Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (1869-1936), actual name Zhang Binglin 章炳麟, courtesy name Meishu 枚叔, alternative name Jiang 絳, style Taiyan 太炎 (in admiration of the early Qing-period philosopher Gu Yanwu 顧炎武), was a philosopher and revolutionary thinker of the last years of the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) and the early Republican era (1911-1949).
He hailed from Yuhang 余杭, Zhejiang, and was educated according to the teachings of Yu Yue 俞樾 (1821-1907), Huang Yizhou 黃以周 (1828-1899) and Tan Xian 譚獻 (1832-1901). Zhang also participated in Kang Youwei's reform movement (weixin yundong 維新運動) and was a member of Kang's Society for the Study of Strengthening [the State] (Qiangxuehui 強學會). In 1897, Zhang became an editor of the newspaper "Contemporary Affairs" (Shiwubao 時務報) in Shanghai. Five years after the failure of Kang Youwei's Hundred-Days Reform (Wuxu bianfa 戊戌變法) in 1898, Zhang published the book Bo Kang Youwei lun geming shu 駁康有為論革命書, in which he passed over to the side of revolutionaries. Together with Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 (1868-1940), Zhang Taiyan founded in 1902 the revolutionary Patriotic Study Society (Aiguo xueshe 愛國學社). In June 1903, Zhang was thrown into jail after publishing revolutionary articles in the newspaper "Jiangsu Daily" (Subao 蘇報) and having written a preface to Zou Rong's 鄒容 (1885-1905) book "The Revolutionary Army" (Geming jun 革命軍). After his release in 1906, he went into exile in Japan, where he edited the Minbao 民報 journal and became a member of Sun Yat-sen's (Sun Zhongshan 孫中山, 1866-1925) revolutionary party Tongmenghui 同盟會. In 1910, Zhang and Tao Chengzhang 陶成章 (1878-1912) founded the Restoration Society (Guangfuhui 光復會).
After the 1911 Revolution, Zhang Taiyan returned to China and became an advisor of the Provisional Nanjing Government (Nanjing linshi zhengfu 南京臨時政府), founded the Republican Alliance Party (Zhonghua Minguo Lianhehui 中華民國聯合會) and edited the journal Da gonge ribao 大共和日報. He vehemently criticized President Yuan Shikai's 袁世凱 (1859-1916) presumable assassination of Song Jiaoren 宋教仁 (1882-1913) and his self-proclamation as emperor in 1915, and contributed in the administration of Sun Yat-sen's Constitutional Protection Army (Hufajun 護法軍) that fought against the warlord regimes in the north. Yet Zhang became more conservative during this period, and did not agree with Sun Yat-sen's strategy of finding support by the Soviet Union or the united front with the young Communist Party.
In his late years, Zhang retired from the realm of politics and became a teacher and instructor and published the periodical Zhiyan 制言. After the Mukden Incident (Jiu yiba shibian 九一八事變) in Sep 1931, Zhang supported anti-Japanese movements. He died in Suzhou 蘇州.
In the field of practical policy, Zhang supported Sun Yat-sen's demand to give each peasant his own land. The Republican government had to see to it that bureaucratism was to be suppressed, and the people supported in an equal and fair way, and that the rich ones were to be taxed, while the poor ones to be assisted.
Zhang wrote several books on linguistic and classical studies. Under the influence of the old Qian-Jia School of Han Studies (Qian-Jia Hanxue 乾嘉漢學), Zhang's early studies showed great interest in the analysis of history, geography, astronomy and ceremonial matters in history. His most important writings from this period are Gaolanshi zhaji 膏蘭室札記 and Chunqiu-Zuozhuan du 春秋左傳讀. During that time, Zhang was not experienced enough to discern between the objective studies of the Old-Text interpretations and the more superstitious interpretations of the New-Text School like the Gongyang Commentary (Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳). Yet in the course of time, Zhang became more suspicious towards Kang Youwei's use of the New-Text interpretations for the intellectual undergirding of his reform movement. He likewise attacks the views of Liao Ping 廖平 (1852-1932) and Pi Xirui 皮錫瑞 (1850-1908) on the role of Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551-479 BCE) as a reformer.
