In his posthumously-published work, Datong Shu, or The Book of Great Unity, Qing intellectual and statesman Kang Youwei (1858-1927) outlines a utopian image of a united “One World,” or “Great Unity.” In Kang’s utopian society, the “nine boundaries” of human suffering have been abolished: the very concepts of nation (national borders), class, race, sex, family (and its relationships), occupation (private ownership), disorder (unjust law), kind (the separation of humans from animals), and suffering itself (as it provokes further suffering). The One World imagined in Datong Shu is one that prioritizes “rightness,” which is defined loosely as what brings people happiness. It is characterized by the fulfilling, harmonious lives led by its inhabitants, citizens of a united world whose only borders are its arbitrary administrative units.[1]

What is most striking about Datong Shu is the ideological contrast that exists between the ideas Kang presents in his work and the historical context of his times. The world Kang lived in was one dominated and divided by Western imperial domination, yet a work predicting the creation of a harmonious Great Unity was still written in it. The very fact that a text as radically-minded as Datong Shu was written within the context of its times provokes pressing historical questions, questions that are best answered via the methods and perspective of global intellectual history.

In their 2013 work on Global Intellectual History, Moyn and Sartori propose a number of paths that may be adopted by the global intellectual historian. One takes its starting point by defining the “global” as a “subjective category used by historical agents.”[2] In other words, the approach considers how historical actors themselves perceived the concept of the global. This is the historiographical angle that I will take in considering Datong Shu, as I will analyze how Kang conceives of the “global” within his text.

My proposed project seeks to question the ideological disparities between the imagined world of Datong Shu and the historical context in which it was written in order to better understand Kang’s times. What is the vision of the “global” that Kang articulates in his work? What underpins his ideas toward the idea of a world government, a fully-realized “Great Unity?” What does this tell us about the historical nature of 19th and 20th century China, let alone the world? These are the kinds of historiographical questions my proposed project will ask of Datong Shu and its place within history.

My global intellectual approach will be centered around a close reading of Datong Shu. My project will utilize a 1958 translation of the work by Laurence G. Thompson, as I am unable to read the Classical Chinese of the original.[3] I will disclaim this clearly within my work. However, I believe that the inevitable distortions of Datong Shu’s translation will have little impact upon my overall project; I will focus upon Datong Shu’s concepts within a broad historical context, rather than consider the text’s precise definitions and wording.

My close reading of Datong Shu will be informed by a global intellectual history framework that will place it in conversation with other texts and within the context of its times. Much has already been written on Kang as a historical figure and Datong Shu as an intellectual text, but there has yet to be a work that considers Kang’s conception of the global within Datong Shu.[4] Through completing this project, in addition to remedying this historiographical gap, I hope to foster better understandings of Kang’s times and historical conceptions of the global.

[1] K’ang Yu-Wei and Laurence G. Thompson, trans., Ta T’ung Shu (New York, 1958).

[2] Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, “Approaches to Global Intellectual History” in Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, eds., Global Intellectual History, (New York, 2013) pp. 4, 16-17.

[3] K’ang, Ta T’ung Shu.

[4] See Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution (New York, 1981) and Ban Wang, “The Moral Vision in Kang Youwei’s Book of the Great Community” in Ban Wang, ed., Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics (Durham, 2017), pp. 87-105.

Unifying the World? Kang Youwei’s Vision of the Global in Datong Shu

2 thoughts on “Unifying the World? Kang Youwei’s Vision of the Global in Datong Shu

  • March 9, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    I really like the idea of your project Grant! I wonder how you stumbled across Datong Shu/The Book of Great Unity? How well known was Kang Youwei in his own time and what was the reception of Datong Shu by his contemporaries? The whole idea of defining “rightness” as what brings people happiness is very provoking – it reminds me of the documentary Happy (2011) that I watched in my psychology class in high school. Happy explores various communities around the world, interviewing various groups and people about how they perceive and live happiness. It is interspersed with scientists and psychologist talking about “happiness research”, which maybe is something that would be fun for you to check out! Another documentary I can recommend is Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), it focuses on a village in the Siberian Taiga, which has remained relatively unchanged in the past hundred years, and explores how the inhabitants have remained happy and content despite the lack of perceived changes – not as directly related to your project, but if your interested in happiness research or other related content or just want to watch a peaceful documentary, it’s certainly worthwhile nonetheless.
    It would be interesting to contrast how Kang defines happiness versus how happiness is perceived now – maybe not in the bounds of your project, but just something to think about. It makes me wonder if it is possible to write something along the lines of ‘the history of happiness’, how would that work? Probably a lot of primary source reliance, definitely something hard to measure and track throughout time!
    I’m very interested to see how you explore Kang’s work and the context of his time. I love it when the opportunity to explore one person in depth presents itself, especially one who most people probably have never heard of. Your project proposal is written very clearly – it seems like you really hit the jackpot with Kang, as you say there is already a lot of written work on Kang, but not an exploration of Datong Shu’s global potential, which gives you the opportunity to take a fresh and original angle to both Kang and his work. Utopian images of the world definitely give you a lot to work with in terms of intellectual analysation – I’m sure that you’ll have a lot to work with for your project.
    Our projects have a slight overlap in timeline if you’re considering the historical nature of 19th century China. From what I’ve found so far, none of my whalers took any steps to writing any intellectual pieces, but maybe I’ll keep an eye out for any perceptions of happiness that they hold! I look forward to seeing how you progress in your project!

    • March 30, 2020 at 12:30 pm

      Super late response, but thank you for your thoughts! Thinking about “happiness” as a historical concept is an interesting take, and definitely one I haven’t considered. Perhaps I need to look at the text again – what Kang advocates for is the Confucian concept of “ren” or benevolence, which in turn produces happiness and a general sense of happiness / goodness. I may not have characterized his thought here as accurately as I would’ve liked. In terms of Kang’s idea of a collective, universal community, his thinking’s actually been compared to utilitarianism in this regard. Definitely something worth looking into! I doubt I’ll come into contact with anything of relevance, but I will let you know if I come into anything of relevance for your project.

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