Source Title: Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang: “On Sending Young Men Abroad to Study”
Bary, William Theodore. "Moderate Reform and the Self-Strengthening Movement." In Sources
of East Asian Tradition, 634-35. Vol. 2. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
(Taken from: Zeng Wenzhong gong quanji, Yishu hangao 1:19b-21b; CT)
This particular primary source had two authors: Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. Zeng Guofan was a high ranking Qing official, general, and Confucian scholar. He was born in Hunan, China in 1811. In 1838 at age 27 he passed the provincial and metropolitan civil service examinations and earned the Jinshi degree, which was the highest level in the Chinese civil service examinations. Because of this, he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy, where he worked on a variety of literary projects for the Emperor and gradually advanced his rank. He was appointed as chief literary examiner in Sichuan province in 1843, and was also made military examiner of Sichuan. During this time, the Taiping rebellion was causing havoc in Hunan, where he was summoned to help. He was successful in defeating the rebels on the Yangtze River and surrounding cities and captured the rebel capitol of Nanjing. However after this Zeng Guofan did not have much military success and was relieved of command in favor of Li Hongzhang in 1870. He was an avid follower and outstanding leader of the Self-Strengthening Movement, believing that adopting superior western technology and knowledge would be of great benefit to China. After being relieved of command, he retired to Nanjing where died in 1872.
Li Hongzhang was also Chinese politician, general, and diplomat. Born 1823 in Anhui province, China, he, just like Zeng Guofan, obtained the Jinshi degree in the civil service examination system and attended Hanlin academy. Under the direction of Zeng Guofan, he helped fight the rebels during the Taiping rebellion. He was also successful in suppressing the Nian Rebellion in 1866, and was made viceroy of Zhilio in 1870. As part of the Self-Strengthening Movement, he wanted to open China to the world but with China setting the terms, and sent a group of boys to study in the United States in 1872. Also, in 1885 he founded the Tianjin Military academy, which included German advisors. He played a crucial role in leading troops during the first Sino-Japanese War, which China lost, despite using modern troops that he trained as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement. He personally went to Japan and signed the ceasefire document to end the war. He also played a crucial role in ending the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, negotiating the departure of foreign military. The stresses of his duties took such a toll on him that he later died of liver failure two months later in 1901.
This primary source is a letter written by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang to the Zongli Yamen, which was the equivalent of the Qing dynasty’s ministry of foreign affairs at the time. The Zongli Yamen was mostly anti-western and was opposed to many Self-Strengthening ideals. Because of the opposition within the Zongli Yamen to Self-Strengthening, it took almost a year after this letter was received for them to ratify its contents and suggestions.
Date of Source Creation:
This letter was written in March of 1871 to the Zongli Yamen which was the government branch in charge of foreign policy during that part of the Qing dynasty. In our textbook, Sources, this essay was translated into English by Chester Tan, who attended New York University. The manuscript from which this translation comes from is the original letter written by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang themselves. Because this text is taken from the original manuscript and not handed down or copied by others, there is no lapse in time that would impact the interpretation of the source. This was also written as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement, which lasted from roughly 1861-1895 and included initiatives and policies in which the Qing government could strengthen itself militarily to compete against foreign powers.
Sources authors transcribed this letter from the original, and we know Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang wrote it, so this publication is very trustworthy and true to the original author. Sources translated this source from Zeng Wenzhong Gong Quanji, which is a collection of letters and historical documents from the life of Li Hongzhang. Again, this letter was translated by Sources translator Chester Tan. This letter is an official Qing dynasty government historical document, so it is a very reliable source.
The authors, Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, intended the members of the Zongli Yamen to read this letter. This was a private government official audience. This audience may have affected what written because the Zongli Yamen opposed many Self-Strengthening policies and wanted China to be more closed to the west. Their letter was presented in this manner because this is the most effective way that Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang communicated with other officials, through letters. The authors are somewhat candid but are also mindful of their skeptical and hostile audience; they use logic and reason, such as saying that the west has much better technology that China must adopt. The second paragraph of the letter particularly tries to use logic as a means of convincing the members of the Zongli Yamen, explaining that by not adapting these plans and policies, China will not be able to implement coveted western technology.
The authors seemed to be in very good positions to report about what strategies China should use to modernize its military. Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang both had extensive military experience, including experience fighting alongside British and German troops during the Taiping Rebellion. They both had successes fighting against numerous rebellions up to that point, and were considered military geniuses. They saw firsthand the weaknesses of China’s fighting force and knew that it was important to improve the military. Also, they both had extensive experience as bureaucrats within the Qing government, and knew the proper channels and means of communication to accomplish their Self-Strengthening agenda. It seems they were the best people to have written this and some of the only people that were in a position to push such Self-Strengthening policies onto the Zongli Yamen. Not many others had the extensive military knowledge that they did as well as the political clout to push these policies from within the Qing government.
