The Dreamer

Liang Qichao and the making of modern China

Text by Pankaj Mishra

Tank _vol 7issue 156

Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was a pioneering Chinese intellectual, journalist and social campaigner who embodied the Chinese reform movement that eventually led the country into Republicanism and then communism. Liang was born into a China that was perennially under siege by colonial powers; its seemingly never-ending wars inevitably concluded with increasingly humiliating and exploitative treaties. While studying for the arduous civil-service exams, Liang met and became a supporter of Kang Youwei, already a well-known reformist and activist. He helped Kang publish a magazine, Domestic and Foreign Affairs, in Beijing, and was subsequently invited by the reform-friendly governor of Hunan to set up newspapers there. Kang and Liang then petitioned the Emperor, urging him to reform the ancient system in order to fend off foreign aggression, and were invited to work with him on what became known as the Hundred Days’ Reform, an ambitious set of cultural, political and educational initiatives, before being driven out of China after a conservative coup. When the Empress Dowager Cixi placed a price upon his head, Liang fled to Japan.

Liang was first among the new breed of thinkers from colonised countries – what later came to be referred to as the third world – to notice and describe the ill effects of imperialism not only on the vanquished nations but also on the empire-builders. He is a massive cultural figure in China, cited as a powerful influence on generations of Chinese intellectuals and leaders, yet almost unknown outside of the country. His story is particularly timely now that China is, once again, exerting increasing political and social influence on the rest of the world.

LIANG QICHAO COULD not have known in the 1890s that he was sowing the seeds of republican China. Newspapers, schools and study societies radiated the urgency of change to the most secluded of Chinese literati-gentry. It was only a matter of time before an intelligentsia emerged with newer, more radical ideas. And, here, too, Liang was to prove a pivotal figure.

Announcing a reward for his capture, the Peking Gazette referred to Liang as a “little animal with short legs, riding on the back of a wolf”. The image was meant to mock his intellectual dependence on Kang Youwei, but it was inexact. Liang, always more political and pragmatic than his mentor, had already begun to move away from Kang.

Always hungry for knowledge – he had begun to study Japanese while still on board the ship that took him to Japan – Liang quickly started a newspaper, funded largely by Chinese merchants in Yokohama, and began to transmit new ideas as soon as he absorbed them from Japanese books to an audience that now consisted of students as well as the literati-gentry. Many of the students he had taught at Hunan moved to Japan to be with him. Liang put them up in his own living quarters, until they were housed in a school he started in 1899 with the financial assistance of Chinese merchants.

He was only 25 years old when he escaped Beijing; he would be 40 on his return to a China transformed by the revolution of 1911. His next 15 years were mostly spent in Japan where, giving full rein to his curiosity, he would explore a wide range of issues, from individualism to traditional norms, democracy and its imperative of a responsible citizenry. The Chinese intelligentsia would soon be divided between reformists like Kang and Liang and anti-Manchu revolutionists represented by Sun Yat-sen. But Liang’s writings often transcended the differences, making them appealing to readers across a broad ideological spectrum in China.

It’s no exaggeration to say that he was helped a great deal by his setting. For educated Chinese, Japan was as much the centre of culture and education as Paris was for Russians and London was for Indian colonials; thousands of Chinese students would travel there after 1900, and return to assume leadership positions at home. The Japanese had absorbed many Western ideas since the Meiji Restoration, their successful attempt at self-strengthening, while it was the first experience of modernity for many Chinese such as Liang, forcing almost all of them to re-evaluate their previous notions about the world. Words like “democracy”, “revolution”, “capitalism” and “communism” made their way into the Chinese language via Japanese.

While Kang travelled to India and the West, Liang came into his own in Japan as China’s most famous intellectual, dealing, above all, with the problem of nationalism – one given special urgency by his view of a world order defined by social Darwinism. The Sinocentric worldview had been smashed to pieces by Western intrusions in China, and Liang took it upon himself to describe harsh political realities that China had to face.

China was one of the oldest states in the world. But did its citizens see it as a nation? Could they shed their Confucian emphasis on self-cultivation enough to feel notions of civic solidarity? Could the state’s institutions be overhauled enough to cope with the challenges of international politics? And could a modern Chinese nation come into being without destroying China’s proud cultural identity? Liang posed these large and complex questions without offering any clear-cut answers. Nevertheless, he phrased them more forcefully than any other Chinese intellectual, and his writings, smuggled back to the mainland, were to inspire the next generation of thinkers and activists.

