Self-Strengthening Movement

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The Self-Strengthening Movement (Chinese: 洋務運動 or 自强運動), c. 1861 – 1895, was a period of institutional reforms initiated in China during the late Qing dynasty following a series of military defeats and concessions to foreign powers.

To make peace with the Western powers in China, Prince Gong was made regent, Grand Councilor, and head of the newly formed Zongli Yamen (a de facto foreign affairs ministry). He would be assisted by a new generation of leaders (see below). By contrast, Empress Dowager Cixi was virulently anti-foreign, but she had to accommodate Prince Gong because he was an influential political figure in the Qing imperial court. She would, however, become the most formidable opponent of reform as her political influence increased.

The majority of the ruling elite still subscribed to a conservative Confucian worldview, but following China's serious defeats in the First and Second Opium Wars, several officials now argued that in order to strengthen itself against the West, it was necessary to adopt Western military technology and armaments. This could be achieved by establishing shipyards and arsenals, and by hiring foreign advisers to train Chinese artisans to manufacture such wares in China. As such, the "self-strengtheners" were by and large uninterested in any social reform beyond the scope of economic and military modernization.


The concern with the "self-strengthening" of China was expressed by Feng Guifen (1809–1874) in a series of essays presented by him to Zeng Guofan in 1861. Feng obtained expertise in warfare commanding a volunteer corps in Qing government's campaign against the Taiping rebels. In 1860 he moved to Shanghai, where he was much impressed by Western military technology.

In his diaries, Zeng mentioned his self-strengthening rhetoric directed at technological modernization.[1]

First phase (1861–1872)

The movement can be divided into three phases. The first lasted from 1861 to 1872, emphasized the adoption of Western firearms, machines, scientific knowledge and training of technical and diplomatic personnel through the establishment of a diplomatic office and a college.

Superintendents of Trade

As a result of treaties with the Western powers, the two ports of Tianjin and Shanghai were opened to Western trade. Two officials titled Commissioner of Trade for the southern and northern ports, respectively were appointed to administer foreign trade matters at the newly opened ports.

Although the ostensible reason for the establishment of these two government offices was to administer the new treaty ports, the underlying reasons for their establishment were more complicated: these superintendents were supposed to confine to the ports all diplomatic dealings with foreigners, rather than burdening the central government in Beijing with them. The authority of the commissioners also came to include the overseeing of all new undertakings utilizing Western knowledge and personnel; thus, they became the coordinators of most self-strengthening programmes.

Li Hongzhang was the Tianjin Superintendent from 1870 and was so successful in taking over the functions of the Zongli Yamen that communication between the imperial court and the foreign diplomats at Beijing were kept under the auspices of the Self-Strengthening reformers.

This phase was also the first time that they began to work on the treaties that would later be instated.

Maritime Customs Service (1861)

Nanjing Jinling Arsenal (金陵造局), built by Li Hongzhang in 1865.

A British national, Horatio Nelson Lay, was appointed as the Inspector-General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which was established in April 1861. This office evolved from the Inspectorate of Customs, which had been created in 1854 as a response to the threat of attacks on Shanghai by Taiping rebels. The office was designed to collect tariffs equitably and generate new revenues for the Qing imperial court from the import dues on foreign goods. Lay's main duty was to exercise surveillance over all aspects of maritime revenue and to supervise the Chinese inspector superintendents who collected revenue at the various treaty ports. Rather than being an innovation, this move merely institutionalized a system which had been in existence since 1854.

The maritime customs service ensured the Chinese government a reliable and growing source of new revenue. Customs revenues increased from 8.5 million taels of silver in 1865 to 14.5 million taels in 1885. Customs revenue paid off the 1860 indemnities. It also furnished part or all of the revenues of such new undertakings as the Beijing Tongwen Guan, the Jiangnan and Tianjin Arsenals, the Fuzhou Navy Yard, and the educational mission to the United States. The customs service also played an important role in checking smuggling. It also charted the Chinese coast and installed lighthouses, beacons, and other modern aids to maritime navigation.

