Kang Youwei’s thought

The utopian world Kang envisions has certain characteristics that catch the eye. However, more interesting to study than these characteristics are their cause and meaning. Kang wrote his most famous and influential book, the Dà Tóng Shu, in a turbulent age in which China was being upturned. These changes caused many of those living in the Qing Empire to rethink their position, as they did not merely change the society’s conditions. In fact, they caused the Qing society itself to be uprooted as hundreds of years of tradition suddenly appeared to have lost their value.

This radical change left its marks on the Chinese and caused China to take a whole new direction in the 20th century. As the Chinese felt the ground tremble under their feet, they struggled to find something to hold on. As often is the case, new ideas sprang up and were eagerly embraced by those who were starting to lose the purpose they thought was theirs. Therefore, one can say that new ideas reflect the influence social changes have on a society. Always will these ideas and ideals be a reaction to the old and newly arising situation, so studying them gives us an overview of whatever it is the society is going through. Since Kang Youwei is the author of one of the most original and unique ideas of his time and place he must be considered well worth studying.

In the Dà Tóng Shu Kang describes a utopian world, the Dà Tóng itself. He envisions this world in which there are no boundaries and where there is no suffering, traditional family, crime, and idolization, a world in which man and woman are equal.

He bases these characteristics on certain ideas, which all rest on the basic idea that life is suffering. This is similar to Buddhism, but whereas the Buddhist sees desire as the cause of suffering, K’ang is of the opinion that the nine boundaries are. These are the national, class, racial, gender, familial, property, disorder, species, and suffering boundaries. To be able to realize the Dà Tóng, these boundaries must be abolished. In doing so, the world will walk the path of the tree worlds and enter into the stage of Great Peace. It will then have become the Dà Tóng. The three stages pass from disorder to order, and from order to eternal peace. The source of these three worlds is the Confucian New Text. According to these, Confucius was not a historian who strived to reinstitute the grandness of the past, but instead a visionary wanting to lead the world, through the three stages, into the Great Unity, into the Dà Tóng.

And here we have arrived at another new idea in Chinese thinking. Kang says that all men are good. This is not a revolutionary idea in itself; indeed, even Mencius had already concluded this. No, Kang is revolutionary in saying that it is not the person itself, which influences the inner goodness, but it is external factors that do so. The cause for the suffering of mankind, the reasons for the good nature of men to not be able to come to its full potential, are the nine boundaries. The three stages are completed when these external factors are done away with and all will be able to become perfected.

Mencius said that only through self-perfection can one’s inner goodness develop, Kang wrote that it is the environment which holds us back. Confucius was not a historian, but a prophet, preaching the future says K’ang. Teleology, history leading to an ultimate universal goal with time as the driving cosmic force, was the basis of the three stages, the path to the Dà Tóng. These are two of the major revolutionary thoughts of Kang. Thoughts, which were unprecedented and could only have arisen in an age where the Confucian world-view was losing its power.

The inner goodness leads to Dà Tóng, one world in which all live together in peace and harmony, possible because the nine boundaries were overcome. Goodness lies in morals and thus the Dà Tóng was a moral universal cosmology. Here, however, arises a problem which makes wonder if it all adds up. It is fair to say that the world is diverse and since Dà Tóng is by definition universal, all men are included. Now, how does one set a moral standard in an practically infinite diversity? The answer Kang seems to give lies in tradition. Tradition is area-based and because of its development through time has influenced many and attuned their moral standards. The answer in itself seems fine, however, within the frame work of Kang Youwei’s overall though it creates some tension. Kang appears to want to get rid of Confucianism and hold on to its tradition at the same time, as he tries to make a blend of iconoclasm and traditionalism.

However, I think that no matter the possible tension within the Kang Youwei thought, his revolutionary ideas and the way these let go of tradition can be said to have had influence on China in the years that came, even after he passed away. Being the first to write in such a radical way about all those new ideas, Kang inspired many others to do so. Those others did not have to agree with him, and many indeed disagreed. Possible wrongness, however, is never a reason for ignoring. Even Liang Qichao, a student of Kang, disagreed with him on many points. Others, like Sun Yat-sen, Zhu Yixin, Ye Dehui, Zhang Binglin and Chen Duxiu all responded in some way or another to Kang. This, being it agreeing or disagreeing, caused them and many others to think, consider, and participate. So even though Kang might not have achieved any particular goal himself – his hundred days of reforms proved not very successful – his thought inspired or enticed. Looking at Kang Youwei’s though is only one piece of the puzzle, a segment of the history of the thoughts that shook China in the first part of the twentieth century. We need the pieces of this puzzle to be able to understand the scope of the changes and the influence thereof upon China's present day society.


Thompson, Laurence G., "A General Discussion of the One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei", chapter III in Thompson, Laurence G., Ta T’ung Shu. The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei. London: 1958

Howard, Richard C., "K’ang Yu-wei (1858-1927): His Intellectual Background and Thought", in A.F. Wright and Denis Twitchett (eds.), Confucian Personalities. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962

Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, Sources of Chinese Tradition; Volume 2: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999

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