Kang Youwei: the revolutionary thinker behind modern China’s transformation

Kang Youwei (1858–1927) has had a profound influence on modern-day China. He imagined a future society in which war had ended and nation-states had disappeared, to be replaced by a single socialist and democratic world state. His work popularised the idea of historical progress in China, inspired the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong, and continues to influence China’s political elite today.

It is for this reason that republican-era politician, writer and Kang’s most influential student, Liang Qichao, called him China’s equivalent to Martin Luther. Luther was a German theologian whose writings popularised Protestantism in the 16th century, sparking a revolutionary movement that transformed many Europeans’ understanding of themselves and their world.

Yet, surprisingly, Kang’s work is barely known outside of east Asia. His radical philosophy deserves to be much better know by anyone seeking to understand China, its history and the possible future of our humanity.

Kang was born into a world in turmoil. In the mid-19th century, the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was being rocked by invasion and a civil war that killed tens of millions.

After a traditional education spent studying the work of China’s most influential philosopher, Confucius, Kang spent time living in meditation in a cave. There, a spiritual awakening convinced him that he was destined to serve humanity as a kind of prophet or sage.

When he was in his 20s, Kang threw himself into political activities. He set up the first Chinese-led anti-footbinding society, which campaigned against the practice of breaking and tightly wrapping young girl’s feet to compress them into a shape considered aesthetically and sexually appealing.

A map of the Qing dynasty marked by the boundaries of modern-day China.
A map of the Qing dynasty marked by the boundaries of modern-day China.

He even won the ear of the emperor who let him launch an ambitious programme of reforms aimed at modernising and democratising the empire. Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the real power behind the throne, was alarmed by the pace of change and promptly put the emperor under house arrest. She chased Kang into exile and executed his fellow reformers, which included his younger brother.

Despite this traumatic event, Kang seems to have mostly enjoyed his exile. By the time it was finally safe to return home, Kang had toured the world and had written one of the most important texts in modern philosophy: the Book of Great Unity. In his book, Kang set out a Chinese utopian vision of the world in which everyone and everything is at peace.

He argued that the boundaries we construct for ourselves – class, race and sex, for instance – are the cause of most of our suffering. In his view, humans should extend their care and concern for others more impartially across the world.

The book also argues for the abolition of private industry (to be replaced by socialism) and private families (to be replaced by free love and collective child-rearing). With the exception of Kang’s lamentable embrace of the racial pseudoscience of his day, the book’s vision of an ideal future society seems blisteringly radical, even today.

Kang’s revolution

Kang’s greatest contribution to Chinese culture is arguably his re-imagination of historical time. Earlier educated Chinese had often imagined social and political change by analogy to natural cycles.

For instance, just as the weather becomes cooler and then hotter as the seasons change, wise governments slowly become corrupt, which triggers rebellions that install new and more appealing leaders, whose virtue then inevitably also starts to decline.

Others imagined history as a process of decline. Confucius, for example, is portrayed in one influential text bemoaning his own era some 2,500 years ago as one of only “moderate prosperity”. He pined for the lost golden age of “great unity” in which “the world was shared by all”.

Kang is the person who turned this story around. He confidently predicted rapid progress through a period of moderate prosperity towards an age of great unity. This “invention” of the idea of historical progress had a profound effect on later generations.

China’s recent history begins to look different once we recognise Kang’s place within it. Chinese elites, in short, have framed their actions in terms that owe perhaps as much to Kang Youwei as they do to Karl Marx.

Mao Zedong once argued that Kang “could not find a way of achieving great unity” because he lacked a theory of working-class revolution. And in 2021, on the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced that the party’s primary goal over its 100 years had been the building of a “moderately prosperous” society. He argued that this had now been achieved with the elimination of extreme poverty in China.

People walking around a busy shopping street in Shanghai.

Understanding Kang will become increasingly important as the 21st century progresses. Over the past decade or so, ordinary people in China have become much more interested in Confucianism and other aspects of traditional culture.

Kang’s interpretation of Confucius as a communist progressive looks more appealing, to more people, than ever before. He has become perhaps the most important reference point, after Confucius himself, in debates among public intellectuals interested in reviving some aspects of traditional culture. Our “Chinese century” may well be the century of Kang Youwei.

Kang’s work deserves a wider audience in the west for another reason too: he is one of the most radical and creative philosophers to ever write on world peace and of transnational democracy. In our globalising world, his work is by no means of purely regional or historical interest.

Reading Kang Youwei can help us understand what world peace might look like and how it might happen.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Daniel Hutton Ferris does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.