Tuesday, May 03, 2005

China vs. Japan

[Another first-year history essay! I really like this one actually.]

Compare and contrast the Chinese and Japanese response to the West between about 1800 and 1920.

Despite some similarities between the early responses of China and Japan to the West, they later diverged; which greatly influenced the modernizing development of each country. Both Asian nations rejected the West and went through a period of self-imposed isolation, but the threat posed by Western imperialism in the nineteenth century forced them – though in varying degrees – to reconsider. By the end of that century, both states had introduced ‘westernising’ reforms – but of a significantly distinct nature. China’s aim was to use modern means to preserve their traditional Confucian culture. Japan, in contrast, underwent a remarkable social upheaval as it wholeheartedly pursued modernization. Consequentially, Japan had become a recognised world power by 1920, whereas China was at the brink of anarchy.

China and Japan followed a similar pattern of relations with the West between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, but with the former usually responding more slowly and less strongly. Both nations sought western cannon and firearms: the Japanese in the late sixteenth century, and the Chinese in the early seventeenth.[1] Both initially welcomed Jesuit missionaries, but later exiled them (due to the threat posed by their growing influence) from Japan in 1612,[2] and China in 1742.[3] Both withdrew into isolationism – restricting foreign trade to a single port, and banning their citizens from travelling overseas – Japan in the mid-seventeenth century, and China in the mid-eighteenth[4]. In each case, the Chinese response was not only many decades later, it also tended to be less vigorous. They were less interested in seeking foreign weaponry, they were less fearful of Jesuit influence, and the extent of their isolationism was not nearly as extreme as Japan’s. Some historians have pointed to the Japanese Bushido warrior code and more militaristic society as enabling them to more realistically assess the Western military threat.[5] This effect was complemented by the arrogance of traditional China, whose enduring civilization had never faced a serious threat before[6] – and the early years of contact would have merely reinforced their sense of superiority; for as Strayer remarks, “China was sufficiently strong and the Europeans sufficiently weak to ensure that China dictated the terms of the relationship”.[7]

Everything changed in the mid-nineteenth century. The benefits of industrialization led to such a degree of Western military ascendency that Asia could be (and was) forced out of its isolationist policies, and opened for western trade and exploitation. During this crucial period of history, the Chinese continued to underestimate the challenge posed by the West, and so met it with aggression. They were severely beaten by the British in the Opium War (1839-42), and made to sign a series of humiliating ‘unequal treaties’. Renewed hostilities broke out against Britain and France between 1856-60, which further weakened China.[8] The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) was a desperate attempt to oppose imperialism and drive out the foreigners, but it was eventually crushed by a multi-national force, and China made to pay even more indemnities.[9]

Japan’s isolation ended in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo (Tokyo) Bay. However, the Japanese had apparently learnt from the mistakes of the Chinese, and did not directly oppose the West. Instead, they adopted a policy of procrastination. They thereby succeeded in postponing the first of their own set of ‘unequal treaties’ until 1858, and impeded their implementation enough to provoke an Allied naval bombardment of Osaka in 1865.[10] With that minor exception, Japan’s policy successfully avoided the debilitating conflicts with the West that so plagued China throughout the nineteenth century. But as Strayer[11] argues, this was largely due to the external factor of the West’s greater interest in China, which led to greater exploitation. Japan was given more manoeuvring room, allowing them to belatedly acquiesce to the West’s demands – an option which would not have been viable for China.

In some respects, the response of the Chinese populace to the West was more significant than that of the country’s Manchu elite (who appeared to be more concerned for the welfare of their dynasty than for the country as a whole)[12] – the most noteworthy example being the Taiping Revolution (1850-65). Led by Hong Xiuquan (a mystic who was inspired by a Christian missionary), this revolutionary movement gathered a following of millions of Chinese peasants, and challenged the entire Confucian system.[13] The revolutionaries were open to western ideas, and planned to industrialize China (just thirty years after the first railroads were constructed in Britain), liberate women, and introduce social reforms akin to communism.[14] However, the Taiping Revolution threatened Western interests because of its nationalistic ambitions,[15] so the Great Powers supported the Qing dynasty with loans, arms, and mercenary soldiers. By 1865, the last of the revolutionaries were crushed by gentry-led armies, but the consequences of this failed revolution – an estimated 20-30 million casualties, and the Qing court’s loss of power to regional gentry leaders[16] – would haunt China for decades to come.

The Japanese had a revolution too, and theirs was successful. Samurai reformers in 1868 overthrew the Tokugawa in the name of the Meiji emperor.[17] They then began a series of drastic reforms designed to modernize Japanese society, by selectively adopting the features of western civilization that “enhanced national power”.[18] As their foreign minister declared in 1887, “What we must do, is to transform our empire and our people, make the empire like the countries of Europe and our people like the peoples of Europe”.[19] Feudalism was abolished in 1871, and two years later military reforms created a peasant conscript army replacing the samurai as a military class.[20] The State took over Japanese industries and modernized them. It established new factories, mines, railroads, banking and postal systems.[21] Countless Western books were imported and translated; technicians and experts were brought to Japan[22] – yet Fox notes that “By 1883 most of the work begun by British officers, engineers and doctors… was in the hands of the Japanese”.[23]

In contrast, the Chinese elite had effectively ignored the problem posed by Western expansionism up until 1858, but their defeat in the Second Opium War forced them to take some steps to strengthen their regime. Thus began a series of rather feeble reforms, called the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ (1860-95), which sought “the preservation of Chinese civilization by grafting on Western mechanisms”.[24] Although these reforms were state-subsidised (as in Japan), they tended to be agricultural in focus – thus reinforcing the importance of the gentry class. This was in stark contrast to the abolition of their Japanese equivalents, the Samurai. Some new industries were developed (such as steel works) but these remained largely dependent on foreigners for machinery, materials and expertise.[25] These superficial reforms were doomed to failure from the start, because their aim was not really reformation at all, but rather consolidation. The gentry leaders “had no interest in creating a modern industrial society”,[26] hence China’s utter failure to achieve that end through these ‘reforms’.

