From Reform to Revolution, 1842 to 1911


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 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.

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 Chinese realities.

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Western "Usefulness" (Yong) Versus Chinese "Essence" (Ti)

In the nineteenth century, how did the Chinese respond to being defeated by the Western powers and carved up into spheres of influence? At first they were confused and uncertain about which direction to move. Pressured not only from the outside, they were troubled also by their own explosive population growth, unpredictable economic swings and internal rebellions throughout the century. The Chinese were at first fearful of major changes, believing that they would poison their traditions if they adopted too much from the West. Before they agreed on reform, leaders in the scholar-official class had first to accept the need for change. Many of them instead held to the status quo which not only protected their position and power but also, they felt, had been the source of China's greatness in the past. Others argued that this was impossible, faced with the challenge on Western arms. Much of the 19th century, therefore, was a time of debate about whether or not to modernize, and if so, how much?

Some Confucian scholars called for the study the "barbarian" technology in order to resist the Western pressures. Feng Guifen (Feng Kuei-fen) was such a man. He wrote the selection on "Western Learning" in the 1860s, when China was defeated a second time by the West and had unequal treaties imposed upon it. Because of widespread hostility to his ideas, he did not publish it until much later. Feng argued that China should adopt Western technology while retaining Chinese values. Others, like the writer Yan Fu (Yen Fu), felt this was impossible — that Western technology could not be borrowed without also borrowing Western science and the democratic system of government that fostered science.

The debate continued in the later half of the 19th century as China was slowly partitioned into various spheres of influence. The southeast of China was occupied by the French, the northeast by the Germans, the south by the British, the northwest by the Russians, and the north by the Japanese. Even the defeat at the hands of their own Asian neighbor, Japan, did not totally convince many that the need for reform and change was vital to China's survival.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese thinkers were immersed in debates about how to change China's technology while retaining traditional values and culture. Only gradually did some thinkers come to believe that just bringing in Western guns and machines was not enough. The ineffectiveness of reform efforts led them to believe that the traditional system itself was hindering both China's modernization and her ability to deal with the foreigners.

The quest for a "new China" began in the 1800s as the Chinese of that period debated how they could borrow from the West and Japan what was useful (yong) for economic development or industrialization without losing the essence (ti) of Chinese culture. In the primary sources below, two scholars present counter-arguments. Feng Guifen argues for adopting Western techniques without altering Chinese "foundations," and Yan Fu argues that this would not be enough.

Feng Guifen, 1809-1874 Excerpts from "On the Adoption of Western Learning" [PDF]
Yan Fu, 1854-1921 Excerpts from "Learning from the West" [PDF]

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Liang Qichao, China's First Democrat

"Liang Qichao, who was born in 1873 in a small southern village, not far from the Portuguese colony of Macao, died in 1929 after an intellectually tumultuous life. He wrestled continuously with the problem of how to reform China without destroying what he took to be its cultural essence and without humiliating its people with cultural annihilation. Among Liang's formative political experiences was his participation in China's first student demonstration, in 1895. The Imperial government had just signed a humiliating peace treaty with Japan following China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War; in response, eight thousand young Chinese scholars, who had come to Beijing to take the national civil service exams, signed a petition expressing their opposition to the treaty. They then formed a line one-third of a mile long in front of Duchayuan, the Censorate of the Qing government, in protest. Their public demonstration proclaimed for the first time that Chinese citizens had the right, indeed the obligation, to regulate those by whom they were governed. Confucius's disciple Mencius had written, "He who restrains his prince, loves his prince." But Liang belonged to the first generation of scholars who, instead of going into voluntary exile when their entreaties were rebuffed by the Imperial government, dared to organize a constituency outside of the government to apply political pressure.

Like other forward-thinking Confucian scholars, Liang came to see "wealth and power" as the only salvation for a beleaguered China living under the threat of national extinction at the hands of Japan and the technologically advanced, rapacious Western powers. Just as intellectuals in the nineteen-eighties were debating the causes of China's backwardness and searching for ways to remedy it through "modernization," so too had Liang and his generation of reform-minded scholars sought to understand the origins of China's dynastic weakness and to suggest remedies.

A brilliant Confucian scholar, Liang came to believe that the source of Western wealth and power lay in democracy. He held that the energy generated by popular participation in the political process was what drove any dynamic society forward. But while he valued the dynamism that free, competing individuals might contribute to the building of a nation, he was vague indeed about how these Promethean, alien forces he wished to see released in China might be reconciled with the interests of the Chinese state. In fact, in optimistically Confucian fashion, he avoided entirely the problem of possible conflict by assuming that the natural order of things was harmony between rulers and the ruled. Whereas Western thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau (who recognized how particular interests easily come into conflict with the "general will") had immediately identified this obvious point of discord in any democratic social contract, Liang missed it completely. In holding his new convictions that individuals should and did have "rights" (quan), he never imagined that a state might become tyrannical or that its people might become rebellious."

Excerpted from Orville Schell, Discos & Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988; paperback: Anchor Doubleday, 1989). Reprinted with permission.

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Sun Yatsen, "Three People's Principles"

By 1900 the leading revolutionary in China was Sun Yatsen (1866-1925), a man very different from previous Chinese reformers. Born to a peasant family in the Guangzhou region, Sun was educated in missionary schools in Hawaii and Hong Kong and developed a world view as much Western as Confucian. In 1894 he founded his first revolutionary organization, and by 1905 he was made head of the Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui) in Japan by representatives from Chinese secret societies, overseas Chinese groups, and Chinese students abroad. After sixteen years of traveling, planning, writing and organizing, his dreams were realized when the revolution of 1911 led to the end of the Qing dynasty. He gave up the presidency in favor of General Yuan Shikai, whose death in 1916 led to an era of local warlord rule. Sun died in 1925. His "three principles of revolution" were first articulated for the Revolutionary League and later formed the foundation for the Nationalist (Guomindang) Party; they included:

    1. Nationalism. Finding evidence of proto-nationalism throughout Chinese history, Sun believed that he had enlarged and modernized the principle to include opposition to foreign imperialism and a firm sense of China as an equal among the nations of the world. He also addressed the need for self-determination for China's minorities.
    2. Democracy. Finding important Chinese precedents for the notion of the voice of the people, Sun introduced the new notions of a republican government and a constitution as the best way to articulate and protect people's rights. Sun advocated popular elections, initiative, recall and referendum, but he felt that China was not yet ready for full democracy, requiring instead a preparatory period of political tutelage.
    3. Livelihood. Sun believed in both economic egalitarianism and economic development. He sketched out a complicated plan to equalize land holdings and ensure that taxation was both widely and fairly implemented. Dedicated to industrialization but concerned about China's difficulty in securing investment capital and also about social unrest, Sun advocated nationalization of key industries as the best way to ensure both economic development and political stability.

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