Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East, a blog chronicling Sino-Canadian relations.

His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, FACTA Magazine, The Japan Times, The Diplomat and Asia Times, among others.


Ti–Yong, The Self-Strengthening Movement: 19th Century Qing China, Confucianism and Sino-Occidental Interaction

Despite vast geographical, socio-political and ethnic diversity, successive Chinese rulers and dynasties maintained control due to the far reaching influence of shared culture, norms and tradition. Specifically, the teachings and writings of Confucius and his followers, was the foundation for Chinese cultural norms and identity for millennia. Following the ascension of the Qing dynasty in 1644, Confucianism became highly entrenched in both the government and intelligentsia. Gradually, excessive deference to and reliance on Confucian thought, came to define 19th century Qing rule.

This trend was indicative of the superficial and bankrupt nature of late Qing scholasticism and socio-political thought. By the mid-19th century, internal dissatisfaction with Qing (Manchu) rule, as well the exploits and inroads of foreign colonial powers prompted reform efforts. This paper aims to detail the successive Chinese attempts at reform and the development of Qing perceptions towards Western technology and socio-political theory.

These attempts at reform failed due to the persistent insistence of Qing scholars in maintaining Confucian thought as the core ideological feature. This insistence resulted in the creation of hybrid, yet ultimately nonviable proposals. This disjunction between occidental advancements and traditionalist thinking led to the eventual de-legitimization of Confucianism in Chinese thought; contributing to the downfall of the Qing and decades of social unrest.

China in Late Empire

The Qing were the last dynasty to govern China, ruling from 1644 to 1911. Originating from the northern periphery of Ming controlled China, and ruling over an ethnic Han majority, the Manchus entrenched themselves by adopting Han customs.1 Confucian doctrine in particular was utilized by the Qing to great effect in their efforts to secure their position of power. The Qing administration was highly conservative, and maintained rigid adherence to Confucian teachings,2 which provided a convenient medium with which to legitimize and guide the present.3 The infallible nature and constant recycling of Confucian sayings and teachings, resulted in “tradition becoming cliched.”4 Confucianism under Qing rule became trite and hackneyed because the Manchu administration “[was] manipulating a highly developed and highly self-conscious sense of 'Chineseness' to shield China and its pillars of tradition from external influence.”5

Whereas previous Tang and Sung, and to a lesser extent Ming dynasties had been receptive of people and information from distant lands, the Qing retreated into Confucian doctrine.6 For instance whilst the Qing retained the services of Jesuit astronomers,7 they regarded their discoveries and Western science in general as clever but insignificant.8 This insistence on Confucian dogmatic infallibility, led to the rejection of any notion which countered doctrinal truth. This propensity is illustrated by the eminent scholar Zhuan Yuan's (1764-1849) insistence that “the revolution of the earth around the sun must be a fallacious theory since it departs from the Classics and is contrary to the [Confucian] way.”9

Through successive centuries, the Qing remained suspicious and hostile towards Western technology, religion and commercial overtures.10 Qing leaders such as Wo Ren stressed the moral and cultural superiority of China, brushing aside technological advances as mere material distractions, stating that a “nation's greatness is due to virtues, not transient advantages....[for] no country has ever become strong be relying on achievements in technology.”11 Many in Qing China saw Western technology and Christianity as directly threatening Chinese identity, and by extension the legitimizing forces which secured their positions of power.

Fiendish Foreign Fashions

Power holders feared to lose control of their monopoly on the definition of 'Chineseness', and subsequently virulently opposed all things foreign.12 The issue of identity was seen of paramount importance, with many fearing the regression and dilution of 'Chineseness' due to contact with the West. Qing officials complained that individuals in frequent contact with foreigners, such as interpreters, became self-gratifying, untrustworthy and acquired “the repugnant, uncouth mannerisms of the Westerners.”13 Wu Ren also lamented on China's increasingly cosmopolitan outlook, remarking that:

Now that we are asked to transform our most talented young men into followers of foreign ways, not only will the best of our traditions suffer regression, but the unorthodox, alien spirit will continue to spread. If this situation continues I am afraid that in a few years all of us will become foreigners instead of Chinese.14

