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The limits of reformism: Wei Yüan's Reaction to Western Intrusion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

Peter M. Mitchell
York University, Ontario, Canada


Three other articles in this issue of Modern Asian Studies endeavour to trace conceptual changes in the years surrounding the Opium War, and particularly those arising out of works appearing in Chinese on world geography and related Western knowledge. One such work, the Hai-kuo t'u-chih (Illustrated Gazetteer of Maritime Nations), has received mixed reviews since its original publication in 1844. Although read in its various editions by many late Ch'ing modernizers, it provoked sharp criticism on its suggested methods of handling foreign affairs and the outdatedness of its materials. Feng Kuei-fen (1809–74), for example, maintained that ‘only one sentence of Wei Yuan is correct: Learn the strong techniques of the barbarians in order to control them.’ Despite such criticism—generally less totally condemnatory than Feng's—this work not only influenced early modernizers in China but also proved popular among Japanese of the Bakumatsu period, illustrative of its importance in studies on initial East Asian reaction to Western in-trusion. The previous paper dealt with the Hai-kuo t'u-chih's perception of European imperialist expansion in South and South-east Asia. This paper will briefly analyze its significance in a different vein, namely through a more intensive examination of its place in the career and thought of its compiler, Wei Yüan (1794-1857). The acknowledgement that he was less typical than illustrative of his times must accompany the choice of Wei Yüan as a subject for study. A number of the scholargentry minority, he belonged to that even smaller group which rose above mediocrity by serious dedication to the political-intellectual roles traditionally accorded that class. He was specifically untypical in his combination of radical views on Confucian orthodoxy, intense concern for domestic administrative problems and finally relatively enlightened perspectives on the new Western presence in China. Though untypical, this very combination of unique qualities suggests Wei's significance. Tracing his relationship to domestic intellectual and political developments will provide a convenient approach to analyzing, again through this one individual example, the actual interplay between Western intrusion and conceptual change in mid-nineteenth-century China.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1972

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This paper, together with those by Suzanne W. Barnett, Jane Kate Leonard and Fred W. Drake, was originally presented at a symposium ‘Western Intrusion and Conceptual Change in Mid-Nineteenth Century China’ held under the auspices of the Association for Asian Studies in Washington, D.C. in March 1971. The author wishes to acknowledge the help and advice of Professor K. C. Liu, University of California, Davis, who was the commentator on the papers on that occasion.

1 The Hai-kuo t'u-chih appeared in three editions during Wei Yüan's lifetime: 50 chüan in 1844, 60 chüan in 1847 and 100 chüan in 1852. The latter version was reproduced with an 1876 preface by Tso Tsung-t'ang, followed by a further reprint in 1895 with an additional 25 chüan of translated technical writings by Young J. Allen and John Fryer. An ‘Errata and Supplements’ version in 100 chüan by Sun Hao appeared in Shanghai in 1902. The 1847 edition was reproduced in 1967 by Ch'eng-wen Publishers, Taiwan. All references here refer to the 1876 edition, hereafter referred to as HKTC.

2 Teng, S. Y. and Fairbank, J. K., ed., China's Response to the West (Harvard, 1961), p. 53.Google Scholar For an excellent short summary of reactions to this work ranging from contemporaries to late Ch'ing yang-wu advocates, see Chia-chien, Wang,, Wei Yüan tui hsi-faüg ti jen-shih chi ch'i hai-fang ssu-hsiang (Wei Yüan's knowledge of the West and his ideas on Maritime Defense), (Taipei: Taiwan University, 1964), pp. 153–66. An interesting contemporary Western reaction appears in the Chinese Repository, 16 (1847), pp. 417–24.Google Scholar

3 On the Hai-kuo t'u-chih's influence in Bakumatsu Japan, see Toshiaki, Ōkubo and Ayusawa, Shintarō, ed., Sakoku jidai Nihonjin no kaigai chishiki, (Japanese knowledge of the world during the period of seclusion), (Tokyo, 1953), pp. 137–53;Google ScholarChia-chien, Wang, ‘Hai-kuo t'u chih tui-yu Jih-pen ti yin-hsiang’ (The influence of the Hai-kuo t'u-chih on Japan), Ta-lu tsa-chih (Mainland Magazine), 32.8 (04 1966), pp. 27;Google ScholarTerry, Charles S., ‘Sakuma Shōzan and his Seiken-roku’ (unpublished M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1951), pp. 6373.Google Scholar

