This episode focuses on the 1862-1895 period, when the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled and reformers tried to make China strong enough to stand up to foreign powers by modernizing the military and promoting ‘new learning.’ Also, a few words on the surge in overseas Chinese migration during this time, and its relationship to revolutionary nationalist movements to overthrow the Qing Empire.
The books that I quote from in the episode are:
Zheng Yangwen, Ten Lessons in Modern Chinese History
Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Welcome to the People’s History of Ideas Podcast, episode 5. In this episode we’ll be talking about some major trends during the three decades following the end of the Taiping Civil War.
After the British and French occupied Beijing during the Second Opium War and the forces led by Zeng Guofan against the Taiping revolutionaries were greatly aided in their victory by British ships and guns, it had become clear to a new generation of Chinese reformers that it was going to be necessary for China to adopt at least some foreign technology if it wanted to ever be able to defend itself against the industrializing foreign powers which had caused so much trouble.
As a result, this was a time period that saw an impressive amount of investment in new enterprises meant to modernize China’s military and, to a lesser extent, the economy more broadly. But while the scale of the new investments were impressive, they took place within the context of an ongoing political struggle between the reformers (or modernizers) on the one hand and conservative forces who strove to minimize change to the bare amount they considered necessary. In addition, this all took place within the context of the same corrupt system which had been creating so much misery for regular Chinese people already, and so endemic corruption and bureaucratic habits undermined modernizing efforts at every turn.
Be that as it may, if China had been given an unlimited time frame free from foreign intervention, it likely would have managed to industrialize and modernize its economy without any more national calamities taking place. But, the clock was ticking. Just as the European powers carved up Africa between themselves during this time period, the competition between the industrializing global powers in China and the adjacent region (including areas which were at least still nominally tributary possessions of China) was heating up. And if China couldn’t fend off the challenge of the most aggressive foreign powers, it faced the prospect of being divided like Africa was.
For the time period we’re discussing in this episode, there is one particular historical figure who dominates China, and so we have to talk about her, because she is simply the most powerful figure in China for most of the second half of the 19th century. I am talking about Cixi, the empress dowager. Now, it’s not the easiest name to pronounce for English speakers, so I probably am not saying it exactly right, and the spelling is a little counterintuitive. If you see it spelled somewhere, it will be c-i-x-i.
Basically, the Empress Dowager Cixi was the real ruler of China from 1862, when her six year old son, the Tongzhi Emperor, ascended the throne, until her death in 1908. She had started out as a consort of the previous emperor, Xianfeng. Xianfeng had fled Beijing when it was occupied by the British and French during the Second Opium War, leaving his younger brother Prince Gong in charge of the capital. During the Taiping Rebellion the Xianfeng Emperor had given himself up to dissipation in despair at the situation, and things only became worse after the British and French invaded. He retreated to the Chengde mountain resort a couple hundred kilometers northeast of Beijing where he retreated from reality by watching operas and died in 1861 at the age of 30, basically from overindulgence, although despair at his inability to cope with leading China in its time of crisis must have contributed something to his death.
Xianfeng had entrusted the care of Tongzhi to eight senior ministers, who were supposed to be the ruling power until Tongzhi came of age to rule. This didn’t sit well with Prince Gong, who was much more reform minded than the eight senior ministers. And it didn’t sit well with Cixi, who was ambitious to hold power herself. While Xianfeng was alive, Cixi had already started to help and advise the emperor in his work, and she did not like the idea of being excluded from power now. So, while the eight regents were on their way back from Chengde to Beijing they were surprised in their beds and arrested, with three of them being executed. Prince Gong and Cixi now formed a ruling alliance, with the understanding that Prince Gong could pursue his reforms as long as he understood that Cixi was the highest authority. She didn’t care about reforms so much herself, but was willing to support the reformist faction led by Gong if those were the people she had to ally herself with in order to come to power. In order to ensure that Gong didn’t turn on her, she made sure that conservatives at court also held influential positions, so that she could always be the final arbiter in important conflicts between the two factions.
When Tongzhi became 17 in 1873, he formally took over the throne. But Cixi remained a power behind the scenes, and Tongzhi died suddenly in 1875. Now Tongzhi’s empress, who was pregnant, was supposed to rule in the name of her unborn child as Empress Dowager, but she died under suspicious circumstances and Cixi, in order to remain Empress Dowager, had to adopt a new son on whose behalf she could rule. So she adopted the four-year old Guangxu. This meant that Cixi didn’t have to retire again until 1888, and by then she had been in power so long that she had no trouble remaining the power behind the throne while Guangxu ruled formally. This was shown in 1898 when Guangxu tried to exercise power during what are called the Hundred Days Reform, which we’ll talk about later. At the end of 103 days of reform-minded independence, Cixi staged another coup and put Guangxu under house arrest. Cixi then ruled openly until 1908. When she knew she was going to die, she had Guangxu poisoned so that he died (at age 37) the day before she died (at age 72). Fundamentally, what Cixi cared about was remaining in power. This was much more important to her than any particular set of policies.
