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Xu Guoqi 1 Liang Qichao BW.jpeg

Public domain image of Liang Qichao, available at Wikimedia Commons

11:17 am | July 18, 2019

A Great Revolution of the Mind

How Liang Qichao’s sojourn in Europe in the wake of the devastation of the Great War shaped the destiny of modern China.

By Xu Guoqi

When scholar, journalist and former cabinet minister Liang Qichao (梁启超) arrived in London at the outset of his European tour in the winter of 1918, it was a scene of devastation. “As soon as we landed,” he wrote in his 1919 chronicle of the momentous trip, A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe (欧游心影录), “what jumped into view was nothing but a picture of impoverishment and desolation in the wake of war.”

This year marks the centennial of the May Fourth Movement, the intellectual and political upheaval that coalesced from the deep disappointment Chinese felt at the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference, of which Liang would be a crucial witness. Revisiting Liang’s journey and its implications is key to understanding the forces and aspirations that still shape China and its vision of itself in the world.

In the wake of World War I — the “Great War,” as it was known at the time — Liang and his group had travelled to Europe with the hope that diplomacy might bring about justice and a humanitarian spirit. The entourage, comprising Chinese experts in economics, political science, diplomacy, military affairs and even geology, arrived by ship on December 28, 1918. They would not return to China until March 1920. During this period, Liang would closely observe the social, political and culture aftermath of the war in Europe, and report what he saw to readers back home. His ideas and observations would have deep repercussions for China’s future, and for its vision of itself in the world.

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Around 140,000 Chinese workers served on the Western Front during the First World War, digging trenches and manning factories to support the Allied war effort. Photo by Chatham House, London, available at Wikimedia Commons.

Liang’s main purpose for the trip, as he noted in his chronicle, was two-fold. First, he wished to see post-war Europe first-hand and draw lessons for China from the European experience. Second, he would go to Paris, where he would lobby on China’s behalf, and explain his country’s beliefs and aspirations to the world. The Paris Peace Conference was due to take place in the Palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris in just a few weeks’ time. While Liang and his delegation would not be party to the negotiations, they hoped, “in the capacity of private citizens,” as he wrote, to “explain to the media of the world the wrongs China had suffered during the War.” They hoped their presence might help make the case for China’s position of respect and equality within the international community.

Great Hopes

The main impetus behind China’s new approach to the world affairs at that time was its intense desire for internationalization, and an eagerness for equal membership in the family of nations. Around 140,000 Chinese workers served on the Western Front during the First World War, digging trenches and manning factories to support the Allied war effort. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

China’s policies, debates and efforts during the war make clear the pivotal place the war had in the formation of a new Chinese national perception of itself and its place in the world. China had formally joined the war in Europe in the summer of 1917, but its active involvement in the war started much earlier through its “laborers as soldiers” strategy. With this strategy, eventually 140,000 Chinese men were sent to the Western Front to support French and British war efforts. With such a large number of Chinese on the Western Front, China hoped that it might be qualified to attend the post-war peace conference.

Specifically, China expected that its participation in the Great War would help its effort to recover Shandong, which had been held as a German concession since the invasion of Qingdao in 1897 and the subsequent establishment of the Jiaozhou Bay colony, and to recover the dignity of sovereignty it had lost from the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. When the war ended, Hollington Tong (董显光), a young graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, reported in Shanghai’s English-language Millard’s Review of the Far East: “Thinking Chinese are looking to President [Woodrow] Wilson for his leadership.” For these “thinking Chinese,” by which Tong meant Chinese who were conscientious and informed about global affairs, “Wilson is the best qualified statesman to assume the role of champion of human rights generally and the rights of China in particular.”

While Liang and his delegation would not be party to the negotiations, they hoped, “in the capacity of private citizens,” as he wrote, to “explain to the media of the world the wrongs China had suffered during the War.” They hoped their presence might help make the case for China’s position of respect and equality within the international community.

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Ruins are all that remain at the end of World War I of an Italian church in Marco, a small village in Valley of Aidge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

For China, therefore, the twentieth century began in earnest with the period broadly defined by the Great War. The war marked the start of a serious search for national renewal. This was also about the internationalization of China’s outlook, seen by many as a key component of the emerging new national identity. And of course it was also about recovering China’s sovereignty after a half century of domination by colonial powers.

Open and reform-minded Chinese argued that they first had to create a New Culture — cosmopolitan, scientific, and democratic — if the nation was to join the emerging new world society on terms of equality. Possible models to guide that transformation were the subject of eager exploration and study. To the east, Japan offered an example of homegrown Asian nationalism and a powerful state. To the north, Russia, with its young Bolshevik regime that had come to power through the 1917 October Revolution, was beginning to emerge as a model of state centralism. The United States, meanwhile, pointed to the possibility of a limited federal government overseeing a liberal society.

