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Kang Youwei And Muhammad Abduhu: A Historical Context Of Reformist Ideas – Analysis


The 19th century saw a massive colonial expansion of the Western countries. The movement of Renaissance led to the Industrial Revolution in the West and allowed for the development of modern technologies. Along with the evolution of technology, the West also mastered the art of crafting the states on modern lines. New institutions came into being in the form of parliament, senate, and assemblies. A wave of modernity permeated every scheme of life in the West by the turn of 18th century.

Equipped with the modern military hardware and technological advancement, these countries attempted to stamp their authority on the rest of the world either through direct intervention or through indirect means. As a result, different countries in different parts of the world had to either become the colonies of the Western Empires or had to accept the status of protectorate under the suzerainty of the West. This colonial expansion brought about epoch-making changes in the world in terms of political, economic and social configurations. From the far-flung lands of Morocco to the Eastern islands of Indonesia, Western imperialism left its imprints. 

As the Western countries were progressing from strength to strength, scholars and political activists in rest of the World attempted to figure out the determinants that led to the rise of the West and stunted their own political and economic growth. These intellectuals, inspired by the West, wanted to revive their own political systems through emulating the Western template, at least partially if not entirely. The Self-Strengthening Movement in China was one such movement that was geared towards improving especially the military apparatus of China.

Similar reformist movements also occurred in India under the guardianship of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Aligarh Movement is famous for his contribution. Such reformist campaigns were also launched in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turk movement was aimed at reviving the lost glory of the Ottoman Empire and establishing it back on its strong footings. The common denominator among all these reformist movements was the sense of indignation felt by the scholars and intellectuals for having been defeated by the foreign forces in their own lands. Along with this sense of indignation was the desire to figure out the reasons that enabled the rise of the West. These scholars in these parts of the world attempted to find out as to how did the West achieve the highest echelons of success in every sphere of life, and rest of us remained oblivious to these developments.

An attempt will be made to focus primarily on the reformist projects led by Kang Youwei in China and Muhammad Abduhu in the Ottoman Empire and understand their reformist ideas in the context of larger developments taking placing in their respective empires. It is important to note that the reformist movements that took place in the Qing dynasty and in the Ottoman Empire, even though distant in distance, had many common denominators. These movements, though undertaken in different empires, were attempting to grapple with the wave of modernity that swept across the Eastern Hemisphere in the 19th century. 

A special feature of Chinese civilization is that it seems to have no beginning, said Henry Kissinger . It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon, he further added. The peculiarity of Chinese history is that after every crisis that befell upon its cyclical dynasties, it limped back to normalcy. Stability followed anarchy and political revivalism remained a telltale feature of its historical development.

Equally intriguing is its unique role in the political dispensation of the world, for China, as a political unit, remained one of the most, if not the most, powerful empires, in the recorded history of mankind. It cultivated a civilization in and of itself with its unique set of values, customs, ideals and most importantly self-perception. At the time when the Western World was in the dark ages, China was at the forefront of technological advancement . Silk, jades, campus and various other products of special quality came only from the lands of China. This self-sufficiency did not make Chinese rely on any other empire of the world for centuries. But the opium wars in the 19th century dented Chinese identity and their sense of self-perception. In less than few weeks, the mighty empire was brought to its knees by a foreign military force. The century of humiliation was on the horizon. China, once a writer of its own destiny, was made to yield to the demands put forth by the western powers. The First Opium War culminated in the unequal treaty of Nanking that granted trade access to the western powers along with various other concessions. After the Great Britain, numerous other states in the likes of US, France jumped onto the bandwagon in order to gain concessions. 

The political climate further deteriorated and the Second Opium War, actually a series of wars, erupted. The Western powers extracted more concessions from the imperial regime in China. Added to these foreign attacks was the internal political crisis that was further destabilizing the empire. The Taiping Rebellion was led by Hong Xiuquan that erupted in 1850 remained a source of nuisance for the political elite.  Hong Xiuquan considered himself the younger brother of Jesus and sought to establish a Heavenly Empire on earth. The political elite of the Qing dynasty was incensed to the core, for it was unable to curb even a crisis that had domestic origins.

Adding salt to the injuries, Northern Chinese Famine of 1876 also exposed the inability of the empire to feed its own people. Having realized its shortcomings, a state-sponsored reformist project called Self-Strengthening movement was undertaken. Though restricted in its scope of reform, the movement was intended to bring about the changes required for the technological advancement especially in military apparatus. But the last nail in the coffin of this reformist project was hammered after the defeat of Qing dynasty at the hands of Japanese in 1895. A bolt of lightning hit the Qing dynasty, for it was now defeated even by a force less in stature. Calls for the radical reforms became more intense, and the empire was left with no option but to consider various other political alternatives. 

Should there be a republic in China? Should the current political system remain intact with certain basic amendments to its formulation? Or should there be a constitutional monarchy? These questions remained relevant in the intellectual discussions held at the imperial court. The conservatives were of the view that replacement of the imperial dynasty was too radical a step to be taken in the context of political turmoil that beset the country. While those who were clamoring for the republican form of government were pointing to the already dismal state of affair in China. Among these intellectuals who were asking for the republican form of government was Liang Qichao. He went to extreme by publishing well-known articles continuously to advocate strongly the destruction of the old society by revolutionary means. He called for the establishment of “Greater China Democratic Republic. Amid the voices of conservatives who were asking for the preservation of imperial dynasty and the agitators who were calling for a republic even through revolutionary means, Kang Youwei held a moderate view. 

