Returning to the Past and Modernity in the Ideas of Wang Hui and Nishitani Keiji

Although Wang Hui (b. 1959) and Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) wrote in different locations and schools of thought, similarities can be found in the ways they saw the world around them. They saw their surroundings in a state of decay, and wished to return to traditional ideas in order to solve their contemporary problems, with modernity playing a key antagonist role in both their ideas.

In The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity, Wang saw a significant problem in the form of ‘depoliticization’, which he believed has acquired ‘worldwide predominance’ in today’s world.1 The main example he cited is the effect depoliticization has had on democracy. He argued that political parties were becoming less and less representative of their ideas and values under market conditions. These parties have become mere mechanisms of power, and now ‘the representative system of democracy exists now in name only’.2  Wang looked to Chinese history to find a solution to depoliticization. He argued that while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has expressed regret over the Cultural Revolution, ‘it does not repudiate either the Chinese Revolution, socialist values, or Mao Zedong thought’.3  The effect of this, Wang continued, was that ‘the socialist tradition’ continued in China’s current government, and ‘functioned […] as an internal restraint on state reforms’ as well as allowing ‘workers, peasants, and other social collectivities some legitimate means to contest or negotiate the state’s corrupt or inegalitarian marketization procedures’.4

Wang saw this ‘socialist tradition’ as a way to counter depoliticization, because it provided ‘an opening for the development of a future politics […] to break the hold of a depoliticized political ideology after the end of the revolutionary era’. 4 In this way, Wang hoped to use China’s history and tradition of socialism to achieve a democracy that could translate well under China’s contemporary conditions.

The problem Nishitani saw in his world was not the lack of politics, as he illustrated in his essay ‘My Views on “Overcoming Modernity,” but the lack of a worldview. He believed that Japan stood in a spiritual vacuum, and required a worldview that would put Japan on its correct path. Nishitani began this discussion with an examination of a standpoint that he called ‘the religiosity of spiritual nothingness’.5 First, by ‘religiosity,’ he meant an idea that could transcend science in order to be authentic. Anything that transcended science was inherently subjective, and once ‘the standpoint of true subjectivity appear[ed] within us [..] [it] represent[ed] the one thing that cannot […] be objectified’.6  This leads us to the third part of the equation: ‘nothingness’. In using this word, Nishitani did not wish to indicate this standpoint was nothing but that it ‘signifie[d] that which cannot be objectively apprehended as “being”’.7  Overall, this ‘religiosity of spiritual nothingness’ was something that Nishitani believed Japanese people had within them, and was ‘the deepest aspect of Japanese spirit’, and rooted in Japan’s history and ‘particular circumstances’.8

Nishitani related this religiosity back to his fear of the Japanese lack of worldview. He believed that once this religiosity could permeate the people’s sense of ethics, it would form a kind of moral energy that would be the backbone of the Japanese nation and consequently, a new worldview. This is what Nishitani meant when he asserted that ‘[t]here is something at the deepest roots of Japan’s traditional spirit that can provide a course of resolution to these present world problems’.4 Once this worldview is formed, Japan would be well on its way towards ‘its mission’ of ‘founding a new world order and constructing Greater East Asia’.4

Evidently, both Wang and Nishitani looked to tradition and the past in order to find a solution to the world’s current problems. While Nishitani looked inwards, Wang posited a problem and a solution external to the self. However, both Nishitani and Wang were clear on painting modernity as an antagonist. Wang believed that modernity, and its associated Western trends of neoliberalism and globalization, were the reason why depoliticization occurred. Nishitani also drew parallels between what is thought of as modernity and the West, writing: ‘In general, what is called ‘modern’ means European’.9 He criticized this modernity as being ‘divided’ and its religiosity as not transcendent enough – too ‘secularized’ – to form an authentic worldview.10 Nishitani saw Western modernity as the reason why the West’s worldview had become fragmented. Overall, both Wang and Nishitani viewed modernity as a significant factor as to why these problems existed and persisted, choosing to look towards the past in order to better face their future.


