To Reform...or Not
New Tensions in the Late Qing

 
Progressives & Conservatives
The Confucian statesmen whose skill, integrity, and tenacity helped suppress the rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century showed how imaginatively the Chinese could respond to new challenges. Under the general banner of restoring order to the Qing Empire, they had managed to develop new structures to handle foreign relations and collect custom dues, to build modern ships and weapons, and to start teaching international law and the rudiments of modern science. “Self-strengthening” had not proved an empty slogan, but an apparently viable road to a more secure future. ... [W]ith forceful imperial leadership and a resolute Grand Council, it appeared that the Qing dynasty might regain some of its former strength.
       Unfortunately for the survival of the dynasty, forceful leadership was not forthcoming. Tongzhi, in the name of whose rule the Tongzhi Restoration of central and provincial government had been undertaken, died suddenly at the age of eighteen in January 1875, shortly after taking up power in person. The official cause of death was smallpox, but it was widely rumored that he had exhausted himself with wild living and overindulgence in the pleasure quarters of Peking. ... The only way for [his mother, Empress Dowager] Cixi to preserve her own power was to continue in her role as regent; accordingly she appointed her three-year old nephew, Guangxu, as emperor, thus assuring herself of years more activity as the power behind the throne. [
SMC, 208-9]
 
 
Cixi was a complex and able woman, though also tough-minded and ruthless when she considered it necessary. She was the only woman to attain a high level of political power in China during the Qing, and was consequently blamed for many of the dynasty’s woes by men who thought she should not have been in power at all. ... [Her political power] sprang from her position as coregent for her son Tongzhi from 1861 to 1873, and as coregent for her nephew Guangxu from 1875 to 1889. She also was the ultimate political authority while Guangxu languished in palace seclusion — on her orders — from 1898 to 1908. Highly literate and a competent painter, Cixi kept herself well informed on all affairs of state as she sat behind a screen (for propriety’s sake) and listened to her male ministers’ reports. Politically conservative and financially extravagant, she nevertheless approved many of the self-strengtheners’ restoration ventures; at the same time, she tried jealously to guard the prerogatives of the ruling Manchu imperial line. [SMC, 209]
 
 
Although self-strengthening programs continued to be implemented during the last decades of the nineteenth century, a disproportionate number of them were initiated by one man, Li Hongzhang. ... He sought to diversify Chinas enterprise into areas that would have long-range effects on the country’s overall development. These initiatives would involve the Qing government and individual merchant capitalists in joint operations under a formula called “government supervision and merchant management.” [SMC, 217]
 
 
 
 
 
 
Li Hongzhang carried forward earlier efforts at educational reforms as well. He originally threw his support behind the proposal for an educational mission in the United States, an idea first formulated by Yung Wing and backed by Zeng Guofan. The court gave its consent, and in 1872 the first group of Chinese boys aged twelve to fourteen ... were sent to Hartford, Connecticut. ... Upon their return to China, many of the students became influential in the armed services, engineering, and business; but Li Hongzhang henceforth dispatched his most promising students to France, Germany, or Great Britain, where the governments did not object to their receiving technically advanced military and naval training. He also established both a naval and a military academy in Tianjin itself. [SMC, 210-2] 
 
 
The world of international diplomacy was even more inhospitable to the Qing. Here Li Hongzhang worked — sometimes on his own, sometimes in conjunction with Robert Hart, and sometimes with the Zongli Yamen — to handle a wide range of difficult problems. [SMC, 212]
 
When the French expanded their colonial empire by occupying Hanoi and Haiphong in 1880 — despire Chinese claims to special rights in the area — and began to pressure China for new concessions in Vietnam, Li Hongzhang urged caution. But his pleas were swept aside by the excited urging of belligerent Chinese and Manchus, who insisted that the Qing take a strong stand on this matter of principle. ... The admiral in command of the French fleet in the region responded to these intermittent hostilities by moving his forces into the harbor at Fuzhou and anchoring near the Chinese fleet.
       