But first Liang had to negotiate his way through the tangled politics of both his new hosts and fellow Chinese expatriates. The Japan he travelled to in 1898 was far from the confident imperial power it would become after defeating Russia and then annexing Korea in 1910. It had followed the precedent set by imperialist powers in wanting its own share of postwar Chinese booty; in 1900, it participated in the Allied Powers’ attempt to quell the Boxer Rebellion. But it feared the division of China in the same way that European power dreaded the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire: the sick men of Asia were better alive than dead, for they held chaos and instability at bay.

Japanese statesmen closely followed the Hundred Days’ Reform, attracted by the possibility that a reinvigorated Manchu ruling dynasty could keep the country from total collapse. They appreciated the conservatism of Kang and Liang, who did not wish to depose the emperor. Ito Hirobumi, thrice prime minister of Japan, and prime maker of the Meiji constitution, was in China when the Empress Dowager Cixi cracked down on reformists; he quietly instructed Japanese diplomats to ensure the safety of Kang and Liang. When Kang reached Tokyo via Hong Kong in November 1898, he was treated as the head of a government-in-exile and taken to meet the most powerful statesmen in Japan.

Kang and Liang received even greater support through unofficial channels. Despite an authoritarian political system, Japan possessed strikingly diverse intellectual currents. Japan’s emergence as a major world power had brought it face to face with the racialist underpinnings of the international system; despite its successes, it was still regarded as “yellow peril” by Western powers. In 1898, the United States had announced its presence in Japan’s neighborhood by wresting the Philippines from the doddering Spanish Empire (for the same reason Japan had taken Korea out of the Chinese sphere of influence: because it was there to be taken). Fear of a racially tinged Western imperialism pushed a wide range of Japanese intellectuals and politicians into fresh considerations of Japan’s cultural identity and, by extension, its old links with China and the rest of Asia.

This was the beginning of pan-Asianism, a major strand in Japan’s self-image and actions for the next half a century. From the very beginning, its advocates belonged to a wide ideological spectrum. Indeed, a broad section of Japanese politicians eventually aided Chinese activists, all united by their common foe: Western imperialism. Like any rising power, Japan was developing an awareness of its national interest that lay far beyond its physical borders.

Many of the self-appointed sentinels of Japan’s prestige saw themselves as guarding Asian values in general against “white peril”. Some of these were militarists who thought China and Korea ought to be ruled by Japan. Others were more sensitive to the interests of their neighbors, and hospitable to political refugees from China, Korea and southeast Asia. Liberal nationalists who wished to modernise Japan in order to make it the equal of the West felt obliged to strengthen China against foreign imperialists. More farsighted pan-Asianists saw Japan as the future imperial conqueror and leader of Asia.

Such political difference did not matter much; the pan-Asian-ists, emerging at a time of transition, were looking for a new aim in life. The Meiji reforms had unleashed a whole class of political and intellectual adventurers, often former samurai, who saw themselves as nobly selfless idealists. These rootless men, who dreamed of saving China from itself, worked for pressure groups and as lobbyists, and often attached themselves to Chinese and southeast Asian nationalists who were beginning to arrive in Japan towards the end of the 19th century. One such Japanese, Miyazaki Torazo, decided he had found his savior of China when he met Sun Yat-sen in 1897.

Thus Sun, who had already engineered a failed revolt in China, was installed in Japan and well-connected with the small expatriate community of Chinese merchants and students when Liang arrived there in the autumn of 1898. Liang was followed shortly thereafter by Kang. There were many Chinese students in Yokohama; the respective followers of these men soon began to join them in Japan. Their Japanese patrons tried to bring them together on a common platform of Chinese regeneration, encouraging them with money and advice to fuse their groups into a single party in exile. But they soon ran into the internecine discord commonly found among 19th-century political expatriates, in circles from Marx’s to Alexander Herzen’s.


Unlike Kang and Liang, Sun came from a family of peasants in Guangzhou; poverty forced his brother to emigrate to Hawaii (Sun joined him there in his early teens). A convert to Christianity who spoke English fluently, wrote classical Chinese badly and dressed in Western-style clothes, Sun was as far away as possible from Kang’s traditional world of Confucian gentry. Well-travelled in the West, he also had a sharp eye for China’s infirmities. In 1894, his bold petition to the imperial court in favour of reform was rejected, convincing him that China needed to overthrow the Manchu monarchy and turn itself into a republic.

