Kang Youwei

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Kang Youwei
Born (1858-03-19)19 March 1858
Nanhai District, Guangdong, Qing Empire
Died 31 March 1927(1927-03-31) (aged 69)
Qingdao, Shandong, Republic of China
Other names Kang Zuyi 康祖詒
Kang Guangxia 康廣廈
Known for Leader in the Gongche Shangshu movement
Leader in the Hundred Days' Reform
Notable work Reformation of Meiji Emperor (日本明治變政考), and Reformation of Peter the Great (俄大彼得變政記)
Spouse(s) Zhang Yunzhu
Liang Xujiao
He Zhanli
4th wife
Liao Dingzhen
Zhang Guang
Children 15 children, including Kang Tongbi
Relatives Kang Youpu (brother)
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Kang.

Kang Youwei (Chinese: 康有為; Wade–Giles: K'ang Yu-wei; March 19, 1858 – March 31, 1927) was a Chinese scholar, noted calligrapher and prominent political thinker and reformer of the late Qing dynasty. He led movements to establish a constitutional monarchy and was an ardent Chinese nationalist and internationalist. His ideas inspired a reformation movement that was supported by the Guangxu Emperor but loathed by Empress Dowager Cixi, about whom, according to Sterling Seagrave he invented many of the stories which stained her reputation. Although he continued to advocate constitutional monarchy after the founding Republic, Kang's political ideology was never put into practical application.

Early life[edit]

Kang was born on March 19, 1858 in Nanhai, Guangdong province (now the Nanhai District of Foshan City). According to his autobiography, his intellectual gifts were recognized as a child by his uncle. As a result, from an early age he was sent by his family to study the Confucian classics in order to pass the Chinese civil service exams. However, as a teenager he was dissatisfied by the scholastic system of his time, especially its emphasis on preparing for the eight-legged exams, which were artificial literary exercises required as part of the examinations.

Studying for exams was an extraordinarily rigorous activity, so he engaged in Buddhist meditation as a form of relaxation, an unusual leisurely activity for a Chinese scholar of his time. It was during one of these meditations that he had a mystical vision which became the theme for his intellectual pursuits throughout his life. Believing that it was possible to read every book and "become a sage" he embarked on a quasi-messianic pursuit to save humanity.


Kang called for an end to property and the family in the interest of an idealized future cosmopolitan Utopia, and cited Confucius as an example of a reformer and not as a reactionary, as many of his contemporaries did. The latter idea was discussed in great detail in his work Kongzi Gaizhi Kao (孔子改制攷) or Study of the Reforms of Confucius. He argued, to bolster his claims, that the rediscovered versions of the Confucian classics were forged. This idea was treated in detail in Xinxue weijing kao (A Study of the 'New Text' Forgeries). Kang was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and wanted to remodel the country after Meiji Japan. These ideas angered his colleagues in the scholarly class who regarded him as a heretic.

Kang and his noted student, Liang Qichao, were important participants in a campaign to modernize China now known as the Hundred Days' Reform. The reform introduced radical change into the stale Chinese government, many of which were already being implemented. By most popular historical accounts, Dowager Empress ended the reforms and ordered Kang executed by slow slicing. Kang also organized the Protect the Emperor Society, which claimed that the weak emperor was being unduly locked up for his role in the assassination attempt on his adoptive mother/aunt. Kang relied on his principal American military advisor, "General" Homer Lea to head the military branch of the Protect the Emperor Society. Kang even traveled throughout the Chinese diaspora supposedly to promote constitutional monarchy, but mostly to promote his own self-interest. He competed with the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen's Revive China Society and Revolutionary Alliance for funds and followers.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Republic under Sun Yat-sen in 1912, Kang remained an advocate of constitutional monarchy and with this aim launched a failed coup d'état in 1917. General Zhang Xun and his queue-wearing soldiers occupied Beijing, declaring a restoration of Emperor Puyi on July 1. This incident was a major miscalculation. The nation was highly anti-monarchist. Kang became suspicious of Zhang's insincere constitutionalism and that he was merely using the restoration to become the power behind the throne. He abandoned his mission and fled to the American legation. On July 12, Duan Qirui easily occupied the city.

Kang's reputation serves as an important barometer for the political attitudes of his time. In the span of less than twenty years, he went from being regarded as an iconoclastic radical to an anachronistic pariah. In Jung Chang's biography of the Empress Dowager, he is depicted as a self-serving zealot who was always seeking personal power above national considerations.

