An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Tan Sitong 譚嗣同

May 30, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Tan Sitong 譚嗣同 (1865-1898), courtesy name Fusheng 復生, style Zhuangfei 壯飛 or Huaxiang Zhongsheng 華相眾生, was a reformist thinker of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He is the most prominent victim of the purges after the abortion of the Hundred-Days Reform (wuxu bianfa 戊戌變法) of 1898.

Tan hailed from Liuyang 瀏陽, Hunan, from a gentry family. Under the influence of China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (Jiawu zhanzheng 甲午戰爭), he turned away from traditional Chinese learning and began to study translations of Western books on technology and social sciences. Tan was convinced that China could only survive if her political system changed thoroughly towards a Western, democratic model (jin bian Xifa 盡變西法). An attempt to meet the reformist thinker Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858-1927) in Shanghai in 1896 failed, but Tan became acquainted with Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929), who introduced him to Kang. Tan Sitong became one of Kang's most ardent supporters for a policy of political reform (weixin bianfa 維新變法).

In 1897, Tan followed the wish of his father and agreed to be put on the list of candidates for the post of a prefect (houbu zhifu 候補知府) in the province of Jiangsu, for which reason he had to stay in Nanjing 南京. During that year, he was instructed by Yang Wenhui 楊文會 (1837-1911) in the basics of Buddhism, but continued to pursue his interest in Western learning. In 1897, the governor (xunfu 巡撫) of his home province Hunan, Chen Baozhen 陳寶箴 (1831-1900), invited Tan to participate in a restructuring of the provincial government. Tan agreed and helped to found a School of Applied Business (shiwu xuetang 時務學堂) and a military school (wubei xuetang 武備學堂). He also edited two journals, Xiangxue xinbao 湘學新報, and Xiangxuebao 湘學報. A year later, he founded the Southern Studies Society (Nanxuehui 南學會, a proto-parliament) and the newspaper Xiangbao 湘報.

Tan politicized the curriculum of the School by enriching the concept of "China as the substance, and the West for application" (Zhong ti Xi yong 中體西用) with the request for democratisation (minquan lun 民權論). The Southern Studies Society was defined as the basis on which a provincial parliament (yiyuan 議院) could be built that could serve as a paradigm for the rest of China. Tan Sitong stressed the importance of the division of powers into legislative (yishi 議事 "discussing matters") and executive (banshi 辦事 "executing matters"). All projects the government planned had to be discussed with the parliament before they could be realized (xian yu xuehui yi zhi, yi ding er hou xing 先與學會議之,議定而后行). Projects planned by the people should be discussed in local parliaments and then gradually submitted to higher parliaments before being approved by the central parliament (zongxuehui ke ze xing zhi 總學會可則行之). It was Tan's wish that parliaments would have real power, and not just the name of a power (wu yiyuan zhi ming, er you yiyuan zhi shi 無議院之名、而有議院之實). The ideal case was that high functionaries would not be arrogant, and petty officials not corrupt (dai wu gan jiaoheng, xiaoliu wu gan qizha 大吏罔敢驕橫,小吏罔敢欺詐).

In June 1898, the Guangxu Emperor 光緒帝 (r. 1874-1908) decreed the introduction of reform. Tan was granted the rank of xxx 四品軍機章京 and became a member of the consultation group xxx 參議新政. 與林旭、楊銳、劉光第同參與新政,時號“軍機四卿. After hundred days, the reform project was violently stopped by the conservative circle at the court. In the night of Sep 18, Tan had asked the powerful general Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 (1859-1916) to intervene in favour to the reformers against the circle of conservatives around Prince Ronglu 榮祿 (1836-1903). Yuan promised to do so, but then helped the "reactionaries". It was recommended to Tan to leave China, but he insisted that each reform necessitated victims and bloodshed, and he was willing to be the first victim. He was arrested and executed on 28 Sep together with five other persons, the so-called "Five Noblemen of the Reform" (wuxu liu junzi 戊戌六君子).

Tan Sitong's philosophy was influenced by the early Qing-period master Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692), who had refined the Neo-Confucian concept of substance/matter (qi 氣) and the universal principle (li 理, dao 道) as introduced by Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077) during the Northern Song period 宋 (960-1279). The original, homogenous matter (yuanqi yinyun 元氣絪縕) gave birth to the ten thousand beings through movement or interaction. The world was moving inside the original matter, vehicles and vessels were moving in the world, humans inside their vehicles, and the human heart or mind inside the human body. All beings and their activities were thus products of movement (yun 運). The universal principle was embedded in substance and could not be separated from it or exist for its own. The universal principle was thus dependent on carriers (qi 器) like objects or humans. Carriers consisted a body, while the universal principle served for action and realization (qi ti dao yong 器體道用).

