The Encounter of Civilizations
Nineteenth Century China
Lord Macartney kneeling before the Qianlong Emperor
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Painting of China's traditional "Tributary System"
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Chinese and British Forces Clashing
Map showing the Taiping Rebellion route and area controlled
Mandarins viewing a factory from above
 
The Self-Strengthening Movement
1861-1895
[In the wake of the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, conservative Confucians found reassurance in the idea that] age-old methods and institutions seemed to stand the test of these times [and] that men of ability and character had appeared who could make them effective. It was leadership, rather than the techniques or institutions themselves, in which the Confucians placed their hope. It was the “noble man,” pursuing virtue and learning rather than power and profit, who would save China. From such a point of view, no more basic or radical change could take place than that which transformed the people inwardly and united them in support of worthy rulers. To talk of drastic changes in social or political institutions was almost unthinkable, and certainly uncalled for.
       On this fundamental point there was virtually unanimous agreement, even among those who felt that the danger from the West prompted fundamental reexamination and reform. The might believe it necessary to adopt Western guns and ships — even to master the languages, the knowledge, the techniques required for the production and use of these weapons — but such measures would be indispensably linked to a regeneration of the national life, a reassertion of traditional values in government, a renewed concern for the livelihood of the people, and a kind of moral rearmament based on self-cultivation and tightened social discipline. A reexamination in these terms tended, therefore, to focus on two types of weakness: military inferiority to the West, which called for the employment of new methods, and moral inadequacy with respect to traditional ideals, which called for self-criticism and an intensified effort to uphold old standards.
        Reform along these lines was most strikingly exemplified in the so-called self-strengthening movement. Its immediate objective was a buildup in military power; its ultimate aim was to preserve and strengthen the traditional way of life. In the following selections are presented the views of men prominently identified as exponents of reform on this basis: namely, that the adoption of Western arms could be justified on grounds of utility and practicality, as a means of defending China and preserving Chinese civilization. These reform ideas emerged naturally from the statecraft scholarship discussed in earlier chapters. Self-strengthening itself appealed to one of the heroic ideals in Neo-Confucian teaching: self-reliance, self-discipline, and taking responsibility for the Way and the world on oneself.
(Sources of East Asian Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 630)
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Painting of Feng Guifen
 
 
Feng Guifen (1809-1874), a classicist, teacher, and official, came to recognize the need for modernization and the importance of scientific studies when he was forced to take refuge in Shanghai from the Taipings and came into contact with Westerners defending the city. Later, as an adviser to some of the leading statesmen of his time, Feng demonstrated an acute grasp of both state and foreign affairs. His essays advocating a wide variety of reforms were highly regarded by some leaders and became increasingly influential toward the end of the century. It was at his suggestion that a school of Western languages and sciences was established in Shanghai in 1863. ... [Note] that when a Confucian reformer seeks to make changes, he must come to grips with the civil service [examination] system, which was so pervasive an influence on educated Chinese.
 
... We have only one thing to learn from the barbarians, and that is strong ships and effective guns. ... Funds should be allotted to establish a shipyard and arsenal in each trading port. A few barbarians should be employed, and Chinese who are good in using their minds should be selected to receive instruction so that in turn they may teach many craftsmen. When a piece of work is finished and is as good as that made by the barbarians, the makers should be rewarded with an official juren degree and be permitted to participated in the metropolitan examinations on the same basis as other scholars. Those whose products are of superior quality should be rewarded with the jinshi degree [ordinarily conferred in the metropolitan examinations] and be permitted to participated in the palace examinations like others. The workers should be paid double so that they will not quit their jobs.
       Our nation’s emphasis on civil service examinations has sunk deep into people’s minds for a long time. Intelligent and brilliant scholars have exhausted their time and energy in such useless things as the stereotyped examination essays, examinations papers, and formal calligraphy. ... We should now order one-half of them to apply themselves to the manufacturing of instruments and weapons and to the promotion of physical studies. ... The intelligence and ingenuity of the Chinese are certainly superior to those of the various barbarians; it is only that hitherto we have not made use of them.
(Sources of East Asian Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 631-2)
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Photo of Woren
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Photo of Li Hongzhang
 
 
One of the first projects of the Self-Strengtheners was to set up schools for the study of Western languages, sciences, and technologies, the first an interpreters school in Beijing in 1861, subsequently expanded to include mathematics and technology. This set off a debate (1867) in which the Self-Strengtheners' proposals were opposed on grounds of principle by Confucians at court, of whom a Mongol grand secretary, Woren, was the leader. For him Western technology was no substitute for classical humanistic learning and China would be corrupted by doctrines of expediency.
 
