[Review] 王锐:《革命儒生:章太炎传》 (Wang Rui: The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar. A Biography of Zhang Taiyan)

Wang Rui 王锐, Geming rusheng: Zhang Taiyan zhuan 革命儒生:章太炎传 (The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar. A Biography of Zhang Taiyan), Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2022. ISBN 9787559855367; 344 pages; 88 RMB.

Reviewed by Fabian Hiller (PhD candidate @ University of Tübingen)

Wang Rui’s new biography of Zhang Taiyan, entitled The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar, is part of a wave of new research on Zhang Taiyan in China sparked by the publication of the revised version of the Zhang Taiyan nianpu changbian  章太炎年谱长编 (Nianpu biography of Zhang Taiyan) and the new edition of Zhang Taiyan quanji 章太炎全集 (The complete works of Zhang Taiyan).[1] While the book is structured chronologically and written in the easy-to-follow style of a history textbook, the author supplements the biographical narrative with abundant information from different primary and secondary sources. Wang takes the approach of a historian when looking at Zhang Taiyan, differentiating this work from many recent more philosophical approaches, a trend that has been especially prominent among Western scholars.[2]

Zhang Taiyan has always been a highly controversial and complex figure within the tapestry of early modern Chinese history, his identity adorned with various attributions. In crafting this book, Wang strategically focuses on two seemingly contradictory yet interwoven dimensions of Zhang’s persona – that of a revolutionary and a Confucian scholar (hence the book’s title). This dual focus not only broadens the understanding of Zhang Taiyan but also underscores the intricate interplay between these seemingly divergent facets of his life. Wang’s narrative doesn’t limit itself to a detached exploration of Zhang’s individuality; instead, it serves as a captivating lens through which the author recounts the broader context of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China.

Intriguingly, Wang navigates through the dynamic relationship between traditional gentry and revolutionary enlightenment, unraveling the threads that connect Zhang Taiyan to pivotal events such as the Reform Movement of 1898, the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, and the New Culture Movement during the 1910s and 1920s. This expansive approach goes beyond a mere biographical account, delving into the sociopolitical landscape of the time and elucidating the profound influence of Zhang’s thought. By examining the core concerns of Zhang as a revolutionary, Wang meticulously traces the origins of his intellectual pursuits, offering readers a nuanced understanding of the intricate interplay between his political and academic works. In doing so, Wang’s work not only illuminates the life of Zhang Taiyan but also provides rich historical context, expanding the narrative with insights into the broader currents that shaped modern Chinese politics and culture during this transformative period.

Wang Rui holds a PhD in history from Fudan University and is currently an associate professor in the History Department of East China Normal University. His main research fields are modern Chinese intellectual history, academic history, history of thought, and political history. While The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar is not his first monograph on Zhang Taiyan, it is the first time he comprehensively covers all of Zhang’s life and work rather than focusing on a single aspect of Zhang’s thought.[3]

Wang’s book is a 344-page biography of Zhang Taiyan as an individual, but it also reflects the political and social movements of the late Qing dynasty and early Republican era. The author adds context to many major historical events and links Zhang’s participation to the ideological development of modern China as a whole. In this process, the author includes other important individuals connected to Zhang, such as Kang Youwei 康有为, Liang Qichao 梁启超, and Zhang Zhidong 张之洞, as well as many of Zhang’s disciples and advocates of the New Culture Movement, including Chen Duxiu 陈独秀, Li Dazhao 李大钊, Hu Shi 胡适, and Lu Xun 鲁迅. Wang always strives to present broad and comprehensive depictions of these Chinese intellectuals.

Wang also breaks away from earlier narrow understandings of Zhang’s character by focusing on Zhang’s dual identities, the revolutionary and the Confucian scholar. However, while this new dichotomy allows for a broader analysis of many different aspects, such as cultural significance, ideological influence, and historical limitations, it still suffers from some of the same limitations as earlier works (although probably to a lesser extent).

For the most part, Wang’s writing is concise and easy to understand. To address a wider audience, he tries to avoid overly complicated sentence structures. This aspect of Wang’s book is an achievement, considering Zhang Taiyan’s works are notoriously hard to read and understand.

Following this popular approach, the book stands out through its appealing cover design showing the two Chinese characters dao han 菿汉 in seal script. “Daohan” is one of Zhang’s self-chosen names, indicating his reverence for the culture and scholarship of the Han dynasty.[4] Behind the seal script characters, two main elements are depicted: the manuscript of the Zou Rong zhuan邹容传 (Biography of Zou Rong) and the Xihu qingqu tu 西湖清趣图 (Drawing of the scenic attractions of the West Lake). This choice of elements already reveals significant information about Zhang Taiyan’s character, including his close relationship with Zou Rong 邹容 (1885–1905)[5] and his lifelong connection to the city of Hangzhou. Although Zhang was originally buried in Suzhou after his death in 1936, his remains were moved to Hangzhou in 1955, and a museum honoring his life’s work and achievements was established.

