The Opium War in 1839 marked the end of China’s status as an independent civilization. The Opium War introduced the power of western armies and technology that the Chinese lacked. The war resulted in foreign intervention and control of Chinese provinces and cities, but it was not until the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864), the most disastrous civil war in human history, that the Ching government and its people realized that reform was necessary. The “self-strengthening” movement, one wave of reform, aimed to achieve stronger military power while preserving the traditional way of life, and Wang T’ao was among the most famous scholars advocating such reform. By the late nineteenth century, conservative reactions swept the country, and scholars such as Chang Chih-tung believed western techniques should only be used to defend the Chinese way. This resistance to reform was held by three principles: 1) ancestral institutions should never be changed 2) successful government depended on the men not the laws 3) teachings from China are superior to those of the West. On the surface, it appears that Wang T’ao and Chang Chih-tung dramatically differed in their thoughts of how and if China should adopt western ideals. A thorough analysis of their work, however, reveals the many similarities between the two individuals. Though the two had different plans for achieving their objectives, their ultimate goals was for China to excel and become great once again.
As a scholar, Wang T’ao had visited many foreign countries including Japan and Europe, and by the time he became a journalist, he had already established many contacts with the outside world. Having such a background, Wang T’ao naturally believed that although China should still follow the “Way of sages”, she must adopt the Western methods of defense and administration and renovate much of Chinese society. In his published article, On Reform his views are expressed. Wang T’ao believes that when China adopts the western methods it will surpass the West, “a sailboat differs in speed from a steamship; though both are vehicles.” He does not ask the Chinese to invent new methods but only to take advantage of their resources, “When new methods do not exist, people will not think of changes; but when there are new instruments, to copy them is possible.” Although the West may be superior in terms of techniques and technology; they bicker and fight among themselves and “indulge in insults”. The Chinese should not follow their way of life but only use their instruments. The Way of Confucius should be followed and unchanged by all men for they must follow the three bonds (subject to master and ruler, son to father, wife to husband) and the four Cardinal virtues (decorum, righteousness, integrity, and sense of shame). Wang T’ao believes reform within the government and Chinese way of life is also necessary for China to become a nation on a par with the Western nations. Among some of these reforms include: the abolishment of the examination essays as a way to select civil servants, change the currently inefficient training of the army and naval troops, change the empty show of schools, and have the laws and regulation set by the government be fair and just to all individuals. The most important reform, however, is that the government should have the power to change customs so that people could gradually be accustomed to their new environment. It is the able people that can help China move forward, “the weapons we use is in battle must be effective, but the handling of effective weapons depends upon people.” If China could properly govern its people and effectively train its soldiers, then the nation can progress.
However Wang T’ao’s ideals were not shared by everyone. Many conservative reformers were content with the current Chinese system and felt change was unnecessary. Among one of those scholars was Chang Chih-tung, a leading figure during the end of the Manchus rule. Although Chang Chih-tung was a moderate and avoided radical measures, he was a firm supporter of neo-Confucianism ethics. He sought to preserve Confucian traditions but also believed western administration was as essential as western technology. On the surface, it seems that Wang T’ao and Chang Chih-tung each have radically different solutions for the incorporation of western influences on Chinese society, but if we look thoroughly into their works, we realize there are also many similar underlying principles between the two figures.
In Exhortation to Learn by Chang Chih-tung, he emphasized the importance of maintaining the state, preserving the doctrine of Confucius, and protecting the Chinese race. Similar to the ideals of Wang T’ao, Chang Chih-tung is certain that the Confucian way make sages which represents the highest ideal of human relationships. Scholars should know the Classics and be familiar with the literary collections written by Chinese scholars because the Chinese have a superior culture. Students should read the Four Books and the Five Classics but also know about the western administration and technology because “the old learning is to be the substance and the new learning is to be for application”. The three bonds and four principles are still to be upheld by the people. Chang Chih-tung agrees with Wang Tao’ in that it is necessary to have able ministers in government and generals for the armed forces. It is also imperative to establish new schools in which there should be western influences while retaining knowledge of Chinese traditions and history. While the two reformers have similar views, we must not be fooled their thinking is the identical. There are many differences between the two philosophers. Wang T’ao believes the law should treat everyone with fairness while Chang Chih-tung interprets the Confucian way strictly without people’s rights or women’s rights. He believes only scholars could become officials because others are unaware of the workings of the state. The right to be ones own master is altogether foolish as well, since everyone must obey the laws. Ideas of a Parliament run government did not apppeal to him because not everyone knows enough to be able to have power in the state and it would only be harmful. Despite Chang Chih-tung’s acknowledgement of the need for western influences, we can see the importance he places upon the Chinese traditions as a foundation for the future.
Wang T’ao and Chang Chih-tung believe it is necessary for China to learn and mimic some of the ideals and actions of the western society. Both believe western influences should serve for purpose while the Confucian Way should be the governing principle of Chinese society. Their thoughts on reform have both similarities and differences. They both believe in the bonds and virtues of the Way and schools need to be reformed to promote western learning. However, Wang T’ao believes in people’s rights and the need for a strong government and military. Chang Chih-tung on the other hand emphasizes the importance of following traditions and order. According to these two philosophers, some western influence is obviously needed and some traditions need to be kept but to what extent is the debate among not only these two but many other scholars as well.