- The Other Kang Youwei: Calligrapher, Art Activist, and Aesthetic Reformer in Modern China by Aida Yuen Wong
When the reformer Liang Qichao (1873–1929) recalled his teacher Kang Youwei’s (1858–1927) urgent desire to be original in his scholarship, he wrote: “[Kang] did not hesitate to suppress or distort evidence . . . ; he held [his views] very tenaciously. As for objective facts which did not suit his purposes, he either ignored them completely or insisted on remolding them to conform to his own view” (p. 33). Originality meant consciously choosing to be different, to be “other”—and that might mean tinkering with facts and forging new histories. Aida Yuen Wong’s new book pursues this confidently iconoclastic and determinedly original “other” Kang Youwei through deep analysis of previously understudied aspects of Kang’s life—his ink brush, aesthetic sensibility, and arts activism—deftly moving them from the sidelines of history into a central position and, in doing so, revealing how integral they had always been to Kang’s self-conceptualization and self-representation as a revolutionary social thinker. This is historical biography that (unlike Kang) is strictly attuned to fact, and its focus on the “other” Kang somewhat paradoxically illuminates a holistic form of biography, since being “other” mattered very much to its subject.
The book is organized into five chapters. The first two explore Kang’s maturing calligraphic practice against his early training as a scholar; his emergence as a voice calling for the court to reform itself; his role as advisor to the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875–1908); the failure of the Hundred Days Reform (June to September 1898) that he engineered with the emperor in the face of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s (1835–1908) violent opposition; and his peripatetic later life, commemorated in a favorite seal, reading, “On the run for sixteen years, circling the globe three times, traversing four continents, thirty-one countries, and 600,000 li” (p. 86). But the lines connecting Kang’s ink brush to his politics are even more direct: Wong draws attention to Kang’s pronouncement in the Extended Paired Oars for the Book of Art (Guang yizhou shuangji, 1891) that “the way of calligraphy and the way of government are similarly liable to change” (p. 12). “Change” is the key word. However, “highlighting the importance of change in an art form that defined the learned class in China was his strategy to assert his ideological correctness,” Wong writes. “Kang’s political message was not lost on readers of his time” (p. 18).
Kang’s own hand became famous for its balanced synthesis of the rounded, linked, and tapered strokes of copybook practice (embedded in the civil service exam system) with squared, slanting, blunt edges (associated with the Stele school). A marked transition to this distinctive style is evident in Kang’s “Poem to Botang” (1899), a poem given calligraphic form when he was in exile in Japan but composed the previous year while being escorted by British gunboats to safety in Hong Kong with the empress dowager’s assassins in hot pursuit. Here Wong’s [End Page 192] visual analysis is at its best, as she points to the blunt endings of rightward-slanting basal strokes in particular characters, showing how the line moves and morphs, how it changes before the beholder’s eyes. Kang’s initial attempt at a hybrid “round-square” style was to engender a script style even more deeply historical in form as he absorbed Stele school elements that “grew more distinctive in terms of having identifiable correlation with historical models” (p. 58). His deepened engagement with the past occurred after the collapse of the Qing court in 1911. His calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy were increasingly viewed as belonging to another era.
Later in Kang’s life, selling calligraphy turned out to be his most reliable source of income—desperately needed, as his household expenses in the 1910s and 1920s averaged one thousand silver yuan...