Mathematics, one of the six arts, should indeed be learned by scholars as indicated in the imperial decree, and it should not be considered an unworthy subject. But according to the viewpoint of your servant, astronomy and mathematics are of very little use. If these subjects are going to be taught by Westerners as regular studies, the damage will be great. ... Your servant has learned that the way to establish a nation is to lay emphasis on rites and rightness, not on power and plotting. The fundamental effort lies in the minds of people, not in techniques. Now, if we seek trifling arts and respect barbarians as teachers ... all that can be accomplished is the training of mathematicians. From ancient down to modern times, your servant has never heard of anyone who could use mathematics to raise the nation from a state of decline or to strengthen it in times of weakness. (Sources of East Asian Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 633)
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Photo of Xue Fucheng
 
 
A onetime secretary and adviser to both Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, Xue Fucheng (1838-1894) achieved no high rank or position in the bureaucracy (not having competed in the examinations for the higher civil service degrees). He did, however, become an influential advocate of reform through the circulation of his essays and memorials in official circles and, besides assisting in the negotiation of the Chefoo Convention (1876), helped to draft plans for a new Chinese navy.
     This excerpt is taken from Xue's Suggestions on Foreign Affairs (Chouyang Chuyi), which was submitted to Li in 1879 and forwarded by him to the Zongli Yamen. Xue argues for reform on the ground that change is inevitable and nothing new to Chinese history. But if he is tempted to accept the idea of progress as a law of history, there is no indication of it here. Rather, his premise is the thoroughly traditional one of cyclical or pulsatory change at calculable intervals, which may be for good or ill but in any case must be coped with, as indeed even the sage kinds had to cope with it. A great change in circumstances, therefore, calls for a great change in methods (fa, which can also be understood as "laws" or "institutions").
     Xue nevertheless contends that changes in method do not mean abandonment of the "immutable" Way of the sages. Indeed, it is the use of new methods that will preserve that Way inviolate. Thus a dichotomy is established between ends and means. Here the means Xue has in mind adopting is "the study of machines and mathematics." Consequently the dichotomy is between the Way and "instruments" (fa, as in the sense of methods). How far he would go toward changing fa in the sense of basic institutions is left unclear.
 
... It is my opinion that with regard to the immutable Way we should change the present so as to restore the past [the Way of the sages]; but with regard to changeable laws, we should change the past system to meet the present needs. Alas! If we do not examine the differences between the two situations, past and present, and think in terms of practicability, how can we remedy the defects? ... Now if we really take over the Westerners’ knowledge of machinery and mathematics in order to protect the Way of our sage kings Yao and Shun, Yu and Tang, Wen and Wu, and the Duke of Zhou and Confucius, and so make the Westerners not dare to despise China, I know that if they were alive today , the sages would engage themselves in the same tasks, and their Way would also be gradually spread to the eight bounds of the earth. That is what we call using the ways of China to change the barbarians. ... Mathematics began in China, and yet it has reached its highest development in Western countries. If we compare the ability and wisdom of the Chinese with those of the Westerners, there is no reason to think that we should be unable to surpass them. It all depends on how we exert ourselves. (Sources of East Asian Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 635-6)
 
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Image of the Guangxu Emperor (who initiated the 100 Days Reform)
 
By the late 1890s, the Chinese, who were becoming more knowledgeable about foreigners, could seize on a whole range of potential models from Japanese Meiji reformers to George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Peter the Great. Chinese language newspapers and didactic histories proliferated, extolling various Western thinkers of the past and holding up as warning mirrors to China the examples of such countries as Poland, Turkey, and India, which had been respectively partitioned, economically ruined, and politically subjugated. Simultaneously, the Western powers renewed their demands for special economic and residence rights in China — often called “the scramble for concessions” — which placed the Qing in greater jeopardy.
 
Map showing the colonialists' "scramble for concessions"
 
In this context, the emperor Guangxu, who undoubtedly had a wider view of the options facing China than any of his predecessors and had even been studying English, decided to assert his own independence as ruler, and to act on the country’s behalf. Between June and September 1898 he issued an extraordinary series of edicts, earning for this period the name of the “Hundred Days’ Reforms.” Although most of the edicts dealt with proposals that had already been raised by self-strengthening reformers and by the jinshi protestors of 1895, there had never before been such a coherent body of reform ideas presented on imperial initiative and backed by imperial prestige. ...
Old Learning (Four Books/Five Classics) vs. New Learning (Peking University with Science Symbol)
To reform China’s examination system, he ordered the abolition of the highly stylized format known as the “eight-legged essay,” which had structured the exams for centuries. He also urged that fine calligraphy and knowledge of poetry no longer be major criteria in grading degree candidates; instead he ordered the use of more questions related to practical governmental problems. Also in the area of education, he ordered the upgrading of the Peking college and the addition to it of a medical school, the conversion of the old academies (along with unnecessary rural shrines) to modern schools offering both Chinese and Western learning, and the opening of vocational institutes for the study of mining, industry, and railways. In the broader area of economic development, the emperor ordered local officials to coordinate reforms in commerce, industry, and agriculture, and to increase the production of tea and silk for export. New bureaus in Peking were established to supervise such growth, along with mines and railways, and the Ministry of Revenue was to design an overall annual budget for the country as a whole.
 
