Wang T'ao

The Chinese reformer and scholar Wang T'ao (1828-1897) was a pioneer of modern journalism in China and one of the earliest advocates of economic and political modernization.

On Nov. 10, 1828, Wang T'ao was born in Kiangsu Province, near the city of Soochow. Wang endeavored in his youth to become a scholar, like his father, and he studied the Confucian classics in preparation for the civil service examinations. He successfully completed the first examination in 1845, but he failed in the second, or provincial, examination the following year. This was his last attempt to find a career in the state bureaucracy.

In 1848 Wang went to Shanghai, where he met several foreign missionaries, one of whom invited him in 1849 to become Chinese editor in the publishing operations of the London Missionary Society. He remained in this position until 1862, when he had to flee Shanghai after being accused of passing information to the Taiping rebels. Thereafter his life was in danger, and he took refuge in the British colony of Hong Kong.

Soon after his arrival in Hong Kong, Wang began a close and fruitful association with the British missionary James Legge. For over ten years Wang assisted Legge in the monumental undertaking of translating the Confucian classics. Legge developed a keen admiration for his Chinese assistant, writing that Wang "far excelled in classical lore any of his countrymen whom the Author had previously known." In December 1867 Wang followed Legge to Great Britain, where they continued their scholarly cooperation. Wang stayed in Europe, mostly in Scotland, for two years, during which time he delivered a highly successful lecture at Oxford University. He returned with Legge to Hong Kong in 1870, and their work continued there until Legge left permanently for England in 1873.

Wang T'ao, meanwhile, had embarked on an independent career of writing and publishing. As early as the 1860s, he began his journalistic endeavors as editor of the foreign-owned Hong Kong News. And in 1873 he founded his own Chinese-language newspaper. As a result of his bold innovation, provocative editorials, and intelligible style, he became renowned as a founder of modern Chinese journalism.

Advocate of Reform

During the 1870s and 1880s Wang wrote prolifically on an almost infinite variety of subjects, among which were books on the general history of France (1871) and a detailed account of the recent Franco-Prussian War (1873). But it was his writings advocating the adoption in China of Western learning that ensured him of an enduring historical importance. While most of his contemporaries favored the adoption of Western techniques only as a means to preserve Chinese culture, Wang T'ao suggested that even Confucian values and Chinese institutions might have to be altered if the Chinese nation was to become strong and prosperous. By granting primacy to the Chinese "nation" rather than to the "culture," Wang displayed a characteristic of modern nationalism that most Chinese literati did not reveal until the late 1890s.

In his reformist writings, Wang stressed that military modernization alone would not suffice to protect China from the Western intrusion. Instead, he argued that China must develop a modern and dynamic economy—complete with banks, railroads, telegraphs, and machine industry—to compete with the foreigners. Wang was also a warm admirer of Western constitutional democracy. He never explicitly advocated the establishment of parliamentary government in China, yet he clearly believed this was a source of the power of the European states. He expressed the hope that in China there could exist the same spirit of mutual trust and cooperation between the government and the people that he thought existed in the democratic countries of the West. While expressing admiration for the West, he bitterly criticized the corruption, waste, and inefficiency of the ruling government in Peking.

In 1879 Wang toured Japan, where he was welcomed enthusiastically. In 1884 he finally felt it safe to resume residence in Shanghai, where he remained until his death.

Further Reading on Wang T'ao

An informative chapter on Wang T'ao is in Roswell S. Britton, The Chinese Periodical Press, 1800-1912 (1933). Also helpful is Lin Yutang, A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China (1936). For general background see O. M. Green, The Story of China's Revolution (1945).

Additional Biography Sources

Cohen, Paul A., Between tradition and modernity: Wang T'ao and reform in late Ch'ing China, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

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