Imagining a Better Future: “Intellect” as the Foundation of Kang Youwei’s Utopia

Mr Hu Hsu1

1National Taiwan University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States

The increasing emphasis upon the notion of “intellect (zhi 智)” provided modern Chinese thinkers with a solid foundation for imagining a better future. This article will explore how Kang Youwei (1858-1927) transformed the static worldview of pre-modern China into a progressive and modern one by stressing the intellectual creativity of human beings. Embracing the Neo-Confucian worldview of heavenly principle, according to which social orders are the embodiment of the eternal heavenly principle, most pre-modern Chinese intellectuals believed that a perfect society could only reside in the antiquity described by the ancient classics of sagely-kings. Challenging this worldview, Kang, in his early works, contended that principle should be artificial and progressive, rather than heavenly and static. It was the intellect of human beings that incessantly renewed the content of principle, underlying the technological and cultural improvement of human society. This understanding of principle enabled Kang and his followers to detach themselves from the retrospective worldview of Neo-Confucianism and to embrace the possibility for human beings to constitute a new world better than that governed by the sagely-kings in the ancient past. In The Book of Great Unity (Datongshu 大同書), Kang also elaborated on the essential role of human intellect in the construction of the utopia. He even outlined the rewarding system to honor those who intellectually contributed to the utopia with great detail, which, this article argues, operates as the self-sustaining mechanism of Kang’s utopia. The continuity in Kang’s appreciation for intellect between his early and later writings not only explains his consistent desire for pursuing a better future but also enriches our understanding about the utopianism in modern Chinese intellectual history.


Hu Hsu received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Department of History in National Taiwan University. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree of history in both National Taiwan University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research centers on the revival of Wang Yangming’s Neo-Confucianism in late Qing and Republican China and the modern transformation of Confucianism.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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