Chinese Dynasty’s Over Time – History Essay

Chinese Dynasty’s Over Time – History Essay
It is not unusual that we study famous and important people in history in order to understand what was going on at that time. However, did these people really change the history? I always wonder whether the present would be

different if some of these people were not born. Are we meant to be where we are now or everything is just by chance? These questions are especially critical in modern Chinese history because there were many regimes and groups for different types of people’s interests. It seems like there were so many possibilities that maybe the history could really be different than the way it is.

There is an old saying in Chinese-????, ???? (a one-hundred-year-old worm, its body would not be rotten after its death). It means that regimes which have ruled for a long time do not fail easily even though it is dead inside. Qing dynasty could be the best example; it did not collapse right away due to the internal and external problems, and it managed to get through the nineteenth century and on until 1912. Partial credit must be given to those scholars who worked hard on the Confucian restoration, trying to reform and revive Qing dynasty. Zeng Guofan was one of the most important representatives of this restoration attitude. Even though Zeng thought highly of traditional scholarly and moral values, soon he saw “the value of making selective use of Western technology” (Spence, P195). His good friend, Feng Guifen also presented Zeng a series of ideas about how and why “China must learn to strengthen itself”-“Why are France and Britain [they] small but strong? … The answer lay…in four main areas, utilizing all their manpower resource, exploiting their soil to the full, maintaining close bonds between rulers and subjects, and ensuring ‘the necessary accord of word with deed’” (Spence P195). Not only did Zeng and Feng, scholars far away from the political center Beijing, realize that “China must learn to strengthen itself” (Spence P195). Prince Gong, an important Manchu in the royal family, also “emerge[d] as a reformer in the Tongzhi Restoration period” (Spence 198). Under his efforts, schools in Beijing started to offer classes in foreign languages, Western technology, science, mathematics, international law, etc. Also, Qing dynasty sent out teenagers to U.S.A., Europe and Japan to study in their schools, hoping these people could bring back the most updated technology in Western society. After Zeng’s death, Li Hongzhang gained the trust from the express dowager Cixi. He encouraged Chinese people to open their own factories, to try to reduce foreign import , to develop arsenals and build up the Chinese navy army. These practices definitely boomed the Chinese economy and strengthened the Qing dynasty. However, the disastrous defeat in Sino-Japan war made it clear that “self-strengthening” was not as helpful as people expected-“the north China navy…with yet more damaging consequences to China’s self-strengthening goals” (Spence p221).

Holding the fear that China would be carved up in the coming future, scholars attempted to seek a way to rescue China from Western domination. After the war with Japan in 1895, many people were amazed that Japan, such a small country, had managed to become so successful in only a few decades. Almost at the same time, because Japan was “not yet ready to risk an open test of strength with the forces of Russia or of other potentially hostile European countries” (Howard, p281), the Japanese government decided to develop a positive relationship with China. They offered assistance against Russia and other western powers, which was also in their own interest. Japan’s success and its assistance to China especially in “expanding and improving Chinese [its] military establishment” (Howard p283), started an trend in China that many scholars were attracted to the Japan’s restoration history and they believed China should follow Japan in its own restoration. Kang Youwei was the one who really tried to put these ideas into practice. He gained much of his knowledge of the Meiji reform in Japan from books. Kang’s faith in China’s success following Japan came from the similarity between China and Japan, the work Japan had already done, including the translation of an enormous amount of Western books, and Japan’s positive and helpful attitude towards the Chinese restoration. Kang was very eager to put his ideas intoreality after “his observations of the corruption and irresponsibility in political life…and the humiliation of the defeat by Japan” (Howard, p289). Finally, Kang got the chance to present his ideas to the young emperor, Guangxu, and received an enthusiastic response. With hopes that China might become as strong as Japan through the restoration, Guangxu, called for changes in four areas including “abolition of the highly stylized format known as ‘eight-legged essay’…the convention of old academics to modern schools offering both Chinese and Western learning…local officials to increase the production of tea and silk for export…and the strengthening of armed forces” (Spence, p228). Guangxu mistakenly thought his aunt, the empress dowager Cixi would support him but Cixi was afraid of her power being taken away, she issued an edict on 21st September, 1898 that “the emperor had asked her to resume power” (Spence, p229), and ended all the movement.

