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Periodization–what
the question is concerned principally with–has all too often been construed as
an elusive manifestation of human desire for the structure in historical
knowledge. Nevertheless, it is not only concerned with division of time into definitive
periods, but more importantly with acknowledgement of historical continuity. Historical
events are ostensibly asymmetrical and discontinuous in terms of their
attributes and agents, yet it is possible to identify a common perspective of
events within a specific chronological frame.

It
would also be possible to conceive of an overriding continuity underlying all
the concerned events. The onslaught of foreign aggression that originated from
the Opium Wars gave impetus to the anti-imperialistic reform efforts during the
late nineteenth century (Self-strengthening Movement and Xinzheng Reform) and subsequently
prompted the anti-traditionalistic impulses of the early twentieth century (1911
Revolution and May-forth Movement). Put together, these events constitute the beginning
of the long-term development of Chinese nationalism that still profoundly
reverberates in the People’s Republic of China.

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In
this regard, the First Opium War marked the prelude of the ensuing foreign
imperialism and partition of China and provided occasion for the emergence of Chinese
nationalism as a response to imperialism. The ratification of the Sino-British Treaty
of Nanking would initiate the subsequent unequal treaties with the Great Powers
and the Century of Humiliation during which Chinese concessions and
relinquishment of its sovereign rights had been forced at gunpoint. The
unprecedented existential crisis for China’s physical survival as a nation propelled
through the Qing governing elites the sense of exigencies for modernization efforts.

Indeed
the Opium Wars had been generally considered to be the inaugural occasion that
triggered the collapse of the traditional imperial order and ushered in the
Chinese modern period. However, there had been recent skepticism among Western scholars
of this once-dominant view on Chinese modern history. The historian Philip Kuhn,
in his work Origins of the Modern Chinese
State, also dismissed it as “a larger discussion emerging within China” and
attempted to trace the origins of the Chinese reform agenda from the crisis of
the 1790s (popular rebellions on the frontier regions and natural calamities). Notwithstanding
his well-grounded acknowledgement of the continuity that links the earlier reforms
with the later modernization campaigns, there are reasons to believe that the
Opium Wars represented an abrupt turning point in the Chinese reform agenda.

First
and foremost is the disparity in the underlying objectives and contours of Chinese
reform agendas between the period antedating the Opium Wars and the period
after. While the overriding issue behind the earlier reform agenda was
concerned with the revitalization of the governing polity’s power and legitimacy
in the face of unprecedented internal challenges, later generations of
reformists sought to build a modern Chinese state in resistance to foreign
domination. Philip Kuhn’s detailed account of Wei Yuan’s political thoughts
sheds some valuable light on the Chinese reform agenda during the first half of
the nineteenth century; Wei viewed the rampant rebellious violence as the “nemesis
of past dynastic glory and excesses” and proposed greater inclusion
of the literati establishment in the policy-making process to strengthen
bureaucratic control. Whereas the subsequent existential crisis in the last
half-century would forever avert such trajectory towards modernization and
animate much broader nation-building measures, ranging from mobilizing policies
and resources for the military modernization (Self-strengthening Movement) to
rewriting the rules of ordering bureaucracy in the fiscal, judicial, foreign
and educational affairs (Xinzheng Reform).

The
other side of the transformation of the Chinese reform agenda is characterized
by the departure from the traditional Chinese conservatism. Preceding the First
Opium War, the conventional scholarship of the Confucian classics was the
source of the guidance in all spheres of life, not least in the Qing court. For
instance, Wei too had anchored his constitutional thoughts on the Confucian
classics, the Book of Odes. Yet when
the state was menaced by the foreign colonialism, it became harder to appeal
for the traditional Confucian values. Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, the traditional
Confucian conservatism had altogether lost any relevance and became to be
understood as the cause of Chinese backwardness. Frustrations at the continued
foreign scramble for encroachments and the decisive defeat in the First
Sino-Japanese War would further strengthen this anti-traditionalistic strand of
thinking, inflaming the popular resentment for the Manchu’s imperial order
(1911 Revolution) and precipitate the gradual evolution of Chinese
modernization campaigns from the adoption of foreign technologies of warfare to
the extensive emulation of foreign technologies, institutions and philosophies
(May-fourth Movement).

