China’s Self-Strengthening Movement


Debary, Theodore and Lutrano, Richard. “Moderate Reform and the Self-strengthening Movement” p. 233-249 in Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the 20th Century (2000)


In chapter 30 of Debary and Lutrano’s work, the authors offer several excerpts from primary sources to introduce the debate over whether China should embrace Western learning and modernization. Arguments for the self-strengthening movement come from officials who witnessed the Taiping Rebellion first-hand or leaders of provisional armies that brought the revolution down, such as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. These men saw the weakness of the Qing state during that rebellion, other revolts, and throughout two Opium wars; it was logical they would feel the need for reforms to bring China back to glory. Opposition arose from orthodox Confucians in the Qing court like Grand Secretary Woren, who argued that learning Western ideas of mathematics and astronomy would corrupt the Chinese people and would fail to strengthen the state. Though the courts knew as well as the generals how badly European powers could outgun them, they were more hesitant to modernize because Western education might replace traditional studies.

However, it seems to me that Woren, in his “Principle Versus Practicality” opposition to the self-strengthening movement, omitted that Westernizing threatens the power of men of the courts like him more than it might threaten traditional Confucian learning. Woren’s arguments come across as muddled, incoherent, and unconvincing. He begins by claiming mathematics itself is a noble subject, but turns around and says two sentences later that if Westerners teach it to the Chinese, the damage will be great. Is not math the same no matter who teaches it? He claims that there is no way mathematics can strengthen a nation during a period of weakness.

He then immediately and inexplicably jumps to Christianity and declares that his people are ignorant if they believe in Christ. His argument is weak and disjointed, which stands in stark contrast to the logic and reasonable tone of Feng Guifen, who suggests making Confucianism the foundation and building upon it using the example of foreign powers. Does Woren honestly believe that mathematics cannot benefit China? Does he bring up Christianity just to use a hated group to prompt sympathy from his audience? He is trying to link Christians with the self-strengtheners, make them one enemy, when they are not. Perhaps the subtext of Woren’s speech is that Woren sees Western teachings a threat to his power, as leader of the Confucian court. Perhaps, like a sorcerer might do, a Westerner could just as easily disrupt the government’s mandate to rule. Woren claims that nontraditional teachings will prompt the Chinese to ally with foreigners, barbarians. Woren might fear that what begins in education, a slow seeping-in of the West’s influence, might just spread upwards and infect administration and government. So he stands against reform. Those with power will usually try to maintain the status quo.

What struck me as especially odd about Woren’s opposition is when he claims that Christianity has fooled half the people. If I recall correctly, Christianity did not see conversion in such numbers in China. Is Woren simply exaggerating for effect, or is he misinformed?

Overall, an intriguing read. I have a bit of background knowledge on the industrialization of Britain, the rest of Europe, Russia, and the United States. I was aware that China began to fall behind in the nineteenth century, and I had been very curious as to why. This battle over whether or not modernization meant turning against Confucian teachings and traditions provides the answer.