Key thinker: Zhang Taiyan (1869–1936)

Zhang Taiyan (1869–1936)


Zhang Binglin (better known by his art name, Zhang Taiyan) was born in the Yuhang prefecture in the Zhejiang province of China ( Zhang received his early education from his maternal grandfather, Zhu Youqin, who introduced him to Chinese classics (see 20.1. Introduction). Zhang never passed his official examinations, which prevented him from securing a government position. But he continued to study the classics to rethink how they might help challenge existing power structures (see 20.2.1. Zhang’s Classical Learning Amidst Political Events). While Zhang cherished China’s intellectual heritage, he believed that Confucian classics (see Key Thinker: Confucius) should not be treated as sacred texts, but as part of a national literature ( He rejected the influence of Western culture on Chinese identity, and argued that Chinese people needed to rethink both the West and China’s own past to form a new nationalist political theory (see 20.2.2. Zhang’s Nationalism in Relation to Reformers).

Zhang, an ethnic Han, was an ardent nationalist who refused to accept the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911/12). He adopted his art name in honour of two Ming dynasty (1368-1644) scholars who resisted the Qing takeover of China in the seventeenth century. Zhang’s nationalism developed in the aftermath of a series of Chinese military defeats in the mid-nineteenth century, including the First Opium War (1839-42) and the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) (see 20.2.1. Zhang’s Classical Learning Amidst Political Events). These defeats led to the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ (1861-95), which called for the adoption of Western technologies without abandoning the basic structures of Confucian culture, and its subsequent rejection. The defeat to a smaller territorial power like Japan exposed the weakness of the project of self-strengthening and convinced Chinese nationalists that they urgently needed to catch up with other nations in the West and in Asia.

In 1903, Zhang was arrested for his anti-imperialist polemics. After his release, Zhang fled to Japan where he joined the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary group, the Tongmenghui (Alliance Society) ( But he soon broke with the group over his disagreement with Sun’s ‘Three Principles of the People’. The Chinese Revolution of 1911-12 overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. When Yuan Shikai became President soon after, Zhang was appointed as his advisor. But Zhang again angered the government by accusing Yuan of plotting the assassination of the founder of the Kuomintang (KMT), Song Jiaoren, and was placed on house arrest. Zhang was released from house arrest following Yuan’s death in 1916, and was appointed Minister of the Guangzhou Generalissimo ( In 1924, Zhang left the KMT and became more critical of its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. When Zhang died in 1936, he received a state funeral. He was 67 years old.


In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century opposition to the Qing dynasty took on two forms: reformist and revolutionary. While the reformists hoped to transform imperial China into a constitutional monarchy, the revolutionaries pushed for the creation of a republic with Western-style parliamentary institutions (see 20.2.2. Zhang’s Nationalism in Relation to Reformers). But Zhang, a revolutionary, also argued that China should be governed by the Han, and that there was a racial opposition between the Manchu imperialists and ethnic Han-Chinese. He further argued that Manchu people were inferior to Han-Chinese and that the Tibetans, Manchu, and Mongols should form their own nations. But Zhang later developed a theory of Pan-Asian identity and a Buddhist philosophy of equality that somewhat put his earlier Han chauvinism into perspective.

Some scholars have suggested that Zhang’s focus on racialism can be compared to white supremacism (see Chapter 10 on Charles Mills). But such arguments ignore the fact that the Manchu were a ruling minority in China. Like twentieth-century national liberation movements, Zhang used the concept of race to challenge a colonial or imperial ruling class. For Zhang, like for Fanon (see Chapter 28 on Frantz Fanon), anti-imperialist nationalism and imperialist nationalism are fundamentally different. Zhang was a critic of both the state and nationalism, but he insisted that anti-Manchu nationalism was a necessary part of a global struggle against imperialism for nations like China, which needed patriotism to resist colonization (see 20.3.1. In Defense of Anti-Colonial Nationalism). But his theory differs from ‘strategic essentialism’ (see Key Concept: Strategic Essentialism in Chapter 24 on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), which rejects an essentialist interpretation of race.

In the early 1900s, Zhang had rejected the Chinese past and argued that the scientific laws of the universal principle (see Key Concept: Gongli) were guiding the Chinese state away from despotism (see Key Concept: Monarchical Despotism) towards a Western model of society. But after his imprisonment (1903-06) he instead argued that anti-Machuism was part of a global movement against Western imperialism. During his brief exile in Japan, Zhang began to promote a theory of Asian identity which, he argued, would form the basis for a new political theory that could offer a different path of development for China and Asia more generally (see Zhang Taiyan as Anti-Manchu Revolutionary Key Points). Zhang argued that Western imperialism in Asia introduced narrow self-interest, and that this ‘capitalist’ (though he does use this precise term) way of life had eclipsed the world of Buddhist, Confucian, or other scholarship which encourages social responsibility and self-respect (see 20.3.2. The Roots of Socialism in Chinese Culture).

For Zhang, the cultural and civilizational unity of Asia offered a counternarrative to theories which placed the West at the centre of universal history (see 20.3. Pan-Asianism and Different Types of Transnationalism). Zhang’s writing on universal history prefigures Homi Bhabha or Dipesh Chakrabarty’s later postcolonial critique (see Chapter 37 on Dipesh Chakrabarty), which similarly sought to ‘provincialize’ Europe. But unlike Chakrabarty or Bhabha, Zhang pushes for a new, more inclusive universality (see 20.4. Buddhism vs. Hegel: Towards a New Universality), which is constructed out of many particularities. In this sense, Zhang can be considered an important early thinker of twentieth-century national liberation movements, whose anti-imperialism was similarly grounded in national, racial, or ethnic identity.

Further Reading

Murthy, Viren (2011) The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness, Leiden: Brill. 

Shimada Kenji (1990), Pioneers of the Chinese Revolution, Joshua Fogel Trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Laitinen, Kauko (1990) Chinese Nationalism in the Late Qing Dynasty: Zhang Binglin as an Anti-Manchu Propagandist. London: Curzon.

Bhabha, Homi K. (2004) The Location of Culture, London: Routledge.

Karl, Rebecca (2002) Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Durham: Duke University Press. 

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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