This opposition to the West was in part due to the institutionalized prejudice against novelty as well as the idiosyncrasies which defined the Chinese educational and scholastic tradition. For centuries, entry into the upper echelons of Chinese society was predicated upon one's successful completion of the tenacious civil service exam.15 By the mid-19th century the exam system was broken. Intellectual conformity and homogeneity had been the price for centuries of stability, with students and scholars weighed down by long winded, rhetoric laden philosophical essays.16 Chang Zhi Dong extrapolates on the importance of conformity, for “[If student's] minds are less than orthodox after studying Western ideas and their goals less than pure, we examine them on their knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics...having studied the teachings of our ancient sages, keep their minds pure and their ideas orthodox.”17

For centuries Chinese thinkers had striven only to complete the hurdles of the exam system. This had resulted in an almost total lack of critical thought or originality, with scholar-politicians preoccupied with poetry and calligraphy,18 and confined by a rather narrow, stiff symbolic vocabulary.19 Similarly students sought only to write what would most please the examiners, with unorthodox views / interpretations being rejected.20 Additionally, there was a dearth of technological innovation, due to the lack of interplay between scholars and the artisans.

Inventors could not access detailed information, due to the low status given to inventors / manual labourers.21 Nor could inventors expect to financially benefit from their creations.22 Li Hongzhang commented on the “a wide gap between what we learn and what we need to learn; learning has in fact been completely separated from utility.”23 This disconnect, and how it was to be rectified was at the core notion behind the Ti-Yong (self-strengthening) movement, and Chinese reform efforts in general.

The Taiping Rebellion and Efforts at Reform

Efforts to reconcile Western knowledge and Confucian ideals first emerged in the mid 19th century. Internal unrest and dissatisfaction with Manchu rule led to uprisings and the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion in 1850. The Taiping rebels were a pariah movement combining (albeit rather crudely), Western tenets of Christianity with Chinese notions of heavenly rule.24 The Taiping Rebellion validated establishment fears concerning the antagonistic nature of Western learning vis-à-vis traditionalist China. The Taiping rebels had appropriated Western ideas in their efforts to counter the dominant traditionalist paradigm.

 Despite eventually besting the Taiping Movement, Qing officials began to advocate policies of restoration and reform, acknowledging that the West could (at least) offer material benefits.25 A reformist movement emerged in the 1860s,26coinciding with increased foreign inroads and trade into China following Qing defeat in the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-1860).27 Some argue that it was the presence of foreign powers which spurred the long over due reform efforts,28 for “the West expanded into China, not China into the West. The foreigners, even in their best moments, were aggressive in this sense, they were agents of change and destruction of the old order.”29

While the presence of foreigners clearly helped create an atmosphere conducive to change, many Chinese thinkers contributed to the reform process. These reformers, such as the scholar Feng Guifen were known as Confucian Pragmatists and continued to stress the old imperial notions of Chinese racial/cultural superiority. These Confucian Pragmatists maintained that the Chinese people were intellectually superior, and that all that was required was to learn, then equal and finally surpass the West.30

Qing officials also maintained their conviction that their own civil and military institutions were superior to the West; all that was missing was the right tools.31 Feng stressed that “what we have to learn from the barbarians is one thing only, solid ships and effective guns.”32 Many of these early reformers stressed China's need for autarky and high levels of military preparedness. Individuals such as Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan, both instrumental in defeating the Taiping Rebellion, pushed for the adoption of modern armament and military industries. Additionally, Li and Zeng wished to build a powerful and modern Chinese navy. Both also wanted to initiate technological reform in iron and steel works, coal mining and build machine tool factories,33 for “China cannot hope to become self-reliant unless she has enough experts versed in Western technology.34

Defeat at Home

In order to reinforce their traditionalist outlooks, Qing thinkers and politicians sought to “bend [Western technology] into strange shapes.”35 They sought to separate technological innovations from the intellectual theories / paradigms which had sired them. This led the Chinese state to “buy such technology as it thought useful, but it would not accept, at least not officially, the wider learning, theoretical science [and] experience in administration which the Europeans could offer.”36 During the late 19th century the Qing government unsuccessfully attempted to imitate Western strength by simply copying its physical manifestations.

