Kang Youwei’s works and ideology present a complex amalgamation of modern Confucian thought, Kantian philosophy, and reformist political theory, making him a figure who reflects the complexities of the early globalization era in which he was active. In order to advance his agenda as a reformer and humanitarian activist, Kang Youwei leveraged his Confucian learnings to advocate for a new state of global existence modeled after the Datong, a word that refers to the utopian society imagined by Confucius.
In his chapter “The Moral Vision in Kang Youwei’s Book of the Great Community,” Ban Wang explores how Kang Youwei goes about advocating for his vision of the ideal moral community through, effectively “revising the Confucian moral tradition.”1 Wang’s in-depth analysis provides several points of interest, while this blog post will focus on one: Kang Youwei’s rhetoric and methodology in promoting his ideas of utopianism in Confucian thought. In the following analysis of the way Kang Youwei advocates for his modern, “revi[sed]]” version of Confucianism, I stipulate that in order to convey his points and appeal to his audience, Kang Youwei leverages traditional ideas of Confucianism to support his own, completely contradictory, understandings of the philosophy.
Previously, I have made blog posts about different religions and cultural traditions and how they’ve been used as agents of influence outside their place of origin. This exploration of Kang Youwei’s advocacy for Confucian universalism offers a different perspective in which Confucianism is an ideology that is threatened by “Western encroachment” and seeks to spread it’s influence not for the purpose of expansion, but for survival.2
In academic literature, Kang Youwei is portrayed as an almost revolutionary figure in Confucian thought. Justin Ritzinger, in his investigation of Taixu’s philosophy and influences, refers to Kang Youwei as a “famous utopian,” distinguishing him from his Confucianist predecessors due to his model for the perfect model for society. Rather than looking to the past for the perfect model of society, as had hundreds of generations of previous Confucian philosophers, including Kongzi, Kang chose to use a different source. His works center around the Datong, a utopian society imagined by Confucius. Although Confucius’s Datong had been previously explored, Kang’s use of the utopia as an achievable reality rather than a more abstract concept was new in popular Confucian thought. Bart Dessein summarizes Kang Youwei’s viewpoint on history, writing that he saw it as “a progressive process that would eventually lead to perfect happiness.”
Within Confucian philosophy, Kang Youwei’s interpretation represents an important departure from one foundational element of thought: revivalistic traditionalism. Revivalistic traditionalism is one method by which Confucianism grows and changes over time; it allows for social, political, and cultural progress, but requires a historical reference point in the Confucian tradition. Bryan Van Norden, who identifies revivalistic traditionalism as one of the five themes of Confucianism, writes that under its logic, “there is no higher standard of judgment than human civilization at its best.”3
It is understandable, then, that Kang Youwei urging his audience to strive toward a very reachable Datong was a shift in Confucian thought. However, although the premise of Kang’s stipulation involved a directly contradictory idea of history, the methods by which he advocates this perspective actually draw upon the logic of revivalistic traditionalism, perhaps using it as a guise for his more radical standpoints. In his writings advocating for a more harmonious world order, Kang Youwei consistently refers back to a time of Chinese relations with other regions that Ban Wang describes as being “based on ritual, tributary networks, commerce, and family ties under the aegis of Confucianism” rather than their present state during Kang’s time, which was “increasingly driven by ruthless competition, conflict, and domination.”4
After China’s 1885 conflict with France, Kang Youwei’s primary goal was to “restore certain aspects of the Confucian worldview.” Despite his ultimate goal of Datong, Kang Youwei consistently appeals to Chinese and Confucian history as anothing point to strive for — or to revive. For Kang, the cause of the dramatic shift away from Confucian thought and toward “ruthless competition” was “Western encroachment,” which he argues “broke up the fabric of traditional communities.”4
Contrary to what is popularly understood, revivalistic traditionalism and utopianism may not be mutually exclusive — if in premise than perhaps not in practice. It appears that throughout his teachings, Kang Youwei’s belief in a utopian future did not cause him to stray from the Confucian practice of reviving old traditions and revising them. In fact, Kang Youwei interacted greatly with early Confucian teachings and writings. In 1895, when his first petition to the Qing emperor failed to achieve its goals, Wang notes that Kang was forced to “move away from metaphysical arguments to a historical account of the evolution of government and society.”5 Although Kang himself may have preferred metaphysical arguments referring to Datong, he was able to adjust his strategies and rhetoric to suit traditional Confucian principles.
Ultimately, Kang Youwei presents an interesting example of a Confucian reformist, in that he often appealed to the very Confucian concepts that his ideology sought to change. If we view Kang’s teachings in a holistic perspective, however, we can see that his idea of Datong is perhaps just a radical manifestation of revivalistic traditionism, despite its overt departure from Confucian thought that idolized China’s past.

