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The savior of China during the reform movement of 1898

China’s debacle in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) put the Chinese nation on the brink of a national crisis. In the wake of the war, “reform” became an absolute necessity. Leading reformists like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao resorted to the icon of Confucius to institute constitutional reform in the Qing Dynasty, in the name of “the restoration of Confucianism.” This reform movement, led by this group of constitutional reformists, focused on Confucius as its publicity stunt because, from a semiotic perspective, Kang Youwei and others realized the unique symbolic value of Confucius in Chinese history. They were convinced that, in order to undertake the constitutional reform and modernization campaign, they had to invoke an ideological authority in order to vindicate

Confucius’ Connotative Signification during the Reign of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

Figure 2.4 Confucius’ Connotative Signification during the Reign of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom

their campaign. As an idol whom all the Chinese people admired and worshipped, Confucius was perfectly qualified to serve as an authoritative paragon. Therefore, Kang Youwei believed that he could “take advantage of the mentality that the Chinese people had formed throughout history and channel it to more profitable ends.”5 The reformists transplanted their political ideals onto Confucius as a divine figure and tried to find rationale in Confucianism that the reforms they championed conformed to the ancient system and ancient principles. In this way, the reformists could fully justify their demands for institutional changes. Another reason why the reformist resorted to the ancient sage Confucius to justify their cause was that they could fend off the attacks from those conservatives who tried desperately to defend the feudal system of the Qing Dynasty. Under such circumstances, the invocation of the divine sage who had already advocated reformist ideas more than 2,000 years ago was the best weapon for the reformists to counter the attacks from the conservatives.

During the constitutional reform campaign of 1898, Confucius was adapted to the reformist ideals and, as a political icon, Confucius conveyed multiple signifieds on the connotative level - not only as a sage and a master of masters in the cultural sense, but also as a reform advocator and spokesperson who could contribute to the reformists’ enterprise and, ultimately, as the savior of the great Qing Dynasty.

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