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Reappraising modernity after the Great War

September 17th, 2015 By Limin Bai

In the wake of the Great War, Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao (1873-1929) began to rethink their previous perception of the West, of modernity and of China’s future.

Liang travelled to Paris for the Peace Conference at the Palace of Versailles (along with other influential scholars of the time), and recorded his impressions of Europe after the Great War, which were a stark contrast to the image of the modern and superior civilization he previously conceived and hoped for China. In his re-evaluation of the West and China’s future, Liang particularly pondered on science, materialism, religion and cultural values.

This talk was delivered at the National Library of New Zealand on July 23 as part of the combined National Library/Victoria University joint series on conflict which ran throughout 2015.

Dr Limin Bai is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington.

Limin is not an employee of the National Library, and as such her ideas and opinions are her own.

In the wake of the Great War Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao (1873-1929) began to rethink their previous perception of the West, of modernity and of China’s future. Along with other influential scholars of the time, Liang travelled to Paris to support the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference held at the Palace of Versailles). His work, A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe, provides readers with an image of a broken Europe after the Great War, which was a stark contrast to the modern and superior civilization he previously conceived and hoped for China. In his reevaluation of the West and China’s future, Liang contemplated many topics including science, materialism, religion and cultural values.

Who is Liang Qiacho?

Liang Qichao (梁启超) was one of the most influential historical figures in early twentieth century China. His extensive writings were read by almost every educated Chinese at the turn of the century.

Newspaper portrait of Liang Qichao, dressed in a formal Western style, 1901.
Liang Qichao, Tung Wah News, 17 April 1901. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in a small village in Xinhui, Guangdong Province, Liang Qichao commenced his education with his father when he was only six years old. Liang achieved well within the civil service examination system and passed the xiucai (秀才) degree at eleven. He then passed the juren (举人) in 1884 when he was only sixteen. However in 1890 Liang failed the national examinations for his Jinshi (进士) degree. This failure proved to be a turning point in his life as he met Kang Youwei (康有为 – 1858-1927). After returning home, Liang went on to enroll into Wanmu Caotang (万木草堂) where he studied under Kang Youwei. In 1895 when Liang went to Beijing with his teacher Kang in order to sit the national examinations for the jinshi degree, he was involved in the Gongju Shangshu Movement (公车上书), expressing opposition to the Treaty of Shimonoseki and calling for reforms. Along with his teacher Kang Youwei, Liang was part of the leadership of this movement. In 1898 he and his teacher Kang Youwei attempted to implement reform measures through the emperor Guangxu, which was known as the Wuxu Reform (戊戌变法) or the Hundred Days' Reform. The reform failed, and as a result Liang fled to Japan where he lived in exile for fourteen years. While in exile he continued to advocate for reforms. In this period he travelled to “new continentals”: in 1899 he visited Canada where he met Dr. Sun Yat-Sen; and then travelled to Honolulu; in 1900 – 1901 he visited Australia for six months; in 1903 he set off on an eight- month lecture tour in the United States. Liang later formed the "Royalist Society" (保皇會) which became the Constitutionalist Party. While Dr. Sun promoted revolution Liang advocated constitutional monarchy.

In 1912 after the 1911 Revolution and the collapse of the Qing government, Liang’s 14-year exile in Japan ended and he returned to China. He was chief justice in Yuan Shikai’s cabinet in 1914. However, in 1915 he joined General Cai E (蔡锷 – 1882-1916) opposing Yuan Shikai's (袁世凯 – 1859-1916)attempt to restore the monarchy in China. In 1917 Liang was the finance minister in Duan Qirui’s cabinet but resigned from politics in 1918, deciding to devote himself to education and scholarly work. He went to Paris to support the Chinese delegation at the peace conference as a private citizen. Scholars by and large agreed that this trip to Europe marked a turning point in his intellectual development.

In 1925 Liang was offered (and accepted) a professorship at the Qinghua Institute of Chinese Studies. He died of illness in 1929. In the transitional period spanning the latter part of the Qing dynasty to the early republic era, Liang was well known as a Chinese scholar, journalist, philosopher and reformist.