Li Hongzhang had urged a negotiated settlement with the French, however humiliating it might seem, because he knew how frail the newly developed Chinese navy was. When negotiations broke down in August 1884 and the French fleet in Fuzhou opened fire, Li was catastrophically proved correct, and the disparities between a developed industrial power and Qing China made once more clear to all. The Chinese flagship was sunk by torpedoes in the first minute of battle; within seven minutes, most of the Chinese ships were hit; within one hour every Chinese ship was sunk or on fire and the arsenal and docks destroyed. The French counted 5 dead, the Chinese 521 dead and 51 missing. Although the Qing subsequently won some indecisive land battles in the southwest, French control over Indochina was now assured. A year later the British emulated French aggressiveness and declared Burma a protectorate. [SMC, 212-3]
 
During the 1890s tensions heightened as Japanese designs on the peninsula became apparent. In 1894, when the outbreak of a domestic rebellion threatened the Korean king, both China and Japan seized the opportunity to send troops to protect the royal family. The Japanese, who were able to move more troops faster than the Chinese, seized the Korean palace on July 21 and appointed a “regent” loyal to their interests.
       That same day the Qing commissioned a British transport to convey some 1,200 Chinese reinforcements to Korea. Intercepted by a Japanese cruiser and refusing to surrender, the transport was fired on by the Japanese and sunk; fewer than 200 men survived. By the end of the month, Japanese land troops had defeated the Chinese in a series of battles around Seoul and Pyongyang; in October the Japanese crossed the Yalu River and entered Qing territory. The following month another Japanese army seized the strongly fortified harbor at Lüshun, massacring many of the Chinese in the city. Japan’s land forces were now poised to enter China proper through Shanhaiguan, as Dorgon had done two and a half centuries before.
 
 
The north China navy, despite Li’s efforts to conserve it, was now to suffer a fate similar to the southern navy’s, with yet more damaging consequences to China’s self-strengthening goals. This northern fleet, consisting of 2 battleships, 10 cruisers, and 2 torpedo boats, had already been badly damaged by the Japanese in a September battle off the mouth of the Yalu, and had retreated to the heavily defended port of Weihaiwei on the northern side of the Shandong peninsula. There the Chinese admiral retired his fleet behind a protective curtain of contact mines and took no further part in the fighting. But in a brilliant maneuver carried through in January 1895, a Japanese force of 20,000 troops and 10,000 field laborers marched across the Shangdong promontory and seized the Weihaiwei defensive forts from the landward side. Turning the guns on the Chinese fleet and simultaneously penetrating the mine fields with torpedo boats, they destroyed one of the battleships and four cruisers. The two senior Chinese admirals and the senior Qing commandants of the forts all committed suicide. [SMC, 213-5]
 
 
The terms of the ensuing Treaty of Shimonoseki, made final in April 1895, were disastrous for China. ... China had to recognize “the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea,” which, under the circumstances, effectively made Korea a Japanese protectorate. The Qing also promised to pay Japan 200 million taels in war indemnities, added four more treaty ports — including Chongqing, far up the Yangzi in Sichuan province — and ceded to Japan “in perpetuity” all of Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong region of southern Manchuria. ... Russian, German, and French protests forced the Japanese to relinquish the claim to Liaodong in exchange for an additional indemnity of 30 million taels, but all the other treaty stipulations were confirmed. Many of China’s brightest young scholars, assembled in Peking for the triennial jinshi examinations, braved the court’s wrath by passionately denouncing the Treaty of Shimonoseki and calling for a new, bolder program of economic growth and governmental reform to offset China’s tragic losses. But the Qing court seemed paralyzed. It was a dark conclusion to the brightest hopes of the era of self-strengthening. [SMC, 215]
 
 
Look at Japan. She opened her country for Western trade later than we did, and her imitation of the West also came later. Yet only in a short period her success in strengthening herself has been enormously impressive. She succeeds because she has been able to proceed with the four tasks [i.e. development of individual talents, full utilization of land resources, functioning of each object to its maximum capacity, and free circulation of merchandise] on a nationwide basis, with no opposition to speak of. There is no such thing as an impossible task — a so-called impossible task will become possible if there are enough dedicated people to perform it. The difficulty with China is not only the lack of enough dedicated people to perform but also the ignorance of too many people on the importance of performance. Had our difficulty been the former and nothing else, we could certainly hire foreigners to perform for us. Unfortunately, our real difficulty has been the latter, namely, the ignorance of too many people on the importance of performance. Had there been foreigners able and willing to work for us, the ignorant among us would obstruct and sabotage and make sure that these foreigners could not succeed. Here lies the real reason why we have not accomplished much; public opinion and entrenched ideas simply will not allow it. [DC, 157-8]
 
