Self Strengthening Movement

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Last updated: February 20, 2019

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement (1860 – 1894) is often regarded as a failure. To what extent do you agree with this assessment? ‘Why are the Western nations small and yet strong? What are we large and yet weak? We must search for the means to become their equal …

At first they may take the foreigners as their teachers and models; then they may come to the same level and be their equals; finally they may move ahead and surpass them. Herein lies the way to self-strengthening. ’1Following Feng Guifen’s [the innovator the movement] view on Self Strengthening, why then did the the movement fail? The period of 1860 through to 1864, between the end of the Third War with the West and the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War, were critical years in China which dictated the result of the country. At the conclusion of the Taiping Rebellion, along with the peace agreements with Britain and France, China entered a period of ‘relative stability’2 and restoration.The exposure to China’s weakness through the Opium Wars, the unequal treaties and the mid-19th century rebellions forced the Qing government to acknowledge the need to strengthen their country. The aim of the Self-Strengthening movement was to build a strong defense against modern powers while still preserving the customary Chinese ways. However official’s ignorance of the requirements for industrial modernization proved an obstacle of Self-Strengtheners.This was due to their belief in maintaining Chinese traditional ways, Confucianism philosophy and also their great concern to protect China’s sovereignty against Western imperialism.

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Leading officials tired to adapt Western devices and institutions modeling the movement on the attractive though misleading doctrine of ‘Chinese learning as the fundamental structure, Western learning for practical use’3. However the generation of 1860 to 1900 clung to the ‘shibboleth that China could leap halfway into modern times, like leaping halfway across a river flood’4.Without fundamental changes in the whole Chinese system – socially, politically and economically – strengthening was not possible. Perhaps the most significant and difficult change in order to modernize China was the ‘appreciation of the impossibility of altering the technological basis of production’ in China ‘without changes in social values’5. For many years China was ruled by the Qing dynasty, unchanged for centuries with social and political life based on the philosophy of Confucianism. This philosophy created a ‘stable society’6 dominated by the official class.

China strived to maintain the policy of isolation by discouraging travel and disapproving of profit [trade]. The ‘out of date’7 chinese beliefs viewed their empire with a superior civilization; the Middle Kingdom. ‘The intelligence and ingenuity of the Chinese are certainly superior to those of the various barbarians’8[foreigners].

However through the events of the early nineteenth century China’s worldly position changed drastically. The Western powers completely exploited China with domination in wars through the use of modern technology which China completely lacked.Through a series of unequal treaties China’s internal weakness became exposed. Together with the continual domination of Western powers and the ineffective leadership of the Qing government, a gaining number of educated Chinese became convinced for the need of reforms. However many felt change was non-beneficial and not necessary. Influential officials, due to their basic conservative education and up brining were not equipped to realize a prominent weakness in China and therefore refused reforms.The ‘ruthless’9 Dowager Empress Cixi with the ‘capacity for intrigue and domineering will’10, was supported by the conservative Chinese to oppose any attempts to modernize.

With haltering steps, the first initiatives of modernization were taken by those who crushed the Taipings; scholar-officials like Zeng Guofan and his younger coadjutor, Li Hongzhang (1823 – 1901) who set up an arsenal in Shanghai to make guns and boats as he believed the only way to strengthen China was to learn to use Western machinery.Along with Prince Gong’s active role in ‘seeking to improve China’s diplomatic relations and advance the military’11, the dominant leaders of modernization sought to ‘take the foreigners as their teachers and models; then they may come to the same level and be their equals; finally they may move ahead and surpass them’. Their ideas were supported by a number of provincial governors and scholar-officials who began to ‘seek out an effective path for reform’12.

These efforts would become known as the Self-Strengthening Movement.The leading theorist of the movement was the scholar-official Feng Guifen who believed in order to ‘strengthen the Qing state, traditional Confucian culture and institutions must be preserved’ and ‘supplemented by Western weapons and technological learning’. Although the reforms proposed modernization, a cultural change was needed for it to truly be in effect. With the establishment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zongli Yamen), Zeng advised to send students to Western countries for technical training and in result a mission was sent to the United States of America the following year.

However after a few years the students were instructed to return to China claiming that they spent to much time on Western learning and not enough on their Chinese studies. Although, the officials most likely feared that the students were ‘learning democratic or republican ideas’13 which could become a threat to the Qing government. This old cultural way of thinking made the idea of Self Strengthening impossible and the movement for ‘westernization in China was obstructed at every turn by the ignorance and prejudice of the Confucian literati’14.During the period in which the Self-Strengthening Movement took place, there was no strong central government and a prominent lack of any direction within the movement was clear.

