Self-Strengthening Movement

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The Self-Strengthening Movement was a political movement within the Qing Dynasty government of late 19th century China, which advocated the adoption of Western military technology in service of the defense of a traditional Confucian Chinese state. The rhetoric and thought process behind the Movement bears many parallels with thought and movements in Japan at that same time, including the idea of wakon yôsai ("Japanese spirit, Western knowledge").


Feng Guifen (1809-1874) was among the leading thinkers in this movement. In his 1861 Protests from the Study of Jiaobin, he argues that "we have only one thing to learn from the barbarians, and that is strong ships and effective guns,"[1] and that everything else - reforms in government, improved use of land, labor, and natural resources - should come from the Emperor setting the country back onto the right track, in accordance with Confucian virtuous rule. He suggested that arsenals and shipyards be constructed in each of the treaty ports, and that Chinese who successfully learned how to reproduce (or improve upon) Western weapons should be given official scholarly status (jǔrén or jìnshì degrees), as if they had passed the Chinese imperial examinations. He also advocated the establishment of schools and translation bureaus in Canton and Shanghai where Chinese youths could be educated in Western languages, geography, and mathematics.

Feng suggested that China was not inferior to the Western countries in its land, climate, resources, or anything else, and that indeed the Chinese people were inherently superior in intelligence and potential, but simply were not being educated or applied properly; Feng was among many at this time who criticized the civil service exams for training people only in stereotyped essays, formal calligraphy, memorization and rigid thinking, and who advocated instead a combination of Confucian studies with study of sciences, engineering and the like. Feng employs and defends a Confucian view of the functioning of government, however, asserting that the positions, stances, and actions of the Emperor, and of government, stand as a model for society, and inspire the positions and actions of the people. Further, he anticipates critiques based on citations of classical texts, and argues that while repelling barbarians, and refusing to adopt their ways, are highly praised in Confucianism, "when we speak of repelling the barbarians, we must have the actual means to repel them, and not just empty bravado,"[2] thus defending his push for the adoption of Western military technology. Xue Fucheng, another significant Self-Strengthening proponent, went further, identifying industrialization and commercialization not as Western or "barbarian" customs which Confucian teachings would advocate against adopting, but rather as universals. He writes "while in clothing, language, and customs China is different from foreign countries, the utilization of the forces of nature for the benefit of the people is the same in China as in foreign countries. The Western people happen to be the first in adopting this new way of life, but how can we say that they alone should monopolize the secrets of nature? And how do we known that ... China may not surpass them?"[3] Xue argued that when the world changes, one must change to adapt, that even the Sage Kings Emperor Yao and Shun the Great would not have been able to deal with such a Western threat simply through the same virtuous rule, and would have needed to adapt.


While the likes of Feng and Xue were among the chief thinkers of the Movement, high-ranking officials Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang were two of the leading political actors within the Court who actively effected implementation of Self-Strengthening policies and reforms.


  • Wm. Theodore de Bary and Wing-sit Chan, Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol 2, Columbia University Press (1964), 45-55.
  1. de Bary, 46.
  2. de Bary, 47.
  3. de Bary, 53-54.