  1. Hui Wang,  The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (London, 2011), p. 13. []
  2. Ibid, xxx []
  3. Ibid, 18. []
  4. Ibid. [] [] [] []
  5. Keiji Nishitani, ‘‘My Views on “Overcoming Modernity”’, in Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan (New York, 2008), p. 59. []
  6. Ibid, 54-55. []
  7. Ibid, 55. []
  8. Ibid, 59. []
  9. Ibid, 51. []
  10. Ibid, 54. []

Kang Youwei’s One-World Philosophy: Why Germany Is A Bad Example

In 1884, Kang Youwei penned a book called Ta T’ung Shu in which he laid out his utopian vision of the ‘One-World’, in which ‘all the boundaries which created divisions […] have been abolished,’ and ‘causes of suffering’ have been eradicated.[1] This was a world characterised by compassion and moral fibre, in which ‘all creatures are happy’.[2] In Chapter II, Kang laid out a specific way to achieve this world:  the elimination of sovereign states and national boundaries. The ideal world would have ‘no states’ with ‘[t]he people […] united under one public government […]’.[3] Kang argued that the existence of national boundaries would corrupt even ‘the Good and Upright,’ as every individual would be devoted to increasing the power of their own state at the expense of other states.[4] Peace could not exist in such a system, with countries behaving ‘like a bunch of dogs rolling [on the ground in a fight, like savage beasts devouring one another […]’.[5] Thus, Kang argued for ‘disarmament’ which required ‘abolishing [sovereign] states’.[6]

Kang’s ideas were echoed in a text published in the middle of the following century by Yan Xishan, titled ‘How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity.’ Yan argued that ‘[F]rom the lessons of world history, we learn that countries tend to grow in size and shrink in number. China combined several countries into one. Small nations have less chance of survival, and tend to form into federations’.[7] Because nations are destined to gradually subsume into one another, and one world would form from the many, ‘It is perfectly natural for us to adopt Cosmopolitanism today’.[8]

Instead of China, Kang used the example of Germany as a state that had successfully annexed other states to form a larger, more powerful entity. He wrote:

‘The parts becoming joined thus being due to natural selection, the swallowing up by the strong and large and the extermination of the weak and small may then be considered to presage One World. But [the way in which] Germany and America have established large states through [uniting their small] federated states is a better method of uniting states. [They have] caused all these small and weak states to forget that they have been destroyed [to form the united states]. […] This will hasten the world along the road to One World’.[9]

There are many issues with Kang using Germany as a model example as his account is not completely accurate. While Germany was formed out of a union of Prussia and smaller southern states like Bavaria and Baden to become the German Empire in 1871, Clark argued that it was not a ‘one-way process in which Prussians swarmed on to the commanding heights of the new German state. It would be truer to say Prussian and German national institutions grew together, intertwining their branches’.[10] Kang’s assertion that the smaller states were ‘destroyed’ in favour of the larger state was therefore incorrect. Clark went on to give an example, stating that ‘[i]t became increasingly common […] for non-Prussians to serve as imperial officials and even as Prussian ministers’.[11] This is not to say that Prussia did not enjoy hegemony in the newly formed German state, but hegemony did not come about, as Kang believed, through the strong swallowing the weak.

Next, Kang moved into discussing what political form the One World would take.

‘Therefore, within this next hundred years all the weak and small states will certainly be annihilated, all monarchical and autocratic forms [of government] will certainly be completely swept away, republican constitutions will certainly be enacted everywhere, democracy and equality will be burning brightly. […] Complete Peace-and-Equality throughout the world is like the rushing of water through a gully: nothing can check it’.[12]

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Kang’s centennial prediction did not come true. Not only were the ‘small states’, such as ‘Sweden [and] Denmark’,[13] still in existence but Kang’s reasoning that a ‘republican constitution’ would follow logically from the formation of one unified state was mistaken. Using his example of Germany, the ‘highly artificial product’[14] of a unified Deutschland left ‘a patchwork quilt of types of local governments that needed cleaning up’.[15] The German government suffered from ‘an unsettling sense that what had so swiftly been put together could also be undone’.[16] This combined with the need for a broad ‘Germanization’ to ‘consolidate’ the patchwork quilt of the ‘German Reich’ drove German ‘Iron’ Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to ‘respond with extreme measures’.[17] Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Bismarck waged his campaign against segments of the population he deemed not German enough, namely the Catholics and the Poles.[18] By 1876, all Prussian bishops were either in custody or in exile.[19] Bismarck also embarked upon a comprehensive project to root out the Poles, advocating expulsion of Poles who have no claims to citizenship as well as a language of government act in 1886 that would ban the use of minority languages in local government affairs, thus excluding monolingual Poles from governmental participation.[20]

The German example is evidence that a world formed through the annexation of ‘weak and small states’ to more powerful ones would not be, as Kang argued, the flame to the torch of ‘democracy and equality’. ‘Complete Peace-and-Equality’ is a far more difficult project that would require more types of unification than merely that of the political and geographic variety.

[1] Kang Yu-wei, Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei, trans. and. ed. Laurence G. Thompson (London, 2005), p. 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 106.

