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  • Fugitive in Paradise: Wang Tao and Cultural Transformation in Late Nineteenth-Century Hong Kong *
  • Elizabeth Sinn (bio)

Wang Tao is widely recognized as a pioneer in the development of the Chinese press and in the intellectual revolution of modern China, especially as a transmitter of Western ideas. He is well known as a reform thinker intent on strengthening China at a time when the nation lay prostrate before imperialism. He features in a large number of articles and several monographs, most of them centered on his ideas and writings. 1 However, although he spent some twenty years in Hong Kong, 2 and although almost every writer mentions his “sojourn” in the British colony, noting his founding of the Xunhuan ribao and the general cultural interchange that took place there, no one has really examined his life there in detail. 3

An obvious question is, what did Wang Tao actually do in Hong Kong all these years when he was not editing the newspaper or pondering over ways to strengthen China? In particular, given that ideas on economic reform were so fundamental to his thinking as a whole, how did actually living in a [End Page 56] commercial city such as Hong Kong influence him intellectually? In short, it is important not only to study Wang’s ideas, but how he came to have these ideas, and how the Hong Kong environment and his real life experiences induced him to think the way he did.

For those interested in the social history of China and Hong Kong, such an investigation may also serve as a means to understand Hong Kong’s role in the transformation of culture in modern China. By culture, I mean more than the high cultural systems such as Christianity or Confucianism, which were the frame of reference for Professor Lo Hsiang-lin and others. 4 Rather, in this paper, “culture” is defined as consisting of symbolic vehicles of meaning, including beliefs, ritual practices, art forms and ceremonies, which are the means through which social processes of sharing modes of behavior and outlook within a community take place. 5 It follows that cultural transformation is the re-ordering of these elements, with or without the influence of new external elements from other societies---a re-ordering that actors use strategically to solve different kinds of problems. In Hong Kong, a place perpetually porous to cultural influences from many directions, a place permanently in flux, where social and economic restructuring is constant and intense, the opportunities and possibilities for cultural configurations and reconfigurations are almost limitless. In this article, I will show how the hackneyed “East-West cultural interchange” model may be inadequate as an analytical tool for understanding the dynamic cultural situation in Hong Kong. 6

Exile to Hong Kong

Wang Tao was born in Suzhou in 1828 and from an early age believed himself destined for a career as a scholar-official. Having won the most junior degree (prefectural level) of the civil service examinations with distinction at the age of 17 in 1845, he tried for the second degree in the following year, but failed. In 1849, he was invited by Walter Medhurst to work in Shanghai as Chinese editor at the London Missionary Society’s press, where one of his main duties was to help Medhurst translate the Bible into Chinese. In the spring of 1862, he became implicated with the Taiping insurgents and, to escape arrest and sure death at the hands of the Chinese authorities, took refuge in the British consulate in Shanghai. Several months later, the British consul secretly placed Wang on a ship bound for Hong Kong. Thus began his exile of 23 years. [End Page 57]

Wang arrived in Hong Kong utterly miserable, and it was several years before he became accustomed to the place and the people. The circumstances of his escape from China, being smuggled out at short notice in panic, with hardly a penny to his name and without his books, started the whole journey on a wrong footing. Moreover, he had left behind his mother who was seriously ill; there was no knowing when this exile would end, and his dreams of advancing in an official...