And what lessons did Europe hold as Liang cast about for ideas that might inform China’s future?

From the Rubble of the Great War

In the bitter cold of that London December, basic hardships foreshadowed the discouragement to come. “There was no heat in the hotel room although it was very cold; sugar and food were difficult to find,” Liang wrote in his chronicle of the journey. But he was hopeful — and most of all, hungry for new ideas.

Liang Qichao, a Chinese Reformer
February 23, 1873
Liang Qichao is born in the southern province of Guangdong.
Liang successfully passes the Xiucai (秀才) and Juren (舉人) provincial exams.
Liang studies with scholar and reformist Kang Youwei at his “Myriad Trees Academy” (萬木草堂) in Guangzhou.
After failing his national examinations, Liang takes a more active role in government, and also does work editing pro-reform publications.
After a failed coup against the government of the Qing Dynasty, Liang flees to Japan, where he remains for 14 years.
Liang travels from Japan to Canada, where he meets Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
February 8, 1902
Liang launches the bi-weekly New Citizen journal (新民丛报) while in Yokohama, Japan. He is outspoken as a champion of the press, referring to newspapers as "revolutions in ink."
Liang makes an eight-month lecture tour in the United States, where he meets with President Theodore Roosevelt.
February 1904
Liang Qichao publishes his book Travels on a New Continent (新大陆游记) about his experiences in the United States and Canada, and his thoughts on China's future. The book has a generally positive outlook on the lessons to be learned from the West.
Liang Qichao visits Europe, arriving first in London, where he observes the destruction of the "Great War." He attends the treaty proceedings at Versailles as an observer, and becomes disillusioned by China's treatment.
May 4, 1919
Students in Beijing take to the streets to protest the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, sparking the cultural and political awakening of the May Fourth Movement. Liang's dispatches from Europe during this time are instrumental in driving the push for reform in China.
March 1920
Liang's account of his European travels, A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe (欧游心影录), is published serially in Shanghai's China Times newspaper, and later in book form. In his account, Liang expresses much greater skepticism about the West and describes the moral uncertainly prevailing there.
January 19, 1929
Liang Qichao passes away of illness in Beijing at the age of 57.

The ruins were a lesson themselves. The wartime devastation of the West, and the intellectual roots of that devastation, encouraged Liang to re-envision modernity, to see that not all lessons for modernity emerged from the crucible of European ideas and traditions, which lay dashed in the rubble of the war.

Among the ideas Liang came to see as deeply discredited was “the dream of the omnipotence of science” (“科学万能之迷梦) that had gripped the continent since the French Revolution, reshaping the cultural norms of Christianity, feudal tradition and Greek thought. Europeans, Liang noted during his travels, were now seriously re-assessing science and its moral failings. For Liang, this was “a great turning point in modern thought.” The popular idea of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which had once been championed, was now “a cultural exhibit” of the West’s embarrassment. Its glorification of extreme individualism had been a driving force in the destruction evident throughout Liang’s European tour.

Such ideas were already in currency in the West around the time of Liang’s visit, readily visible in works like Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published in Germany the previous summer. In his chronicle, Liang also recalls the following conversation with an American journalist during his sojourn:

He asked me: “What will you do when you return to China? Will you take Western civilization back with you?” I said, “Of course.” With a sigh, he said: “Ah, what a pity that Western civilization is already bankrupt.” I asked him, “What will you do when you return to the United States?” He said: “When I get back I’ll shut the gates and wait — wait for you to bring Chinese civilization over to save us.”

As Liang travelled through Europe, his ideas underwent a radical transformation, a process of intellectual destruction and recreation. In his previous writings, Liang had championed liberalism, including ideas such as individualism and competition. These ideas too, having arisen from a 19th century European social and intellectual environment that had now reached a point of finality in the catastrophic destruction of the Great War, had to be seriously questioned.

In one passage of A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe, Liang wrote of a “great revolution” unfolding in his mind:

I am unable to predict the course of the changes my mind is undergoing. In the past five months, I have met people of all descriptions; I have heard ideas of a variety of schools and observed all kinds of clashes of interest. . . . Given my nature which is rich in feeling and the desire for continual improvement, try to imagine the stimulation I am experiencing! I feel that my mind is daily fermenting and that it will undergo a great revolution. But what the product of that revolution will be, I am still unable to tell.[7]

Before 1919, China had turned hopefully to the liberal democratic models of the West, even though the individualism and competition so evident in these societies were unfamiliar and caused discomfort for many. After spending many weeks in the rubble of the Great War, seeing how European nations had torn themselves apart, Liang was confronted with the stark realization that Western civilizations had deep problems of their own. He felt compelled to reappraise the West and the value of many of its ideas for modern China.