  1. Wang, Ban. Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics. (2017), pp. 87-105. []
  2. Ibid []
  3. Van Norden, Bryan W. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. (Hackett Publishing Company, 2011). []
  4. Wang, 2017 [] []
  5. Ibid. []

The Creation of Identity and Community in Print

In his chapter ‘Piety in Print’, DuBois uses the Shengjing Times as a case study to trace the development of religion in print, as controlled by the Japanese, in Manchuria/Manchukuo. He argues that the images of religion presented related to both social trends and political needs, and the images tended to mirror the larger aims of Japan in the region. In his analysis, he refers to the theories of nationalism and community building of Anderson and Weber, which both include the role of print journalism/language in developing identities, ideas, and community. DuBois notes there is a key difference between their two theories however, turning on the question of whether mass media reflects existing identities or creates new ones:

‘In other words, the former [Anderson] shows publications expanding to fit the contours of an existing community, the latter [Weber] shows them creating a new one’.[1]

DuBois concludes that even at its most propagandistic, the paper was never able to simply impose its ideas onto its readership and that its later propagandistic messages probably ‘changed fewer minds than Weber’s example would suggest’.[2] Rather, the paper reflected existing identities, adhering closer to Anderson’s theory, due to newspapers being a product to be consumed and discarded at will and its readership holding the ability to simply disagree with its contents. This is illustrated best in the Shengjing Times’s attitude towards religious practices which promoted superstition; its theme of anti-superstition in its early publications (1906-1924) appealed to an intellectual readership and the iconoclastic May Fourth generation. DuBois argues that it was this image of religion the paper provided that was most successful, because it was a message its readership was keen to hear. Here we see the paper appealing to the pre-established intellectual community of ideas which subscribed to ideas of anti-superstition and anti-religious vision of social progress.

Perhaps Weber’s theory of community and identity building is instead demonstrated in the ‘revolution plus romance’ literary genre of China which appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. In his chapter ‘Revolution of the Heart’, Haiyan Lee provides a critical genealogy of sentiment and highlights the transformations of love as a concept of social and cultural life in twentieth century China. Through this literary genre, we see love used as a discursive technology for constructing individual and collective identities by the KMT and CCP, and literature participating ‘in (re)defining the social order and (re)producing forms of self and sociality’.[3] Love was supplemented to the revolutionary agenda, argued to threaten revolution and diminish revolutionary zeal. The genre therefore was able to use the concept of ‘love’, popular as a symbol of freedom, autonomy, and equality among the May Fourth generation, in order to promote the collective over the individual and further the revolutionary agenda.

Both the Shengjing Times and the Chinese literary genre of ‘revolution plus romance’ serve to illustrate the potential language has in the creation of identities and communities. While the Shengjing Times reflected existing identities and formed a community of readership based upon them, the Chinese literature aimed to form new identities aligned to the revolutionary movements. Overall, both demonstrate the use of language to further political agendas, and as case studies indicate both Anderson and Weber’s theories as feasible.

[1] Thomas David DuBois, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900-1945 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2010), p. 7.

Building Legitimacy From Manchuria to Nanjing: The Red Swastika Society’s Collaboration with Japan During the Second Sino-Japanese War and Transitional Justice

After it was forcibly opened to the rest of the world by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853, as the well-known story goes, Japan began its rapid path towards modernization and expansion, eventually leading to its invasion of the resource rich region of Manchuria in 1931, much to the consternation of the League of Nations and to the extreme detriment of the Chinese people as they endured the horrors of the brutal fourteen-year occupation.[1] In so doing, the Imperial Japanese government had a monumental task on their hands in terms of being able to resolve the “Manchurian crisis” that arose in the face of the “revolutionary diplomacy” that emerged out of China’s increasingly radical nationalism and what they viewed as Prime Minister radical elements like Ishiwara Kanji and Seishirō Itagaki saw as Prime Minister Sidehara’s inability to address the situation in an effective manner. In order to resolve this threat to their interests and defense, separating Manchuria from the rest of Mainland China was seen as a must in order to use the resource rich region for Japan’s own ends both internationally and domestically in order to combat the threat of other foreign powers, most specifically the USSR, as Tobe Ryoichi argues in the 2011 Japan-China Joint History Research Report.[2] After this contentious invasion, it was necessary for the Japanese invaders to bolster their legitimacy in the territory that they had claimed, leading them to turn to a variety of different methods in order to achieve this goal, with Redemptive Societies and print publications being a prominent ways in which they sought to achieve this goal in tandem with a variety of other sectarian groups and secret societies, as well as groups whose concerns were more purely local.[3] By examining this in closer detail, historians can attain a fuller understanding of the methods that the Japanese utilized in order to further bring Manchuria and other parts of China under the heel of its Empire, an aspect that has been under-studied, and reckon with this still contentious part of history that remains an ever present specter in Sino-Japanese relations today.

