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. []