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  • Confucian Concord: Reform, Utopia and Global Teleology in Kang Youwei's Datong Shu by Federico Brusadelli
  • Carine Defoort (bio)
Confucian Concord: Reform, Utopia and Global Teleology in Kang Youwei's Datong Shu. By Federico Brusadelli. Leiden: Brill, 2020. Pp. 197. Hardback $146, isbn 978-90-04-43444-8

Confucian Concord: Reform, Utopia and Global Teleology in Kang Youwei's Datong Shu analyses the thought of the late Qing reformer Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858– 1927). His well-known Datongshu 大同書 (Great Concord), conceived in 1884 and finally published in 1935, functions as a prism. The research interest of Federico Brusadelli, Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Naples L'Orientale, reaches beyond Kang’s thought to the production of histories and their political relevance in the two last centuries. The author presents the Great Concord as an early “global history” in which Kang developed his vision of the whole world’s past, present and future. That future would ultimately lead to the Age of Great Concord (Datong 大同) or Supreme Equality (Taiping 太平), characterized by social stability and individual equality for everybody.

Brusadelli’s two major claims are: first, that Kang’s Great Concord is profoundly rooted in Chinese intellectual trends and not primarily a response to the shock of Western intrusion; and second, that Datongshu is not some extreme, utopian fantasy but largely consistent with Kang’s other political writings. The combined claim is then that Great Concord is an important reflection on Chinese modernity. Brusadelli’s study convincingly challenges and replaces the once dominant default narrative of “traditional China” facing “modernity”—conceived as inherently Western—when forcefully confronted by a superior culture. The portrayal of the West as the sole protagonist is no longer convincing nor fruitful. Kang’s Datongshu is, on the one hand, profoundly inspired by a wide variety of predominantly indigenous ideas and, on the other hand, very influential in currently lively reflections on China’s global role. Like in Kang’s time, China stands again at a critical turning point defining its identity and role in the world. From the perspective of this long tradition, the twentieth century with its Western dominance and successive revolutions, appears no more than one episode.

Brusadelli’s argument, covering two millennia of intellectual history, is divided into three main parts and subdivided into eight chapters: the Datongshu’s “Roots” or sources of inspiration (Classicism, Buddhism, and the West), followed by some of its main lines of interest or “Threads” (Nation, Democracy, and [End Page 1] Socialism), and leading to its “Legacies” in the last two centuries (Mao Zedong in the 20th century, and the booming political reflection in the third millennium).

The first Part, “Roots,” begins with a chapter on Kang’s Confucian or rather Classicist (Ru 儒) inspiration. It traces these roots to the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春 秋 ) of Lu (722 to 481 BCE) attributed to the Master, via the Gongyang transmission to the Chunqiu Fanlu 春秋繁露, which Kang unreservedly attributed to Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (195–105 BCE), the well-known advisor of Emperor Wu 武帝 (r. 140–87 BCE). A low tide for the Gongyang tradition followed after Dong’s Eastern Han commentator He Xiu 何休 (129–182). It revived in the eighteenth-century New Text scholarship of the Jiangnan region, eventually finding its way to Guangzhou where Kang Youwei lived. One fascinating characteristic of this intellectual genealogy is that it shows how Kang Youwei’s optimistic and linear vision of historical progress gradually came into being over the centuries and was not suddenly imposed from outside. Another interesting point is that throughout history Gongyang scholarship supported very different political positions: the central court during the Han, more local power in the late Qing Jiangnan region, and a strong bureaucratic state at the turn of the twentieth century.

These Classicist roots are not only presented in this first chapter, but also recur in the rest of the monograph, demonstrating the “internal Chinese dynamics (both local and central) [that] were at play long before the so-called Western shock, and were subsequently merged into the later confrontation with—and importation of—foreign concepts and theories” (pp. 39–40). Other than Ru elements were also sources of inspiration for Kang. Chapter 2 explores...


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