Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei)

Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei)
Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei)
Kang Youwei (K’ang Yu-wei) came from a scholarly family in Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province in southern China. A child prodigy, he distinguished himself in classical Confucian studies.

Deeply impressed with the orderliness and efficiency of the British colonial administration in Hong Kong and Shanghai, he was inspired to take up Western studies through reading all available translations; they helped him form views on how to strengthen China against the threat of foreign encroachment.

Kang wrote two books, the Datong Shu (or Ta-tung Shu, The Great Commonwealth) and Confucius as a Reformer. A utopian and syncretic thinker, he redefined the Confucian way to include Western methods to legitimize the inclusion of Western institutions inside the Confucian framework. He also established a school to teach his unorthodox and controversial ideals.

In 1895 Kang went to Beijing (Peking) to take part in the triennial metropolitan examinations. The date coincided with China’s disastrous defeat at the hands of Japan and the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War.

In response, Kang and his student Liang Qichiao (Liang Ch’i-ch’iao) coauthored a long memorial to the throne to protest the peace treaty and to urge the Qing (Ch’ing) court to initiate institutional reforms.

It was cosigned by 603 of the candidates also gathered in Beijing to take the exams. Kang passed the exams with flying colors and was appointed to a government position in Beijing.

Between 1895 and 1898 he and his friends established a number of study societies throughout China that sponsored public lectures, translated foreign books into Chinese, published newspapers and magazines, and established libraries and museums.

He also continued to submit memorials (a practice he had begun in 1888) to the court with specific recommendations for reforms. Despite objections from conservative high officials, the young Emperor Guangxu (Kuang-hsu) was impressed with his arguments and granted him an audience on January 24, 1898.

Many more followed that culminated in the appointment of Kang and his allies to important positions. For 103 days, between June 11 and September 20, more than 40 decrees were promulgated that mandated thorough reforms in government administration, the military, and education.

Inevitably, they aroused strong opposition from inside and outside the court and served as the pretext for the emperor’s aunt, the dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), to retake control in a coup d’état, put the emperor under permanent detention, and rescind all the reforms.

Kang escaped arrest with the help of British diplomats and continued to write, raise funds and recruit followers against Cixi during his long exile. He never wavered in his belief that a constitutional monarchy was a necessary transition stage from autocracy to democracy in China. As leader of the Constitutional Party, he opposed the 1911 republican revolution led by Sun Yatsen and was critical of the political system it established.

He was involved in the abortive attempts to restore the monarchy in 1917 and 1923, which tarnished his reputation as a utopian and reformer. But he never abandoned his vision that China could be peacefully transformed into a model democracy by combining the best of both Western institutions and Confucian ideals.