Of all the greatest empires that were present in the historical books, China is the only one still standing but of course as a modern-day nation. The country has a long and rich history dating to almost 4000 years with some of the traditions such as Chinese system of writing still being practiced today. Two aspects of the ancient Chinese life were imperative to their longstanding survival as a strong empire. One of them was the political system and is the intellectual system of thought. Their long-standing dynasty system of leadership was imperative to the empire’s survival, and it was backed by an intellectual system based on Confucius’ ideals on governance. From the 3000 BC under the Shang dynasty to the Ching dynasty that lasted from the 17th to the early 20th Century, most of the leaders in between upheld Confucius principles on leadership by the intellects and the appointment of the most qualified persons to serve on public service. These ideals, as well as dynasty/ monarchical system of leadership, became unpopular and sections of the population demanded a change of the status quo. As such, it is worth investigating some of the factors that threatened this political as well as political system as well as the manner in which Various elites responded to this shift in ideology.
The Ching dynasty, which was the last one, lasted for close to four centuries. At first it was very stable and enjoyed popular support of the Chinese nationals. As it proceeded a lot of factors brought about instability. Internal strife was one of the factors that led to the weakening of the system. There was a lot of internal rebellion that rendered the empire difficult to govern. In particular, the Taiping rebellion which was incidentally the biggest rebellion and claimed more than 20 million lives pushed the empire to the edge. The rebellion was engineered by peasants who were tired of the marginalization. It gathered momentum in mid-19th century and seriously weakened the Ching dynasty. Wars from external fronts aggravated the situation. While the dynasty was to some extent able to contain the incidences of internal strife, it faced very potent opponents in the form of the British and French armies. These two countries engaged the Chinese in what was known as the ‘opium wars’. The Empire had placed trading restrictions the commodity, but the European powers insisted of gaining a market from the empire which created the conflict. Their Japanese neighbors were also aggressors and political opponents and engaged the country in a host of wars. These wars and the subsequent treaties to stop them resulted in the penetration of foreigners in China. This penetration was both physical and in terms of ideologies. The increasing presence of foreigners in the country led to the rapid spread of their ideals. Students who went for studies abroad interacted with new ideologies such a democracy which challenged Confucius’ insistence of the strict adherence to authority even in situations when it was not appropriate for the nationals. The combination of wars and infiltration of foreign ideologies were the greatest threat to the status quo.
The rapid nature of the transformation took the dynasty by a storm and involved nationals across the board. The peasants and elites alike were responsive to the change and were involved in a variety of activities to advance it. The elites’ response can be categorized into reformist and revolutionary.
The basic ideology that underpinned this class of elites was changing the system from within. They believed that the system could be changed to reflect the emerging needs of the Chinese nationals. Kang Yowei was a dominant figure in this school of thought. Born of a humble background, Kang received an education on the traditional schooling lines. However, at an early age he developed resentment of this system of schooling where one had to cram a lot to pass the civil exams, and began reading Geography and history books of the West. Despite demonstrating intellectual independence, Kang affirmed his belief in Confucian ideals of personal virtue and service to the society. In fact, the basis of his agenda reform lies in the attempt to use Confucianism to justify institutional reforms. One of things he advocated for, was an absolute change from monarchy to constitutional rule. In 1898 he got a stint at leadership and he attempted to change a few things. Some of the changes include revamping the old bureaucracy, basing education on both the Chinese and Western system, introduction of a public school system and press, and popularly elected assemblies. However, he was largely unsuccessful in reorganizing the armed forces. Before these changes could take effect, his reign was overthrown by the more the more conservative leadership.
Just like Kang, Liang Qichao was a believer of transforming the system. An ardent scholar himself, he followed the principles set by Kang but also demonstrated the ability to exercise independent thinking. After the Kang’s failure to introduce which he thoroughly showed belief in, he escaped to Japan. While there he did not stop advocating for reforms in the Chinese society. His main mode of influence was via scholarly works. Through his resolve he inspired students both outside and within China. Laing methods were difficult to ignore since he demonstrated intellectual mastery of Chinese traditions and an appreciation of Western ideologies simultaneously. (at p.288) notes that his advocacy was founded on the thought that popular (modern) education and instillment of a sense of nationalism was China’s greatest need. He therefore urged for radical transformation of the Chinese way of life in line with Social Darwinism which had taken place in America and France to ‘renew the people’.
This class of elites advocated for a complete overhaul of the system. According to them, the old ideologies and system held back the advancement of China as a nation and most of the adherents of this school were integral to the ultimate Chinese revolution. Sun Yat-Sen is an important figure in this class of elites and is regarded as the father of modern China. Fitzgerald at p.315 notes that he was inspired by the belief that with the progress of civilization and advancement of science, Western ideologies could be quickly and easily adopted by the Chinese without regard to the their past living conditions. Sun proceeded under the conviction that the Manchu regime was beyond reform and attempted a coup which miserably failed. He insisted that the Chinese should be cut off from the official traditions instilled by Confucius for China to advance.
Another prominent figure among the revolutionaries is Zou Rong. He grew up in well-to-do family but resisted the Chinese system of education. At a very tender age he was involved in political activities in school that resulted in several dismissals from school. He believed that revolution was a universal principle that the Chinese could not resist. It happened in England, France, and America and it was only a matter of time before it happened in the country. He believed in the power of revolution because was to eliminate poor leadership and advance civilization and the good of the common citizenry. Rong believed that education and revolution were two sides of the same coin. Accordingly he noted that he believed in revolutionary education where one had to learn before a revolution and gain education after it. At the tender age of 21, he was jailed for his revolutionary ideals and died while he was held there.
Women were also part of the revolution. A number of them were involved but Qiu Jin was a notable figure. The ideals she espoused were feminist in nature. The traditional society in China relegated women to second class citizenry and she thought that this was the perfect time for a change. As a victim of a failed marriage and retrogressive cultural traditions such as foot binding, Jin was determined to educate the public to change the preexisting conceptions on women. She was a student in Japan but led 2000 other students to fight for the revolution in her mother country. She used speeches and colloquially written work to advance her revolutionary work. Unfortunately she was arrested for organizing an armed revolt and executed before completing her plan.
One of the striking similarities of these two sides is that they both supported the ongoing changes in the Chinese society. Both were tired of the monarchical system of governance and wanted a change that would factor in the wishes of the people. Another similarity was the acceptance of foreign ideologies. In the most pure form, the Chinese ideologies had their basis on teachings from their forefathers most notably Confucius. However, these elites believed that foreign ideals could help China acquire the much deserved change. However, the reformists and revolutionaries had several areas where their methodologies differed. This was especially on ideology. While the revolutionists wanted a complete overhaul of the system, the reformists advocated for a change that would pit the traditional system alongside modern methods. Another point of difference is means of achieving the much-desired change. The revolutionaries used violent methods while the reformists merely used advocacy to drive their change agenda.
Today, China is one of the leading nations in this globe. It has a powerful military, strong economy, and a vibrant citizenry. Despite this, the country has maintained its long age traditions as exhibited by their cultural practices and modern-day life. It is however worth mentioning that the current practices have a touch of modernity and influence of the Western civilization. This means that the ideals fought for by the elites were quite successful. The current Chinese leadership has done well to combine the ancient ideals with modern ones to drive the transformative agenda that commenced at the turn of the 19th Century.