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. []

Looking Beyond China: The Wider Consequences of Taixu’s Anarchist Beginnings

In the first two chapters of his book Anarchy in the Purse Land, Justin Ritzinger conducts a thorough investigation into the teachings and philosophies of Taixu, a renowned twentieth century Buddhist thinker1. Primarily, he focuses on Taixu’s early anarchist origins and explores how they influence his later work as a transnational Buddhist revivalist2. This blog post will briefly investigate the consequences of this contextual influence, along with others, for Taixu’s work toward the transnationalisation of Buddhism, ultimately concluding that Taixu’s Chinese cultural background in both anarchism and Chinese Buddhist thought is heavily influential in his later teachings outside of China.

Ritzinger’s assessment of Taixu’s anarchist influences conflicts with the generally accepted scholarship about the topic, which usually minimizes these origins as inconsequential in Taixu’s later works. Ritzinger points out that Taixu’s own autobiography, in accordance with this general consensus, implies that his early anarchist and revolutionary experiences were little more than “youthful indescretions,” which Ritzinger works to refute in his chapters2. Anarchism, Ritzinger stipulates, largely contributes to Taixu’s later Buddhist works, in which he condemns economic inequality and seeks to revolutionise with the ultimate hope of forming a utopian society2.

This portrayal of Taixu, as someone who was very much molded and guided by the context in which he developed his ideas, is crucial to consider as we understand the influence he had as a transnational Buddhist outside of China. Elise DeVido specifically explores Taixu’s influence on the Buddhist revival in Vietnam3.

Leaders and followers of Confucianism and Buddhism have, over the course of several centuries — if not millennia — contributed substantially to cultural amalgamation and assimilation in East and Southeast Asia. Taixu’s work as a transnational Buddhist demonstrates another example of this phenomenon, with DeVido arguing that the revival of Buddhism in Vietnam would not have occurred to the same extent without his crucial participation2. She refutes the idea that a general trend of “Chinese cultural influence” in Vietnam allowed it to reflect developments in Chinese Buddhism, asserting instead that Taixu’s reforms, writing, and visits to Vietnam were necessary for the revivalist movement to occur2.

The Chinese influence on Taixu’s teachings in Vietnam was strong, as DeVido points out that the thinker “expected that China would become the leader of the Buddhist nations in Asia,” and thus worked to proliferate Chinese Buddhist texts, reforms, and teachings throughout other countries2. Taixu’s revivalist goals, notably influenced by his anarchist background, were profoundly impactful in Vietnam. One of Taixu’s widely read writings there, “How to establish Buddhism for this world” heavily stressed his utopian views, encouraging his audience to follow his teachings to “make this world into the Pure Land”2.

Taixu’s movement and methodology was formulaic for modern Vietnam, as DeVido explains that many influential generations of monastics were engendered during Taixu’s revival.

Ultimately, Taixu’s widespread impact in transnational makes Ritzinger’s conclusions about Taixu’s prominent anarchist influences all the more interesting and consequential. The Vietnam example shows not only the significance of Taixu’s role in the Buddhist revivalist movement that occurred there, but clearly reflects the anarchist ideological undertones that Ritzinger identifies in Taixu’s teachings.

  1. Ritzinger, Justin. Anarchy in the Purse Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism. (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2017), Ch. 1-2. []
  2. Ibid. [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  3. DeVido, Elise. “The Influence of Chinese Master Taixu on Buddhism in Vietnam” in Journal of Global Buddhism 10, (Directory of Open Access Journals, 2009), pp. 413-458. []

Japanese Buddhism in Korea: Leveraging Imperial Japan

The Korean peninsula, throughout the Juseon dynasty, finds itself entangled in Chinese and Japanese spheres of influence. In fact, Kirk Larsen argues that Korean history in the 19th and 20th centuries is a story of “competing imperialisms,” with China, Japan, and even Tsarist Russia vying for influence and control on the peninsula1 Although these two centuries see more overt measures taken by China and Japan to exert control over Korea, their attempts to execute their own national agendas in the region were far from unprecedented. By the beginning of the 19th century, Korea has already been a cultural battleground for several hundred years.

Similarly to the way that China heavily influenced Korean culture through the proliferation of Neo-Confucianism throughout the beginning of the Joseon dynasty, the Meiji government leveraged the spread of Japanese Buddhism at the end of the same dynasty, looking to strengthen their cultural and political control in Korea before seizing control of the country in 1910.

During this pre-colonial period at the end of the 19th century, Buddhism was thriving in Japan. Hwansoo Ilmee Kim describes a distinct disparity between the welfare of Buddhism in Japan and the welfare of Buddhism in Korea through a historical anecdote dating to 1893.2 Yun Ch’iho, a Korean intellectual figure, attended that year’s World’s Parliament of Religion and recorded his interaction with two Japanese Buddhists who spoke very highly of their religion and argued for its spread elsewhere. He quotes one of the men, a Jōdoshinshū priest, as saying: “In Japan, everybody is a Buddhist. There is no field uncultivated. Hence we must occupy new lands.” Yun, on the other hand, thought of Buddhism as a “dying religion that had failed Eastern civilization.”