Wang’s biography of Zhang Taiyan follows the same structure as Zhang’s nianpu biography and features a total of 17 chapters covering all the different stages and stations of Zhang’s life in chronological order. Wang begins with a summary of Zhang’s early life and education (chapter 1), his time at the Gujing jingshe 诂经精舍 (The Refined Lodge of the Exegesis of the Classic) (chapter 2), and participation in the reform movement at a young age (chapter 3). Zhang was born in 1869 in Yuhang County, Hangzhou, and was given the name Xuecheng 学乘. Later, he changed this name to Binglin 炳麟. He was educated by his grandfather and started reading the Chinese classics at a very young age. Wang Rui goes into great detail explaining the overall situation intellectuals faced after the Taiping rebellion (1851–1864) and the influence of this atmosphere on Zhang’s childhood (pp. 1ff.).

After his father’s death in 1890, Zhang gave up his aspirations of pursuing an official career and instead went to study under Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821–1907) at the Gujing jingshe in Hangzhou (pp. 16ff.). After six years of scholarly education, Zhang turned to political issues of the time and started to write for various journals supporting the reform movement (pp. 32ff.). Wang then explores Zhang’s path toward revolution (chapter 4), the editing of his first book, the Qiushu 訄书 (Book of Urgency), and his open advocacy of revolution (chapter 5), as well as Zhang’s engagement in political debates (chapter 6).

Following the failure of the reform movement in 1898, Zhang fled to Taiwan and then continued onward to Japan (pp. 53ff.). After two months, in August 1899, Zhang returned to Shanghai. During these travels, Zhang worked on the Qiushu, which was first published in 1900 and then again in a revised and enlarged version in 1904. Wang discusses the different articles in Zhang’s book and the changes between the two versions in depth (p. 72). Zhang also broke away at this time from the reformist ideas and the reformist camp around Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, adopting a more radical stance of revolution. In 1903, he was sentenced to three years in jail in Shanghai after his involvement in the Subao case (subao an 苏报案).[6] Zhang was released in 1906 and returned to Japan, where he enjoyed the status of a martyr within the revolutionary movement. He assumed editorship of the Minbao 民报 journal[7] and participated in the political debates between revolutionaries and reformers in Japan (pp. 91ff.). In 1906 and 1907, Zhang also wrote many philosophical and ideological treatises reexamining the role of Chinese tradition (chapter 7) and criticizing modern trends of thought (chapter 8).

Wang examines Zhang’s critical essays and debates, primarily through an analysis of articles published in various journals (pp. 139ff.). He then delves into Zhang’s lectures in Tokyo and the internal strife within the revolutionary alliance, led by Sun Yat-sen 孙中山 and known as Tongmenghui 同盟会 (United Allegiance Society, chapter 9). When looking at the Tongmenghui, Wang tries to paint a comprehensive picture of the situation of Chinese intellectuals during the late Qing dynasty, explaining the trouble within the community as a result of loose group identities (p. 159). He also highlights the complex relationship between Zhang Taiyan and Sun Yat-sen (pp. 169ff.).

After the successful revolution and fall of the Qing Dynasty in late 1911, Zhang returned to China to participate in the establishment of a new government and the political deliberations of the early Republican era (chapter 10). Initially joining Sun Yat-sen’s government for a few months (pp. 179ff.), he quickly switched to the government in Beijing led by Yuan Shikai 袁世凯 in 1912. However, after voicing his discontent with Yuan’s policies in 1913 (pp. 203ff.), Zhang was put under house arrest, where he remained until Yuan’s death in 1916 (chapter 11). While many of Zhang’s earlier students participated in the New Culture Movement of the late 1910s and early 1920s, Zhang opposed the movement (chapter 12) and politically advocated for a federal system with provincial autonomy (chapter 13). He found himself at odds with Hu Shi and several other younger intellectuals of the era. Despite being regarded as their mentor, the clash of interests during this period exemplified the inherent complexities within Zhang’s conflicting personality (pp. 222ff.). During the 1920s, Zhang gradually turned away from politics (chapter 14) and focused on his academic research and teaching (chapter 15). In 1936, Zhang passed away and received a state funeral (chapter 16).

At the end of this biographical description of Zhang’s life and work, Wang finishes his book with a personal commentary (chapter 17). The book’s main intent is to present Zhang Taiyan’s life and thought in a more accessible way. In terms of content, Wang focuses on analyzing Zhang Taiyan’s political thoughts and activities, as well as his academic opinions. Wang makes it clear that in Zhang Taiyan’s case, the so-called “academic” and the “political” are not distinct but rather comprise an intertwined whole. As the title of the book indicates, it positions Zhang Taiyan both as a revolutionary who contemplates China’s future development path under the changes brought about by modern times and as a Confucian scholar who is determined to promote traditional Chinese values. Although the twin identities of a revolutionary and a Confucian scholar occasionally caused tension in Zhang Taiyan, they remained ultimately compatible and even complementary (pp. 338f.).