Many people argue that Kang’s picking Guangxu as the person to put his ideas into reality was a huge mistake, but it is less noticed that there were not many options for Kang. Kang had never got a chance to go to Japan to observe its policy until 1898, and all of his knowledge of Japan, especially about Meiji reform came from books. He was only a scholar without military power or bureaucratic experiences, and he needed to rely on someone who would appreciate his ideas and also be powerful enough to make a difference. He wanted to rescue China from western power which made it impossible for him to turn to western countries for assistance. At the same time in the Qing court where were full of conservative officials, his only hope left to be the young emperor even though he had nothing but a throne. Kang turned to Japan government for help after the failure of the movement, but all he got was private support from Okuma which was not even strong enough to rescue Guangxu. It is almost predictable that Kang would fail eventually because the “constitutional reformers” did not have any solid military power to support them and all the assistance they received from Japan was mostly sympathy but not anything practical.

In this battle between the “conservative Qing officials’” and Kang as “constitutional reformers”, Zhang Zhidong played an interesting role. It seems to most people that it was difficult to understand which side he really supported. In his book-Quanxue Pian’s Inner chapters, he talks about “why the idea of popular power did not fit China’s needs” (Hon, p89), which made him in the opposite position of “constitutional reformers”. However, in the outer chapters, he suggested that people should not “stop(ped) eating altogether because of a hiccup” which encouraged people to change the old institutions according to the present needs. Zhang’s ambiguous attitude seemed to be confusing, however, still explicable. According to Tze-Ki Hon in his “Zhang Zhidong’s Proposal for Reform”, Zhang was “an experienced bureaucrat who knew how to bend to the political wings” (Hon, p95). In Zhang’s time, there were two streams of power with conflicts. Even though Zhang had his own opinions of restoration and he wanted to reform the court, his experience as a bureaucrat prevented him from stepping up to support Kang. Therefore he proposed a coherent plan for founding a system to train new talent, which would slowly reform the Qing court. At the same time, he also worked on “how to reduce China’s reliance on foreign imports and…to build an efficient railroad system to improve transportation and bring the country together with a strong sense of national identity” (Hon, p93).

Zhang’s plans might work but the emergence of Sun Yat-sen certainly did not give Zhang a chance to “gradually reform the Qing court”. Respected as the “Father of the Nation” in China, Sun Yat-sen showed his sympathy to Taiping rebellion and anti-Manchu hatred when he was very young-“while studying in Canton and Hong Kong, he is said to have admired Hong Xiuquan [Hung Hsiuchuan]” (Schiffrin, p 445). Different with Kang, Sun Yat-sen was not just a scholar who learned from books, he was fluent in English, and he had studied in many western countries. Being anti-Manchu, Sun realized that he needed assistance from foreigners “that no major political change could be carried out in China without the active assistance or friendly neutrality of foreigners” (Schiffrin, p447), therefore he went to Britain and Japan for assistance. Again and again, Sun showed his capability to “impress individual foreigners” (Schiffrin, p450). To British, he showed his “Christian affiliation” but in Japan, he appeared to be Asian and asked for help in “wiping away the humiliation of Asian yellow race” (Schiffrin, p452). Not only did Sun’s speech touch many foreigners’ hearts, also his image as a “Western-educated and Christian leader[s] of the Society to Restore China’s prosperity” also led foreigners to believe that they could benefit more from Sun in commercial trade, compared to Qing court which was trying to “reduce China’s reliance on foreign imports” (Hon, p93). All together, Sun successfully built up a positive relationship with foreigners, which brought him to the forefront of the anti-Manchu revolutionary movement-“Why was Sun chosen leader? … one of the crucial factors was the overriding concern with the foreign threat and Sun’s purported ability to neutralize it.” (Schiffrin, p462).

Sun’s success undoubtedly came from his personal charm, excellent lectures and his accurate analysis to complicated situations. At that time in China, foreigners were too influential to be neglected. Sun’s decision to develop a positive relationship with foreigners was definitely one of the key reasons why he succeeded to crash the Qing court and ended the “emperor system” existing in China for more than 2000 years. Unfortunately too much dependence on foreigners might also be the reason why he eventually failed to found a Republic China.

From Zeng Guofan, Kang Youwei, Zhang Zhidong, to Sun Yat-sen, they all contributed to some degree to the modern Chinese revolution. However, as we may see from examples above, their success and failure were determined by the circumstances that existed where they were. I am not trying to argue that their individual beliefs were not influential in their decision making. On the contrary, the more we analyze how and why they made the decisions they did, the more we can see they did not have that many options. Inevitable as the outcome of the decisions were, I still appreciate the fact that they brought their personality into the decision making process, a truth without which they would not be known by us today.

The Search for Modern China 2nd Edition, Spence Jonathan, New York, 1999
Howard, Richard “Japan’s Role in the Reform Program of Kang Yu-wei”
Hon, Tze-ki, “Zhang Zhidong’s Proposal for Reform: A New Reading of the Quanxue pian
Schiffrin, Harold Z., “The Enigma of Sun Yat-sen,” in China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913, ed. by Mary C. Wright

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