China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

The Self-Strengthening movement was an attempt by Qing Dynasty statesmen, scholars, and aristocrats to strengthen the Chinese state by carefully blending Chinese cultural traditions with Western industrial technology. Its emphasis on building up China’s military power led to the establishment of arsenals, shipyards, steamship factories, and schools for interpreters, and to foreign study by students and military officers.

Summary of Event

China’s Self-Strengthening movement was launched by Qing Dynasty authorities to reform and fortify the state to meet numerous pressing social, political, and foreign policy problems. When the movement began during the early 1860’s, China was in a precarious situation. The country had recently experienced two major foreign invasions. The first was the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) China;Opium Wars
Opium Wars , which forced China to open five ports to foreign trade, permit foreign gunboats to anchor at certain ports, pay a massive indemnity, impose tariffs Tariffs;Chinese on imports, and grant to British subjects the rights of extraterritoriality as well as the right to live on the mainland. In short, these unequal agreements reduced China’s status to that of inequality. Self-Strengthening movement[Selfstrengthening movement]
China;Self-Strengthening movement[SelfStrengthening Movement]
Qing Dynasty;and Self-Strengthening movement[SelfStrengthening Movement]
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[kw]China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises (1860’s)
[kw]Self-Strengthening Movement Arises, China’s (1860’s)
[kw]Movement Arises, China’s Self-Strengthening (1860’s)
[kw]Arises, China’s Self-Strengthening Movement (1860’s)
Self-Strengthening movement[Selfstrengthening movement]
China;Self-Strengthening movement[SelfStrengthening Movement]
Qing Dynasty;and Self-Strengthening movement[SelfStrengthening Movement]
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[g]China;1860’s: China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises[3350]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1860’s: China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises[3350]
[c]Government and politics;1860’s: China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises[3350]
Li Hongzhang
Zeng Guofan
Zhang Zhidong
Feng Guifen
Gong, Prince

In the second major invasion, in 1856, war broke Opium Wars;and France[France] out with the British and French, and, in 1860, British and French troops entered Peking (now Beijing) Beijing and burned the famous Summer Palace to the ground, forcing the emperor to flee to the Mongolian border. This war resulted in an opening of eleven new ports and the granting of permission for foreigners to travel within the interior and for foreign envoys to live in Peking.

During this time, parts of China were also experiencing bloody rebellions, including the Muslim Rebellion in Yunnan (1863-1877), the Nien Rebellion Nien rebellions in Ahwei, Kiangsu, Honan, and Shantung provinces (1853-1868), and the Tungan Rebellion in the northwest (1862-1878) Tungan Rebellion (1862-1878) . However, the biggest and most threatening uprising was the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion]
China;Taiping Rebellion , a massive millennial movement, which resulted in the deaths of more than twenty million Chinese. Ironically, the Qing government was able to put the rebellion down only with Western military help.

As a result of these numerous problems, Qing authorities realized that changes had to be made in order for the dynasty to survive. The first stage of the Self-Strengthening movement corresponded to the period of the Tongzhi Restoration China;Tongzhi Restoration (1862-1874). This restoration was a general attempt by leading scholars and statesmen to enact a revival of the dynasty, similar to what had occurred during the Tang and late Han Dynasties.

Most of the leading Chinese statesmen and scholars who were early proponents of the Self-Strengthening movement had had personal contact with Westerners during the Taiping Rebellion and had witnessed the effectiveness of Western armaments and naval vessels against the Taipings. The most important of these reformers were Zeng Guofan Zeng Guofan , a viceroy in central China and the acclaimed conqueror of the Taipings; Li Hongzhang Li Hongzhang , a highly influential statesman and diplomat, who had fought with Guofan against the Taipings; and noted scholar Feng Guifen Feng Guifen , who had contact with Westerners when they were defending Shanghai during the rebellion. All four were deeply impressed by the Western military and technological power they had seen and believed that if China were to be strong, it needed to build up its military power by adopting Western military technologies and the science behind them.

The central principle of the Self-Strengthening movement was famously captured in the slogan “Chinese learning for substance, Western learning for function,” created by the conservative scholar-official Zhang Zhidong Zhang Zhidong . The principle was that Western technology could be successfully appropriated without damaging China’s traditional political, social, and ideological order. In other words, the reformers believed that Western learning could play a supporting technical role to Chinese traditional values, thereby providing new ways to reform and strengthen the Qing state.