The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar combines the author’s years of experience researching Zhang Taiyan and incorporates many of the results of academic research on Zhang Taiyan that have emerged over the past decades. It provides a vivid historical overview of Zhang Taiyan’s turbulent life and the necessary context for understanding his complicated and difficult writings.

By choosing to dichotomize Zhang’s identity between the revolutionary and the Confucian scholar, Wang aims to move away from earlier singular approaches to Zhang that – in Wang’s opinion – had failed to grasp his complex character. This endeavor creates a more nuanced picture of Zhang Taiyan. However, in the end, the book still suffers from the same limitations as those other studies of Zhang that the author sought to correct. After all, Zhang’s character and work are complex and multi-faceted, and focusing solely on two of his identities cannot account for the many other facets of Zhang Taiyan, such as his complicated role in social relationships with other intellectuals, his role as a teacher, the philosophical implications of his work, and his profound knowledge of Chinese traditional medicine.

Despite its brevity, Wang’s book offers a comprehensive and easily digestible overview of Zhang Taiyan’s life, effectively introducing an intricately layered character to a broader audience. Wang skillfully navigates the complexities of Zhang’s life, drawing on his own interpretation of the essence of traditional Chinese history. Through a nuanced exploration of Zhang Taiyan’s life and thought, the author provides innovative explanations for crucial facets of modern Chinese politics and culture. This distinctive approach constitutes a significant and valuable contribution to the field of Zhang Taiyan studies, enhancing our understanding of this influential figure and his profound impact on the socio-political landscape of contemporary China.


[1] Tang Zhijun 汤志钧, Zhang Taiyan nianpu changbian (zengdingben) 章太炎年谱长编 (增订本) (Nianpu biography of Zhang Taiyan [revised and extended version]), Zhonghua Shuju, 2013 and Zhang Taiyan 章太炎, Zhang Taiyan quanji 章太炎全集 (The complete Works of Zhang Taiyan), Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2014-2017. For an overview of the recent research on Zhang Taiyan, see Zhang Taiyan yanjiu zhongxin (eds.) 章太炎研究中心 (主编), Zhang Taiyan yanjiu 章太炎研究 (Zhang Taiyan Studies), Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2023.

[2] Two examples of more philosophical works on Zhang Taiyan are Wang Hui 汪暉, Xiandai Zhongguo sixiang de xingqi 現代中國思想的興起 (The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought), Sanlian shudian, 2004, pp. 1043ff. and Viren Murthy, The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness, Brill, 2011.

[3] Other notable publications by Wang Rui on Zhang Taiyan’s intellectual and political thought are Zhang Taiyan wannian xueshu sixiang yanjiu 章太炎晚年学术思想研究 (A Study of Zhang Taiyan’s Academic Thought in His Later Years) (Shangwu yinshuguan, 2014), Xin jiu zhi bian: Zhang Taiyan xuehang lun 新旧之辨:章太炎学行论 (Between Old and New: An Essay on Zhang Taiyan’s Learning and Practice) (Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2017), Ziguo zixin: Zhang Taiyan yu zhongguo chuantong sixiang de gengsheng 自国自心:章太炎与中国传统思想的更生 (Our State and Our Mind: Zhang Taiyan and the Rehabilitation of Traditional Chinese Thought) (Shangwu yinshuguan, 2019), Tansuo “Liangzheng”: Zhang Taiyan sixiang lun ji 探索 “良政”:章太炎思想论集 (Discussing “Good Governance”: Essays on the Thought of Zhang Taiyan) (Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2020).

[4] Zhang Taiyan 章太炎, Daohan san yan 菿汉三言 (Daohan’s three lectures), Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe, 2000.

[5] Zou Rong was a Chinese nationalist and revolutionary martyr who gained fame for publishing his book Geming jun (The Revolutionary Army) in 1903, with a preface written by Zhang Taiyan. He was incarcerated alongside Zhang Taiyan and passed away during his jail sentence in 1905.

[6] In 1903, under the editorship of Zhang Shizhao 章士钊, the Subao journal published numerous radical revolutionary articles advocating for the overthrow of the Qing government. These included a highly positive review of Rou Rong’s The Revolutionary Army and Zhang Taiyan’s preface to the book. Following extensive negotiations between the Qing government and the authorities of the Shanghai Concession, Zhang and Zou were arrested and subsequently sentenced to three years in jail. Despite their imprisonment, the revolutionaries celebrated the case as a victory, given that the Qing government had initially sought capital punishment.

[7] The Minbao journal, published from 1905 to 1908, was the most important mouthpiece of the Chinese revolutionaries. It was published from Tokyo and (for the most part) edited by Zhang Taiyan and Zhang Ji 张继.



Cite this blog post
Fabian Hiller (2024, May 1). [Review] 王锐:《革命儒生:章太炎传》 (Wang Rui: The Revolutionary Confucian Scholar. A Biography of Zhang Taiyan). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/10si0

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