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in Tan's "Teaching of kindheartedness" (Renxue 仁學, 1897), in which he defined the Confucian virtue of kindheartedness (ren 仁) as the foremost and all-pervading form of propriety (yi 義). It was the moving force of the human heart and might be perceived as "ether" (yitai 以太) or natural energy (dian 電 "flash"). All objects in the world were permeated and governed by ether and the virtue of kindheartedness, which meant that all human beings were equally endowed with this virtue, each having equal shares and right. Tan equalized ether and the virtue ren, thus de-materializing the substance of which all things were made. A similar influence of Buddhism can be seen in his epistemological proposition that designations were but "guests/agents of reality" (shi zhi bin 實之賓) and were not bound to physical reality (ming wu shi ti 名無實體).

Tan's concept meant a substantial difference to the Neo-Confucian belief that social hierarchies were embedded into nature. He was convinced that the three hierarchies and five virtues (sangang wulun 三綱五倫) did not originate in the universal principle, but were artificially imposed on society. Transferred into the realm of politics, this meant that the traditional system had to be replaced by a political system in which men had equal rights. It was therefore necessary to shake off the fetters of the Confucian net of hierarchies (chongjue junzhu zhi wangluo 沖決君主之網羅). For two thousand years, the political system had remained the same as that introduced by the exploitative and predatory Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE). It was important to stress that the political system could indeed be changed (jun ke bian 君可變) and had to be adapted to a form in which the people elected their sovereign (min ze jun 民擇君) and the sovereign was elected by everyone on an equal standing (gong ju 共舉). Each individual was allowed to pursue his own interests and make his own life as he wished.

Tan even opted for the eventual dissolution of state and nation and to create a world in which no envy, strife and war would exist. This idea was influenced by the concept of the "great unity" (datong 大同) in the chapter Liyun 禮運 "The conveyance of rites" of the ritual classic Liji 禮記. It was later described in Kang Youwei's book Datong 大同.

Tan's early thought is reflected in his writings Liaotianyige wen< 寥天一閣文, Mangcangcangzhai shi 莽蒼蒼齋詩, Yuanyitang ji waiwen 遠遺堂集外文, and Shijuyinglu bishi 石菊影廬筆識 (assembled in the collection Donghai Qianmingshi sanshi yiqian jiuxue si zhong 東海褰冥氏三十以前舊學四種). Published in 1900, the book Liuyang erjie yiwen 瀏陽二杰遺文 presents important writings of Tan Sitong and Tang Caichang 唐才常 (1867-1900). Other early editions are Qiuyunianhua zhi guan congzuo shu 秋雨年華之館叢脞書, Tan Liuyang quanji 譚瀏陽全集 (Tan Liuyang ji 譚瀏陽集) and Tan Fusheng wenchao 譚復生文鈔. The core texts of Tan's philosophy are the books Zhiyan 治言, Renxue, and Duanshu 短書. The collected writings of Tan, Tan Sitong quanji 譚嗣同全集, were first published in 1954. A revised edition was finished in 1981.

Chen Yueqing 陳月清, Wang Anyou 王安有 (1996). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升, ed. Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 273.
Jiang Jiannong 蔣建農 (1990). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Song Chun 宋春, Zhu Jianhua 朱建華, ed. Zhongguo zhengdang yaoren zhuan 中國政黨要人傳 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 692.
Jiang Xijin 蔣錫金, ed. (1990). Wen-shi-zhe xuexi cidian 文史哲學習辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenchi chubanshe), 547.
Lou Yulie 樓宇烈 (1988). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 864.
Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 289.
Shao Demen 邵德門 (1992). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhengzhixue 政治學(Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 361.
Wang Junyi 王俊義 (1992). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1085.
Wu Tingzhen 吳廷楨 (1988). "Tan Sitong 譚嗣同", in Zhang Jihui 趙吉惠, Guo Hou'an 郭厚安, ed. Zhongguo ruxue cidian 中國儒學辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 185.
Yi Xingguo 衣興國, ed. (1988). Shiyong Zhongguo mingren cidian 實用中國名人辭典(Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 748.