20080217-first shanghai train 1876 tale of shnag.jpg
First Shanghai train
At the end of the 19th century China existed as a nation in name only. The Qing dynasty controlled only parts of China and the rest of China was divided among warlords and foreigners who controlled different parts of the country. As the Qing dynasty fell apart more and more of China was wrestled from its control. The Qing dynasty was weakened by the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion occurred.

Until 1850 or so, most Chinese believed the world was flat. "By the end of the 19th century the pressure from the world of ideas," wrote Yale history professor Jonathan Spence in Time magazine, "had led to strident and insistent demands for new structures of justice, new realms of freedom of aesthetic endeavor and the dissemination of information, and abandonment of autocracy for either a genuinely circumscribed constitutional monarchy or popularly passed republican form of government."

The threat presented by colonialism and Western power, forced the Chinese to take a hard look at themselves and re-evaluate their system of beliefs. In many cases traditional ideas about Confucianism, the Mandate of Heaven and authority were tossed out and Western ideas of capitalism, modernism, militarism and ultimately socialism and Marxism were embraced.

Two key events were the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), in which Japan obtained the Chinese island of Taiwan and ste the stage for taking Korea, and the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising in 1899–1901 by a secret society supported by the Qing (Manchu) court that sought to expel all foreigners but was ultimately crushed by the intervention of British, French, German, American, Russian, and Japanese troops. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) and the catastrophic foreign intervention that that movement precipitated, the imperial government reconsidered the need for fundamental reforms. Government reform had already been attempted, and rejected, in 1898 when Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and his colleagues temporarily ran the imperial government, with the support of the Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908, r.1875-1908), until the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) ousted them. A mere three years later, however, the Empress Dowager issued the edict below. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures; Sun Yat-sen Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; May 4th Movement Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

China Begins Modernizing

China in 1875

In the late 1800s China began imitating Western technology. The Chinese were especially anxious to learn the European trades of shipbuilding and gunsmithing. In the 19th century a reformist named Feng Gui-fen said: "A few barbarians should be employed and Chinese who are good in using their minds should be selected to receive instructions so that in turn they may teach many craftsman...We should use the instruments of the barbarians, but not ape the ways of the barbarians. We should use them so we can repel them."

Not everyone believed that imitating the West was the answer to China's problems. In his 1919 travelogue "Travel Impressions of Europe", the Chinese traveler Liang Chi'ch'ao wrote: "We may laugh at those old folks among us who block their own road to advancement and claim we Chinese have all that is found in Western learning. But we should laugh even more at those who are drunk with Western ways and regard everything Chinese as worthless, as though we in the last several hundred years have remained primitive and have achieved nothing?"

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Battleships were the mainstays of the Qing navy during the first half of the 19th century. While the Chi-tzu class ships could be equipped with a complement of up to twenty-five guns, they were nonetheless unable to compete with the vessels of the Western powers. Their cannon, which fired only solid shells, were all positioned on the upper deck of the vessel. The average Chinese Opium War-era warship was armed with only eight to ten cannon, with smaller vessels mounting a mere four or five guns. The largest English vessels active in the Far East, by contrast, carried over seventy guns arrayed over three decks. Second class vessel carried approximately thirty to forty guns on two decks. In addition to firing solid shells, these cannons were also used to launch explosive rounds. This technological disparity was one of the primary reasons for the Chinese loss of the Opium War. \=/

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “After the defeat of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the Qing court reformed its army once again, this time on a western model. On the eve of the Chinese revolution, the new regular army consisted of fourteen field divisions and two palace guard divisions. This system was entirely different from that of the traditional Green Standard forces, with foot soldiers, cavalry, artillerist, engineers, and supply units all grouped under the same command. This new structure served as the foundation for the modern Chinese military. \=/