4 In English, the only extended studies of Wei's career and thought are the author's unpublished thesis, ‘Wei Yüan (1794–1857) and the early modernization movement in China and Japan’ (Indiana University, 1970),Google Scholar and Leonard's, Jane K. unpublished thesis, ‘Wei Yüan and the Hai-kuo t'u-chih: a geopolitical analysis of Western expansion in maritime Asia’ (Cornell University, 1971). In Chinese, two modern studies by Wang Chia-chien are particularly useful—the study mentioned above (fn. 2) and Wei Yüan nien p'u (Wei Yüan, a chronological biography), Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1967. Besides numerous biographies in contemporary local gazetteers, a particularly useful sketch of Wei Yüan's life by his son, Wei Ch'i is entitled Shao-yang Wei fu-chün shih-lüeh (A short account of the life of my father, Wei (Yüan) of Shao-yang), 1 chüan, n.p., n.d.Google Scholar

5 Chiang, Hao, ‘Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and intellectual changes in the late nineteenth century’, Journal of Asian Studies, 29 (1969), p. 27.Google Scholar

6 Ku-wei t'ang nei-wai chi (Collected Works of the Ku-wei studio), 10 chüan (Huai-nan shu-chu, 1878; reprint Taipei: Wen-hai Publ., 1965), p. 83.Google Scholar This, the collected prose works of Wei Yüan, forms the basis of this discussion of his thought, hereafter referred to as KWTNWC. Recent studies also utilized are Ssu-ho, Ch'iWei Yüan yü wan-Ch'ing hsüeh-fang(Wei Yüan and late Ch'ing scholarship), Yen-ching hsüeh-pao (Yenching Journal of Social Studies), 39 (12, 1950), pp. 177226;Google ScholarFeng, Yu-lan(Wei Yüan ti ssu-hsiang) (Wei Yüan's thought), in chung-kuo che-hsüeh shih lun-wen ch'u-chi (Preliminary Collection of articles on the history of Chinese philosophy), (Shanghai: Jen-min ch'u-p'an she, 1962), pp. 170–85;Google ScholarYu-lan, Fung ‘Wei Yüan, shih-chiu shih-chi chung-ch'i ti Chung-kuo hsien-chin ssu-hsiang chia’, (Wei Yüan, a prominent Chinese thinker of the mid-nineteenth century), in Lieh, Taoed., Ya-p'ien chan-cheng shih-lun chuan-chi (Special collection of historical articles on the Opium War), (Peking: San-tien, 1958), pp. 325–32;Google ScholarShinji, Satō, ‘I Gen no gakumon to shisō(Wei Yüan's scholarship and thought), Chūgoku kolen kenkyu (Journal of Chinese Classical Studies), 12 (1964), 2440;Google ScholarTse, WuWei Yüan ti pien-i ssu-hsiang ho li-shth chin-hua kuan-tien’, (The idea of change and the view of historical evolution in the thought of Wei Yüan), Li-shih yen-chiu (Historical Studies), 9·5 (1962), pp. 3359;Google ScholarYing-kuo, Yang‘Wei Yüan ssuhsiang ch'u-t'an’ (Preliminary investigation into the thought of Wei Yüan), in Chung-kuo che-hsüeh shih lun-wen erh-chi (Second Collection of articles on the history of Chinese philosophy), (Peking: Chung-hua Publ., 1965), pp. 121.Google Scholar

7 KWTNWC, 104, 145, 167.

8 KWTNWC, 45 ff. See also Y. C. Wang, ‘Wei Yüan and the Illustrated Gazetteer of the Maritime Countries’, mimeographed paper for private circulation, pp. 5–6

9 KWTNWC, 81w–2.

10 KWTNWC, 52–3.

11 KWTNWC, 111.

12 KWTNWC, 106–7.

13 KWTNWC, 88. It is this attitude towards change springing from the beneficial presence of conflict or opposition which, despite Wei's landowner—official class status and resultant remnants of ‘subjective idealism’ in his thought, has interested some contemporary Chinese scholars who see in these concepts an elementary theory of contradictions. See Ying-kuo, Yang, ‘Wei Yüan ssu-hsiang’, pp. 45; Wu Tse, ‘Wei Yüan ti pien-issu-hsiang’, p. 33; Fung Yu-lan, ‘Wei Yüan ti ssu-hsiang’, p. 181.Google Scholar

14 KWTNWC, 109.

15 KWTNWC, 125.

16 This portion of Wei's thought was most fully developed in his Lao-tzu pen-i (The basic meaning of Lao Tzu) reprint Taipei: World Book Store, 1963, supplemented by reflections in his ‘Mo-ku’ (Hidden Corners),Google Scholar in KWTNWC, 1–183). The discussion here is based particularly on Wu Tse, ‘Wei Yüan ti pien-i ssu-hsiang’, pp. 3450.Google Scholar