This belief, in itself, would have caused problems with the royalist Kang. Nevertheless, Sun, a master improviser, was eager to join hands with Kang and Liang. As it turned out, Kang couldn’t abide Sun, regarding him as a worthless and boorish adventurer. Rebuffed, Sun, who had been educated at missionary schools, came to regard Kang’s attempts to interpret Confucian classics in the light of the modern age as a meaningless academic exercise.

Kang’s uncompromising elitism made him unpopular with the Japanese, who were already nervous about Chinese protests over the presence of Sun, Liang and Kang in Japan – the Dowager had described them as China’s three greatest criminals. In the summer of 1899, Kang left Japan for Canada, where he formed the Society to Protect the Emperor. Liang was left to deal with Sun, and with his former students, who had flocked to his side from China. The Japanese now tried to bring Sun and Liang together, and a degree of co-operation was established above squabbles over money. Liang was also closer to Sun’s anti-monarchy stance than he could freely express at the time. But just as Liang seemed to be moving towards some kind of co-operation with Sun, in late 1899, he was ordered by Kang to travel to Hawaii and America on a fundraising tour.

Liang complied; Kang was still his revered teacher in the Confucian tradition. But Japan had begun to emancipate him, as it was to do with two generations of Chinese thinkers. He had begun to read and think more widely. Previously dependent on Yan Fu’s translations, he had expanded his knowledge of Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau and Greek philosophers, and even authored biographical studies of Cromwell, Cavour and Mazzini. His knowledge of the world outside China broadened. Qingyi Bao (the Journal of Pure Critique), the newspaper he started soon after arriving in Japan, carried reports on the Philippine resistance to the United States and Britain’s difficulties with the Boer settlers in South Africa. Liang concluded that the power of Euro-American people had “decreased relative to the power of those whom they have attacked in the modern competition among peoples”.

The modern competition for territory and resources began to preoccupy Liang above all else, whether he was writing about the unification of Italy or the French subjugation of Vietnam. He exhorted the Chinese people to learn from the Philippines, which, though stateless, had put up a strong fight against the Americans. Soon, he began to move from his idea of a Chinese people to the idea of the state as the most important unit, the defender of the people. For instance, the Boers, a strong people saddled with a weak state, had been pushed back by the British. In an essay titled “On the New Rules for Destroying Countries”, which could just as easily have been authored by al-Afghani, Liang’s near-contemporary from Iran, Liang described the manifold, subtle ways in which European merchants and mine owners had progressively infiltrated and undermined “lost” countries like India and Egypt. “To those who claim that opening mining, railroad and concessionary rights to foreigners is not harmful to the sovereignty of the whole,” he wrote, “I advise you to read the history of the Boer War.”

A few decades before Lenin identified imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, Liang described how the West’s unprecedented economic expansion had led it organically to the conquest of Asia. By tying imperialism in with individual economic interests, Western countries had given it a popular base among their own populations. It wasn’t just motivated by the political ambitions of rulers; it claimed a degree of consent from the ruled. This made modern imperialism very different from the expansionism of tyrants like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, and posed a unique danger to peace:

The motivating force (of modern international competition) stems from the citizenry’s struggle for survival, which is irrepressible according to the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Therefore, the current international competitions are not something which only concerns the state, they concern the entire population. In the present-day international struggles in which the whole citizenry participate (and compete) for their very lives and properties, people are united as if they have one mind. The international competitions of the past, which were the concerns of the rulers and their ministers, would subside after a period. But the current international struggle will last forever because it is constantly a matter of concern for the life and property of the people. How dangerous this is! How will we, who bear the brunt of this international struggle, stave it off?

India, in particular, was a horror story about a “lost country” that had failed in the international struggle: “small capital- ists” from Britain had taken over an entire continent by training Indians to be soldiers and to enforce British policies at the expense of their own people. China was in danger of repeating that experience, because her people had developed no sense of corporate interest or national solidarity – the basis of European power and prosperity. One reason for this was that China’s neighbors were so vastly inferior that her people had felt themselves to be the world. But this conceit could no longer be maintained in a world in which China had to either recognise the reality of conflict and competition with other societies, or sink. For “in the world there is only power – there is no other force. That the strong always rule the weak is in truth the first great universal rule of nature. Hence, if we wish to attain liberty, there is no other road: we can only seek first to be strong.”

Events in China confirmed and sharpened Liang’s anxiety. While he was fundraising with the Chinese community in Hawaii in the spring of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion came to a head. Led by a shamanistic secret society devoted to traditional martial arts, the revolt was directed against foreigners, especially missionaries who, deep in China’s interior, were seen to be undermining and insulting Chinese beliefs and practices. As spontaneous as India’s earlier eruption of xenophobia, the Great Mutiny of 1857, it attracted a motley crowd of disgruntled Chinese, including peasants, decommissioned soldiers, smugglers and even some official gentry.

The Boxer Rebellion revealed the resources of ordinary people’s resistance as well as the depth of popular resentment towards the foreign presence in China, and the pressures it put on local officials. Few Chinese ever saw a white man. But their lives were deeply affected by the new facts created by foreigners in China: the captivity to global economic cycles, for instance, which threw people out of work. A country whose standard of living was superior to Europe’s before 1800 had steadily become, through the 19th century, a helpless giant before Western missionaries, businessmen, diplomats and soldiers. Foreign debts and indemnities placed a crippling burden on the national exchequer. The government had to borrow heavily for the smallest attempt at modernisation. The railroads, a symbol of progress anywhere else, served merely to push China deeper into debt while opening up large parts of China’s interior to foreign troops.

The Boxers, manifesting a long-simmering public rage, tore up the railroad tracks. When Boxer attacks on Westerners and Chinese converts to Christianity spread to Beijing in June 1900, Western powers protested to the Dowager. She calculated that she could turn the fury and strength of the Boxers against the Westerners and rid China of them altogether. The decision reflected a total ignorance of the real balance of power in the world. Her opportunistic declaration of war while the foreign legation was under siege by the Boxers was soon matched by Europe-wide mobilisation. Twenty thousand troops drawn from several countries, including Japan, marched to Beijing to relieve the siege and loot the city.

The French writer Pierre Loti witnessed the devastation. “Little grey bricks – this is the sole material of which Beijing was built,” he wrote. “A city of small, low houses decorated with a lacework of gilded wood; a city of which only a mass of curious debris is left, after fire and shell have crumbled away its flimsy materials.”

Reliving her escape from the barbarian-besieged capital in 1860, the Dowager fled Beijing on a donkey cart, disguised in the blue costume of a peasant. Her representatives signed another agreement with Western powers that, among other penalties, imposed an indemnity that was almost twice the size of the government’s annual revenues. They promised to build monuments to the Christian missionaries murdered by the Boxers, and while accepting restrictions on the size of their military, had to countenance an increased foreign military presence on Chinese soil. Chastened by this turn of events, even the Dowager now contemplated radical reforms.

She began slowly, but by the time she died in 1908, she had taken enough steps to ensure the construction of a modern state. Soon after Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, she abolished the traditional examinations for the civil service that had served as the backbone of the imperial state for over a millennium. In its place, the Qing court established modern schools with a Western curriculum and sent Chinese students abroad, to Europe, the United States and Japan. Thousands of young Chinese were introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education and military skills.

In his inland province of Hunan, the 16-year-old Mao Zedong was one of the first students at a school that imparted what he called the “New Knowledge”. The teenage Mao read about the American and French Revolutions, and Rousseau and Washington; he learned about the full scale of China’s degradation at the hands of the West from a teacher who had studied in Japan. Decades later, he recalled to the American writer Edgar Snow, I began to have a certain amount of political consciousness, especially after I read a pamphlet telling of the dismemberment of China. I remember even now that this pamphlet opened with the sentence: “Alas, China will be subjugated!” It told of Japan’s occupation of Korea and Taiwan, of the loss of suzerainty in Indo-China, Burma and elsewhere. After I read this I felt depressed about the future of my country and began to realise that it was the duty of the people to help save it.

Among other reforms, the army was modernised, and a new professional elite of military men soon emerged, particularly under Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), a general in the old Qing army. The military academy established by Yuan south of Beijing trained, among others, the future Nationalist leader and rival to Mao, Chiang Kai-shek (1888-1975). A glamorous militarist strain appeared in Chinese urban life, which had so far conferred prestige on silk-robed Confucian gentlemen with a gift for poetry and calligraphy. Voluntary organisations dedicated to modernising and strengthening China sprung up in both China and the Chinese Diaspora.

The reforms had unintended consequences. Students deeply politicised by their stay in Japan returned to form enduring alliances with like-minded graduates of the new schools and military academies. Many of them were radical nationalists in the European social-Darwinist style, borrowing from the examples of Germany and Japan to posit a Han “national essence” against the “alien” Manchu, exponentially the smaller of the two ethnic groups, but the rulers since 1644. For these nationalists, Manchu rule over China constituted a greater evil than Western imperialism. The most famous of them, an 18-year-old student from Sichuan called Zou Rong, published a tract entitled The Revolutionary Army in 1903, which denounced Han Chinese habits of mental slavery and argued for redemption through a bloody extirpation of the Manchu.

Anticipating Frantz Fanon’s views on the emancipatory quality of revolutionary violence, Zhu wrote, Revolution is a universal rule of evolution. Revolution is a universal principle of the world. Revolution is the essence of the struggle for survival or destruction in a time of transition. Revolution submits to heaven and responds to men’s needs. Revolution rejects what is corrupt and keeps the good. Revolution is the advance from barbarism to civilisation. Revolution turns slaves into masters.

In the same year, the classical scholar Zhang Taiyan wrote an open letter to Kang Youwei ridiculing him for his support of an effete Manchu emperor, and for his fear that revolution in China would lead to terrible bloodletting, dictatorship and foreign invasions. “Can a constitutional system ever be achieved without bloodshed?” he asked. Zhang also attacked Kang’s praise for Indian literature and philosophy, suggesting, “Indians have generally not cared if their national territory is lost or if their race declines. Chinese determination is stronger than the Indian, and we can foresee that Chinese accomplishments will certainly surpass those of the Indians.”


From his mid-Pacific perch, Liang followed China’s greatest humiliation yet, and the last of his old beliefs began to shatter. In a letter to Kang, he denounced the “slavish mentality” of the Chinese people. In this bleak world in which China found herself, where “battle is the mother of all progress”, Confucius could no longer be the sole guide. Nor could constitutional monarchy be the right system for a people who desperately needed to be educated and mobilised around a strong nation-state. The status quo was intolerable, because a self-perpetuating autocratic system treated the Chinese people as slaves, making them indifferent to the public good. In his famous series of essays, “Discourses on the New People”, Liang argued that nothing less than a total destruction of the Manchu regime could sa ve China. Freedom was an absolute necessity, he wrote, invoking Patrick Henry’s famous call, “Give me Liberty or give me Death”.

Liang flirted briefly with anti-Manchuism, which motivated the revolutionists who sided with Sun Yat-sen, among them Zhang Taiyan, who was jailed for three years for calling the emperor a little clown. But, like Kang, Liang never ceased to be aware of the necessity of a broad anti-imperialist front that included China’s many ethnic minorities. In this, he remained within the mainstream of Chinese nationalism; anti-Manchuism fizzled out after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

But Liang was close to a break with Kang, who still believed that a wise and paternalistic monarchy could launch China into modernity. Kang had tried to stoke an armed uprising during the Boxer Rebellion. Failure forced him to seek refuge in Penang, where he quarreled with Sun Yat-sen; he moved to India in December 1901. He spent a year in the Himalayan resort of Darjeeling, during which he finished his treatise Book of the Great Community, which offered a utopian vision of a post-nationalist harmony. Like many Chinese thinkers of his period, Kang turned out to be less a nationalist than a utopian internationalist. In his vision, a universal moral community of the future would transcend all distinctions of race, ethnicity and language.

While Kang was in India, moving ever further into the private dream world that would make him an increasingly irrelevant figure in China, Liang travelled to Canada and the United States for more fundraising. It was his first major trip outside of Asia, and it proved to be a turning point in his intellectual career. He travelled from the west coast to the east coast and back again, passing through Vancouver, Ottawa, Boston, New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since the great emigration to the American West in the 1860s and ’70s, more than 100,000 Chinese had settled in America, working as laundrymen and restaurateurs in remote railroad and mining towns, or in the crammed Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. A handful of Chinese students had also arrived at Harvard and Yale.

Having settled its westernmost territories and industrialised rapidly, the United States was developing an aware- ness of itself as a major world power. Since the 19th century, American missionaries in China, mostly Protestant, had reflected that growing national confidence as they propagated the American way of life as much as Christianity. American interest in China, led by businessmen, had also begun to peak, and was supported by the Open Door Policy, which protected American stakes in the potentially vast Chinese market. Liang found his tour heralded by newspapers everywhere he went: he was received by J. P. Morgan, Secretary of State John Hay, and finally by President Theodore Roosevelt himself at the White House.

In his prose, which was a model of simplicity and directness, Liang proved to be a sharp and confident observer of the American scene, impressed but not overawed – and surprisingly insightful, given that he had never been to a Western country before. The United States was at the end of a major transition from frontier society to European-style industrial state, with a fast-developing sense of its imperial destiny. It had already expelled Spain from its Caribbean backyard and flexed its muscles in East Asia. Liang noted points both big and small: the extension, backed up by Roosevelt’s big navy, of the Monroe Doctrine to the world; American control of the Panama Canal (which he compared to the British grip over Suez and Egypt); New York traffic; the condition of Jewish immigrants.

The United States he visited was a country of extreme inequality. The tenements in New York horrified him, as they horrified Henry James four years later. The political corruption exceeded anything described in Henry Adams’ novel Democracy, published two decades previously. And Liang, observing it, began to lose his own faith in democracy and people’s rights as the cure-all to autocracy.

Corporate interests played an insidious role in politics. Frequent elections encouraged shortsighted policy and cheap populism. The calibre of people entering politics tended to be mediocre; far too many American presidents had been uninspiring. The best aspects of American democracy were to be found at the local level, the political institutions of states, towns, and counties, and these were too particular to America to be adapted to China.

Democracy itself was best built from the bottom up, over a long period. It couldn’t be imposed through revolution, as the fragility of democracy in France and Latin America had proved. Even in America, the liberal democratic state had been achieved with much coercion, and now, as America assumed its place in the world, faced the danger of over- centralisation. Imperialism was becoming more acceptable in America, as the country’s financial and industrial power grew. Indeed, its monstrously large modern business corporations threatened to dominate the entire world.

Liang met many Chinese, and came face to face with the ever-present threats to their dignity in an America that treated its black population appallingly. While Liang was in the States, a Chinese consular official in San Francisco committed suicide after being insulted by the police. This was a national humiliation for Liang. But he was discouraged to find that Chinese expatriate communities in America, though subject to racial discrimination and abuse, did not support his grand vision of a self-empowering Chinese people at home. Residents of a democratic country, in possession of the right of freedom of speech, the Chinese-Americans preferred clannish ways; they clung to tradition, producing gangs and mafia dons rather than representative parties and leaders.

It was no longer possible for Liang to conclude that the only thing holding the Chinese back from becoming self-aware, nationalistic individuals was an autocratic system. Though a revolution in China might promise democracy and freedom, in reality it could only deliver chaos, and certainly not a nationstate capable of standing up to Western power. Preparing to leave for Japan in October 1903, Liang wrote, “No more am I dizzy with vain imaginings; no longer will I tell a tale of pretty dreams. In a word, the Chinese people must for now accept authoritarian rule; they cannot enjoy freedom... those born in the thundering tempests of today, forged and molded by iron and fire – they will be my citizens, 20 or 30, nay, 50 years hence. Then we will give them Rousseau to read, and speak to them of Washington.” 

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This political cartoon by an unknown French artist depicts Queen Victoria, William II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, the French Marianne and the Meiji Emperor of Japan squabbling over “Chine”. Late 1890s


This wasn’t a sudden change of mind on Liang’s part. The success of Meiji Japan, where he had lived, had proved that an authoritarian state could be more effective than liberal democratic institutions in building a modern nation. Liang was reading, and speaking a great deal of, a Japanese theorist called Kato Hiroyuki, one of the many Japanese thinkers who believed that only enlightened despotism could bring about progressive change and ensure national survival against the challenge from the West. A republican system hadn’t worked out in the countries of its origin. France had suffered much violence after its revolution and still lacked a stable political structure. The United States, though an inheritor of British heritage, still discriminated against its ethnic and racial minorities, particularly blacks, Chinese and native; it was a barbarous country, artistically and intellectually, and with all its love of liberty, it had been compelled to expand the power of the federal government to fit its international role.