Cixi’s personal view on modernization and reform is captured well in this anecdote, which I’ll read you. It’s from a recent book by Zheng Yangwen called Ten Lessons in Modern Chinese History, and it’s a book I highly recommend to listeners who want to read further about the history we have been covering in this podcast.
[Quote from the first paragraph of page 58 of Zheng Yangwen’s Ten Lessons in Modern Chinese History.]
Fundamentally, Cixi was out for herself, she wasn’t opposed to modernization, but she also wasn’t for it. Locomotives were great, but why make so much noise if you could just have peons pull the train for you instead? I think this really captures something about the fitful nature of reform and modernization that took place under her rule. And of course, because she relied on keeping the conservatives and reformers in line by favoring one side and then the other, it meant that there could not be any sort of really thoroughgoing modernization during her long reign.
Reform and Modernization during the 1861-1894 period
So, going back to China in the wake of the Second Opium War and at the end of the Taiping Civil War. China had just experienced a series of catastrophes. Since the defeat by the British in the First Opium War back in 1842, China had had a series of humiliating treaties forced upon it, giving all kinds of concessions to foreign powers, allowing the trade in opium into the country, losing territory to Russia, and now being forced to deal with foreign powers not according to long-standing traditions which placed China at the center of the civilized world, but according to the rules set by the European centered imperial system of the industrializing 19th century.
I received a question from a listener that is relevant here, so let me address that question as we move on. The question was, “How exactly could the comparatively small military expeditions which the British and French sent to China defeat the Chinese military on its home ground, why couldn’t the Europeans just be overwhelmed by superior numbers of Chinese people when they invaded China?” This is a really important question, so let me clarify this if I can. The first major thing the Europeans had going for them was their firepower. The artillery that they had was a huge advantage. So for example, during the First Opium War, the British could pull up in their ships off the coast of China and shell a city while staying out of range of any damaging fire from the Chinese. They could essentially just kill large numbers of people, make buildings catch on fire, and wipe out coastal defenses from a position of total safety. Similarly, when the Taiping forces advanced on Shanghai and the French fired on them with their artillery, they were able to kill large numbers of Taiping without the Taiping ever being able to get close enough to do any damage to the European and Qing forces defending the city.
But the guns that their soldiers carried were also much better, so with these as well, they could kill large numbers of Chinese soldiers (and civilians) from a much greater distance and with greater accuracy than the Chinese could, which meant that they could decimate Chinese forces from a distance well before they were really threatened. When this was combined with disciplined military formations, it allowed the British and French to do things like advance inland from Tianjin to Beijing basically with impunity.
A good example of this was the Battle of Zhangjiawan, which took place just east of Beijing in 1860. Here’s an account of that battle, in which about 60,000 Qing troops tried to defend Beijing against the much smaller British and French force (the British and French sent about 24,000 troops to China, and only a portion of that was used to attack and occupy Beijing). This is from the book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Stephen Platt, which is a great book to read if you want to learn a lot about the Second Opium War and the Taiping Civil War.
[Quote from two paragraphs on page 106 of Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom.]
In addition to the overwhelming defeat that was suffered in the Second Opium War, the generals who had fought the Taiping, Zeng Guofan and his protégé, Li Hongzhang, who of course had actually been allies of the British in fighting the Taiping right after the Second Opium War, were very impressed by all the artillery and steamships which they saw used first hand. And they saw the first order of business as being developing China’s capacity to make these sorts of weapons.
So, in light of the clear advantages of British and French military technology, following Prince Gong and Empress Dowager Cixi’s coup, a period of reform was inaugurated which was known as the Tongzhi Restoration, named after the Tongzhi Emperor, Cixi’s six-year old son who was the new emperor. This new reform movement was also called the Self-Strengthening Movement. And the idea was to start building up China’s military capacity.
With this in mind, a major project was launched to build arms factories to provide modern weapons directly to the new armed forces led by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang which had defeated the Taiping. And a naval shipyard and college were set up on the coast in Fujian province, called the Fujian Naval Affairs Bureau. A couple related reforms were the establishment of a foreign affairs department, called the Zongli Yamen. Before, foreign affairs had been managed according to rites in which foreigners implicitly recognized Chinese superiority. Now that China was being forced to play by the rules set up by the European powers, a whole new diplomatic apparatus needed to be established. Of course, this also meant that language training was necessary, and so the Beijing Translation College was set up.
There was a phrase which guided these reform efforts, it was “Chinese body, Western use.” The idea was that you could adopt some of the obviously useful or necessary practices from the West, but that you wanted to do it in a way which preserved something essential about Chinese civilization. The debate among the elite then became, how much reform would compromise some essential about Chineseness? The most conservative members of the court only want to adopt military technology and do what was needed to keep foreigners at bay, while reformers recognized that military modernization could not occur in a vacuum and that other social changes would be necessary in order to support a modern military force, and so they advocated further reforms, such as creating industrial economic enterprises or running train lines across the country.