The first point that must be addressed with regards to the previously mentioned methods of control exercised by the Japanese Empire in Manchuria is why Redemptive Societies like the Red Swastika Society provided a convenient avenue for Japan to take in establishing its control over the region. As Duara pointedly shows in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asia Modern, these societies were at once both incredibly pervasive in Chinese society and highly persecuted by the Nationalist government. According to surveys conducted by the puppet government of Manchukuo, one society, the Fellowship of Goodness, commanded a following of 30 million in 1929, while the Red Swastika Society had a following of 7 to 10 million in 1937. While this has been debated by some scholars, such as Chan, who claims that the Red Swastika Society had a following of only 30,000 in 1932. He does concede, however, that the Fellowship of Goodness had over 1,000 branches in China proper and Manchuria at the time.[4] Secondly, along with many adherents, they also had a variety of mechanisms through which to spread their message, from print publications to philanthropic endeavors, they possessed the necessary infrastructure through which to spread their message over vast swaths of land, and their presentation of their ideas as a modern East Asian solution to the problems facing the world in the early part of the 20th century, which, to a small extent, aligned them with Japan’s vision of itself in the modern world; however, its universalist ideology soon placed it within Japanese sights as a potential collaborator as its elite members, rich people such as scholars merchants, and politicians, joined its ranks, shunning the “third worldism” that they saw as dominating Chinese society and filling the Red Swastika Society’s coffers.[5] They also suffered from a cycle of attacks and repression by the Chinese state, whether it was the Qing Dynasty or the KMT that was in power, making them more favorable towards receiving foreign support, and the Red Swastika Society’s 1924 trip to Tokyo to provide aid placed them in contact with the ideologically aligned Ōmotokyō religious society.[6] It was for these reason that it was aligned with Japan’s “civilizing” mission in Manchuria and in other parts of China.[7]

This ideology, of course, spread outside of Manchuria and collaboration occurred in other parts of China as well, with the most salient impact that the Red Swastika Society being its role in the Nanjing Massacre, illustrated in Jiang Sun’s 2014 article entitled “The Unbearable Heaviness of Memory” in which she tells the story of Tao Baojin, the president of the Nanjing chapter of the Red Swastika Society. [8] While Tao Baojin was president of the Nanjing Self-Rule Committee, and eight years after the Nanjing Massacre took place, he would be charged with “fraternizing with the enemy and conspiring against his own country”, caught up in the GMD’s search for and trials of traitors.[9] The experiences of members of the Red Swastika Society illustrate the problems faced both by collaborators at the time and for the historians analyzing these events:   Cooperate or resist? Save others or oneself? Cooperate to save others; resist to save oneself?[10] And, importantly, where should they sit in our collective memory? What should their commemoration in the different “terrains” of memory that Gluck describes look like, with the most important in this context being public debates about memory given the far-reaching diplomatic consequences of this period?[11] These are all questions that historians, politicians, and the general public are still trying to answer as this debate shifts over time. There will, perhaps, never be one, as figures like Tao Baojin operate in a grey area of history, perfectly illustrating the conflicts in the homogenization of collective memory and memory essentialism, ending in individual memories’ being suppressed by the collective.[12] In dealing with issues of collaboration and wartime atrocities, necessarily also entailing that issues of transitional justice be brought into the fray, it is of the utmost importance that individual stories be told and heard as part of this healing process as those responsible for these injustices and those responsible for facilitating them, are brought to account, although the mechanisms for doing so, both in the present and in the past, are deeply flawed, with many escaping justice and leaving behind only the “poison” of memory as the wounds of the 20th century remain open in the 21st.[13]

[1] Prasenjit Duara. 2003. Sovereignty and Authenticity : Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. State and Society in East Asia Series. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.st-andrews.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=nlebk&AN=87617&site=ehost-live.; Ferrell, Robert H. “The Mukden Incident: September 18-19, 1931.” The Journal of Modern History 27, no. 1 (1955): 66–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1877701.; Federal Research Division, Judgment of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East Part B § (2014). https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/Judgment-IMTFE-Vol-I-PartB.pdf.

[2] Ryoichi, Tobe, Japan-China Joint History Resrarch Report § (2011). https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/china/pdfs/jcjhrr_mch_en1.pdf.

[3] Duara, Ibid.

[4] Duara. Ibid.

[5] Duara, Ibid.; SUN, Jiang. “The Predicament of a Redemptive Religion: The Red Swastika Society under the Rule of Manchukuo.” Journal of Modern Chinese History 7, no. 1 (April 28, 2013): 108–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/17535654.2013.772358.

[6] Duara, Ibid.

[7] DuBois, Thomas David. “Piety in Print.” Chapter. In Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900–1945, 85–107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. doi:10.1017/9781316711026.005.

[8] Sun, Jiang. “The Unbearable Heaviness of Memory: Nanjing to Tao Baojin and His Descendents.” Chinese Studies in History, December 5, 2014, 53–70. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2753/CSH0009-4633470103?needAccess=true&.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Kushner, Barak. Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015.

[12] “What Is Transitional Justice?: ICTJ.” International Center for Transitional Justice, September 22, 2021. https://www.ictj.org/about/transitional-justice.

[13] Sun, 2014, Ibid.; McGregor, Richard. Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2018.

Understanding Cosmopolitanism within the context of reformation.