17 Chang, Hao, xx, ‘Liang Ch'i-ch'ao’, p. 25.Google Scholar

18 Chen, Shen Hen-yin, ‘Tseng Kuo-fan in Peking, 1840–1852: his ideas on state-craft and reform’, Journal of Asian Studies, 27 (1967), pp. 67–8.Google Scholar

19 Nivison, David S., The Life and Thought of Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng (1738–1801) (Stanford, 1966), p. 268.Google Scholar

20 Huang-ch'ao ching-shih wen-pien (Collected essays on statecraft under the reigning dynasty), reprnt in 3 vols., Taipei: Kuo-feng, 1963, pien-li .Google Scholar The preface to this compendium (hereafter referred to as HCCSWP) is also included in the KWTNWC, 431–434, and reproduced in various collections of historical material, most notably of late in the Chung-kuo li-tai che-hsüeh wen-hsüan (Collection of Chinese philosophy through the ages), Vol. 7, part 1,Google ScholarCh'ing-tai chin-tai pien (The Ching and modern periods). (Peking: Chunghua, 1963), pp. 202–7Google Scholar and the Chung-kuo che-hsüeh shih tzu-liao hsüan-chi—chin-tai chih pu (Selections of materials on the history of Chinese philosophy—the modem period), (Peking: Chunghua, pp. 23–4, both with extensive comments and notes.Google Scholar

21 HCCSWP, 48.60–62b; KWTNWC, 570–5, 683–97.Google Scholar

22 Hinton, H. C., The Grain Tribute System of China (1845–1911), (Harvard, 1956), p. 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 HCCSWP, 48.76–77. This short account, Chiang-su hai-yün ch'üan-an (Complete plan of the Kiangsu sea transport project), was published in late 1826 Wei Yüan, listed as one of several collators, wrote a second preface in Ch'ang-ling's, Ho name (HCCSWP, 48.70–71; KWTNWC, 737–41) a short historical narrative entitled ‘Tao-kuang ping-hsü hai-yün chi’ (Account of the sea transport in Tao-kuang 6) under the name of Li Ching-i, a prefectural magistrate of Sungchiang active in the Shanghai headquarters of the sea transport experiment (HCCSWP 48.72–75b; KWTNWC, 741–50) and also the work's colophon under the name of his close friend, Ch'en Luan, prefectural magistrate of Soochow. Li and Ch'en were listed as joint editors of the compendium, although perhaps suggested by Wei's writing under their names, it has been asserted that Wei himself was probably the actual compiler of the whole account (Wang Chia-chien, Nien-p'u, 32.)Google Scholar

24 HCCSWP, 48.75–75b; KWTNWC, 749–50.

25 KWTNWC, 697–710.

26 KWTNWC, 757–65; Chia-chien, Wang, Nien-p'u, p. 38.Google Scholar

27 KWTNWC, 765–78.

28 Morse, H. B., The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (3 volumes, London, 19101918; reprint, Taipei, 1964), i.392–4 Hinton, Grain Tribute, pp. 1718, 2324.Google Scholar

29 See Hinton, , Grain Tribute. On the canal system so intricately tied up with the tribute system's problemsGoogle Scholar, see especially Ch'ang-tu, Hu, ‘The Yellow River Administration in the Ch'ing dynasty’, Far Eastern Quarterly, 14 (1954/1955), pp. 505–13.Google Scholar

30 KWTNWC, 621–59, 674–81.

31 KWTNWC, 587–619.

32 See Hummel, A. W., ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (Washington, 19431944; reprint Taipei: Literature House, 1964), p. 949; Hinton, Grain Tribute, p. 20. It was Yüan Chia-san who in 1854 memorialized recommending Wei's reinstatement as magistrate for Kao-yu on the basis of Wei's contributions to Taiping suppression. The request was granted but refused by Wei who had retired more and more into scholarly and particularly Buddhist studies by that time. There is no record of Wei's comment on being proven so prophetically accurate.Google Scholar

33 Tomi, Saeki, Shinchō ensei no kenkyū (Studies on the salt administration of the Ch'ing dynasty), (Kyoto: Tōyöshi Kenkyū Kai, 1956), pp. 281–5, 324–5Google Scholar.On the salt administration, see also Ping-ti, Ho, ‘The Salt Merchants of Yang-chow: a study of commercial capitalism in eighteenth century China’, Harvard Journal of Asian Studies, 17 (1950), pp. 130–68.Google Scholar

