Version classiqueVersion mobile

All about the Rites

Anne Cheng
Stéphane Feuillas

The Book of Rites and modernity

The evolution and adaptability of li in the philosophy of Kang Youwei

Sean Moores

Texte intégral

  • 1 Kang Youwei is mainly remembered as a reformist thinker at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), (...)

1When attempting to appraise the work of any thinker active over a prolonged period of time, one is inevitably faced with the task of how to account for the evolution of the system of thought he or she developed, along with the possible inconsistencies and apparent incoherences contained therein. This is particularly the case when it comes to the thought of Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858–1927), whose works span more than four decades of China’s tumultuous modern history. He has been decried both as a representative of “feudal society” and an iconoclastic figure who overturned “traditional” Confucian values; and it is at times somewhat arduous to navigate apparent changes in Kang’s philosophical stances over the years, which need to be understood before the backdrop of monumental changes taking place in China throughout his lifetime.1

  • 2 Liang 2015, vol.3, 531; see also Chen 2014, 89.
  • 3 See, for example, Qian 1997, 749: “Datong is the realm of ren” [大同即仁之境界].
  • 4 Kang 2012a, 8 [大同之道至平也至公也 至仁也治之至也].

2Kang’s most famous disciple Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929) once said that “humanness [ren ] was the sole guiding principle” of his teacher’s philosophy.2 This would seem to be an invaluable key to help assess Kang’s philosophy as a whole, in such a way as to enable one to grasp the meaning of the individual notions and phases of which it consists. When one takes ren as the overriding guiding principle of Kang’s philosophical system, at the service of which all other notions function and evolve, his ideas indeed start to take on greater meaning both individually and interdependently, and one starts to take for granted the fact that any individual notion can be jettisoned at any given moment, so as to further the cause of ren in human society. One might even be justified in saying that Kang’s most “iconoclastic” vision of a future utopian world, the age of “Great Unity” (datong 大同) is characterised by the ultimate jettisoning of all values and concepts which hinder the advent of a world functioning as a pure expression of ren.3 Indeed, as Kang clearly claims, “The way of datong leads to equality, the common good and ren, and is the epitome of good governance.”4

3In common with generations of Confucian philosophers before him, the notion li  is central to Kang’s philosophy, in which it goes far beyond the original meaning of “rite/ritual,” and is used to depict structures through which ren can be achieved. One might even say that li structurally reflect the very development of Kang’s thought. They are depicted as being by nature –and vocation– subject to modifications, so as to accomplish their humanising function. Ironically, variation and malleability are in this way constant throughout Kang’s works, in which the objective of humanistic development stands paramount as the sole unchanging and unchangeable aspiration.

4The objective of this paper is to reflect upon how the idea of the adaptability of li is developed in Kang’s philosophy. How does Kang define li, and how does he depict their fundamental nature and utility? In what way does he justify his vision of their necessary evolution, and what implications does this have for the world vision he seeks to develop? Ultimately, how does an appraisal of this help one to better understand his philosophy in particular, and possibly Confucian thought in general?

  • 5 See, for example, Slingerland 2009, 112: “By Zhou times, the scope of ritual had grown significantl (...)
  • 6 Gao 1963, 1.
  • 7 Ames 1988, 199.
  • 8 See, for example, Hall & Ames 1987, 85; Tan 2012, 157; Cua 2005, 39.
  • 9 Creel 1951, 91.
  • 10 See Ames 1988, 200.

5The notion li lies at the very heart of Confucian thought. Initially designating the ritual ceremonies around which political legitimacy was structured in the Zhou era,5 its use in Confucian discourse has encompassed wider dimensions related to a desired moral development. Gao Ming points out that “from Confucius onwards, all of [China’s] institutions have existed within [the framework of] li. If there were no li, then the basis of every institution would be lost.”6 According to Roger T. Ames, the concept “is extremely broad, embracing everything from manners to mediums of communication to social and political institutions. It is the determinate fabric of Chinese culture and, further, defines sociopolitical order.”7 Translations of the term are numerous and varied, ranging, amongst others, from “rite,” “ritual practice” and “ceremonial” to “propriety,” “decorum,” “manners” and “civility.”8 However, as H. G. Creel already observed, at times “such translation not only fails to convey the sense of the Chinese, but even quite obscures its true meaning.”9 Ames also indicates that the notion “does not carry the pejorative connotations such as superficiality, formalism, and irrationality often associated with the Western understanding of ritual.”10

  • 11 Hagen 2003, 376.
  • 12 Cua 2005, 39.
  • 13 See Gao 1963, 5. Gao also cites (5-6) a number of examples showing that li have consistently been c (...)

6Variability is a key characteristic of li. According to Kurtis Hagen, “rather than strict rules, the formal aspect of li is better thought of as involving norms of varying specificity, grounded in tradition, yet necessarily evolving as a result of individual appropriation over time.”11 Antonio Cua also tells us that “li is a rich and fluid notion with a long history of evolution,”12 while Gao Ming argues that “li are not immutable –when the times change, li have to follow them and change as well.”13

7In the historical context of Kang’s philosophy, the idea of the constant evolution of li takes on particular meaning. It without doubt reflects an ongoing desire to respond to unprecedented historical challenges in creative ways, while at the same time seeking to establish these responses firmly within the framework of Confucian teachings. In the political sphere, this of course finds expression in Kang’s theories on institutional reform, culminating in the failed reform movement of 1898. However, it would be misleading to limit our understanding of his views on the matter to simply their immediate relevance and practical application.

  • 14 See, for example, Kwong 2000 and Wong 1992.
  • 15 It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail the relationship between Kang’s writing (...)

8This paper does not purport to explore the question of Kang’s institutional reforms. This has been done exhaustively elsewhere.14 By concentrating on Kang’s ideas on li, the objective is rather to reflect upon the “philosophical” dimension of his approach to change; as opposed to any particular movement or political programme. Kang’s philosophy will be considered as underpinning certain practical applications attempted over the course of his life, without ever being fully reflected therein. In other words, for what concerns the present article, it is clear that the question of li, which was a constant intellectual preoccupation throughout Kang’s life, precedes and survives his championing of institutional reform in 1898; the latter can be seen as simply the tangible expression of his ideas in a particular historical and political context.15

  • 16 Kong Xiangji sums up Kang’s views on li as “a method of governing human society” (renlei shehui de (...)

9When it comes to understanding Kang’s use of the term li nearly two and a half millennia after Confucius’ first re-elaboration of it, caution is required. It is clear that across the large body of his writings, Kang does not posit the notion in terms of “rites” or “ritual behaviour” as such, but rather as a synonym of social, political and cultural institutions and practices which structure human society and humanistic development.16 Ultimately, the areas of human existence that this covers could be extremely far-reaching. For the purposes of the present paper, therefore, the term will be left untranslated, so as to avoid misleading interpretations which would limit our understanding of the implications Kang attaches to the concept.

10Kang describes the basic functioning of li in the following way:

孔子曰: 安上治民,莫善於禮.禮也者,人道之自然,物理所必著,上自太古狉獉之世,外至蠻夷蕃部之愚,未有能絕去之也. […] 人生而有飲食、衣服、宮室,則制度必有別焉.

  • 17 The quotation is from the “Jingjie” 經解 (Explanations of the Classics) chapter in the Book of Rites; (...)
  • 18 Jiaoxue tongyi 教學通義 (On the General Meaning of Learning) [1885], in Kang 2007, vol.1, 48.

