Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Roger Ames, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joshua Rayman, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lee Braver, Ph.D.


Confucianism, Foucault, Gender, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Tan Sitong


In a period of deep political division, insurrection, opium addiction, foreign conflicts, and economic distress, three intellectuals, Tan Sitong 譚嗣同 (1865-1898), Kang Youwei 康有爲 (1858-1927), and Liang Qichao 梁啓超 (1873-1929), developed philosophical systems to identify the source of China’s problems and to devise solutions. With these philosophical theories, they enacted a political movement to reform Chinese government and society known as the “Hundred Days’ Reform” (wuxubianfa 戊戌變法) of 1898. While scholars like Chang Hao, Wing Sit-chan, and Joseph R. Levenson have all written on all or some of these reformers, they have done so largely from the perspective of Chinese intellectual history. Yet, very few philosophers have rigorously analyzed the theories of this period and tried to bring them into conversation with Western thought. Virtually none have examined the various ways these philosophers discussed the core Confucian concept of ren 仁 (humanity/humaneness) while developing their theories.

This dissertation addresses this gap in research by examining the role this traditional concept played in the modernizing discourses of the three major philosophers of China’s pivotal Hundred Days’ Reform. The concept is indispensable to understanding Confucian philosophy of the self along with the concomitant projects of self-cultivation, ethical governance, and learning. Tracing the history of this important concept allows us to study how philosophical discourse about selfhood and humanity changed during this formative period. This understanding, in turn, iii provides us with a more global picture of modern philosophy and problematizes essentializing oppositions such as East/West, traditional/modern, and religious/secular.

Chapter One begins with a general note on the methodology of this project. I argue that we ought to avoid assuming that the important features of modernity and modern selfhood in the West are essential to modernity itself and therefore must be found in the works of the Hundred Days Reformers. Chapter Two discusses the important features of ren in Classical Confucianism and explains that the Confucian dao 道 (“way” or “guiding discourse”) was seen as an authoritative dao for cultivating this quality. Chapter Three examines how Tan Sitong engages with the issue of how to cultivate ren in a world of multiple cultural dao in his groundbreaking text Renxue 仁學, or An Exposition of Ren. Chapter Four explores the concept of ren in the major works of the other two reformers. I contrast Kang Youwei’s cosmopolitan vision of modernity with that of Tan Sitong and explain Liang Qichao’s criticism of ren in his text the Xinmin Shuo 新民說 (On the New Citizen). Chapter Five continues with the analysis of these three thinkers’ views on the modern self-cultivation of ren by looking at how they treat the topic of women’s liberation. After having explored the differences between the emergence of modern philosophy of the self in China and the West, the final chapter explores what makes them both “modern” by utilizing Foucault’s influential reflections on the nature of modernity.

I conclude by saying that the West must resituate its own history of philosophy within a global context by exploring the way modernity has manifested in other philosophical traditions. I demonstrate how the philosophies of these three important thinkers can help us toward a broader understanding of the nature of modern philosophy in a global context. By philosophizing across cultures, the Hundred Days’ Reformers sought to move us toward, however imperfectly, a more global discourse on the task of learning to be human.