Reform Movements in China after the Opium Wars

Chinese cruiser Haitien

After China's defeat in the Opium War of 1842, thinkers tried to understand what made the West so strong and how China could best respond. Debates debates about reforms took place from the mid-nineteenth into the early twentieth century, as arguments for more radical reform, including revolution, increased.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “After China's defeat in the Opium War, there was great concern about the superiority of the West and fierce debate about how to respond. In 1842 Wei Yuan (1794-1856), a scholar and adviser to the government, concluded that the West had beset China because of the West's more advanced military technology. He outlined a plan for maritime defense which included "building ships, making weapons, and learning the superior techniques of the barbarians." In the decades that followed, other scholars went further than Wei, calling not only for the purchase and eventual manufacture of Western arms but also for the establishment of translation offices and institutions where students could study Western languages and mathematics in addition to Chinese classics. This approach came to be known as "self strengthening;" its principle goal was to maintain the strong essence of Chinese civilization while adding superior technology from abroad. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Still later, scholars like Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) in 1872, argued that self-strengthening programs should be widened to include industrial ventures and transport facilities, focusing on increasing China's "wealth and power" by establishing profit-oriented ventures. The construction of modern coal mines and railroads followed. But for many reasons these projects did not succeed: many of them were not central to the state's concerns, scholars were still bound by the traditional examination system based on the Confucian classics, and growing foreign imperialism was taxing China's economy and society as much as its military.”

Guangxu and Attempts at Reform in China

Emperor Guangxu

Guangxu, the second to last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, is best known for his unsuccessful attempt to modernize China by instituting reforms to the system of government in 1898, the so-called Hundred Days Reform aimed to adopt a constitutional monarchy. The reforms turned out to be short-lived, just like the emperor himself.

Guangxu was influenced by reformers like Kang Youwei, who attempted to bring about changes based on Western ideas of progress and freedom and urged the Qing court to modernize China by building railways and improving ports, factories, weapons and metal and textile factories. At the end of the 19th century, most of the railways, mines and communications lines in China had been built for foreigners for their own use.
Enlightened Qing Dynasty statesman tried to introduce Western technology and modernize China while keeping the Qing dynasty intact. Ignoring conservatives in his court, the 27-year-old Emperor Guangxu launched a reform movement called Hundred Day Reform in 1898 in which he set about abolishing institutions that had held back China's progress. As part of his modernization campaign he hoped to establish transportation networks, beef up the military, translate Western books, educate the masses and get rid of "bigoted conservatism and impractical customs." The reforms failed when the Empress Dowager Cixi staged a palace coup and Emperor Guangxu was imprisoned in the Hall of Impregnating Vitality on an artificial island in the Forbidden City, where he studied English and international affairs but never again wielded any power. The coup took place on September 21, 1898 and was carried out by Manchu generals and members of the Manchurian elite. Once installed as the leader of China, the Empress Dowager canceled all the reforms except those involving the military.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “In 1898, Guangxu, who had good reason to dislike his "royal father" launched a radical reform programme under the guidance of two former imperial scholars, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, and against the resistance of the more conservative elements at court. Kang – portrayed here one-dimensionally as a scheming upstart – persuaded the emperor that Cixi was an obstacle that had to be neutralised. Cixi moved first: by September 1898, she had deposed and imprisoned Guangxu and taken the reins again herself. Those reformers who did not escape were executed. Also executed were two entirely innocent men, whose trials Cixi had stopped to prevent the emperor's role in the plot to assassinate her becoming public. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013]

Near the end of her rule, the Empress Dowager made a few feeble attempts at reform. She ended the 2000-year-old Confucian exams system in 1905, outlawed cruel punishments, improved the legal and education system and modernized railroads. But these reforms were too little, too late. Central authority began to crumble after her death in 1908.

