China: Failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

China’s Manchu Dynasty did not want to contaminate the ideological foundations of the Confucian order, and so it struggled to keep Western institutions and values at an arm’s length. This led to the failure of China’s Self-Strengthening Movement. What were the repercussions of this attitude?

Statue of China's guardian lion in the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.
Though people wanted reforms in China, they did not want to forget about their traditional institutions and values. (Image: aphotostory/Shutterstock)

In the early 1860s, the Manchus launched the the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ in order to revive the tottering dynasty.

However, for all the Self-Strengtheners’ well-intended efforts to raise China’s military profile and modernize its antiquated infrastructure, they ultimately failed to halt the decline of the endangered empire.

There were three key reasons for this failure.

Limited Understanding of Modernity

The first reason was their own limited understanding of the requirements of modernity. Interested primarily in acquiring Western military technology in order to repulse the Western challenge, they failed to appreciate either the complex upstream and downstream requirements of ‘out of the box’ technologies or the broader institutional and cultural implications of modernization.

Image of Li Hongzhang.
Li Hongzhang was a military hero who helped suppress the Taiping Rebellion. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Even Li Hongzhang, who in many ways was the most forward-looking of the Self-Strengtheners, underestimated the systemic requirements of effective reform.

In Li’s view, the ultimate goal of reform was to borrow Western technologies merely for their instrumental utility, while carefully preserving Chinese values as the core foundation of the empire.

In Chinese, their key slogan was: “Zhongxue weiti, Yangxue weiyong”—“Chinese learning for the foundation; Western learning for practical use”.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Sabotage by Dowager Empress Cixi

The second reason for the Tongzhi Restoration’s failure was sabotage by Cixi, Tongzhi emperor’s own mother, and her ultra-conservative followers.

When the Tongzhi emperor fell mysteriously ill and died in 1875, at the young age of only 18 years, Cixi’s power increased greatly, while the reformers found themselves progressively marginalized. Indeed, many historians believe that Cixi played a quite active role in assisting her son’s death.

Learn more about China’s Confucian moral code.

Barbarian Incursions

The third reason for the failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement was the continued high cost of resisting barbarian incursions.

Though the Opium Wars ended in 1860, foreign powers continued to chip away at Manchu sovereignty and Manchu wealth.

The image is of a ship belonging to the Japanese navy.
The Japanese built a modern navy that helped them defeat the Chinese. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

In 1884, China lost a war with France over territorial rights to Indochina. A decade later, the Japanese navy, confronting a weak Chinese defense force totally lacking in modern naval vessels, stripped the Korean peninsula and the island of Taiwan from Manchu domination.

By the end of the century, more than a dozen ‘unequal treaties’ had been forced upon China by assorted foreign powers, now including Japan.

Further weakening the imperial government was the fact that with import tariffs extremely low (and their collection controlled by foreigners), Western countries were free to flood China with cheap machine-made goods, thereby bringing hard times to China’s traditional, labor-intensive textile and clothing industries.

Learn more about the opium trade.

China’s Response to the West

Although increasing numbers of Chinese had come to admire Western science, technology, and economic innovation, they also deeply resented Western bullying and the arrogant attitude of Western entitlement and noblesse oblige that all too often accompanied it.

This ambivalence lay at the very heart of the oscillating, bipolar feelings of respect and resentment, admiration and anger, love and hate that characterized China’s 19th-century response to the West.

Real-Estate Takeovers by Foreigners

What the foreigners didn’t take by force in the 19th century, they often secured through negotiated leases, concessions, and naked land grabs.

Between 1860 and 1898, foreign powers established territorial enclaves in dozens of Chinese cities, from Harbin, Dalian, and Qingdao in the northeast, to Hainan, Shantou, and Beihai in the south.

Capping off this extensive foreign real-estate grab, on July 1, 1898, Great Britain signed a 99-year lease for several hundred square miles of Chinese territory immediately adjacent to the British Colony of Hong Kong. Known as the New Territories, this valuable piece of south China real estate remained in British hands until a little more than a decade ago.

Learn more about the Treaty of Nanking.

Japan and China in the Late 19th Century

In the three decades from 1860 to 1890, while the Manchus were struggling to keep Western institutions and values at arm’s length, lest they contaminate or otherwise undermine the ideological foundations of the Confucian order, something quite remarkable and quite different was happening in nearby Japan.

Similarities and Differences between Japan and China

Like China, pre-modern Japan had been closed to Western commerce. When the American naval commander, Matthew Perry, sailed his fleet of menacing Black Ships into Tokyo’s harbor in 1853, it was in some ways redolent of Admiral George Elliot’s arrival in Canton 14 years earlier.

Like Admiral Elliot, Commodore Perry used his superior weapons and his warships to leverage commercial concessions from the Japanese. Like Elliot, Perry’s demands engendered a strong nationalistic backlash on the part of the Japanese.

But there the similarities end. Unlike China under the Manchus, the Japanese state in the Tokugawa era was politically decentralized and even fragmented, with no single imperial hegemon able to dictate the terms of engagement with foreigners.

When centralized imperial authority was finally reconstituted in 1868, with the Meiji Restoration, the new Japanese emperor shed many of his predecessors’ conservative cultural taboos and began to adapt proactively to Western penetration and presence.

Contrast in Growth of Japan and China

A modern constitution was adopted in Japan, establishing an elected parliament. Modern transportation and communications systems were imported from the West. Universal education was instituted, again patterned after the West. By the turn of the century, a modern urban middle class had begun to emerge in Japan.

Sketch shows Japanese emperor Meiji declaring the new constitution to the general public and soldiers.
Japan managed to outpace China in the race to modernize. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Freed from the type of ideological rigidity characterized by Cixi’s machinations, which had severely constrained China’s Self-Strengtheners, Japan’s industrial development proceeded with all due speed, without regard for possible contamination effects.

While Cixi was busy building herself a marble pleasure boat, Japanese industrialists were busy building themselves a modern navy.

The striking contrast in the national spirit, or zeitgeist, of China and Japan in the last decades of the 19th century would have enormous downstream consequences for both countries—most of them bad.

By 1895 Japan had far outpaced China in the race to modernize. And within two decades, Japan’s leaders would feel strong enough and confident enough to mount a major challenge to Western domination in China.

Common Questions about the Failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement

Q: What did the slogan “Zhongxue weiti, Yangxue weiyong” mean?

The slogan “Zhongxue weiti, Yangxue weiyong” meant “Chinese learning for the foundation; Western learning for practical use.”

Q: What was the impact of extremely low import tariffs in China?

With import tariffs extremely low (and their collection controlled by foreigners), Western countries were free to flood China with cheap machine-made goods, thereby bringing hard times to China’s traditional, labor-intensive textile and clothing industries.

Q: What were some of the changes that happened in Japan after the Meiji Restoration?

With the Meiji Restoration, a modern constitution was adopted in Japan, establishing an elected parliament. Modern transportation and communications systems were imported from the West, and universal education was instituted.

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