An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Kang Youwei 康有爲

May 7, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Kang Youwei 康有爲Kang Youwei 康有爲 (1858-1927, also called Kang Zudai 康祖詒, courtesy name Guangxia 廣廈, style Changsu 長素, jinshi degree 1895) was a politician and philosopher of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He is famous for his initiating the Reform Movement of 1898 戊戌變法. As a politician he was a reformer of the absolutist monarchy of imperial China and tried to replace it by a constitutional monarchy.

Kang Youwei, hailing from Nanhai 南海, Guangdong, received a traditional Confucian training by Zhu Ciqi 朱次奇. Impressed by the continuous defeats of the Qing government by the Western powers he approached the intention of the representatives of the Self-Strengthening Movement 自強運動 to reform China's economic structure in order to be able to withstand foreign influences. As a Confucian philosopher he tried to interprete Confucius' teachings in a way that reform of a government was inevitable to adapt to the political circumstances of the time. In the early 1880s he travelled to Hong Kong and Shanghai and made studies of the political systems of Western countries by way of reading translations of Western books and journals. In 1885 he compiled is books Kangzi neiwaipian 康子内外篇 "Inner and outer treatises by Master Kang" and Shili gongfa quanshu 實理公法全書 "The complete book on the veritable order and public law [of a state]", in the following year the book Jiaoxue tongyi 教學通義 "The comprehensive meaning of teaching, in which he stressed the importance of education for politics and the use of political examples from the past to adapt them to modern conditions.

In October 1888, after China's defeat in the Chinese-French War 中法戰爭, he submitted his first petition to the Guangxu Emperor 光緒 (r. 1874-1908) in which he explained that only reform in politics and the government structure could save China from further defeat. Administrative reforms, he thought, were equally important as an opening of the emperor's feelings towards the people and his acceptance of his advisor's suggestions. The petition was not received. In the following years he committed himself to teaching in his home province and in Guilin where he compiled the books Changxing xueji 長興學記 "Notes on teachings about a long-lasting prosperity [of a state]" and Guixue wenda 桂學問答 "Answering questions of my disciples in Guilin". He made research in the so-called New-Text Classics 今文經 of the Confucian Canon, and in the Gongyang Commentary 公羊傳 to the "Spring and Autumn Annals" Chunqiu 春秋 he discovered suggestions for government reforms, as well as the seed of a concept for a future society that was more leveled and just than the society of contemporary China.

This was the society of the "great unity" (datong 大同). In his studies of the Confucian writings Kang Youwei discerned between originary Confucian writings and those "forged" by Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) writers. Confucius had never written anything but only transmitted the teachings of the old virtuous rulers. Kang's dispise of Han period scholars made him enemies that would later attack him during the Reform Movement. His most important writing in this respect is the book Kongzi gaizhi kao 孔子改制考 "About Confucius' approach towards governmental reform".

China's disastrous defeat in the war against Japan in 1894 甲午戰爭 was a shock for whole China because China was forced to cede territory to her own cultural disciple. In May 1895 more than one thousand participants of the state examinations submitted a petition to the emperor, asking for retreating from the peace treaty concluded with Japan, for a transferral of the capital, enforced training of troops, as well as for governmental reform. After passing the examination Kang Youwei was appointed a clerk (zhushi 主事) in the Ministry of Works (gongbu 工部). In this position he submitted a third and then a fourth petition to the emperor and again made clear how important reforms were for strenghening the state and supporting the people. Education and a professional military played an important role in his concept. Kang also made private publications, like the Wanguo gongbao 萬國公報 "A public report about all countries" (later called Guowai jiwen 國外紀聞 "News from all foreign countries"). This book was well received by some court officials, especially Wen Tingshi 文廷式 and Chen Chi 陳熾. With these persons he established the Qiangxuehui 強學會 "Society for the Enhancement of Learning". In Shanghai he published a relevant newspaper called Qiangxuebao 強學報 through which he propagated his concept of governmental reform.

Germany's occupation of the Jiaozhou Bay 膠州 was a further reason for a direct address towards the Emperor in which he admonished the ruler to make use of competent advisors to learn from the political systems of other countries. Otherwise China would be lost. On January 24, 1898 finally the emperor had him come to the Foreign Office 總理衙門 where he was received. Kang Youwei criticized the immoveable standpoint of Prince Ronglu 榮祿 and the conservatism of the powerful governor-general Li Hongzhang 李鴻章. He was allowed to submit his concept through Weng Tonghe 翁同龢. In April the Baoguohui 保國會 "Society for the Protection of the Country" was established that wanted to protect the state, society and education. Weng Tonghe, Xu Zhijing 徐致靖 and Yang Shenxiu 楊深秀 encouraged the Guangxu Emperor to promulgate reforms. On June 16, Kang Youwei was for the first time personally received by the Emperor and submitted his studies on government reforms in Russia and Japan. The following reform period is also called weixin bianfa 維新變法 "renewal and reform".

The concrete measures were drafted by Kang Youwei and Tan Sitong 譚嗣同. After 90 days the reforms were stopped by a large groups of court officials supported by the Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后. She was therefore later blamed with the abortion of the reform out of conservative reasons. Kang Youwei fled to Shanghai and then further to Hong Kong. After a virtual odyssey he settled down in Canada where he founded, together with Li Fuji 李福基, the Baohuanghui 保皇會 "Society for the Protection of the Emperor". With this intention he also supported, together with Tang Caichang 唐才常, the foreign powers that suppressed the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the members of which attacked the Manchu Qing dynasty as foreign rulers.

In the following years Kang resumed his studies of the Confucian classics and compiled his most famous philosophical book, the Datongshu 大同書 "Book of the Great Unity". In 1907 his society was renamed with the more conrete title of Diguo xianzheng hui 帝國憲政會 "Society for a Constitutional Empire". After the Revolution of 1911 辛亥革命 and the demise of the empire he criticized the attempts at a democratic constitution. In 1913 he returned to China and published some articles in Shanghai. Kang Youwei died as a disappointed monarchist.

Kang Youwei's collected writings were published by Jiang Guilin 蔣貴麟 as Kang Nanhai xiansheng yizhu huikan 康南海先生遺著匯刊 and Wanmucaotang yigao 萬木草堂遺稿.

Tang Zhijun 湯志鈞 (1992). "Kang Youwei 康有爲", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 516.