In the wake of the Sino-Japanese War, Kang Youwei works with the Guangxu Emperor to try to replicate Japan’s Meiji reforms, before being crushed by Cixi and other Manchu conservatives.
At the beginning of the episode, I talk some about how westerners have written about Chinese history. A good book that goes really deep into this is Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China. If you’re into that topic, you may also want to read Fabio Lanza’s End of Concern: Maoist China, Activism, and Asian Studies.
Some names from this episode:
Kang Youwei, Confucian advocate of liberal modernization and Qing loyalist
Emperor Guangxu, Emperor of China during this episode, tried to assert his power during Hundred Days Reform
Empress Dowager Cixi, the real power behind the throne
Ito Hirobumi, senior Japanese statesman whose met with Guangxu while Cixi ‘sat behind the curtain’
Yuan Shikai, leader of Chinese army
Rong Lu, conservative Manchu governor of metropolitan region and Cixi loyalist
Kang Guangren, Kang Youwei’s younger brother
Okuma Shigenobu, Japanese prime minister who offered Kang Youwei aid
Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Revolution
Welcome to episode eight of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast!
This episode, we’re going to talk about the reaction in China to the loss to Japan in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, with particular focus on the Confucian reformer Kang Youwei and the 100 Days of Reform in 1898.
But first, you may be wondering, what does all this have to do with global Maoism? After all, this is a podcast about the development of Maoism as a global ideology. But, there is a lot of historical background to that. Maoism emerged in China both as a response to foreign domination of China, and also as a response to longstanding problems in China itself. Its my position that to really understand something, one has to really go back in time and explore the series of events and various phenomena which gave rise to what you’re trying to understand. That means going further back than just proximate causes, the causes that are closest in time and space to thing that you’re studying. That’s why, even though Mao wasn’t born until 1893, we started the podcast with the earliest major war of a European power against China, the Opium War of 1839-1842.
My goal in starting that far back is to situate the development of Maoism in the context of:
a) The range of Chinese responses to the problems foisted upon China by its experience with European, American and Japanese imperialism. Because China did not just jump to having a communist revolution, but went down a road with many tortuous twists and turns and dead ends. So the emergence of Maoism doesn’t come off as a one-to-one response to all of the turmoil and suffering that China went through, but rather as a highly contingent response, and as the result of much more subjective effort on the part of millions of people, after trying out many other things (collectively if not individually), rather than as something more or less automatic and determined by social and economic conditions.
b) To give a full picture of just how daunting the odds were that the Chinese Communist Revolution triumphed against. By the time we get to 1949 the Chinese people will have been put through all kinds of hell, both by foreign powers and by domestic tyrants like Chiang Kai-shek. The story of the Chinese Revolution is a very inspiring one, if you have a good sense of just how serious all the obstacles and difficulties that the Chinese Revolution confronted were. So one of my goals in going into some detail on particular events is to convey just how serious the problems that people faced were. Without particular, concrete knowledge of events, I just don’t see how we can really understand what the Chinese communists were up against.
So, that’s why we’re starting so far back from the main events of the history of Maoism in this podcast. Now, that said, we will eventually get there, and once we’re there, we’ll be there and that’s where we’ll stay.
Now, just to be clear, in discussing the emergence of Maoism in China as a response to foreign aggression and exploitation, I don’t want people thinking that imperialism is the only story going on in China at this time. It’s central to the story we are telling, but China is a huge country, and it’s important to remember that during the 19th century, most Chinese never saw a foreigner in person. There’s an old tradition in foreigners discussing Chinese history making that history somehow about themselves, one way or another. The first Harvard historian of modern China, John Fairbank, pioneered an early approach to Chinese history in the US which saw ‘contact with the West,’ as a decisive break with the Chinese past, and kind of lumped Chinese tradition before contact with the West as an unchanging thing. Then, during the Vietnam War, there were a bunch of left-wing historians who came along and, at least, initially, they just kind of turned that on its head. They also saw foreign intervention in China as the decisive thing in Chinese history, except where Fairbank thought it was mainly good, they thought it was mainly bad. Since then, it has become pretty well established that foreign interventions, while very important, were not the only thing going on in China, and so depending on what topic one is investigating, the issue of foreign imperialism might or might not play a major role in the history. So, I just want us to be clear on this point. We are talking a lot about foreign intervention in China because of its importance to the emergence of Maoism, and in particular if you look at how the story of the Chinese Revolution has been told in China itself, both during the Mao years and today, you can see that in China itself the role of fighting back against imperialism is very important to the Chinese conception of how and why the Chinese Revolution occurred. But I do not want people to think that in talking so much about imperialism, that I am saying it’s the only story to be told about Chinese history during this time period. It’s not. But it is central to the story about Chinese history that I am telling in this podcast.