In a kind of annalistic auto-biography, Taiyan xiansheng ziding nianpu 太炎先生自定年譜, Zhang describes his own intellectual development in this field. He also published several texts criticizing the apocryphal tradition of the interpretation of the Classics, and stressed the value of the Zuozhuan 左傳 text for historiographical and classical studies. In Zhang's eyes, Confucius had revised and refined the Classics texts, and was thus to be seen as the foremost teacher of historians, and not as a kind of "master of (moral) instruction" (jiaozhu 教主), as Kang Youwei held. Zhang particularly admired the editorial work of the Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) bibliographer and philosopher Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE).
In his analytic studies of the Classics texts, Zhang Taiyan proved that the chapter Wangzhi 王制 of the ritual classic Liji 禮記 was a Han-period interpretation of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), and not an original text on the “royal system” of the Zhou based on which contemporary reforms of the political system could be carried out. He also rectified the wrong assumption that the Classic Zhouli 周禮 was a description of 360 state functionaries, and demonstrated that the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" was not a text written by Confucius.
As a thinker who had all his live engaged in the study of the Classics texts, Zhang Taiyan was suspicious of the "new literature movement" (xin wenhua yundong 新文化運動) of the May Fourth Movement (wusi yundong 五四運動) which advocated the abolition of ancient literature and blamed Confucianism for China's backwardness. Zhang held high the need to "venerate Confucius and read the Classics" (zun Kong du jing 尊孔讀經).
The philosophy of Zhang Taiyan can be characterized as "materialistic". He held that substance and matter existed in the shape of "breath" (qi 氣), which actually followed the traditional Neo-Confucian worldview. "Heaven" (i.e. objects and living beings) consisted of matter (qi), which originated in the earth, and the earth originated in the sun/cosmos (tian zu yu qi, qi sheng yu di, di sheng yu ri 天箤于氣，氣生于地，地生于日). Thoughts and wisdom could be separated from matter. The fate of individuals was not bound to destiny or the will of supernatural beings like Heaven or gods. It was "not given by the sun/the cosmos" (qi wei huofu fei ri wu yu 其為禍福則日無與). Zhang thus deviated from the Neo-Confucian world of thought which had believed that the human character was naturally endowed into man's heart. Instead, Zhang firmly believed in the function of the sensual organs (tianguan 天官 "Heavenly functionaries") as the only means by which humans could form their own destiny and act as "Heaven" themselves.
Zhang translated Kishimoto Nobuta's 岸本能武太 (1866-1926) book on the sociology of religion, Shakaigaku 社会学. The book was published in 1902 as Shehuixue 社會學 "Sociology". It was a critical review of the works of Western sociologists like Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Franklin H. Giddings (1855-1931) and their "organic analogy" (jiti lun 機體論) of societies.
The most important ones among the many writings of Zhang Taiyan are Qiuyan 訄書, Guwen Shangshu shiyi 古文尚書拾遺, Chunqiu-Zuozhuan du xulu 春秋左傳讀敘錄, Chunqiu-Zuoshi yiyi wenti 春秋左氏疑義問題, Liu Zizheng Zuoshui shuo 劉子政左氏說, Wushenlun 無神論, Jianli zongjiao lun 建立宗教論, Guojialun 國家論, Sihuolun 四惑論, Junshuo 菌說, Guang Lunyu pianzhi 廣論語駢枝, Xinchu santi shijing kao 新出三體石經考, Shuowen bushou yunyu 說文部首韻語, Wenshi 文始, Guogu lunheng 國故論衡 and Taiyan wenlu 太炎文錄. His writings on politics are assembled in the series Zhang Taiyan zhenglun xuanji 章太炎政論選集. There is a series including texts written by Zhang Taiyan, Zhangshi congshu 章氏叢書, with two sequels. The collected writings Zhang Taiyan quanji 章太炎全集 were published in 1982.