As a result of a conflict with the Chinese government regarding the use of British naval units to suppress the Taiping Rebellion, Lay was replaced by Sir Robert Hart in 1863. Hart tried to do more than ensure that the customs service provided a steady flow of revenue to the Qing imperial court. He tried to initiate some reforms that would contribute towards Self-Strengthening: he advocated for the establishment of a national mint and post office, as well as trying to help China organize a modern naval fleet. However, he was unable to win acceptance for any of his ideas because the imperial court was not willing to allow foreigners to play an active role in the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Military modernization

Chinese warship Yangwu, built at the Fuzhou Arsenal in 1872.

The most important goal of the Self-Strengthening Movement was the development of military industries; namely, the construction of military arsenals and of shipbuilding dockyards to strengthen the Chinese navy. The program was handicapped by several problems:

This program was spearheaded by regional leaders like Zeng Guofan who, employing Yung Wing, established the Shanghai arsenal, Li Hongzhang who built the Nanjing and Tianjin Arsenals, Zuo Zongtang who constructed the Fuzhou Dockyard. The arsenals were established with the help of foreign advisors and administrators, such as Léonce Verny who helped build the Ningbo Arsenal in 1862-64, or the French officer Prosper Giquel who directed the construction of the Fuzhou Arsenal in 1867-74. Zeng and Li collaborated to construct the Jiangnan Arsenal. Schools for the study of mechanical skills and navigation under the direction of foreign advisers were established at these arsenals and dockyards. As these powerful regional strongmen were able to act independently of the central government, there was little coordination between the provinces and the government.

These military industries were largely sponsored by the government. As such, they suffered from the usual bureaucratic inefficiency and nepotism. Many of the Chinese administrative personnel were sinecure holders who got on the payroll through influence.

The program proved expensive: Li Hongzhang had wanted the Jiangnan Arsenal to produce breech loading rifles of the Remington type. Production finally started in 1871 and produced only 4,200 rifles by 1873, and these rifles were not only more costly than, but also far inferior to, the imported Remington arms. Shipbuilding efforts were also disappointing: the program consumed half of the arsenal's annual income but the ships built were at least twice as costly as comparable vessels available for purchase in Britain. The lack of material and human resources proved to be a formidable problem. The program was heavily reliant on foreign expertise and materials. The unavoidable growth in the number of foreign employees had made increased costs inevitable. Furthermore, officials were not even aware when the foreigners were not competent to perform the tasks that they had been hired to do. Laxity in procurement practices also contributed to escalating costs. Many opportunities for corruption existed in construction contracts and in the distribution of workers' wages.

Another area of reform targeted the modernization of military organization and structure. The most urgent reform was to reduce the Green Standard forces to a fraction of its size and to modernize the remainder. This was done in two provinces under the influence of Li Hongzhang, but the effort failed to spread.

Second phase (1872–1885)

Chinese Qing officers with a Montigny mitrailleuse.

In 1870, a number of foreigners were killed during riots in Tianjin. This incident soured China's relatively stable relations with the Western powers and marked the end of the first period of the Self-Strengthening Movement. By the second period, Li Hongzhang had emerged as the most important leader of the reform movement. He played a pivotal role in starting and supporting many of the initiatives during this period. Over 90 percent of the modernization projects were launched under his aegis.

During this phase, commerce, industry, and agriculture received increasing attention. Attention was also given to the creation of wealth in order to strengthen the country. This was a new idea for the Chinese, who had always been uncomfortable with activities which create wealth from anything other than land. The development of profit-oriented industries such as shipping, railways, mining, and telegraphy were therefore rather new ventures for the Chinese government.

The Qing government sanctioned what was known as "government-supervised merchant undertakings". These were profit-oriented enterprises which were operated by merchants but which were controlled and directed by government officials. Capital for these enterprises came from private sources but the government managed them and also provided subsidies in some cases.

Examples of such government-supervised merchant undertakings include the China Merchants' Steam Navigation Company, the Kaiping Mines, the Shanghai Cotton Mill, and the Imperial Telegraph Administration.

