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.
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
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.
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.
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
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