Kang Yuwei

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KANG YUWEI (18581927), political reformer and Confucian thinker of modern China. Kang Yuwei first attained national prominence as leader of the political reform movement that ended in the defeat of the Hundred Days Reform of 1898. Although primarily political, the movement also had a spiritual and moral dimension. Kang called not only for the "protection of the nation" but also for the "preservation of the faith," by which he meant the spiritual revitalization of Confucianism and the promotion of its teachings as the state religion. This position was partly a response to the cultural and political crises that China was undergoing at the time. By revitalizing Confucianism, Kang hoped to strengthen China's self-esteem and national solidarity. But his call for the "preservation of the faith" must not be seen solely in this practical light; it was also the culmination of a moral and spiritual quest that had started in his early youth.

Kang Yuwei was born to a family of scholars and officials in Nanhai County, Guangdong Province. His father died while Kang was still a child, and thereafter his grandfather, a devoted Neo-Confucian scholar, personally took charge of the boy's education. Shortly before the age of twenty, Kang entered a period of spiritual restlessness, triggered by the sudden death of his grandfather and by the beginning of his subsequent apprenticeship under an inspiring Confucian teacher. He rebelled against his conventional Confucian education and temporarily withdrew from society altogether. Plunging into a frantic intellectual search, he fell under the influence of various non-Confucian persuasions, especially Mahāyāna Buddhism, philosophical Daoism, and "Western learning."

Kang's intellectual quest finally culminated in the formation of a moral and historical worldview that he expressed in a series of writings published in the decade from the early 1890s to the early 1900s. Based on a bold and comprehensive reinterpretation of Confucianism that centered on the pivotal Confucian ideal of ren (human-heartedness), this view also reflected, in its redefinition of ren, ang's interest in non-Confucian thought. Ren provided Kang with a worldview that saw the essential and ultimate state of the cosmos as a selfless all-encompassing whole. Kang also retained the Confucian belief central to ren that the intrinsic goal of human existence is the moral perfection of individual and society. But his definition of moral perfection bears the profound influence of non-Confucian thought, for his vision of the ideal society, the "great unity" (datong ), was that of a universal moral community where egalitarianism, libertarianism, and hedonism would prevail. Since his conception of hedonism resulted from the impact of the materialistic doctrines of Western industrial society, his ideal society offered the radical combination of moral perfection, technological development, and material abundance.

The radical tendencies in Kang's conception of ren were tempered by his teleological notion of histroy heavily influenced by the modern Western thought. In his view, the full realization of the ideal can be attained only through the gradual course of historical developement. Borrowing a scheme from an ancient commentary on the Confucian classic Chun qiu, Kang took the view that human history evolves through three stages, from "the age of chaos," which lay in the past, through an intermediate age of "emerging peace," to the final stage of "universal peace," or "great unity," to be realized in the future. Kang insisted that it was for this latter age alone that his radical reevaluation of ren was appropriate. He believed that, meanwhile, in the era preceding the "age of great unity," many of the conventional values of Confucianism remained relevant. These were the tenets of the moral-historical worldview that lay at the core of his efforts to have Confucianism accepted as a state religion.

Kang's reform movement culminated in 1898, when, under his guidance, the Guangxu emperor attempted to put into practice a wide-ranging program of political reform. The intervention of the dowager empress Cixi, who moved to imprison the emperor and nullify the imperial edicts little more than three months after they were issued, brought Kang's reforms to an abortive end. Together with his student Liang Qichao, Kang fled China and began an exile that lasted until 1913. During this period he continued his reformist efforts abroad and traveled extensively, deepening his understanding of the social and political forces that were shaping the modern world.

Upon his return to China, Kang resumed his efforts to implement the promotion of Confucianism as a state religion. Convinced that the revolution of 1911, in which the traditional monarchy had been replaced by a republican form of government, had only served to impede the historical evolution of the ideal society, he joined the warlord Zhang Xun in an ill-fated attempt to restore Manchu rule in 1917. In the writings of his later years, Kang remained faithful to the interpretation of Confucianism that he had formulated in the 1890s, but, because the intellectual climate of China had changed, his views never regained their former influence.


Hsiao Kung-chuan. A Modern China and a New World: K'ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 18581927. Seattle, 1975.

Lo Jung-pang, ed. and trans. K'ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium. Tucson, 1967.

Thompson, Laurence G., trans. Ta T'ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K'ang Yu-wei. London, 1958.

Fang Delin. Ruxue di Weiji yu Shanbian: Kang Youwei Yu Jindai Ruxue. Taipei, 1992.

Zang Shijun. Kang Youwei datong Sixiang Yenjiu. Guangdong, 1997.

Hao Chang (1987 and 2005)