So, let’s get to that story!
We left off last episode with Japan’s defeat of China in the first Sino-Japanese War, and with the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, which forced a huge war indemnity on China and left Korea as, in practice if not in name, a protectorate of Japan.
The year 1895 marks an important turning point. Despite everything that China had gone through at the hands of European powers since the Opium War began in 1839, the effect of being beaten and humiliated by another Asian power, which was broadly seen as having recently been just as far behind the West as China had been, was devastating. Clearly, self-strengthening had been too little, something more was going to be necessary in order to make China able to defend itself. But despite the renewed urgency of finding some way to modernize China for its own self-defense, the victory of Japan over China raised questions among the western powers about the staying power of the Qing Dynasty and began a period of renewed foreign military intervention in China.
1895 saw the beginning of the last major reform movement aimed at preserving the Qing Dynasty, which was led by an unorthodox Confucian scholar named Kang Youwei and culminated in the 100 Days of Reform in 1898. 1895 was also the year that Sun Yat-sen made his first insurrectionary attempt in Guangzhou. Both of these events reflected the new urgency that Chinese patriots felt in the wake of the loss to Japan.
Kang Youwei was born into a wealthy family in Guangdong Province, in southern China, in 1858 and very early began training to pass the imperial exams by memorizing Confucian texts. He read voraciously and widely, and as his intellectual self-confidence grew as a teenager, he came to see himself as called upon for greatness. In his own words, he “stood, towering and lofty, above the common people. Associating myself with the good and great men of the past.” But his youth was also touched by tragedy, and he felt the early death of his father and then his grandfather very keenly, which prompted him to engage in extended periods of Buddhist meditation and to study Buddhist mysticism, which was unusual for someone preparing himself as a Confucian sage.
Kang ended up adopting a highly unusual way of thinking about Confucius which cast Confucius as a rebel, and he began to make novel arguments about how true fidelity to Confucian ideas meant welcoming change and modernizing Chinese society. In his book A Study of Confucius as a Reformer, Kang argued that Confucius’s writings had been co-opted by later regimes to justify their rule, and that because the Golden Age that Confucius described had never existed, the Confucian vision was one not of an idealized past but of a utopian future. Therefore, true Confucians should be forward-looking and there was no conflict between an alleged Chinese essence and the sort of modernization that had to be adapted from European sources in order for China to develop economically and be able to defend itself militarily.
In this, Kang went well beyond the self-strengtheners who we discussed in episode 5, by denying the contradiction between Western learning and Chinese essence, and in wholly endorsing the modernization of China. While most other Confucian scholars found Kang’s arguments to be “vicious and unbearable,” to quote one of his detractors, he attracted a devoted following of students.
When news of the Treaty of Shimonoseki reached Beijing in 1895, Kang was in Beijing with many other students and scholars for the highest level imperial exams, which were held every three years. The Beijing that Kang had witnessed in 1895 was sordid even before the news arrived of the humiliating treaty. The examination halls where the tests were given for entry into the highest levels of the imperial bureaucracy were filthy and dilapidated, there were rumors of corruption in the selection of the final rosters of candidates for the exams, and the laborers who carried students from their lodgings to the exam halls had rioted and stolen food because of their low pay. In Kang’s words from the time, “No matter where you look in Beijing, the place is covered with beggars. The homeless and the old, the crippled and the sick with no one to care for them fall dead on the roads. This happens every day. And the coaches of the great officials rumble past them continuously; they are as indifferent as the local officials are in the rest of the province.”
