The military and diplomatic failures during the Opium War were a painful and shocking experience for China, particularly to Chinese intellectuals. In 1842 after two years of war, Emperor Daoguang (道光) demanded an “honest assessment without reservation” and asked, “How big is Britain? How many dependent territories of Britain are there? Is there a land route between England and Xinjiang (新疆)? Do we maintain contact regularly?” This suggests a dangerous lack of knowledge about an enemy at war.
In order to pursue a better understanding of the world, Chinese scholars and intellectuals scrambled to compile global knowledge. Among them was Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu (林則徐) who, while fighting in the Opium War, ordered a translation of Scottish geographer Hugh Murray’s Cyclopaedia of Geography (1834). From this Lin created his own Gazetteer of Four Continents (四洲志) and was a pioneer in modern China seeking to understand the outside world. Meanwhile, in 1841 the Chinese scholar Wei Yuan (魏源), on behalf of Lin Zexu (林則徐), produced the first book series of world history and geography known as the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms (海國圖志, which comprised 50 scrolls, or volumes, later expanded to 100 scrolls). A high-ranking Qing official, Xu Jiyu (徐繼畬) authored A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit (瀛寰志略) in 1849.
Moreover, prior to the Opium War, some Chinese scholars had advocated the modernization of China. Most prominent was Gong Zizhen (龔自珍) – whom Chinese philosopher Liang Qichao (梁啟超) praised for inspiring an era of enlightenment in the late Qing dynasty. Feng Guifen’s (馮桂芬) Protest from the Jiaobin Dwelling (校邠廬抗議, 1861) challenged China to transform and modernize by utilizing Western learning and the manufacture of foreign weapons. He also advocated the reform of the imperial examination system. These Chinese thinkers were pioneers in their attempts to transform feudal China into a modern country.
A bust of Gong Zizhen at his former residence in Zhejiang, Hangzhou. Prior to the Opium War, Gong Zizhen had already started advocating the modernization of China. His ideas would influence later reforms.
During the opium ban, Lin Zexu actively gathered intelligence on the international situation and ordered the collection and translation of resources in foreign languages. Under his direction, the Gazetteer of Four Continents was compiled and translated.
Wei Yuan (魏源), a late-Qing thinker and advocate of new ways of thinking, was a confidant of Lin Zexu. He authored the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms, a key publication among early modern works that enabled Chinese people to understand the world.
Wei Yuan’s Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms, first published in 1843, is a general category book that covers global technology, geography and history. Pictured are the maps of the Netherlands and northern Italy from Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms.
A statue of Xu Jiyu in front of Chaoshan Academy (超山書院) inside the Pingyao Confucius Temple of Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Xu Jiyu, a late-Qing scholar and one of China’s pioneers who sought to understand the world, author of the key work A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit.
A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit, published in, is a collection of numerous countries’ maps, including that of the British Isles pictured here. Xu Jiyu, the author, showed himself to be ahead of his time in praising the Western political systems described in the book.
A carved bust of Feng Guifen in his former residence located in Mudugu Town, Wuzhong District of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Feng Guifen, a late-Qing thinker and essayist, proposed “adopting Western knowledge, manufacturing Western implements, collecting more revenue and reforming the imperial examination system,” and advocated “adopting Western methods for enriching and strengthening the country while retaining Chinese morals and the Confucian ethical code.” Protest from the Jiaobin Dwelling is his key work.
Protest from the Jiaobin Dwelling, published in 1861, had considerable influence on the Qing dynasty’s later reforms.
During the Opium War, Western objects became a subject of interest and research. The picture shows a steam-powered boat in Zheng Fuguang’s (鄭復光) Illustration of the Steamship (火輪船圖說).
China was made aware of the power of artillery during the Opium War, and started studying ballistics thereafter. The picture shows Ding Gongchen’s (丁拱辰) Pictorial Description of Gunnery (演礮圖說).
Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Visual China Group (pictures 1, 3, 5), Fotoe（picture 7）misc. photo sources.