Feng Kuei-fen (1809-1874) was a Chinese scholar, teacher, and official and one of the leading theorists of reform during the second half of the 19th century.
In the 1860s the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912), which had appeared to be toppling in the preceding decade, took on new life. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was finally crushed, and the Arrow War (1856-1860) with Britain and France was concluded. Of the new leaders who rallied in support of the dynasty, Feng Kuei-fen was one of the less well known but most influential.
Feng Kuei-fen was a native of Soochow. He passed the provincial examinations in 1832, obtained the chin-shih degree (the highest academic degree) with honors in 1840, and was made a compiler of the Hanlin Academy (the most prestigious academic body in China). His 7-year service in this organization gave him an intimate knowledge of the internal workings of the government, and his essays on waterways, the salt tax, and military organization showed a grasp of current affairs and economics which resulted in his being "recommended" to the Emperor in 1850 as an able official. Feng's promising official career was interrupted in the same year, when he returned home to Soochow for the required 3 years of mourning for his father.
After the Taiping rebels had occupied Nanking in 1853, Feng organized a local volunteer force to defend Soochow against the rebels. His military service was rewarded by raising him to the fifth rank (there were 10 official ranks). In 1856 he returned to government service but resigned in 1859 and spent the remainder of his life as a director of academies in Shanghai and Soochow.
In 1860, when the Taiping rebels attacked Soochow, Feng took refuge in Shanghai. It was while in Shanghai, where he had a chance to see at firsthand the military strength of the West, that Feng began to think in terms of what he called tzu-ch'iang (self-strengthening)—a term that was to typify Chinese efforts at reform up to 1895. He was probably the first to use this term in reference to borrowing the superior military techniques of the West, while retaining Chinese traditional culture, in order to build up China so that it could resist the West.
The essence of Feng's ideas can be found in a collection of about 50 of his essays which were compiled in 1861 under the title Chiao-pin-lu k'ang-i (Personal Protests from the Study of Chiao-pin).
These essays are unique in that they show a genuine realistic concern for true learning in an age when most Chinese were willfully and abysmally ignorant of the West. Feng advocated the establishment of a school for translators who could provide Chinese, through translations of Western books, with an accurate picture of the West, and a change in the sacrosanct examination requirements to include Western science and mathematics. He believed that the power of the West was based on mathematics and science. In foreign affairs he stressed the need to deal honestly and fairly with the foreigners instead of treating them with distrust and suspicion.
Even though Feng admitted that China had much to learn from the foreigners, he felt that it could be done within a Chinese context and that Chinese civilization was innately superior to that of the West. He was an accomplished Confucian scholar and thoroughly believed in the efficacy of Chinese culture. He was austere and exacting in his behavior and shunned even the most simple enjoyments. Yet, he had a rare independence of mind and a desire for truth that made it possible for him to recognize worth wherever he found it. In his attempt to blend what he considered to be the best of both worlds, Feng, nevertheless, inadvertently contributed to the further undermining of Chinese civilization. The ships and guns of the West were a product of its essence, and if China was to effectively utilize the one, it would have to accept the other.
Feng's influence upon the leaders of China began in 1861, when he wrote a letter to Tseng Kuo-fan on behalf of the Soochow refugees in Shanghai, explaining the strategic importance of the Soochow area. This letter resulted in the creation of Li Hung-chang's Huai army, which was sent to Shanghai. In 1862 Li Hung-chang, a leader of the "self-strengthening" movement, had Feng attached to his staff, and from then until 1865 he served Li as an independent adviser, leaving an indelible imprint on Li's future thinking. It was at Feng's suggestion that Li undertook the rehabilitation of the Soochow area in 1865 and that Li established a school for the translation of foreign mathematical and scientific texts in 1863. Many of Li's proposals for reform were actually written, or at least influenced, by Feng Kuei-fen. In 1870 Li Hung-chang acknowledged his great debt to Feng in a memorial to the throne, which resulted in Feng's being raised to the honorary position of the third rank in 1871. In 1898, 24 years after Feng's death, the Kuang-hsü emperor ordered 1,000 copies of Feng's collected essays printed to be read and discussed in all government offices.
The only complete biography of Feng in English appears in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912 (2 vols., 1943-1944). Ssuyü Teng and John K. Fairbank, China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923 (1954), devotes several pages to Feng, as does William Theodore de Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (1964). Mary C. Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T'ung-chih Restoration, 1862-1874 (1957; new ed. 1966), discusses many of Feng's ideas and proposals. □