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.’1
Following 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. 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...
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