The Early Thought of Kang Youwei

kang-42016 Chinese Studies Department Seminar Series, University of Sydney

The Geometry of Humanism: The Search for Universal Standards in the Early Thought of Kang Youwei
Dr Sean Moores, The University of Sydney

4:30 – 6:00pm, Monday 24 October 2016
SLC Common Room 536, Brennan MacCallum Building A18, Unversity of Sydney

One of the most important thinkers of China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Kang Youwei (1858-1927) is mostly remembered for his ill-fated attempts at institutional reform, and for the apparently iconoclastic nature of his most famous text, the Book of Great Unity (1902). However, his writings are of great philosophical interest. While entirely consistent with the internal logic of Confucianism, they are replete with profound challenges to both the China of his day and the non-Chinese world. This seminar will look at a text of Kang’s dating from the mid-1880s, the Complete Book of True Principles and Universal Precepts, undoubtedly a precursor of the Book of Great Unity. Consciously deconstructing the then-dominant ethical legacy of Song and Ming Neo-Confucianism, the text seeks to strip ethical standards down to a core of what Kang considers to be objectively-justifiable principles. These principles are then used as the basis for appraising a series of real or hypothetical laws or precepts, understood as being applicable not only to China. The result is an assortment of strikingly stimulating ethical positions and recommendations. It is suggested, for example, that the State should be responsible for the upbringing of children, recompensing on their behalf, and in advance, their parents; and renewable three-month marriage contracts are presented as a realistic alternative to life-long commitments. This seminar will look at how Kang develops his analysis of such precepts, and how it informs the philosophy of the Book of Great Unity nearly thirty years later. It will also reflect upon how this approach can potentially challenge philosophical and ethical standards developed in non-Chinese realities.

Dr Sean Moores is lecturer in Chinese and East Asian Thought at the University of Sydney. He obtained a doctorate in Chinese Studies in 2010, at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Paris, France, with a dissertation on the early thought of the nineteenth-century Chinese philosopher Kang Youwei (1858-1927). Having specialized in the history of Chinese philosophy, in particular the history of Confucian thought, Dr Moores’ current research concentrates on the internal logic of Kang Youwei’s philosophy as an alternative perspective of Confucian attitudes towards the question of modernity. He is currently preparing an annotated bilingual (Chinese-French) edition of some of Kang’s earliest writings, The Inner and Outer Essays of Master Kang.