Causes, Aims and Nature of Self
The main impetus behind Self-Strengthening must be seen in the series of
disasters which had nearly led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in the
two decades prior to 1861. Indeed, when Self-Strengthening began in
1861 there were still in existence major areas of instability. The crisis was
only gradually overcome. The survival and apparent strengthening of the
dynasty after 1861 led to its description as ‘the Tong Zhi Restoration’,
after the name of the new Emperor.
China had fought and lost the two ‘Opium Wars’ with Britain (1839-42 and
The results were disastrous for China. She lost territory and wealth. She
failed to stop the opium trade. Britain and the other Western imperialists
gained a series of rights and privileges in China under the “unequal
treaties” – such as the opening up of ports for trade, right of foreign
residence, extra-territoriality, a limit on the tariffs China could impose, the
right of missionaries to preach and the ‘most-favoured nation’ clause.
The defeats also weakened the strength and prestige of the dynasty which
was a contributory factor to the second main cause of self-strengthening.
b) Internal Rebellions
The most dangerous of these was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64),
under the leadership of Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the second son
of God. Hong and his followers rapidly captured much of southern China
and captured the southern capital of Nanjing in 1853 (which became the
Taiping capital). It looked for a time as though the Taiping rebels would be
able to overthrow the Dynasty. However, division and decline set in
amongst the rebels and after 1860 their territory was gradually reclaimed.
The human and social cost of the rebellion was terrible. One estimate is
that 20 million people died.
Three other points are worth noting about the Taiping rebellion. Some
of the leading Self-Strengtheners were men who had risen by organizing
resistance to the Taipings. Li Hongzhang, for example, began his rise by
organizing troops to oppose the rebels in his home province. Zeng Guofan
similarly organized local forces to fight the Taipings. Moreover, these new
powerful figures were Chinese rather than Manchu. A third point,
regarding the longer-term significance of the rebellion, is of major
importance. Although the Qing dynasty defeated the rebels they were
never able to regain the same degree of control over the provinces which
they had before the rebellion. The weakening of central power and rising
power of the provinces is a continuing trend in the second half of the
But the Taiping Rebellion was not the only one. In fact there were a
whole series of rebellions in the mid-century. The Nian rebellion ,in the
southern part of northern China, lasted approximately from 1853-1868.
There was the Muslim rebellion in the southern province of Yunnan 1855-
73 and a Muslim revolt in the northwest provinces 1862-78. c) New leadership
In the first decade of the regency of the child Emperor Tong Zhi, Prince
Gong was influential at court and supported Self-Strengthening. Moreover,
as indicated above, during the Taiping rebellion a new provincial
leadership had emerged, men such as Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan.
These people recognized the need for China to undertake some degree of
modernization. However, it should also be added that there remained a
significant conservative faction at court which looked upon modernization
d) Greater knowledge of the West.
One obstacle to China seeking to modernize earlier was simply its
ignorance of the West. The two Opium wars clearly produced a clearer
perception (in the minds of some) of the gap between China and the West.
The scholar Wei Yuan in 1844 produced a major survey of Western
countries. Hsu describes it as the “first sign