Da Tongshu[edit]

Kang Youwei
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 康有為
Simplified Chinese 康有为
Hanyu Pinyin Kāng Yǒuwéi
Wade–Giles K'ang Yu-wei
Yale Romanization Hōng Yáuh Wàih
Courtesy name (zi)
Traditional Chinese 廣廈
Hanyu Pinyin Guǎngshà¹
Yale Romanization Gwóng-hah
Courtesy names (hao)
Traditional Chinese 長素
Hanyu Pinyin Chángsù
Yale Romanization Chèuhng-sou
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 明夷
Hanyu Pinyin Míngyí
Yale Romanization Mìhng-yìh
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 更生 or 更甡
Hanyu Pinyin Gēngshēng
Yale Romanization Gāng-sāng
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 西樵山人
Hanyu Pinyin Xīqiáo Shānrén
Yale Romanization Sāi-chīu Sāan-yàhn
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 游存叟
Hanyu Pinyin Yóucúnsǒu
Yale Romanization Yàuh-chyùhn-sáu
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 天游化人
Hanyu Pinyin Tiānyóu Huàrén
Yale Romanization Tīn-yàuh Fa-yàhn
¹ K'ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium gives Guǎngxià 廣夏

The best-known and probably most controversial work of Kang Youwei was the Da Tong shu (大同書). The title of this book derives from the name of a utopian society imagined by Confucius, although it literally means "The Book of Great Unity." The ideas of this book appeared in his lecture notes from 1884, and encouraged by his students, he worked on this book for the next two decades, but it was not until his exile in India that he finished the first draft. The first two chapters of the book were published in Japan in the 1900s, however the book wasn't published in its entirety until 1935, about seven years after his death. In it Kang proposed a utopian future world that would be free of political boundaries, ruled by one central government, but under democratic rule. In his scheme, the world would be split into rectangular administrative districts which would be self-governing under a direct democracy, although still loyal to a central world government. Concomitant with the abolition of political boundaries would also be the dissolution of racial boundaries. Kang outlines an immensely ambitious eugenics program that would eliminate the "brown and black" racial phenotype after a millennia, leading to the emergence of a fair-skinned homogeneous human race whose members would "be the same color, the same appearance, the same size, and the same intelligence."

Tang Poem: Returning Home As An Unrecognized Old Man, Nantoyōsō Collection, Japan
Kang Youwei, circa 1920

His desire to end the traditional Chinese family structure defines him as an early advocate of women's independence in China.[1] He reasoned that the institution of the family that had been practiced by society since the beginning of time was a great cause of strife. Kang hoped it would be effectively abolished. Replacing the family would be state-run institutions, such as womb-teaching institutions, nurseries and schools. Marriage would be replaced by one-year contracts between a woman and a man.[2] Kang considered the contemporary form of marriage, in which a woman was trapped for a lifetime, to be too oppressive. Kang believed in equality between men and women and believed that there should be no social barrier barring women from doing whatever men can.

Kang saw capitalism as an inherently evil system and believed that government should establish socialist institutions to overlook the welfare of each individual. At one point he even advocated that government should adopt the methods of "communism", although it is debated what Kang meant by this term. He was surely one of the first advocates of Western communism in China. In this spirit, in addition to establishing government nurseries and schools to replace the institution of the family, he also envisioned government-run retirement homes for the elderly. It is debated whether Kang's socialist ideas were inspired more by Western thought or traditional Confucian ideals. Lawrence G. Thompsom believes that his socialism was based on traditional Chinese ideals. His work is permeated with the Confucian ideal of ren (仁), or humanity. However Thompson also noted a reference by Kang to Fourier. Thus some Chinese scholars believe that Kang's socialist ideals were influenced by Western intellectuals after his exile in 1898.

Notable in Kang's Da Tong Shu was his enthusiasm and belief in bettering humanity with technology. This was unusual for a Confucian scholar during his time. He believed that Western technological progress had a central role in saving humanity. While many scholars of his time continued to maintain the belief that Western technology should only be adopted to defend China against the West, he seemed to full-heartedly embrace the modern idea that technology is integral for advancing mankind. Before anything of modern scale had been built, he foresaw a global telegraphic and telephone network. He also believed that technology would reduce human labor to the point where each individual would only need to work 3 to 4 hours each day, a prediction that will be repeated by the most optimistic futurists later in the century.

When the book was first published it was received with mixed reactions. Due to Kang's support for the Guangxu Emperor, he is seen as a reactionary by many Chinese intellectuals. People of this camp believed that Kang's book was an elaborate joke, and that he was merely acting as an apologist for the emperor as to how utopian paradise could have developed if the Qing dynasty was not overthrown. Others believe that Kang was a bold and daring proto-Communist who advocated modern Western socialism and communism. Amongst those in the second school was Mao Zedong, who admired Kang Youwei and his socialist ideals in the Da Tongshu. Modern Chinese scholars nowadays often take the view that Kang was an important advocate of Chinese socialism, and despite the controversy Da Tongshu still remains popular. A Beijing publisher included it on the list "One hundred Most Influential Books in Chinese History." It is worth noting that the source of the controversy surrounding Da Tongshu was the inescapably racist attitude the author takes in this eugenic diatribe against the world's colored peoples.[3] " [4]

Philosophical views[edit]

Kang enumerated sources of human suffering, in a way similar to that of Buddhism.

The sufferings associated with man's physical life are: being implanted in the womb, premature death, loss of a limb, being a barbarian, living outside China, being a slave, and being a woman.

The sufferings associated with natural disasters are: famine resulting from flood or drought, epidemic, conflagration, flood, volcanic eruptions, collapse of buildings, shipwreck, and locust plagues.

