The Self-Strengthening Movement in China (1860-1894): Causes, Failures, and Impact

Categories: Strengths


The Self-Strengthening Movement, also known as "Yang-Wu Yun-Tung" by Marxist historians, emerged in China during the late 19th century in response to external and internal challenges. This movement aimed to strengthen China in the face of Western imperialism and domestic rebellions. While it showed promise, it ultimately ended in failure. In this essay, we will delve into the causes of its failure, analyzing its reactionary nature, heavy reliance on foreigners, economic monopolies, the influence of Confucianism, regionalism, and its impact on China's sovereignty and subsequent reform movements.

We will explore how this failure set the stage for significant developments in Chinese history, including the Boxer Uprising, the Late Qing Reform, and the 1911 Revolution.

The Context and Origins of the Self-Strengthening Movement

The Self-Strengthening Movement was triggered by China's realization of its vulnerability in the face of Western powers. The defeats suffered during the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Chinese Wars made it evident that Western powers possessed superior military technology. China had to bolster its military capabilities to resist foreign aggression, thus explaining the military orientation of this movement.

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However, it is essential to recognize that in the 1860s, the Western threat was not as dire as perceived initially. The peaceful withdrawal of foreign armies from Peking following peace treaties and their assistance in suppressing internal rebellions with the Ever-Victorious Army showcased a cooperative foreign policy. Western diplomats in China, such as Alcock, Burlingame, and Robert Hart, displayed friendliness, easing tensions between China and the West.

The Dual Challenge: External and Internal Rebellions

The Self-Strengthening Movement was not only a response to external threats but also to internal rebellions.

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By the 1860s, domestic uprisings, including the Taiping Rebellion, Nien Rebellion, and Moslem Rebellion, posed a severe threat to the Qing Dynasty. Unlike foreign powers, these rebellions sought to overthrow the Dynasty, prompting the need to strengthen China's military power to quell these internal challenges.

Causes of the Failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement

Despite lasting for over three decades, the Self-Strengthening Movement ultimately failed due to various interconnected reasons.

1. Reactionary Nature and Lack of Sincerity

One significant reason was the movement's reactionary nature. It primarily aimed at suppressing uprisings and preserving Manchu rule rather than initiating genuine reforms. Notably, Empress Dowager Cixi diverted reform funds for personal extravagance, exemplified by the construction of her luxurious Summer Palace. This lack of sincerity diminished popular support for the movement, with some people even fearing that railway construction would disrupt feng-shui, a traditional Chinese belief.

2. Excessive Reliance on Foreigners

The movement's heavy reliance on foreign expertise contributed significantly to its failure. While Western military technology was essential for modernization, Chinese officials failed to develop local expertise. Instead, they unreasonably depended on foreigners, often elevating them to unwarranted status. Some foreigners with basic skills were regarded as experts solely due to their foreign origin. Furthermore, foreign involvement was driven by their desire to gain political and economic advantages in China, rather than a genuine commitment to China's modernization.

3. Economic Monopolies

The economic monopolistic nature of the Self-Strengthening Movement played a pivotal role in its downfall. Many industries within the movement were controlled by officials and the comprador class, leading to corruption and inefficiency. The monopolization of industries limited competition and innovation, ultimately resulting in failure.

4. Influence of Confucianism

Confucianism posed a significant obstacle to modernization during this period. The leaders of the Self-Strengthening Movement were deeply rooted in Confucianism, viewing it as a universal truth. They were reluctant to challenge traditional social, economic, and political orders, restricting reforms to the military sphere. This limited approach was a manifestation of psychological inertia and hindered comprehensive modernization efforts.

5. Regionalism

The lack of coordination and cooperation among regional leaders within the movement hindered its success. Provincial leaders primarily pursued self-interest, establishing enterprises without a national perspective. Their focus on personal power and piecemeal projects resulted in inefficiency and wasted resources.

Impact of the Failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement

The failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement had far-reaching consequences for China's trajectory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

1. Loss of Sovereignty and Scramble for Concessions

The defeat of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 exposed China's vulnerability. The Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) and the subsequent Scramble for Concessions (1895-1900) by foreign powers further eroded China's sovereignty. Foreign powers claimed various parts of China as their spheres of influence, effectively dividing the country. For example, Shandong fell under German control, and Fujian became Japan's sphere of influence.

2. Emergence of Reform Movements

Despite the failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement, reformist intellectuals emerged from within its ranks. They initiated the Hundred Days' Reform in 1898, with Emperor Guangxu at the forefront. This reform movement sought to modernize China and gain power from Empress Dowager Cixi. Although the reform ultimately failed, it demonstrated a growing desire for change within China's leadership.

3. Boxer Uprising and Eight-Power Expedition

The failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement indirectly contributed to the Boxer Uprising, during which Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxers in their anti-foreign and anti-Christian activities. This led to the Eight-Power Expedition, where a coalition of foreign powers sent troops to capture Beijing. The destruction of parts of the Summer Palace during this expedition symbolized the consequences of China's weakness.

4. Late Qing Reform and 1911 Revolution

The Boxer Protocol signed after the Eight-Power Expedition prompted the Qing Court to initiate the Late Qing Reform (1901-1910). However, this reform lacked sincerity and failed to address fundamental issues, leading to disillusionment among the people and intellectuals. This dissatisfaction fueled support for the Revolutionary Party led by Sun Yixian and ultimately culminated in the successful 1911 Revolution, which led to the downfall of the Qing Court.


The Self-Strengthening Movement, while a well-intentioned effort to modernize China, was marred by its reactionary nature, excessive reliance on foreigners, economic monopolies, Confucian influence, regionalism, and its ultimate failure had profound consequences for China. This movement serves as a critical turning point in Chinese history, highlighting the complexities and challenges faced in the path towards modernization and national strength.

Updated: Nov 13, 2023
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The Self-Strengthening Movement in China (1860-1894): Causes, Failures, and Impact. (2016, Jun 27). Retrieved from

The Self-Strengthening Movement in China (1860-1894): Causes, Failures, and Impact essay
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