China and the Great War

China’s socio-political situation prior to the decision to participate in the Great War

By the time of World War One, the Republic of China had only been in existence for three years and it was not much stronger than it had been under the Qing government. The number of Treaty Ports had grown to forty-eight from five after the First Opium War.

A weak China at the time could not afford to participate in the Great War. Therefore, China initially adopted a neutral position.

The rationale behind China’s decision to join the War

On 14 August 1917, however, China joined the Allies by declaring war on Germany-Austria. The then Chinese government sent non-combatants, namely Chinese workers, to the battle fields of the West to undertake tasks such as digging trenches, unloading military cargo in the docks, working in railway yards and factories. By the time the war ended in 1918, the number of Chinese workers had grown to more than 140,000 and for at least 2,000 of them the war cost them their lives.

The question is why did China change from being neutral to participating in the war?

The Shandong problem was the key factor for the decision. Many Chinese saw participation in the war as an opportunity for China to recover German concessions in the Shandong peninsula. In 1898 China was forced to lease Jiaozhouwan to Germany after two missionary members were killed in late 1897. Germany then built the city and port of Qingdao and exerted an influence on the surrounding areas in Shandong.

These German concessions were regarded by the Chinese as part of China’s history of humiliation since the Opium War in the 1840s. In 1914 the Japan-Britain alliance took formal possession of the colony, and the siege of Qingdao ended German control of the Shandong peninsula.

Japan wanted to appropriate the German holdings in Shandong, and sent a secret ultimatum, known as the 21 Demands, to the Chinese government in January 1915. Yuan Shikai’s government was weak and accepted almost every demand the Japanese made. However, when the Japanese demands were made public, nation-wide anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out in China. As a result, the popularity of Yuan’s government declined. In order to bolster his authority, Yuan attempted to restore a Monarchy to China with himself as the Hongxian Emperor. This once again resulted in open demonstrations throughout China. Liang Qichao, the Justice minister in Yuan’s cabinet in 1914, decided to join Cai E, Yunnan’s military governor, and together they launched the National Protection War (huguo zhanzheng (护国战争). Yuan’s revival of a monarchy in China was short-lived and he died of illness in 1916.

After Yuan’s death, Duan Qirui’s government tried to join the Great War in order to gain a seat at the peace conference, but Japan and the international powers refused China’s request. Regardless of their refusal, China continued sending its laborers to the war front. Through this persistent effort, China was determined to accomplish international justice regarding the Shandong problem.

The Paris International Peace Conference

China aimed to secure the return of sovereignty over the Shandong territory. Many Chinese, including Liang Qichao, saw the significance of gaining such a seat at the peace conference even before the end of the war. They perceived the potential benefits to be:

  • The direct return of Shangdong
  • The opportunity to recover China’s lost sovereignty
  • China’s entry into the international community as an equal member.

To summarize, China’s change from her neutral position to active support for the Allies was motivated by her desire for equality and justice as an equal member of the international community. China aimed to achieve this goal at the Paris Peace Conference.

Liang Qichao and the Great War

Liang initially agreed with China’s neutral position but later he learned about the Japanese demands and changed his position. By the time the Great War ended, Liang had already left his post in the government (as mentioned earlier, he was the minister of finance in 1917). However, Liang decided to go to Paris as a private observer and adviser to the Chinese delegation at the peace conference. Before embarking on the trip, Liang stated the purpose of his trip to Europe:

The purpose of Mr. Liang’s private trip to Europe is to influence the media of other countries in order to assist our country to be rid of the Japanese demands imposed on China during the Great War. (1)

In April 1919, the Chinese newspaper Chenbao reported:

The purpose of Mr. Liang’s private trip to Europe is to influence the media of other countries in order to assist our country to be rid of the Japanese demands imposed on China during the Great War. (2)

After his arrival at Paris, Liang told the media that “The purpose of this trip is to examine the changes among world civilizations after the war, and then report my findings to my countrymen upon my return. (3)

Later in his account of the trip, Liang once again related:

The purpose of this trip was firstly for us to broaden our knowledge of the world and to learn how this unprecedented historical drama would end; and secondly we intended to realize our dream of international justice by means of diplomacy, expecting that the peace conference would entirely reform the unequal international relations and lay the foundation for eternal peace. This was why we, as private citizens, took on this trip, wanting to tell the world media of the wrongs China had endured during the War. By doing so we felt that we fulfilled a citizen’s responsibility to our country. (4)

The timeline and route of Liang’s trip

Liang boarded a Japanese ship on 28 December 1918 in Shanghai, and returned to Shanghai on the 5th of March 1920. The trip lasted for 434 days and he and his team went through 45 cities in 12 countries.

