- After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885–1924 by Peter Zarrow
Throughout the twentieth century, China underwent a number of transformations, none of which can be understood without grasping the transition from empire to nation-state. This transition is both historically and theoretically complex because the terms “empire” and “nation-state” are notoriously polysemic. In After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885–1924, Peter Zarrow offers us a helpful guide to these transformations, starting from the late nineteenth century with the decline of the Qing dynasty and continuing [End Page 408] into the early years of the Chinese Republic. As a whole his book both analyzes this transition and explores the conceptual transformations associated with the emergence of the Chinese state. The book is divided into eight chapters encased in an Introduction and Conclusion. The first three chapters deal with late Qing political thought, in particular the philosophies of the reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. The fourth chapter treats a somewhat understudied topic, the cultural conservatives of the late Qing period. Chapters 5 and 6 grapple with revolutionary thought and racial identity. Chapters 7 and 8 bring us into the Republican period and the problems of establishing a new order after the Revolution of 1911.
In the Preface, Zarrow tells us that he began with some simple questions, the first of which is: “How did Chinese people stop believing in the emperor in the late Qing period and decide to overturn a monarchical system that could be traced back over two thousand years—in some respects over three thousand years?” (p. vii). In other words, “What made it possible to suddenly imagine a Chinese state without an emperor—what conditions of political possibility had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century?” (p. vii). The major contribution of this book is that it poses this large question and gives us a number of answers.
Chapter 1 answers the question of this modern intellectual transformation directly by tackling the notoriously difficult work of Kang Youwei, the late Qing reformer. Zarrow reveals how Kang rethought or even reinvented Confucianism to conform to the imperatives of the modern world. Indeed, Liang Qichao called Kang the Martin Luther of Confucianism, which suggests that Kang not only put Confucianism on its rightful path (p. 30) but also spirited Confucianism into the modern world. Recall that Max Weber famously said that Protestantism provided the grounds for the development of capitalism in Europe. In the late Qing context, Kang actively tried to harness Confucianism as a catalyst for transforming China into a modern nation. Although the historical contexts for and ideological concerns of Luther and Kang are radically different, both thinkers nonetheless shared interest in deritualizing religion and emphasizing subjective agency. With respect to Confucianism, it would be possible to compare Kang’s Confucianism to that of late Ming and early Qing scholars, such as Gu Yanwu and Huang Zongxi, who criticized the Song Confucian emphasis [End Page 409] on principle (li 理) and insisted on returning to the Han Confucian emphasis on textual analysis.
Although there is no evidence that Kang was well read in Japanese Confucianism, the Tokugawa Confucianist Ogyū Sorai also offers a point of comparison. Sorai criticized Song Confucians for stressing nature (shizen 自然) more than artifice (sakui 作為), and in doing so he uncoupled Japanese Confucianism from the metaphysical structures of its Song counterpart. Owing to this, Sorai is sometimes associated with early modernity in Japan. Zarrow notes that Kang also made gestures toward emphasizing human artifice, but rather than opposing nature and artifice, late Qing intellectuals redefined both. Zarrow writes: “Kang did not discuss the mythical sage kings, such as Yao and Shun or later dynasts such as Ming Taizu, as anything but human, but because these particular men ‘could understand the trends and penetrate into people’s minds’ and because they knew the ‘methods of power,’ they could do anything” (p. 37).
Kang here connects Confucius to a type of metaphysics of modernity in...