Revolution as Restoration:
Guocui xuebao and China’s Path to Modernity, 1905-1911

By Tze-ki Hon

Reviewed by Peter Zarrow
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2013)

Book cover for Revolution as Restoration

Tze-ki Hon.
Restoration as Revolution:
Guocui xuebao and China’s Path to Modernity, 1905-1911.
Leiden: Brill, 2013. 135 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-0-04-24780-2 (cloth)

Western scholarship on the convulsive transformations of Chinese society during the late Qing—the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth—has long been overshadowed by an understandable interest in explaining the Communist Revolution. Recent studies of the social and cultural changes of the Republican period have broadened our understanding of modern Chinese politics. The late Qing has received some attention, but relatively sophisticated analyses of the intellectual and cultural changes of the period have emerged only recently.[ 1 ]

Tze-ki Hon’s brief monograph is an important addition to this literature. Hon believes that the writers of Guocui xuebao 國粹學報 (Journal of the national essence), which flourished in the last years of the Qing, possessed a notion of revolution as a kind of restoration. This in turn formed the basis of a particular vision of a Chinese “path to modernity.” Hon thus refutes claims that the national essence school should be regarded as conservative, claiming its adherents to be “forward looking” (6). He dismisses historians—who dismiss the likes of Deng Shi, Huang Jie, Liu Shipei, Zhang Binglin, and others as “conservative”—as themselves victims of a false revolutionary teleology. As Hon notes, the men listed above were “fearless revolutionaries” or at least sympathetic to the anti-Manchu/pro-Republican movement of the last years of the Qing. Following Zheng Shiqiu, Hon emphasizes that the national essence writers were, in traditional terms, somewhat marginal literati who had not passed the civil service examinations, and thus had a minimal stake in the old system and, even more important, that the notion of “national essence” did not refer to some timeless spirit but was rather a deliberately selective and dynamic reading of the past.[ 2 ] As Hon emphasizes, their reading of the past was combined with a belief in progressive social evolution so that restoration could never be mere return. Hon also emphasizes the context in which Guocui xuebao operated and which it contributed to: print capitalism, international networks of technology and ideas, and the public sphere. Following Joan Judge, Hon regards the national essence writers as forming a “middle realm” who saw their responsibilities as representing the people or nation to the state and, in a sense, the state to the people insofar as they believed in educating the masses.[ 3 ] Hon also seems to connect the middle realm to the transition that the writers were making from traditional literati to modern intellectuals, concluding that after the 1911 Revolution the “middle realm” came to an end, a point to which we will return. At any rate, Hon suggests that the national essence writers sought to shape public opinion through their journal and also through textbooks and even a school, and thereby to establish a cultural sphere that was free of state interference yet intimately linked to nation and public.

Hon contributes to a number of key issues in the field and is right to emphasize the importance of the Guocui xuebao. Published in Shanghai starting in 1905, it was to have a long history. In its first years, it effectively stood between the revolutionary and the reformist journals (most prominently the Tongmenghui’s Minbao and Liang Qichao’s Xinmin congbao, both of which were banned in China and published in Tokyo). Guocui xuebao remarkably managed to represent both points of view, tensions therein notwithstanding. In that respect, in my reading, it might even be called the mouthpiece of a confused mainstream of thoughtful educated men. At the very least, while circulation figures cannot be known, Hon shows that Guocui xuebao achieved national circulation. It might also be argued that regardless of how we judge its writers—as revolutionaries, conservatives, modernizing conservatives, political-radicals but social-conservatives, as radicals-turned-conservatives after 1911—all these shorthand labels indicate the tumult of the era. While rejecting revolutionary teleology, Hon’s study fits well into the modernization school of modern Chinese history. For Hon, the most important roles of Guocui xuebao may have been to enlarge China’s public sphere; to make clever use of the new institutions spawned by global networks and print capitalism; and, not least, to show old-style literati how they might make classical learning relevant to modern nation-building and thus foster a modern intelligentsia. Hon does not see the national essence school as offering a critique of modernity (at least before 1911), but precisely as seeking to use the past in pursuit of modernity.

A strength of this monograph is that it allows the reader to come to different conclusions on certain central issues. I, for example, agree that, in sum, the Guocui xuebao writers accepted the powerful notions of linear progress and social evolution and in that sense can be seen as modernizers—modernizers who understood that modernization could not simply consist of imitation, who gave a unique role to the educated elite (themselves!), and who mined the past for resources to use in their nation-building vision. However, I think most of these views represented a fairly brief moment in the development of modern Chinese thought. The transition from literati to intellectuals that Hon rightly highlights was necessarily a transitional moment. Above all, the particular use of the past that the national essence school pursued was to prove a dead end: too obviously a historical fantasy, on the one hand, and too lifeless and ancient, on the other. Thus when Hon concludes that “the vision of modernity of Guocui xuebao [is] as timely today as it was a hundred years ago” (119), I am not convinced. Today’s Chinese may be just as interested in creating a unique form of modernity but it is not going to come from nattering on about the Yellow Emperor’s bloodlines, Zhou dynasty schools, Ming loyalists, or classical learning more generally.[ 4 ] Something of a parallel might be found in the use of “Athenian democracy” in the West: historically inspiring but hardly a blueprint.

