Periodization–whatthe question is concerned principally with–has all too often been construed asan elusive manifestation of human desire for the structure in historicalknowledge. Nevertheless, it is not only concerned with division of time into definitiveperiods, but more importantly with acknowledgement of historical continuity. Historicalevents are ostensibly asymmetrical and discontinuous in terms of theirattributes and agents, yet it is possible to identify a common perspective ofevents within a specific chronological frame.Itwould also be possible to conceive of an overriding continuity underlying allthe concerned events. The onslaught of foreign aggression that originated fromthe Opium Wars gave impetus to the anti-imperialistic reform efforts during thelate nineteenth century (Self-strengthening Movement and Xinzheng Reform) and subsequentlyprompted the anti-traditionalistic impulses of the early twentieth century (1911Revolution and May-forth Movement).
Put together, these events constitute the beginningof the long-term development of Chinese nationalism that still profoundlyreverberates in the People’s Republic of China.Inthis regard, the First Opium War marked the prelude of the ensuing foreignimperialism and partition of China and provided occasion for the emergence of Chinesenationalism as a response to imperialism. The ratification of the Sino-British Treatyof Nanking would initiate the subsequent unequal treaties with the Great Powersand the Century of Humiliation during which Chinese concessions andrelinquishment of its sovereign rights had been forced at gunpoint. Theunprecedented existential crisis for China’s physical survival as a nation propelledthrough the Qing governing elites the sense of exigencies for modernization efforts.
Indeedthe Opium Wars had been generally considered to be the inaugural occasion thattriggered the collapse of the traditional imperial order and ushered in theChinese modern period. However, there had been recent skepticism among Western scholarsof this once-dominant view on Chinese modern history. The historian Philip Kuhn,in his work Origins of the Modern ChineseState, also dismissed it as “a larger discussion emerging within China” andattempted to trace the origins of the Chinese reform agenda from the crisis ofthe 1790s (popular rebellions on the frontier regions and natural calamities). Notwithstandinghis well-grounded acknowledgement of the continuity that links the earlier reformswith the later modernization campaigns, there are reasons to believe that theOpium Wars represented an abrupt turning point in the Chinese reform agenda.Firstand foremost is the disparity in the underlying objectives and contours of Chinesereform agendas between the period antedating the Opium Wars and the periodafter.
While the overriding issue behind the earlier reform agenda wasconcerned with the revitalization of the governing polity’s power and legitimacyin the face of unprecedented internal challenges, later generations ofreformists sought to build a modern Chinese state in resistance to foreigndomination. Philip Kuhn’s detailed account of Wei Yuan’s political thoughtssheds some valuable light on the Chinese reform agenda during the first half ofthe nineteenth century; Wei viewed the rampant rebellious violence as the “nemesisof past dynastic glory and excesses” and proposed greater inclusionof the literati establishment in the policy-making process to strengthenbureaucratic control. Whereas the subsequent existential crisis in the lasthalf-century would forever avert such trajectory towards modernization andanimate much broader nation-building measures, ranging from mobilizing policiesand resources for the military modernization (Self-strengthening Movement) torewriting the rules of ordering bureaucracy in the fiscal, judicial, foreignand educational affairs (Xinzheng Reform). Theother side of the transformation of the Chinese reform agenda is characterizedby the departure from the traditional Chinese conservatism. Preceding the FirstOpium War, the conventional scholarship of the Confucian classics was thesource of the guidance in all spheres of life, not least in the Qing court. Forinstance, Wei too had anchored his constitutional thoughts on the Confucianclassics, the Book of Odes. Yet whenthe state was menaced by the foreign colonialism, it became harder to appealfor the traditional Confucian values. Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, the traditionalConfucian conservatism had altogether lost any relevance and became to beunderstood as the cause of Chinese backwardness.