Yun’s opinion, that Buddhism was a “dying religion,” was not unfounded in Korea, as the religion’s popularity was on the decline, and it was looked down upon by the upper class — Korean monks were not allowed to speak to yangban, nor were they permitted through the gates of Seoul. Because the state of Buddhism in Korea is so poor, Japanese Buddhists turn to Korea for a the “foreign propagation” that they had been hoping for, with their final goal being the establishment of their sect of Buddhism as Korea’s state religion. Kim notes that this effort “took place parallel to Japan’s drive to gradually dominate Korea politically.”

Although not all missionary efforts were fueled by the Meiji government’s desire for influence on the Korean peninsula, most of them behaved in strict accordance with Japan’s political agenda. Christopher Ives explains that the Japanese Buddhist sectarian competition in Korea led to each sect consistently stressing their adherence to imperial orthodoxy in order to stay in the favor of the Japanese emperor and “maintain institutional privileges.”3

In the years before the implementation of Japanese colonial rule, the spread of Japanese Buddhism in Korea played an important role in solidifying Japan’s presence on the peninsula. Kim argues that Buddhism acted as “rich doctrinal, symbolic capital” within Korea that the Meiji government used to “mollify the anxiety of Koreans regarding Japan’s intentions.”2

Whether or not it was the goal of the individual Japense Buddhists involved in the late 19th century’s mass missionary activity in Korea, the movement significantly increased Japanese influence in the region and helped them gain a foothold that, at least marginally, catalyzed their colonial takeover in 1910.

  1. Larsen, Kirk W. “Competing Imperialisms in Korea” in Routledge Handbook of Modern Korean History, (Routledge, 2016), pp. 27-37. []
  2. Kim, Hwansoo Ilmee. Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877–1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. Ch 3 Japanese Buddhist Missions to Korea pp. 107-150. [] []
  3. Ives, Christopher. “The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Modern Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26, no. 1/2 (1999), pp. 83–106. []

Kongzi’s Revivalistic Traditionalism: A Tool for Chinese Influence?

In Bryan Van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, he outlines the five elements of Confucianism that Kongzi emphasized throughout his Confucian teachings during his lifetime. Each element is still prominently showcased in societies with Confucian cultural traditions and influences today. This posting will specifically focus on one of the five elements and explore how it manifests differently when its values are taught and implemented outside of Confucianism’s birthplace in China. 

Revivalistic traditionalism, as Norden refers to it, is one of the most significant and unique elements of Confucianism. Unlike the parallel Western philosophies of the classical period, such as those that Plato perpetuated, it derives its moral inspiration from human civilization of the past, rather than from a higher world, like Platoism’s abstract utopian idealization of society. Norden explains that under Confucian philosophy, moral progress that is made via rejecting elements of tradition ought to be done by appealing to “other values, beliefs, and practices within that same tradition.”

This assertion becomes more interesting when we consider the spread of Confucianism outside of China. When Kongzi’s values were implemented and spread in societies like Joseon Korea, the traditions of China, not Korea, were “revived” and studied to form government structures that suited Neo-Confucian ideals. Theodore de Bary and JaHyun Kim Haboush, when analyzing the sources of Neo-Confucian thought in Joseon Korea, note that Chong Tojon, a royal chief advisor and key orchestrator of Confucian-thought proliferation, carefully studied and derived philosophy from the rulers of the classical Three Dynasties of China, using them as a model for “sage kings.” The teachings of Kwon Kun, another notable Korean Neo-Confucian thinker, strongly emphasizd the wide intellectual scope of Confucianism by encouraging the thorough understanding of both Buddhism and Taoism — prominent cultural traditions that were spread to Korea from China.

Joseon Korea’s tendency to look to Chinese cultural and historical traditions for guidance — as opposed to using its own — has a profound impact on Korean culture as their government adopts Neo-Confucianist agenda. Kongzi’s revivalistic traditionalism does not unfold in Korea as a self-derived moral investigation, and as a result, Confucianism becomes an agent of Chinese influence in addition to a state-sponsored school of thought. Martina Deuchler identifies four distinct aspects of Korean culture that Neo-Confucianism helped shift as it spread throughout the state, including ancestor worship and funerary rites, succession and inheritance, the position of women and the marriage institution, and formation of descent groups. Each of these cultural features were directly influenced by the Chinese traditions that formed Neo-Confucianism before it spread to the Korean peninsula.

Kongzi’s element of revivalistic traditionalism, when implemented outside the context of China, takes on a very different role. Instead of encouraging self-derived moral change, it helps elevate Chinese traditions and history rather than promoting societies to engage in the introspection as it was originally intended. Although regions can develop their own understandings and interpretations of Confucianism over time, the initial presence of a strong Chinese cultural influence is undeniable, and can be societally transformative wherever it is implemented.