Confucius said: ‘To bring stability above and to govern the people, nothing is better than li.’17 Li are a natural part of the human way, whereby the principle of things necessarily becomes perceptible. Even in the remote past when there was no civilisation, and in the outer regions where there are but simple barbarian tribes, it has never been possible to do without them. […] Food, clothing and shelter are needs of human existence, and institutions must necessarily make distinctions.18

11For Kang, the most fundamental reason for the existence of li is that they give structure to the most essential requirements of human society, and respond to antagonisms which could potentially arise:

禮者,所以治人我對立.人我對立,則有條理,自然有尊卑、貴賤、大小、內外、遠近、新舊.禮者所以為其位級.言禮者, 簡易直當莫尚於此.

  • 19 Kang 2012f, 162. See also Fang 1992, 104.

Li are the means of dealing with divergences between oneself and others. As a result of such divergences there exists the need for an ordering principle, and naturally there exist differences between what is elevated and inferior, noble and lowly, large and small, internal and external, near and far, new and old. Li are the way to establish place and rank. This is the most concise and appropriate way of defining li.19

12Of course, this “concise” definition does not exclude the ritualistic dimension of the earliest conceptualised forms of li. However, the capacity that li have to structure society –in such a way that conflicts are defused and the expression of human needs finds form– should arguably not be over-interpreted in terms of “ritualised” behaviour. In a purely prosaic manner, Kang writes:


  • 20 See his Commentary of the Liyun [1901-2], in Kang 2012c, 241.

Li are established in order to prevent improper behaviour, and the idea of rightness is upheld in order to establish limits. They are instituted as guiding principles, leading humanity to honest and enlightened government. Compared to a world of disorder, in which there is neither li nor rightness, this is, of course, more civilised.20

  • 21 Fang Delin points out that even if li originally designated the ceremonies and utensils used in sac (...)

13Li are thus understood as a fundamental building block enabling humans to coexist in society, whereby the interests of the individual are limited in such a way that the wellbeing of others is not impinged upon. They are synonymous with the processes which enable the survival of the group, originating, as already mentioned, in the rational organisation of the most basic requirements of human society –food, clothing and shelter. In this sense, Kang’s vision of li is essentially Xunzian.21 According to Kang:

如使一人獨生, 則聽其自由可也, 然人非獨生, 禮為眾設. 若聽一人之自由, 必侵犯眾人之權限,不可行也,故不能不治之以節,飾之以文.

  • 22 Kang 2012c, 251.

If one were the only person alive, then one would be free to do whatever one desired. However, that is not the case. Li are established for people living in society [lit. ‘the masses’]. If one does whatever one wishes, then one will necessarily encroach upon the rights of everyone else. That is not feasible. As a result, it is necessary to control this by means of restraints and embellish it with cultural forms.22

  • 23 See above, note 12.
  • 24 See Kang 2012d, 428 and Kang 2012e, 13.
  • 25 See Kang 2012b, 182: “The implementation of li corresponds to the idea of what is right of the age (...)

14Kang follows the definition of li given by Shusun Tong,23 whereby they are seen as “ceremonies” or “restraints” (jiewen 節文) responding to the circumstances in which they are used.24 In the context of his increasing espousal of “new text” Confucian paradigms, he believes that they consolidate political and social hierarchies in the imperfect stage of historical development known as the “Age of Minor Prosperity” (xiaokang 小康).25 In his Book of Great Unity, he goes as far as associating li with injustices:


  • 26 Kang 2012a, 28. See also 97: “Therefore, the more cultural forms there are, the more li and customs (...)

The age of disorder honours men, and treats women as mere dependents, embellishing this with li and ideas of what is right [yi ], and giving high esteem to what is considered ethical conduct.26

  • 27 Kang 2012c, 251
  • 28 See Kang 2012g, 202. [禮者聖人所以安人也非苦人也]

15However, for Kang their fundamental role should be as a “remedy to advance the common good and eradicate misfortune” (xing renli qu renhuan zhi fangyao 興人利去人患之方藥),27 being created to “bring peace to the people, not to embitter their lives.”28 The key to understanding Kang’s interpretation of li lies therefore in the difference between their immediate structural functionality (and possible negative consequences) and the very purpose of their existence.

  • 29 See Kang 2012c, 238: “The implementation of ren is the way of datong. The implementation of li is t (...)

16This contrast is best summed up in the opposition Kang sketches between the “implementation of li” (liyun 禮運) in their historical functionality, and the “implementation of humanness” (renyun 仁運)29 as the overriding finality –a finality which is destined to ultimately supersede them and render them irrelevant. For Kang, it is therefore of the utmost importance to clearly differentiate between functionality and finality:


  • 30 Ibid., 264.

The human way is entirely about ren, music [alternatively, ‘happiness’], and following [the order of things]. Li and rightness are the bridges and vehicles which lead there. Now, if before setting off one were to discard the bridges and vehicles, then one would never reach one’s destination. However, although bridges and vehicles need to correspond to the regions they cross, they are not permanent things in themselves.30

  • 31 Wong 2017, 84.
  • 32 Cua 2005, 43.
  • 33 Chang 1987, 53.
  • 34 Fang 1992, 130.

17Li thus serve to give form to a vision of the “right” way (yi ) to achieve the development of humanness (ren ) in society. As Wong Wai-ying points out, “From a Confucian point of view, the observance of li is a path to ren.”31 Antonio Cua affirms that “li, in its generic sense, is connected with ren, the Confucian ideal of the good life.”32 Chang Hao declares that “according to [Kang], the advent of [ren] must be prepared by the practice of li.”33 According to Fang Delin, “ren is Confucianism’s general principle for regulating human relationships, and li are the means by which they are normalised.”34 The idea of “ceremonies” or “restraints” (jiewen 節文) used to define li can therefore also be understood more literally as the forms which enable the articulation of humanistic development. For Kang:


  • 35 Kang 2012c, 263.

Rightness corresponds to what is appropriate. However, this is just an empty principle. Li are what enable it to be articulated [in tangible form]. Without this, rightness would not be perceptible. However, the forms this takes vary according to time and place. They cannot remain forever permanent.35

  • 36 Ames 1988, 199; see also Hall & Ames 1987, 88: “The notion of formal li action overlaps with [ti], (...)
  • 37 Zhou 1998, 20.

18There thus arises the problem of the “substance” (zhi ) and “form” or “decorative patterns” (wen ) associated with li. Ames draws a parallel with the idea of embodiment: “Li [] is cognate with the character [ti ], which means ‘to embody,’ ‘to constitute a shape,’ and, by extension, ‘organic form.’ Ritual practices, then, are ‘performances’: social practices that effect relationships through prescribed forms.”36 In his analysis of li, Zhou He points out the complementary relationship between form and content: “Concrete forms are necessarily dependent upon ideas in order to maintain their value, while abstract ideas also have to rely on formal expressions in order to exist.”37 This double dimension is central to Kang’s understanding of what li represent, and of their need to evolve.

  • 38 See also Wong 2010, 84: “What Kang really tried to establish was that Confucius was the founder of (...)

19According to Kang, Confucius –who by the time of the mid-1890s is referred to in “new text” fashion as the very creator of li, as opposed to the mere transmitter downplayed in “old text” accounts38– was deeply concerned that the formal dimension of li had developed to the detriment of their humanising finality.


  • 39 Kang 2012b, 32. The allusion here is to the Xici; see the Zhouyi zhengyi, in Ruan 1980, vol.1, 79. (...)

