War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)
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After the First Sino-Japanese War, China was confronted the danger of partition by the imperialist powers. Two factions - the reformers and the revolutionaries - emerged, both aspiring to save the failing China. The reformers were led by Kang Youwei (康有為) with support from his student Liang Qichao (梁啟超). They were both architects of China’s Hundred Days’ Reform (戊戌變法) but were exiled overseas after its failure. Nonetheless, they sought to continue their unfinished work. Kang established the Society to Protect the Emperor (保救大清皇帝會); Liang set up The China Discussion (《清議報》) and New People’s Miscellany (《新民叢報》), two journals that advocated supporting Emperor Guangxu (光緒), continuing the reforms, and establishing a constitutional monarchy. The reformers were opposed to establishing a republic via revolution.

The revolutionaries, led by Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), advocated overthrowing the Qing government via armed uprising, establishing a republic, and distributing land equally among the people. Major revolutionary groups included the Revive China Society (興中會) and its successor, the United League (中國同盟會). Their forums included journals such as Jiangsu News (《蘇報》) and Citizens’ Journal (《民報》). On numerous occasions, they reached out to Kang and Liang in the hope of forging an anti-Qing alliance but failed.

The two factions first clashed in 1903 with the publication of articles such as the Letter Refuting Kang Youwei’s Views on Revolution (《駁康有為論革命書》) by Zhang Binglin (章炳麟). From 1905 onwards, the two factions engaged in fierce debates via articles posted on their own forums. They clashed on three major issues: support the Qing dynasty in implementing reform, or overthrow it by force; establish a constitutional monarchy or a republican government; and maintain the feudal land ownership system, or distribute land equally among the people. In the end, the revolutionary approach gained a greater following. Kang and Liang eventually parted ways due to different views.

Why was Kang Youwei committed to preserving the monarchy and establishing a constitutional monarchy?

See answer below.

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Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were exiled overseas after the Wuxu Coup (戊戌政變) in 1898. They established in Canada in 1899 the Society to Protect the Emperor, an organisation dedicated to supporting Emperor Guangxu and his reforms. Later, more branches were set up.

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A medallion of the Society to Protect the Emperor and the receipt for a donation to it. The Society received support from many overseas Chinese.

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The China Discussion (left) and New People’s Miscellany (right) were both major reformist forums.

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In 1903, the revolutionaries launched a major offensive on their forums to sway the popular opinion. Zhang Binglin published an article titled the Letter Refuting Kang Youwei’s Views on Revolution, which refuted Kang Youwei’s claim that “China can only adopt a constitutional monarchy but not undergo a revolution”, denounced the reformist views, and highlighted that Chinese people were capable of establishing a democratic republic.

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Jiangsu News, a revolutionary journal in the 20th century, published Zhang Binglin’s Letter Refuting Kang Youwei’s Views on Revolution and an excerpt from the book The Revolutionary Army (《革命軍》, by Zou Rong﹝鄒容﹞) in 1903. Both pieces created a stir.

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In 1903, Zou Rong finished The Revolutionary Army, which became hugely popular at home and abroad. It contributed greatly to spreading revolutionary ideas.

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1903 also saw the publication of Violent Soul-searching (《猛回頭》,middle) and  Alarm Bell (《警世鐘》,right), two influential revolutionary pamphlets by Chen Tianhua (陳天華,left).

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The debates in 1903 helped the revolutionaries overtake the reformers in influence. In 1905, the founding of the United League intensified the debates. Pictured is a special edition of Citizens’ Journal (《民報》), a revolutionary publication, dated 28 April 1906. It featured the revolutionaries’ rebuttal of reformist views published in New People’s Miscellany.

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The emblem of the Chinese Empire Reform Association (中華帝國憲政會) and Chinese Empire Reform Journal (《帝國憲政報》) founded by the Association. In 1906, the Qing government issued an imperial decree titled the Decree for Imitation of Constitutionalism (《仿行立憲上諭》). This prompted Kang Youwei, who had long advocated constitutional reform for the Qing government, to declare that the Society to Protect the Emperor completed its mission. In the following year, the Society changed its name to the Chinese Empire Reform Association.

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The photos of Kang Youwei (left, seated figure) and Liang Qichao (right), both in exile during the late Qing era. As Liang gained a deeper understanding of the international situation and the political systems of advanced countries, he gradually split ways with the staunchly pro-monarchy Kang. Support for the reformist faction gradually waned.

Why was Kang Youwei committed to preserving the monarchy and establishing a constitutional monarchy?

Kang Youwei had long devoted himself to studying Western disciplines and promoting reform. However, establishing a constitutional monarchy was the only goal he resolved to pursue throughout his life, and not once did he ever consider abolishing the monarchical rule. His determination was for several key reasons:

First, as he hailed from the traditional scholar-official class, concepts such as “a monarch must act like a monarch and a subject must act like a subject (君君、臣臣)” had been ingrained in him since his childhood. As such, it was natural for him to respect and admire the emperors.

Secondly, he believed that the domestic situation in China differed from that in Europe and the United States. Should a dynasty be overthrown by force, no one in China would have absolute authority. This would lead China into a period of regional militarism and political fragmentation similar to what occurred at the end of the Qin (秦), Sui (隋), Tang (唐), and late Yuan (元) dynasties. Widespread conflicts, disorder, and loss of livelihoods would be resulted.

The third reason was he deemed that the Chinese people were still ignorant and not ready for a republic. Establishing a constitutional monarchy first, a more practicable goal, would help prevent political turmoil nationwide.

Lastly, Kang had been entrusted to implement the Hundred Days’ Reform by Emperor Guangxu. Although it failed, he was still determined to support the emperor to repay him for his favour and patronage. Even after the emperor’s death and the fall of the Qing dynasty, Kang remained loyal unto death and strove to restore the Qing regime till the very end.

Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe