Liang Qichao, Yan Fu, and China’s Post-WWI Disenchantment With The West


By the time of World War One, China– and remember, it is now officially called the Republic Of China (the Qing Dynasty, China’s last, being ousted in the early 1900s)– was not much stronger than it had been under Empress Cixi.  The number of Treaty Ports (where Imperialist powers– not China– held control) had grown from a handful after the First Opium War to forty-eight.  And in each Treaty Port, foreigners were given concessions allowing them to live and work under protection of foreign– not Chinese– law.  Something similar, as I recall, had been accomplished by the West inside the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire.  These Treaty Ports, as Sun Yat-Sen said, were basically so many mini-colonies on Chinese territory.  In spite of these degradations by the West during the last years of the Great War, China joined the Allies and provided 300,000 workers for England and France. 

The First World War resulted in a major turning point in China’s outlook toward the culture of the West.   After witnessing the unprecedented mass murder committed for colonies, profit, markets, and resources– the Chinese began to feel that the Western approach to life– which had before seemed so unaccountably successful– had a costly and horrendous dark side.

Yan Fu, a translator of Western books, was one of those disenchanted with the West after the sickening catastrophe of WW One.  Yan Fu had been converted to the Western belief in “survival-of-the-fittest”– a process he applied not just to physical evolution, but to social and economic processes as well.  Before World War One, Yan Fu had felt that one of China’s fundamental problems was that– instead of citizens– China had subjects… and that made all the difference.  He became convinced that for China to rise to the level of Western accomplishments, the Chinese people must fundamentally change.  They must take-on more individual political power and responsibility and develop a feeling of nationhood that transcended village ties.  Like Lu Xun (and also Liang Qichao, whom I will soon get to), Yan Fu wondered if the Chinese were ready for self-government and greater personal liberty.

But after the horror of the Great War, Yan Fu came to feel that the West’s “progress during the last three hundred years has led only to selfishness, slaughter, corruption, and shamelessness,” and he began to wonder if Western-style reforms were actually appropriate for a country like China, a country possessing a history and culture so different from that of the West.  Western methods and mindsets transplanted to China, he said, inevitably failed because they “are like the good orange tree on the bank of the Huai River, which, after it is transplanted produces thick-skinned oranges  The tree looks halfway between life and death, and we do not get the fruit we sought.”

Another of those who began to ratchet down their evaluation of the West after World War One was Liang Qichao.  The authors of Wealth And Power call Liang Qichao “the most influential thinker of early 20th century China, and the godfather of Chinese nationalism and liberalism.”  He had come of age in the late 1800s when, as he himself put it, “the specter of dismemberment shook the whole nation.”  He had been disappointed in the revolution leading to the 1912 formation of the Republic Of China, calling it “a revolution in ink, not a revolution in blood.”  What China needed, he said, was a complete break with the Old Ways.   Like Yan Fu and so many others, Liang Qichao believed China “must discuss how to create new citizens.”  He believed the Chinese suffered from a lack of national consciousness.  The typical Chinese considered only his own clan or region.

In the turmoil of China’s century-plus of writhing in defeat, numerous intellectuals kicked around many ideas for reform, ideas covering all areas of Chinese life, and to all degrees, from small-scale changes to total revolution, and there were few solid lines dividing the different developing proposals into what might be called “schools” of thought.  Additionally, the intellectuals at the fore-front of the calls for reform not infrequently were guility of expressing contradictory opinions.

Nevertheless, if there was one major dividing line between reformers– and it would still be a squiggley sort of perforated line– it could be said to be the one separating those who wanted to adopt only a few Western methods which could be wrapped around a fundamentally Chinese core– and those who called for a total break with the past and a complete adoption of the Western way.  Liang Qichao —before the First World War– was of the latter mindset, that China should toss overboard all the weight of the past causing it to sink.  “Those who open themselves up to the New will prosper and grow strong,” said Liang Qichao.  “But those who confine themselves to the Old will diminish and become weak.”  Liang Qichao felt that China, if it ever wished to be free, must first become strong… “That the strong always rule the weak is in truth the first great universal rule of nature.”

The authors of the very elucidating and well-written book, Wealth And Power (our guide for these posts) assert that Liang Qichao was “the first public figure to argue that China’s revival would require the whole-sale destruction of the cultural tradition”–  a philosophy of reform which has been called Destructivism“There can be no construction without destroying what is already built,” he stated.  A few decades later, Mao Zedong would implement Liang Qichao’s advice with extreme prejudice.

But after World War One, Liang Qichao no longer believed in a West of sterling invincibility.  He felt the West had been thrown “into skepticism, despair, and fear, just as a ship without a compass caught in a storm and enshrouded in a heavy fog.”

Personally, I’m certain that this “skepticism, despair, and fear” of the West (Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation”) is what opened the door for the entrance of Communism upon the world stage.  The socialist zealots who had been fervently expousing the virtues of Marxism for decades now found an attentive audience in a world which had become a void of cultural confidence.

Liang Qichao himself held out hope that China could learn from the mistakes of the West and skim the good cream off the top of the West’s soured milk…  “Our advantage is that ours is still a country lagging behind.  We have witnessed all the wrong roads they took.”  He felt that as long as China could “avoid following the wrong road and take preventative measures,” it could avoid the pitfalls of Western-style progress and “develop our industry in a rational and healthy way.”  


Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912  

China Stumbles:  Opium Wars and the Tiaping And Boxer Rebellions

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 



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