Confucius, seeing people’s deceitfulness at the end of the Zhou dynasty, whereby form drowned substance, acted and spoke out against this. Just as times change, ‘one needs to fully understand [these changes], when putting li into practice.’39

20Historically speaking, Confucius was, of course, not the originator of li. However, Kang’s “reinvention” of him as their initiator and –in the practical context of his reformist agenda of the 1890s– their “reformer” should be understood in terms of the humanist interpretation and functionality which arguably characterise the moral paradigmatic legacy of the Confucian approach to the human condition. Kang associates Confucius with a secularisation of proto-religious ritual forms, which are thus channelled towards a more rationalised and ultimately moral direction:


  • 40 Kang 2012b, 29.

When Confucius established the li, he limited sacrifices to five generations of ancestors. The others were all shameless sacrifices, recklessly performed to beg for good fortune. This was ingratiating behaviour. Sacrifices involved a large number of spirits in ancient times. Confucius did away with all of them.40

  • 41 Kang 2012c, 260. [孔子因人情而飾之從之則為文明去之則為野蠻在此矣]
  • 42 Kang 2012b, 35. [必以仁為先而後施禮.... 孔子創禮而再三言禮之本恐人以文滅質詐偽日滋也]

21The Confucian moral paradigm thus follows the same line dividing “civilisation” and “barbarism” as that already celebrated by the political institutions of the time, but in terms of ren, and not simply of elaborate cultural forms. For if “Confucius [created the li] in response to human emotions and so as to regulate them; following [li] leads to civilisation, whereas turning one’s back on them leads to barbarism,”41 Kang nevertheless insists on the fact that “ren must necessarily come first, and then li can be put into practice… When creating the li, Confucius repeatedly stressed what their basis was, fearing that form would submerge substance, and that deceitfulness would be increasingly rampant.”42

  • 43 See Lunyu zhushu 論語注疏, in Ruan 1980, vol.2, 2466.

22Commenting on Analects III, 3, in which Confucius declares that li and music are meaningless if devoid of ren,43 Kang affirms:

蓋人者仁也,取仁於天,而仁也以博愛為本,故為善之長.有仁而後人道立,有仁而後文為生.苟人而不仁,則非人道.蓋禮者,仁之節,樂者,仁之和.不仁,則無其本,和節皆無所施 .[⋯] 有其體式而無其精神,亦不足為禮樂也.

  • 44 Kang 2012b, 31.

Ren is about human beings, and comes from Nature. The basis of ren is love for everyone, and hence therein lies the strength of goodness. When there is ren, then the human way can be established. When there is ren, then cultural forms can come about. If one lacks ren, then that is not the human way. Li are the structure [jie ] of ren, and music is its harmonious expression. Without ren, the basis of this is lost, and structure and harmony have no way of being put into practice. […] If forms exist without the corresponding spirit, then they cannot be referred to as li and music.44

  • 45 According to Wong Young-tsu, “Kang made it quite clear that Confucius was good at using the ancient (...)

23As a result, social structures and institutions, which exist for the sole purpose of canalising human energies towards the common good, must necessarily be understood in a dynamic manner. The capacity to grasp this is, according to Kang, a fundamental differentiating characteristic of the worthy person, of which Confucius is the ultimate embodiment; although across Kang’s works an autobiographical slant can also often be perceived in the celebration of sages. If Confucius is depicted as he who was capable of changing the formal contours of li in order to release their humanising potential, it is obvious that Kang saw himself as a modern representative of this ideal. The “reformist” or “revolutionary” Confucius –able to go against the conventions of his time– is inevitably largely a projection of a self-perceived “reformist” or “revolutionary” Kang;45 both are seen as standing out against a background of mere conformism:

常人安於故俗,學者溺於所聞.[…] 智者作法,愚者制焉. 賢者更禮,不肖者拘焉.

  • 46 Kang 2012d, 45.

The ordinary person is content with old habits, whereas the learned person goes counter to what has simply been passed on. […] The knowledgeable create models, whereas the simple merely follow what has been established. The worthy modify li, whereas the unworthy merely rigidly adhere to them.46

  • 47 Kang 2012c, 260. [然人道莫大於養禮為人設故禮之義在養人而已]

24Kang’s interpretation of li from a primarily transformative perspective evidently recalls Xunxi, and one would be tempted to understand his stance on the subject in Xunzian terms. This is also the idea of Xunzi that li not only serve to divert one from egocentric tendencies, but are also a means of “moral nurturing” (yang ). According to Kang, “nothing in the human way is more important than nurturing. Li were established to help people. That is why the rightness embodied in li is nothing else but nurturing people’s [moral worth].”47 Indeed, for Kang, to consider li as being merely structures of restraint is to lose sight of their humanising function. He is particularly critical of Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism in this regard:


  • 48 Kang 2012g, 191. See also Xunzi & Wang 1988, 346.

[Xunzi’s] Discourse on Li says that ‘li enable [moral] nurturing.’ This is the most comprehensive definition. Neo-Confucianism [lit. ‘Song Confucians’] stopped at the notion of restraint, and did not understand the sage’s idea of nurturing people.48

25However, despite the numerous parallels between Xunzi’s philosophy and his own, Kang considers the former as having only partially transmitted the teachings of Confucius, laying too much emphasis on the formal aspect of li. In contrast, Mencius is seen as being more “‘new text’ compatible,” his vision of human moral development going beyond the historical limitations of the age of disorder:


  • 49 Kang 2012c, 1.

Xunzi handed down the teachings of the Book of Rites, whereas Mencius transmitted those of the Book of Odes, the Book of Documents and the Spring and Autumn Annals. Li prevent and restrain what arises externally; and were of use at that time. They therefore only correspond to the institutions of a world of disorder in the age of xiaokang, and not to the age of datong. It was difficult for Confucius to explain this.49

26Xunzi is in this way primarily associated with what li symbolise in terms of restraint –a role limited in time, before the advent of the datong– and as such is representative of an incomplete development of Confucian ideals:


  • 50 Ibid., 2.

Therefore, Xunzi considered that human nature was bad, and merely aspired to straightening it out. He transmitted the way of a world of disorder in the age of xiaokang, and as such only grasped the less-sophisticated aspects of Confucius’ teachings.50

  • 51 See Fan 1963, 1199.

27It is within the common binomial “li and music” (liyue 禮樂) that Kang finds a means of expressing the complementary and ultimately contradictory relationship between formalised structures and a humanising finality. Apparently inspired by an affirmation attributed to Confucius in the Book of Later Han (後漢書 Hou Hanshu) whereby “li cultivate what is external, and music cultivates what is internal”,51 he argues:


  • 52 Kang 2012d, 239.

Li are what govern the part of the human soul attached to the body [po ], whereas music governs the part which is detached from it [hun ]. When both of these are governed, one’s internal and external dimensions are both upheld, and what is in the power of the sage is accomplished. Li and music were both created by Confucius.52

28For Kang, the complementarity between the two reflects the contrasting purposes that they serve: li are the structural means to create order and restraint, whereas music responds to the “spiritual” needs of the individual, and is what enables the transition towards ren. According to Kang:


  • 53 Kang 2012b, 12.

Li emphasise differences, whereas music emphasises likeness. Li unite forms of respect, whereas music unites expressions of human love. Li stress differences and what is appropriate, whereas music stresses magnanimity and harmony. Li exist so that conflict can be avoided, whereas music exists so that discontent can be avoided.53

29In this, there exists a certain dialectical tension between the two, in which each element has a controlling function over the other:


  • 54 Ibid., 12.

When li have the upper hand, they stray from their original purpose, and need to be harmonised by means of music. When music gets the upper hand, it leads to dissolution, and needs to be restrained by means of li.54

30The dialectical dimension lies in the fact that the interaction between the two ultimately leads to the superseding of li –a process that Kang sees as an expression of the historical shift towards ren and the age of datong, and in which he seems to intentionally shift towards the other meaning of the character yue  –happiness:


  • 55 Ibid., 12.

