From the dawn of the 19th century, the once-hegemonic Qing Empire in China began to face increasing economic and political challenges. These issues, such as ecological collapse, due to erosion and flooding; rampant corruption, due to a particularly powerful corrupt official; and fiscal instability, due to silver shortages and fluctuating silver prices, led to a rise in movements supporting reform. When China suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Western nations in the Opium wars, unrest and discontent at the government spiked. Reeling from a plethora of rebellions and uprisings ranging from the Taiping Uprising to the Muslim Panthay Rebellion, the Qing government was unable to deal with the mounting western influences. In the face of the collapsing Qing dynasty, a series of reforms to improve China and shake off western imperialism consecutively rose and collapsed due to bureaucratic blocking and obstructive elites.1 While these reforms, the Self-Strengthening Movement, the Hundred Days’ Reform, and the New Policies, improved the Qing dynasty’s government policies, ultimately, they were ineffective at preventing the eventual collapse of traditional Chinese government in the face of Western imperialism.
Despite the ultimate failure of the reforms in the prevention of the Qing dynasty’s collapse, they provided distinct benefits towards the economic and social state of China, as well as the general quality of life enjoyed by the population. The Self-Strengthening movement in China coincided with the formation of the Office of General Management, or the Zongli Yamen. This office was created to aid the Qing government in its diplomatic relationships with western countries. Despite the restrictions placed on it, it helped train and update Chinese diplomats. 2 This process of learning and adapting to the western world reflected the Self-Strengthening Movement’s core tenet of assimilation of western technology. The Hundred Days’ reform enjoyed a great deal of initial success in reforming the education system, improving general administration of China, and clarifying the legal system.3 The New Policies, also known, fittingly, as the Last-Ditch Reforms were a series of emergency reformation proposals from Cixi’s court. Drawing from previous reform movements, the government was reorganized, various offices and ministries being streamlined and optimized.4
The Self-Strengthening Movement
In the face of the overwhelming influence and technology of the west, an effort known as the Self-Strengthening Movement emerged in China. The movement symbolized a compromise between the radical reformers who wished to completely overturn traditional systems and the conservatives who wished to return to traditional Confucianism. A notable feature of the movement was the desire to separate the “base” and the “utility”, as explained by a Chinese scholar-official Zhang Zhidong. 5 This idea was to partition culture and technology into two distinct, separated ideas. Technology could thus move forward and improve, taking ideas from Western Society but simultaneously retaining Chinese culture and traditions.6
The shocking display of European military superiority in the Opium wars prompted the formation of the Zongli Yamen to attempt to mitigate the western influences spreading into China. 7Leading members of this reform-minded office called for a reform in the government: to make itself strong through its own efforts, thus the term “Self-Strengthening”. 8 Many of the highest officials in China were aware that China was in dire need of a disruption of the status quo. They heavily criticized the laissez-faire economy from the traditional system. The immediate goal of these officials was to encourage industrialization and the production of industrial materials that had made the West so powerful. Due to the way to industrialization being already paved by the West, China could simply note the