 
In the years after the Sino-Japanese War, a formulation became widespread that gave philosophical reassurance to those worried about the value of "self-strengthening": "Chinese learning should remain the essence, but Western learning be used for practical development." Generally abbreviated as the ti-yong idea (from the Chinese words for "essence" and "practical use"), this was a culturally reassuring position in a time of ambiguous, often painful, change. It affirmed that there was indeed a fundamental structure of Chinese moral and philosophical values that gave continuity and meaning to the civilization. Holding on to that belief, China could then afford to adopt quickly and dramatically all sorts of Western practices, and to hire Western advisers. [SMC, 217]
 
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.
 
 
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. ...

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.
 
 
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.
 
 
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. [SMC, 220-1]
 

During 1898 and 1899, as part of their general wave of imperialist expansion, the foreign powers intensified their pressures and outrages on China. ... In this atmosphere of hostility and fear, a vigorous force began to develop in China. The many guises in which it appeared can be encompassed under the blanket term nationalism, which for the Chinese comprised a new, urgent awareness of their relationship to foreign forces and to the Manchus. It carried as well a corresponding sense of the Chinese people as a unit that must be mobilized for its own survival. One can see the growth of this phenomenon in three examples: the Boxer Uprising of 1900, the publication of The Revolutionary Army by Zou Rong in 1903, and the anti-American boycott of 1905. [SMC, 222]
 
 
The Boxers United in Righteousness, as they called themselves, began to emerge as a force in northwest Shandong during 1898. ... Some Boxers believed they were invulnerable to swords and bullets in combat, and they drew on an exclectic pantheon of spirits and protectors from folk religion, popular novels, and street plays. Although they lacked a unified leadership, Boxers recruited local farmers and other workers made desperate by the disastrous floods that had been followed by droughts in Shandong; they began to call for the ending of the special privileges enjoyed by Chinese Christian converts and to attack both converts and Christian missionaries. ... [By the spring of 1900, still] without any coordinated leadership, Boxer groups began to drift into Peking and Tianjin in early June. Roaming the streets, dressed in motley uniforms of red, black, or yellow turbans and red leggings, and with white charms on their wrists, they harried — and sometimes killed — Chinese converts and even those who possessed foreign objects — lamps, clocks, or matches. The Boxers also killed four French and Belgian engineers and two English missionaries, ripped up railway tracks, burned the stations, and cut telegraph lines. Powerful provincial officials wavered, as did the Qing court, sometimes protecting foreigners by meeting Boxer force with force of their own, at other times seeming to condone or even approve the Boxer show of antiforeign “loyalty.” [SMC, 222-3]
 
 
Praising the Boxers now as a loyal militia, on June 21, 1890, the empress dowager issued a “declaration of war” against the foreign powers, which stated in part:
 
The foreigners have been aggressive towards us, infringed upon our territorial integrity, trampled our people under their feet. ... They oppress our people and blaspheme our gods. The common people suffer greatly at their hands, and each one of them is vengeful. Thus it is that the brave followers of the Boxers have been burning churches and killing Christians. [SMC, 223-4]
 
On August 4, 1900, a foreign expeditionary force of about 20,000 troops, consisting mainly of soldiers from Japan, Russia, Britain, the United States, and France, and operating under a complex joint-command structure, left Tianjin. Boxer resistance quickly crumbled, key Qing commanders committed suicide, and the Western troops entered Peking and raised the Boxer siege on August 14. ... [A] formal peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol was signed in September 1901. ... [The Qing] agreed to pay an indemnity for damages to foreign life and property of 450 million taels ..., a staggering sum at a time when the entire annual Qing income was estimated at around 250 million taels. The Chinese were to pay the indemnity in gold, on an ascending scale, with 4 percent interest charges, until the debt was amortized on December 31, 1940. With all interest factored in, total Chinese payments over the thirty-nine-year period would amount to almost 1 billion taels (precisely 982,238,150). [SMC, 224-5]