LAW Yuk-fun

Photograph of Kang Youwei, circa 1905.

Kang Youwei 康有为, as one of the engineers of the Hundred-Day Reform of 1898, championed for a strong constitutional monarchy in place of Qing imperial rule to facilitate the modernization of China. A coup by conservative elements toppled him from power. Kang fled to Japan and continued to promote constitutional monarchism for China.

Born in Foshan, Guangdong Province, to a scholar-official family, Kang Youwei was raised to be a devoted Confucian and a nationalist. Viewing the unceasing foreign penetration into China, Kang was determined to help the country preserve Chinese cultural heritage. After failing the civil service examination in 1888, Kang turned his attention to education. In his native province he organized an academy that focused on restudying Confucianism and learning Western knowledge in order to find self-strengthening measures to save the country. One of his students was Liang Qichao, who later worked with Kang to lead the Hundred-Day Reform in 1898.

China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) hardened Kang’s determination to urge more comprehensive reform, which a few officials and reformers, such as Feng Guifen in the 1860s, had proposed decades earlier. In the summer of 1895 Kang led one thousand students to Beijing to protest the peace terms imposed by Japan. Kang remained in the capital, where he founded study associations and newspapers and sent memos to senior officials, hoping to awaken the nation to the need to save the country through reform.

Kang’s patriotic zeal finally received attention from Emperor Guangxu, who recruited Kang in June 1898 to reform the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) government. Unlike the previous Self-Strengthening Movement, Kang’s reform program was much more comprehensive. While self-strengthening measures such as promoting economic development and military modernization and learning Western ideas and techniques would continue, Kang renewed Feng’s earlier demands of revising the civil service examination and educational systems. In addition, Kang proposed replacing imperial rule with a constitutional monarchy, modeled on Japan’s Meiji period (1868–1912). Kang urged that Emperor Guangxu should have the determination of Russia’s Peter the Great, who modernized and strengthened Russia as a great power in the early eighteenth century.

Long frustrated by the lack of real power and eager to restore China’s past glory, Emperor Guangxu accepted Kang’s ideas, entrusting him to implement the reforms. Kang, assisted by Liang, helped launch the Hundred-Day Reform. It began on 11 June 1898, but ended on 21 September 1898, as a result of the coup staged by the conservatives led by Empress Cixi, who feared that Kang’s measures would topple the foundation of Qing rule. Kang’s only success was the abolition of the Eight-Legged Essay in the civil service examination, which Feng had failed to achieve during the Self-Strengthening Movement.

After the coup Kang and Liang fled to Japan. There Kang published newspapers and established the Protect the Emperor Society, continuing his vision of a constitutional monarchy. Kang also traveled abroad to seek moral and monetary support from overseas Chinese and foreign governments.

After the 1911 revolution, which resulted in republicanism, Kang returned to China and continued to push for a constitutional monarchy, reasoning that it was a necessary precondition for ultimate attainment of real democracy. From then until his death Kang made several abortive attempts to restore the dethroned Pu-yi, the last Qing monarch. His repeated failures owed much to his ignorance of the strong antimonarchist sentiments across the nation.

Kang died in Qingdao, Shandong Province.

Confucianism and Human Rights

Kang Youwei, widely recognized in his time as a leading modern exponent of Confucianism, believed that China, and Confucianism itself, had to be liberated from a family system intrinsically repressive of the individual. Hard though it is to conceive of Confucianism stripped of its family system, this is what Kang had to say:

We desire that men’s natures shall all become perfect, that men’s characters shall all become equal, that men’s bodies shall all be nurtured. [That state in which] men’s characters are all developed, men’s bodies are all hale, men’s dispositions are all pacific and tolerant, and customs and morals are all beautiful, is what is called Complete Peace and Equality. But there is no means by which to bring this about this way without abolishing the family… To have the family and yet to wish to reach Complete Peace and Equality is to be afloat on a blocked up stream, in a sealed-off harbor, and yet to wish to reach the open waterway. To wish to attain Complete Peace and Equality and yet keep the family is like carrying earth to dredge a stream or adding wood to put out a fire, the more done, the more hindrance. Thus, if we wish to attain the beauty of complete equality, independence and the perfection of [human] nature, it can [be done] only by abolishing the state, only by abolishing the family.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Tu Weiming. (1998). Confucianism and human rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 3.

Further Reading

Hsiao, Kung ch’uan. (1965). The case for constitutional monarchy: K’ang Yu-wei’s plan for the democratization of China. Seattle, WA: Far Eastern and Russian Institute.

Karl, R. & Zarrow, P. (2002). Rethinking the 1898 reform period—Political and cultural change in late Qing China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zhang Hao. (1987). Chinese intellectuals in crisis: Search for order and meaning, 18901911. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Law, Yuk-fun (2009). KANG Youwei. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1235–1236. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

KANG Youwei (K?ng Yo?uwéi ???)|KANG Youwei (K?ng Yo?uwéi ???)

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