This primary source is a petition from Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang to the Zongli Yamen, requesting increased activity with and learning from the west. They suggest learning from the west by sending young men on prolonged study abroad, where they could study “Military administration, shipping administration, infantry tactics, mathematics, manufacturing, and other subjects.” These young men could then be equipped to reeducate the entire nation, creating a new education system with advanced western ideas as well as Chinese tradition. Thus, China could commence in Self-Strengthening by utilizing these skills for self-defense in order to keep westerners out of Chinese affairs. This plan was meant to take a quite long time, and was part of a long-term solution to try to industrialize China and employ western manufacturing techniques.
The authors, Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, are trying to say that one of the best ways to implement Self-Strengthening is through sending young men abroad to learn western technology and then come back and teach it to the Chinese. At the same time, they are trying to persuade a very hostile audience, the anti-western Zongli Yamen, that this contact with the west is good for China in the long term. The Zongli Yamen at the time was against close relations with western nations. Although Zeng and Li also did not like western interference in China, they realized that learning advanced western military tactics was one of the best ways to defend China and keep its sovereignty untainted. In the last paragraph of the letter, they tried to convince the Zongli Yamen that sending young men abroad was the best way to adopt new western technology, and only by having young men study it overseas could they hope to understand and apply this new technology. Zeng and Li do have an agenda; it is the Self-Strengthening Movement and the overall sovereignty of China. Both of these men were outstanding leaders of the Self-Strengthening Movement, which promoted ideals of Chinese industrialization and technological improvement so that it could better defend against foreign powers.
Zeng and Li seemed to assume that their audience was educated concerning western technology, and was familiar with the advantages that it could bring to China. They also assume that improving the Chinese military with the help of the west is morally correct. In addition, they assume that their audience knows that westerners have better technology than China. This letter however does not seem to touch on or make assumptions about religion, and seems to view the boys’ adopting of western religion as not important. Also gender roles are considered here in that only boys are considered to be sent abroad, instead of girls, showing that at that time girls were not encouraged to study abroad.
This letter also touched on the subjects of war and diplomacy. By adopting advanced western technology and learning, the Chinese could vastly improve their military, fend of foreign invasion, and avoid events similar to the Opium Wars. Also, if strong enough, they could possibly push off the foreign presence and avoid more embarrassing defeats. However, the Zongli Yamen wanted to continue in limited diplomacy and interaction with the west. Sending students to study abroad would have strengthened ties and understanding between the two countries. The Self-Strengthening Movement and its values were surely the main driving force in this letter. Both Zeng and Li had fought in the Taiping rebellion and realized that China needed Self-Strengthening both militarily and economically. Also we can see that Confucianism influenced this source because the authors wanted to employ western technology, but use it more advantageously than the west by means of their advanced moral system. It seems that this letter was highly influential in the Self-Strengthening Movement of China and helped to start a program for young men to study abroad which would tremendously help China reform and improve throughout all aspects of society in the coming decades.
Critical Analysis and Further Research:
This primary source provides many Intriguing and thought provoking insights. In this letter, these two military generals recognize that the west has better technology than the Chinese. This piece provided me with increased understanding of the time period because it let me see how inferior the Chinese military was compared to the west at the time the letter was written. Also it was surprising to me that this letter took so long to get approved by the Zongli Yamen, showing the ineffective bureaucracy that was operating during the Qing dynasty.
Using this source, I could make a number or claims concerning the situation of China at the time. For instance, the Zongli Yamen was an ineffective tool that was preventing China from improving. Also, the people at the time understood that they were far behind the west and needed a form of long-term improvement to their situation. I could also say at this time the Qing dynasty was not completely anti-western, especially when it came to the Self-Strengthening Movement, but because they were slow to adopt western technology, they lost battles and were eventually overthrown.
Some concerns or doubts about the text I have are: what prompted Li and Zeng to think of such a long and drawn out plan? Didn’t they realize that it would take decades for their plan to take effect? Also, why didn’t the men mentioned in the letter who went to the west already teach the Chinese the new western arts of war? Some questions left unanswered by the source were: why didn’t the authors perceive their hostile audience better and also why did they not suggest foreigners coming in to train the Chinese as part of their plan? Some limitations of this source were: it was only two paragraphs long in Sources, so obviously there were some portions missing; this leads me to wonder: what else did Zeng and Li talk about? How long was the original letter? What did they talk about in the parts that were skipped in Sources?
