The tardy and ineffectual response of China to the Western challenge remains one of the most significant problems confronting historians. This article attempts to shed light on one of the factors that appears to have contributed in some measure to the decline of the Chinese empire in the nineteenth century, viz., chʻing-i, or literati opinion. An initial section sketches the historical origins of chʻing-i. Then, I trace the influences that chʻing-i brought to bear on the process of policy formation during the early 1880's, when the Chinese empire fought a war with France in a vain attempt to save an imperial tributary from Western domination. Finally, I speculate upon the course the empire might have taken had not the throne—a term that here refers essentially to the Empress Dowager Tzʻu-hsi—had to tack and shift to meet the demands of chʻing-i.

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