Kang Youwei was a Chinese political theorist and scholar. He played an important role in the Hundred Days of Reform in 1898 under the auspices of Emperor Guangxu. He wrote numerous memorials to the Qing Emperor and at last received special attention in 1898. It is argued by some historians that Kang Youwei’s role was exaggerated in the 1898 reform project by his admirers. In his book A Mosaic of the Hundred day, Kwong holds the opinion that Kang Youwie was not as important as is generally portrayed by his admirers. But his contributions still merit thorough scrutiny even after years of time lapse. Kang Youwie knew from the beginning that any radical change to the political system will ultimately jeopardize the very existence of the empire. Still a series of amendments to the political system must be injected in order to compete with the larger world. Kang Youwei was a widely read scholar. Not only did he read the history of western countries and their political systems, he was also well versed in Chinese classic texts. He famously reinterpreted the sayings of Confucius in the light of modernism and argued that Confucius was a “reformer” of his time.

Kang Youwei wrote various books in order to argue that Confucius divided the world into three evolutionary stages: “The Warring states period, the grand times of Reunification by one Monarch and the Democratic Period”. He further elucidated that the feudal psyche among Chinese is well-entrenched that it would require decades for modernity to eradicate its last residue. People in China require time to adjust to the forces of modernity; as a result, it has to go through “One Monarch and his Subjects” with a constitution restricting its powers.   

Kang Youwie further stated that republican model of the US, though has its benefits, was not compatible with our current political behavior. He argued that Chinese couldn’t graft the US model onto theirs without preparing the ground for it. He explicated that France “adopted the US model without considering its compatibility and led the whole country into chaos for eighty years. He gave the example of the countries in the Latin America that also adopted the US model, but failed to come up with any stable political system. Most of the countries eventually became military dictatorships, for they were ill-prepared for that model. Kang Youwei echoed a rational and moderate line of thinking that neither had conservatism, not did it carry a radical tone. As history attested to the fact that after the dissolution of the Qing imperial regime and the establishment of the republic in 1911, land lordism took root in China and left it in a political unrest for many years to come. 

In the same vein, the Ottoman Empire also faced a series of defeats at the turn of the 18th century. Once a gigantic sprawling empire with its tentacles stretching into three continents, it was made to suffer massive losses at the hands of foreign powers in the early part of the 19th century. Several attempts were undertaken in order to re-establish the empire back on strong footings. Military reforms took place in the first three decades of the 19th century, soon after that Tanzimat (it literally means reordering) edicts were issued. Eventually a constitution was made and put into effect in 1876. A session of parliament was convened the same year, but the caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid II suspended both the constitution and the parliament in 1878. The Empire, though became a constitutional monarchy for two years, once again became an autocratic regime with caliph assuming all the political and legislative powers. The ruler of Ottoman Empire had two titles: the secular tile of Sultan and the religious title of Caliph. Using these two titles, the caliph assumed tremendous powers and became the sole reservoir of political authority. 

Just like in the case of Qing dynasty, numerous scholars opposed the Sultan Abdul Hamid II for resisting change to the political order. Certain conservatives like Jamaal Uddin Afghani advocated the dissolution of parliament and voiced in favor of Sultan. Whereas scholars like Kemal clamored for a complete transformation of the political order. Among them Muhammad Abduhu, a cleric stationed in Egypt (Egypt was legally the part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914), took a moderate stand. Muhammad Abduhu contended that a radical change will allow the foreign forces to “penetrate further deep” into our lands. Any change that can cause instability even for a short run can be detrimental to the survival of the empire itself. He further opined that the political order has to be reformed gradually. Muhammad Abduhu, just like Kang Youwie, was not only widely read in the classic Islamic texts but was also well-versed with the modern forms of political order. He held the contention that the western empires invaded the Muslim lands due to the traditionalism inherent in the religious consciousness of Muslims. In order for us to fight back and liberate our lands from the claws of western empires, we have to adopt those forms of modernity that do not contradict with the basic principles of our religion. He further stated that the early Islamic caliphates did not have constitutions, for they were run by righteous rulers. Those righteous rulers, by virtue of their moral conduct and spiritual behavior, were not required to be restricted by any constitution. But Muslim rulers of contemporary world neither have the morality nor the sagacious like the early predecessors. As a result, the powers of these rulers must be restricted formally by invoking the article of a written constitution. 

Just like Kang Youwei, he persuaded the Sultan in many of his treatises to reinstall the constitutional monarchy. He was exiled out of his country for his views, more like Kang Youwei, and was made to retire from his clerical position. But Muhammad Abduhu persisted with his mission and continuously struggled for the restoration of a constitutional monarchy. Kang Youwei and Muhammad Abduhu, though different in their ideological orientations and far away from each other, echoed a moderate line of thinking that was neither too conservative nor too revolutionary. They operated within the existing circumstances and advocated for a change that could not only embrace modernity, but could not satisfy the ruling elite in respective empires. They teach us the lesson that reformist projects, even if well-intentioned, require not just the commitment, but also a certain degree of compromise as well. 

*Rehan Khan is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan

Rehan Khan is a Graduate of New York University (Majored in History and Philosophy) and in addition, is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.

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