The historiographical issue I have chosen that this primary source may shed light on is how exactly did those promoting the Self-Strengthening Movement seek to implement changes in China, and was it in fact a failure?
Secondary Source 1: Elman, Benjamin A. "Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China's Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895." Modern Asian Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 283-326.
In this article, Benjamin Elman discusses the goals and difficulties of the Self-Strengthening Movement, namely on the subjects of industrialization, weapons, training, and leadership, showing that this movement was not a true failure. He touched on how Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan created manufacturing plants for guns and other weapons, and that “At the end of 1873, 4,200 were produced, but they were more costly and proved inferior to imported Remingtons. In 1874-75, Li Hongzhang advised establishing a branch to produce powder and cartridges instead” (292). Li and Zeng also set up schools for language and military training. In addition they published magazines to promulgate western science and other Self-Strengthening ideas. “The promising start made in missionary schools and the empire wide arsenals accelerated…[which] unfortunately produced an intellectual backlash from foreigners in China and Chinese literati that China was doomed unless more radical political initiatives were carried out,” (305). According to Elman, the Self-Strengthening Movement was not a failure, but was simply seen as a failure because the Chinese lost the Sino-Japanese war. This war was probably lost because of lack of political coordination rather than a failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement. The intellectuals behind the Self-Strengthening Movement such as Li and Zeng were actually doing a great service for China and paving the way for future scholarly movements and improvement such as and the May Fourth Movement.
Secondary Source 2: Shen, Grace. "Murky Waters: Thoughts on Desire, Utility, and the "Sea of Modern Science"" Isis 98, no. 3 (2007): 584-96.
In this article, Grace Shen states that the Self-Strengthening Movement was successful, despite the loss of the Sino-Japanese War. She explores Chinese views and adaptation of science, and why the Chinese adopted western science for their own purposes more slowly than other countries. The Chinese were especially fond of modern geology, which seems an odd topic for them to adopt. She agreed with Elman in that the Self-Strengthening Movement was not a failure, but it was perceived as so by the loss of the Sino-Japanese War. She said, “on a purely technical basis the Chinese navy was actually superior to that of the Japanese. Whatever the reasons for the outcome of the war (which Elman attributes to a lack of political coordination), the Self-Strengthening Movement proved its worth in the limited arena of technology,” (p. 26) This new understanding from Ms. Shen helps us understand that people like Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang were actually one of the best things happening to China at the time, and their contributions cannot simply be measured by the loss of the Sino-Japanese War. It seems that political factors, such as the very Zongli Yamen, were more of a cause for failure than the Self-Strengthening Movement itself.
Secondary Source 3: Smith, Richard J. "Foreign-Training and China's Self-Strengthening: The Case of Feng-huang-shan, 1864–1873." Modern Asian Studies 10, no. 2 (1976): 195-223.
In this article, Richard Smith explores the Self-Strengthening Movement in terms of Qing military reform, stating that military failure was due to anti-foreignism within the government. The Qing government wanted to end their reliance on foreign assistance and at the same time improve their own military so they could better cope with outside influences as well as rebellions. Scholars have not really studied the importance of foreign military training to the Chinese. Feng Huanshang was a Qing military official in charge of running a military training camp with the help of foreign officers, but this program fell under abuse and did not produce satisfactory results. The number of Chinese soldiers that were trained in the western ways of military was small, and often they became “unruly, ineffective, and dangerous,” (193). These soldiers often spent most of their salary on opium, and the Chinese government did not widely utilize foreign military training, as they wanted to wean themselves off of foreign power. Smith states that “Anti-foreignism obviously played a major role in the failure of foreign-training to become widespread,” (217). The Qing government was often reluctant to fund and support troops trained by foreigners because they were afraid of the impact of too much foreign presence in their military.
The primary source analyzed in part one of this paper, written by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, give us valuable insight into the mechanisms and strategy behind the Self-Strengthening Movement. Zeng and Li wanted young men to go abroad and learn engineering, manufacturing, mathematics, and military strategy, then come back to China and teach others. However this plan would have taken years to implement and the Sino-Japanese War was already close at hand. It seems this plan would have been effective, but was not fast enough to be a deciding factor in winning the war, and also was not powerful enough to overcome a corrupt and anti-western government in the Qing dynasty. This fear of westernization in the Qing government effectively stopped China from adopting western technology and using it effectively. However, Li and Zeng’s impact lasted long beyond the Qing dynasty, as many of the boys that went abroad to study brought back with them new ideas, starting new movements and ideas for government such as The May Forth Movement, communism, and democracy.
The Self-Strengthening Movement was actually not a failure, but initiated great technological advancements in its time and was a catalyst and foundation for future reformations in China.
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living and working in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.