The Self-Strengthening Movement in late 19th-century China


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

The Manchus launched the Self-Strengthening Movement to bring back the glory of their dynasty after the Taiping Rebellion. This movement aimed to merge modern Western industrial technology with China’s Confucian institutions and values. Was the movement successful in its endeavor? Read on to find out.

Photo of the Foochow Arsenal, the shipyard built during the Self-Strengthening Movement.
The Self-Strengthening Movement wanted to raise China’s military profile and modernize its antiquated infrastructure. (Image: Canadian Centre for Architecture/Public domain)

The Beginning of the Self-Strengthening Movement

After defeating Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping rebels, the Manchus launched a series of initiatives aimed at reviving their tottering dynasty.

Launched in the early 1860s, the revival effort was known variously as the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ and the ‘Tongzhi Restoration’, so named after the young emperor Tongzhi, who ascended to the throne in 1862.

The Self-Strengthening Movement was spearheaded by Tongzhi’s uncle, Prince Gong.

Learn more about the Manchu dynasty.

Goal of the Self-Strengthening Movement

The Self-Strengthening Movement’s centerpiece was a drive to copy the techniques of Western science and industry. Toward this end, hundreds of Chinese students and scholars were sent abroad to study the secrets of Western military success.

But at the same time, and rather contradictorily, their Manchu patrons tried desperately to preserve China’s traditional civilization and culture against the onslaught of Westernization.

What they wanted, in short, was to graft modern Western industrial technology neatly onto China’s existing Confucian institutions and values, without the former contaminating the latter.

Domestic Reforms by Prince Gong

Photo of Prince Gong.
Prince Gong was the man who led the Self-Strengthening Movement. (Image: Felice Beato/Public domain)

Prince Gong was an arrogant and highly ambitious man. And though he was widely disliked within the imperial court, he enjoyed the trust of his nephew, Tongzhi.

With the emperor’s backing, Gong initiated a series of profound reforms in domestic and foreign affairs.

In an effort to treat the underlying sources of rural unrest, which had fueled both the Nian and Taiping rebellions, substantial sums of money were appropriated by Prince Gong to repair damaged waterworks.

Devastated farmlands were reclaimed and rehabilitated, and agricultural taxes were reduced or even, in some cases, forgiven altogether.

To deal with growing popular resentment against corrupt officials, a new code of conduct was introduced for civil servants, stressing honesty, personal austerity, and a humble demeanor.

And to aid in the recruitment of men of practical talent into the imperial civil service, the examinations were revamped to lay greater stress on problem-solving abilities rather than mere memorization of the Confucian classics of antiquity.

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

Foreign Reforms by Prince Gong

In foreign affairs, Prince Gong recognized the importance of modernizing his country’s dealings with the outside world.

No longer assuming the traditional airs of Middle Kingdom supremacy and invincibility, Gong was well aware of the superiority of Western military technology. To deal with this ‘weapons gap’, he adopted a policy of sending the best and brightest of China’s young scholar-officials abroad, to learn the secrets of Western military technology.

Learn more about the splendor that was China.

Zeng Guofan: The Senior Military Leader

Along with Prince Gong, two other officials who were prominent in the movement to learn Western technologies of warfare were Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, military heroes of the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion.

Zeng Guofan was the more senior of the two and the more philosophical of the two. Zeng believed that Western military technology could be comfortably grafted upon China’s traditional values and institutions to create an invincible, powerful state.

Zeng’s disciples called his strategy “using the barbarians to control the barbarians” or, what might be called, “beating them at their own game”.

The strategy was outlined in a series of letters Zeng wrote to his former student, Li Hongzhang:

If we wish to find a method of self-strengthening, we should … regard learning to make explosive shells and steamships and other instruments as the work of the first importance. If only we could possess the superior techniques [of the Westerners], then we would have the means to return their favors when they are obedient, and … to avenge our grievances when they are disloyal. We should carefully watch and learn their superior techniques and also observe their shortcomings. … If they abandon good relations and break their covenant, we should then have the weapons to oppose them.

Li Hongzhang

Painting of Li Hongzhang.
Li Hongzhang was one of the key people responsible for the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. (Image: Hubert Vos/Public domain)

Like his mentor, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang believed in the superiority of China’s traditional civilization and culture. In his view, the only thing China needed to regain its past glory was modern weapons.

Li believed that the principal reason for this ‘weapons gap’ lay in the traditional habits of scholarly arrogance and self-indulgence that prevailed within the imperial Mandarinate.

He noted that Western scholars and officials “use mathematics for reference and exert their energies in deep thinking to make daily increases and alterations” in their weapons.

The Western ethos of constant innovation was in contrast to the stagnant self-satisfaction of China’s traditional scholars, who in the words of these reformers, sit around “indulging in the inveterate habit of remembering [poetic] stanzas and sentences and practicing fine model calligraphy”.

Learn more about the Taiping Rebellion.

Adoption of Modern Weaponry

Entrusted by the emperor to supervise the manufacture of European-style weapons, Li Hongzhang established China’s first modern arsenals at Ningbo and Foochow.

By the mid-1870s these arsenals were producing thousands of small arms generally comparable in quality to the breechloading Remington rifles used by Europeans. An ambitious naval shipbuilding program was also launched under Li Hongzhang’s direction.

However, the program was beset from the outset by a series of major obstacles, including a lack of raw materials and insufficient technical talent.

There was also rampant corruption in the awarding of construction contracts and in the hiring of overpaid and incompetent foreign advisors. Consequently, naval construction during the Tongzhi Restoration proved to be slow, costly, and wholly inefficient.

Common Questions about the Self-Strengthening Movement

Q: Why was the ‘Self- Strengthening Movement’ also called the ‘Tongzhi Restoration’?

The Self- Strengthening Movement was called the ‘Tongzhi Restoration’ after the young emperor Tongzhi, who ascended to the throne in 1862.

Q: How did Prince Gong deal with the superiority of Western military technology?

Prince Gong was well aware of the superiority of Western military technology. To deal with this ‘weapons gap’, he adopted a policy of sending the best and brightest of China’s young scholar-officials abroad to learn the secrets of Western military technology.

Q: Who established China’s first modern arsenals at Ningbo and Foochow?

Li Hongzhang, a military hero who had helped suppress the Taiping Rebellion, established China’s first modern arsenals at Ningbo and Foochow.

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