"Chinese Learning for Fundamental Structure, Western Learning for Practical Use?"
: The Development of Late Nineteenth Century Chinese Steam Navy Revisited

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The defeats suffered by the Qing Empire in the two Opium Wars revealed to the Chinese how their traditional armed forces were incapable of defending the country against Western aggressors. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of Chinese elites advocated that China needed to strengthen herself by pursuing a degree of military modernisation which, in effect, meant Westernisation. Under the banner of ‘Chinese learning for fundamental structure, Western learning for practical use’, a substantial Western-­‐style steam navy was established and was considered one of the most powerful in East Asia. Yet despite this huge effort, this force invariably failed to fulfil its task of safeguarding the empire.
The central argument of this dissertation is that the failure of the Chinese steam navy was inevitable, primarily because of the Qing Empire’s ‘fundamental structure’ being incompatible with the requirements of a modern steam navy. China in the second half of the nineteenth century was characterised by autocratic Manchu rule, decentralisation of provincial authorities, self-­‐sufficient agrarian economy, and a social elite consisting of Confucian scholars. This research analyses in detail how such a ‘fundamental structure’ affected the development of the Chinese naval power in the facets of the statesmen behind the navy, the naval officer corps, the building and acquisition of ships and the way in which the naval power was used. On this basis, the dissertation draw the conclusion that a ‘fundamental structure’ such as that of the Qing Empire was not conducive to producing a powerful navy, and that the defeat of that navy was inevitable and not accidental.
This research examines the development of the Chinese steam navy against the history of the nation during the late nineteenth century, and employs existing literature on seapower for analytical guidance. The main body of the dissertation is based on published and unpublished primary sources.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London

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