Western Influence on Early 20th Century China

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A more modern approach to Chinese history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focuses more on a China-centred approach, placing less importance on the role Western civilisations had in shaping China during this period. However one cannot escape the fact that the West had a massive influence in defining and shaping China in this period, more-so than internal Chinese influence. The West played a vital role in altering Chinese history from the period of time encompassing the Opium War, all the way to the eve of the revolution of 1911 and beyond. “China- truly a geographical and not a political expression before 1912- moved from being a ward, if not semi-colony, of the ‘great powers” to being a great power itself, recovering the sovereignty and autonomy that had been so severely limited in the latter stages of the Qing dynasty.”
The West’s influence touched almost every aspect of China during this period. The change was caused by direct economic and political forces, which became “all penetrating, all permeating, all prevailing- durchdringend, as the Germans say- ultimately forcing their way into every part of Chinese society.” Over the course of this essay we will discuss how exactly the West influenced Chinese history and what specific areas of Chinese society and culture changed.

To understand how foreign influence affected China in the early 20th century, we must first examine how the West had an effect on China during the late 19th century. The start of the change can be traced back to the Opium War of 1839-1842. This was the first of many wars that China fought with foreign powers up until the early 20th century. The Opium War in particular had a lasting effect on the Chinese economy. The major consequence of the war was that there was a massive degree of foreign control placed on China and the Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, placed indemnities on the country which saddled it with a great international debt. Britain in particular could now control China as it pleased and made changes to suit Britain’s own agenda. China ceded Hong Kong to Britain and opened five treaty ports.
Another vital consequence of the Opium War was the end of any true power of the Manchu’s in governing China. It was in the best interest of foreign powers to support the Manchu’s enough to keep them in power, but in reality the dynasty was a puppet government. “Politically there was also great distortion. At the time of the Opium War, the Manchu dynasty was already in marked decay. The Opium War gravely injured the prestige of the Manchu’s, and their dynasty would have fallen within a decade or two, had it not been for the fact that the foreigners themselves, after defeating the Manchu’s, had an interest in maintaining the dynasty in order to dictate, through the Manchu court, the kind of government which suited their own interests.”