The failure of the Self-Strengthening Movement was highlighted by the Chinese defeats of 1885 (to France) and 1895 (to Japan).[27] The Qing dynasty was finally overthrown in 1911, and replaced with an ineffectual republic. This was effectively an autocracy under Yuan Shih-k’ai, which fell into anarchy after his death in 1916, as rival warlords divided the country up amongst themselves.[28] The 1911 revolution also spelled the end for Confucianism, as the “New Culture” movement embraced the West and sought a complete revamp of Chinese society.[29] This attitude soon soured however – leading to a boycott of Western products and democratic ideas – due to the treatment of China by the Western powers after WWI.[30] By 1920, China was adrift; its traditional political and social systems cast away, and no viable alternatives had yet been found to replace them.

Meanwhile, Japan was well on its way to becoming a respected world power – especially after its 1889 constitution provided the oligarchic regime with the legitimacy of a “parliamentary fa├žade”.[31] During the years of the Meiji reforms, Japan had recognised its geographic parallels to Britain, and so set about developing a strong navy and becoming “the Britain of the East”[32] – with remarkable success. Military victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 forced the West to take the Japanese seriously. By 1899, Japan had abolished extraterritoriality (so held legal jurisdiction over all foreign visitors), and by 1911, the unequal treaties were gone for good.[33] Japan emerged from WWI as a major power with new (Chinese) territories and a permanent seat on the council of the League of Nations.[34]

The pattern for China and Japan’s comparative responses to the West between 1800-1920 was set in the centuries preceding this period. Japan recognised the threat being posed, and so responded quickly and decisively. But China, in its arrogance – and self-interested leadership – tended to respond inappropriately, or be overly complacent. When the need for reform could no longer be denied, Japan accepted the need to modernize whole-heartedly; whereas China tried to preserve its traditional Confucian culture and social structure. China met the challenge of the West by resisting the West, but to no avail. Japan, in contrast, used the West – its experts, technology, science and institutions. By 1920, the remarkable rise of Japan was as undeniable as the tragic fall of China.


Fox, G., Britain and Japan 1858-1883 (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1969)

Stavrianos, L., A Global History: From Prehistory to the Present, 6th ed. (Englewood Cliffs : Prentice Hall, 1995)

Storry, R., Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia, 1894-1943 (London : Macmillan, 1979)

Strayer, R., The Making of the Modern World, 2nd ed. (New York : St Martin’s Press, 1995)

Teng, S., China’s Response to the West (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1954)

Woodruff, W., A Concise History of the Modern World, 1500 to the present, 2nd ed. (New York : St Martin’s Press, 1998)

[1] S. Teng, China’s Response to the West (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1954), p.13.

[2] W. Woodruff, A Concise History of the Modern World, 1500 to the present, 2nd ed. (New York : St Martin’s Press, 1998), p.22.

[3] L. Stavrianos, A Global History: From Prehistory to the Present, 6th ed. (Englewood Cliffs : Prentice Hall, 1995), p.312.

[4] R. Strayer, The Making of the Modern World, 2nd ed. (New York : St Martin’s Press, 1995), pp.345,396, see also Woodruff, pp.18-20.

[5] Woodruff, p.21. Note that Bushido placed warrior-rulers at the top of the social hierarchy, whereas Chinese Confucianism regarded warriors as being at the bottom.

[6] Strayer, p.328.

[7] Ibid., p.344.

[8] Stavrianos, pp.517-8.

[9] Ibid., p.522.

[10] Woodruff, p.85. Note that this bombardment merely weakened the Tokugawa regime, so helped the later Meiji revolution.

[11] Strayer, p.399.

[12] Teng, p.37, notes that as a general rule, the Manchu in China tended to advocate a policy of ‘appeasement’, passively accepting the West’s intrusions, then otherwise ignoring it, whereas Chinese nationalists (such as Lin Tse-Hyu) proposed more drastic reforms designed to actually meet the problem.

[13] Strayer, pp.351-2.

[14] Ibid., pp.352-3. The threat posed by their social reforms is probably the major reason why the gentry broke with tradition and supported the Qing dynasty rather than going along with the peasants’ rebellion.

[15] They planned to strengthen China by banning opium and opposing further foreign trading ports; see Stavrianos, p.519.

[16] Strayer, p.354.

[17] Ibid., p.398.

[18] Stavrianos, p.526. It is important to realise that they did not indiscriminately adopt everything Western – democracy and Christianity (instead Shinto was the state religion) are two major examples of this.

[19] R. Storry, Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia, 1894-1943 (London : Macmillan, 1979), p.17.

[20] Woodruff, p.86.

[21] Strayer, p.400.

[22] Woodruff, p.86.

[23] G. Fox, Britain and Japan 1858-1883 (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1969), p.533.

[24] Stavrianos, p.520.

[25] Strayer, p.355.

[26] Ibid., p.355.

[27] Ibid., p.355.

[28] Stavrianos, p.524.

[29] Strayer, p.361.

[30] Ibid., p.362, see also Woodruff, p.183; the Chinese province of Shantung was given to Japan.

[31] Stavrianos, p.527.

[32] Fox, p.532.

[33] Stavrianos, p.527, and Strayer, p.402.

[34] Woodruff, p.183.


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