History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 1986: Q.7

Q.7 Discuss the Self-strengthening movement in China. [1986, 60 Marks]


The Self Strengthening Movement (1861 – 1895) was a push to modernise China, particularly in the fields of industry and defence during the late Qing dynasty following a series of military defeats and concessions to foreign powers.

The main self-strengtheners were Feng Guifen, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang (the victor at Shanghai against the Taiping who lead a massacre of Taiping forces in Suzhou)

Why did the Qing administration attempt to reform between 1861-1895?

Foreign imperialism in China, its defeat in the Second Opium War (1860), the humiliating Treaty of Tientsin and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) all exposed the Qing dynasty’s military and technological backwardness, particularly in comparison to European nations. These disasters triggered the rise of the Self Strengthening Movement.

After humiliation in the Opium Wars and with internal Chinese uprisings largely defeated by 1864, senior officials in the Qing administration wanted to increase the Qing military strength in order to support their foreign policy with the Western powers.

The major idea behind self-strengthening

There was an inherent contradiction in the idea of self-strengthening. This contradiction arose because the self-strengtheners felt that the Qing imperial system was superior to the West, and that all that was needed was to improve the imperial military capacity. Therefore, the self-strengtheners ignored the possibility that western military supremacy sprang from their economic and political institutions and structures, and instead thought to add western science and technology onto the confucian culture of the Qing empire.

Projects attempted by the self-strengtheners

Li’s coal mining complex at Kaiping, the first cotton cloth mill at Shanghai and a railway line from the mine to the port city of Tianjin. Some of the military projects included the Jiangnan Arsenal, which produced ships, ammunition, and machines. There was also the Fuzhou Shipyard, which aimed to build bigger ships than the one at Jiangnan. Attached to this shipyard was a naval academy. Other accomplishments included a network of post offices (large dragon stamps) and the establishment of an Imperial Telegraph Administration.

Successes and failures of the self-strengthening

Self-strengthening did lead to modern trained Chinese, many of whom would play important roles in later Chinese history. It also did develop over time from a military focus to attempts to develop modern transport and industry within China which probably provided a base of expertise for later development.

The end is traditionally seen with China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in the the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. After all, if the whole point of self-strengthening was to get China in a position to militarily match the West, then it had obviously failed to do that. Despite this, there was some continuity between self-strengthening and later modernization projects so it can be argued that it did not end with the defeat against the Japanese.

Why did self-strengthening fail?

  1. Geography: The self-strengtheners were too few in number to enable a country as vast as China to catch up with other countries. China was also beset by natural disasters which limited state income.
  2. There was resistance to the very idea of dealing with foreigners from court officials. This made implementing and maintaining reform very difficult.
  3. As the rate of innovation in the West and Japan was much greater, the technology gap actually widened between China and the major powers during the self-strengthening period
  4. The self-strengtheners were not businessmen and often their projects failed. For example: Li’s steamship firm was looted by insiders and his coal mine was heavily indebted to foreigners.
  5. There was almost a complete lack of administrative structures to help develop China. For example: Traditional Chinese banks could not offer long term capital for projects and attempts to set up modern financial institutions failed
  6. There was almost a complete lack of legal structures to help develop China. For example: Projects were dependent on the favour of powerful figures at the imperial court. The problem with this was that the favour could always be withdrawn and therefore damage attempts to modernize.
  7. The self-strengtheners tended to rely on their provincial bases of support. This meant self strengthening was always on a local level rather than a truly national attempt to modernize.
  8. Military equipment made in China was very expensive as most materials had to be imported. For example: Before 1875, when the shipbuilding programme was discontinued at Kiangnan, the ships built were believed to cost twice what a similar ship would cost to make in Britain
  9. Human resource costs were very high, and corruption was an ever present problem particularly in construction costs and worker salaries. For example: Foreign advisors cost a great deal and local Chinese officials would attach themselves to projects to draw a salary while contributing very little.
  10. The aim of self-strengthening was probably flawed from the start, as grafting Western learning onto traditional Chinese Confucian ideals and structures for the purpose of national defence was unlikely to be successful.
  11. Western intransigence, years of careful negotiating by the Yongli Zamen to partially reform the unequal treaties were rejected by majority vote in the British House of Commons in 1870.

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