If greater centralisation for the sake of military preparedness was the fate of a country like the United States, what was a country like China to do? As Liang saw it, China wasn’t faced with a choice of political systems. Such were its circumstances – a weak and ineffectual government, a poorly educated and ethnically diverse population spread over a large area – that an autocracy was a necessity. A democratic republic would quickly lead to war between the military and the people, lower and upper classes, one province and another; and revolutions would sap the strength and dedication to the common good the Chinese nation needed to deal with external threats.

Besides, autocracy came in many types. It could be one that was responsive to the needs of the people, devoted to marshalling national strength and providing impartial justice. To be sure, Emperor Guanxu wasn’t the enlightened despot Liang had in mind; nor did any other candidate present himself. But Liang wanted above all to forestall the possibility of a republican revolution, such as the one for which Sun Yat-sen was agitating – it could only lead, in his view, to anarchy and chaos, and finally to the creation of a new tyranny. The fundamental change he sought – a centralised state that forged the Chinese people into a united citizenry – could only be achieved under a benign autocracy.


Like many other Muslim intellectuals, Al-Afghani, Liang’s counterpart in Iran, had flirted with such notions, and sought his enlightened despot in Turkey and Iran. But this was the first time such arguments had been made by an anti-Qing Chinese thinker; they were to have a long history in the 20th century and beyond. In his own time, Liang seemed to be vindicated – not so much by the incapacity of the Chinese people as by the incompetence of his rivals, Sun Yat-sen and his Revolutionary Alliance of republicans.

After 1905, Liang lost the battle for influence to Sun, whose racially tinged Chinese nationalism became an explicitly anti-Manchu sentiment. The revolutionists also spoke a great deal about socialism, without specifying what they meant by it (nationalisation of land, public ownership of industry). Stressing the urgency of Western-style revolution in China, Sun’s journal Min Bao became more widely read than Liang’s periodicals.

Liang continued to uphold the importance of “broad nationalism”, as opposed to what he called “narrow nationalism”. He also criticised socialist ideas as inapplicable to China, which he felt did not need nationalisation of land so much as nationalisation of capital. According to him, socialism had its roots in the terrible class inequalities and conflicts created by the laissez-faire policies that followed the Industrial Revolution. China had experienced no such polarisation. What it needed was industrial production through capitalist methods, carefully regulated by the state. This was how China could withstand the great power of American economic imperialism and hold its own in the international jungle. “The economic policy I advocate is primarily to encourage and protect capitalists, so that they can do their best to engage in external competition,” he wrote. “To this policy all other considerations are subordinate.

If this meant holding down workers’ wages and rent, so be it. Far from endorsing Adam Smith’s economic liberalism, Liang argued that in the age of imperialism, which was driven by the power of state-backed business enterprises, China had to accumulate the same kind of resources as Britain and the United States so as to hold its own internationally. In words that the heirs of Mao Zedong may have remembered, Liang said, “Encouragement of capital is the foremost consideration; protection of labor is the second consideration.” His version of capitalism also included a strong social-welfare component, in which the state regulated private enterprise to prevent class tension, economic exploitation and social conflict.

But the revolution itself, when it fortuitously arrived in 1911, overthrew the Manchus and made Sun Yat-sen the first president of the Chinese republic for all of six weeks, was not the direct result of anything the exiles in Japan said or did. It coalesced through sporadic uprisings, and the utter chaos that followed the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty confirmed the most pessimistic of Liang’s conclusions about revolution. It also revealed the great distance between the stirring emotional idea of nationalism – whether embodied by the Chinese people or, more parochially, the Han people – and the political reality of China.

The republic generated great enthusiasm at first, despite the political skullduggery that led to Sun Yat-sen ceding his office to yuan Shikai, the old general who had the strongest army behind him. Political parties sprouted overnight to contest the first free elections, scheduled for 1912. Liberated from censorship, newspapers finally came into their own. Chinese in cities cut off their queues, embraced Western dress and manners, and flew the newly designed national flags from their homes.

Liang at first kept his distance from the revolution, and then yielded to Yuan Shikai’s blandishments, becoming
his Minister of Justice and then his financial advisor. The unstable Yuan was not quite the enlightened despot Liang was looking for. In yet another affirmation that in transitional societies, power lay with men from the barracks, Yuan became president of the Chinese Republic, and promptly stamped out any lingering trace of opposition to him. When, in the 1912 elections, Sun’s party Guomindang (the Nationalist Party) emerged the winner, Yuan’s agents allegedly assassinated the prime minister-elect. Yuan then forced Sun into exile, banned the Guomindang and tried to declare himself emperor. He also attempted to revive Confucianism as a ruling ideology, a pathetic venture in which he was assisted by Kang Youwei.