Kang Youwei
 
In developing this reform program, several important personnel changes were made. ... Several reformist thinkers, among them Kang Youwei, were appointed as secretaries in the Grand Council or the Zongli Yamen so they could be in on important discussions and memorialize the emperor through their superiors. ... But many senior officials, viewing Guangxu’s reform program with a jaundiced eye, saw it as detrimental to the long-term good of China and destructive of China’s true inner values. Guangxu seems to have mistakenly thought that his aunt Cixi would support his vision of a new China and would help him override this opposition. In fact she was disturbed by some of the proposed changes that threatened to weaken the Qing ruling house, and was worried that the faction supporting Guangxu seemed dangerously subordinate to pressures and influences from both the British and the French.
 
Empress Dowager Cixi in 1904
 
Although the evidence is contradictory, it seems that a number of the reformers feared there might be a coup against the emperor, and accordingly approached some leading generals in an attempt to win their support. This led to a backlash when news of the scheming was reported to the empress dowager, who, on September 19, 1898, suddenly returned to the Forbidden City. Two days later, she issued an edict claiming that the emperor had asked her to resume power. She put Guangxu under palace detention and arrested six of his reputedly radical advisers. Before they could even be tried on the vague conspiracy charges, her order that they be executed was carried out, to the dismay of the reform party and of many foreigners in China. (The Search for Modern China, 220-1)
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Photo of Zhang Zhidong
 
 
Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909) was one of the leading figures in the empire during the last days of the Manchus. A brilliant scholar and official, widely esteemed for his personal integrity and patriotism, he was an early supporter of reform and as a provincial administrator promoted many industrial, railway, educational, and cultural projects. When his Exhortation to Learn (Quanxue pian) was published in 1898, it was hailed by the reformers then in power and given official distribution by the emperor. ...
     Zhang's position is summed up by the catch-phrase "Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for function" (Zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong). The terms substance (ti) and function (yong) Zhang drew from the philosophical lexicon of Song metaphysics, in which they stood for the ontological and functional aspects of the same reality. Zhang, following the example of earlier reformers who distinguished between the Chinese "Way" (or Chinese moral "principles") and Western instruments, used substance in reference to traditional Chinese values and function (i.e., utility, practical application) in reference to Western methods by which China and its traditional way of life were to be defended in the modern world. In this new formulation substance and function bore no intrinsic relationship to one another as they had philosophically for Zhu Xi, but they were no more incompatible than was Hu Yuan's combining of classical studies and more specialized, technical studies in his educational curriculum (vol. 1, chap. 19) of which the Chengs and Zhu approved. ...
 
... If we wish to make China strong and preserve Chinese learning, we must promote Western learning. But unless we first use Chinese learning to consolidate the foundation and to give our purpose a right direction, the strong will become rebellious leaders and the weak, slaves. The consequence will be worse than not being versed in Western learning. ... It is the human relationships and moral principles that are immutable, but not legal systems; the Way of the sage, not instruments; the discipline of the Mind-and-heart, not technology. ... Laws and institutions are that with which we meet changing situations; they therefore need not all be the same. The Way is that upon which we establish the foundation; it therefore must be uniform. ... What we call the basis of the Way consists of the Three Bonds and the four Cardinal Virtues. If these are abandoned, great disorder will occur even before the new laws can be put into effect. ...
Chinese characters for "Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for function" (zhong ti xi yong)
There are five important factors in the administration of the new schools. First, both the old and the new must be studied. By the old we mean the Four Books, the Five Classics, Chinese history, government, and geography; by the new we means Western administration, Western technology, and Western history. The old learning is to be the substance; the new learning is to be for application [function]. Neither one should be neglected. Second, both administration and technology should be studied. Education, geography, budgeting, taxes, military preparations, laws and regulations, industry and commerce, belong to the category of Western administration. Mathematics, drawing, mining, medicine, acoustics, optics, chemistry, and electricity belong to the category of Western technology. (Sources of East Asian Tradition, Second Edition, Volume 2, 637-40)
 
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