During the First Sino-Japanese War, Zhenyuan was commanded by Philo McGiffin and saw action at the Battle of the Yalu River, of 17 Sep 1894, during which she suffered severe damage. when entering Weihaiwei harbor, Zhenyuan struck a rock and had to be beached, as the only repair facilities were at Lüshunkou. Her captain, Lin Taizeng, committed suicide by overdose of opium over the incident. Captured by the Japanese after the Battle of Weihai, on 17 Feb 1895, Zhenyuan was taken as a prize of war.
In the 1860s “to fight” for the Chinese meant desperate defence against enemies from all directions while, for the British, it was more a question of not fighting the Chinese again, but helping the Chinese keep internal law and order so that they could fight other enemies for themselves. The Qing court engaged a number of British advisers to equip and train their Bannerman battalions in modern weaponry, but these largely addressed the modernisation of land forces. Mandarin soldiers like Zeng Guofan had become aware that the lack of naval power was a serious deficiency in the imperial defences. He and his most innovative subordinates soon made plans to build a modern navy and sought British help to repair that weakness.
The views of Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885), one of the great generals of the period of Qing “restoration” after the Taiping rebellion, reflect well the ambivalence about what had to be done. On the one hand, he strongly recommended the establishment of a great shipyard, a modern arsenal, and a training academy for the navy. On the other, he had to fight a brutal and successful land war in the north-western region of Xinjiang against Muslim rebels and sought loans for that war at the expense of naval development. He justified this with the argument that China’s land enemies sought territory with the backing of either Tsarist Russia or British India, while its naval enemies merely sought trading privileges. In fairness to Zuo Zongtang, the Qing court was never committed to developing a strong navy anyway, despite the fine start given to its creation by Shen Baozhen (1820–1879) in Fuzhou (Foochow) between 1867–1874. It is also interesting that Zuo Zongtang was unhappy that the British, who were supposed to help, had not been more forthcoming. He noted that Sir Robert Hart (1835–1911) asked only to build a merchant fleet while Sir Thomas Wade (1818–1895) spoke vaguely of training naval personnel. It led him to distrust British advice and ask French naval officials instead to help with the shipbuilding facilities.
Shen Baozhen, on the other hand, realised that it was the British who knew most about navigation and engaged British naval officers from the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to help train the early batches of students at the Fuzhou Navy Yard. Later, he was also shrewd enough to send some of his brightest students to England. He was well aware that the Japanese had also turned to the British for naval training and shipbuilding. Although the mixture of French and British staff at the Navy Yard was, in the end, a mistake, a contemporary British observer of the Yard’s development over a period of twenty years commented that “In Foochow you had a very good naval college. You want four colleges like that of Foochow”. By then, in 1884, the Foochow squadron itself was about to be wiped out by the French. Nevertheless, it has been concluded that “The School itself became a model institution in China. . . When Li Hung-Chang founded the naval academy at Tientsin and established the Peiyang fleet, he relied heavily on Foochow-trained men.” But, by that time, there were not only rival centres of naval training, but also rival offers of help from German and American interests in addition to the earlier French offers. Deep-seated unease about relying too much on the British contributed to undermining efforts to bring naval development under a unified control.
One of the fascinating questions in East Asia later in the century was that concerning the fighting between the two sets of students trained by the British – which of them would learn better? On the eve of the Sino- Japanese War in 1894, there were nominally four naval squadrons in China: the Beiyang force in the north, the Nanyang along the coast south of Shandong, and the two provincial ones for Fujian and Guangdong, with nearly 100 naval vessels of various sizes, totaling 80,000 tons. The main force was the Beiyang squadron when war broke out with Japan in 1894. Within a few weeks, the question was answered. When the Japanese engaged the Chinese in the decisive naval battles off the coast of Shandong and the Liaodong peninsula, the active Chinese fleet was wiped out.
What went wrong with the naval shipyards and the training? Yan Fu (1854–1921), trained in Foochow Navy Yard and for many years the head of the Beiyang Naval Academy, has suggested an answer. This was found in the words of Sir Robert Hart in the 1880s that he recalled in 1918. He quotes Hart as having said:
A navy is to a country what flowers are to a tree. Only when the roots and branches are flourishing, and wind and sun, water and soil are agreeable, will the flowers blossom. The flowers produce fruit and this ensures that the tree will grow strong with age. There are many problems about your country’s navy that are unsatisfactory, but they can only be tackled by going back and examining the roots. It will be useless to seek the solutions only within the navy itself.
It is often forgotten, even by the Chinese themselves, that the Chinese did once have the most powerful navy in the world and had the skills to build great ocean-going warships that could take the offensive. Chinese historians are wont to blame the failures of 1894–1895 on the extravagance of the Empress Dowager (Empress Xiaoqin, commonly known as Cixi, 1835–1908), who failed to provide enough funding for the navy. Even if this were the sole explanation for failure, it is stark confirmation of the Qing court’s inability to adjust to the new world of naval power. In fact, there had been sustained neglect of naval forces for more than four centuries, and there was certainly no sense of priority about the need for a modern fighting force at sea.
The British continued to assist with naval planning and reorganisation, and the Chinese imperial fleet did recover enough after 1900 to show its colours across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. But, by that time, there was no pretence that the fleet was any match for the great navies of Britain, Japan and the United States, nor much more than one that was primarily for river and coastal patrols. When the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 provoked an international force to be sent to lift the siege of the legations in Peking, there followed a number of clear demonstrations of the Qing empire’s inability to fight at all. Not only was there no navy to speak of, but the armies also offered little resistance. It could not have escaped the court’s attention that there were Chinese overseas living in Western colonies who donated funds to support the forces sent to relieve the foreign legations. Clearly, these no longer identified with the Qing dynasty and shared the growing consensus in the West that Chinese civilisation was decadent and irretrievably in decline.