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Kang Youwei

Entry updated 26 April 2021. Tagged: Author.

(1858-1927) Chinese author, poet and would-be reformer, influential on Utopian writings of the early twentieth century, although his own work on the subject was published only posthumously. Well-read in international history, Kang published accounts of the political reforms of Russia's Peter the Great and Japan's Meiji Emperor, regarding them both as fine examples for China to imitate. As a young man, he directly petitioned the Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908), encouraging the Emperor's ill-fated attempt to shake up China's moribund system. In 1898, he was forced into fifteen years' exile over his support for these political reforms, which were shut down after a mere hundred days by the Empress Dowager, Cixi (1835-1908). This led him on a prolonged tour of foreign countries, and he returned to China convinced that it was not yet ready for many of the changes he had proposed, particularly democracy.

Kang had previously called for a constitutional monarchy, which seemed treasonously radical in the 1890s, but laughably outmoded by the 1920s. Many of his ideas suffered from a similar chronological backlash, as the very modernism that he had once championed undermined many of his earlier ideological positions. He remains an immensely influential but highly problematic thinker, with some ideas, such as the abolition of private property, that helped inform some of the strategies of the Communist Party, but others, such as a deep interest in Eugenics, that impart a shadow of sinister Social Darwinism to his starry-eyed pronouncements of global unity: a paradise that requires the destruction of all diversity. He worked for much of his life on a work of Prediction that attempted to ground Futures Studies in the ancient historiographical traditions of Confucius (fl 5th century BCE), arguing, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the famous conservative and traditionalist was, in fact, an icon of radical reform. However, although two early chapters appeared in Japan in the 1900s, his Datong Shu ["The Great Concord"] (1937 part trans Lawrence G. Thompson as Ta t'ung-Shu: the one-world philosophy of K'ang Yu-wei 1958) was unpublished during his lifetime, largely removing him from the published "conversation" of utopian thought during his own lifetime. In spite of this, he was a major influence on his protege Liang Qichao, and, through him, on other early Chinese utopianists such as Lu Shi'e and Biheguan Zhuren.

Born in lecture notes from 1884 onwards, but eventually parsed by its author as a counterpart to and furtherance of Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy, Datong Shu posited a gradual reform of human society, expected to take up to a thousand years, in which nations would be federated and then abolished, the black and brown races would be erased from existence through managed racial admixture (see Race in SF), humanity would adopt vegetarianism in stages (from white meat, to fish-only, to fake meat), and women would be granted equal rights of political and marital choice (see Women in SF). Eventually, the white and yellow races were to be integrated until there was no visible difference. Among the glimpses Kang offered of his future world, he foresaw liquidized food, flying houses, high-speed trains (see Transportation), dirigibles (see Airships) and self-driving cars, air conditioning and central heating. Kang's Utopia comes with daily medical check-ups, in a world in which doctors are more highly respected than soldiers. At the culmination of the "Great Concord," Kang hoped for a further Uplift, in which a sufficiently enlightened humanity, lifespans already extended into centuries by medical care and diet, might seek Immortality and travel through astral projection.

However, Kang was wrong-footed by the speed of actual change. He thought that the 1911 revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China came too fast and too soon, leading him to lend his support in 1917 to a short-lived imperial counter-coup. When the Datong Shu was finally published after his death, it was misread by many intellectuals as a Satire in poor taste, arguing that China would have been better off if the Republic had never been established. His work was an inspiration to Mao Zedong, who would proclaim in 1949, the foundational year of the People's Republic of China: "When Kang Youwei wrote Datong Shu, he had not, and could not, have found a path to that Great Harmony." Mao regarded Marxism as the ideal means to make Kang's ideas become workable, leading by 1958, to the open citation of Kang's work in discussions of the "Great Leap Forward" of Communist Party Cultural Engineering. Following the death of Mao, Kang's integration of Confucian tradition and fervent modernization became cornerstones of Party thought regarding "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Arguably, they achieved their apotheosis in 2004, with Hu Jintao's coining of a new slogan: a "harmonious society" (hexie shehui). In modern Chinese, Kang's nomenclature of a "great concord" (datong) continues to distinguish practical discussions of an ideal society from mere "peach gardens" (taoyuan), a mythological term used to describe unlikely or allegorical utopias. "Great Concord" (datong), in fact, often left unexplained, is a common term in many works of contemporary Chinese Futures Studies, discussing China's likely role as an internationalist superpower on the world stage in the 2030s and beyond. [JonC]

Kang Gengsheng (Hong Gang-sang)

born Nanhai, Guangdong, China: 19 March 1858

died Qingdao, China: 31 March 1927

works (selected)

about the author


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