When news came to Beijing by telegram in April that China had lost Taiwan to Japan and been forced to pay a colossal indemnity, Kang and some of his close followers began to circulate a petition calling for the rejection of the treaty. Kang drafted a memorial to the Emperor calling for the complete overhaul of the economic and educational systems of China, and over 1300 of the scholars in town for examinations signed on to it, representing every province in China.
Despite defeat by Japan being at the root of this, Kang’s anger was more directed inward at the failures of China’s elite than at Japan. He held up the Meiji reforms of Japan from the 1860s and 1870s as an example for China to follow, showing how in new circumstances it was necessary for new institutions to be created and to be staffed by new men drawn from outside the old bureaucratic system.
Kang’s proposed reforms were considered quite radical at the time, but when you look at them today they don’t seem strange at all. The first point was to raise taxes on the rich to expand the nation’s transportation networks to facilitate trade and economic growth. Second was to develop a rail network, third to encourage industry and develop shipping. Fourth was for China to exploit its own mineral resources, fifth to stabilize the currency, and sixth to develop a postal system. Finally, he added more proposals for alleviating poverty through developing agriculture, industry, education and foreign trade.
Essentially, what Kang was saying was that China needed to put aside its old ways of doing things and remodel itself, at least economically, after the modern European countries, as Japan had already done, and that western learning should be added on to the Confucian educational system. Like I said, by today’s standards, not a very startling proposal. But despite the upsurge in support by the exam takers in Beijing, and Kang staying on in Beijing for an extra three months to push his agenda before returning home to Guangzhou, the reform proposals ran into a stone wall.
However, new events would make the Guangxu Emperor finally open up to Kang Youwei’s ideas.
The Juye Incident
The triggering events which opened the Guangxu Emperor up to Kang’s ideas was an incident involving foreign missionaries, so let’s talk a little bit about what missionaries were doing in China at this time.
Originally, missionaries had been prohibited from going around China and proselytizing. But if you remember from episode four, the unequal treaty signed at the end of the Second Opium War allowed Christian missionaries to travel all around China. If you lived in the countryside, as most Chinese people did, the only sort of foreigner you were likely to see would be a foreign missionary. And when they came to town, they tended to make waves. They came backed up by considerable resources, at least compared to the resources which could be mustered in most small villages, and wanted to build churches and homes in important locations. At the very least, the building of these churches was considered by many locals to disturb the feng shui, or the spiritual energies inherent in the landscape of the region.
But also, village rifts tended to be created by or exacerbated by the new presence of foreign missionaries. They offered material benefits to those who converted, and many Chinese converted in order to gain those benefits. This created a tension between those who converted and those who stuck with traditional Chinese beliefs. Also, the missionaries were immune to punishment by the local law, so they created an alternative authority structure rivaling the local gentry and magistrates, and so traditional local authorities also tended to resent the missionaries’ presence. All of this was made worse when the missionaries actively preached against traditional Chinese cultural practices and beliefs. Many people came to feel that these missionaries threatened Chinese culture, and if they couldn’t legally do something about the missionaries, they could certainly act illegally.
This is what happened in 1897 in a small village just outside the town of Juye, in Shandong province. Two German Catholic missionaries were killed by local villagers. This wasn’t the first time that missionaries had been killed, and given how vulnerable missionaries were and how aggressive they could be in criticizing local beliefs, it’s kind of amazing that more missionaries hadn’t been killed. But in this period of aggressive German expansion, when Germany was upset that France and England had managed to get to Africa and Asia before it and snap up all the good colonies, Germany was eager for the pretext to make war against China and get whatever concessions it could from China.