Ban Wang engages with the idea of Cosmopolitanism in China by primarily focusing on Confucian ideals. Cosmopolitanism according to Bang Wang can only be established through Aesthetic interests, which would enable the population to become less fixated on categories such as race, class or nation and instead could form connections world wide by focusing on their shared human qualities. Wang is able to strengthen this idea by engaging with other like-minded scholars. The main focus of this is on K’ang You-wei, which therefore, allowed Wang to delve further into Confucianist ideals, revealing how these can help to shape a world centred around Cosmopolitan values. ‘By this widening gyre of sympathy, imagination, and obligation, K’ang You-wei suggests that a member of the local community could become a citizen of the world’.[1]  Therefore, by using K’ang You-wei’s ideal vison of the world, Wang is able to grasp the human qualities which would be essential to creating universal values. However, these humanistic values which Ban Wang highlights within K’ang You-wei’s writings are somewhat misleading. Confucianism was a large focus with K’ang’s writing work, but Ban Wang depicts K’ang’s life and ideals to be idealistic and a form of utopia. Instead, these Confucianism ideals were used to initiate reformation within China’s sovereignty and politics.

K’ang believed that the best hope for China was to bring about reforms within the framework of the traditional systems, with the modification of the absolute monarchy in a constitutional monarchy.’[2]

This, therefore, leads onto how and why K’ang You-wei and his Confucianist writings can be used to understand Cosmopolitanism and its role within Eastern Asia. Perhaps Aesthetics and Confucianist values could be used to create a formation of a universal community, but for K’ang You-wei, according to historians such as Chen Jianhua[3] and Laurence Thompson was primarily focused on reforming China within the context of its traditions, therefore, to ensure that China would not fall into disaster. Jianhua and Thompson, although have written up separate texts focus on this historical figure manage to somehow tag team and cover the groundwork of K’ang’s motivations for reformation. Furthermore, they both focus on a broader scale to understand K’ang’s timeline and the connection to the wider context outside of China. Thompson primarily focuses on K’ang’s education, which later in life transitions into a curiosity towards western society and politics, enabling him to adapt this to his reformist writings. Therefore, this brings more context to the idea of cosmopolitanism because it promotes this idea of shared education and adapting them to reshaping politics and customs. However, it is not surprising that this revolutionary form of ideas leads to K’ang living a life on the run.

Chen Jianhua gives little time for K’ang’s timeline and instead uses his ideas of reformation and rebellion to connect it to a wider context relating to translation. The primary focus on their text it to understand reformation through different terms and how they can be connected in a universal context. Jianhua picks apart K’ang’s use of the term ‘geming’ which has caused debates surrounding its meaning. Whether it be revolution, rebellion or reformation, it can perhaps be better understood by attaching it to K’angs goal for change. To strengthen this, Jianhua uses other terms which K’ang had placed alongside ‘geming’ that were linked to the same meaning and goal. Bianfa, which is a term used that translates to ‘change the rules’ and another which is weixin which translates to ‘keep the newness’. This, therefore, establishes another idea of a universal understanding of reformation. K’ang was aware of these shared ideas for change and used revolutions such as the French revolution and the British glorious revolution to understand western politics. Furthermore, in the context of cosmopolitanism it does not have to be only applied to one shared community, but instead it can be linked through universal understandings of politics and how this form of education can be used to create change.

[1] Ban Wang, Chinese visions of world order: tianxia, culture, and world politics (Duke University Press, 2017) p.97.

[2] Laurence G. Thompson, Ta t’ung shu: the one-world philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei (Routledge, 2005) p.18.

[3] Chen Jianhua, World revolution knocking at the heavenly gate: Kang Youwei and his use of in 1898 (Routledge, 2011).

Universalism in redemptive societies: A potential threat to the rule of government

“A: It is the source of all things (wanyougenyuan). It is not a single religion; it has the power to clarify the good. . . .Actually the dao has no name, but we in the human world have to give it a name to show our reverence. So, we revere the founders of the five religions. . .. We also respect nature and morality, and cultivate the self through charity”

This is a quotation in Prasenjit Duara’s book Sovereignty and Authenticity. It was a statement made by a leader of the Daoyuan to a Japanese surveyor, demonstrating the spirits of Daoyuan, the predecessor of the Red Swastika Society. These are redemptive societies that embraced a boost in the early 20th century in China. Most of them possess the characteristics of synthesis of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Redemptive societies adopted a syncretistic worldview in their discourse of civilization. Their speech contains the awareness of self-cultivation; through the effort made by men in charity and philanthropic activities, a person’s good nature can be recovered.1 This seemingly idealistic idea of universalism proved to be a real threat to governments in China and Japan. The universalist view of religion extends to the potential overthrowing political worldview.