However, being government-supervised, these enterprises could not escape from the ugly sides of bureaucratic administration: they suffered from nepotism, corruption, and lack of initiative. Managers also found ways to siphon off profits in order to avoid the payment of official levies and exactions. They also monopolized business in their respective areas, and by thus discouraging private competition, they impeded economic development. Despite its economic inefficiencies, the merchant-bureaucrat combination remained the principal device for initiating industrial enterprises.

Third phase (1885–1895)

Gun transportation at Shanghai Jiangnan Arsenal (上海江南制造兵工厂).

By this period, the enthusiasm for reform had slowed down to a crawl. The conservative faction at court had managed to overwhelm Prince Gong and his supporters.

While the emphasis on building tall structures and industries continued, the idea of enriching the country through the textile industry gained the court's favor; thus industries like textiles and cotton-weaving developed rapidly.

New types of enterprises sprouted in this period: joint government and merchant enterprises, even incipient "private enterprises". Whereas the Chinese government had traditionally discriminated against private merchants, all the initial encouragement of private enterprises seemed to mark a change in the government's attitude. However, the government was only interested in getting capital from private enterprises; the government was still not ready to let them take an active role in economic development. Thus, the private enterprises failed to flourish, and control of such enterprises remained firmly in government's hands.

Examples of such enterprises included Guizhou Ironworks established in 1891 and the Hubei Textile Company established in 1894. Like all other newly sprouted enterprises of its kind, they were very weak and represented only a small fraction of the total investment in industry.

Court politics

Two sources of conflict characterized Court politics during the period of the Self-Strengthening Movement. The first was the struggle for influence between the conservative and progressive/pragmatic factions in court. The other was the conflict between the central government's interests and new regional interests. These tensions determined the character and ultimately the successes and failures of the movement.

Both the conservative and the progressive factions believed in military modernization and adopting military technology from the West, where they differed in was the reform of the political system. Conservatives like Prince Duan, who were xenophobic and disliked foreigners, still adopted Western weaponry and used it to equip their armies. During the Boxer Rebellion, the conservative faction was led by Prince Duan and Dong Fuxiang, who equipped their troops with western rifles and weapons, but made them wear traditional Chinese military uniforms rather than Western-style uniforms.

The conservative faction was led by Empress Dowager Cixi, who became the most powerful political figure in the Qing imperial court after she became the regent for her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, in his minority years. Her power and status in the imperial court were further strengthened in 1875 when she became regent for her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, who ascended the throne after the Tongzhi Emperor's death. The Empress Dowager was adept at manipulating court politics and rivalry to her advantage. She had to accept the reforms of Prince Gong and his supporters initially because of Prince Gong's role in helping her seize power and because of her relative inexperience in political affairs. However, as her own political acumen developed over the years, her support of either faction would depend on the political circumstances. Increasingly, she began to undermine the influence of Prince Gong's faction by supporting conservatives' (Prince Chun, Woren, Li Hongzao) opposition and criticism of reforms. Prince Gong was also temporarily removed from his office several times to undercut his influence. Wenxiang's death in 1876 further weakened the position of Prince Gong. The Empress Dowager's final success was evident from her removal of Prince Gong from power in 1884.

Empress Dowager Cixi was also acutely aware of the tensions that had arisen as a result of the growing influence of regional Chinese leaders: from 1861 to 1890, almost half of the governors general were Chinese who had risen through military command. Regionalism became even stronger because modernization projects were spearheaded by these regional officials. Modernization projects like arsenals and industries increased the influence of regional officials such as Li Hongzhang, Zeng Guofan, and Zuo Zongtang. Qing imperial rule was thus dependent on the loyalty of regional officials. The Empress Dowager thus had to cooperate with these regional leaders initially but her strong influence over these regional leaders continued to determine the success or failure of modernization efforts.

The Qing imperial court was fortunate in that despite their own growing power, regional leaders like Li Hongzhang remained loyal to the central government. Li Hongzhang provides the best example of the delicate balance between regional power and dynastic loyalty. He was Viceroy of Zhili and commissioner for the northern ports, and he controlled the Anhui Army, which was supplied by arsenals that he had established at Tianjin, Nanjing and Shanghai; thus he had substantial provincial revenues at his disposal. Nevertheless, he remained loyal to the throne and to Empress Dowager Cixi. The regional leaders were also increasingly restricted by the opposition from the conservative faction in court as that faction grew more influential. In time, even Li Hongzhang had to resort to allying with Prince Chun in order to win the favor of Empress Dowager Cixi.


