Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific

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Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific

In the nineteenth century, the self-strengthening movement represented a common strategy among East Asian countries facing the challenge of Western imperialism. In China, Japan, and Korea, self-strengthening programs signaled a compromise between conservatives who longed for a return to Confucian tradition and radicals who embraced wholesale westernization.

The slogan "Eastern ethics and Western science" popularized by the Japanese samurai-scholar Sakuma Shōzan (1811–1864), and the distinction between base (ti) and utility (yong) articulated by the Chinese scholar-official Zhang Zhidong (1837–1909), indicate an implicit assumption among advocates of self-strengthening that culture and technology could be compartmentalized. The goals of self-strengthening—creating institutions and procedures for handling foreign affairs and acquiring Western technology to build up the military and industrial bases of the country—would not affect the fundamental nature or character of the national culture. Indeed, the ultimate purpose of self-strengthening, its sponsors insisted, was to protect the national essence by using Western techniques.

Among the East Asian countries, Japan emerged the strongest as a result of self-strengthening. Its long history of cultural borrowing and the tradition of Dutch learning provided precedents for learning from foreigners. Continuing with this practice, the Tokugawa shogunate created the Institute for the Investigation of Barbarian Books in 1857 and sponsored study-abroad expeditions. The immediate task was to strengthen Japan's military capabilities and land fortifications, which had grown weak after two centuries of relative peace. Embodying the spirit of the self-strengthening movement, the acquisition and application of Western knowledge and methods were accompanied by moral exhortations to strictly follow Confucian ethics. As Japan's self-strengthening program accelerated and the emperor system became the basis of the new national ideology, however, Japan's modernization program shed its Confucian veneer and opened the door to sweeping changes.

In contrast, the self-strengthening movement in China did not trigger dramatic transformations; the orthodox conservatives were too entrenched in the Qing bureaucracy and stymied any reforms they felt threatened the Confucian basis of Chinese civilization. Consequently, the Chinese self-strengthening movement was limited and gradual. Beginning with the Tongzhi Restoration in 1861, the Qing court initiated a program to modernize the military and create new institutions to deal directly with the foreign powers, the most notable of which was the Zongli Yamen (Office of General Management). In later years, the self-strengthening movement broadened to include modernization programs in transportation, communications, mining, and light industry.

Less cohesive and successful in Korea and elsewhere in the Pacific, self-strengthening movements nevertheless appealed to traditionalists who recognized the urgency of adopting Western techniques if they wished to preserve their civilization. Self-strengtheners did not promote assimilation, for they consciously sought to preserve the core of the original culture; East and West were never to merge. And although they relied on foreigners for advice and direction and were labeled traitors to their culture by those resistant to any interaction with the West, self-strengtheners were not collaborators; during the self-strengthening movement the countries in East Asia retained their territorial sovereignty.

see also Anticolonialism, East Asia and the Pacific; Self-Determination, East Asia and the Pacific.


Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 1997.

Schirokauer, Conrad, and Donald N. Clark. Modern East Asia: A Brief History. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.

Tsunoda, Ryusaku, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.