Charles DOBBS

Prince Gong, a member of the ruling clan of the Qing dynasty and one of the chief proponents of liberal reform that aimed to strengthen the empire against Western encroachment.

The Self-Strengthening Movement, which began in 1861, was an effort by the Qing dynasty to restore power so China could resist Western encroachments, especially after the Second Opium War, which resulted in the burning and looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing by British and French forces.

The goal of the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861–1895) was to employ Western technology while retaining traditional Chinese values to meet the threat of Western imperialism. The Chinese assumed they could adopt Western technology, but not the values and philosophies that produced such technology. With their superior wisdom and intelligence, the Chinese believed, they would first learn from the West, then equal it, and eventually surpass it.

With such a mindset the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) government and various provincial officials began a series of self-strengthening projects. The most urgent goal of these projects was to develop military industries by building arsenals and shipbuilding dockyards to bolster the navy. The projects centered on military modernization initially and subsequently on economic self-strengthening. Thus China built Jiangnan Arsenal, Shanghai Arsenal (supervised by Zeng Guo Fan), Fuzhou Dockyard (supervised by Zuo Zong Tang), Nanjing Arsenal and Tientsin Arsenal (supervised by Li Hong Zhang), and Tianjin Machine Factory. China also sent students to the United States and constructed the Beiyang Fleet, one of the four modernized navies in the late Qing dynasty. The navies were sponsored by Li Hong Zhang, viceroy of Zhili, and became the dominant navy in East Asia before the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). The Beiyang Fleet was said to be the best in Asia during the late 1880s.

The Self-Strengthening Movement also created the Zongli yamen (foreign affairs office). Prince Gong (1833–1898), aided by a new generation of leaders, was made head of the Zongli yamen. In contrast, the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was staunchly antiforeign but was resigned to accommodating Prince Gong because he was influential in the Qing court. But as her political influence grew she became a formidable opponent of reform.

The time period of the Self-Strengthening Movement roughly approximates that of the Meiji Restoration of the Meiji period (1868–1912) in Japan but with differences. For example, Japanese leaders were more willing to part with the past and to alter the structure of government and society because of the strong desire to resist imperialist encroachments. By contrast, Chinese leaders were unwilling to change dramatically the system of government or the social hierarchy, and as a consequence struggled at the margins. China’s defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War exposed the weaknesses of the nearly four-decades-long Self-Strengthening Movement.

Further Reading

Feuerwerker, A. (1975). Rebellion in nineteenth-century China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wright, M. C. (1966). The last stand of Chinese conservatism: The T’ung-chih restoration, 1862–1874. New York: Atheneum.

Drinking with a bosom friend, a thousand shots are too few; Talking with a disagreeable person, half a sentence is too many.

酒逢知己千杯少, 话不投机半句多

jiǔ féng zhī jǐ qiān bēi shǎo, huà bù tóu jī bàn jù duō

Source: Dobbs, Charles. (2009). Self-Strengthening Movement. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1932–1933. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Self-Strengthening Movement (Yángwù Yùndòng 洋务运动)|Yángwù Yùndòng 洋务运动 (Self-Strengthening Movement)

Download the PDF of this article