Despite such attempts, Qing China continued to be at the mercy of foreign powers, with China's influence and position in Asia steadily declining. The 1880s saw increased French expansion into Indochina, which eventually led to the Chinese defeat in the Franco-Chinese War of 1884-85, and the loss of Qing control of northern Vietnam.37 Shortly thereafter in 1885, Britain formally removed Burma as a Chinese protectorate,38 and in 1897 Germany seized Shantung, establishing a concession there.39 The greatest indication of Qing weakness and the failure of early reform efforts emerged with China's defeat at the hands of Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, in which China lost influence over Korea as well as possession of Taiwan.40

Defeat at the hands of the Japanese shocked Qing society. Following the war there emerged a new group of radical reformers who challenged the supremacy of Confucian teachings, advocating a break with the past.41 Many thinkers began to severely critic traditional institutions, with Kang Youwei claiming that Chinese institutions were “of the worst kind, handed down from various dynasties.”42 Kang also stressed the need to institute new educational, administrative and financial systems, in order to better manage the country.43

Qing China greatly suffered from underachievement and wasted potential; China was larger than Europe, yet garnered tax revenues equivalent to Chile or Greece.44 Such criticism is in stark contrast to the self-assurance of only a few decades prior. One need only compare, Feng Guifen's arrogance concerning Chinese intellectual superiority, to Li Hongzhang's assertion that “in terms of intellectual capacity, we Chinese are certainly not inferior to the Westerners,”45 to understand the erosion of confidence and infallibility in Qing thinking.

A More Radical East/West Synthesis

During the 1890s and the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese thinkers sought to more radically alter the role and perception of Confucianism in late Qing China. Science and technology had been the first domains ceded to Western thought by Confucian traditionalists,46 yet later scholars such as Kang Youwei, Yen Fu and Liang Qichao, attempted to show that Western thought was not contrary to Confucianism. Rather they sought “to find universal issues of human thought which transcend the dichotomy of Western and Chinese cultures.”47 

They attempted to show that all teachings, regardless of their origin, would if universally valid, mutually reinforce instead of undermine each other.48 Kang argued that “Western practice is in full accord with Confucian doctrine, and it should not surprise us that these Western countries have become wealthy and strong.”49 Similarly Liang Qichao advocated a synthesis between the si de (private morality) of China's sages and gong de (public morality) of modern Western thought.50

Scholars also attempted to defend Confucianism by demonstrating that either Western socio-political and economic ideas were already present in the sayings of the sages, or that “the scientific learning of the West was nothing new, but borrowed indirectly from ancient China.”51 Yan Fu drew connections between Mencius' 'concern with the people' and western democracy, as well as the notion of wu-wei (leaving the people alone) with that of laissez-faire rule.52 Yan also sought to combine Laozi's 'nature is unkind' with Herbert Spencer's natural selection, and Laozi's notion of 'primitivism' with Rousseau's 'natural condition of existence.'53

Similarly the first generation of Chinese Social Darwinists tried to adopt 'Confucianized' doctrine. Still others tried to merge Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism with the concept of jen (humaneness), Adam Smith's free trade with the 'accumulating wealth of a state',54 and John Dewey's pragmatism with the neo-Confucian dialectic on the unity of knowledge and action.55 Additionally, late Qing historians, influenced by thoughts of nationalism, sought “to construct a historical meta-analysis,”56 and were heavily interested in the scientific theories of historiography.57

Yet despite such radical efforts, even those individuals most enamoured with Western thought, could not unfetter themselves of their intellectual / cultural baggage.58 As a result they tried to find scientific trends in Chinese traditions, and “to avoid the impulse to discredit and disregard the tradition in its entirety.”59 Despite these attempts at reform, most radical thinkers remained self-taught, and no systematic restructuring of the education system occurred until 1905.60 Consequently voices for change emanated from outside the Qing administration; contributing to the de-legitimization of both the Manchu elite and Confucianism. Whereas Confucianism was still alive in 1890, it was all but dead (the dynastic system along with it) by 1920.61

