Feng Guifen was a scholar-official of Qing China responsible for launching the Self-Strengthening Movement. Arguing for a comprehensive reform of the country along Western lines, he envisioned the selective adoption of Western ideas as a way to supplement traditional Chinese civilization. Despite the failure of the movement, Feng’s vision was important to succeeding reform movements.
Born to a merchant family in October 1809 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, Feng Guifen ??? was determined to become a civil servant of the imperial Qing government. During his study Feng encountered Commissioner Lin Zexu, who resented foreign penetration into China. After several attempts, Feng successfully earned the Jinshi degree (a rank in the imperial civil service) and joined the Hanlin Academy in 1840. In 1850 Feng went to Yangzhou to revise and enforce the salt law. Meanwhile, Feng wrote a number of works urging tax relief for the masses.
In 1853 Feng was transferred back to his native province to assist the anti-Taiping resistance, where he met Li Hongzhang. Feng remained in Jiangsu, during which time he wrote numerous manuscripts, later complied as Jiaobinlu Kangyi (Protest from the Jiaobin Studio), arguing for self-strengthening to defend against domestic and foreign enemies. Feng’s works attracted the attention of Li in Beijing.
Under Li’s lead the Qing government launched the Self-Strengthening Movement in 1861, which ended in 1895. Li recruited Feng for assistance and advice. Some of Feng’s measures were adopted, and some were left aside. Following Feng’s advice to acquire Western knowledge, a number of Tongwenguan, academies focusing on Western publications, were established, and Feng was charged to run the Shanghai branch, which opened in 1863. To strengthen the nation’s wealth and power, Li adopted Feng’s proposals to develop the Chinese economy and to manufacture modern weaponry along Western lines. Learning from Britain and Prussia, factories and arsenals were constructed during the 1860s and 1870s. Yet Feng’s proposal to revise the civil service examination—namely, replacement of the Eight-Legged Essays with a more practical content—was left unrealized, primarily because of opposition from the conservatives for fear of losing their influence in the government.
Feng was not the first scholar-official to call for reform, yet his contributions had far-reaching consequences. Unlike senior officials such as Lin and Li and earlier reformers such as Wei Yuan, Feng believed that mere borrowing and adaptation of Western techniques, primarily weaponry and military technologies, was not sufficient to strengthen China. Feng argued for a comprehensive reform in many areas, including the economy, education, politics, and customs. To accomplish this, Feng believed, China should learn Western ideas and systems. At the same time, Feng was aware that this proposal of learning from the West would inevitably arouse suspicion from the Confucian-trained officials and intellectuals, for it embodied the issue as to which civilization—Chinese or Western—was superior. To resolve this Feng reiterated the superiority of China’s cultural heritage to the West. This remained the essence of his proposed reform. He then clarified that reform did not mean complete Westernization; only those practices deemed beneficial to China would be selectively adopted. Feng argued that Western ideas and techniques were merely supplemental, to be used for utilitarian purpose with no intention to displace the glorious Chinese civilization, thereby diluting the controversial issue of Sino-Western cultural conflicts.
Feng died of illness on 13 April 1874. Although Feng did not live long enough to ensure that all his reform measures would be implemented, his contributions were widely recognized and had far-reaching consequences. To honor his contribution, Li requested the construction of a memorial hall for Feng. Feng’s proposal for the abolition of the Eight-Legged Essay in the civil service examination was endorsed in the next reform movement of 1898.
Cohen, P. A., & Schrecjer, J. E. (Eds.). (1976). Reform in nineteenth-century China. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University.
Feng Guifen. (1998). Jianbinlu kangyi [Protest from the Jiaobin Studio]. Zhengchou, China: Zhongzhou Guji Chubanshe.
Spence, J. D. (1999). The search for modern China. New York: Norton.
Xiong Yuezhi. (2004). Feng Guifen pingzhuan [Biography of Feng Guigen]. Nanjing, China: Nanjing Daxue Chubanshe.
Source: Law, Yuk-fun. (2009). FENG Guifen. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 806–807. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
FENG Guifen (Féng Guìf?n ???)|Féng Guìf?n ??? (FENG Guifen)