So, two weeks after the Juye Incident, German battleships showed up in Jiaozhou Bay on the southern side of the Shandong Peninsula and forced China to sign a 99 year lease, essentially giving Germany possession of Jiaozhou Bay and the hinterland around the bay. Now, if you’re not familiar with Chinese geography, I want you to look at a map of China. The Shandong Peninsula is huge, and Jiaozhou Bay is a prominent feature on the Peninsula. It’s where the major city of Qingdao is. (And, as you may have guessed, the Qingdao brewery was founded by the Germans while it was a German colony. It’s no coincidence that China’s best known beer has its origins in German colonialism in China.)
In early 1898 Kang Youwei had returned to Beijing with a plan to organize candidates for the triennial exams for reform, as he had done 1895. He was called before some of the most powerful officials in the empire to present his views. The meeting did not start off auspiciously, when a senior Manchu official declared that “The laws of the ancestors cannot be changed.” Kang responded that “The laws of the ancestors were designed for the administration of the land of the ancestors. Now if we cannot even defend the land of the ancestors, how can we talk of their laws?” At the end of the meeting he was asked to write up his views as a memorial to the Emperor.
Meanwhile, the situation with foreign powers became even more tense. After Germany’s seizure of Jiaozhou Bay, Britain began demanding Weihaiwei, the port on the northern side of Shandong where the Chinese navy had been headquartered before it was destroyed by Japan. And Russia began demanding port cities in southern Manchuria. It seemed as if the Europeans and Japan might carve up China between them into several colonies, just as the Europeans had done with Africa.
As we discussed back in episode five, the real power behind the throne at this time was the Empress Dowager Cixi. Even though the Guangxu Emperor had formally taken power in 1889 when he turned 18, Cixi had remained the real power. Now, pressed by events, Guangxu felt the need to act to save the Empire, and he summoned Kang Youwei to meet with him in June 1898 and began to implement Kang’s reformist proposals.
Soon, Guangxu had abolished the formalistic essay system used in the imperial examination, ordered local temples converted into schools and begun to set up government ministries to develop agriculture and industry. Throughout the summer, one reform followed another. Anyone was now allowed to send a memorial to the Emperor, and so suggestions for change came in from people of humble backgrounds who could never have had the ear of the powerful before. Kang wrote that some of the memorials send to the Emperor were “by country folk and fishermen, written on sheets of paper two feet high,” but that Guangxu read them all. He even accepted criticism from these humble folk, because, according to Kang, “having opened up the way for public opinion to reach the throne, it would not be right to reprimand them and so block their views.”
The Empress Dowager was alarmed, as much at Guangxu’s sudden initiative in exercising power as at the reforms themselves. After all, power was more important to her than any particular imperial policy. Backed by conservative Manchu officials, it was clear that some sort of showdown was going to come between the Cixi and Guangxu.
This period of reform is called the Hundred Days Reform because that’s about how long it took for the showdown with Cixi to come to a head. It began in mid-June and lasted 103 days until September 21.
The final showdown was brought to a head by the visit to China of the powerful Japanese statesman Ito Hirobumi. Ito was touring Korea and China exploring economic opportunities for Japan. When he arrived in China, the Guangxu Emperor wanted to meet with him. Kang Youwei and the Guangxu Emperor were inspired by how the Meiji reforms had transformed Japan so quickly into a modern power, and they wanted to learn directly from a Japanese leader about how this had happened. However, when Ito had his audience with the Emperor, Cixi insisted on being present for the meeting.
Cixi did this thing called “sitting behind the curtain” for the meeting. Which means exactly what it sounds like. It was supposed to be improper for her to be gazed upon by a man, so the Emperor would sit on his throne, and then there was a curtain right by the throne and behind that, she sat on a couch, so she could hear what was being said and intervene in the conversation. It wasn’t unheard of for her to contradict the Emperor if he said something she disagreed with, and as we’ve said before, she was the real power in China at this time.
So, when Cixi decided to sit behind the curtain for the meeting with Ito, Guangxu, who had been exercising his power for the first time in his reign by starting to implement reforms, felt that he couldn’t speak freely with the Japanese statesman and felt that an important opportunity to learn from Japan’s Meiji Reforms had been lost. He decided that it was time to end Cixi’s influence once and for all, and to take full power for himself.
