics, music, and even military drill.

In 1893 K'ang passed the second, or provincial, civil service examinations, and in 1895 he succeeded in the highest, or metropolitan, examinations in Peking. He was thereupon appointed a secretary second-class in the Board of Works and might have pursued a normal bureaucratic career had he not in the same year, at the age of 37, burst upon the national political stage.

Reform Activity

In April 1895 the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the Sino-Japanese War, was signed. The terms of the treaty were humiliating and damaging to China, and K'ang Yu-wei, together with Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, drafted a petition urging the court to disavow the treaty. They acquired the signatures of nearly 1,300 scholars. The petition had no effect on the outcome of the peace settlement; but K'ang, undaunted, quickly sent two memorials to the Emperor proposing extensive governmental, educational, and economic reforms. When these memorials similarly failed of acceptance by the court, K'ang turned his energies to organizational and propaganda work, hoping thereby to broaden interest in reform among the literati.

The most notable of several reform societies with which K'ang associated himself between 1895 and 1898 was the Ch'iang-hsüeh hui (Society for the Study of National Strengthening). This was organized in August 1895 and won the support of numerous eminent officials, such as Chang Chih-tung and Yüan Shih-k'ai. The successes of this reform society frightened powerful conservative officials, and the Ch'iang-hsüeh hui was banned in early 1896.

During 1897 and early 1898 the foreign powers were staking out "spheres of influence" in China, and the partitioning of the country by the imperialists seemed imminent. This renewed threat inspired K'ang Yu-wei to new reform endeavors. He formed several new societies, most prominent of which was the Pao-kuo hui (Society for the Preservation of the Nation). This organization was founded in April 1898 with the avowed goal of saving "the nation, the race, and the Confucian teaching." He also submitted a succession of reform memorials to Emperor Kuang-hsü. The Emperor had now also become convinced of the need for reform, and in January 1898 he commanded K'ang to elaborate his reform proposals. K'ang also wrote two short books for the Emperor, one on Peter the Great of Russia and one on the Japanese Meiji restoration, and these reportedly strengthened the Emperor's determination to modernize the nation.

On June 12, 1898, Kuang-hsü issued a momentous edict proclaiming a new national policy of "reform and self-strengthening." Four days later K'ang was called for an imperial audience. And for the next 3 months the Emperor, much under K'ang's influence, issued a series of decrees designed to revamp the creaking dynastic system.

The reform movement was cut short by the dowager empress Tz'u-hsi and her conservative supporters on Sept. 21, 1898. But K'ang, forewarned by the emperor, had left Peking for Shanghai the previous day, and he subsequently escaped to Hong Kong in a British gunboat.

Exile and Later Career

For the next 14 years K'ang—with a price on his head—lived the life of a fugitive and exile. His political activities, however, continued. Fearing that Kuang-hsü's life was in danger and that the restoration of power to the Emperor represented China's only hope of national salvation, K'ang founded the Pao-huang hui (Society to Protect the Emperor) in July 1899. This organization had branches among Chinese living in Japan, Southeast Asia, Latin America, Canada, and the United States.

During the first decade of the 20th century, K'ang wrote several scholarly commentaries on the classics and also some vehement denunciations of the anti-Manchu revolutionaries. He also traveled in India, Europe, and the United States—gaining a familiarity with Western culture that, paradoxically, lessened his admiration for the West and increased his appreciation for the traditional culture of China.

Following the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912, K'ang Yu-wei never became wholly reconciled to the revolutionary overthrow of the Confucian monarchy. He ardently supported the brief restoration of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1917 by Chang Hsün and, as late as 1923, was still seeking support among such warlords as Wu P'ei-fu for his plan of reviving the Ch'ing dynasty and implanting Confucianism as the officially sanctioned religion. By the time K'ang died on March 31, 1927, most Chinese intellectuals dismissed him as a hopeless relic of the past.

K'ang's Utopian Vision

K'ang adhered consistently to a philosophy of evolutionary change. According to his "Doctrine of the Three Ages," mankind had progressed inexorably from the primitive Age of Disorder to the Age of Approaching Peace and would culminate in the Age of Universal Peace. In K'ang's view, human nature was improving steadily with the progression of history; human institutions must similarly evolve so that they exactly suit the needs of man at every stage of his historical ascent. K'ang thought that the world, in his day, had reached the Age of Approaching Peace, for which the appropriate political institution was constitutional monarchy, and that the final Age of Universal Peace (in which a republican form of government would exist) would be realized only in the distant future. K'ang, then, actually viewed republicanism as the ideal form of government. But he opposed it in 1912 because he thought China and human nature were unprepared for that ideal.

As a practical reformer, K'ang Yu-wei always remained a convinced—if unorthodox—Confucian. As a utopian thinker, however, he transcended Confucianism, displaying an astounding independence of Chinese cultural values. This appears in his most famous book, Ta-t'ung shu (The Grand Unity), which is one of the outstanding works in world utopian literature. Essentially, this work is a description of K'ang's vision of the world order as it would exist during the Age of Universal Peace. K'ang envisaged that political boundaries would be abolished; government would consist of small self-ruling communities which would send representatives to a world parliament. The family system would disappear: men and women could freely change partners each year, and children would be reared in public nurseries and schools. The economy would be highly industrialized; all property would be owned communally; and social, sexual, and racial distinctions would be entirely abolished. In this utopia, laws and courts would be unnecessary, for mankind would have learned to live together in perfect harmony.

K'ang had conceived the basic ideas for the Ta-t'ung shuas early as 1885, although he did not complete the book until 1902, while living in India. He dared not publish the work, however, for he thought the public was unprepared for its radical ideas, and to disclose them prematurely would be "to consign mankind to a vast deluge or ravening beasts." K'ang finally relented to the persistent entreaties of his students, and in 1913 Books I and II (which contained only a statement of his general principles and political ideals) appeared in print. The rest of the work, containing the more controversial social ideals, was not published until 1935, 8 years after his death.

K'ang Yu-wei was a brilliant thinker, his reinterpretations of Confucianism assuring him of lasting fame in Chinese intellectual history. His reform organizations and publications in the 1890s had a lasting influence on the course of Chinese political development. He was, however, a man of monumental egotism and arrogance, and although he derived many of his ideas and political programs from his teachers and predecessors, he seldom deigned to recognize his intellectual debts.

Further Reading on K'ang Yu-wei

K'ang Yu-wei's chronological autobiography, together with a number of essays interpreting aspects of his thought, are in an edition by K'ang's grandson, Professor Jung-pang Lo, K'ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium (1967). Laurence G. Thompson translated a portion of K'ang's utopian vision under the title Ta T'ung Shu: The One-world Philosophy of K'ang Yu-wei (1958), which also contains a useful introduction to K'ang's life and thought.

Additional Biography Sources

A modern China and a new world: K'ang Yu-wei, reformer and utopian, 1858-1927, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.

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