Li and music were instituted simultaneously, but the age of xiaokang attaches great importance to li, whereas the age of datong attaches great importance to [happiness].55

31Kang further confirms a certain blurring of the lines between the different interpretations of yue, and the ultimate objective of superseding the role of li in human society, by arguing that:


  • 56 Ibid., 260.

Confucius instituted li and music simultaneously, but they ultimately boil down to [happiness]. The human way is primarily a question of [happiness]. In whatever way laws are established, their ultimate objective is simply to bring [happiness] to people. Therefore, the institutions of the age of xiaokang attach great importance to li, whereas the age of datong attaches great importance to [happiness]; so as to enable everyone in the world to live in a state of magnanimity and harmony, and free of discontent; in which human love is developed and unity is stressed, and everything in the world is transformed. According to the “Liyun”, this is how the great way is carried out.56

32The variability and ultimate superseding of li are therefore, for Kang, structural characteristics of their purpose and functionality. Their effectiveness or relevance thus inevitably depend upon the contexts in which they operate –changing circumstances requiring varying formal structures. This view finds its full expression in the vision of historical evolution at the heart of “new text” Confucianism, but it is already present before Kang’s shift towards this in the 1890s. Very early in his intellectual development, and before developing a fully fledged theory on the matter, he already considered the timeliness of the implementation of li was crucial to their effectiveness, going as far as paraphrasing Zhu Xi in this regard:


  • 57 Kang 2007, vol.1, 48; see above, note 13.

Master Zhu said: ‘The timeliness of li is of great importance. If sages and worthies are to accomplish anything, then they must necessarily not just follow the li of the past.’57

  • 58 Kang 2012b, 157. [孔子為時中之聖]

33The plurality of “sages and worthies” is naturally reduced in the context of Kang’s increasingly “new text” approach. Confucius himself becomes not only the creator of li, but indeed the epitome of a full understanding of how their timeliness is structurally decisive. According to Kang, “Confucius was a sage in harmony with the changes of time.”58 This is made possible by a deep understanding of all of the aspects which make up the human condition:


  • 59 Kang 2012c, 266.

All of the li created by the Sage follow the natural order, human emotions, and what is appropriate at each moment in time.59

34In fact, Kang defines Confucianism in general as being determined by this capacity, implying that merely following formal structures without reflecting upon their accordance or not with objective conditions ultimately betrays the Confucian ideal:


  • 60 Ibid., 237.

China is currently in the age of xiaokang. If it does not seek to evolve, and rather rigidly adheres to old ways, then it misses the meaning of Confucius’ teachings, and goes completely against his way.60

  • 61 Kang 2012b, 141. [故孔子之道主于時歸于權]

35A dimension of personal implication and reflection is therefore central to this vision, as opposed to a passive imitation of convention: “The Way of Confucius emphasises timeliness and depends on thoughtful evaluation.”61

36Kang repeatedly stresses the idea that the adaptation of li to the circumstances in which they are used necessarily excludes blindly following form; the latter being synonymous with the incomplete development of Confucianism:


  • 62 Kang 2012c, 267.

The timeliness of li is of the utmost importance –more so than simply following [what is already established]. In the age of xiaokang people only understand how to follow. In the age of datong, they are able to correspond to [the needs of] the times.62

37In this way, human civilisation is seen as a cumulative process of continual phases of change and adaptation, which is supposed to have already been the case before Confucius:

夫禮以時為大,易以變為宜. [⋯] 百王因時運而變,大禮亦因時運而遷,可以是推之.

  • 63 Ibid., 243. See also Da nanbei Meizhou zhuhuashang lun Zhongguo zhike lixian buneng xing geming shu(...)

The timeliness of li is of great importance, and it is appropriate that they change. […] The hundred kings reformed in accordance with the times. It can thus be deduced that the great li also vary in accordance with the times.63

38The reference here to kings of ancient times is not accidental, since Kang considers China to have remained in a state of incomplete moral development despite the advent of Confucius’ teachings more than two millennia beforehand. Indeed, according to Kang, the “qualitative” level of human and moral development has stagnated as a result of the passive following of convention. This can only be overcome by means of a “qualitative” shift towards the age of datong, which in turn is only possible through an astute understanding of the need to adapt to changing circumstances:


  • 64 Kang 2012b, 211.

The level of people in the age of disorder is completely different from that in the age of universal peace. The sage must necessarily deal with this in accordance with the circumstances of the period at hand.64

  • 65 Ibid., 1. [禮時為大故學亦必隨時而復適]

39In order to achieve this, it is the very approach to comprehending the world around us which needs to be changed: “The timeliness of li is of great importance. Learning must therefore also adapt to the times.”65 Kang does not think that this change is to take place outside of the Confucian paradigm, even though this very paradigm will inevitably absorb the new realities which surround it. The “return” to the teachings of an arguably freely “reinvented” Confucius enables the incorporation of new features, without forsaking the humanistic ideals Kang associates with the Confucian way. With the finality of ren remaining the central objective of Kang’s theories, new features in fact resemble new or adapted li –formal structures which enable an overriding goal, and which in turn can be replaced.

40In this way, “timeliness” refers not only to the adaptation of li to the circumstances in which they are put into practice; it also includes the idea of an awareness of the appropriate phases of historical evolution through which li need to be adapted. According to Kang, the advancement of the Confucian agenda cannot be accomplished if the particularities of these different phases are not taken into account and respected. The desire to see the advent of the age of datong must therefore not induce one into directly skipping the historical phases leading to it. Li are to be adapted to the corresponding circumstances, and cannot be eliminated at once. This explanation allows Kang not only to argue in favour of such a process of adaptation; it also enables him to explain why, according to him, Confucius “created” li in the first place, even if his ultimate objective was for them to be replaced and superseded. According to Kang, Confucius knew that the age of datong –the stage of human history in which ren has been fully developed and no longer needs artificial structures (li) to give it formal expression– was impossible to bring about in the times in which he lived:


  • 66 Kang 2012c, 244.

The invention and establishing of li was only done for an age of disorder. Although his aspiration was the datong, his acts were limited to the age of xiaokang.66

41Failure to respect the objective conditions of each age would thus not only hinder progress on the road towards ren, but could actually bring about calamitous consequences.


  • 67 Ibid., 242.

If the time has not yet come, and one forcefully puts into practice the datong and collective ownership, while the road which leads there is not yet connected, customs have not yet been improved and the human race has not yet been bettered, then this will have dire consequences. That is why one may only respond to customs, following the circumstances of the time, correcting and enlightening them.67

42The advent of the age of datong is only possible when the finality of li –a society operating solely in accordance with ren– has been reached, thus making them no longer relevant as formalised structures. It is not simply synonymous with the elimination of these structures. According to Kang,


  • 68 Kang 2012b, 182.

The world as one great community, in which people are employed according to their worth and capabilities, and in which everyone no longer only cares for their own families, must wait until the age of datong. If change is not implemented at the right time, reckless action would lead to great disorder and bring about great misfortune.68

43One could say that Kang’s vision is inevitably based upon two invented extremes –a “reinvented” Confucius to whom this vision is essentially attributed, and an undetermined, idealised and abstract future– and a middle ground consisting of a problematic present entrenched in historical decline and crisis. As a result, it is arguably hardly surprising that Kang alienated tenants of sociopolitical agendas across the spectrum of Chinese responses to the calamities of the nineteenth century. His ideas ultimately convinced neither “conservatives” nor “revolutionaries”.

