Lecture Thirty

Efforts at Reform

Scope: The humiliation of the Opium War and the challenge of the Taiping Rebellion left a deep impression on the Qing leadership. In the second half of the 19th century, efforts were undertaken to reform the dynasty and adapt Western ideas and technologies to strengthen China and give it the ability to resist Western domination. Although they achieved some successes, these measures ultimately proved inadequate. China was again defeated militarily in 1894-1895 by the Japanese, whose aggressive adoption of Western ways contrasted strongly with the general conservatism of China. A final wave of reformist activity, with the support of the Guangxu emperor in the summer of 1898, was thwarted by the Empress Dowager Cixi and was followed by the anti- foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900. Western troops invaded China to suppress the Boxers and again imposed harsh humiliations on the tottering Manchu regime.


I. In the wake of the Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, some Chinese and Manchus began to pursue reform.

A. Even before the final suppression of the Taipings, there were efforts to revive the Qing.

1. In the 1860s, during the reign of the young Tongzhi emperor, progressive senior officials sought to restore vitality to the court.

2. As new leaders, such as Zeng Guofan, emerged in provincial activities, they were offered roles in reform.

B. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Self-Strengthening Movement sought to modernize the Qing state and military.

1. Chinese officials undertook initiatives to develop a modern weapons industry, including building shipyards and arsenals.

2. A bureau for translating Western books, especially on science and technology, was founded.

3. The Zongli Yamen, a kind of foreign ministry, was set up to handle relations with the Western powers.

C. Despite these efforts, China continued to be treated as an inferior by foreign states.

1. In 1884, China was defeated by France as the French established their control over Vietnam, a client state of China’s.

2. In 1894-1895, China suffered a severe embarrassment when Japan inflicted a crushing defeat on both land and sea, ending Chinese influence in Korea.

II. The defeat of 1895 set off a new, more intense round of reform.

A. In the autumn of 1895, examination candidates in Beijing demonstrated in protest over China’s weakness.

1. A minor official, Kang Youwei, organized a petition drive to call for government reform.

2. Others, including Liang Qichao, began to write articles advocating political change.

B. In 1898, the Guangxu emperor embraced reform and issued a series of edicts.

1. He called for modernizing the educational system and studying Western, as well as Chinese, topics.

2. He wanted to streamline administration and reduce bureaucracy.

3. He wanted to increase opportunities for people to communicate with the government.

4. He appointed several reformers to high positions.

C. Many senior Manchus feared that reform would weaken their power, and these “100 Days,” as they were known, were brought to an abrupt end.

1. The Manchu nobles worried that Chinese officials would move to eliminate their influence and, perhaps, to terminate rule by the Manchu minority.

2. Some Chinese officials also feared reform and allied with the conservative Manchus.

3. The Empress Dowager Cixi resented the autonomy of her nephew, the emperor, and moved to block his changes.

4. In September 1898, she ordered the arrest of eight leading reformers, who were executed shortly thereafter.

5. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao fled to exile in Japan.

III. The thwarting of reform allowed popular anti-foreign feelings to overflow in the Boxer Rebellion.

A. The Boxers were members of a martial arts movement with mystical beliefs.

1. Centered in Shandong province, the Boxers were angered by the privileges of foreign missionaries and the favors given to Chinese Christian converts.

2. They also resented the special concessions Germany held at Qingdao.

3. Boxer fighters believed certain talismans would protect them from Western firearms.

4. They thought that divine spirits would come to save China from the “barbarians.”

B. In 1899, the Boxers moved out of Shandong and headed toward Beijing.

1. They began to receive official approval.

2. In June, they besieged the Western diplomatic legations in the capital.

3. An international force, led by Russian and Japanese troops, fought its way into Beijing and lifted the siege in August.

4. The Western powers occupied Beijing and imposed a harsh settlement on the Chinese, thus ending the last challenge to Western power under imperial rule.

5. The days of the Qing dynasty were now numbered; we will follow the course of its fall in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Paul A. Cohen and John Schrecker, Reform in Nineteenth Century China.

Supplemental Reading:

Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power.

Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.

Questions to Consider:

1. In the middle decades of the 19th century, the Japanese managed to completely transform their government and military in line with contemporary Western models. Why was reform so difficult in China?

2. Chinese reformers wanted to adopt Western technologies and administrative practices but resisted the embrace of Western values. Was this a reasonable response on their part?

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