Insurmountable Contradictions

This swift downfall was due to the actions of two groups of early 20th century intellectuals; the radicals of the May Fourth Movement, and paradoxically Confucian apologists. May Fourth intellectuals objected to Confucianism partly due to its connections with the old imperialistic order. There also existed significant “resentment [on the part of the May 4th thinkers] of the absolute 'presentness' of the past which [instead] should be relative – or historically significant: a subject of study but not a basis for present action.”62 These intellectuals had adopted a relativist attitude, rejecting the absolutism of Confucianism and viewing it as “anachronistic to 20th century China.”63

Paradoxically, advocates of Ti-Yong reform may have also contributed to the ultimate downfall of Confucianism, by gravely misunderstanding the role of science within modernity. Western education and science stresses the importance of original though over tradition, and “credibility rather than credulity.”64 Advocates of the Ti-Yong movement as well as later Confucian apologists failed to realize that the essence of science did not lay in its material trappings. Rather the root of science lies in the “development of a new spirit, and the cultivation of a new attitude, which, like the Confucian tradition encompassed life itself.”65 

The Confucian notions of filial obedience, submission and tradition were diametrically opposed to the scientific method which operates along lines of “perpetual intellectual parricide.”66 Once Chinese thinkers allowed Western thought to usurp Confucianism of its monopoly in the realm of science, the holistic nature of Confucian thought was undermined and rendered impotent. Efforts to restore the truth of the ancients ended up “historicising the scriptures, making them objects of study rather than sources of authority.”67

The Ti-Yong movement developed as an attempt by Qing China to come to terms with the dizzying 'otherness' of the West. Chinese scholars sought to reconnect with the Confucian tenets which had guided Chinese society through millennia, outlasting invaders and dynasties. The Ti-Yong movement as well as successive efforts at reform were not merely reactionary efforts to halt the encroachment of modernity. Rather, Qing scholars sought to actively engage both their own intellectual heritage as well as the new western paradigms which they encountered via trade, war and travel.

Unfortunately such efforts failed to prevent the downfall of dogmatic Confucianism. This failure to rehabilitate Confucian thought and orthodox Chinese tradition, led to an intellectual vacuum following the fall of the imperial system. This failure in turn facilitated an environment in which Western ideological paradigms such as Communism were able to find fertile ground in the Chinese consciousness. The ensuing struggle to determine China's new ideological direction would ultimately lead to the deaths of millions due to civil war, foreign occupation, famine, and later purges, failed domestic policies and misguided totalitarian initiatives.

 Works Cited:

Bing, D., “China and the West: A Historical Perspective.” in China: Cultural and Political Perspectives, edited by Bing, D. Auckland: Longman Paul Limited, 1975.

Ch'en, Jerome, China and the West: Society and Culture 1815-1937, The History of Human Society, edited by Plumb, H. J. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1979.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Introduction to Oriental Civilizations. Vol. 1, Sources of Chinese Tradition. Rev. ed. New York: Colombia University Press, 1964.

Elvin, Mark. “The Double Disavowal: The Attitudes of Radical Thinkers to the Chinese Tradition.” in China and the West: Ideas and Activists, edited by Goodman S. G. David, 3-30. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Hodder, Rupert, In China's Image: Chinese Self-Perception in Western Thought. London: MacMillan / St. Martin Press, 2000.

LaFleur, Andre Robert, Warren Bruce Palmer, John A. Rapp, Shin Yong Robson and Tamara Hamlish, China: A Global Studies Handbook, in ABC-CLIO Global Studies Asia series, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2003.

Li, Dun J., ed. China in Transition: 1517-1911. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969.

Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Wang, Edward Q., Inventing China Through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography, SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture, edited by Hall David L. & Ames Roger T., Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Wong, Young-tsu. “The Ideal of Universality in Late Ch'ing Reformism.” in Reform in Nineteenth- Century China, Harvard East Asian Monographs, edited Cohen A. Paul & Schrecker John E., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.


1Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 3.

2Rupert Hodder, In China's Image: Chinese Self-Perception in Western Thought, (London: Macmillan Press, 2000), 19.

