The Beginning of China’s Reform Movement

From the lecture series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

After the failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement in China, a bold new reform movement began with the aim to overhaul the nation’s economic and political institutions. Read how groups of reformers lobbied to gain high-level imperial support for fundamental social change.

Photo of emperor Guangxu's Chongling Tomb.
Emperor Guangxu was intrigued by the tales of Western-style economic and administrative revitalization in Japan and Russia. (Image: xiaoyuguai/Shutterstock)

A Reform Movement Begins in China

The Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s and ’70s had ultimately failed to halt the precipitous decline of the Manchu dynasty. By the time China suffered its inglorious defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, the dynasty was in a shambles.

But, it still did not collapse—at least not then.

A group of Westernized intellectuals initiated a bold new reform movement in 1898, a movement whose goal was nothing less than a total overhaul of China’s moribund economic and political institutions.

Learn more about China’s Confucian moral code.

Social Reform

The failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement proved particularly frustrating to one group of aspiring reformers. Initially trained in the neo-Confucian tradition of moral philosophy and tributary statecraft, these talented young scholars were severely disillusioned by China’s inability to extricate itself from the twin quagmires of European domination and imperial ineptitude.

Some of them had traveled to the West under Prince Gong’s program of sending talented students abroad. Others had remained in China, where they gained a growing appreciation for the internal sources of Chinese decay. 

By the mid-1890s, these two groups of reformers had converged to initiate a lobbying campaign in an effort to gain high-level imperial support for fundamental social change.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Coalition of Progressive Reformers

Leading figures in this coalition of progressive reformers included Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Tan Sitong, and Wang Kangnian.

Though they emphasized different aspects of China’s imperial stagnation, all agreed that mere institutional tinkering and fine-tuning would not do: a fundamental overhaul was needed.

For his part, Tan Sitong boldly advocated importing Western institutions and values as China’s only hope for reviving the decaying empire. His admiration for the West was enormous, equaled only by his contempt for the superficiality of traditional Chinese scholarship.

Other leading reform advocates went further still, advocating a complete makeover of China’s governmental system, replacing it with a Western-style parliamentary regime where the people participate in the selection of their leaders.

Along these lines, the reform scholar Wang Kangnian wrote:

Chinese who discuss governmental systems speak only in terms of governing the people by a ruler. In the West, however, there are democratic countries…governed jointly by the ruler and the people. Chinese scholars…consider [this] strange. [But] what is so strange about it? In general, when the power of the empire comes from one person, it is weak. When it comes from millions of people, it is strong.

Learn more about the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Emperor Guangxu and China’s Reforms

Portrait of emperor Guangxu
Emperor Guangxu was an avid reader. (Image: Qing Dynasty Court Painter/Public domain)

As the 19th century wound down toward its close, a 27-year-old emperor, Guangxu, sat on the Dragon Throne in Beijing.

Guangxu was deeply disturbed by the prospect of China being dismembered by rapacious foreigners, and he was intrigued by the tales of Western-style economic and administrative revitalization in Japan under the Meiji restoration and in Russia under Peter the Great.

An avid reader, Guangxu began devouring books about foreign institutions.

Kang Youwei: An Utopian Socialist

Noting the emperor’s rising interest in the subject of reform, a well-known scholarly advocate of radical modernization, by the name of Kang Youwei, took it upon himself to persuade Guangxu to underwrite massive reforms. He barraged the emperor with a series of policy recommendations, in the form of written ‘memorials’.

Kang Youwei was what could be called a ‘utopian socialist’.

His ideal world was one in which there would be no separate nations, but a single world government divided into various regions. The central government would be popularly elected. Families and clans would no longer perpetuate themselves over multiple generations, and cohabitation between men and women would be limited to a single year’s duration.

All children would be raised in public nurseries and would receive public education from kindergarten through middle school. There would be public hospitals for the sick and public retirement homes for the aged. Public dormitories and dining halls would be made available to all classes and strata according to their working incomes.

However, Kang Youwei did not try to impose his utopian views upon Guangxu. Instead, his written memorials to the emperor were far more modest and down to earth.

Learn more about China’s descent into political chaos.

Emperor Guangxu and Kang Youwei Meet

Photo of Kang Youwei.
Kang Youwei met Emperor Guangxu in 1898. (Image: Los Angeles Times/Public domain)

After sending five such memorials to the emperor, without receiving an affirmative response, Kang Youwei was finally granted that rarest of imperial privileges—a private audience with Guangxu.

Although conservative court officials, led by the irrepressible dowager empress Cixi, sought to derail this meeting, Guangxu remained adamant, and Kang Youwei got his audience in late January of 1898.

Their conversation was faithfully recorded by a scribe. This remarkable conversation lasted for five full hours. In the annals of recorded history, it was the longest imperial audience ever granted.

After the meeting, Kang Youwei and his associates prepared a detailed list of reform proposals. As agreed, the emperor received them; and on June 11, 1898, the reforms commenced.

Common Questions about the Beginning of China’s Reform Movement

Q: Who were the leading figures in the China’s coalition of progressive reformers in the mid-1890s?

Leading figures in the coalition of China’s progressive reformers in the mid-1890s included Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Tan Sitong, and Wang Kangnian.

Q: According to Tan Sitong, what was the only hope for reviving the decaying empire in China?

Tan Sitong advocated importing Western institutions and values as China’s only hope for reviving the decaying empire.

Q: What were Kang Youwei’s ‘memorials’?

Noting Emperor Guangxu’s rising interest in the subject of reform, Kang Youwei took it upon himself to persuade Guangxu to underwrite massive reforms. He barraged the emperor with a series of policy recommendations, in the form of written ‘memorials’.

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