[4] Ibid, 82.

[5] Ibid, 83.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yen Hsi-shan, How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity (n.p., 1952), p. 40.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kang, Ta T’ung, p. 85.

[10] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London, 2007), p. 559.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kang, Ta T’ung, p. 89.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Clark, Iron, p. 570.

[15] Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, 2012), p. 335.

[16] Clark, Iron, p. 570.

[17] Steinberg, Bismarck, p. 335.

[18] Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. 2: The Period of Consolidation, 1871-1880 (Princeton, 1990), p. 209.

[19] Steinberg, Bismarck, p. 333.

[20] Pflanze, Bismarck and, p. 205.


Primary Sources

Kang, Yu-wei, Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei, trans. and. ed. Laurence G. Thompson (London, 2005).    

Yen, Hsi-shan, How to Prevent Warfare and Establish Foundation of World Unity (n.p., 1952).

Secondary Sources

Clark, Christopher, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 (London, 2007).

Pflanze, Otto, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. 2: The Period of Consolidation, 1871-1880 (Princeton, 1990).

Steinberg, Jonathan, Bismarck: A Life (Oxford, 2012).

Buddhism and Social Darwinism: The Changing Functions of Korean Buddhism

When Liang Qichao’s (1873-1929) writings were first introduced into Korea in the late 1890s, his Social Darwinist understanding of evolution took hold of the Korean intellectual consciousness.[1] Liang believed in a world defined by competition, and suggested several ideas to emerge victorious, such as ‘self-strengthening through (modern) education’ and ‘the encouragement of a collectivist, self-sacrificing and adventurous spirit’.[2] We see evidence of Liang’s influence across Korean Buddhist thinkers during the turn of the century like Han Yong-un (1879-1944), Kwon Sangno (1879-1965) and Yongsong Jinjong (1864-1940). I will examine how they engaged with the evolutionary and scientific ideas of their time, highlighting similarities not just within their ideas but also with prominent Western theories at the time, concluding that evolutionary theory was ultimately inescapable as an influencing factor, and on a broader scale, ask what this meant for the existential role Korean Buddhism was to play.

Han Yong-un wrote extensively on the ‘modern’ aspects of Buddhism, citing its altruism and the idea of a Buddha-nature present in all beings as indicators of equality – and hence, modernity – inherent in Buddhist ideas.[3] Han also drew Social Darwinist ideas from the translated works of Liang, emphasizing ideas such as degradation, strength, and competition in his works.

On the topic of the education of monks, Han writes: ‘The absence of education mean[t] degradation to the level of barbarians or animals’.[4] This conveyed a fear particularly popular in the West during the late 19th century when theories of degeneration took off. Cesare Lombroso and other public intellectuals proposed the notion that as there was no moral rationale to evolution, there is no guarantee that progress will take place instead of regression.[5]

The other great ‘forebearer’ of Korean Buddhism alongside Han was Kwon Sangno, who published a treatise titled ‘Materials on the Evolution of Korean Buddhism,’ in which he set out four key reforms to revitalize Korean Buddhism.[6] Social Darwinist principles appeared not just in Kwon’s title but also throughout the treatise. For instance, Kwon warned that ‘if Buddhism does not conform with the civilization of the future we will definitely fail in revitalizing it, even if we were to bring back to life Martin Luther and Cromwell and put them to the task’.[7] This idea had obvious parallels to Liang Qichao’s earlier work. Liang’s writings discussed heroism extensively, including pieces on heroes such as Napoleon, Columbus, Bismarck, Washington and others on which the ‘survival of nations in the evolutionary competition’ depended.[8] But unlike Liang, Kwon took pains to emphasize that heroism alone was not enough to revive Buddhism in the modern landscape.

Han and Kwon evidently integrated ideas of Social Darwinism, but other Buddhist monks were less accommodating. Yongsong Jinjong was concerned with the longevity of Buddhism in a time when Christianity was rapidly on the rise. He believed that in order to rival Christianity, he must offer a Buddhist narrative on the ‘arising’ of the world and its inhabitants.[9] His ‘Mind-Only Theory’ did just that, arguing that the mind was the origin of all dharmas including everything from the four elements to the ripening of fruit.[10] Yongsong further critiqued scientific explanations of natural phenomena, disregarding evolutionary theory for his own version of the ten causes for human life, including such causes as ‘thought arising’, ‘essence of the true mind’ and ‘non-enlightenment’.[11]

Yet, Yongsong’s ideas are more similar to Han and Kwon than immediately apparent. Kwon placed a similar priority on the mind as Yongsong does, emphasizing as his first rule of reform for Korean Buddhism that monks must ‘reform their minds before the material realities’ such that all monks would be ‘unified in mind’.[12] In this way, Kwon almost appeared as a middle way between Yongsong who disregarded science and leaned on the primacy of the mind instead and Han who fully endorsed evolutionary theory as the primary cause of the environment surrounding us.

