Wo-jen

Wo-jen (1804-1871) was a Chinese official who, during the 1860s, became the preeminent opponent of the introduction of Western learning. He represents the conservatism encountered by progressive Chinese who attempted the partial modernization of China.

Wo-jen was a Mongol, born in Honan Province. His father was a soldier in the banner armies of the Manchu rulers of China. Wo-jen undertook classical studies rather than following his father's military career. At the age of 25 Wo-jen completed successfully the third and highest of the civil service examinations and began his long career in the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, he had become widely acclaimed as a Confucian scholar and for his stern observance of the Confucian ethical code. This philosophical and moral reputation may have impeded Wojen's bureaucratic advancement, however, for Emperor Hsienfeng (ruled 1851-1861) thought such persons lacked administrative ability.

The death of Hsien-feng and the accession of a new emperor, T'ung-chih (ruled 1862-1874), marked Wo-jen's leap to the top of the bureaucratic ladder. He now assumed a series of prestigious posts, serving (often concurrently) as president of one of the Six Boards, chancellor of the Hanlin Academy, tutor to the Emperor, and grand secretary. He had become one of the most powerful ministers in the realm.

In 1860 China had been defeated in the Arrow War by the combined British and French forces and was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty. To resist further foreign aggression, the Ch'ing government adopted a policy of Self-strengthening reforms that had been advocated by such leading officials as Prince Kung, Tseng Kuo-fan, and Li Hung-chang. So long as these reforms were limited to the sphere of the army and diplomacy, Wo-jen made no protest. But in 1867 Prince Kung proposed the inclusion of Western learning (mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, political economy) in the curriculum of the T'ung-wen Kuan (Interpreter's College) and the hiring of foreigners as instructors.

Wo-jen, true to his Confucian learning, believed that national strength could not be obtained by borrowing the techniques and learning of the hated and despised foreigner, but only by the reassertion of the strictest moral principles. In a memorial to the throne, he declared: "Your humble servant has learned that the way to establish a nation is to lay emphasis on propriety and righteousness, not on power and plotting… . From ancient down to modern times, I have never heard of anyone who could use mathematics to raise the nation from a state of decline… . The only thing we can rely on is that our scholars should clearly explain the Confucian tenets to the people."

Wo-jen's arguments had no immediate effect on government policy. His views, however, were supported by conservative and antiforeign literati throughout the country, and they served to impede efforts to modernize China during the 19th century. He died on June 8, 1871, and his name was celebrated in the Temple of Eminent Statesmen.

Further Reading on Wo-jen

A biographical sketch of Wo-jen is in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, vol. 2 (1944). For background see Mary C. Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T'ung Chih Restoration, 1862-1874 (1957), and Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate (1958; repr. as Modern China and Its Confucian Past: The Problem of Intellectual Continuity, 1964).

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