The Influence of 1861 Italian Unification on Reformer Kang Youwei’s thought: a Spontaneous Interest?

Updated: Jun 20

Kang Youwei circa 1920 © Los Angeles Times/ Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered which historical aspects could bring together a country like post-unification Italy with early XXth century China? Would you ever have thought that one of the most important figures serving the Qing court would have sung the praises of leading Italian national heroes of that time?

If not (as should be expected), please sit back and enjoy this exploration of what happened in China at the gates of the old century and on one of its most well-known political figures, the reformer Kang Youwei 康有为. Before delving into the topic of this evocative report, it is necessary to briefly outline the historical period within which to set the entire event.

Oppressed by Western powers since the mid-XIXth century, China had to suffer a fierce process of colonial-like exploitation which led to a progressive loss of its national sovereignty. Western imperialism in the Far East was basically guided by nations such as England, France, and Germany, which forced China to give them preferential treatment, along with the permission to exploit the resources present there.

The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) was the first of a series of agreements termed “unequal treaties” in which the West was the only party benefiting from the signings. All of these “benefits” mostly consisted in the opening of Chinese ports to foreign commerce; the establishment of fixed customs duties and other jurisdictionally favourable concessions. But China had nevertheless suffered the dissolution of its vast influence network. Year after year, several Sino-dependent territories came under foreign authority. Among them: Burma passed under British control (1876), Liuqiu Island (1878), Korea, Taiwan, and Pescadores Islands (1895) to Japan, while Vietnam came into French hands (1885) (Mcaleavy, 1967).

Hit by a wave of such degrading humiliation for the losses suffered, the Chinese population did not look favourably on Western profiteering and started to feel a strong sense of shame for the condition of their homeland. Already in the mid-XIXth century, a number of revolts began to break out, sometimes channelled into different organisations or social movements, much like the “Yihetuan'' 义和团 affair. Almost all of these organisations soon developed on firm anti-dynastic and xenophobic principles. In a China shaken by insurrection and dominated by foreigners, the Confucian philosopher Kang Youwei took action. This young intellectual was an enthusiastic reader of Western books beginning to circulate in China at the time, to such an extent that he was profoundly influenced by their content and ideas. From what we know, his interest in Western countries began with reading some essays translated from the “Jiangnan” 江南 Arsenal in Shanghai. The Arsenal was not just a place for the study and construction of modern weapons, but a true mine of information about the West. Fascinated by the idea of establishing a modern constitutional monarchy in China, Kang soon distinguished himself by leading the reform movement and clamouring for reforms that would progress Chinese society.

The day after the 99-year concession of Jiaozhou Bay to Germany in 1897, Kang Youwei promptly sent a memorial to the emperor Guangxu, warning him of the imminent danger of China's possible break-up. If a reform plan was not put in place immediately, Kang felt that the independence of the entire nation would falter until it was completely destroyed by colonial raids (Yong-tsu, 1992).

Emperor Guangxu heeded Kang’s advices, so much so that June 1898 marked the beginning of a period known as “Hundred Days’ Reforms” 戊戌变法 (wuxu bianfa) for China. Lots of what the reformer asked for was finally granted: in the weeks of June, a torrent of decrees poured out of the imperial palace over the entire country, most of which followed exactly the thought and advice of the reforming philosopher. The school system was radically transformed thanks to the abolishment of traditional examination systems and the introduction of practical subjects that replaced the literary elaborations based on rhetorical models that had formed the basis of the Chinese Imperial examinations, 科举 (Keju). The press would enjoy full freedom of expression and all branches of the armed forces would undergo a vast modernisation process. A modern Ministry of Agriculture was to be created and various government bodies were to be specifically tasked with promoting its development and that of the mining industry (Yong-tsu, 1992; McAleavy, 1975).

However, although the reform period had only started a few months earlier, it came to an abrupt halt. Briefed by senior court conservatives about the negative effects this modernisation could have had for the “established order”, the Dowager Empress Cixi assumed power and rescinded all the measures taken by Guangxu. Kang himself was involved in an alleged anti-Empress plot, but he escaped death by hiding in Japan.

It was during this period that interest in the West grew stronger, often accompanied by the paradoxical belief that changing the fate of the suffering country would have implied studying the enemy in depth and ‘learning the superior technology of barbarians’ (Wei, 1843). Scholars and writers often carried out long disquisitions about the socio-political functioning of strong European nations, in a way to bring to China the seeds of positive changes. The trust placed in Western science as the right medicine for the weakness of its country pushed Kang to a long trip to Europe, in March 1904. He therefore left Hong Kong on a French ship and, after circumventing Vietnam, sailed up the Suez Canal towards Italy.

