A Chinese scholar at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

By Lee Moore | May 14, 2020

Kang Youwei and Late Qing Nationalism

In the early part of the previous century, China and its people were ravenous for ideas from outside their borders. One scholar traveled the globe, only understanding his own country when he got to the other side of the world.

Increasingly, China has responded to criticism of its handling of COVID-19 with nationalistic rhetoric. The recent spat with the U.S. has led some scholars to draw comparisons with the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901). Nationalism has even come to shape the country’s diplomacy, with people calling it “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” after the jingoistic action movie Wolf Warrior 2. But as China butts heads with the U.S. and others, it has thinking about times throughout history when China actually looked outside its borders for answers.

These days, I often find myself going back to the late Qing, when China was part of a global marketplace of ideas but also racked by paroxysms of nationalism. By 1910, one of the most widely read books in China was Uncle Tom’s Cabin — just one of numerous foreign novels and scientific treatises pouring into the hands of a populace thirsty for knowledge. There were also, of course, crackpot theories inspired by the West: Some bought into the theory that the ancient Chinese people had migrated to the Yellow River Valley from Babylon, under the belief that all good things came from the West. Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān) (1866-1925) subscribed to this thinking, suggesting as proof that Chinese civilization, if it had been indigenous, would have emerged in the more fertile Pearl River Delta rather than the more arid north.

Just before the dynasty collapsed in 1911/1912, one scholar tried to save the country by combining Western models with traditional Chinese learning. He failed, but the lessons he learned are still relevant today.

Kāng Yǒuwéi 康有为 (1858-1927) was not a stereotypical Confucian scholar. Though he did found his own Confucian academy in Guangzhou, his hometown, he rejected traditional Chinese pedagogy of “stuffing the duck” (填鸭式教学 tiányā shì jiàoxué), blindly following Mencius (孟子 Mèngzǐ), Zhū Xī 朱熹, and other orthodox philosophers. Rather, at the beginning of his studies, he veered away from Confucian texts, instead dabbling in Buddhism and other types of scholarship (this is what qualified as teenage rebellion in the late Qing). Even when he returned to the traditional Confucian canon, he refused to be doctrinaire, incorporating Western elements into his teaching. 

In 1895, Kang Youwei became involved in a student-led political movement that attempted to compel the Qing emperor to push back against Japanese demands in the First Sino-Japanese War. Politically, it was a failure, but the movement both launched Kang’s career and presaged the 1919 May Fourth Movement

In 1898, Kang briefly reached the pinnacle of political power during what was called the Hundred Days Reform (戊戌变法 wùxū biànfǎ). Kang was taken on by the relatively young Emperor Guangxu and tasked with using outside ideas to transform China into a modern country. 

But as the English name indicates, these efforts were short-lived. Conservatives worried that Kang’s use of Western ideas might destroy the country, so they plotted against him and his reforms. After approximately 100 days in office, conservatives rallied, retaking the reins of government, virtually imprisoning the emperor and forcing Kang to flee for fear of his life. His brother, another leader of the movement, was not so lucky, and was executed. 

After Kang fled, he traveled a great deal. He lived in Victoria, Canada for a while, partnering with Chinese gangsters. He invested in property in Torreón, in northern Mexico. He founded the Society to Protect the Emperor (保皇社 bǎo huáng shè), which was meant to restore the emperor and Kang’s Westernizing reforms. 

During these travels, he worried about the nationalistic turn that China was taking, and the way it was weakening China. Just after he fled the country, the Boxers, a nationalistic populist movement, took over Beijing, killing foreigners and claiming to restore traditional China. Outside powers responded to the uprising by invading Beijing, sacking the imperial palaces, and sending the Qing government fleeing. As Kang traveled, he soon began to see looted Chinese treasures appearing in museums in Britain and France. Kang worried that nationalism was self-destructive and would become the death rattle of the Qing. 

Even as he wandered the world, Kang’s writing always turns back to China, but it does so in a way that uses the situation outside the country to think through questions inside it. One example is a strange poem that Kang wrote upon his visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The poem is long, almost 1,000 characters of dense, literary Chinese, but a short passage from it will give a sense of how Kang’s thinking connected China’s present situation with the history of other nations:

Rome rose in power,


and many times it raised its whip.


They killed 500,000,


the city walls circled in blood…


I personally come to see the ruins of the temple,


the Chinese should beware of the present state of the Jews.


Their precious treasures have been taken to Rome,


the aching hearts are difficult to forget.


Kang sees the history of the Jewish people as a warning to the Chinese. After an intensely nationalistic uprising at Masada, the state of the ancient Israelites was destroyed and the Jewish people limped on only as a diaspora. For Kang, the fate of the Jews foreshadowed the fate of China. The Jews had come to believe in their magnificence and were unwilling to look beyond their borders and recognize that the world around them was changing. They were too enamored with nationalism to recognize the threat of a growing Rome.

The Wailing Wall, where Jewish men pray around the dilapidated remains of a once-great temple built by Solomon, embodies the threats of nationalism. Kang has already seen China’s imperial treasures scattered throughout Western museums, just as happened with the Jews. Kang worried that nationalism might continue to blind China to the threat that outsiders — both their military strength but also their ideas — might pose to the integrity of the Chinese state. 

Reading about China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, I have been thinking a great deal about Kang Youwei. What makes China stronger: turning toward nationalism, or learning from the rest of the world? It is not hard to guess how Kang would have answered.