44In the above-cited letter to Chinese merchants in the Americas written in 1902, Kang points out why he considers revolution to be an inadequate solution in the process of social and political change:


  • 69 See Kang 2007, 313. Kang’s objective here is to call for support of the Guangxu 光緒 (r. 1875-1908) e (...)

In the age of disorder, everyone cares only for their own national interests. This is the age of autocratic monarchy. In the age of ascending peace, constitutional government is established. This is the age in which power is shared between monarchs and the people. In the age of universal peace, there exists democracy. This is the age of equality and datong. How could Confucius not have desired that one proceeds to the datong of the age of universal peace? When the times are not propitious, then on the contrary, great disorder is brought about. The present age is one of disorder. As people care only for their own national interests, they are unable to leap directly to datong in the world. As a result of the entrenched custom of autocratic monarchy, they are unable to leap directly to an age of democracy.69

  • 70 See Riben bianzheng kao 日本變政考 (A Study of Political Reform in Japan) in Kang 2007, vol.4, 101–294.

45In the context of Kang’s agenda of institutional reform, the idea of the evolution of li naturally overlaps with the concrete objective of adapting China’s political and economic structures to the needs of the times. Two opposing examples are often used to highlight the consequences of timely change or not –the cases of India and Japan, and the way in which these two nations responded to similar dangers. If Japan is often cited as an example to follow –indeed, in 1898 Kang authored a text entirely dedicated to institutional change brought about during the Meiji era 70– India is a counter-example in Kang’s works which is often overlooked. In a text prepared in June 1898, Kang argues that:


  • 71 See Qing gao tianzu shi qunchen yi bianfa dingguo shizhe 請告天祖誓群臣以變法定國是折 (“A Request for a Ceremony (...)

The timeliness of li is of the utmost importance, and Confucius was the timely Sage. To go against Nature is inauspicious; to go against timeliness necessarily leads to failure. If change is not implemented when it should be, others will necessarily change things [for us]. It would be preferable to implement change ourselves, rather than others doing it instead. In the case of India, others implemented change; whereas in the case of Japan, they implemented change themselves. The reasons for success and failure are there as a lesson.71

46For Kang, the plight of India should serve as a warning for China, if the latter is to avoid widespread civilisational collapse. This idea is reinforced by Kang’s experience in the country during the course of his exile following the debacle of 1898. His reflections are structured around the question of the timely adaptation of li, which is once again evidence that his stance on the subject encompasses, but is not solely limited to, the concrete agenda of institutional reform.

47In his India Travel Journal, written in 1901, Kang states that:

婆羅門先哲心術至仁,而求之過速,以理想之論而早見實施,先行此數千年.而印人遂至極弱,蓋發義太先不應于時故也.未至寒而先衣襲,未至水而陸行舟,其誤害阻塞必甚矣![…] 禮以時為大,今中國當內其國之時,亦未至太平之日,只能保國民而未能及大地之同胞,況于禽獸乎?苟失其時、亂其序,其害亦如印度而已.

  • 72 Yindu youji 印度遊記 (India Travel Journal), in Kang 2007, vol.5, 532.

The intentions of the great Brahman sages of the past were extremely humane. However, they sought to achieve them too rapidly. In terms of idealism, this was put into practice thousands of years ago. However, the Indian people were subsequently led to a state of extreme weakness. This is because ideas were developed too early, and did not correspond to the times. Putting on a coat before the winter arrives, or launching a boat on the shore before reaching the water must necessarily lead to great harm and drawbacks! […] The timeliness of li is of the utmost importance. China is now at a point in time when it has to concentrate on its own affairs. The time has not arrived yet to enter into the age of universal peace. It is only possible for it to look after its own people. It is not possible to extend this to the rest of our fellow humans in the world. And even less so to animals. If one does not follow the timeliness of things and mixes up their order, then the harm that this would lead to would be similar to that of India.72

  • 73 Ames 1988, 202.

48This passage indicates how Kang places an understanding of non-Chinese realities within a Confucian interpretative paradigm. The capacity to incorporate a vision of the modern world into such a paradigm –in a way that neither rejects the validity of non-Chinese cultural realities nor discards China’s own heritage on the road towards “modernity”– is without doubt one of the most interesting aspects of his system of thought in general. Depicting India’s historical circumstances in terms of approaches to li, he also clearly draws parallels between the existence and evolution of li across differing cultural and historical contexts. Cultural differences are thus not portrayed as mutually incompatible phenomena based on essentialist criteria, but rather as responses to common existential challenges, albeit at differing stages of the evolution of respective forms of li. As Ames points out, “In the Chinese tradition humanity itself is not essentialistically defined. It is understood as a progressive cultural achievement.”73

49The lessons to be learnt from the experiences of other cultural contexts therefore serve not as a pretext to plead for the irrelevance of Confucian thought in the modern world, but rather as a means of extending the applicability of this thought to unprecedented historical and cultural circumstances. The very structures of this thought –in themselves ultimately a form of li– are adaptable in the same way that li in general are called upon to respond to the times and environment in which they exist. Such reinvented expressions of Confucianism are therefore arguably in no way synonymous with any form of “westernisation,” but are rather examples of how li can evolve.

50One example of this is Kang’s call for a Confucian version of Christmas, whereby the objective is not to develop cultural forms befitting “modern” or “westernised” tastes, but rather to permit the evolution of Confucian li using the experiences of other contexts in which li have existed. According to Kang,


  • 74 This is a freely paraphrased quotation from the “Liyun”; see Ruan 1980, 1426.
  • 75 Qufu dachengjie juxing dianli xu 曲阜大成節舉行典禮序 (Introduction to a Celebration of the Great Achievement (...)

The Liyun says: ‘Li emerge to serve the idea of rightness. They function to assist [the manifestation of] rightness. Even if they did not exist at the time of the kings of the past, they can still be created to serve the idea of rightness.’74 The timeliness of li is of the utmost importance. Passive observance and conforming to circumstance are of secondary importance. Nowadays, every religion commemorates the birth of its respective founder, and everyone happily celebrates this. How could we not happily celebrate the birth of the founder of our religion? This is what is meant by ideas of what is right existing in accordance with the times. When there was no communication between the different religions, and when there was no way of comparing the forms [that their li took], then it was acceptable if people in the past did not perform a ceremony to commemorate the birth [of their religion’s founder]. Doesn’t the fact that we do not [commemorate the birth of Confucius], while other religions commemorate the births [of their founders], mean that we forget the founder of our religion? Therefore, we must necessarily commemorate the birth [of Confucius].75

  • 76 Kang 2012b, 113. “I have observed schools in the West. According to which grade pupils are in, they (...)

51Confucianism’s ability to adapt the structural functionality of its li, so as to ensure the overriding finality of ren, is directly associated with China’s capacity to survive and develop in a constantly changing environment. Both dimensions are understood in an entirely non-essentialist way. The idea of “China” is not narrowly limited to its existence as a nation-state, as is clearly apparent in the Book of Great Unity; and Confucianism is not considered as being merely “Chinese” or “East Asian” in its ultimate implications. In this way, Kang not only interprets non-Chinese cultural realities in Confucian terms –enabling Confucianism to incorporate forms inspired by their experiences– but he also envisages the possibility of Confucian development in non-Chinese contexts. This is reflected in a remarkable affirmation in his Commentary of the Analects, according to which “the way of Confucius is being widely practised in Europe and the Americas, while, on the other hand, it is being lost in its native land” (Kongzi zhi dao nai daxing yu Oumei, er fan shi yu guguo ye 孔子之道乃大行于歐美而反失于故國也).76

52The implications of this are manifold, and an in-depth analysis of them goes beyond the scope of what is possible in this paper. However, the idea that the Confucian ideal is not necessarily limited to a particular geographical context opens up the possibility both of new forms of li enabling China’s survival and progress, and of a universal framework in which to fully develop this very ideal. At the same time, it reminds one of the enormous potential of human moral development inherent in the full and timely evolution of li; and offers China –and, ultimately, any other cultural context– the freedom to search for this without being hindered by the fetters of the nation-state. The full dimension of the context in which ren is fully developed is thus possible to grasp not as a limited geographical, cultural and political phenomenon, but rather as a truly universal and non-nationalistic objective.