“Cultivate the self through charity” can be interpreted as the combination of Confucianism and Pure Land Buddhism. The awareness of self-cultivation comes from Confucianist teaching of rites and rituals; by practising them, people could achieve the state of a gentleman; this belief remains in the doctrine of Redemptive societies, it became to be Jiaohua.2 And “through charity” reflects a Pure Land Buddhism idea of doing good to accumulate good karma so that one day one can receive a good result. From this statement, we can see that these Redemptive societies possessed a complete framework from the most abstract ideological level to the most practical instruction to the secular life of people. It also reflects how these metaphysical philosophies were brought into real life by these redemptive societies in the historical context in China in the early 20th century. According to Duara, they were one of the leading intellectual forces to form a new discourse of civilization, complementing the influx of Western ideas, representing an Eastern attempt to find solutions for contemporary society.3 Redemptive societies’ success of ‘secularizing’ all three schools of thought was why they could gain such significant influence among the public. Both people from higher and lower classes can take part in the societies.

This universalism, accepting all kinds of religion and thinking, and people from different classes proved to threaten Chinese and Japanese governments. Duara suggests that the redemptive societies, in a way beyond the boundary of government, conduct their world-saving activities, which is why the KMT sought to prohibit all redemptive societies. ((Ibid, p. 109.)) For example, the Red Swastika Society had a universalist view to see all nations, races, and religions as the same. The concept of boundaries is eliminated from the framework. They see the world in a transcendent view; they believe that the boundaries like nation-states will disappear one day.4 This cosmopolitan idea can be seen as the attempt to find a unique way to reform East Asia exclusively. Kang Youwei, as a prominent figure for his cosmopolitan thinking in Ta Tung Shu, was one of the leaders of redemptive societies. These characteristics of redemptive societies sometimes could remind us of Cooperatism anarchism in Japan; both believed in a boundary-free world.

Its popularity among the public and its potentially dangerous ideas all become why governments like KMT and Manchuria were highly concerned about redemptive societies. In complementing Duara’s argument, Sun Jiang’s analysis on the Red Swastika Society also proves the government’s worry about the universalism of redemptive societies.

  1. Prasenjit Duara, “Asianism and the New Discourse of Civilization” in Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), pp106. []
  2. Ibid, p.108. []
  3. Ibid, p.109. []
  4. Ibid, p.106. []

“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

An interesting theme running through Martha Deuchler’s work on what were perceived as female virtues during the period of the Choson dynasty in Korea is that the education of women was not important in its own right.  Rather the value of such education was primarily, if not solely, for its benefits to the patriarchal structures of Confucian Korea. It appears that the main reason why women and girls were educated was that it made the lives of men easier, for marrying off their daughters or to better assist their husbands.1   Indeed, the importance of educating women did come from any sense of fairest or respect for women, but the exact opposite, because it was believed that women were deficient and it “was imperative for rectifying the womanly nature and bringing it in line with the moral exigencies of a Confucian society.”2  Education for women in Korean society was critical because of the risk caused by their lack of knowledge, not for their own benefit.  Any possible gains that women might obtain from such education were not the purpose of the education, but only a bi-product, since the main goal was to assist their husband and his household.3 This seems to be an unfortunate trend in how women’s education was justified in both Confucian societies and those societies seeking to reject the Confucian ideals, such as the New Culture Movement in China. Specifically, the reformers involved in the New Cultural Movement “advocated education and rights for women as necessary tools for improving the nation’s wives and mother.”4 This was not done to address the plight of women in China, but in terms of “national strengthening.”((Ibid)) This echoes, ironically, what the Korean Confucians were seeking to do vis-a-vis female education.   


In one of the first Korean treatises directed towards women, unsurprisingly called Instruction for Women written by Queen Consort Sohye, Lady Han in 1475, it is noted that “The rise or fall of the political order, although connected with the husband’s character, also depends on the wife’s goodness. She, therefore, must be educated. . . .”5   Clearly, the education of women was viewed as important, but it was not a value in its own right and always seems to circle back to what benefits it could provide to their husband. Likewise, an educated woman was seen as a valuable resource to assist with her children’s education (particularly the education of sons), but had little importance or respect as it related to her own worth or talent.6In a similar manner educated women could assist and support their husband’s career as scholar or in the civil service, but such actions were “behind the scenes.”7  Women might garner respect for such service to their children and husbands, but that was all it was – service to others – not for their own accomplishments. This represents a depressingly sexist and unflattering rationale for educating women.  However, it does not seem to have been limited to Korea, or just during the period of the Chosun dynasty. Indeed, years later during the new Cultural Movement in China reformers advocated for female education to make women “better companions” for their husbands and, therefore, to help advance China as a nation.8   This education initiative for women was to help men and to help China as a whole.  None of it was really proposed for the direct benefit or support of women, or because it was fair and just that women be educated for their own personal growth. Moreover, this education did not even change the status of women in their homes.9   Interestingly, this appears very similar to what Lady Han was seeking to do in Korea at a very different time.