A rebellion which also took place during this period which had an effect on Chinese history was the Taiping Rebellion (1848-1865). This relates to foreign influences in a more indirect way. The leader was apparently influenced by Christian readings. The rebellion itself, which in the end caused an estimated twenty million deaths, was a peasant uprising against the Manchu’s. The foreigners in China had some sympathies towards the rebellion because of its connection to Christianity; however because of their interests in keeping the Manchu’s in power in order to control them, they lend support to put down the rebellion. The lasting effect on Chinese history following the rebellion was that it left behind a lasting tradition of social and political revolution and it is regarded as “the first revolutionary war in the long struggle which created the independent China of today.” This could be viewed as a way that a Chinese-centred approach is more appropriate when discussing the history of this period, however when you consider the role the British played in putting down the rebellion, you cannot fail to understand how foreign influences were the driving force in Chinese history during this time. If it was not for foreign influence, the Manchu dynasty would have fallen long before it did.
Constant wars with foreign powers during this time also had an effect on the militarisation of China. These wars did not last very long, simply because the Chinese were no match militarily to the West. They realised that if they were to be able to defend themselves against these foreign powers, they would have to embrace Western notions. The military strength that China would eventually gain came about by industrialisation and this came about by China opening its doors to international economic influences. “After the defeat suffered by China in 1885 in the Franco-Chinese incidents, it became clear that the efforts made up to that point were inadequate. The internal difficulties and the threats from outside had encouraged the strengthening primarily of China’s military potential, but it was now realised that the whole Chinese economy needed reinvigorating, just at the time when foreign pressure was making itself felt more sharply. A fresh effort was therefore made to build railway lines, open mines, set up steelworks and create technical schools, while at the same time the organisation of a modern army and navy was taken in hand again.” The realisation with this is that if China had not been engaged in wars with the Western powers then, judging by Chinese attitudes to Western technology in the past, they would not have embraced this aspect of Western modernisation so readily. Again this shows how the West directly brought China some way towards modernity.
However China did not totally embrace all Western models of industrialisation straight away. They initiated the ‘Self-strengthening Movement’ in the early 1860’s, but this only adopted aspects which were immediately useful, i.e.-weaponry. They ignored more important parts of Western civilisation such as “political systems, economic institutions, philosophy, literature, and the arts” As mentioned above it was not until the defeat in 1885, that the Chinese started to realise that they needed to change politically as well as militarily and to embrace modernity more.
Something which comes to the fore when discussing the start of Chinese political change is that many of the advocates for change were educated with Western ideals. This was due to the fact that many students were going abroad to study in Western universities, but it was also due to the setting up of colleges and universities in China by Christian missionaries. This was important for young students to be able to discover more and embrace Western ideals. If China was to change to being more modern like the West they were going to have to understand every aspect of Western teachings. These schools provided the freedom for students to discuss new political ideas and the need for political change. “For generations, China had an education that was based upon the study of the Chinese classics. It was remarkable for its antiquity, its democracy, and, as contact with the West revealed, its inadequacy. It did not produce men who could lead China successfully in competition with the rest of the world. Western education was introduced into China by missionaries, Catholic and Protestant.” This wider Western education led China up to the time where the Manchu dynasty had fallen and people were hungry for change. Western thought was prevalent in the minds of the youth who had studied abroad, and around the time towards the end of the 1910’s there was a feeling amongst them of shame in China and its traditions. They wanted to break away from the past and bring China into a new future, fuelled by modern thought. “In the state of decline into which China had fallen, traditional manners and customs, the literature and arts of the literati- all that remained of the old China- seemed to them like an odious caricature. Any compromise with the past had become impossible; it was necessary to break once and for all with all the old Chinese traditions and, in order to lift China out of its state of prostration, to awaken people’s consciences and reach the widest possible public.”
This demonstrates how the West had influenced Chinese thought directly, and how the youth and the educated wanted to completely turn their backs on the old traditional Chinese way of doing things. Western books were being translated and distributed more and more throughout China, and influencing more and more people. In addition to the schools, treaty ports had become a vibrant place for Chinese to meet foreigners, or people from other parts of China, and have political discussions. “These were the hubs of modern economic growth and the central meeting places between Chinese and foreigners (not to mention between Chinese of different regions) in the first part of the 20th century.”
These Western ideals and methods had influenced many men in China into bringing change, although they did not always agree on how that change should come about. A prominent philosopher during the start of the 20th century was Kang Youwei. He was heavily influenced by Western thought. He published many books which had an optimistic view on a world where equality was goal. He did not however want a revolution to break out in China and he encouraged a democratic country, which did not break completely traditional ideals. “Kang promoted a strong democratic China based on Confucian ideals and loyalty to the Emperor. He warned against the revolution saying “If we now seek to purchase liberty at the price of infinite suffering, it may not be attained after seventy years, and even if it is, what will have happened to our ancestral country?”
Dr. Sun Yat-sen did not believe, like Kang, that China could be cured by “a partial institutional reform, but only by a complete revolution.” He was a doctor trained in the West and he wanted to completely overthrow Manchu rule. He got support of the lower classes but not that of the scholarly classes. This changed with the outbreak of the Boxer rebellion in 1900, where underground organisations of peasants turned against foreigners in China, supported by the Manchu court who blamed the suffering in China on the foreigners. When the rebellion was quelled by an international military expedition, China was again forced to pay a heavy indemnity. Also China had to apologise to the European countries whose citizens had been involved in the boxer day rebellion and it was while making these apologies that we can see how far China had regressed in the last century, in comparison to Western countries. “In a remarkable turnabout from the days in which successive European missions were spurned because they refused to offer the prostrations of the traditional kowtow of subservience to the emperor, the Chinese envoy on an expiatory mission to Berlin was asked to kneel when offering his emperors deep apologies to the Kaiser. He refused, and the Germans declined to insist on it, but the amazing symbolic reversal of China’s fortunes could hardly have been more apparent.”
This marked a changing in the minds of many Chinese about the Manchu dynasty and many scholars joined Sun in believing a revolution to remove the Manchu dynasty was needed. The revolution was a success and in 1911 a Western style republic was formed in China.

There can be no doubt that Western influences were by far the overriding factor for changes in Chinese history in this period of time. In many instances it was a negative foreign influence which forced China into change, in order to become an internationally respected sovereign nation. Hosea Ballou Morse describes China during this period as essentially being a shadow of a country, suffering constant embarrassments due to their unwillingness to grow towards more Western ideals. “In the world’s history no country, with so vast an extent of territory and so large a population, under one government, as China- no country with a tithe of its area or population- had ever been subjected to such a series of humiliations, or to so many proofs of low esteem in which it was held, as China....[With the Boxer settlement, moreover,] China, after seventy years of direct relations with Western nations, had by successive steps-1842, 1860, 1885, 1895-now, in 1901, reached a stage of national degradation so low that she still retained few of the attributes of a sovereign and independent state.”
Historians, such as Evelyn Rawski, have given a greater importance on internal Chinese factors in shaping the history of this period. While there can be found some merit in this argument, there can be no doubt that almost everything important during this period had its roots in foreign influences. It was a slow progression, which shows that the Chinese were unwilling to change without the West’s influence. They had ample opportunities to leave more traditional Chinese practices behind and bring modernity to China at an earlier stage than they managed. It’s fair to assume that without the controlling presence of Western civilisations in China at this time, that China history would have turned out very differently.

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