Career advancement and social prestige were still attached to becoming an official, which meant studying for exams based on the old classics and the debates which revolved around interpreting the classics. This was considered the essence of Chinese civilization. But the practical value was very limited, apart from the need to learn this stuff in order to advance through the ranks of officialdom.
The experience of Beijing Translation College is instructive. After a few years, in addition to language instruction the college also offered courses in subjects that were considered ‘new learning’ or ‘western learning,’ such as math, astronomy, geography, chemistry, navigation, law and economics. Initially, it was only open to Manchus, and the only students were either children from Manchu families who had nothing else to do and were unprepared for the learning, or older officials who had been ordered to improve their skills. People looking to climb the ladder of officialdom had no need to this knowledge. So eventually all restrictions had to be lifted on who could enter the school, so that it would attract people who were not interested in climbing the ranks of officialdom. The ultimate effect, naturally, was that it attracted very reform minded people, and later, after it changed its name to Beijing University, it was the site of student radicalism, the birthplace of Chinese communism and where Mao Zedong worked as a librarian while becoming a Marxist. Quite the unintended consequence for a school founded by Prince Gong in conjunction with Protestant missionaries working as language teachers.
But it can’t be emphasized enough that the movement toward modern industrial society was a very halting one, both because of the conflicts between reformers and conservatives in the Qing court, and also because of the inherent tension of the fact that foreigners, whose intentions were always with good reason looked at with suspicion, were the initial bearers of the knowledge, and sometimes the capital, needed for modernization.
The story of Shanghai’s first railroad is a good illustration. In 1876 a British firm built a railroad from one part of Shanghai to another, but they did it without getting permission from the government. In 1877, the Qing court bought the railroad and had it dismantled. On the one hand, this reflected the opposition of conservatives at court who didn’t want any railroads built, because they were strange and they disrupted the feng shui of the land, the geomantic spirits and all that, and anyways, no one in China had ever needed these things before, why would they need them now? But there were other officials at court who also supported buying the railroad and dismantling it, even though they were open to the idea of railroad construction in general. For them, the principle of the violation of Qing sovereignty was the main issue, and because the British firm, which were after all the old opium barons Jardine, Matheson and Company, built the railroad without permission, the railroad needed to be dismantled. The remarkable thing, from this perspective, is that China had to actually buy the railroad in order to dismantle it. After all, building a railroad across a city is a pretty big thing to do without permission.
The eventual (albeit slow) success of the Beijing Translation College in contributing to China’s modernization points to the fact that, even though the path to regular, normie career success in late 19th Century China lay with climbing the ranks of officialdom, which meant studying for and taking higher and higher level exams on the Confucian classics, there were of course other people who took other life paths.
In particular, there were Chinese people who left China because of the crisis there in order to find opportunity elsewhere. Officially, the Qing Empire restricted who could travel from China, but in reality this was very difficult to enforce, especially after the Opium War. If you were pushed out of your home because of all the fighting happening with the Taiping Rebellion, why not go to California, where the Gold Rush had started just a few years before? There were longstanding Chinese communities outside China in Southeast Asia, but now you started to see Chinese people migrating to the Americas, Australia and Europe. Some of this was voluntary migration, but also some of it was coerced migration with the so-called coolie trade, where Europeans trafficked in Chinese laborers who had been tricked, kidnapped or coerced in some other way into migrating to places like Trinidad or Cuba to do agricultural work that had been done by slaves until the recent abolition of slavery.
For some families, especially those with connections overseas, a western education began to seem more desirable, more practical and also now attainable. The future Nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen, left his home town in Guangdong Province, just north of Macao, to go to Hawaii in 1879 when he was 13. His older brother had already been working there, and Sun went there to get a Western education. He then returned to Hong Kong for university to study Western medicine. This was something that came to characterize radical circles in general: even though Sun Yat-sen became a Nationalist leader, he was very much a proponent of Western style education and using science and industry to make China strong, and not so into old Confucian education and values. We’ll be talking more about Sun in a future podcast.
Chinese people working abroad faced a lot of discrimination and racial oppression, even if they weren’t coerced into coolie labor. This caused a lot of resentment, especially at the Qing Empire. There were a lot of Chinese people abroad who blamed the weak Qing government for their situation, and so they banded together in fraternal societies, both in order to protect themselves and to help each other in their new countries. Some of the societies also supported attempts at change back home in China, like providing funding for armed Nationalist uprisings that would start to happen in 1895 when Sun Yat-sen’s Revive China Society launched its first of many attempts at revolution.
So the three decades after the Taiping Revolution saw a lot of change. New modernization projects, more Chinese going overseas, the expansion of the study of subjects necessary for industrialization. But as I mentioned earlier, a clock was ticking, and soon some very bad people were going to test just how far China had gotten in strengthening itself. That’s in the next episode.