However, we must not discount evolutionary theory from Yongsong’s ideas completely. Huh argued that Yongsong refused to provide more detailed answers regarding his theory of how the world came to be because ‘he just assume[d] that the evolution of the corrupted world “naturally” proceeded. By perceiving the corrupted situation of the world as a “natural” phenomenon, Yongsong avoid[ed] the necessity of answering those questions’.[13] Much like his Social Darwinist counterparts, Yongsong assumed that the world proceeded along its natural stages to become what it is now. Also, similar to the proponents of the degeneration theory of the time, Yongsong does not preclude the rising of a corrupted world from natural phenomena, because as Lombroso argued, there was no moral rationale behind evolution.

Traditionally, Buddhism has been regarded more as a way of life rather than a religion. However, by the end of the 19th century, Buddhists were beginning to turn to Buddhism for answers to questions beyond the ‘how,’ as they delved deeper into the ‘why’. Korean Buddhists wrestled with questions on what it means to be human by engaging with theories of evolution or of the mind, either looking to integrate science into their worldview or by forming a theory distinctive due to its opposition to science. And in a climate where Buddhism seemed to have fallen out of favour in comparison to Christianity, Buddhists attempted to modernize their own religion by incorporating science. Ultimately, evolutionary theory permeated the ideas of major Korean Buddhist figures during this time, and even those who attempted to disregard it had themes of evolutionary theory in their writings.

[1] Han Yongun, Selected Writings of Han Yongun: From Social Darwinism to Socialism with a Buddhist Face, trans. Vladimir Tikhonov and Owen Miller (Folkestone, 2008), p. 1.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 7.

[4] Ibid, 58.

[5] R.B. Kershner, ‘Degeneration: The Explanatory Nightmare’, The Georgia Review 40 (1986), pp. 431.

[6] Kim Hwansoo Ilmee, Empire of the Dharma: Korean and Japanese Buddhism, 1877-1912 (London, 2012), p. 301.

[7] Ibid, 304-5.

[8] Han, Selected Writings, p. 6.

[9] Huh Woosung, ‘Individual Salvation and Compassionate Action’ in Jin Y. Park (ed.), Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (Albany, 2010), p. 29.

[10] Ibid, 31.

[11] Ibid, 30.

[12] Kim Hwansoo, Empire, p. 303.

[13] Huh, ‘Individual Salvation’, p. 32.


‘I cannot but sigh at this’: He-Yin Zhen’s Use of Confucianist Ideas and Methods

He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920?) was a Chinese anarchist feminist, advocating the feminist struggle as equal to or even superseding ‘the nationalist, ethnocentric or capitalist modernisation agendas’.1  After moving to Tokyo in 1907 with her husband, fellow activist Liu Shipei, they began publishing the anarcho-feminist journal Natural Justice.2 In this journal, Zhen’s anarchist sentiments became more pronounced. Her suspicion of state logic and all institutions of social hierarchy led her to argue for the removal of government, replaced instead with the instalment of communally owned property.3 For Zhen, the ‘goal of women’s struggle is no more and no less than the restoration of universal justice for all’.4

In her 1907 essay, ‘On the Revenge of Women’, Zhen detailed the tools and ideas with which women are made unequal to men. She specifically argued that Confucian scholarship was one of the main instruments of male tyrannical rule through looking at four of the Confucian ‘Five Classics’: the Book of Songs, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and Spring and Autumn Annals.5 However, I will argue that He-Yin Zhen employs Confucianist methods and ideas in her critique of Confucianism. 

The first reason why she believed Confucianist scholarship had played a major role in the oppression of women is through its insistence that women maintain obedience and consequently made ‘subsidiaries of men’.6 She argued: ‘Does this not amount to controlling women so that they cannot be free?’7

She gave further examples in Confucian classics such as the expectation that women remain faithful to one man unto death8 and that women are often blamed for bringing disorder to both families and to the state9 . She claimed that through scholastic traditions such as Confucianism, men had monopolised learning and allowed women to ‘internalise patriarchal values’10 

Eventually, she concluded that ‘all Confucian teachings are teachings that kill people,’ because they have led to the ‘draconian suppression and control of women’11