34 The best study of these particular reforms is Metzger, A. Thomas, ‘T'ao Chu's reform of the Huaipei Salt Monopoly (1831–33)’, Harvard University, Papers on China, 16 (1962), pp. 139.Google Scholar

35 Wei's key essay on this subject was entitled Ch'ou-ch'a pien (On a policy for the salt administration), included in KWTNWC, 711–13. He apparently also wrote a one chüan work entitled the Huai-nan ching-pen ti-ssu i (A proposal to oppose smuggling in Huai-nan by lightening capital requirements), the preface only being preserved in the Pao-ch'ing fu-chih (Gazetteer of Paoch'ing fu) and reproduced in Chia-chien, Wang, Nien-p'u, pp. 58–9. Wei also penned a short historical account of the Huai-pei reforms which was later incorporated in the Huai-pei p'iao-yen chih-lüehGoogle Scholar (Gazetteer of the Huai-pei salt ticket system), prefaces 1840 and 1845, reprint 1870, compiled by T'ung Lien Wei, along with Hsü Hsi-lan, edited the biographical section of the work, and also he wrote the preface in , T'ung's name. Liang-Huai yen-fa chih (Gazetteer of salt methods in the Liang-Huai region), (Yangchou, 1880), 138. 11b12; KWTNWC, 728–32; Wang Chia-chien, Nien-p'u, 74. On Pao Shih-ch'en's suggestions, see HCCSWP, 49.11–14.Google Scholar

36 Liang-Huai yen-fa chih, 138.6b.

37 KWTNWC, 732–7.

38 Chia-chien, Wang, Nien-p'u, 124.Google Scholar

39 Ch'i, Wei, Shao-yang Wei fu-chün, 12b–13.Google Scholar

40 Hsiang-hsiang, Wu‘Wei Yüan yü Hai-kuo t'u-chih’ (Wei Yüan and the Hai-kuo t'u-chih), in his Wan-Ch'ing kung-t'ing yü jen-wu (The late Ch'ing court and personalities), (Taipei: Wen-hsing, 1965), p. 136.Google Scholar

41 Ying-ko-li hsiao-chi, (A Short Account of England), HKTC, 53.2126;Google Scholaralso in Hsiao-fang-hu chai yü-ti ts'ung-ch'ao, tsai-pu pien (Second Supplement of the Collection of Geographical Works in the Hsiao-fang-hu Studio), ed. Wang, Hsi-ch'i (Shanghai: 1897:Google Scholar reprint Taipei: Kuang-wen Book Co., 1964), 11th folio. The British officer was Captain Anstruther of the Madras Artillery, captured at Tinghai in mid-September, 1840, and imprisoned at Ningpo along with MrsNoble, Anne, Lieutenant Douglas and other survivors of the foundered brig Kite, until their release in late February, 1841.Google Scholar

42 Yang Fang, a military strategist of some note whose literary interests prompted the befriending of young scholars, had engaged Wei Yüan as children's tutor as early as 1822. Their lifelong friendship started then in mutual visits to local historical sites and discussions of problems in the military security of the northwest border regions. After Lin Tse-hsü was replaced and then denounced by Ch'i-shan and the latter shortly thereafter ordered to the capital in chains for trial, Yang Fang participated in the triumvirate of generals replacing the latter in early 1841. In June, he pleaded ill health to escape the impossibility of command where imperial orders to exterminate the barbarian rebels and local irate peasants stirred up by xenophobic gentry clashed with British military superiority enabling them twice to surround Canton and force its ransom.

43 Ku-wei t'ang shih-chi (Collection of poems from the Ku-wei Studio), 10 chüan (m.p., 1882), 8.13–13b.Google Scholar Unfortunately Lin's diary, the Hsin-chi lü (Faithful Record), reproduced in Ch'i, Ssu-ho et al. , ed., Ya-p'ien chan-cheng (The Opium War), 6 vols. (Shanghai: Shen-chou Kuo-kuang she, 1955), 2.229364, contains a gap between 17 July 1841 and 5 August 1842, covering the period of this meeting.Google Scholar