  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, (University of California Press, 2003), p. 148. []
  2.  Ibid at 147-48. []
  3.  Ibid at 149. []
  4. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, (University of California Press, 2003), p.25. []
  5. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, p.147. []
  6. Ibid 150. []
  7. Ibid 152. []
  8. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, p. 78. []
  9. Ibid. []

The West’s Skewed Vision of Buddhism

In 1893, Japanese delegates presented Buddhism to the West at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.[1] They presented what they viewed to be the superior branch of Buddhism, a type that would attract the West since it shared similarities with Western philosophy. Existing Buddhist scholarship written in the West contained orientalist visions of what Buddhism was that often compared it to Christianity. These pre-conceived notions of Buddhism stemmed from a few factors – arguably, it was mostly due to Western scholars looking at Buddhism through a Christian lens. Judith Snodgrass explains that ‘Buddhism was informed by Christian presuppositions from the time of the pioneering work of missionaries who described Asian religious practice by seeking answers to questions formed within their own belief systems’.[2] This can be seen even with the term ‘Buddhism’ itself, a name that implies a similar dependence to Buddha that Christianity has to Christ. Overall, the West’s vision of Buddhism was a double-edged sword as it meant Buddhism was accepted more, but a lot of the true meaning of Buddhism was lost.

Problems with translation were at the root of the West’s skewed vision of Buddhism. When faced with Buddhist teachings and customs that they were unaccustomed to, Christian scholars tended to look to their own religion to find suitable comparisons. This can be seen with the term “nirvana”; this Buddhist ideology was so outside the realm of Christian understanding that there was great difficulty relaying it to a Western audience.[3] In the end it was likened to Heaven, but this lost the true essence of what nirvana was. Heaven is a place of the highest holiest order that one reaches after death, whereas nirvana is a state of being, a complete liberation of oneself. Overall translating Buddhism into English was an impossible task, one that was likened to, ‘attempting to scratch one’s foot with one’s shoe on’.[4] It led to the lines being blurred between Christianity and Buddhism, by equating the Buddha to God, for example. The distinct features of each religion were lost but due to the predominance of Christianity in the West, it was Buddhism that was at the disadvantage, losing its own identity and becoming an ‘other’ Christianity.

As mentioned, the figure of Buddha was widely debated by Western scholars during the nineteenth century, a debate that led to unjust comparisons to Christianity’s version of God and Christ. The French philosopher J. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire spoke of the Buddha with the highest praise, placing him only second to Christ.[5] A big problem Christian scholars had with the figure of Buddha was his lack of divine intervention. Viewing the Buddha as a simple human meant to teach and guide people and not as a divine figure caused Buddhism to be viewed as atheistic. This also led to other charges against Buddhism – Christian missionary Robert Spence Hardy viewed Buddhism as idolatrous as he saw the Buddha as a ‘uninspired mortal’ whose teaching was ‘not divinely inspired but was formed by a man or men’.[6] Not only was this dismissive of Buddhist belief and teachings, but by branding it atheistic and idolatrous, Western Christian intervention in the way of missionary work and political action was then warranted in their eyes.

In the end, Japanese delegates used this Western misinterpretation of Buddhism to their advantage to boost their own version of Japanese Buddhism that claimed to speak for all of Buddhism. Buddhism was interpreted to be beneath, on the same level, or even above Christianity depending on who was writing on the topic, but the delegates chose to focus on pre-existing admiration of Buddhism. Buddhism shared a lot of the same morals with Christianity such as ‘sincerity, purity, meekness and truth’ and the lives of the Buddha and Christ also shared similarities.[7] However, the Japanese delegates wished to elevate Japan above the West and gain prestige beyond that of being viewed as equal, so they also focused on what their Buddhism had that Christianity lacked, though this was something Christian scholars had already picked up on and were writing about. T.W. Rhys David believed that Buddhism was more optimistic than Christianity, as it offered salvation for its followers in this world instead of just in Heaven.[8] So in this way, the West’s orientalist interpretation of Buddhism could be seen as a positive. By highlighting where Buddhism prospered while Christianity lacked, the delegates were able to present what they viewed as ‘Japan’s gift to the world’.[9]

[1] Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p.1

[2] Ibid. p.4

[3] Ibid. p.93

[4] Ibid. p.93

[5] Ibid. p.103

[6] Ibid. p.98

[7] Ibid. p.105

[8] Ibid. p.109

[9] Ibid. p.181

Yongsōng and Kongzi: The Great Enlightenment Movement and Its Similarities to Confucianism

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can certainly be considered a troubled time for the Korean people, particularly caused by the failure of the Chosōn dynasty, from 1392-1910, as well as Japanese oppression and colonialism from 1910-45. For Paek Yongsōng, among others, the preceding period was seen as one where freedom and independence were superseded by corruption and restraint. In addition to this, Buddhism, throughout this period, was severely weakened due to an “anti-Buddhist, pro-Confucian”1  policy implemented by the Chosōn dynasty. Due to this reduced influence, Paek Yongsōng went on to translate Buddhism into Korean and thus began a new movement; The Great Enlightenment Movement. As exemplified by Woosung Huh, the term ‘great enlightenment “was simply Yongsōng’s translation of Buddha, the literal meaning of the Great Enlightenment Movement is the movement of Buddha.”2 

In addition to Yongsōng’s work surrounding the modernisation of Buddhism, there are several similarities that can be made to Confucianism that so heavily dominated Korean society in the centuries preceding the foundation of Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement. This analysis will be made by focusing on a brief statement made by Yongsōng in Enlightenment Ocean Like the Sun. Within this work, Yongsōng explains his view of an authentic Buddhist and how one attains goodness by creating merits, as seen below:

“There is no place where you cannot create merits: if you are filial to your parents and respect your teachers and elders; if you are friendly to your brothers and harmonize your family; if you keep your residence clean; if you work for the public good according to your ability and keep clear of private desires; if you propagate the truth of Great Enlightenment to all the people in the world) so that they can remove superstition, and tread a righteous path… and if you do not commit any evil and instead practice good deeds, then you will create merits.”3 

Critically, one of the main similarities shared between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement is the importance of filiality to elders and the essential role that family plays in leading one to eternal goodness and enlightenment. As seen above, there is a clear focus on the importance of respect and filiality towards family and elders in aiding one towards goodness. The similarity to Confucianism is evidenced when focusing on the works of Kongzi, otherwise known as Confucius by many in the western world. In Book One of his analects, Kongzi writes that “a young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors”4 , he goes on to summarise the point by saying that “the gentlemen applies himself to the roots. ‘Once the roots are firmly established, the way will grow’”.5  Thus, when assessing Kongzi’s writings in conjunction with the writings set out by Yongsōng and the Great Enlightenment, the argument can certainly be made that modern Korean Buddhism and Confucianism were quite similar both in thought and practice, particularly regarding their teleological approach to goodness.

Further similarities between Confucianism and the Great Enlightenment Movement are seen when focusing on the role of the individual in society. As seen above, Yongsōng writes that if one can ‘keep clear of private desires’, they thus can create good merits. Moreover, Yongsōng writes that another element that makes one a good Buddhist is the ability to “see other people go well.”6 Therefore, an understanding of others and a communal approach to life is a key element in aiding one towards being a good Buddhist and thus reaching the ultimate individual salvation as alluded to throughout Yongsōng’s works. In a not too dissimilar manner, Kongzi and thus Confucianists also discuss the importance of providing for society through individual action. In Book Fourteen of Kongzi’s Analects, we can see the importance of the individual and their role in society as it states, “in ancient times scholars learned for their own sake; these days they learn for the sake of others.”7 Furthermore, in Book Sixteen, Kongzi states that finding joy by “commending the excellence of others”8 is a beneficial type of joy. This is unlike arrogant behaviour or idle behaviour that Kongzi considers to be harmful types of joy. Thus, one’s individual actions in relation to society can play a key role in aiding them towards the ultimate goodness, or joy as referred to by Kongzi in this case. Therefore, when assessing Kongzi’s approach to one’s role in relation to society, we can see several similarities to Yongsōng’s approach. Particularly, we see the essential role that individual action and behaviour can have in aiding one’s journey to ultimate goodness- another idea shared by both ideologies.

Overall, when assessing the statement set out above, we can see some of the similarities that are shared between modernised Korean Buddhism, or the Great Enlightenment Movement, and Confucianism. Moreover, in some of Yongsōng’s other works such as Returning to True Religion, he discusses some other similarities to Confucianism, such as the equivalence between ‘benevolence’ in Confucianism and the ‘mind’ in Buddhism. Of course, there are many differences between the two ideologies, especially when comparing neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, with Yongsōng arguing that neo-Confucians “did not understand the way of [Kongzi], nor did they reach the level of [Kongzi] in their philosophy.”9 Despite this criticism, however, we can still see the admiration that Yongsōng had towards Kongzi and his ideology by separating his original views from those that later followed such as the Cheng Brothers. Thus, when examining the paragraph set out above, it is evident that there are several similarities between Confucianism and Yongsōng’s Great Enlightenment Movement, with both playing essential roles in the development of Korean society throughout history.

  1. Woosung Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, in Jin Y. Park (ed.), Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (New York, 2010), p.19. []
  2. Ibid., p. 26 []
  3. Ibid., p. 27 []
  4. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, 2005), p.3. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 27 []
  7. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 42 []
  8. Ibid., p. 48 []
  9. Huh, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’, p. 33 []

Edgar Snow and Reimagining China

Mao, Maoist China, and China in general during the course of the revolution is often conceived in internal terms – Chinese events impacting only Chinese people, with no real interaction with the external. If foreign entities are said to play a part at all, it is either as an amorphous states that have their set agendas reacted to by the Chinese – such as the invasion of the Japanese Empire – or as foreign observers, presented as viewing and interacting with China as one views and interacts with animals at a Zoo – detached, and almost as a voyeur of sorts.

This is of course, a deeply flawed picture – China in this period was not an island – and the foreign individuals in China at the time were more than observers. Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History, while discussing the international impacts and discourse surrounding Maoism, discusses the case of Edgar Snow. Well known for his journalistic work on the CCP and Mao in Red Star Over China, Julia Lovell does more than just using his experiences in China to discuss the CCP and Mao, but also explores western reactions to communism in China, and Mao through the story of Julia Lovell.  Describing Snow as ‘the first main character in this global history of Maoism’, Lovell first describes the initial reviews for Snow’s book1.  Red Star Over China was a best seller received with glowing praise, presenting Mao and his CCP as both larger than life, but deeply human – one particular striking example of it’s impact described by Lovell is that of an American State Department official so entranced by Snow’s picture of Mao that he leaked KMT military plans to the CCP2.