Many of the powerful officials undermined the whole concept of modernization believing that the emphasis should be on ‘propriety and righteousness, not on power and plotting’ and the fundamental efforts ‘lie in the minds of the people, not in techniques’15. With these concepts it proved as a difficulty to gain higher power influence.Provincial authorities carried out the majority of the movement’s tasks meaning that reforms were conveyed at a provincial level which prevented unity and a sense of national loyalty. This resulted in reforms occurring haphazardly with no proper co-ordination between each province. Due to the wide spread corruption of the Qing dynasty and the inefficiency of officials there was a recurrent problem; lack of finance. For example, embezzlement of funds which were to have supported the navy resulted in the defeat in the war against Japan as there was not enough ammunition.Modernization, it seemed, was a ‘game played by a few high officials who realized its necessity and tried to raise funds, find personnel, and set up projects in a generally lethargic if not unfriendly environment. ’16 Although they wanted change in China, personal profit and higher power led them on.

Dowager Empress Cixi, or so called ‘power behind the silk screen’17, proved a difficult obstacle for Self-Strengthening. She continually gave no ‘firm or consistent backing’18 to the reformers. She, in comparison, let the ‘ideological conservatives stalemate the innovators’19 therefore she could maintain the balance.Paraphrasing Feng Guifen’s view; he believed the only thing to learn from the ‘barbarians’ was strong ships and effective guns and to introduce Western military ideas into the Chinese armies. An initial step of the movement was to issue new European weapons to all the Chinese however it was soon realized that to be completely ‘self sufficient’ and superior, ‘China would have to produce its own arms’20 and not depend on imported resources from enemies.

However ‘modern weapons were useless in pre-modern hands’21 so without a complete shift in the armies techniques and concepts, modernization and power over foreigners were hopeless.Feng Kuei-fen belonged to the former school of thought. He believed in allowing Chinese ethics and famous Confucian teachings to serve as the original foundation, and used in addition to the methods used by the various nations for the attainment of prosperity and strength; ‘Would it not be the best of all procedures? ’22 This is an example of a high majority way of thinking. Modernization of China could not arise until the realization that a whole shift in system must take place instead of incorporating old ways with new technology.

Following the First and Second Anglo-Chinese Wars, foreign powers preceding Britain signed a series of ‘unequal treaties’ with China. The treaties placed China into a weakened position completely exploited by the West with no independence. The ‘economic power and influence of the Westerns’23 threatened the stability of China’s traditional ways and Confucius philosophy.

The continual weakness of the Qing government with repetitive defeats to the foreigners exposed China’s struggle and raised a growth of anti-Manzu feeling among the Chinese population.During the late eighteenth century there was a period of great economic discontent throughout China with the raise in population opposing with the minimal increase of developed land and agriculture. Corruption throughout the officials demanded heavy taxes along with natural disasters resulting in many peasants becoming homeless. The discontent lead to many revolts against the Qing government including the renowned Taiping Rebellion who nearly succeeded in overthrowing the government. As the concepts to modernize and strengthen China arose, due to political reasons, finance was difficult to obtain and therefore many projects did not go ahead.Heavy corruption within the Qing government sought to misuse funds specific to modernizing reforms. During 1888 the most ‘outrageous’ example of this corruption was the building of a grand, full-sized marble boat within the confounds of Cixi’s Summer palace.

The millions it cost was ‘scandalously diverted’ by a high-level official from the funds set aside for the development of China’s boats and ships. It is thought that the marble boat should be a symbol of what could have been the Qing navy.Modernizers faced enormous practical difficulties such as the ‘lack of entrepreneurial skills and capital’24 which resulted in the failures of reform and decrease of support. China was in a backward economic and technological situation and again due to the lack of direction from the central government, finance was difficult to obtain and therefore many projects did not go ahead. Even though the Self strengthening movement was seen as a failure, there was limited success.

This included the establishment of factories and business companies which encouraged economic development in the treaty ports and other cities along the coast.Some peasants moved to the city and became industrial workers resulting in a new professional class of businessmen to arise, leading to a significant part in development of modern China. The ideals of this ‘Self-Strengthening’ era were based on hopes of restoring China, but according to some historians the period was only a temporary pause in the decline of the Qing dynasty; The Self Strengthening movement was ‘a superficial gesture toward modernization’25. The weakness of the movement was exposed in the Sino-French War of 1884 – 1885, when China was unable to defend it tributary state, Annam (Vietnam).It was further confirmed by China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 – 1895.

Traditional institutions and learning were no longer adequate, even with modern guns and ships. An appreciation of the outside world eluded China’s rulers, particularly Cixi and her conservative-minded mandarins; however, parts of the educated elite were beginning to realize that ‘change was imperative’26. To modernize China, change would have to occur in all three aspects of its society; socially, politically and economically. Despite theSelf-Strengthening Movement’s shortcomings, it managed to sow the seeds for modern capitalism in China and also contributed in the development of great metropolises in various cities.

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