The emperor of China in an audience with the first foreign ambassadors received in Beijing, in 1873.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

On a practical level, the emphasis during the first stage of the movement was placed on the building of Western-style arsenals, shipyards, Shipbuilding;China steamships, schools for interpreters, and systems of technical education. Arsenals were established in Shanghai Shanghai in 1865, in Fuzhou in 1866, and in Nanjing in 1867. Shipyards were constructed in Fuzhou and Jiangnan, and a machinery factory was built in Tietsin. In 1871, students were sent to study in the United States, and army officers were sent to Germany for military instruction. Schools for interpreters were set up in Shanghai and Fuzhou, and Western scientific works were translated. In 1863, a foreign language school was founded in Shanghai, and in 1872, the China Navigation Company was founded to compete with Western shipping companies.

On the foreign policy front, in 1861, a new office for dealing with foreign affairs, the Tsungli Yamen (Zongli Yamen), was established under the control of Prince Gong Gong, Prince , the reform-minded brother of the Hsien-Feng emperor. In 1867, the Tsungli Yamen established a college with foreign language staff for Manchu students, and instruction was offered in mathematics, international law, and science.

Although some of these changes did lay the foundation for China’s industrialization, the Self-Strengthening movement failed to revitalize the economy and retool the military. Moreover, too few industries were built, and the arsenals and shipyards constructed were plagued by corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement, and a lack of qualified technical personnel and skilled middle-level managers. Many of the schools established during this period lacked capable teachers and serious students. On a deeper level, the movement suffered from a lack of strong centralized governmental leadership and a sustained national effort. In addition, the Chinese upper classes were divided in their support of the movement, and many Manchu and members of the court, such as the infamous Dowager Empress Cixi (r. 1861-1908), had many vested interests to protect and were greatly suspicious of the growing power of the Han Chinese reformers.

The ultimate problem of the Self-Strengthening movement was its conservative and unrealistic core premise that a strict separation could be maintained between the adoption of Western methods and the preservation of Chinese social and political values. For in the final analysis, methods do have an effect upon values, even technical methods employed in arsenals, shipyards, and special schools; and means do impact upon ends. For the movement to have met its goals satisfactorily, the upper classes should have been incorporated into the government. Furthermore, meaningful changes in social and political institutions were necessary (as the success of the Meiji government in Japan Japan;Meiji era during the same period demonstrated).

The next stage of the movement (1872-1885) attempted to develop a broad industrial base, while the final stage (1885-1895) was concerned with the diversification of industrial capacity. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, foreign powers dismembered the long-standing Chinese tributary system. In the end, the movement did not prevent further intrusion by foreigners into Chinese affairs. As a result of the Sino-Japanese War Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War (1894-1895)] (1894-1895), China lost its claims in Korea and Taiwan, and ceded the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. The war also set up a rush for concessions by the Western powers and much of China was carved up into foreign economic zones. The ideals of the Self-Strengthening movement continued beyond the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and endured throughout the early part of the republican period (1912-1949).


The Self-Strengthening movement was initiated by a group of well-intended, experienced, and intelligent reformers to deal with the unstable domestic situation facing the Qing Dynasty in the second half of the nineteenth century. These scholars, officials, and diplomats were well aware that to survive China needed to make changes.

During the first period of the movement, primary emphasis was placed on building up China’s military power and the adoption of Western technological knowledge. It was believed that this approach would contribute to the restoration and strengthening of the traditional values of the state. Because of the ultimately conservative nature of the movement, however, the reformers greatly underestimated both the scope and nature of China’s problems and hence failed to realize that significant changes in China’s social and political institutions were also necessary. As a consequence, additional foreign invasions occurred, large parts of the country were occupied by Western powers, and internal dissent grew.

The ideals of the movement were influential beyond the collapse of the dynasty in 1911. However, reformers failed to truly understand these ideals until the mid-Republican period. They realized the Chinese state could be regenerated and strengthened by critically confronting the problems inherent in traditional institutions and values.

Further Reading

  • De Bary, W. Theodore, Wing-Tsit Chan, and Chester Tan, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. Contains a useful collection of writings by important Self-Strengthening movement reformers.
  • Fairbank, John K., and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. A concise overview of the Self-Strengthening movement.
  • Hsü, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A massive work of more than one thousand pages that includes a history of the Qing Dynasty and the chapter “The Dynastic Revival and the Self-strengthening Movement.”
  • Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. A comprehensive history of China including the relevant chapter “From the Opium War to the Self-Strengthening Movement.”
  • Ma, Jianzhong. Strengthen the Country and Enrich the People: The Reform Writings of Ma Jianzhong. Translated by Paul J. Bailey. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 1998. A contemporary perspective on the movement, with an introduction by the editor.
  • Wright, David. “The Translation of Modern Western Science in Nineteenth Century China, 1840-1895.” Isis 89 (1998): 653-673. A study of how Western science texts were translated into Chinese during the movement.

First Opium War

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

Muslim Rebellions in China

Second Opium War

France and Spain Invade Vietnam

Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

Sino-Japanese War

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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