The defeat by the British of the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) brought the East India Company wonderful opportunities for trade with China. In the eighteenth century China was highly prosperous and well run. Tea and luxury household items were increasingly traded for opium. The attempt by China to resist this import led to the Opium War, settled in 1842, with the opening up of China to trade concessions, unequal treaties and territorial rights for foreigners. From then on there was a crisis which posed both practical and intellectual questions. In particular, was it possible to learn enough of modern ways to resist the foreigners? Could such technical knowledge be combined with Confucian tradition (since this was the ideology of the government and the bureaucracy)? The Taiping Rebellion of the mid-century sparked by the visions of Hung Hsiu-ch’üan (Hong Xiuquan) (1813-64) posed the issue in a crude form. His new religion demanded the smashing up of traditional temples. It incorporated certain Christian ideas. It promised a new harmony when various reforms would be realized: equality for women; the use of colloquial rather than classical language; land redistribution with communes; the suppression of Confucianism – it was like the future Maoist worldview in its promises. It failed ultimately after huge suffering. One of the reasons it failed had to do with philosophy: its worldview, despite the forwardlooking nature of many of its proposed reforms, was highly mythic, somewhat crude and could not command the loyalty of the educated. Could China produce a worldview which would help it with the reconstruction that the incursion of powerful foreigners indicated was necessary? This, rather than theoretical and refined issues in technical and traditional philosophy, was what most of the debate was about over the next
hundred years and more. It began at a conscious level with the foundation of the socalled ‘Self-strengthening Movement’ by Feng Kuei-fen (Feng Guifen) (1809-74) in the 1860s: it used the slogan ‘Learn the superior barbarian techniques in order to control the barbarian’. It led to a certain piecemeal modernization: sending people abroad for training, etc. The Taipings had had a different instinct: you really need to modernize society itself, rather than graft a few new methods onto the fabric of an old-fashioned society.