Liang Qichao’s route from Shanghai to Paris

The route traversed the India ocean and the Mediterranean sea and took almost two months (28 December 1918 – 18 February 1919) to reach Paris from Shanghai.

Shanghai – Hong Kong – Singapore – Penang (Malaysia) – Colombo (capital of Sri Lanka) – Red Sea – Suez Canal – Port Said (city of Egypt) – Sicily – Strait of Gibraltar – London – Folkston – Boulogne-Sur-Mer (a city in North France) – Paris

Who went with Liang

In addition to Liang, his team was comprised of the following six people:

Name Overseas study Language ability Specialties
Jiang Baili Japan & Germany German & Japanese Military
Liu Chongjie Japan Japanese & German Diplomacy
Ding Wenjiang Japan & Britain English, Japanese, German, & French Geology
Zhang Junmai Japan & Germany German & Japanese Political Sciences
Xu Xinliu England & France English & French Economics
Yang Weixin Japan Japanese Education

This team consisted of well trained scholars who were equipped with the knowledge of the world and with language capacity.

Liang’s activities outside the peace conference

Liang was not a member of China’s delegation, but was active outside the conference by talking to media, making public speeches, meeting important figures such as U.S president Wilson, and visiting battlefields such as Verdun.

Here is a key example that illustrates Liang’s activities during the peace conference. On 24 April 1919 Liang heard that the French and British had decided to support Japanese possession of Qingdao, and he sent a message to Lin Changmin (1876 – 1925), (5) urging the Chinese government and people to act quickly to stop China from signing the treaty of Versailles. Lin Changmin in China immediately wrote an article entitled Waijiao jingbao jinggao guomin (外交警报敬告国民), warning the Chinese public that China would fail to secure the return of sovereignty over the Shandong territory. On the 30th of April the news of China’s failure was confirmed. On the 2nd of May Chenbao published Lin Changmin’s article, which roused a patriotic fervor amongst Chinese people. On the 4th of May, the famous May Fourth Movement erupted.

The role Liang Qichao played in China’s refusal to sign the treaty was significant. Many scholars now also see Liang as the hero who lit the fuse of the May Fourth Movement. This may be a controversial point, nevertheless, as a British diplomat in China wrote in his 1920 annual report to Earl Curzon, “the rising tide of international esteem began to flow when China refused, weak as she was, to be bullied into signing the treaty of Versailles.” (6)

Liang Qichao’s disillusionment and re-evaluation of the West

Liang’s trip around Europe

Liang visited 7 main European countries: England, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherland, Italy and Switzerland. He stated that the purpose of these visits was to observe the changes in Europe after the war in order to report back to people in China. Many cities and historical sites he visited had great significance in advancing his understanding of European politics, religion, education, culture and literature of the West.

Ouyou xinying lu (A record of my travel impressions in Europe)

The work was mainly written during the winter of 1919 at a rented house in Bellevue, an area near Paris, recording Liang’s one-year observation of Europe and his intepretation of what he witnessed. (7) Liang provided an account of “Europe before and after the Great War”, discussedthe self-awakening of the Chinese people, and analyzed the implications of the European crisis and the new geopolitical constellation for China and its future course.

