Liang Ch'i-ch'ao (1873-1929) was a Chinese intellectual and political reformer and one of the most influential popularizers of Western ideas in modern China.
Liang Ch'i-ch'ao was born on Feb. 23, 1873, in southern China near the city of Canton. His initial education was given by his grandfather and father, who were farmers, with such success that Liang passed the first civil service examination at the astonishingly young age of 11 years. Liang again displayed his precocity by passing the second-level, or provincial, examinations at the age of 16. Liang's performance was so impressive that the chief examiner arranged for Liang to marry his younger sister.
The year 1890 was a milestone in Liang Ch'i-ch'ao's life. He then met and became a student and disciple of K'ang Yu-wei. For the next decade Liang's intellectual development was dominated by this brilliant, if unorthodox, Confucian scholar, although Liang also gained ideas about the modern Western world from Timothy Richard, an English missionary who was influential in Chinese reformist circles during the 1890s.
Liang's political career began in 1895, when he and K'ang Yu-wei organized nearly 1,300 examination candidates in Peking to protest the humiliating peace terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the Sino-Japanese War, and to memorialize the Emperor, requesting reform of the imperial government. These petitions had no visible effect, and the two young men realized that effective reform could be accomplished only after the concept had been popularized among China's intellectuals. They played a leading role in the Ch'iang-hsüeh hui (Society for the Study of National Strengthening), which held its inaugural meeting on Aug. 22, 1895.
Liang at this time began his long journalistic career by serving as one of the chief contributors to the reform newspaper founded by the society. The Ch'iang-hsüeh hui's promotion of constitutional and democratic ideas inevitably provoked opposition among conservative officials in the Peking government, and in early 1896 the government proscribed the reform group and its publications.
Undeterred, Liang quickly resumed his reform propaganda, serving as editor of a newspaper in Shanghai and subsequently as a dean of Chinese studies in a school established by progressive gentry in the province of Hunan. Among the reforms Liang was now advocating were the establishment of constitutional government, industrialization of the economy, introduction of Western subjects into the educational curriculum, and the ending of footbinding and opium smoking.
In 1898 Liang's teacher, K'ang Yu-wei, had gained the confidence of the Emperor, and the famed Hundred Days Reform movement had begun. Liang rushed to Peking to participate in this ill-fated attempt at restructuring much of the Chinese nation. During the reforms Liang served in a nominally relatively low position but was, nevertheless, viewed as a leader of the reformers. When the empress dowager terminated the reforms on Sept. 21, 1898, Liang fled to Japan.
During the next 13 years Liang's popularity and influence reached their apogee. In 1899 K'ang Yu-wei organized the Pao-huang hui (Society to Protect the Emperor) to oppose the despotic rule of the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi and to garner support for a constitutional monarchy under the unfortunate emperor Kuang-hsü.
Thus far in his career, Liang had displayed little disagreement with the ideas of K'ang Yu-wei. Now in Japan, however, exposure to the relatively modern society of Japan and to Western writings such as John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and Jean Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract opened for him new and exhilarating vistas. Whereas K'ang considered Confucianism essential for the maintenance of China's cultural and political integrity, Liang now thought that Confucianism was an obstacle to the modernization and strengthening of the nation.
This new intellectual independence resulted in a rift with K'ang that was never entirely healed. Liang's political views now assumed a radical cast, and he espoused the Ch'ing dynasty's replacement by a republican form of government. He briefly cooperated with Sun Yatsen's revolutionary movement, but by 1903 Liang disavowed these radical views as a result of a trip to the United States and resumed his cooperation with K'ang in striving for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in China. The trip convinced Liang that the Chinese people were not yet adequately trained or educated to permit the effective operation of democratic institutions.
Liang wrote prolifically during these years of exile. As editor of several journals, most notably the Hsin-min ts'ungpao (New People's Miscellany), he touched on virtually the entire realm of Western thought. Everything related to the West was within the scope of his interest and knowledgable comment.
This dazzling display of knowledge, presented in a distinctively free and lucid style, brought Liang a fame unequaled by that of any other Chinese writer of the time. The Hsin-min ts'ungpao was read avidly by Chinese students in Japan, and many of the 14,000 copies of each issue were smuggled into China. However, Liang's influence declined after 1905. His commitment to gradual, evolutionary change lost its appeal to the Chinese youth, who were becoming increasingly impatient with the Manchu rulers. And his warnings that political violence would provoke the intervention of the foreign powers did not dissuade most Chinese students in Japan from joining the revolutionary movement led by Sun Yat-sen. It is curious that, after his prolonged polemics against the revolutionary position, Liang himself in late 1910 and in 1911 called for an overthrow of the Manchu rulers. His new radical views doubtless influenced the political moderates within China, and he therefore contributed to their acceptance of the revolution when it erupted on Oct. 10, 1911.
After the revolution Liang returned to China. He led in the formation of the Chin-pu-tang (Progressive party) in 1913, and accepted a series of important governmental appointments from President Yüan Shih-k'ai. However, when Yüan in 1916 attempted to replace the republic with a new dynasty, Liang helped from the rebel movement that forced Yüan to relinquish the throne and restore the republic.
In 1919 Liang went to Europe as a member of China's unofficial delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. This trip greatly disillusioned him about the West. It seemed that the West was culturally and morally bankrupt as a result of its obsession with science and materialism. He now thought that the West must restore a balance of the material and spiritual qualities in life and that China was uniquely equipped to help the West regain an appreciation for the humanistic values.
In 1920 Liang Ch'i-ch'ao became a professor of history at Nankai University in Tientsin. And until his death on Jan. 19, 1929, he devoted himself to teaching and scholarly writings on the intellectual history of China.
Two of Liang's works available in English are History of Chinese Political Thought during the Early Tsin Period, translated by L. T. Chen (1930), and Intellectual Trends in the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, translated by Immanuel C. Y. Hsü (1959). There exist two excellent intellectual biographies of Liang: Joseph R. Levenson, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China (1953; 2d rev. ed. 1967), and Hao Chang, Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and Intellectual Transition in China, 1890-1907 (1971).