The Right Revolution

Qing officials were even more misguided in their “revolutionary” programs. They never understood that a revolution was required to stop China’s decline. Zeng Guofan was a proponent of restoration. In his opinion, China was weakening because it was getting away from ancient Confucian principles. Zeng wanted to strengthen the examination and bureaucracy and open Confucian education to more people (Bohr, Restoration). Restoration was a completely impractical idea. The Confucian ideas and self-sufficient “Middle Kingdom” Zeng promoted were in direct conflict with the Western ideas whose adoption was necessary for China’s survival. Zeng tried to treat the problem by further institutionalizing it. Restoration was not even a revolution, much less the right revolution.

After the failure of restorative programs, several Chinese scholars urged reform. K’ang Yu-wei wrote the Study of Confucius’ Reforms to convince Chinese officials that Confucius was not a reactionary as they had assumed. He claimed that making Confucius a conservative figure ignored his reforms. K’ang urged Chinese leaders to modernize and adapt to fit Western models. We will never know what would have happened had K’ang’s programs been implemented. Just as the Guangxu Emperor began to reform China, Empress Dowager launched a coup and returned to the ways that had led to China’s decline in the first place. However, the Chinese were getting closer. Reformers were willing to abandon Confucianism and embrace Western modernization. The reformers promoted a skillful combination of Chinese and Western ideas. They promoted universal education, which would reduce the gap between science and superstition in Chinese culture. Cooks and trackers would be more likely to envision great economic projects than sacrifice chickens to a river-guarding god, as in A Single Pebble (Hershey, 61). The problem was that reform tore out the rotten foundation of Confucianism without replacing it with anything else. Without Confucianism, what were the people to rally around?

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