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Was there really widespread popular opposition to modernization efforts in China?(r/paradoxplaza)
Absolutely. There are a couple of things going on. The first thing I’d like to link about this is the letter sent back to the UK in 1793 when they tried to set up trading relations. My favorite bit is
>Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.
The thing is.. at the time, the Emperor wasn’t just being a douche. He was absolutely right. China already had muskets as good as 1790s muskets. China had mass silk production, which was way nicer than the mass linen production that was kicking into gear in Europe. They already had porcelain that was much nicer than European ceramics. So on and so forth.
The only reason the opium trade kicks off is because there is literally nothing the British traders can bring that the Chinese want. Before the British start bringing it, they’re literally just paying for all of the things I listed above (that are in very high demand in Europe) with straight silver.
Here’s where the trouble starts. The Qing dynasty’s taxes and treasury were all based on silver. However, silver was suddenly being pumped into the economy at very high rates. This caused pretty severe inflation–since there were more taels of silver around, each one was worth less as prices of goods and services rose, and the flat tax assessments that had been established centuries ago suddenly generated much less real income for the state. The Qing were too slow to respond to this and when they eventually tried to raise taxes to compensate, it caused widespread unrest. This was happening at the same time as a population explosion. The reasons for it are somewhat undecided, but which may have been in part influenced by the West in the form of the humble sweet potato, which had arrived in the early 1700s and (similar to regular potatoes in Europe) unlocked the farming of tons of semi-arable land and drastically increased available calories.
As a result, the Qing dynasty was already facing huge issues. It was at this point that Europe, for the first time in world history, began to surpass China’s sphere of influence in production, population, and practical military power. (This is something I think a lot of people forget.. they just assume western hegemony and technological superiority is an eternal given, when it was a very recent development). The Opium war happens and China just gets clowned. This makes the people even more pissed than they were at the tax increases, the vastly increased number of people competing for static government jobs and only suppressed by a static army.
Now the Qing is in a super precarious position. Remember, the leaders aren’t actually ethnic Han Chinese–they’re Manchus whose ancestors had claimed the throne 150 years previous, when the Ming government was experiencing its own internal strife and thought they could invite the Manchus in to work for them (this backfired). As a result, nativist sentiment had already been simmering under the surface, especially among the landed, educated gentry that formed the backbone of the Chinese government’s administration. Reform efforts by the Qing were seen as foreign meddling, and the educated landowners would often stir up the peasants to resist all foreign ideas as more Qing-invented nonsense created to destroy the greatest culture on earth. Telegraph lines were cut, railway lines would be sabotaged. People echoed what has always been conservative sentiment.. “Why can’t it just be like it was before?” Most people in China had no real conception of how or why Westernizing was practical or desirable and merely saw it as an assault on their way of life.
The Qing (specifically, the Dowager Empress; there were factions that wanted to go full-Western, including her son who was technically supposed to be in charge, but she and the Eunuchs shut that down pretty hard) essentially had to play both sides against the middle; the only way to survive themselves was to redirect the nativist anger against the REAL foreigners from the West, rather than the foreigners in the palace. Unfortunately, this makes it a lot harder to implement reforms or spread technology that is visibly from the people you’re saying are ruining the country. In the end, the Qing failed to play either side; they were completely dominated by the West and their practical rule of the countryside broke down until it was entirely in the hands of warlords, setting the stage for a period of disunity and unrest that wouldn’t be resolved until Mao wins the civil war nearly a century later.
So, uh, yes.
For sources: Hsu; Rise of Modern China