Why did China find it so hard to meet the Western challenge in the 19th century?

Why did China find it so hard to meet the Western challenge in the 19th century?

Many reasons have been put forward: the Confucian ideology of the ruling class; the bureaucratic nature of Chinese government; the isolationist attitude of the Chinese, and their contempt for “barbarians” – especially for Westerners (which was very understandable, given the behaviour of Westerners in China: the British were hardly better than glorified drug dealers for much of the 19th century).

But I wonder whether a major factor was that the ruling dynasty at that time was a non-Chinese one. In accounts of 19th century Chinese history this factor is indeed cited, but usually more or less in passing. It is seldom if ever foregrounded as one of the chief causes. However, I think it may have been.

The Qing emperors were in many ways the most impressive rulers imperial China had ever had. The three emperors of the 18th century were, by any standards, a remarkable bunch. You just have to look at a map of East Asia – or indeed the entire world – in the 18th century to see that the Qing empire was a vastly imposing political edifice.

However, the Qing were not native (Han) Chinese. They were Manchus, an ethnic group closely related the Mongols, who had migrated into what is now northern China in the 15th century.

True, on taking over China they embraced Chinese culture. They immersed themselves in Confucian philosophy. They employed Chinese officials at all levels and gave China more than 100 years of good government. In the final analysis, though, they were foreigners.

What’s more, in important ways they asserted their power as conquerors. They imposed their own (“barbarian”!) hair style on Chinese men on pain of death. The Chinese deeply resented this. The Qing systematically reserved a share of the top-level posts for Manchus, who, although they only made up a tiny fraction of the total Chinese population, held half the topmost posts. Given the extraordinary level of competition for high office amongst the mandarins, this was not a trivial issue.

And then, in the 19th century, foreigners began to pose the biggest threat to China that it had ever faced. This was not just a matter of military and political conquest; this was an existential threat to the entire Chinese way of life. Foreign influence, foreign pressure, foreign aggression.

The most radical threat of course came from Westerners, but the very severity of the danger made the Chinese very conscious of the gulf which separated them from “barbarians”. And it underlined for the Chinese the fact that their own rulers were also foreigners.

The great rebellions which rocked the Qing empire in the early and middle 19th century had a strong anti-Manchu element to them. Anti-Manchu sentiment continued to grow throughout the 19th century, and in the closing years of the century and the start of the 20th century, sporadic massacres of Manchu took place.

If a society is to deal effectively with a major threat, it needs to be united and self-confident. These were clearly apparent in the Meiji period of Japan. Factionalism there certainly was, but all within the context of a national effort to modernise. All told, the foreign, Manchu, rule sapped Chinese morale. The extent of this is unquantifiable, but it was nonetheless real. In my opinion this played a serious, possibly decisively, role in the Chinese response to the West. It meant that the Chinese ruling class could not focus its attention wholeheartedly on meeting the threat. Much of its energies were turned in upon itself. That the Chinese were ruled by a foreign dynasty undermined their unity, and their ability to deal effectively with the gravest challenge they had ever faced.


By Peter Britton