The sufferings associated with the human relationship are: to be a widow, to be orphaned or childless, to be ill and have no one to provide medical care, to suffer poverty, and to have a low and mean station in life.

The sufferings associated with society are: corporal punishment and imprisonment, taxation, military conscription, social stratification, oppressive political institutions, the existence of the state, and the existence of the family.

The human feelings which cause sufferings are: stupidity, hatred, fatigue, lust, attachment to things, and desire.

The things which cause suffering because of the esteem in which they are held: wealth, eminent position, longevity, being a ruler, and being a spiritual leader.

He also imagined a hierarchy or religions, of which Christianity and Islam were the lowest, above them he placed Confucianism, then Taoism and Buddhism. He predicted that in the future the lower religions will disappear.[5]


Former home of Kang Youwei in Qingdao

Kang died at his home in the city of Qingdao, Shandong in 1927. He was 69.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.iiav.nl/ezines/web/JournalofInternationalWomensStudies/2003/Vol5Nr1/bridgew/Jinghao.pdf
  2. ^ Kang Youwei 2010, Datong Shu, Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, p.310.
  3. ^ Tsu, Jing. Failure, Nationalism, and Literature. Stanford University Press. California. 2005
  4. ^ http://www.white-collar.net/wx_hsl/gdwx/book100/index.html
  5. ^ "The One-World Philosophy of K'ang Yu-Wei" by Shri O. K. Ghosh
  1. Jung-pang Lo. K'ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium. Library of Congress number 66-20911.
  2. M. E. Cameron, The Reform Movement in China, 1898–1912 (1931, repr. 1963); biography ed. and tr. by Lo Jung-pang (1967).
  3. CHANG HAO: "Intellectual change and the reform movement, 1890-1898", in: Twitchett, Denis and Fairbanks, John (ed.): The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 11, Late Ch’ing, 1800–1911, Part 2 (1980). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 274–338, esp. 283-300, 318-338.
  4. FRANKE, WOLFGANG: Die staatspolitischen Reformversuche K’ang Yu-weis und seiner Schule (1935). (Ph.D.).
  5. HOWARD, RICHARD C., "K’ang Yu-wei (1858-1927): His Intellectual Background and Early Thought", in A.F. Wright and Denis Twitchett (eds.): Confucian Personalities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962, pp. 294–316 and 382-386 (notes).
  6. HOWARD, RICHARD C.: The early life and thought of K’ang Yu-wei, 1858-1927 (1972). Ph.D. Columbia University.
  7. HSIAO, KUNG-CHUAN: A Modern China and a New World – K`ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858-1927 (1975). Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  8. KARL, REBECCA and ZARROW, PETER (Hg.): Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period – Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China (2002). Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press, esp. pp. 24–33.
  9. TENG, SSU-YÜ and FAIRBANK, JOHN K.: China's response to the West – a documentary survey 1839-1923 (1954, 1979). Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp. 147–164 (chapter about Kang Youwei).
  10. THOMPSON, LAURENCE G.: Ta t´ung shu: the one-world philosophy of K`ang Yu-wei (1958). London: George Allen and Unwin, esp. pp. 37–57.
  11. ZARROW, PETER: “The rise of Confucian radicalism”, in Zarrow, Peter: China in war and revolution, 1895-1949 (New York: Routledge), 2005, 12-29.
  12. W. Franke, Die staatspolitischen Reformversuche K'ang Yu-weis u. seiner Schule. Ein Beitrag zur geistigen Auseinandersetzung Chinas mit dem Abendlande (in Mitt. des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen, Bln. 38, 1935, Nr. 1, S. 1–83). –
  13. R. C. Howard, "K'ang Yu-wei (1858–1927): His Intellectual Background and Early Thought" (in Confucian Personalities, Hg. A. F. Wright u. D. Twitchett, Stanford 1962, S. 294–316). –
  14. K'ang Yu-wei. A Biography and a Symposium, Hg. Lo Jung-pang, Tucson 1967 (The Association for Asian Studies: Monographs and Papers, Bd. 23).
  15. G. Sattler-v. Sivers, Die Reformbewegung von 1898 (in Chinas große Wandlung. Revolutionäre Bewegungen im 19. u. 20. Jh., Hg. P. J. Opitz, Mchn. 1972, S. 55–81). –
  16. Chi Wen-shun, K'ang Yu-wei (1858–1927) (in Die Söhne des Drachen. Chinas Weg vom Konfuzianismus zum Kommunismus, Hg. P. J. Opitz, Mchn. 1974, S. 83–109). –
  17. Hsiao Kung-chuan, A Modern China and a New World: K'ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858–1927, Seattle 1975.
  18. Kuang Bailin, Kang Youwei di zhexue sixiang, Peking 1980. –
  19. Wuxu weixin yundong shi lunji, Hg. Hu Shengwu, Changsha 1983. –
  20. Tang Zhijun, Kang Youwei yu wuxu bianfa, Peking 1984. – Ders., Wuxu bianfa shi, Peking 1984. –
  21. Chang Hao, Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis. Search for Order and Meaning (1890–1911), Berkeley 1987.

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