In a public talk delivered in March 1920 in Shanghai, shortly after his return to China, Liang would speak of a sickness that had overtaken the West, and urge caution in the adoption of Western ideas: “In the past century, it can be said that Europe has been in an unnatural state, even what we might call a state of illness. China cannot succeed by imitating this sick condition.”

The European tour seems to have aroused quite a remarkable shift in Liang’s ideas. After all, in his 1904 chronicle of his time in America, New World Journeys (新大陆游记), it was Chinese society and culture Liang had marked as suffering from all manner of sicknesses. As historian Tang Xiaobing has noted: “Particularly striking is the difference between the Liang exiled in Japan at the turn of the century, and the Liang huddling around an insufficient winter fire in the Paris suburb of Bellevue in 1919.”

Liang came to feel strongly that the best solution for China was to fuse the most advantageous aspects of both Chinese and Western civilizations in order to create something new. While Chinese should draw from the lessons of the West’s superior material civilization, he said, they should also capitalize on the strength of their own spiritual civilization.

The East, he argued, had civilizational principles and practices that might provide new inspiration. And he felt that traditional values of Chinese culture such as the Confucian ideal of ren (), which taught self-restraint, compromise and harmony over the striving of the individual, could be more beneficial than the Western competitiveness that had been so demonstrably destructive.

The synthesis of Chinese traditional values and ideas with the most advantageous elements of Western learning might result in a new solution from which humanity could profit. As he urged his fellow countrymen through the pages of A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe: “Our beloved youth! Attention! Forward march! On the other shore of the great ocean are millions of people bewailing the bankruptcy of material civilization and crying out most piteously for help, waiting for you to come to their salvation.”

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The “Twenty-One Demands” from Japan signed in 1915 by Yuan Shikai, extending Japanese control of Manchuria. Photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Betrayal” of Versailles

The confidence of Liang’s call for self-reliance, shared by many other Chinese, was met with crushing disappointment as the outcome of the Paris Peace Conference became clear.

In the midst of negotiations at Versailles, China had demanded an end to extraterritoriality for foreign powers on its territory, including the return of the formerly German-held territory on the Shandong peninsula, occupied at the time by Japanese forces. China’s delegation had also called for an annulment of its treaty with Japan which China was forced to sign in May 1915 after Japan presented to China with its “Twenty-One Demands” and an ultimatum.

“Our beloved youth! Attention! Forward march! On the other shore of the great ocean are millions of people bewailing the bankruptcy of material civilization and crying out most piteously for help, waiting for you to come to their salvation.”

Xu Guoqi, A Record of My Travel Impressions in Europe

Through the course of deliberations at Versailles over the so-called “Shandong question,” China was admitted just three times to related meetings, despite its clear interest in the matter. By contrast, Japan was admitted to all sessions. In one of the meetings in which the Chinese delegation took part, held on April 22, the Big Four powers of the United States, Britain, France and Italy all pressed China to concede to Japan. Wilson urged this as a matter of treaty obligations, considering the treaties, including China’s 1915 treaty with Japan. The war, Wilson suggested, had been fought “largely for the purpose of showing that treaties cannot be violated,” and that “it would be better to live up to a bad treaty than to tear it up.”

The final decision came on April 30, 1919, with a settlement with Japan made, according to American President Woodrow Wilson, “in a way which seems to me as satisfactory as could be got out of the tangle of treaties in which China herself was involved.” The decision was rendered in Article 156 of the Treaty of Versailles, which read:

Germany renounces, in favor of Japan, all her rights, title and privileges — particularly those concerning the territory of Kiaochow, railways, mines and submarine cables — which she acquired in virtue of the Treaty concluded by her with China on March 6, 1898, and of all other arrangements relative to the Province of Shantung.

When the decision was first reported in China in the May 2 edition of the Morning Paper, or Chenbao (晨报), the reaction was fury. On May 4, 1919, thousands of students from thirteen universities in Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square in the first wave of what would be known as the May Fourth Movement, a movement of renewed national consciousness that would shape China’s future for many decades to come.

For Liang Qichao, the humiliation of Versailles only deepened the conviction that China must pursue a path of self-reliance. And like many other Chinese intellectuals, he now questioned the value of identifying with the West in China’s pursuit of internationalization and a modern national identity. In one article he announced that “the Peace Treaty of Versailles is by no means a document of justice . . . . China must work now to save herself.”

“All China can count upon is herself and her own undefeatable spirit and courage,” he told his readers.

Liang predicted, rightly of course, that the events in Versailles would resound through the century. “No well-informed man can have any doubt that it will profoundly modify the history of the Asiatic continent, if not the whole world,” he wrote. “China’s only crime was her weakness and her belief in post-war international justice. If, driven to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”

July 18, 2019
Xu Guoqi

Xu Guoqi is Kerry Group Professor in Globalization History at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Asia and the Great War: A Shared History (2017), Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (2011), China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of A New National Identity and Internationalization, and other books and articles