Jane E. Elliott criticized the allegation that China refused to modernize or was unable to defeat Western armies as simplistic, noting that China embarked on a massive military modernization in the late 1800s after several defeats, buying weapons from Western countries and manufacturing their own at arsenals, such as the Hanyang Arsenal during the Boxer Rebellion. In addition, Elliott questioned the claim that Chinese society was traumatized by the Western victories, as many Chinese peasants (90% of the population at that time) living outside the concessions continued about their daily lives, uninterrupted and without any feeling of "humiliation".[2]

Historians have judged the Qing dynasty's vulnerability and weakness to foreign imperialism in the 19th century to be based mainly on its maritime naval weakness while it achieved military success against westerners on land, the historian Edward L. Dreyer said that "China’s nineteenth-century humiliations were strongly related to her weakness and failure at sea. At the start of the Opium War, China had no unified navy and no sense of how vulnerable she was to attack from the sea; British forces sailed and steamed wherever they wanted to go......In the Arrow War (1856-60), the Chinese had no way to prevent the Anglo-French expedition of 1860 from sailing into the Gulf of Zhili and landing as near as possible to Beijing. Meanwhile, new but not exactly modern Chinese armies suppressed the midcentury rebellions, bluffed Russia into a peaceful settlement of disputed frontiers in Central Asia, and defeated the French forces on land in the Sino-French War (1884-85). But the defeat of the fleet, and the resulting threat to steamship traffic to Taiwan, forced China to conclude peace on unfavorable terms."[3]

The Qing dynasty forced Russia to hand over disputed territory in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881), in what was widely seen by the west as a diplomatic victory for the Qing. Russia acknowledged that Qing China potentially posed a serious military threat.[4] Mass media in the west during this era portrayed China as a rising military power due to its modernization programs and as a major threat to the western world, invoking fears that China would successfully conquer western colonies like Australia.[5]

The British observer Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger suggested a British-Chinese alliance to check Russian expansion in Central Asia.

During the Ili crisis when Qing China threatened to go to war against Russia over the Russian occupation of Ili, the British officer Charles George Gordon was sent to China by Britain to advise China on military options against Russia should a potential war break out between China and Russia.[6]

The Russians observed the Chinese building up their arsenal of modern weapons during the Ili crisis, the Chinese bought thousands of rifles from Germany.[7] In 1880 massive amounts of military equipment and rifles were shipped via boats to China from Antwerp as China purchased torpedoes, artillery, and 260,260 modern rifles from Europe.[8]

The Russian military observer D. V. Putiatia visited China in 1888 and found that in Northeastern China (Manchuria) along the Chinese-Russian border,the Chinese soldiers were potentially able to become adept at "European tactics" under certain circumstances, and the Chinese soldiers were armed with modern weapons like Krupp artillery, Winchester carbines, and Mauser rifles.[9]

Compared to Russian controlled areas, more benefits were given to the Muslim Kirghiz on the Chinese controlled areas. Russian settlers fought against the Muslim nomadic Kirghiz, which led the Russians to believe that the Kirghiz would be a liability in any conflict against China. The Muslim Kirghiz were sure that in an upcoming war, that China would defeat Russia.[10]

Russian sinologists, the Russian media, threat of internal rebellion, the pariah status inflicted by the Congress of Berlin, the negative state of the Russian economy all led Russia to concede and negotiate with China in St Petersburg, and return most of Ili to China.[11]

List of arsenals in Qing China

List of modernized armies in Qing China

See also

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  1. Jonathan D. Spence, In Search for Modern China. 1990:197.
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  • Fairbank, John King. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Feuerwerker, Albert. China's Early Industrialization; Sheng Hsuan-Huai (1844–1916) and Mandarin Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Pong, David. Shen Pao-Chen and China's Modernization in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Wright, Mary Clabaugh. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T'ung-Chih Restoration, 1862–1874. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957; 2nd printing with additional notes, 1962. Google Book [1]