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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

9 - The Age of Westernization (1900-1929)


Empire's End: Republican Revolution in China

Defeat at the hands of Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 irrevocably shattered China's traditional sense of self-assurance, and what remained of the premodern Chinese world order was rapidly undermined thereafter. In 1891 and 1897, the reformer Kang Youwei (1858–1927) published two controversial (and repeatedly banned) books that argued that the existing texts of the Confucian Classics had been distorted by forgeries dating from the first century, and that Confucius, far from being a conservative transmitter of ancient traditions, had actually been a reformer in his own day. Despite this attempt to rejuvenate the Sage Confucius in the modernizing guise of a reformer, such scholarship already betrayed a profound loss of faith in tradition.

In 1898, one important official, while apparently arguing conservatively for maintaining “Chinese learning for the fundamental principles,” simultaneously also acknowledged that in a time of “drastic transformation” substantial modernizing reforms were appropriate. After 1898, even this relatively moderate approach tended to be abandoned in favor of more radical modernization. The Japanese victory in 1895 had sounded an alarm, and following the Boxer disaster in 1900, even the Qing government recognized the need for rapid reform. China had been exposed as vulnerable – a once mighty empire reduced to being the “sick man of Asia” – and in need of some fairly dramatic measures to pull itself out of the past and adjust to modern world realities (see Figure 9.1). New (xin) suddenly became a highly fashionable buzzword in early twentieth-century China, beginning with the Qing Dynasty's “new policies” and “new schools” in the first decade and reaching its climax with the “new culture” of the May Fourth Movement in the second decade of the century – epitomized by the title of its most famous journal, New Youth.

In 1902, the Empress Dowager Cixi authorized an edict ordering the abolition of foot binding (a painful and disabling custom that had been widespread among Chinese women since about the Song Dynasty). Although foot binding took decades to thoroughly eradicate everywhere, the abolition of the traditional examination system in 1905 was immediately effective and dealt a fatal blow to the old examination-selected Mandarin elite. Also in 1905, a group of imperial commissioners traveled for eight months in Japan, the United States, and Europe to study models of modern constitutional government.