Reform Movements in China After the Sino-Japanese War

Sino-Japanese War

Robert Eno of Indian University wrote: “The political uproar that followed” the Sino-Japanese War, “unmasking of China’s weakness had led to a program of ambitious reform, adopted by a young emperor who daringly gave power to a party of radically progressive Confucians. But the leaders of that party were killed or driven into exile by a coup led by the aging Empress Dowager, and the young emperor was banished to an island prison within the imperial palace grounds in Beijing, where he awaited his eventual death by poison.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “After 1895, with the disastrous defeat of China by the Japanese over dominance in Korea and the subsequent "scramble" by foreign powers for Chinese concessions and spheres of influence, the more conciliatory and pragmatic programs of the "self strengtheners" were discredited as fears for China's survival mounted. It was in this period that Chinese nationalism developed, along with urgent appeals to the Qing court for more radical reform. The reform program designed by the scholars Kang Youwei (1858-1927), Liang Qichao (1873-1929), and Tan Sitong (1865-1898) had a brief trial in the so-called "Hundred Days of Reform" of 1898, but it was not until after the Boxer Rebellion defeat in 1900 that wide-ranging reforms in education, military, economics and government were actually implemented. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The reform program after 1901 did begin to address structural reforms, with changes in and the eventual abolition of the examination system, the establishment of more schools throughout the country which were to include Western subjects, support for student study abroad, the establishment of a new national army under a new army ministry, along with a new ministry of commerce, reform of the currency, and the promulgation of a commercial code. In spite of these changes and perhaps because of them, the dynasty collapsed in 1911.

“Thinkers such as Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen (1866-1925) had already abandoned not only the Manchu dynasty but also the imperial system and had argued for its replacement with a different form of government. Local assemblies had begun to meet in 1909 and the dynasty had worked out a timetable for creating a constitutional monarchy, with a constitution planned for 1912 and a parliament to be convened the following year. Sun went even further and called for a republican revolution. In the tumultuous years that followed, a number of visions for a new China were created by either mixing old and new, or by rejecting Chinese traditional ideas entirely. These efforts informed and fueled the May Fourth Movement, so named for the popular protests it engendered in China on May 4, 1919. Reform efforts also informed the reorganization of the Guomindang (Kuomintang, KMT), or Nationalist Party, which nominally reunified the country in 1926-28 and tried to build a modern state, and the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, which saw itself as adapting Marxist ideas to Chinese realities.

Self-Strengthening Movement

The rude realities of the Opium War, the unequal treaties, and the mid-century mass uprisings caused Qing courtiers and officials to recognize the need to strengthen China. Chinese scholars and officials had been examining and translating "Western learning" since the 1840s. Under the direction of modern-thinking Han officials, Western science and languages were studied, special schools were opened in the larger cities, and arsenals, factories, and shipyards were established according to Western models. Western diplomatic practices were adopted by the Qing, and students were sent abroad by the government and on individual or community initiative in the hope that national regeneration could be achieved through the application of Western practical methods. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Amid these activities came an attempt to arrest the dynastic decline by restoring the traditional order. The effort was known as the Tongzhi Restoration, named for the Tongzhi Emperor (1862-74), and was engineered by the young emperor's mother, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi (1835-1908). The restoration, however, which applied "practical knowledge" while reaffirming the old mentality, was not a genuine program of modernization.*

“The effort to graft Western technology onto Chinese institutions became known as the Self-Strengthening Movement. The movement was championed by scholar-generals like Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang (1812-85), who had fought with the government forces in the Taiping Rebellion. From 1861 to 1894, leaders such as these, now turned scholar-administrators, were responsible for establishing modern institutions, developing basic industries, communications, and transportation, and modernizing the military. But despite its leaders' accomplishments, the SelfStrengthening Movement did not recognize the significance of the political institutions and social theories that had fostered Western advances and innovations. This weakness led to the movement's failure. Modernization during this period would have been difficult under the best of circumstances. The bureaucracy was still deeply influenced by Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Chinese society was still reeling from the ravages of the Taiping and other rebellions, and foreign encroachments continued to threaten the integrity of China. *

Recently, the Hundred Days was evoked by “Charter 08" as a shattering event for an abortive Chinese modernity, owing to which I’d argue that the Hundred Days was the original, archetypal event of a fierce intellectual contest and a bloody conflict preceding Tiananmen 89 — a traumatic experience for Liu Xiaobo’s generation.

