Two groups of leaders emerged during this era beginning with the succession of the child Tongzhi. The first group was led by the child-emperor’s uncle, Prince Gong (Kung), and the Manchu officials who assisted him in conducting foreign affairs. They saw to the implementation of the Treaties of Beijing with Britain, France, and Russia and established new institutions to deal with the Western world.
They were the Zongli Yamen (Tsungli Yamen, forerunner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs); the Superintendencies of Trade for the Northern and Southern Ports that supervised trade with the Western nations; the Tongwenguan (T’ung-wen kuan), a school to train students in Western languages and also to teach new subjects; and the Maritime Customs Service to collect customs as mandated by the treaties. Young men were also sent to study in the United States in the 1870s.
Prince Gong also had works on international law translated into Chinese and sent retiring U.S. minister to China Anson Burlingame and Chinese diplomats as roving ambassadors to Western nations to renegotiate treaties for China.
The second group of leaders was Han Chinese who worked with Prince Gong. They were governors of provinces and leaders of local armies that defeated various rebels and began a process of modernization in areas they governed.
The foremost among them was Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan), who formed a militia to defend his native Hunan Province from the Taiping rebels. His able lieutenants, most notably Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang) and Zho Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang), also formed militias in Anhui and Zhejiang (Chekiang) Provinces.
Together these men defeated the Taiping Rebellion in 1864, the Nian Rebellion in 1868, followed by the Muslim Rebellions. Zeng, Li, Zho and their colleagues were scholars-administrators-generals whose military victories were accompanied by genuine reforms based on traditional Confucian principles that led to economic recovery.
They, as well as Prince Gong, were also keenly aware of Western military and technological superiority and were quick to employ Western military experts such as Charles Gordon of Britain to train Chinese soldiers in Western techniques of fighting and the use of modern Western firearms.
They additionally established new arsenals, shipyards, and factories to manufacture arms. As provincial governors, these men also strove to modernize China’s economy by opening mines and building industries.
However, as China’s defeat by France in 1885, and the much more catastrophic defeat by Japan in 1895 showed, the Self-Strengthening Movement failed effectively to modernize China and ensure its survival from imperialist encroachments. Many factors explain this failure. Foremost was the lack of leadership in the central government.
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Prince Gong was increasingly sidelined and finally dismissed by the ambitious and power-hungry mother of Tongzhi, the dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), whose extravagance and ignorance of the world plunged China into repeated disasters. For example, she siphoned funds intended for building a modern navy to build and furnish a summer palace for herself, with the result that the inadequately equipped fleet was destroyed by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War.
Her corrupt minions pocketed the already inadequate funds needed for reforms and modernization. She also crushed the reform movement initiated by her nephew Emperor Guangxu in 1898, and finally her xenophobia led to the catastrophe of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
That she was able to abort all reform and selfstrengthening initiatives and eliminate their leaders also showed the strength of conservatism among Chinese officials who clung to their visions of the past and rejected the modern world and reactionary Manchus who feared the loss of power. These men gave her support. Many other factors contributed to the long term failure of the attempt at dynastic revival. One was the huge size and diversity of China and the strength of its culture and traditions.
Because China had in past eras been defeated by neighboring peoples, but had eventually absorbed and overpowered them, many failed to realize that the Western incursion was fundamentally different in nature and could not be dealt in the same way. Also, those “Restoration” movements in the past that had succeeded had invariably been led by a powerful national leader aided by dedicated lieutenants.
Both Tongzhi and Guangxu came to the throne as very young boys (the latter was chosen and adopted by Cixi precisely because he was only three years old), necessitating long regencies. Thus, Cixi ruled China from 1862 until she died in 1908. By the time of her death, the Self-Strengthening Movement collapsed, and the European great powers and Japan were on the verge of carving up China.