Kang Youwei (1858-1927), who was born in Nanhai County, Guangdong Province, and popularly known as the Master of Nanhai or Kang Nanhai, was a progressive reformer who in his whole life “sought truth from the West.” The “Sweat-Soaked Boat” was a small boat-shaped room Kang lived in and originally was part of the Nanhai Guidhall. It now stands at 43 Mishi (Rice Market) Alley, opposite Caishikou (Entrance to Vegetable Market).
In his “Sweet-Soaked Boat,” Kang Youwei wrote poetry and prose, compiled a number of famous books and, along with his colleagues, formulated plans for the Reform Movement of 1898.
When Kang lived there, the northern courtyard of the Nanhai Guildhall had seven trees and was thus known as the Seven-Tree Court. A roofed gallery running through the center of the courtyard was flanked by picturesque rockeries and its walls decorated with an inscription of Su Dongpo’ s verse, “On seeing a flowering crabapple. ”When Kang Youwei arrived in Beijing for the first time in June 1882 to make part in the national imperial examinations, he resided at he Nanhai Guildhall. Although he was unsuccessful in the examinations, his experiences in the capital were an education in itself. After returning home via Shanghai, he read a number of translated works on such subjects as modern industry, international politics, medicine and military strategy, from which he became aware that the Western nations drew on a set of ideologies which were entirely different from Confucian thought. The theories presented in these books were a catalyst for Kang Youwei’ s reformist plans to bring constitutional monarchy to China.
In the summer of 1888 at age 30, Kang returned to Beijing for a second unsuccessful attempt at eh imperial examinations, once more staying at the Nanhai guildhall. By this time, the corruption and decadence of the Qing government and the general situation brought about by China’ s defeat in two Opium Wars further reinforced his belief that China’ s only hope lay in reform. Kang wrote several lengthy memorials to the throne enumerating his beliefs, expressing his grief at the sorry state of the nation and suggesting reform. Unfortunately, his memorials fell into the hands of archconservatives at court and never reached the emperor. Despite this, Kang’ s name became well known in Beijing.
Between 1890 and 1897, Kang Youwei completed two major works, which laid the foundation for constitutional reform and modernization and gave further impetus to the reform movement. In 1894-1895, he and his student Liang Qichao met twice in Beijing. Their meetings coincided with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent defeat of China’ s army and navy, which for over a decade had been in the hands of advocates of Westernization. The panic-stricken Qing government dispatched Li Hongzhang to Japan to surrender and negotiate a peace settlement, and in March 1895, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed. According to the terms of the treaty, the independence of Korea was recognized, the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu) Islands were ceded to the Japanese, and China was to pay an indemnity of 200 million taels of silver. News of this treaty set off vigorous opposition from the Beijing public and Li Hongzhang was strongly criticized for betraying his country. Kang Youwei immediately called upon the 1,300 successful provincial examination candidates (juren) currently in Beijing to join him in presenting a memorial to the throne requesting that eh emperor nullify the treaty and institute progressive reforms.
In 1897, Kang founded a number of politically oriented societies and in 1898, he and Liang Qichao organized candidates in Beijing taking the imperial examinations into the Society to Preserve the Nation, which issued a well-known appeal: “China’ s territory is diminishing; China’ s power is being eroded; the people of China face increasingly greater difficulties.”
After a period of deliberation, on April 23, 1898, Emperor Guangxu issued a decree to “determine China’s correct policy” wherein he agreed to realize the requested reforms. But the weakness of the emperor’s clique resulted in the Reform Movement lasting for only 100 days before an archconservative clique led by Empress Dowager Cixi quashed it. Kang Youwei was forced to flee Beijing in disguise on the eve of the coup d’etat.
Kang’s last visit to Beijing took place in August 1926. He died at Qingdao on March 31,1927.