Kang Youwei: Brash reformer aimed to change China

Statue of Kang Youwei.

FOSHAN, China - At the end of the 19th century, the southern Chinese province of Guangdong became a gateway for progressive thinkers due to its proximity to Hong Kong, which was governed by Britain, producing reformers and revolutionaries who rocked the times.

Among them was Kang Youwei, the leader of the political reform movement called the Hundred Days' Reform, which was modeled after the 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan.

Kang spent his boyhood in Foshan, 1½ hours' drive from Guangdong's capital of Guangzhou. At the end of the suburban main street is a small pond surrounded mainly by palm trees - the remnants of the garden where the Kangs, a prestigious family that produced local officials, used to spend their leisure time.

Right by the pond is the approximately 200-year-old house where Kang was born, and close to the house is a reproduction of the book storeroom where Kang, who loved reading, is said to have spent a lot of his boyhood.

He studied neo-Confucianism and would always say, "[ancient] saints would ..." and "saints would ...," which earned him the nickname "Saint wei." This trait must have been acquired in his boyhood.

Kang gained the confidence of then Emperor Guangxu and in 1898 made an attempt to promote systematic reforms in the political and economic systems and in military affairs. Because it was such a hasty endeavour, however, it failed in just 100 days, due to a coup launched by conservative forces. The Nanhai Museum in Foshan contains a worn-out bag that Kang used when he escaped overseas.

"Kang's driving power was passion. He was unfamiliar with the complex nature of political battles," said Yuan Jin, a 59-year-old researcher with the museum, in describing the limits of Kang's abilities.

Although the Qing dynasty collapsed as a result of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, Kang championed constitutional monarchy and strove to restore the Qing dynasty, giving him the image of being a conservative.

Mao Zedong was influenced by Kang's way of thinking in his adolescent years, and even said, "The truth was sought in the West before the Chinese Communist Party was born." However, Kang's grave is said to have been destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

As economic reforms began in the late 1970s, Kang started to receive increased recognition, as he had aimed to promote reforms within the existing governmental system. Yuan, who has been studying Kang Youwei for over 20 years, stresses the significance of the Hundred Days' Reform and the 1970s economic reform, saying, "Both looked at the outside world and aimed to introduce advanced scientific technologies and cultures to China."

Spirit of national salvation

Xu Peiying, 40, is curator of the Former Residence of Kang Youwei located next to the house where Kang was born. According to Xu, when he began working there 20 years ago, there were elderly people in the neighborhood who had actually seen Kang.

They said Kang returned in about 1913 after his mother's death, coming back at night and departing again quickly. When Kang fell from power after the Hundred Days' Reform, his family was also forced to pay the price and his younger brother was executed. Perhaps Kang had to avoid the public eye.

The memorial was designated in 2001 as "a base for patriotic education" in Guangdong. A total of 130,000 people visited it last year.

"The determination to save one's nation is a rare thing. I feel proud that this great man was born in our city," the curator said proudly. Strolling along the alleys where young Kang may have walked, and thinking about his achievements and the changing opinions about him, I was overwhelmed with feeling for China's turbulent modern history.

At the age of 31, when Kang was just a student, he wrote to the emperor stressing the need for reform and strongly criticising Empress Dowager Cixi, who was at the helm of politics. He continued writing to the emperor after that, and although he took the initiative in the Hundred Days' Reform political reform movement, he eventually lost his position. He escaped to Japan by way of Hong Kong but returned home after the Xinhai Revolution, eventually dying in Qingdao in Shandong Province. Kang is also known as a superb calligrapher, and 20 of his works are displayed at the Nanhai Museum.Speech