Inside Story

A Chinese constitutionalist and the state of the nation

The latest biography of Liang Qichao reveals a man of his times with a new significance for present-day China, writes Antonia Finnane in Beijing

Antonia Finnane 17 October 2012 1403 words

Liang Qichao (1873–1929), depicted on the cover of a new biography by Xie Xizhang (left), and as he appeared in the Australian Chinese press in 1901.

THE National Day “golden week” holiday in China is not long over and the usual chorus of complaints from holiday-makers can be heard everywhere: crowds, traffic jams, and mountains of rubbish in China’s famous scenic spots. People with money to spare often head out of the country for this holiday, but with international tensions intensifying in the region the flow of tourists was thinner than usual. Japanese airlines were reporting tens of thousands of cancellations in the week leading up to National Day.

The alternative was to stay at home and read a book. Hot off the Shanghai Belles Lettres Press this golden week, and under review in the daily papers, was a new biography of Liang Qichao (1873–1929), a man who in Chinese intellectual history occupies a position comparable to, say, that of his near contemporary, David Lloyd George, in British history. In the early twentieth century, Liang was perhaps the closest thing China had to a statesman in a country that was struggling to regenerate a workable state. He was a native of Xinhui in Canton, the home county of many Chinese immigrants to the Australian goldfields, and when he visited Australia in 1901 he was struck and influenced by the egalitarian ethos of the country.

Educated in the old classical tradition, quick to engage with the new, a prolific writer and one of the most influential thinkers of his time, Liang was a reformer rather than a revolutionary. Unlike Lloyd George, who was prime minister for six years, he had few opportunities to put his politics into practice, although after the 1911 Revolution he did join the cabinet of the first Republican government, formed a century ago this year. In the eyes of the Communists he was a counter-revolutionary, like all of the so-called “reform faction” of the early twentieth century, and his family suffered badly during the Mao years. Whatever its other qualities, a book about him can hardly fail to be interesting in terms of the winds of intellectual change in China.

The author of this new biography, Xie Xizhang, a Beijing native, is a journalist by training. At a literary event in Beijing recently he was modest about his credentials as a historian but paid tribute to his training in journalism at People’s University. “Training in journalism does actually have its advantages,” he said. “You can’t just dash things off...” – a statement perhaps as much about politics as about reporting in China. The first indication in the book that it has not been “dashed off” is the preface, written by Liu Zaifu. Sometime academician in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Party member until he was expelled in 1987, Liu Zaifu attained fame in exile as the author of Farewell, Revolution, a book that came to define China’s turn from the revolutionary road in the 1990s. A book endorsed by Liu is self-evidently unlikely to be a standard textbook account. Indeed, Xie’s stated motivation for writing the biography is that he felt impelled to set the historical record straight. He was irritated particularly by the portrayal of Liang in a television series made in 2001 to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

The book (or books – it comes in two volumes) is timely. There has been a flurry of interest in Liang Qichao recently, to a point where Xie has been asked how he came to produce such a topical work. The interest lies in the road not taken: not “Revolutionary Road,” then, but rather “Constitution Avenue,” a wide, peaceful road following a route determined by a constitution separating the state from government, and political from military power. Although Liang Qichao is commonly described as a constitutional monarchist, he was primarily, as Xie points out, a constitutionalist rather than a monarchist. The ritual form of the state was not a matter of great concern to him: monarchy or republic, both would work with a constitution, and neither without one.

Reviewing Xie’s book for Beijing’s daily paper, the Xinjingbao, historian Duanmu Cixiang places it on a time-line of notable biographies of Liang, showing how this significant historical figure has served as a political “weather vane” in the decades since his death. Depicted as defender of the nation in 1944, as counter-revolutionary and class enemy in 1980, and as a figure bypassed by history in 1993, he emerges from Xie Xizhang’s pen as a man of and for his times. More importantly, implies the reviewer, he has renewed relevance for the present, an era defined by Liu Zaifu’s phrase, “farewell, revolution.” With some self-conscious irony, Duanmu endorses the characterisation of Liang as a “counter-revolutionary,” but one in the mould of Edmund Burke: a praiseworthy counter-revolutionary for whom “gradual, safe, considered reform [was] the only proper way.”

As she elaborates on this analysis it becomes clear that Duanmu is talking about reformism as a way forward for present-day China. (The unstated alternative is a return to the “red” political culture of the past, the road taken by the disgraced Bo Xilai in Chongqing.) As it turns out, this reformism has little to do with constitutions. Duanmu defines it as entailing the exercise of “wisdom and courage” by the authorities and, even more importantly, “common sense and forbearance” by ordinary people. This formulation may be her response to the recent wild demonstrations against Japan, in which common sense and forbearance were conspicuous by their absence.

It would probably have been no surprise to Liang Qichao that China and Japan should still be at loggerheads over sovereignty issues in the early twenty-first century. In 1895 he took part in a demonstration by examination candidates against the concession of Taiwan to Japan following Japan’s victory over China in a short, sharp war the previous year. From then until Liang’s death in 1929, Japan continued to loom large, and usually with menace, on China’s eastern horizon. Even more than the Western powers, it was a defining presence in China’s experiments with social and political change.

Xie Xizhang does not deny but neither does he dwell on Japan’s importance in shaping Liang Qichao’s knowledge and views of the modern world. After the violent suppression of the 1898 reform movement in Beijing, Liang fled with his family to Japan , where helived until the collapse of the dynasty in 1911 made it safe for him to return home. His intellectual horizons were vastly expanded there by the flood of new works by both Japanese and, in translation, Western writers. This is not an easy subject for a writer in contemporary China to tackle, and Xie is anyway interested primarily in Liang’s Chinese context. The biography is written as a series of chapters structured around Liang and his male contemporaries, including mentors, disciples and political opponents, in political and literary circles.

As other historians have shown, Liang was well-disposed towards Japan in his early years there. He was sympathetic to Pan-Asian ideals and deeply impressed by the Meiji constitution. But in Japan he also came to grips with the idea of the nation and nationalism, as well as reaching a cooler appraisal of the implications of Japanese interests for China. These factors, nationalism and the Japanese interest, contributed to China’s history of modern state formation, in which Japan has mostly been a negative influence and constitutions have hardly figured at all.

China does have a constitution, of course. Indeed, since 1949 four constitutions have been promulgated, the most recent in 1982. The national constitution problematically co-exists with the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, in a relationship that could be described as the tail wagging the dog. In a recently published interview about the forthcoming Eighteenth Party Congress, the Brookings Institution’s director of research, Cheng Li, commented that party leaders at the congress may be just anxious enough about stability to think it worth asserting the supremacy of the Chinese constitution, thus bringing the party under the rule of law. “But as one can imagine,” he added, “not all leaders agree with that view, because it opens the door for fundamental political changes.” •