53Kang’s interpretation of the meaning and role of li, despite the arbitrariness inherent in some of his arguments, therefore offers one a possibility to reflect upon, from numerous different perspectives, the ultimate objectives of a humanist philosophy, and the means for these objectives to be attained. As we have seen, in Kang’s philosophy, li are not understood in a purely “ritual” sense. Rather, they have a much wider reach, including all sorts of political, social and cultural structures whose vocation it is to bring about the advent of humanism in the world. As such, they exist only as a means to an end –the realisation of ren in society– and not in their own right.

54It is this vision of the functionality of li which enables Kang to fully explore the implications of their adaptability, the extent of their reach, and the forms they could take. Paths leading to ren, they are vehicles of humanistic expression which lose their raison d’être if this finality is forgotten, and need to be adapted to the topography of human existence in order to retain their utility.

55In the context of China’s unprecedented challenges of the nineteenth century, this vision served not only as the basis of a project of institutional reform in Kang’s time, but also as a means of imagining human society in the future. Kang’s vision of datong –albeit ambiguously situated in an abstract future– functions as a direction towards which li need to proceed, and which gives meaning to their immediate utility and ultimate disappearance. And just as a path’s usefulness is superseded when a destination is reached, li become superfluous when their finality is achieved. However, instead of depicting this as the end of a historical process, it might be more appropriate to consider such an advent of ren as the beginning of a new state of human existence.


Ames, Roger T., 1988, “Rites as Rights: The Confucian Alternative,” in Human Rights and the World’s Religions edited by Leroy S. Rouner, 199–216. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chang Hao, 1987, Chinese Intellectuals in Crisis: Search for Order and Meaning (1890–1911). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chen, Albert H. Y., 2014, “The Concept of ‘Datong’ in Chinese Philosophy as an Expression of the Idea of the Common Good,” in The Common Good: Chinese and American Perspectives edited by, David. Solomon and Lo P.C., 85-102. Dordrecht: Springer.

Cheng Hao 程顥, Cheng Yi 程頤, 2006, Er Cheng ji 二程集 (Collected Works of the Cheng Brothers). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Creel, Herrlee Glessner, 1951, Confucius, the Man and the Myth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cua, A. S. (Antonio S.), 2005, Human Nature, Ritual, and History: Studies in Xunzi and Chinese Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.

Fan Ye 范曄, 1963, Hou Hanshu 後漢書 (Book of the Later Han). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Fang Delin 房德鄰, 1992, Ruxue de weiji yu shanbian – Kang Youwei yu jindai ruxue 儒學的危機與嬗變康有為與近代儒學 (Crisis and Evolution of Confucianism – Kang Youwei and Modern Confucianism). Taipei: Wenjin.

Gao Ming 高明, 1963, Lixue xintan 禮學新探 (A New Investigation of Li). Hong Kong: Joint Publishing.

Hagen, Kurtis, 2003, “Xunzi and the Nature of Confucian Ritual,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.2: 371–403.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames, 1987, Thinking through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hsiao Kung-chuan, 1975, A Modern China and a New World: K’ang Yu-Wei, Reformer and Utopian, 1858–1927. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2007, Kang Youwei quanji 康有为全集 (The Complete Works of Kang Youwei), 12 vol. Beijing: Renmin daxue.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012a, Datong shu 大同書 (The Book of Great Unity) [1902]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012b, Lunyu zhu 論語注 (Commentary of the Analects of Confucius) [1902]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012c, Mengzi wei, Liyun zhu, Zhongyong zhu 孟子微禮運注中庸注 (The Profound Teachings of Mencius, Commentary of the Liyun, Commentary of the Zhongyong) [1901-2]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012d, Kongzi gaizhi kao 孔子改制考 (A Study of Confucius as a Reformer) [1897]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012e, Xinxue weijing kao 新學偽經考 (A Study of the Forged Classics of Xin Learning) [1891]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012f, Chunqiu Dongshi xue 春秋董氏學 (On Dong Zhongshu’s Teachings of the Spring and Autumn Annals) [1896]. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kang Youwei 康有為, 2012g, Wanmu caotang koushuo 萬木草堂口說 (Spoken Teachings in the Thatched Hut of Ten Thousand Trees) [1891-1897], in Changxing xueji, Guixue dawen, Wanmu caotang koushuo 長興學記 桂學答問 萬木草堂口說 (Changxing Study Notes, Questions and Answers for Study in Guilin, Spoken Teachings in the Thatched Hut of Ten Thousand Trees). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Kong Xiangji 孔祥吉, 1988, Kang Youwei bianfa zouyi yanjiu 康有為變法奏議研究 (A Study of Kang Youwei’s Memorials on Reform). Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu.

Kwong Luke S. K., 2000, “Chinese Politics at the Crossroads: Reflections on the Hundred Days Reform of 1898,” Modern Asian Studies 34.3: 663–695.

Li Zehou 李澤厚, 1958, Kang Youwei Tan Sitong sixiang yanjiu 康有為譚嗣同思想研究 (A Study of the Thought of Kang Youwei and Tan Sitong). Shanghai: Shanghai Renmin.

Liang Qichao 梁啟超, 2015, Yinbingshi heji 飲冰室合集 (Collected Works from the Ice-drinker’s Studio). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Nylan, Michael, 1994, “The Chin Wen/Ku Wen Controversy in Han Times”, T’oung pao 80.1: 83-145.

Qian Mu 钱穆, 1997, Zhongguo jinsanbainian xueshushi 中国近三百年学术史 (History of Chinese Scholarship in the Past Three Hundred Years). Beijing: Shangwu.

Ruan Yuan 阮元, 1980, Shisanjing zhushu: fu jiaokan ji 十三經注疏: 附校斟記 (Commentaries and Explanations to the Thirteen Classics: incl. Record of Collation), 2 vol. Beijing: Zhonghua.

Sima Qian 司馬遷, 1959, Shiji 史記 (Records of the Grand Historian). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Slingerland, Edward, 2009, “Classical Confucianism (I): Confucius and the Lun-Yü,” in History of Chinese Philosophy edited by Bo Mou, 107–136. New York: Routledge.

Tan Sor-hoon, 2012, “Li (Ritual/Rite) and Tian (Heaven/Nature) in the Xunzi: Does Confucian li need metaphysics?,” Sophia 51: 155–175.

Tang Zhijun 汤志钧, 1984, Kang Youwei yu Wuxu bianfa 康有为与戊戌变法 (Kang Youwei and the Reform Movement of 1898). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Van Ess, Hans, 1994, “The Old Text/New Text Controversy: Has the 20th Century Got It Wrong?”, T’oung Pao 80.1: 146–170.

Van Ess, Hans, 1999, “The Apocryphal Texts of the Han Dynasty and the Old Text/New Text Controversy”, T’oung Pao 85.1: 29-64.

Xunzi 荀子, Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (ed.), 1988, Xunzi jijie 荀子集解 (Collected explanations of the Xunzi). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Wong Wai-ying, 2017, Confucian Ethics in Western Discourse. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Wong Young-Tsu, “Revisionism Reconsidered: Kang Youwei and the Reform Movement of 1898,” The Journal of Asian Studies 51.3 (1992): 513–544.