In
conclusion, despite the recent scholarship on the earlier reform attempts, the
First Opium War was the event which had precipitated the succeeding reforms and
revolutions that produced the modern Chinese state. Thus, I am compelled to
accept the conventional view of the First Opium War as the demarcation point
for Chinese modern history.

 

The
changing social, political and cultural environment in the Qing dynasty during
the early twentieth century brought with it, among the multitude of other
institutional changes, the abolition of the imperial civil services
examinations. On September 2, 1905, the Empress Dowager issued an imperial
edict ordering the discontinuance of the examinations, effective from the
following year, and the new arrangement of awarding academic degrees. Under the
new framework, the candidates and licentiates below the rank of chin-shih (the
highest-level degree and requirement for official appointments) were subdued to
continue their study in the domestic “public schools” or foreign-based
institutions of higher education to be granted degrees, in accordance with the Memorial Requesting the Gradual Reduction of
the Examination System as an Experiment.

Given
the long-standing Chinese tradition of the civil services examinations and the
staunch opposition from the literati establishment, its termination could not
easily have been foreseen by any Chinese contemporaries. Note that the
examinations were much more than just an elegant template of the imperial
higher education. For many centuries of various dynastic rules, it had been
Chinese mechanism of social mobility through which the commoners attained the
gentry status from academic degrees and the established elites consolidated
their inherited socio-political dominance by attaining political prestige of
official careers. Accordingly, the eventual demise of the old educational
regime represented the disruption in the socio-political order of the Qing
dynasty. Therefore, even in times of the continuous disintegration of the
traditional society, its sudden disappearance must have induced a great deal of
frustrations among the candidates and licentiates of the late imperial period.

Had
I found myself in a position of being a young student of Chinese classics, this
momentous event in 1905 would have constituted the personal crisis of lost
self-identity since my life would have largely been confined to the traditional
examination preparations. Now confronted with the traditional educational path
shattered in my own eyes, I would have instead endeavored to study political
sciences at a Japanese institution of higher education. First of all, given the
long-entrenched Chinese presumption that education erected men of elevated
perspectives and virtues, the discontinuance of education and the immediate
involvement in the popular revolutionary activities would have been
inconceivable since such endeavor would preclude any future prospect of
meaningful political participation. As to the preference for Japanese
institutions, considerations were given to the acute shortcomings inherent in
the domestic public schools which appeared to remain unresolved for the
foreseeable future, mainly the prevailing financial problems. Even without the
access to the national educational affairs, it should have been clear that both
the public and private fundings for the domestic public schools must have been
far short of its requirements; it is unlikely that the gentry, the biggest
source of private funding and opposition to the new educational regime, will
provide adequate funding; and also the Qing government would be unable to
provide any significant financial support because its financial base, already
close to bankruptcy due to the wartime expenditures from the First
Sino-Japanese War, would be further depleted by its obligations of the Boxer
indemnities of 450 million silver taels, more than four times the annual
government revenue. Moreover, Chinese graduates of Japanese educational institutions
were given considerations for academic degrees alongside their domestic peers
and, in some ways, Japanese higher education had been deemed of superior
quality due to their curricular divergence away from Chinese classics. Also the
geographical proximity and relative ease of linguistic adjustment would have
made Japan as the most sensible foreign destination.

Last
but not least, I would study political sciences to learn Western scientific
methods of empirical inquiry, precisely what contributed to the divergence
between Chinese and Japanese fortunes; whereas Japanese political revolution
during the Meiji period precipitated modernization, Chinese had not been able
to facilitate modernization from the past reforms. Nobody could be faulted for
questioning the discontinuance of studying Chinese classics. However, in this
hypothetical inquiry, I assume myself to have already developed the abhorrence
for China’s indigenous philosophies; the Confucian conservatism were already
perceived as ruefully out of touch with modern realities. The foreign dominance
in China had outgrown to such an extent that the seemingly unappeasable
appetites for further encroachment was no more the transcendent abstraction,
but the reality that threatened livelihoods of the general populace. Against
the backdrop of the expanding challenges of national salvation, it became
abundantly evident that the repeated past reform campaigns were profoundly
insufficient because they had sought to reconcile the modernization with the
contours of the traditional Chinese conservatism. Such widespread sentiment on
the self-defeating Chinese conservatism had even reached the farthest regions
of the empire and should also have been bred into my self-consciousness. Thus
it would have seemed only logical to abandon Chinese classics and instead
embark on the study of political sciences.

 

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