As soon as he landed on Italian soil, Kang seemed almost seized by an uncontrolled urge to compare the two countries, noting down every little difference in his travel diary. As one of Europe’s best-known sinologists, Giuliano Bertuccioli, wanted to underline: “The idea of comparing Italy to China is a true obsession for K’ang Yu-wei. As soon as he sees some ugliness he is quick to note: “Just like us..” or “You can’t even see this is China..” (Bertuccioli, 1958). Highlighting similarities rather than differences can be seen as a tool to make up for the profound differences between East and West, as well as a method for Kang to keep positiveness towards the future of his country. Just as Italy had gone through a harsh period of foreign invasion and economic backwardness, but had subsequently risen again by driving out the invader, so could China if run by right personalities.

On the afternoon of 17 June, Kang moved to Naples, where he visited the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum, to which he dedicated a long chapter in his travelogue, 意大利游记 (Yidali youji), Travel diary in Italy. It was precisely in Naples that interest for the history and the great figures of the Italian unification period (also known as “Risorgimento”) grew stronger, catalysed by a chance and very mystical “meeting”. Strolling through the gardens of the Neapolitan promenade, Kang Youwei came across the bronze statue of one of most important architects of the Italian Risorgimento: Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour (嘉富洱, Jiafuer). Kang’s admiration for the Count was so great that the Chinese scholar even wanted to dedicate an elegant poem to him, so as to crystallise the moment.

“Among the many European geniuses of my generation

the Italian Minister Count [of] Cavour is certainly the greatest! Today, I set foot on European soil for the first time,

and the first thing I saw while walking around was the bronze statue of Cavour:

tall and forceful. A square face, large ears, a powerful chest

wide forehead and a virile gaze.

A dignified appearance, like the one of a God

descended from Heaven to save Italy! The hero of my generation whom I had most admired,

there he was, I had met him by chance. I would dance to happiness, without stopping, like a lover does when meeting his dream woman. [..] Thousands of lamps, songs and music fill the air,

embroidered curtains, perfumed shoes on grass stretched out like a carpet

gentlemen and ladies stroll happily and respectfully gaze [at the statue] again and again. I am born down the Qin empire [in the east],

four decades have already passed since the foundation of the Kingdom of Italy,

thirty-thousand “li” separate me from the Count. How could I imagine on the first day I crossed the border,

I would have seen your statue first? It was fate. The waves of the eastern and western seas intertwine together,

and my thought is sadly lost, wandering far and wide in time.” (Kang, 1905)

The Count of Cavour’s actions were likewise compared to those of Zhuge Liang, 诸葛亮, a military man and skilful strategist of the Shu Han kingdom, during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD).

At that time, Italy was subordinated to French customs and many people were pushing for a revolution, as Garibaldi and Mazzini did. But by studying and assessing the situation with the support of a wise king, Cavour seized power and completed the Unification of Italy. He intelligently gained the support of British and French ministers to defeat the Austrian invader and worked diligently on diplomatic relations to reduce weaknesses and change the country. He is the only one who can be compared to Zhuge [Liang] (Kang, 1905).

Just as the Italian Count did, Zhuge Liang distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist and diplomat, and his exploits must be set in an extremely delicate context, as was the period within which his Italian counterpart acted. The Han dynasty had already entered its decline phase due to the tyrannical power held by the eunuchs at court, which led the wise Chinese elite to leave the throne, though this was also as a result of the riots following the Yellow Turban rebellion in 184 A.D. (Mansvelt-Beck, 2013). Akin to how pre-Unification Italy was exposed to two distinct spheres of influence, in that period, China was divided into different little states ruled by warlords equipped with their own army. General Zhuge Liang was at the service of one of these, named Liu Bei. During his tenure as strategist, Zhuge suggested to Liu a plan to split China into three parts in order to permanently occupy a third and then attempt to conquer the other two territories. And so he did. Zhuge headed towards Wu Kingdom ruled by Sun Quan persuading him to accept an alliance with his lord Liu Bei. Together they succeeded in defeating the army of a third General, Cao Cao, of the Wei dynasty, and shortly afterwards Liu Bei claimed imperial dignity in the name of the Han dynasty, proclaiming himself emperor of the Shu Kingdom (220-264 A.D.) (Mansvelt-Beck, 2013).