Wong Young-Tsu, 2010, Beyond Confucian China: The Rival Discourses of Kang Youwei and Zhang Binglin. New York: Routledge.

Zhou He 周何, 1998, Lixue gailun 禮學概論 (An Introduction to Li). Taipei: Sanmin.

Zhu Xi 朱熹, 2004, Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類 (Topically Arranged Conversations of Master Zhu). Beijing: Zhonghua.


1 Kang Youwei is mainly remembered as a reformist thinker at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), and for his attempts at institutional reform in 1898. The free and apparently arbitrary nature of his interpretations of Confucian teachings and texts, especially in the context of his espousal of “new text” (jinwen 今文) Confucianism and the subsequent elaboration of a utopian vision of a world without borders or institutions such as the family, has often been equated with a subversion of “traditional” Chinese thought. Close analysis of his thought offers insights into certain continuities of other strands of Qing philosophy. However, these aspects have often been largely overlooked, due to the historical importance of the failure of his reformist movement and the theoretical extravagance with which he is frequently associated. For more biographical information on Kang, see, amongst others: Hsiao 1975 and Chang 1987. For an insight into the debates on “new text” and “old text” interpretations of Confucian classics such as the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋), see, for example, Nylan 1994, Van Ess 1994 & 1999.

2 Liang 2015, vol.3, 531; see also Chen 2014, 89.

3 See, for example, Qian 1997, 749: “Datong is the realm of ren” [大同即仁之境界].

4 Kang 2012a, 8 [大同之道至平也至公也 至仁也治之至也].

5 See, for example, Slingerland 2009, 112: “By Zhou times, the scope of ritual had grown significantly, encompassing not only sacrificial offerings to the spirits, but also aspects of the Zhou kings’ daily lives that we might be tempted to label as ‘etiquette’.”

6 Gao 1963, 1.

7 Ames 1988, 199.

8 See, for example, Hall & Ames 1987, 85; Tan 2012, 157; Cua 2005, 39.

9 Creel 1951, 91.

10 See Ames 1988, 200.

11 Hagen 2003, 376.

12 Cua 2005, 39.

13 See Gao 1963, 5. Gao also cites (5-6) a number of examples showing that li have consistently been considered as changeable; such as “Yueji”: “The times of the five august emperors were different, and hence they did not follow the same music. The eras of the three kings were not the same, and hence they did not keep to the same li.” [五帝殊時不相沿樂三王異世不相襲禮], see Liji zhengyi 禮記正義, in Ruan 1980, vol.2, 1530; Shiji, Biographies of Liu Jing and Shusun Tong: “Shusun Tong said: ‘The five august emperors had different types of music, and the three kings did not use the same li. Li are the [ceremonies/restraints] used in accordance with human life in different eras.’” [叔孫通曰五帝異樂三王不同禮禮者因時世人情為之節文者也], see Sima Qian 1959, 2722; Cheng Yi: “When practicing li, one cannot always stick to ancient ways. One must see that practices of different eras are necessarily not alike. The ways of dealing with them must thus necessarily be different to those of ancient times.” [行禮不可全泥古須當視時之風氣自不同故所處不得不與古異], see Cheng 2006, vol.1, 22; Zhu Xi: “The timeliness of li is of great importance. If sages and worthies are to accomplish anything, then they must necessarily not entirely follow the li of ancient times.” [時為大使聖賢者有作必不一切從古之禮] see also Zhu 2004, vol. 6, 2185.

14 See, for example, Kwong 2000 and Wong 1992.

15 It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail the relationship between Kang’s writings and his political activities; in other words, whether “Kang’s reinterpretation of Confucianism presupposed reform” as Wong Young-tsu argues (see Wong 2010, 83), or if reform was simply one expression of a multifaceted philosophy which existed also in other, unrelated forms. Tang Zhijun argues that “his scholarship was inseparably at the service of his reformist political objectives.” See Tang 1984, 103. However, this does not seem to take into account the numerous elements of Kang’s thought which are completely unconnected to tangible reformist agendas. Of course, Kang’s reformist ideas were an outcome of his philosophical reflections, which Kong Xiangji argues: “Kang Youwei clearly used his evolutionary vision as the basis of his advocacy of institutional reform.” See Kong 1988, 93. According to Hsiao Kung-chuan, “[Kang’s] study of the classics afforded him the basis of a general social philosophy and, at the same time, an ideological justification for his reform movement”; see Hsiao 1975, 97. Kang’s reformist ideas can arguably not be considered to be a necessary and exhaustive manifestation of his philosophy. As Chang Hao points out, “His patriotic concern is expressed as political reformism to be accomplished in the present age, and his moral, spiritual concern is given expression in the vision of history as a programmatic march towards a universal community in the future. Consequently, the articulation of his political aspirations no longer competes with his moral-spiritual yearning but has become a necessary step in the historical process leading up to the ultimate fulfilment of that yearning. Seen in this light, [Kang’s] evolutionary view of history is obviously not just an ideological instrument to justify political reformism, as it is often made out to be…” (Chang 1987, 53).

16 Kong Xiangji sums up Kang’s views on li as “a method of governing human society” (renlei shehui de yizhong zhifa 人類社會的一種治法); see Kong 1988, 94.

17 The quotation is from the “Jingjie” 經解 (Explanations of the Classics) chapter in the Book of Rites; see Ruan 1980, vol.2, 1610.

18 Jiaoxue tongyi 教學通義 (On the General Meaning of Learning) [1885], in Kang 2007, vol.1, 48.

19 Kang 2012f, 162. See also Fang 1992, 104.

20 See his Commentary of the Liyun [1901-2], in Kang 2012c, 241.

21 Fang Delin points out that even if li originally designated the ceremonies and utensils used in sacrifices to spirits, this was not their primary cause, which was “the need to allot living resources”; see Fang 1992, 103.

22 Kang 2012c, 251.

23 See above, note 12.

24 See Kang 2012d, 428 and Kang 2012e, 13.

25 See Kang 2012b, 182: “The implementation of li corresponds to the idea of what is right of the age of xiaokang, so as to set right the relationship between ruler and minister, and to strengthen the relationship between father and son.” [禮運小康之義以正君臣以篤父子是也] As has been well documented elsewhere, Kang’s vision of historical development in the 1890s involved the combination of the ideas of the ages of “Great Unity” (datong 大同) and “Minor Prosperity” (xiaokang 小康) as described in the “Liyun” chapter of the Book of Rites, and the theory of three ages developed by He Xiu 何休 (129–182) in his elucidation of the Gongyang Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals, namely the “Age of Disorder” (luanshi 亂世), the “Age of Ascending Peace” (shengping 升平) and the “Age of Universal Peace” (taiping 太平). See, amongst others, Chen 2014, 85; Tang 1984, 102; Fang 1992, 95. According to Chen (90), “The originality and genius of Kang Youwei’s thought was to combine the doctrine of ren and the Gongyang philosophy of history to produce a theory of human historical progress where the ideal of ren is realized in stages and the highest degree of its realization is associated with the ancient concept of datong.” Fang points out (95) that “When Kang combined xiaokang, datong, and the three ages, he changed the “Liyun”’s vision of history as returning to the ancients (fuguzhuyi lishiguan 復古主義歷史觀) into an evolutionary vision of history (jinhua lishiguan 進化歷史觀).