However, I would argue that throughout this critique of Confucian teachings, she based some of her arguments on the concepts and ideas that Confucian teachings use. For instance, Zhen highlighted a quotation by Zheng in Annotations to the Mao Tradition of the Songs as an example of women being blamed for disorder being brought to the state:

‘The man is yang, so when he plots and schemes he benefits the country. But the woman is yin, and when she schemes she disrupts the country.’12

Zhen argued that ideas like these perpetuate ‘deviant teachings as “yang initiates, yin harmonizes”’.13 These teachings have caused ‘the relationship between men and women’ to become ‘one of absolute inequality [through cosmic abstraction]. I cannot but sigh at this’14 . Yet, Zhen herself used cosmic abstraction such as yin and yang to support her own ideas. In her section on ‘Women Suffering Death by Cloistering’, she argued that forcing women to cohabitate in harems was a punishment equivalent to death. She cited a Han official, Xun Shuang, who wrote: 

‘I heard that as many as five to six thousand women are gathered in the harem […] The qi [vital energy] of harmony is disturbed, leading to frequent calamities and freakish omens. […] all women who were neither betrothed by the proper ceremonies nor consummated their unions should be released […]. This would alleviate their forlorn sorrow and return yin and yang to harmony’.15

By citing quotations that use the logic of yin and yang to argue for the improvement of female conditions, she relied on the same ‘deviant teachings’ as those Confucian scholars she tried to disprove.

Strands of Confucianist ideas were also evident in Zhen’s critique of the ruling parties. In describing the process of accumulating women for their harems, she wrote that ‘[…] the Ming […] were even more relentless than the alien races in drafting maidens’.16  She described the Ming rulers as examples of ‘despotic sovereigns [who] committed against women heinous crimes of cruelty’.17 This critique fell in line with the idea of ‘virtue politics’, a specific mode of politics that Confucians pursued. Sage-kings were given the responsibility of being teachers for their subjects and to uphold a moral order, or the Way, which would translate to sociopolitical harmony – failure to rule according to the Way was perceived as a failure to rule.18 Zhen’s attack on the morality of Ming rulers drew on the Confucian tradition of critiquing the moral disposition of rulers if they did not uphold the Confucian expectation of being a benevolent ruler.

Zhen continued to discuss the importance of virtues in the subjugation of women. She proposed that men knew ‘docility was not a good virtue but nonetheless made women abide by it. Does this not imply that they were banishing women from the realm of the human?’19 By posing this question, Zhen evidently believed that following good virtues was a fundamental aspect of being human. There are parallels between this belief and the teachings of Confucian philosopher Mengzi. In his writings, Mengzi noted that human nature is good, as every human ha[d] the potential to develop that goodness. He wrote: ‘Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them’.20 When Zhen claimed that by deviating from good virtue, we are deviating from being human, she made the same assumption that Mengzi did: human nature is inherently good. 

In the areas of cosmic abstraction, virtue politics, and human nature, Zhen followed the Confucian methods and ideas that she attempted to denounce. It is clear that Zhen’s ideas could not be extricated from the indigenous Chinese traditions and philosophies that she was surrounded by. Whether this was accidental or intentional in order to better convince her contemporaries by using the mode of thinking they have become accustomed to, Zhen could not completely separate her own, albeit radical, work from the intellectual traditions and tools of the time. 


  1. Sharon R. Wesoky, ‘Bringing the Jia Back into Guojia: Engendering Chinese Intellectual Politics’, Signs 40 (2015), p. 649. []
  2. James St. Andre and Lydia H. Liu, ‘The Battleground of Translation: Making Equal in A Global Structure of Inequality’, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38 (2018), p. 381. []
  3. Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko (eds), The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational History (New York, 2013), p. 107. []
  4. Ibid, 108. []
  5. Ibid, 122 []
  6. Ibid, 129. []
  7. Ibid, 130. []
  8. Ibid, 133. []
  9. Ibid, 141. []
  10. Peter Zarrow, ‘He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China’, The Journal of Asian Studies 47 (1988), p 805. []
  11. Liu, Karl and Ko, The Birth of Chinese, p. 124. []
  12. Ibid, 142. []
  13. Ibid, 128. []
  14. Ibid. []
  15. Ibid, 154. []
  16. Ibid, 156. []
  17. Ibid, 158. []
  18. Sungmoon Kim, Democracy After Virtue: Toward Pragmatic Confucian Democracy (New York, 2018), p. 8. []
  19. Liu, Karl and Ko, The Birth of Chinese, p. 131. []
  20. Bryan W. Van Norden (ed.), Mengzi: With Selections From Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis, 2008), p. 149. []