Reform 1901-11

Seeking to strengthen China following the humiliation imposed by the Boxer Protocol, Empress Cixi embarked on a program of government reform that, while somewhat effective, also gave rise to forces and groups which would contribute to the overthrow of the Qing in 1911.


  • Modern schools with a mix of Western and Confucian learning were opened – number of pupils rose to 2.9 million by 1911, including 141,000 girl students
  • Overseas study was encouraged
  • The traditional Confucian examination system was phased out and abandoned by 1905

These measures gave rise to an educated middle class which was able to question traditional the traditional Confucian values on which the authority of the Qing dynasty was based.


  • Bureaucrats were to be tested on current affairs in their examinations
  • Ministries of Education, Police, Military Training and Commerce created

Under the pressure of reformist and modernising sections of the gentry, steps were made to begin China’s transformation into a constitutional monarchy – the regime’s main reformer Zhag Zhidon, however, decried talk of democracy, saying most Chinese were too ‘vulgar and rustic to participate. On August 27 1908 the ‘Outline of a Constitution’ was released, paving the path for the convocation of parliament in 9 years – however, executive judicial powers remained with the throne. Provincial assemblies were convened in all provinces in October 1909, but were elected by only 0.42% of the population and thus not truly representative1. This led to eventual dissatisfaction and anti-regime sentiment in reformist gentry.


By imperial decree ‘New Armies’ that would be taught with Western as well as traditional Chinese military strategy were launched in 1901, with 35 military schools opened. The allegiance of the soldiers serving in the New Armies lay more with their commander than the Qing regime. These armies also received higher pay, updated weapons and were taught various languages, leading to the emergence of an educated military class that could discuss Western ideals and question Confucian ones, undermining their loyalty to the Qing.


Factories and enterprises grew rapidly, with the number of enterprises in Jiangsu province growing from 46 in 1900 to 386 in 1912. A Ministry of Commerce was established in 1903 to begin work on a commercial legal code, and there were 17 modern banks in China by 19112. From this economic activity emerged a bourgeois business class more eager to protect its business interests than to prop up the Qing dynasty. Despite some attempts at improving commercial legislation to stimulate business, the Qing regime’s economic reforms were largely unsuccessful. In 1907, the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce said the weakness of commercial legislation was ‘enough to make our entire circle of merchants cry’, while the China International Daily Newspaper lamented that ‘Every day the government talks about protecting businessmen and promoting trade, but in the end it has failed the big test’.



“Sweeping as the post-Boxer reform programme was, the changes were not always quite what they seemed; nor were their results what had been hoped for as the structures to replace the old system were lacking. Most people remained true to old ways. Given the huge disparity in numbers between those on top and those below, and the authoritarian nature of the imperial system, the prospects for reasoned progress commanding general adherence were slim, and violence remained the usual way of settling arguments.” Jonathan Fenby

“The Manchu ruling class had neither real enthusiasm for the changes that had been forced on it, nor great skill in carrying them out…The government’s initial steps towards modernization drastically increased the numbers of those who expected rapid progress, and many of them turned against the dynasty when their expectations could not be met.” Edwin Moise

Patricia Ebrey contends that people in positions of power “shared the revolutionaries’ zeal for modernization and reform, even if for different reasons: to the local elite they appeared to offer the last means of achieving local order.”

“Many shenshi took it upon themselves to support…and to establish…progressive…schools and infrastructure projects. The post-Boxer reforms also provided an important outline for change that was continued in the Republican period. On the whole, however, the Qing reforms fulfilled the hopes of very few…[In fact,] by encouraging further change and by delegating authority to regional powers, the Qing reforms unwittingly set Imperial China on the way to revolution.” Ryan


  2. Fenby, J., 2009. The Penguin history of modern China: The fall and rise of a great power, 1850-2008. London: Penguin.