Friday, February 6, 2015

A Chinese Reformer in Exile: Kang Youwei and the Chinese Empire Reform Association in North America, 1899-1909

A book in progress . . . 
By Robert L. Worden (Library of Congress, ret.) and Jane Leung Larson (independent scholar) With Zhongping Chen (University of Victoria), Chen Xuezhang (independent scholar, Guangzhou), and Evelyn Hu-DeHart (Brown University)

A Chinese Reformer in Exile will be a narrative history of the North American decade (1899 1909) of the radical Qing reformer, Kang Youwei, and his political movement. 

Our book will fill a critical gap in late Qing political history and in the biography of China’s most famous reformer. This will be the first book in English devoted to Kang’s exile and transnational political organization, the Baohuanghui or Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA). Traversing the United States, Canada, Mexico, and China, this will become an authoritative reference for historians of the Chinese diaspora as well as political scientists studying Chinese dissidents, Chinese political organizations, and the development of Chinese liberalism.

We demonstrate that Kang’s fifteen years in exile—especially the decade spanning his visits to North America—were the most productive in his life. Kang embraced a new persona as politician, statesman, business speculator, and inveterate traveler, while assiduously adding to his already voluminous written legacy of books, essays, letters, and poems. North America inspired Kang’s transformation from a utopian philosopher into a more practical visionary consumed with the material world, which he now believed was the means of national salvation for China.
While progress in writing this book has been slow, it has been steady and much enhanced by the recent discovery of Kang Tongbi’s South Windsor collection, giving us an on-the-ground view of Kang’s 1904 1905 visits to Canada and the US.

Our book team comes to this project with decades of original archival research on Kang and the Baohuanghui in North America. Robert L. Worden wrote the 1972 Georgetown University dissertation, “A Chinese Reformer in Exile: The North American Phase of the Travels of Kang Youwei, 1899–1909.” Jane Leung Larson’s Baohuanghui research is grounded in the papers of her grandfather Tom Leung, Kang’s host, travel companion and confidant during Kang’s encounter with North America. Historian Zhongping Chen, University of Victoria, is the foremost expert on Chinese reformers and revolutionaries in Canada; Guangzhou scholar Chen Xuezhang specializes in Baohuanghui studies in China; and Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Brown University, is a renowned historian of the Chinese in Latin America.

A Chinese Reformer in Exile is built on the base of Worden’s dissertation, because for the past 40 years it has retained its value as the most reliable source of information on Kang and the Baohuanghui. Worden was the first doctoral level scholar to thoroughly delve into a vast assortment of archival sources in North America to track Kang’s activities. He had close access to three scholars with an intimate knowledge of Kang and his organization: Jung-pang Lo, the grandson of Kang Youwei and author of K’ang Yu-wei: A Biography and a Symposium; Kung-ch’üan Hsiao, author of A Modern China and a New World: K’ang Yu-wei, Reformer and Utopian, 18581927; and Him Mark Lai, the “dean of Chinese American history” and an expert on Chinese American political organizations.

Our book amplifies, updates and reconfigures Worden’s original manuscript. Most importantly, we incorporate a wealth of new archival materials that have come to light since 1972. In addition to the South Windsor collection, we benefit from hundreds of extant letters, photographs, Baohuanghui and American newspapers, business records, Baohuanghui charters, songs and poems, posters, and certificates for CERA membership contributions and Commercial Corporation stock.

We are also deepening coverage of Canada and Mexico because of the regional expertise of our book team. Canada, where Kang first landed in North America and founded CERA, may have hosted as many as 37 chapters, newly uncovered by Zhongping Chen in his extensive research on the evolution of Chinese Canadian political movements. Chen has found that CERA’s development was profoundly influenced by Kang’s encounter with Chinese in Victoria and Vancouver, BC, whose background and immigrant experience little resembled the well-educated elite reformers Kang associated with in China and Japan.

Like Chen who combined fieldwork with archival research, Evelyn Hu-DeHart has explored Kang’s deep immersion in Torreón, the Mexican city which was the heart of that country’s 15 chapters and site of the Baohuanghui Commercial Corporation’s most ambitious businesses, including a bank and a streetcar line, funded in part by Kang’s speculation in Mexican real estate. Unlike other historians who have relied only on Chinese language archives and concluded that Kang’s Mexican businesses failed disastrously, Hu-DeHart found Spanish-language records showing that a massacre of more than 300 Chinese in Torreón at the start of the 1911 Mexican revolution was what ended the all-too-visible Baohuanghui business ventures.

Finally, our book argues for the primacy of Kang’s movement in engendering political aspirations that led to the 1911 revolution. The Baohuanghui promoted the idea of uniting Chinese citizens to save their nation, in spite of regional, class or ethnic differences, a theme that Sun Yatsen had to adopt once he took power. Kang’s reform organization was an early expression of Chinese liberalism, a middle way that brought together the interests (and freedoms) of individuals with national interests, while strongly critiquing autocracy. Thus, we suggest that the reform agenda of Kang, Liang and the Baohuanghui continues to resonate in modern Chinese political movements such as Charter 08 and the debate over constitutionalism.

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