Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

6
REFORM AND REVOLUTION

The Reform Movement of 1898

Defeat by Japan in 1894-5 was the greatest shock that the Chinese had suffered since the Opium War. The victor was not a great Western power, but a small Asian country. The defeated Chinese forces were as modern as those of the enemy. The old excuses would not work this time. The conservatives were at last put on the defensive. These were the circumstances in which the Hundred Days of Reform commenced, led by young graduates. They had gained the ear of the young Emperor Zai Tian, who had succeeded to the throne as a minor in 1875 with the reign title Guang Xu. One should not see them, a group of a dozen young men, as a tiny clique, isolated and helpless before universal opposition. They looked forward to considerable support, and their hopes of success were not entirely unfounded.

A generation had passed since the language school, the Tong Wen Guan, had begun after 1861 to publish the first translations of Western books. The work of translation had been taken up by others. From technology, mathematics, and international law the translators had passed on to the classical works of European culture and politics, until by the 1890s most of the main ideas of the West were available in Chinese or in Japanese. The relevance of these ideas was argued daily in new, Western-style newspapers in Chinese.

Protestant missionaries played an indispensable role in the introduction of Western ideas. The publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge were influential, while at the same time they fostered a readership for the new Chinese press. The first of these newspapers were founded by missionaries and their associates, and those that followed by independent and non-Christian Chinese. There was also a very rapid development in the publication of new journals, most of which supported reform. Far too numerous to be dealt with by the official censorship, they were not confined to the Treaty Ports, but were also produced in most of the provincial capitals. Many were closely related to new 'study societies' -- disguised political associations -- which were also a remarkable feature of this time. Of the influential Western books, one of the most important was MacKenzie The Nineteenth Century: a History, an uncompromising glorification of the European idea of progress. This was a notion that challenged traditional Chinese concepts of a static society in which the maintenance of stability was

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