To that end, he approached Yuan Shikai, the general in control of the military and a patron of Kang Youwei, about arresting Cixi. It’s not entirely certain exactly what Yuan did next, but he definitely did not arrest Cixi. It seems likely that he instead informed Rong Lu, one of Cixi’s closest followers and the governor-general of the capital region. Because what happened next was that Rong Lu had his own forces move in and put the Emperor under house arrest.
And that was the end of the Hundred Days Reform. Cixi loyalists quickly moved in to arrest prominent reformist scholars who had been helping Guangxu, and six of them were dramatically beheaded, including Kang’s younger brother, Guangren, who Kang had asked to stay behind and pack up his books and personal property, thinking that Guangren would not be targeted in the repression. Tipped off just ahead of the coup, Kang Youwei managed to board a boat bound for Hong Kong and saved his life.
Wealthy Chinese supporters welcomed Kang in Hong Kong, and the Japanese government of Okuma Shigenobu invited Kang to Japan and offered him assistance. However, Kang’s hopes for Japanese intervention to restore the Guangxu Emperor were crushed when Okuma’s government fell on October 31, 1898, just five days after Kang’s arrival in Japan.
Sun Yatsen was also in Japan when Kang arrived, and tried to set up a meeting between them, but Kang refused to meet with him, emphasizing that he was still loyal to the rightful Manchu Emperor, while Sun wanted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
Kang’s next move was to appeal to the United States to intervene to restore the Emperor, but he couldn’t even get into the country to appeal to the McKinley administration, because the United States demanded an official guarantee of good character to let him in to the country, and the Qing court was not going to give him one, for obvious reasons.
So Kang landed in Canada instead of the United States, and received a very warm welcome from the Chinese community in Vancouver and also from the Canadian government. Finally making his way to London, Kang’s appeal for British intervention to restore the Guangxu Emperor sparked a heated debate and a close vote in Parliament.
The main appeal to the British seemed to be that a strong, modernized China would keep Russia in check in the Far East. But at the end of the day, the motion to intervene in China and restore the Emperor to real power (he had not actually been stripped of his position, he was just powerless in practice and being kept under house arrest), was defeated by 14 votes after an eight hour debate.
By this point Kang was running out of funds and had exhausted his hopes for having a foreign power restore Guangxu to power. His options now were reduced to raising funds and propagating his ideas among overseas Chinese communities, a path that Sun Yat-sen had begun to blaze a few years before.
In 1949, not long before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong gave a speech called “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” As part of this speech, he discussed the legacy of Kang Youwei.
He described him as someone, and I’m quoting now, “who had looked to the West for truth before the Communist Party of China was born. Chinese who then sought progress would read any book containing the new knowledge from the West. The number of students sent to Japan, Britain, the United States, France and Germany was amazing. At home, the imperial examinations were abolished and modern schools sprang up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain; every effort was made to learn from the West. In my youth, I too engaged in such studies. They represented the culture of Western bourgeois democracy, including the social theories and natural sciences of that period, and they were called ‘the new learning’ in contrast to Chinese feudal culture, which was called ‘the old learning.’ For quite a long time, those who had acquired the new learning felt confident that it would save China, and very few of them had any doubts on this score, as the adherents of the old learning had. Only modernization could save China, only learning from foreign countries could modernize China. Among the foreign countries, only the Western capitalist countries were then progressive, as they had successfully built modern bourgeois states. The Japanese had been successful in learning from the West, and the Chinese also wished to learn from the Japanese…
“Imperialist aggression shattered the fond dreams of the Chinese about learning from the West. It was very odd — why were the teachers always committing aggression against their pupil? The Chinese learned a good deal from the West, but they could not make it work and were never able to realize their ideals.”
That was Mao Zedong’s summation of the trend of modernizers like Kang Youwei, who hoped for the help of Japan, Britain and the United States in modernizing China. Indeed, it would not be long before all three of those countries who Kang Youwei appealed to have invade China would do so. But it would be for a very different purpose than he had hoped for.
We’ll talk about that in our next episode.