In Chinese history, few reformers have been merchants and, prior to Cheng Kuan-ying, none of them was a merchant working for foreigners. In the late Ch'ing, the rise of the merchant class was remarkable and the reformers came from varying social backgrounds. Yet Cheng Kuan-ying (1842–ca. 1923) was the only noted merchant-reformer in this period. Due to his association with the foreign merchants, he was probably the first reformer in modern China who mastered a Western language. This fact made his reform proposals unique in many ways, although his understanding of the West as a whole was limited. The significance of Cheng Kuan-ying as a reformer lies in the fact that he implicitly challenged the programs of the self-strengthening movement by pointing out the necessity of institutional change.

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