Frustrations at the continuedforeign scramble for encroachments and the decisive defeat in the FirstSino-Japanese War would further strengthen this anti-traditionalistic strand ofthinking, inflaming the popular resentment for the Manchu’s imperial order(1911 Revolution) and precipitate the gradual evolution of Chinesemodernization campaigns from the adoption of foreign technologies of warfare tothe extensive emulation of foreign technologies, institutions and philosophies(May-fourth Movement).Inconclusion, despite the recent scholarship on the earlier reform attempts, theFirst Opium War was the event which had precipitated the succeeding reforms andrevolutions that produced the modern Chinese state. Thus, I am compelled toaccept the conventional view of the First Opium War as the demarcation pointfor Chinese modern history. Thechanging social, political and cultural environment in the Qing dynasty duringthe early twentieth century brought with it, among the multitude of otherinstitutional changes, the abolition of the imperial civil servicesexaminations. On September 2, 1905, the Empress Dowager issued an imperialedict ordering the discontinuance of the examinations, effective from thefollowing year, and the new arrangement of awarding academic degrees. Under thenew framework, the candidates and licentiates below the rank of chin-shih (thehighest-level degree and requirement for official appointments) were subdued tocontinue their study in the domestic “public schools” or foreign-basedinstitutions of higher education to be granted degrees, in accordance with the Memorial Requesting the Gradual Reduction ofthe Examination System as an Experiment.
Giventhe long-standing Chinese tradition of the civil services examinations and thestaunch opposition from the literati establishment, its termination could noteasily have been foreseen by any Chinese contemporaries. Note that theexaminations were much more than just an elegant template of the imperialhigher education. For many centuries of various dynastic rules, it had beenChinese mechanism of social mobility through which the commoners attained thegentry status from academic degrees and the established elites consolidatedtheir inherited socio-political dominance by attaining political prestige ofofficial careers. Accordingly, the eventual demise of the old educationalregime represented the disruption in the socio-political order of the Qingdynasty.
Therefore, even in times of the continuous disintegration of thetraditional society, its sudden disappearance must have induced a great deal offrustrations among the candidates and licentiates of the late imperial period.HadI found myself in a position of being a young student of Chinese classics, thismomentous event in 1905 would have constituted the personal crisis of lostself-identity since my life would have largely been confined to the traditionalexamination preparations. Now confronted with the traditional educational pathshattered in my own eyes, I would have instead endeavored to study politicalsciences at a Japanese institution of higher education. First of all, given thelong-entrenched Chinese presumption that education erected men of elevatedperspectives and virtues, the discontinuance of education and the immediateinvolvement in the popular revolutionary activities would have beeninconceivable since such endeavor would preclude any future prospect ofmeaningful political participation. As to the preference for Japaneseinstitutions, considerations were given to the acute shortcomings inherent inthe domestic public schools which appeared to remain unresolved for theforeseeable future, mainly the prevailing financial problems. Even without theaccess to the national educational affairs, it should have been clear that boththe public and private fundings for the domestic public schools must have beenfar short of its requirements; it is unlikely that the gentry, the biggestsource of private funding and opposition to the new educational regime, willprovide adequate funding; and also the Qing government would be unable toprovide any significant financial support because its financial base, alreadyclose to bankruptcy due to the wartime expenditures from the FirstSino-Japanese War, would be further depleted by its obligations of the Boxerindemnities of 450 million silver taels, more than four times the annualgovernment revenue. Moreover, Chinese graduates of Japanese educational institutionswere given considerations for academic degrees alongside their domestic peersand, in some ways, Japanese higher education had been deemed of superiorquality due to their curricular divergence away from Chinese classics. Also thegeographical proximity and relative ease of linguistic adjustment would havemade Japan as the most sensible foreign destination.
Lastbut not least, I would study political sciences to learn Western scientificmethods of empirical inquiry, precisely what contributed to the divergencebetween Chinese and Japanese fortunes; whereas Japanese political revolutionduring the Meiji period precipitated modernization, Chinese had not been ableto facilitate modernization from the past reforms. Nobody could be faulted forquestioning the discontinuance of studying Chinese classics. However, in thishypothetical inquiry, I assume myself to have already developed the abhorrencefor China’s indigenous philosophies; the Confucian conservatism were alreadyperceived as ruefully out of touch with modern realities. The foreign dominancein China had outgrown to such an extent that the seemingly unappeasableappetites for further encroachment was no more the transcendent abstraction,but the reality that threatened livelihoods of the general populace. Againstthe backdrop of the expanding challenges of national salvation, it becameabundantly evident that the repeated past reform campaigns were profoundlyinsufficient because they had sought to reconcile the modernization with thecontours of the traditional Chinese conservatism. Such widespread sentiment onthe self-defeating Chinese conservatism had even reached the farthest regionsof the empire and should also have been bred into my self-consciousness.
Thusit would have seemed only logical to abandon Chinese classics and insteadembark on the study of political sciences.