A major problem in Hon’s analysis is the slippery notion of “modernity.” For the most part, Hon suggests that the national essence school’s vision of modernity represented a universal concept. Modernity is modernity is modernity. It is only the path to get there that differs from nation to nation. Indeed, at one point, Hon remarks that, “it is clear that the Guocui xuebao writers accepted the Eurocentric view of modernity. They took it for granted that modernity not only began in Europe but was also defined by European experience and inventions” (73). This judgment rests uneasily with Hon’s general emphasis on the search for a unique path if not necessarily a unique end.[ 5 ] As Hon points out, the national essence writers never used the term “modernity,” and we must ask in what sense the term might be applied to them. Railroads and industry and the latest armaments? Apparently, not so much. A classless, egalitarian society? Definitely not, as Hon himself notes (113). Rather, we are talking about the notions of linear progress, the racial nation, a public sphere, and, to some extent, republicanism—or, perhaps less republicanism than anti-despotism, which is not quite the same thing. In Hon’s quest for modernity, he neglects the “side” of the national essence school that did look backwards, not forwards. Hon’s claim that for the national essence school the Zhou dynasty was simply a “metaphor” (82) is simply not convincing.

One could approach this question either by a more complete analysis of what modernity means or meant, or by situating the national essence school in the debates of the day. Or, as I am now inclined to think, discussions of modernity are more about us than them, and are more trouble to historians than they are worth. Having said that, untroubled by hobgoblins of consistency, I would add, with Hon, that insofar as the national essence school writers advocated certain modern doctrines, they had broken with traditional thought in fundamental ways. To envision a state based on race or nation, to reject the imperial state as inherently despotic, and to help build a public sphere based on journalism—these mark the Guocui xuebao as modern. However, in my view, classical learning hardly equipped the national essence school to understand the new social forces at work in the late Qing, much less the early Republic. Militarists, businessmen, students, women were outside their ken; even new political concepts could only be understood in approximate terms. Classical learning provided tools that were useful in beginning to acquire a grasp of the modern world, but hardly sufficient to build that world.[ 6 ]

Whether one believes that the national essence thinking of the late Qing has much to say about the problem of modernity today, it played a major role in shaping Chinese self-understanding in the twentieth century. In six brisk chapters, Hon captures the essence of this progress, reminding us that even what today appear to be bizarre theories and arbitrary textual readings were part of an extraordinarily fertile period of rethinking Chinese culture. We no longer speak of the Mesopotamian origins of the Han race, of the egalitarian and consensual politics of the Zhou dynasty, or of a Dark Ages that interrupted a breakneck race toward modernity over two-thousand years ago, but we certainly speak of a Chinese nation rooted in a long and unique history and a modern culture that cannot be divorced from classical knowledge and norms.

Peter Zarrow
Department of History, University of Connecticut


[ 1 ] Previous work—especially in Chinese—has been dominated by the “reform vs. revolution” debate and revolutionary teleology. Scholars like Hao Chang (張灝) began to break out of the limitations of this approach nearly four decades ago, but Chang’s long remained a lone voice. A turning point in cultural studies broadly defined perhaps came with David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). Recent English-language studies on late Qing thought include Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Viren Murthy’s The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness (Leiden: Brill, 2011; reviewed for Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (Nov. 2012), by Hung-yok Ip); and my own Peter Zarrow, After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[ 2 ] 郑师渠《晚清囯粹派 : 文化思想硏究》(北京:北京师范大学出版社,1993). Hon points out, contrary to Zheng, that the national essence writers cannot simply be classified as Sun Yat-sen-style “bourgeois democratic” revolutionaries, since they also supported the New Policy reforms of the Qing.

[ 3 ] Joan Judge, Print and Culture: Shibao and the Culture of Reform in Late Qing China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[ 4 ] The revival of Confucianism that is so striking at the beginning of the twenty-first century seems contrary to the classical pluralism of the Guocui xuebao. Different from several unsupported remarks that Hon makes in regard to national essence school respect for Confucius (14, 70), a number of Guocui xuebao writers had little use for Confucianism.

[ 5 ] It might be said that the tension lies in Guocui xuebao, not Hon. However, a few contradictions do mar the monograph. Hon suggests that the textbooks produced by the Association for the Preservation of National Essence were a “major player” in the market (39), but later remarks that the textbooks project failed (115). In my view, the latter judgment is probably correct, judging from the dearth of its textbooks in libraries, second-hand bookstores, and catalogs. Hon also remarks that “Deng Shi showed a keen interest in local self-government” (85), and then that “Deng Shi was conspicuously silent in the debate over local self-government” (94). Sometimes, Hon generalizes that the national essence writers found the source of all that was good in the Western Zhou, but sometimes in the Eastern Zhou, without quite making the distinction clear. I would say the distinction is that for those interested in what we might call ritualized institutions and the possibility of using them to support local self-government, the Western Zhou served as a model. For those like Liu Shipei who were more interested in intellectual freedom and pluralism, the Eastern Zhou, with the rise of the “hundred schools” served as a model. Hon’s emphasis on Guocui xuebao as a representative of modern print capitalism is generally well taken but also one-sided. In spite of Deng Shi’s efforts, the journal lost money (39) and relied on contributions from its members. In that respect, we can see the National Essence group as a rather traditional literati group engaged in self-publishing. It is also worth nothing that if “it was journalism that gave them the symbolic capital to shape public opinion” (39-40), Deng, Huang, and the other writers still relied on their classical learning to appeal to a literati audience (as Hon makes clear).

[ 6 ] It is unfortunate that Hon does not pursue the “conservative side” of the Guocui xuebao writers a bit further. Although the post-1911 period remains outside the scope of his study, he does remark on the writers’ unhappiness with the revolution (115-116), an unhappiness that stemmed partly from their support for the New Policy reforms and raises questions about their commitment to revolutionism. But the larger question is whether their post-1911 unhappiness stemmed from the failure of the Republic to achieve the goals of the revolution or from a fear of social and cultural change that was prefigured in their earlier thought. In any case, Hon’s statement that the “middle realm” disappeared with the militarization of politics (116) is correct only if the realm is associated with a specific generation of literati journalists; in fact, of course, the press flourished in the early Republic.