Self-Strengthening Movement

In the years following the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), China obtained only a temporary respite from the demands of Western imperialist powers who wanted ever-increasing commercial, diplomatic, and religious privileges. As these calls reached a fever pitch in the 1850s, the Qing court was simultaneously faced with widespread internal rebellions, which required the expenditure of considerable military, political, and fiscal resources. Lacking the means to combat both challenges to its authority, the Qing court acquiesced to a series of "unequal treaties" to confront the internal threats to their rule more ably. Even as Chinese officials began using Western military technology to suppress the Taiping and other rebellions, a small group of Chinese literati suggested that Western learning should also be employed to address China's domestic problems. The advocates of this "self-strengthening" were not wholesale advocates of Western ideas and technology; rather, many of them believed they could graft the "substance" [fz] of Confucian culture to the "utility" [yong of Western technology. Regardless, the root of Qing reform efforts emerged from the dynasty's efforts to suppress the numerous mid-nineteenth-century rebellions.

FENG GUIFEN (1809-1874)—A

precociously bright scholar, he achieved his jinshi degree at the age of 32 and was immediately appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy. A reformer who advocated using Western methods within a Chinese context, he is best known for championing a school to teach Western languages and sciences.

Feng Guifen on the Adoption of Western Learning (1860)

An immensely talented scholar, Feng Guifen fled his hometown of Suzhou in the face of the Taiping Army and sought refuge in Shanghai. By this time, Shanghai had become the metropolitan base for Western interests in China. Although he remained therefor less than a year, Feng became familiar with Western political theory and began to contemplate how such theories might be adapted to aid China in suppressing the domestic threats it faced. The following document is part of Feng's 40 Essays of Protest, initially written during his time in Shanghai and then circulated among influential scholar-officials of the day. They delineate specific reforms he felt the Qing dynasty should implement to gain greater internal control and international stature.


  • 1. Why would Feng Guifen's proposals seem radical to the more conventional minds of mid-nineteenth-century China?
  • 2. What areas of China's domestic political scene does Feng hope to improve with his proposal?

Currently those who are aware of Western affairs are called tongshi [translators]. All are people who engage in trivial affairs, and are not valued by the community. Simply looking for a way to feed and clothe themselves they begin to work for Westerners. Their character is rough and shallow, their intentions despicable. All they lust for is profit. In addition, their knowledge of Western languages is limited mostly to merchandise, commerce and slang. How could they be expected to pay attention to scholarly topics? Since there was a need, we established special schools to enroll children from poor families to study both Chinese and Western languages. However, most of those village children are misbehaved and not very intelligent (for several decades I have even tried to find smart students from my own villages and found none). Even worse, they slowly adopted the bad habits of Westerners. What we achieved is no better than previous ones.

If we want to use Western learning, it is necessary to create translation academies at Guangdong and Shanghai. We should select gifted children younger than fifteen-years-old from the nearby areas and offer them a small living allowance along with room and board. Westerners from a variety of countries should be hired to teach their spoken and written languages. Famous scholars from within China should be hired to teach the classics, history, and other subjects. The students should at the same time be taught mathematics. (All Western learning derives from mathematics.)

After three years, all those students who can smoothly read and recite foreign books should be licensed. The especially gifted students who practically apply their learning should be recommended by the Minister of Trade to receive the juren degree as a reward. As I previously indicated, China has many talented minds. Certainly, there are those who having learned from Westerners can surpass them. One of the main responsibilities of government is education.

ZENG GUOFAN (1811-1872)—A strict Confucian who nonetheless championed progressive fiscal and military reforms in the early 1860s, helping the Qing to suppress the Taiping Rebellion.

RONG HONG (1828-1912)—More familiar to Western readers as Yung Wing, Rong Hong traveled to the United States in 1847, became a US citizen in 1852, graduated from Yale in 1854, and served as an early emissary between China and the United States.


Since the expansion of trade over the past 20 years, many foreigners have learned our language and studied our literature. Some of them can even read our classics and history, recognize our statutes and administration, and know our geography and customs. Our officials under the rank of Military Commander [duhu] level know nothing about other countries. By comparison should we not be ashamed? As a result, we have to rely on dull-witted translators to communicate. The tone and basic meaning were transmitted, much of the original significance is lacking—and many small inaccuracies have caused big disputes. I lament the fact that our foreign affairs, the key concern for our government, are dependent upon such people. No wonder, we do not understand each other thoroughly, and cannot distinguish the truth from lies. Negotiations for peace or war are carried out without fully understanding the matters at hand. These unresolved issues are our country's unseen peril. If this proposal is implemented, if many more people study foreign languages surely many more people with high standards and character will appear among them. Afterwards, we will understand the crucial elements of our foreign policy and manage them more appropriately.

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