26 Kang 2012a, 28. See also 97: “Therefore, the more cultural forms there are, the more li and customs are established, and subsequently the more hardships there are [for the people].” [故文物愈多禮俗愈設 則憂患愈隨之而生]

27 Kang 2012c, 251

28 See Kang 2012g, 202. [禮者聖人所以安人也非苦人也]

29 See Kang 2012c, 238: “The implementation of ren is the way of datong. The implementation of li is that of the age of xiaokang. Li are used to govern in a period of disorder. It is therefore possible to keep things together by means of li. They are similar to what the Greeks called ‘constitution’, only they have a broader meaning with a spiritual dimension to it.” [仁運者大同之道禮運者小康之道撥亂世以禮為治故可以禮括之禮者猶希臘之言憲法特兼該神道較廣大耳] Please note that although the notion yun is often translated as “evolution” when referring to the Liyun chapter, it will be translated here as “implementation”, so as to emphasise Kang’s idea of the use or carrying out of li in the age of xiaokang, as opposed to a desired application of ren in the era of datong.

30 Ibid., 264.

31 Wong 2017, 84.

32 Cua 2005, 43.

33 Chang 1987, 53.

34 Fang 1992, 130.

35 Kang 2012c, 263.

36 Ames 1988, 199; see also Hall & Ames 1987, 88: “The notion of formal li action overlaps with [ti], body, in that li actions are embodiments or formalisations of meaning and value that accumulate to constitute a cultural tradition.”

37 Zhou 1998, 20.

38 See also Wong 2010, 84: “What Kang really tried to establish was that Confucius was the founder of a great teaching, not transmitter of historical tradition, in his own time.”

39 Kang 2012b, 32. The allusion here is to the Xici; see the Zhouyi zhengyi, in Ruan 1980, vol.1, 79. For claims that Confucius was the inventor of li, see Kang 2012d, 165: “The Confucian institutions of li and moral standards were all established by Confucius.” [儒教禮制義理皆孔子所制]; and Kang 2012e, 113–114: “The Six Classics were all written by Confucius. Li and music were established by Confucius. Teachings [in China] are entirely those of Confucius.” [六經筆削於孔子禮、樂制作於孔子天下皆孔子之學孔子之教也]

40 Kang 2012b, 29.

41 Kang 2012c, 260. [孔子因人情而飾之從之則為文明去之則為野蠻在此矣]

42 Kang 2012b, 35. [必以仁為先而後施禮.... 孔子創禮而再三言禮之本恐人以文滅質詐偽日滋也]

43 See Lunyu zhushu 論語注疏, in Ruan 1980, vol.2, 2466.

44 Kang 2012b, 31.

45 According to Wong Young-tsu, “Kang made it quite clear that Confucius was good at using the ancients. It is clear to us that Kang used Confucius and Dong Zhongshu as well.” See Wong 2010, 87.

46 Kang 2012d, 45.

47 Kang 2012c, 260. [然人道莫大於養禮為人設故禮之義在養人而已]

48 Kang 2012g, 191. See also Xunzi & Wang 1988, 346.

49 Kang 2012c, 1.

50 Ibid., 2.

51 See Fan 1963, 1199.

52 Kang 2012d, 239.

53 Kang 2012b, 12.

54 Ibid., 12.

55 Ibid., 12.

56 Ibid., 260.

57 Kang 2007, vol.1, 48; see above, note 13.

58 Kang 2012b, 157. [孔子為時中之聖]

59 Kang 2012c, 266.

60 Ibid., 237.

61 Kang 2012b, 141. [故孔子之道主于時歸于權]

62 Kang 2012c, 267.

63 Ibid., 243. See also Da nanbei Meizhou zhuhuashang lun Zhongguo zhike lixian buneng xing geming shu 答南北美洲諸華商論中國只可行立憲不能行革命書 (Letter in Response to Chinese Merchants in South and North America Stating that China Can Only Carry out Constitutional Government and Not a Revolution) [1902], in Kang 2007, vol.6, 314: “The timeliness of li is of great importance, as are the circumstances of their implementation. Wherein lie timeliness and circumstances [also] lies principle. Universal principle always depends on timeliness and the circumstances to be practicable.” [故禮時為大勢為大時勢之所在即理之所在公理常與時勢相濟而後可行]

64 Kang 2012b, 211.

65 Ibid., 1. [禮時為大故學亦必隨時而復適]

66 Kang 2012c, 244.

67 Ibid., 242.

68 Kang 2012b, 182.

69 See Kang 2007, 313. Kang’s objective here is to call for support of the Guangxu 光緒 (r. 1875-1908) emperor in attempts to still implement institutional reform; in the wake of the disaster of 1898 and the context of rivalry with Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist revolutionary movement, which also sought the support of Chinese communities around the world at this time. According to Kang [see 321], Guangxu was fundamental, since he would be pivotal in the gradual transfer of power away from monarchical structures to the people. It is extremely interesting to observe how, in the political and ideological context of the Great Leap Forward, Li Zehou found it necessary in 1958 to denounce in a clearly Maoist way Kang’s refusal to skip historical phases on the path towards datong. See Li 1958, 97: “The particularity of this type of evolutionary outlook is its resolute refutation of the leaps, revolutions and discontinuities inherent in development”; and 98, where Li also refers to this letter written to Chinese merchants in the Americas: “In the same way that he acknowledged development but refuted leaps, Kang Youwei acknowledged contradictions but refuted the struggle between contradictions.”

70 See Riben bianzheng kao 日本變政考 (A Study of Political Reform in Japan) in Kang 2007, vol.4, 101–294.

71 See Qing gao tianzu shi qunchen yi bianfa dingguo shizhe 請告天祖誓群臣以變法定國是折 (“A Request for a Ceremony Informing Heaven, with Ministers Swearing an Oath, for Reform Bringing National Stability”) [1898], in Kang 2007, vol.4, 309.

72 Yindu youji 印度遊記 (India Travel Journal), in Kang 2007, vol.5, 532.

73 Ames 1988, 202.

74 This is a freely paraphrased quotation from the “Liyun”; see Ruan 1980, 1426.

75 Qufu dachengjie juxing dianli xu 曲阜大成節舉行典禮序 (Introduction to a Celebration of the Great Achievements of Confucius in Qufu) [1914], in Kang 2007, vol.10, 198.

76 Kang 2012b, 113. “I have observed schools in the West. According to which grade pupils are in, they necessarily learn poetry, li, and music. Everyone studies these during their childhood. Their poetry and songs are all about patriotism and love of their race, and permit kind-heartedness to bloom. Everyone is familiar with their li, be they eating manners, everyday behaviour, etiquette between guests and visitors or military li, which serve to strengthen their muscles and joints, so as to adequately deal with the ways of the world. As for their music, throughout the year everyone is familiar with the words, the melodies and the dances, and these serve to cultivate their temperament and develop the movements of their hands and feet. As a result, many a talented person is formed. All scientific disciplines are specialisations. Only poetry, li and music are standard forms of learning. Everyone learns them. The way of Confucius is being widely practised in Europe and the Americas, while, on the other hand, it is being lost in its native land. Today’s scholars should all the more recover things from the past, so as to form people of talent.” [愚觀泰西學校必有詩、禮、樂三者以為學級人人童而習之其詩歌皆有愛國愛種興起其仁心其禮自飲食、起居、賓客、軍國之禮皆熱習而有以固其肌膚之會筋骸之節以應人接事其樂則凡歌詞、琴曲、跳舞歲時皆習熱而有以陶暢其性靈舞蹈其手足故人多成材一切科學皆為專門惟詩、禮、樂為普通之學無人不習孔子之道乃大行于歐美而反失于故國也今學者更當光復故物以求成材矣]


University of Sydney

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.


Open access

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search