China: Reform movements under the Qing dynasty
Serious reform began in the wake of the mid-century disasters which had hit China -
Opium Wars and major internal rebellions. Looked at chronologically, the reform was
remarkably persistent: Self-Strengthening c.1861-95; the 1898 Reforms; the Qing
reforms 1901-11. One could thus say that there was an almost continuous effort at
reform from 1861 onwards.
Did the reform effort fail? The question is - fail to do what? The reforms failed in
the following senses:
By 1911, after half a century of “reform”
The dynasty collapsed
China was subject to more foreign control and imperialismthan in 1861
China was weaker internally(and entering the disintegration of the warlord period)
What had the reforms achieved?
There had been a huge increase in western knowledge (the flowering of which was
seen in the May 4th Movement) and this in turn meant a much greater potential for
There had been significant economic development and the emergence of a new Chinese
But one must distinguish between absolute strength (comparing China in 1911 with
China in 1861) and relative strength (comparing China with other powers). The latter
is the more important and in this sense China’s reforms failed because others - in
particular Japan - had developed faster. Jack Gray in “Rebellions and Revolutions”
argues that the rise of Japan is a key factor in China’s demise. He says “China missed
the last bus, which Japan had caught.” In particular, he argues that the West was
relatively benign towards China in the period 1860-94 and it was only after the disaster
of the Sino- Japanese War that the West renewed and intensified its imperialismin
a)The Self Strengthening Movement was born out of the various disasters which had
nearly overthrown the dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century - the second Opium War
1856-60 and,even more, the massive internal rebellions:
The Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) which came closest to overthrowing the dynasty.
The Nian Rebellion (1851-68) based in the southern part of northern China. The rebels
were secret gangs (Hsu describes them as “chieflyidlers,rascals and bandits”) who
took the opportunity of the Taiping rebellion to rebel also.
The Moslem rebellion in Yunnan (1855-73). The rebels tried to establish a Moslem
The Tungan Rebellion (1862-78) in the Northwest provinces, also a rebellion of
Note the overlap and the long time spans of these rebellions.
b)The survival and recovery of the dynasty in the 1860’s under the new emperor Tong
Zhi led to people at the time referring to the “Tong Zhi Restoration”.
c)The causes of self-strengthening could thus be identified as:
I. A recognition of the need for change caused by internal rebellion and foreign defeat
ii. A new leadership, in Peking but, more importantly the emergence of some key
figures in the provinces who had helped to put down the rebellions: Zeng Guofan, Zuo
Zongtang and Li Hongzhang. iii. Western Powers which, having won the privileges they wanted, were prepared to
co-operate with China and in whose interests it was to have a stable and relatively
iv. Increasing knowledge and understanding of the West in China.This had come about
through increased contacts with the West. Wei Yuan wrote a major work on the West
in 1844 and described the purpose of doing so partly as “learning the superior
techniques of the barbarians to control the barbarians” - which could be taken as the
basic idea of Self-Strengthening.
A major role was also played by Western missionaries throughout the 19th. century.
Although they met with much hostility and suspicion (e.g.Tianjin Massacre
1870,Boxer Rebellion) the missionaries did a lot to introduce western knowledge into
China. For example the British missionary, Alexander Wylie, in the 1860’s translated
Euclid’s Elements of Geometry into Chinese. Jonathan Spence comments that “By the
late 1870’s, other western scholars had prepared Chinese texts on electricity,inorganic
chemistry,the steam engine,photography” and so on. Mission schools were also
established as the treaty ports were opened, partly to prepare young Chinese for
English-speaking jobs in the Treaty Ports. Missionaries also set up hospitals with
western medicine. Gray says “missionaries played an indispensable role in the
introduction of western ideas”.
d)Gray comments that “In the 1860’s China undoubtedly enjoyed an opportunity to
modernize such as she was not to have again” because
i.Western powers “offered advice,encouragement and assistance”
ii.The Imperial Maritime Customs (under Sir Robert Hart) “provided a large and
buoyant new revenue”
iii.Many of China’s provinces were now in the hands of competent governors who had
learned the use of western weapons during the Taiping Rebellion.
iv. Japan’s modernization provided a stimulus and a threat.
One could also add that China now had a better means of dealing with the West with
the new Zongli Yamen, established in 1861.
e)Key Self-Strengtheners. Much was done on a provincial basis. Zeng Guofan’s
activity led to the setting up of the Kiangnan Arsenal in 1865. Tso set up the Fuzhou
Dockyard. Li Hongzhang established the Nanjing Arsenal in 1867, a naval and military
academy at Tianjin in the 1880’s and the Beiyang Fleet in 1888.
f)Hsu summarizes the activity of self-strengthening as “firearms, ships, machines,
communications, mining and light industries”.Hsu describes it as”very superficial”.Jack
Gray is more positive, he says the results were “not entirely insignificant” and adds,”
The reason why this partial success came to look like a total failure was the
extraordinary rise of Japan.”
g)Why did self-Strengthening Fail; Obviously, the causes and the weight given to each
I. Lack of central direction. There was no co-ordinated national plan; it was regionally
based. Arguably, the Empress Dowager did not have much interest in it.
ii. Faulty concept. One could argue that the idea of grafting western technology on to
Chinese society was unrealistic. Self-strengtheners did not seek to modernize or
change the roots of Chinese society.
iii. In turn one could ascribe the above reason partly to the weight of Chinese tradition
and culture in which copying from others or recognizing the superiority of others was
alien. Many officials did nothing to support Self-Strengthening and there was little
popular support for it (e.g. peasants tearing up railway tracks).
iv. One of the main ways in which the Meijirulers were able to engender popular
support for modernization was through the promotion of nationalism. This was not possible for the alien Qing dynasty - even had they been more interested in
modernization. Nationalismwas a threat to them.
v.Hsu argues that a cause was lack of capital - both in terms of government finance
and private entrepreneurial capital. Moreover, Hsu,says, even in those private
enterprises which did participate, the profits were not reinvested but given to
shareholders as dividends. Gray somewhat disputes this point. He says the Imperial
Maritime Customs “provided the government with large revenues” and “a considerable
part of this large...sum was devoted to schemes of development”.
vi. Lack of sufficient trained people. Gray describes this as “a major constraint on