Yuan inherited severe financial problems and a weak administration. Revolution hadn’t stopped foreign powers from collecting customs tariffs and salt taxes. Yuan added to these debts by taking out big loans from foreign banks and governments. In a pattern familiar by now from Egypt, Iran and Turkey, the European and Japanese lenders were soon running Yuan’s economic policy, and foreigners were appointed as officials in the Chinese government. When the loan money ran out, Yuan was forced to sell railroad and mining concessions to his creditors.

This was the new face of imperialism in China, and it had a new feature: Japan, which had increased its commercial interests in China manifold in recent years. Japan was not quite the imperial power it was to become in the next decade: indeed, it was finding that the scope for its own Western-style expansion was limited by Russia to the west and America to the east. Hatred of Western imperialists was growing, fuelled by a sense of racial discrimination by the white countries – anti-immigration laws in America and Australia were focused on keeping Japanese out. A generation of Chinese had been educated in Japan by now, and pan-Asianism had its followers in the country’s elite, which meant that Japan was keener to offer assistance to China than it was to pursue its conquest.

Nevertheless, sensing an opportunity in China’s disarray, Japan pressed successfully for more territorial and commercial concessions from China in 1915, including recognition of its control over Shandong, which it had seized from Germany the previous year. Yuan succumbed, much to the horror of ordinary Chinese. In fact, he had little choice, given Chinese indebtedness to Japan. The following year, he tried to declare himself the emperor of China and to proclaim a new dynasty, before a ferocious opposition, including the military, forced him to retreat.

The age of imperial dynasties was over. China’s rulers needed new kinds of legitimacy, as Liang and other were insisting. Fortuitously, Yuan died in 1916, before he could damage his country further. But at that point, even the semblance of a government disappeared: most of China shattered into innumerable fiefdoms of warlords and bandits. Much of the country would remain exposed to the vagaries of warlordism until 1927, when, in a situation that will sound familiar to contemporary followers of pre-Taliban Afghanistan, arms from abroad flooded the country, old elites struck deals with military strongmen, and ordinary people suffered from arbi- trary taxes and confiscation of property. Mao Zedong’s native province of Hunan was particularly ravaged by rival warlords, and the bitter lessons of chaos and misrule would haunt many generations of Chinese over future decades.

China was not alone in failing to quickly build a viable new state after the shattering of the old one. Turkey and Iran were also suffering this fate, and were about to witness the rise of autocratic government. As in those countries, the modernisation of the military in China had shifted the locus of power internally. Exalted men, trained in modern military academies, could bind other men to ideas of discipline, zeal and self-sacrifice. Far from being vested in mastery of the Confucian classics, power now flowed from the barrel of the gun, as Mao Zedong, observing the brutalities of the warlord era in his province, noted in 1927. The chaos unleashed by the warlord era would be invoked late into the contemporary era to justify authoritarian rule.

Liang himself did not remain untainted by Yuan’s failures. As a teacher in exile in Japan, he had been greatly revered. Some of his own protégés had risen to powerful positions in republican China, and were engaged in the factional struggles that ravaged the country. Liang, who had already begun to aim his message more towards powerful officials than towards students, now sided with them, and rose to ministerial posts in the new government in Beijing.

He negotiated indefatigably with his former hosts, the Japanese, over their unreasonable demands; he also successfully advocated China’s entry into World War I in 1917, calculating that emerging on the winning side was the best way to insert China into the international system, escape from the unequal treaties that still bound her, and recover Shandong peninsula from the Japanese. (As part of the deal he negotiated with the Allied Powers, Chinese workers and students, among them the first generation of communist leaders, like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, travelled to France to work and study there.)

Nevertheless, his political career had proved disastrous. After 15 years away from the country, Liang had thrown himself into the tumult of post-Qing China only to find himself utterly compromised by politically expedient associations with corrupt and violent warlords. One of the many crazy pendulum swings of political fortunes in post- Yuan China finally dispossessed him, forcing him to retire from active involvement in the political scene. A younger generation would now come to the fore, building on the foundation his ideas had laid. §