3Q. Edward Wang, Inventing China Through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography, SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 12.

4Hodder, 19.

5Hodder, 25-26.

6Ibid, 29.

7Wm. Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan & Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition, Introduction to Oriental Civilizations, ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary, UNESCO Collection of Representative Works – Chinese Series, 3rd ed. (New York: Colombia University Press, 1960), 1:561.

8Li Hong-Chang, “The Necessity of Learning about Western Technology,” (1863) in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 141.

9De Bary, Chan, Watson, 1:562.

10De Bary, Chan, Watson, 1:561.

11Wo Jen, “No Need for Western Learning,” (1867) in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 162.

12Hodder, 21.

13Li Hong-Chang, “A Proposal to Establish a Language School in Shanghai,” in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 143.

14Wo Jen, 162.

15Chang Zhi Dong, “A Proposed Reform for the Examination System,” in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 146.

16Hodder, 21.

17Chang Zhi Dong, “A Proposed Reform for the Examination System,” 148.

18Li Hong-Chang, “The Necessity of Learning about Western Technology,” 141.

19Hodder, 21.

20Chang Zhi Dong, “A Proposed Reform for the Examination System,” in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 148.

21Li Hong-Chang, “The Necessity of Learning about Western Technology,” 141.

22Hodder, 53.

23Li Hong-Chang, “The Necessity of Learning about Western Technology,” 141.

24Robert Andre LaFleur, “China's Geography and History,” in China: A Global Studies Handbook, ed. Lucien Ellington, ABC-CLIO Global Studies: Asia Series (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2003), 51.

25D. Bing, “China and the West: A Historical Perspective,” in China: Cultural and Political Perspectives, ed. D. Bing, (Auckland: Longman Paul Ltd., 1975), 7.

26D. Bing, 7.

27LaFleur, 51.

28Yen Fu, “The Three Essentials in Making a New Nation.” in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 154.

29D. Bing, 9.

30Spence, 195.

31Li Hong-Chang, “The Necessity of Learning about Western Technology,” 141.

32Spence, 195.

33Warren Bruce Palmer, “The Chinese Economy,” in China: A Global Studies Handbook, ed. Lucien Ellington, ABC-CLIO Global Studies: Asia Series (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2003), 82-83.

34Ceng Guofan & Li Hongchang, “The Selection of Intelligent Boys to Study in Foreign Countries,” (1871) in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 150.

35Hodder, 19.

36Hodder, 19.

37Spence, 220.

38Spence, 220.

39D. Bing, 8.

40LaFleur, 54.

41LaFleur, 54.

42Gang You-Wei, “The Need for Reform,”(Jan. 29th 1897) in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 237.

43Gang You-Wei, 240.

44Gang, You-Wei, 240.

45Li Hong-Chang, “A Proposal to Establish a Language School in Shanghai,” 145. - emphasis, my own

46Jerome Ch'en, China and the West: Society and Culture 1815-1937, The History of Human Society, ed. J. H. Plumb (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1979), 174.

47Young-tsu Wong, “The Ideal of Universality in Late Ch'ing Reformism,” in Reform Nineteenth-Century China, ed. Paul A. Cohen & John E. Schrecker (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976), 153.

48Young-tsu Wong, 153.

49Gang You-Wei, “The Nation is in Danger,” (April 17th 1898) in China in Transition: 1517-191, ed. Dun J. Li (New York: Van Nostrand Reihold Company, 1969), 231.

50Mark Elvin, “The Double Disavowal: The Attitudes of Radical Thinkers to the Chinese Tradition,” in China and the West: Ideas and Activists, ed. David S. G. Goodman, Studies on East Asia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 12.

51De Bary, Chan, Watson, 562.

52Young-tsu Wong, 152.

53Young-tsu Wong, 154.

54Ch'en 181.

55Ch'en, 182.

56Wang, 3.

57Wang, 5.

58Ibid, 5.


60LaFleur, 54.

61Elvin, 8.

62Wang, 7.

63Wang, 6.

64Yen Fu, 157.

65Chen, 175.

66Elvin, 3.

67Elvin, 8.

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