The Self-Strengthening Movement: Initiatives and Opposition

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

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

To revive and reform their dynasty, Prince Gong took some initiatives under the Self-Strengthening Movement to improve China’s military profile and modernize its infrastructure. Read about the opposition he faced, including that from Cixi, the powerful dowager empress.

Photo of the Summer Palace in Beijing, China.
The Self-Strengthening Movement aimed to merge modern Western industrial technology with China’s Confucian institutions and values. (Image: wonderlustpicstravel/Shutterstock)

The Self-Strengthening Movement

The Manchus launched many initiatives to revive their tottering dynasty after the Taiping Rebellion. Launched in the early 1860s, the revival effort was known as the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’.

It was also called the ‘Tongzhi Restoration’, named after the young emperor Tongzhi, who ascended the throne in 1862.

The Self-Strengthening Movement was spearheaded by Tongzhi’s uncle, Prince Gong.

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Strengthening Foreign Affairs

Photo of the front gate of the Zongli Yamen.
Prince Gong established the Zongli Yamen (or Office for General Management) to deal with foreign affairs. (Image: Enrique Stanko Vráz/Public domain)

Prior to the Tongzhi Restoration, China’s Manchu rulers had never recognized other countries as diplomatic equals but only as tributary or vassal states. Consequently, they never felt the need to have a government department devoted exclusively to foreign affairs.

The folly of this traditional mode of dealing with Western powers was clearly demonstrated in the diplomatic debacles suffered by a succession of imperial barbarian managers in the course of two opium wars.

To remedy this weakness, Prince Gong established a new imperial department, the Zongli Yamen (or Office for General Management) to deal with foreign affairs.

Initiatives by Prince Gong

To prepare Chinese scholars and officials to interact more effectively with foreigners, Gong promoted the establishment of a new foreign language institute, with instruction offered, for the first time ever, in major European languages.

Also for the first time, a few modern schools were opened, with classes offered in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and international law. Technologies of communication and transportation were also upgraded with the introduction of the first railroads and modern telegraph lines.

In these and other respects, the Tongzhi Restoration planted the first seeds of a genuine Chinese renaissance.

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

Resistance against the Self-Strengthening Movement

Unfortunately for China, not everyone in the court of the young Tongzhi emperor was impressed with Prince Gong’s policies or with his emulation of Western techniques.

Consequently, an influential group of archconservative Manchu court officials mounted a campaign of resistance and sabotage against the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Imperial Grand Secretary Wo Ren, one key member of the group, was an ardent defender of orthodox Confucian moral training, and he lashed out sharply against the new thinking. However, Prince Gong’s response to Wo Ren’s blind opposition to everything new or foreign was blunt and direct.

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Dowager Empress Cixi’s Hunger for Power

Painting of Dowager Empress Cixi.
Cixi was a very ambitious woman who did not want her power and influence to be curtailed. (Image: Hubert Vos/Public domain)

Although Wo Ren was quite outspoken in his opposition to reform, the chief architect of internal court resistance to Prince Gong’s proposals was not Wo Ren, but rather the Tongzhi emperor’s own mother, the arch-reactionary dowager Empress Cixi.

As regent to the child emperor, Cixi enjoyed enormous power, much of it wielded from behind a famous screen positioned to one side of the imperial throne, from where she would instruct the young emperor on his proper responses.

Cixi had not always been a hard-line reactionary; indeed it was she who, in her role as imperial regent, defied a longstanding Manchu tradition by placing a Han Chinese official—not a Manchu—named Zeng Guofan, in command of the army that ultimately defeated the Taipings.

However, Cixi was supremely ambitious and self-aggrandizing, and she eventually came to realize that if the reformers were successful in imitating Western ideas and innovations, then her own power and influence would be sharply curtailed.

Cixi’s Eccentricities and Misuse of Power

Cixi was a real force of nature, and her behavior was decidedly erratic. At one point, she approved the purchase of seven decommissioned British warships, but when the ships arrived in China, staffed by several hundred uniformed sailors under British command, she protested vigorously.

When negotiations failed to settle the question of the legal status of the British sailors, she ordered the ships to turn around and return to England.

On another occasion, after Li Hongzhang had recommended the building of a railway line to connect Beijing with other northern Chinese cities, Cixi refused to allow its construction under the pretext that trains were excessively loud and would “disturb the tombs of the emperors”.

When construction went ahead anyway, Cixi demanded that the railroad cars be pulled by horse-drawn carts rather than steam engines to ensure that the slumber of her departed ancestors would remain undisturbed.

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Misdirection of Funds by Cixi

Cixi’s most infamous foible was her alleged embezzlement of 30 million taels of silver that had been set aside by the government to finance the construction of modern naval ships.

Aided by a retinue of her loyal eunuchs, she reportedly diverted the construction funds, using them to rebuild the Imperial Summer Palace, which had been sacked and burned in the Second Opium War.

Photo of the marble boat moored in Kunming Lake, northwest of Beijing.
Cixi’s marble boat was carved out of a single massive block of marble. (Image: takepicsforfun/Shutterstock)

As part of this restoration project, Cixi commissioned the construction of an elaborately hand-carved, double-decked marble pleasure boat. Carved out of a single massive block of marble, the boat was far too heavy to ever set sail.

Indeed, for the past 115 years, Cixi’s marble boat has remained moored in the muddy shallows of Kunming Lake, northwest of Beijing. Unable to move, it remains as a painful double reminder of Cixi’s corrupt vanity and of the costly failure of the Self-Strengtheners’ efforts to modernize the country’s defenses.

Effects of Cixi’s Foibles

Because of Cixi’s misuse of imperial funds, no new naval warships were put into service in China from the late 1880s until the final collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911. One consequence of this lack of naval construction was China’s defeat at the hands of a superior Japanese fleet in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95.

While Cixi was probably not personally responsible for this humiliating defeat, her extreme vanity and self-centeredness certainly contributed to it.

For all the Self-Strengtheners’ well-intended efforts to raise China’s military profile and to modernize its antiquated infrastructure, they ultimately failed to halt the decline of the endangered empire.

Common Questions about the Self-Strengthening Movement

Q: What was the Zongli Yamen?

As part of the Self-Strengthening Movement, Prince Gong established a new imperial department, the Zongli Yamen (or Office for General Management), to deal with foreign affairs.

Q: What was Dowager Empress Cixi’s most infamous foible?

Cixi’s most infamous foible was her alleged embezzlement of 30 million taels of silver that had been set aside by the government to finance the construction of modern naval ships. She reportedly diverted the funds to rebuild the Imperial Summer Palace and build a marble pleasure boat.

Q: Where is Cixi’s marble boat moored?

For the past 115 years, Cixi’s marble boat has remained moored in the muddy shallows of Kunming Lake, northwest of Beijing.

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