Liang’s description of a broken Europe

This impression was formed as soon as they arrived in London: “As soon as we landed, nothing but images of poverty and destruction opened up in front of our eyes.” (8) Then the area surrounding where he stayed in Bellevue also depressed him. He told his readers that Bellevue used to be a summer resort for Parisans who only needed to travel 20-minutes by train to get there. While it was a lovely holiday place, Liang said, he did not have a chance to enjoy it as he only saw a place filled with the bleak chill air. He said it was not a place for the winter, especially after the Great War the coals were as rare as gold, and hard to get even if one had money. They had to rely on two things to keep themselves warm: damp wood and coal cinder. (9)

He further described the situation where the necessities for daily life were in short supply:
“When we arrived in Europe the war had already ended, so we did not have first-hand experience of the war. Still, we were in Europe for more than one year, and could feel the shortage of supplies for daily-life: we could only purchase limited bread; sugar and butter were rare. Because of the shortage of coal, half of the transportation system was not operational. The same applied to the electricity supply – one had to opt for every second day either for lighting or operating a machine. We used to live a simple lifestyle, but it still felt hard to live under such conditions. For those people who had lived a rich materialistic life for so long this would be even harder as rich people would not be able to purchase everything they wanted even though they had money; and for poor people the price for things just went up 3 or even 5 times higher. How could they survive under such conditions?” (10)

Liang used rhetorical questions to enhance his description of a broken Europe: “Who would have expected European countries and their populations to suffer the fate of poverty as we do? And who could have imagined those wealthy English, French, and Germans would also start crying out about their poverty and in their lives would start depending on high-interest loans?” (11)

He saw destruction everywhere, especially the damage done to the world heritage sites. In his letter to his daughter after his visit to Reims, he reported that “Reims is the most important religious site in France”, “but now half of it has been damaged by the war.” (12)

Liang’s reflections on Western civilization and Chinese culture

Liang’s perception of a broken Europe prompted him to re-evaluate Chinese and western civilizations. He used a term “Eastern civilization” as a reference as well as a contrast to Western civilization.

Before the Great War Liang depicted the hisotry of the European civilization as a history of continuous innovation and transformation in contrast to China which in Liang’s view, was “diametrically opposed to Europe.” His prior comparison between China and Europe used Europe as his major reference system. The Great War led him to a revision of his “previously rather teleological understanding of European civilization.” (13)

According to Liang, the view that western civilization had been bankrupt came from European people. Liang said:

I remember a conversation between me and Simon, a famous American journalist (whose work on the history of the war is generally accepted as the best). Simon asked me: ‘What will you do after you go back to China? Do you want to carry back some of Western civilization?’ I replied: ‘Naturally.’ He sighed and said: ‘alas! What a pity. Western civilization is bankrupt.’ I asked him: ‘What will you do after you go back to the United States?’ He said: ‘Once I get back, I will shut my door and wait for you people to bring Chinese civilization here to save us.’” (14)

This account of Western savants who “entreated China to be the redeemer of a West in a state of moral bankcruptcy ” (15) suggests Liang’s “departure from his early Eurocentric disdain for nativism.” (16) Some marked this departure as his regression into conservatism. Nonetheless, Liang’s change was based on his observation and examination of a Europe after the War. A broken Europe led him to see “China as having the potential to save the whole world – by contributing to a new universalism based on a synthsis of the East and the West.” He emphasized: “To use Western Civilization to expand our civilization, and to use our civilization to supplement Western civilization.” (17) After all, he still stressed the fusion of East-West in order to create a new type of scholarship, culture and civilization. This is consistent with his idea of the synthesis of Chinese and Western knowledge in the early twentieth century.

A new perception on science

In Liang’s account, the nineteenth-century scientific revolution and industrialization destroyed three foundations of the old European civilization, i.e. the feudal system, Greek Philosophy and Christianity. The rise of modern science and materialism had replaced the Christian God with the law of the jungle, the ruo rou qiang shi (弱肉强食, lit. the weak ones would be the food/meat of the strong ones). The outcome of such rules, said Liang, was exemplified by the disasters of the Great War. He witnessed such crises during his travels around Europe and coined the phrase qiang mianbao (抢面包, fighting for bread) to describe the cruel reality that Europe faced in the aftermath of the War. Based on his observations, he frankly described his doubt regarding the supremacy of science:

Those who used to eulogize the all-power of science had hope for its success and believed that such success would bring a golden age to the world. Now the scientific achievements have been massive, and the progress in the material world in the recent one-hundred years is much greater than that in the past three thousand years. However, such progress did not bring any happiness but drastic disasters to our human society. It is as if a traveler got lost in the desert, and saw a person’s shadow in the distance, so he ran forward to the shadow with all his strength, thinking that the person could be his guider. After his tremendous efforts to catch up with it, however, the shadow disappeared. The traveler suddenly felt hugely disappointed. Who is that shadow? It is this “Mr. Science.” Europeans have indulged themselves in a big dream about the mighty power of science, but now they begin to exclaim the “bankruptcy of science.” This is the latest change in intellectual trends. (18)

Although Liang noted that he disagreed with the view that science had been bankrupted, he acknowledged his changed stance about the power of science, reappraising the values of Chinese culture. As Prof. Elman points out, “Liang’s account of the spiritual decadence in post-war Europe indicated the materialism and the mechanistic assumptions underlying modern science and technology’ had been exposed. Behind it lay the colossal ruins produced by Western materialism.” (19)

Liang Qichao’s reflections on western civilization, Chinese culture and the power of modern science certainly leave us with rich food for thought. How the world would achieve a forever-peace was Liang’s concern, and it remains a serious challenge in today’s world.


  1. Liang Qichao, “Zai xieyue guomin xiehui zhi yanshuo ci” 在协约国民协会之演说词, originally published in Guomin gongbao 国民公报, 24-25 December 1918, p.2. Quoted from Yinbingshi heji, jiwaiwen, ed., by Xia Xiaohong, Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2005, p.799. ^
  2. “Liang Rengong yu woguo jianghe wenti” 梁任公与我国讲和问题, Chenbao 晨报, 6 April 1919, p.2. ^
  3. Liang Qichao, “Zai Bali wanguo baojie lianhehui huanyinghui yanshuoci” 在巴黎万国报界联合会欢迎会演说词. The speech was first published in Shishi xinbao on 22-23 May, 1919. Quoted from Yinbingshi heji, jiwaiwen, p.812. ^
  4. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu 欧游心影录 (A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe), Yinbingshi heji, zhuanji 23 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, reprint., 2003), p.38. ^
  5. A graduate from Weseda University, Japan, majoring in politics and law. Lin worked with Liang “on political and constitutional causes for a generation, and the two men had served together in a short-lived Progressive Party of Cabinet in 1917” J. Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: Chinese and Their Revolution, Penguin, 1982, p. 16. ^
  6. C.X. George Wei, Xiaoyuan Liu, Chinese Nationalism in Perspective: Historical and Recent Cases, Greenwood Publishing group, p.116. ^
  7. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, p.2. ^
  8. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinyinglu, p.47. Translation from Dominic Sachsenmaier, “Chinese Debates on Modernization after the Great War,” in Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht, ed. Decentering America, Berghahn Books, 2007 , p.123. ^
  9. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, pp.1-2. ^
  10. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, pp.6. ^
  11. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, pp.3. Translation from Dominic Sachsenmaier, “Chinese Debates on Modernization after the Great War,” p.124. ^
  12. Liang Qichao nianpu changbian, pp. 895, 878 & 892. ^
  13. Dominic Sachsenmaier, “Chinese Debates on Modernization after the Great War,” p.123. ^
  14. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, p.15. For a discussion of Liang’s view on Eastern and Western civilizations, see Yu Keping, “‘Westernization’ vs ‘Sinicization’: An Ineffaceable Paradox within China’s Modernization Process,” in Tian Yu Cao, Xueping Zhong, Kebin Liao, eds., Culture and Social Transformations in Reform Era China, Brill, 2010, p.168. ^
  15. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, p.15. English translation from Lung-kee Sun, The Chinese National Character: From Nationhood to Individuality, M. E. Sharpe, p.88. ^
  16. Lung-kee Sun, The Chinese National Character, p.88. ^
  17. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, p.35. English translation from Lung-kee Sun, The Chinese National Character, p.88. ^
  18. Liang Qichao, Ouyou xinying lu, p.12. ^
  19. Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1500-1900, Harvard University Press, p.419. ^

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