44 The final version of the Tao-kuang yang-sou cheng-fu chi was incorporated in the Huang-ch'ao ching-shih wen-hsü-pien (Continuation of the HCCSWP), ed. Ko, Shih-chün (Shanghai, 1888: 2 vol.Google Scholar reprint Taipei: Kuo-feng, 1964), 78.1–10, and in later editions of the Sheng-wu chi (hereafter referred to as SWC), including the World Book Co. reprint (Taipei, 1962) used for all references here. Both the final version and an earlier version are reproduced in Ssu-ho, Ch'i et al. , Ya-p'ien chan-cheng (6.10567).Google ScholarOn Wei's authorship of this account and related derivative works, see Ssu-yü, Teng, Chang Hsi and the Treaty of Nanking, 1842 (Chicago, 1944), pp. 94, 132–4Google Scholar and Ssu-ho, Ch'i, Ya-p'ien chan-cheng, 6.509.Google Scholar A recent useful annotated version of this historical account is Wei-yüan, YaoYa-p'ien chan-cheng shih-k'ao (Examination of the facts on the Opium War), Shanghai: Kuo-kuang Publ., 1955.Google Scholar

45 Hsiang-hsiang, Wu, Wei Yüan, p. 136.Google Scholar

46 HKTC, 1852 preface, 5b–6. On the Hai-kuo t'u-chih, besides the references in above (fn. 6)Google Scholar, see also Kazuiye, Inoue, ‘Kaibō ronsha to shite I Mokushin(Wei Mo-shen (Yüan) as a proponent of maritime defence), Shien (Journal of History), 8 (1937), pp. 115–34;Google ScholarYazuo, Kitayama, ‘Kaikoku zushi to sono jidai(The Hai-kuo t'u-chin and its age), Osaka gakugei daigaku kyiö ((jimbun kagaku) (Bulletin of the Osaka University of Liberal Arts (Social Sciences), 3 (1954), pp. 96103;Google ScholarHiromu, Momose, ‘Shimmatsu no sengakusha Shoyo no I Gen (Wei Yüan, leading scholar of the late Ch'ing period), Tekishi kōron, (Historical Review), 20 (06, 1934), 8898; Wu Tse and Huang Li-yung , ‘Wei Yüan Hai-kuo t'u-chih yen-chiu—Wei Yüan shih-hsüeh yen-chiu chili erh’ (Study of Wei Yüan's Hai-kuo t'u-chih:Google Scholarsecond study on Yüan's, Wei historiography), Li-shih yen-chiu (Historical Studies), 10.4 (1963), pp. 117–40.Google Scholar

47 KWTNWC, 163.

48 KWTNWC, 164.

49 SWC, 351.

50 KWTNWC, 515.

51 SWC, 351.

52 SWC, 396 ff. The most extended discussion of Wei's economic ideas can be found in Ying-kuo, Yang, Wei Yüan ssu-hsiang, pp. 16–20.Google Scholar

53 For the similarity of these views with those of Lin Tse-hsü and others of the ching-shih persuasionGoogle Scholar see Hsin-pao, Chang, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War (Harvard, 1964), pp. 92–8.Google Scholar

54 SWC, 405–7.

55 SWC, 396–405.

56 HKTC, 52.26–28b.

57 HKTC, 2.12.

58 HKTC, 2.9b–10.

59 HKTC, 1.1b; 2.20–22b.

60 HKTC, 2.7–7b, 10–10b, 14b–15b.

61 HKTC, 74.1–10 ff.

62 Or as Wei put it, ‘Those who in ancient times kept off the barbarians were as conversant with the enemy's conditions as with their own mates, and as conversant with the enemy's nature as if they slept and ate together.’ (HKTC, preface, 1–1b).

63 HKTC, preface, 2.

64 HKTC, 37, preface, 2a.

65 SWC, 358–9.

66 HKTC, 1852 preface, 5b–6.Google Scholar

67 HKTC, 3, preface, 1–3.

68 HKTC, 76.19–20. One contrast between the final and earlier versions of the Tao-kuang yang-sou cheng-fu chi mentioned above, is just such substitution of ‘foreign’ or ‘enemy’ in place of the earlier use of ‘barbarian.’.Google Scholar

69 Wei's ideas on the required new response appeared in outline in the ‘Tao-kuang yang-sou cheng-fu chi’, were expanded upon the Sheng-wu chi (esp. 336–43), and besides mentions throughout the text, reached most concentrated form in the four essays on ‘Maritime Defense Policy’ constituting the first two chüan of the Hai-kuo t'u-chih. The best outline available is Chia'-chien's, WangWei Yüan tui-hsi-fang ti ien-shih.Google Scholar

70 HKTC, 1.25a–25b.

71 HKTC, 2. 4b–5.

72 Ssu-ho, Ch'i, Ya-pien chan-cheng, 6.151.Google Scholar

73 KWTNWC, 458–65.

74 HKTC, 74.5b–6.