Discussing it’s longer term impact, Lovell points out how influential the book was in creating discourse and images of China abroad – from being read by revolutionaries the world over, to earning Snow the ear of the then President Roosevelt, to becoming an important text in academic circles3. Lovell’s conclusion, that Red Star Over China is a ‘powerful emblem of the international Mao cult’ is agreeable, but Lovell perhaps even understates it’s impact – in the middle of a period in the west where Communism was viewed with at best suspicion, and visions of China was dominated by orientalist conceptions and stereotypes, Red Star Over China monumentally contributed the international reimagining of China4.

– Lovell, Julia. “The Red Star – Revolution by the Book.” In Maoism: A Global History, 60–87. London: The Bodley Head, 2019.

  1. Lovell, Julia. “The Red Star – Revolution by the Book.” In Maoism: A Global History, 60–87. London: The Bodley Head, 2019, PG61-62. []
  2. Lovell, Julia. “The Red Star – Revolution by the Book.”, PG61-62. []
  3. Lovell, Julia. “The Red Star – Revolution by the Book.”, PG82-83. []
  4. Ibid, PG87. []

Utopia: Futuristic Goal or Idealistic Impossibility?

A utopia is, by definition, impossible to achieve. This may seem like a bold statement, but there is good reason behind it. Firstly, the idea of a utopia, or utopian world, must be separated into two distinct forms: religious, and political. In a religious sense, a utopia is therefore the ideal world, a perfect state which an adherent believes they will find themselves in or otherwise attain, whether during their life or after death. On the other hand, a political utopia is defined as the creation of a perfect state on earth, whether through governmental actions or otherwise. By comparing the religious utopian beliefs of the Christian Heaven or Paradise and Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land with the political utopian goal of Anarchy, this piece will argue that the goal of a utopian future cannot ever be realised in actuality, as it must remain an impossible ideal to give hope for the future and serve as a reminder of one’s place in society and awareness of one’s circumstances.

A religious utopia, as it is understood in both Buddhism and Christianity, is the creation or realisation of a perfect state of both world and being. As Joseph Kitagawa puts it, “Every religion, every culture, and every civilization has a characteristic view of the future as well as a characteristic way of recollecting the past, which together influence its understanding of the meaning of present existence.”1 Kitagawa argues that the Maitreya, the Future Buddha, served as a focus point for the laity, and the belief in the coming of the Maitreya therefore “gave them grounds for optimism and hope”. 2 It is the last past of Kitagawa’s understanding that is the most important, that it is the present existence that shapes an individual’s perception of their world and their place in it, on a cosmological scale. In this sense, religion therefore serves as a positive influence, as believers hold on to the possibility of a better world.

In contrast, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley’s analysis is far more pessimistic, as she outlines the way in which belief in the Buddhist Pure Land ideology in Japan waned over the course of the 20th century. In her words, people became disillusioned with the idea of a better future as “modern people, embarrassed by those hopeful images from the past, are set the impossible task of working toward the transformation of reality even as they are sworn to this world as it is.”3 Her analysis shows that as a society becomes more technologically advanced, belief in a religious utopia correspondingly diminishes, as people turn away from the promise of a heavenly paradise towards the creation of a better world for themselves.

Is there a more positive outlook to be found in the political ideal, then? Curley is even more pessimistic here, pointing out that in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Japan, goals of utopia “repeatedly curdled into totalitarianism”.4 Here, she notes that prominent Japanese Pure Land figures went even further in their views, arguing that the only way to achieve religious utopia was through the total separation and withdrawal of religion from the state. 5

This is not to say that political goal of utopia were equally impossible, per se. Rather, as Arif Dirlik notes in his analysis of the Chinese Anarchist movement of the early 20th century, it largely came down to a lack of planning. Dirlik points to the goal of ‘rural utopianism’ set out by Liu Shipei, noting that revolution was “ultimately a continuing process with no foreseeable end.”6 Curley echoes this view, noting Theodor Adorno’s and Ernst Bloch’s argument that a true utopia, whether religious or political, is thus “defined only in terms of absence”, such as hunger or constraint, and, perhaps most importantly, not here, not now [own emphasis7]. In other words, a utopia can only exist ‘somewhere else’- either in the future, or in a different realm of existence. A utopia is therefore something than cannot exist in the ‘here and now’. It must remain an ideal, always tantalisingly out of reach, neither fully defined nor denied, but out there, waiting to be realised.

  1. Joseph Kitagawa, ‘The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections’, in Sponberg, Alan, (ed.) Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Reissue edition. Cambridge, 2011, p. 7 []
  2. ibid, pp. 15-16 []
  3. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Honolulu, 2017, p. 4. []
  4. ibid []
  5. Ibid, p. 12 []
  6. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. California, 1991, p. 100. []
  7. Curley, Pure Land, p. 4 []