During movement played an instrumental role in commencing


During the second half of the eighteenth century, Emperor
Qianlong, unaware of the drastic changes that was taking place in the West
following the industrial revolution, adopted a series of isolationist economic
policies aiming at protecting the Qing economy from western influences and
consolidating the Qing absolute monarchial rule. However, in mid nineteenth
century, the two Opium Wars fought against the British Empire shocked,
humiliated and weakened the Qing regime; the Qing government was appalled by
Britain’s modern weaponry and advanced military strength. In 1861, realizing
the urgent need to reform, a group of government officials led by Prince Gong
launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, calling for radical military and
economic modernization. Although the movement played an instrumental role in
commencing China’s modernization and industrialization process, the flawed
ideological premise of the movement, vehement political opposition from
ignorant yet powerful officials and lack of institutional economic reform
doomed its failure in reviving the dynasty and fulfilling the ideal of power
and wealth.


While the Self-Strengthening advocates were the first
government officials to come to recognize the new world order and the crucial
need to learn from the West, they failed to set an attainable goal for their
endeavor and strived to defend an already debilitated regime destined to
collapse. From late seventeenth century to
late eighteenth century, Emperor Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong’s rules,
collectively identified as the “High Qing” period by historians, was a time
marked by extraordinary economic prosperity and political stability. Under such
circumstances, the general perception and opinion in the Qing society evolved
around the idea that the Great Qing was at the center of the world, surrounded
by other barbarian states; consequently, the Qianlong Emperor implemented a set
of isolationist economic policies and limited trade with other nations. Such
mindset and practice was exemplified in the British minister Lord Macartney’s
1793 visit to the Qing court: in response to Macartney’s request of opening
more ports and expanding trade, Qianlong Emperor issued two edicts in which he
recognized how Britain “yearend after the blessings of our civilization” and
their “respectful spirit of submission”. Qianlong also stated while “our
Celestial Empire possess all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product
within its borders”, the Qing products were “absolute necessities” to Britain. (CITATION) The edicts encapsulated how
blindly confident and arrogant the Qing emperor, scholar-officials and the general
public were and how ignorant they were towards the situations in other nations.

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It was only six decades later, after the two brutally-fought Opium Wars, that
some scholar-officials came to realize the dangerous threat the western powers
posed to the Qing.


Humiliated by the signing of the unequal treaties as a
result of the wars, these officials, led by Prince Gong, argued for the
adoption of western armaments and proposed military and economic reforms. These
sentiments were represented in an essay written by Feng Guifen, a leading
scholar-official in the movement. In the essay entitled “On the Adoption of
Western Learning”, Feng acknowledged the limitations of the Qing: He recognized
the importance of “mathematics, mechanics, optics, light, chemistry” and
confessed that these knowledge were “unavailable to people in China”. Feng thus
argued that the Qing should “take Chinese ethical principles of human relations
and Confucian teachings as the foundation, and supplement them with the
techniques of wealth and power of the various nations”. (CITATION) The idea of supplementing the Confucian essence with
western techniques both became the guiding principle of the movement and led to
its demise. The principle concisely reflected the ideological premise of the
movement: the ultimate goal was to defend and sustain the Qing imperial rule
against western aggression. Reform advocates remained faithful to the Qing
regime and only sought to supplement the system based on Confucian ideals with
superior western technology and weaponry. The reformers failed to fathom the
crux of the problem: western military strength was a product of their robust
economic and political establishments. They failed to realize that the only
effective solution to the dynasty’s problems was to destroy the dynasty and
execute fundamental and institutional change. Therefore, although the reform
advocates championed the transformation to a modernized and industrialized
society, throughout the movement, they worked toward defending a political system
that would never allow for such transformation to take place. The fundamental
flaw in the ideological premise of the movement ultimately determined its




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