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).

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).