The reason why Kang felt so inspired by the Italian events to the point of even praising its protagonists is taken up by Martina Turriziani, who writes that “He [Kang] was also aware of the similar political condition of China and pre-unified Italy, and probably found some kind of inspiration in the events linked to Italian “Risorgimento” to reflect upon China’s condition” (Turriziani, 2015). At the beginning of XIXth century, Italian cultured environments were steeped in the “national issue”, and debates were centred on the construction of a cultural and national identity, just as in China at the end of the same century. Great Italian Romantic writers such as Foscolo, Manzoni and Leopardi were engaged in an effort to create a modern literature in which to place patriotic feelings and the desire for freedom, all framed within an anti-foreigner setting. Before the unification of 1861, Italy was essentially split into two spheres of foreign influence. The Bourbon dynasty, a ruling house of French origin, had control of Southern Italy since 1734, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire firmly ruled Northern Italy. Needless to say, Kang was well aware of this situation. In his Travel diary in Italy, he recreated in detail the key events that led to the expulsion of the Bourbons and Austrians. He shows his knowledge and appreciation of the actions of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, mentioning the heroic achievements of his troops who conquered Southern Italy and led to the expulsion of the usurpers.

Garibaldi led the troops on a long march from Sicily to Naples. All the people [of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’ capital], who were suffering from a terrible tyranny, welcomed him warmly, right here [in Naples]. [..] In the tenth year of the Xianfeng period [1861], Garibaldi, together with a valiant army, led the revolt and crushed them [the Bourbons], returning [Sicily] to the King of Sardinia (Kang, 1905).

What the reformer wanted to highlight by reporting these anecdotes was what he himself had noticed and, at the same time, impressed him most: that relation of coincidence that brought together the two realities. The only difference was the positioning on the timeline: for China, the rising time was still to come.

However, some other academicians take different views when pointing out that this strong interest did not arise spontaneously and, above all, did not exert a significant influence. Federico Masini, one of the most important Italian sinologists, reminds us that “People who want to find a precise influence of any literary or historical current in this use (or, more often, abuse) of Western history and literature characters, would certainly be disappointed. Our heroes are mostly used just as pretext for extolling revolutionary and patriotic values. It is a sort of exoticism, which can be understood only in the light of the historical and cultural context existing in China those years [..]”. (Bertuccioli & Masini, 2014) .

This is undoubtedly a noteworthy observation, if only because of the in-depth knowledge Dr. Masini demonstrates about sinology and Asian culture. However, critical thinking leaves room for a further remark, and this would imply the consideration of the concept of history in Chinese philosophy.

In his writings and lectures, the German sinologist Roland Felber argued that Western scholars have seen Kang almost exclusively as a reformer and utopian thinker, while much less is known about him as an historian. If we were to carefully take into account the German academic’s explanation, Kang’s use of the Italian events would be much less practical. From Felber’s point of view, it almost seems as if the history of the nations Kang was interested in had undergone a process of “sinicization”, motivated on the basis of the classical conception of history in Chinese culture. According to the latter, the past is seen as a mirror for the present and the present situation is understood as the reflection of historical precedence. Basically, what Kang Youwei did was to apply this traditional approach to the history of a non-Chinese country, in a way to take examples of right developments and conduct as standards or models suitable for his homeland. Kang believed that China at the end of XIXth century was threatened by conquest and division by foreign powers as Italy had been more than a century earlier. So, through the “mirror” of Italian events and with respect to the achievements of important Italian personalities, the Chinese population may become aware of their own conditions and could potentially repeat on their soil the revolution that happened in Italy during the “Risorgimento”.

If we are still not grasping the meaning of this last argument, we can still do what Kang did, and that is applying a philosophical concept specific to one large region (in this case, the West) to the history of another (China): Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence theory. In summary (and possibly exaggerating the scope of the Chinese notion), the Italian Renaissance represented the hope for Chinese intellectuals that “such happy strokes of high success have always been possible, and will remain possible, perhaps, for all time to come.” (Nietzsche, 1931).

Giacomo Vincenti is a graduate in Language and Management for China at Ca' Foscari University. Prior to moving to Venice, He spent 4 years in Rome, studying for his bachelor's degree in oriental languages and civilizations at "La Sapienza" University. Giacomo believes that an all-embracing knowledge of the "Chinese world" (culture, economy, society,..) is necessary for the sake of interfacing correctly with this reality. Given this, he went to China twice: the first time for a six month study period at Beiwai University (北京外国语大学); the second time for an internship at the Cultural Office of the Italian Embassy in Beijing (意大利驻华大使馆文化处) during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Giacomo enjoys writing and proposing something the reader perhaps does not know much about. Additionally, he is an attentive enthusiast of current affairs in society and what happens in the world, and always tries to keep a critical point of view in order not to be biassed. You can find him on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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