Kang Youwei - A Prominent Political Thinker and Reformer
Kang Youwei (康有为; March 19, 1858–March 31, 1927), was a Chinese scholar, noted calligrapher and prominent political thinker and reformer of the late Qing Dynasty. He led movements to establish a constitutional monarchy and was an ardent Chinese nationalist. His ideas inspired a reformation movement that was supported by the Guangxu Emperor but loathed by Empress Dowager Cixi. Although he continued to advocate for constitutional monarchy after the foundation of the Republic of China, Kang's political ideology was never put into practical application.
Kang Youwei was born on March 19, 1858 in Nanhai, Guangdong province. According to his autobiography, his intellectual gifts were recognized as a child by his uncle. Therefore, from an early age he was sent by his family to study the Confucian classics in order to pass the Chinese civil service exams. However, as a teenager he was dissatisfied by the scholastic system of his time, especially its emphasis on preparing for the eight-legged exams, which are artificial literary exercises done during examinations. Studying for exams was an extraordinarily rigorous activity, so he engaged in Buddhist meditation as a form of relaxation, an unusual leisurely activity for a Chinese scholar of his time. It was during one of these meditations that he had a mystical vision which became the theme for his intellectual pursuits throughout his life. Believing that it was possible to read every book and "become a sage" he embarked on a quasi-messianic pursuit to save humanity.
Kang called for an end to property and the family in the interest of an idealized future Chinese nationalism, and cited Confucius as an example of a reformer and not as a reactionary, as many of his contemporaries did. He argued that the rediscovered versions of the Confucian classics were forged to bolster his claims. Kang was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and wanted to remodel the country after Meiji Japan; These ideas angered his colleagues in the scholarly class who regarded him as a heretic.
Kang, along with his famed student, Liang Qichao, were important participants of a campaign to modernize China now known as the Hundred Days' Reform. The reform introduced radical change into the stale Chinese government, and angered conservatives who feared losing power due to the influence of the reformers. The conservative faction's most powerful member, Dowager Empress, ended the reforms and ordered Kang executed through slow slicing. Kang fled to Japan, where with Liang he organized the Protect the Emperor Society, travelled throughout the Chinese diaspora promoting constitutional monarchy and competing with the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen's Revive China Society and Revolutionary Alliance for funds and followers.
After the Qing Dynasty fell and the Republic of China was established in 1912 under Sun Yat-sen, Kang remained an advocate of constitutional monarchy and with this aim launched a failed coup d'état in 1917. General Zhang Xun and his queue-wearing soldiers occupied Beijing, declaring a restoration of Emperor Puyi on July 1. This incident was a major miscalculation. The nation was highly anti-monarchist. Kang became suspicious of Zhang's insincere constitutionalism and that he was merely using the restoration to become the power behind the throne. He abandoned his mission and fled to the American legation. On July 12, Duan Qirui easily occupied the city.
Kang's reputation serves as an important barometer for the political attitudes of his time. In the span of less than twenty years, he went from being regarded as an iconoclastic radical to an anachronistic pariah without significantly modifying his ideology.
Kang was poisoned in the city of Qingdao, Shandong in 1927. He was 69.