The Self-strengthening Movement was launched to make China strong and prosperous. The Western Affairs Camp (洋務派) touted the Beiyang Navy (北洋海軍) as the pinnacle of its achievements. When this brand-new navy was annihilated in the First Sino-Japanese War, it simultaneously spelt the end of the movement. One of the reasons the movement failed was that its guiding principle of pursuing “Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for practical application” was fundamentally flawed. The core value that must be protected, according to the Western Affairs Camp, was the Qing regime and its authoritarianism. They mistakenly believed that they could become strong simply by obtaining Western armaments. By pursuing the most superficial aspects of Western knowledge, they missed out on its more valuable offerings, which also left China overly dependent on Westerners for the supply of Western technology. Apart from that, as the Self-strengthening Movement never managed to undertake radical education reform, leaving the masses remained largely resistant to new ideas and practices from the West. They even did their best to oppose and hamper the changes at every turn. Moreover, the Empress’s Faction (后黨), which held most of the power at court, did not want to make any fundamental changes. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后), who was the head of the Empress’s Faction and held sway over national affairs, was known to have redirected naval funds to refurbish the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan, 頤和園), her own pleasure garden.
Nevertheless, as China’s first attempt at learning from the West in the early modern era, the Self-strengthening Movement changed China’s military, education, and economy. Its influence on modern-day China and the development of national defence, industry and commerce, society and culture should not be dismissed.
The inherent weakness of the Self-strengthening Movement had much to do with its guiding principle of pursuing “Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for practical application”. Pictured are some key works and a royal decree related to the concept. From the left: Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms (《海國圖志》) authored by Wei Yuan (魏源); Protest from the Jiaobin Dwelling (《校邠廬抗議》) authored by Feng Guifen (馮桂芬); Exhortation to Learn (《勸學篇》) authored by Zhang Zhidong (張之洞); and a royal decree issued by the Qing government in 1898 to promulgate Zhang’s Exhortation to Learn.
A group photo of the late Qing officials. The vast bureaucracy that propped up the Qing regime was comprised of bureaucrats who grew up studying the traditional, more orthodox Confucian disciplines. Thus, most preferred maintaining the status quo. Hampered by the hidebound bureaucracy and reluctance on the part of Empress Dowager Cixi, the real power holder, to make any fundamental systemic changes, the promotion of Western affairs in China was an uphill battle.
In 1876, civilians living along the Wusong Railway (吳淞鐵路) witnessed its opening. Due to prevalent ignorance among the populace at the time of the Self-strengthening Movement, the public often strongly opposed Western novelties, thus hampering the reform. Their destruction of the Wusong Railway was an example.
The prevalent ignorance among the populace impeded the promotion of Western technologies and ideas led to many jokes. Pictured is an illustration titled Rumours should be Banned (《謠言宜禁》) in the Dianshizhai Pictorial (《點石齋畫報》) published in the late Qing period. It accompanied an account of a fiasco caused by the superstitions associating telegraphy with ghosts in Taizhou (泰州), Jiangsu Province (江蘇).
A photo of Gongyuan (貢院), the imperial civil service examination hall, located in Guangzhou (廣州) taken in 1873. The prevalent ignorance among the populace had much to do with the failure of the Self-strengthening Movement to reform China’s education system. Under the existing system, most Chinese people were uninformed as they never had the opportunity to be educated. The few people who were literate were mostly preoccupied with studying the Four Books and Five Classics (四書五經) of Confucian literature to excel in the civil service examination for an official post. Their minds were closed to new ideas. The lack of a large-scale education reform was one of the key failings that led to the demise of the Self-strengthening Movement.
Not all were blind to the inadequacies of the Self-strengthening Movement. In June 1894, not long before the First Sino-Japanese War, Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) wrote a letter to Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) in which he criticised the Self-strengthening Movement for losing sight of what was important in the pursuit of the trivial. Sun’s petition to Li was published in two parts in the 1894 September and October editions of the newspaper A Review of the Times (《萬國公報》) in Shanghai (上海).
Famous Chinese diplomats in the early modern age. From the left: Zeng Jize (曾紀澤) and Xue Fucheng (薛福成). While the Self-strengthening Movement largely failed, it should nevertheless be credited with some achievements. On the diplomatic front, for example, the movement became the cradle of China’s first cohort of talented diplomats in this new era of modernity.
The Self-strengthening Movement kick-started the first movement in China’s modern history to translate large numbers of Western works, teach the modern disciplines, and study overseas. In doing so, China’s cultural and education system achieved some progress. Pictured are The Latest Western Industrial Arts (《西藝知新》) and A Sequel to Mirroring the Origins of Chemistry (《化學鑑源續編》), two works translated during the movement.
Shanghai’s Garden Bridge in 1887. The people on it were enjoying the view of the Suzhou River (蘇州河). The crowds, boats, and buildings along the shore exuded a vibe of a modern metropolis. The Self-strengthening Movement helped shape China’s industrial and commercial sector in the early modern age. It also spurred the development of Guangzhou, Shanghai, and other large cities, facilitated the rise of China’s first cohort of new age entrepreneurs, and fuelled the growth of national industrial and commercial capital.
A group photo of students of the Jiangnan Naval Academy (江南水師學堂) taken inside the academy. Established in 1890, the Jiangnan Naval Academy in Nanjing was later renamed the Nanjing Naval Academy (南京海軍軍官學校). Over the years, it has trained many talented naval officers. Even after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the policies that were launched by the Self-strengthening Movement to increase China’s military strength continued to exert their influence. They played a major role in shaping China’s national defence in the early modern era.
Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe (pictures 3, 5, 9 and 10), Visual China Group (picture 7), misc. photo sources.