Hundred Days' Reform of 1898

Ling Heuk executed after the Hundred Days' Reform

In the 103 days from June 11 to September 21, 1898, the Qing emperor, Guangxu (1875-1908), ordered a series of reforms aimed at making sweeping social and institutional changes. This effort reflected the thinking of a group of progressive scholar-reformers who had impressed the court with the urgency of making innovations for the nation's survival. Influenced by the Japanese success with modernization, the reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

The imperial edicts for reform covered a broad range of subjects, including stamping out corruption and remaking, among other things, the academic and civil-service examination systems, legal system, governmental structure, defense establishment, and postal services. The edicts attempted to modernize agriculture, medicine, and mining and to promote practical studies instead of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. The court also planned to send students abroad for firsthand observation and technical studies. All these changes were to be brought about under a de facto constitutional monarchy. *

Opposition to the reform was intense among the conservative ruling elite, especially the Manchus, who, in condemning the announced reform as too radical, proposed instead a more moderate and gradualist course of change. Supported by ultraconservatives and with the tacit support of the political opportunist Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), Empress Dowager Ci Xi engineered a coup d'etat on September 21, 1898, forcing the young reform-minded Guangxu into seclusion. Ci Xi took over the government as regent. The Hundred Days' Reform ended with the rescindment of the new edicts and the execution of six of the reform's chief advocates. The two principal leaders, Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), fled abroad to found the Baohuang Hui (Protect the Emperor Society) and to work, unsuccessfully, for a constitutional monarchy in China. *

The conservatives then gave clandestine backing to the antiforeign and anti-Christian movement of secret societies known as Yihetuan (Society of Righteousness and Harmony). The movement has been better known in the West as the Boxers (from an earlier name — Yihequan, Righteousness and Harmony Boxers). In 1900 Boxer bands spread over the north China countryside, burning missionary facilities and killing Chinese Christians. Finally, in June 1900, the Boxers besieged the foreign concessions in Beijing and Tianjin, an action that provoked an allied relief expedition by the offended nations. The Qing declared war against the invaders, who easily crushed their opposition and occupied north China. Under the Protocol of 1901, the court was made to consent to the execution of ten high officials and the punishment of hundreds of others, expansion of the Legation Quarter, payment of war reparations, stationing of foreign troops in China, and razing of some Chinese fortifications.*

In the decade that followed, the court belatedly put into effect some reform measures. These included the abolition of the moribund Confucian-based examination, educational and military modernization patterned after the model of Japan, and an experiment, if half-hearted, in constitutional and parliamentary government. The suddenness and ambitiousness of the reform effort actually hindered its success. One effect, to be felt for decades to come, was the establishment of new armies, which, in turn, gave rise to warlordism. *

Reform Edict of the Qing Imperial Government in 1901

According to the “Reform Edict of the Qing Imperial Government (January 29, 1901)”: “Certain principles of morality (changjing) are immutable, whereas methods of governance (zhifa) have always been mutable. The Classic of Changes states that “when a measure has lost effective force, the time has come to change it.” And the Analects states that “the Shang and Zhou dynasties took away from and added to the regulations of their predecessors, as can readily be known.” Now, the Three Mainstays (Bonds) [ruler/minister, parent/child, and husband/ wife] and the Five Constant Virtues [humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, wisdom, and trustworthiness] remain forever fixed and unchanging, just as the sun and the stars shine steadfastly upon the earth. Throughout the ages, successive generations have introduced new ways and abolished the obsolete. Our own august ancestors set up new systems to meet the requirements of the day. [Source: Reform Edict of the Qing Imperial Government (January 29, 1901) issued by the Empress Dowager Cixi, 1835-1908 from “Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 285-287; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Laws and methods (fa) become obsolete and, once obsolete, require revision in order to serve their intended purpose of strengthening the state and benefiting the people. It is well known that the new laws propounded by the Kang rebels were less reform laws (bianfa) than lawlessness (luanfa). These rebels took advantage of the court’s weakened condition to plot sedition. It was only by an appeal to the Empress Dowager to resume the reins of power that the court was saved from immediate peril and the evil rooted out in a single day.

“How can anyone say that in suppressing this insurrectionary movement the Empress Dowager declined to sanction anything new? Or that in taking away from and adding to the laws of our ancestors, we advocated a complete abolition of the old? We sought to steer a middle course between the two extremes and to follow a path to good administration. Officials and the people alike must know that mother and son [the Empress Dowager and the Guangxu emperor] were activated by one and the same motive.

Image Sources: Ohio State University, Columbia University; Wikipedia

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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