In recent weeks, I’ve been doing some research into China’s 1911 revolution, led by Sun-Yat Sen. The revolution started in Wuhan in the Hubei Province with an army mutiny and a battle between rebels and Qing loyalists. The Qing dynasty, run by the Manchus, had been in trouble for a while. By supporting the Boxers (during the Boxer Rebellion) in 1900, the Manchus had made a desperate, failed attempt to expel foreigners from China, causing further military and political humiliation. Serious repercussions, such as a 333 million USD indemnity was added to the government’s fiscal issues. These were, of course, not the only issues, but I would argue that China’s inability to look west for inspiration was what led to a decline in their administration, while Japan was truly able to prosper through their Meiji Reformation, making them one of the most powerful Asian countries till World War 2. 

The Meiji Restoration: Unlike China’s desire to stay eastward and not focus on the west, Japan’s administration made a blatant effort to look at countries like Germany and Britain. Their goal for modernisation was to absorb both Western and traditional learning, which culminated in the Iwakura Mission. In this journey, students were sent abroad to study, and came back to Japan, thus assimilating Western traditions into those of China. After a while, western-style clothing grew mandatory, western-style barber shops were opened. Beef that was previously denied by Buddhist ideologies suddenly became not only acceptable, but fashionable. The Rokumeikan became a symbol of Westernisation in the 19th century. It was designed in a western style, entertained foreign missionaries with balls, tea parties, dances, waltzes (and other western dances). This was primarily to suggest that Japan was a modern country. The libration of women was also taken up in the 1870s by a number of Japanese intellectuals, influenced by Western writers. A number of female activists publicly took part in politics, but these movements did wane in the 1880s. All women were allowed to be educated. There was an introduction of a telegraph service in 1869, a postal service in 1871 to improve communications with the West. As a result of such modernity, Japan was able to secure a victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s despite their barbarian status (in China) and were able to gain a strong political foothold in Asia. 


Japanese prints of Western inventors, 1873

The Qing Dynasty: The Qing dynasty went through numerous reforms. China wanted to remain closed to the Western powers for a lot of their history. China’s loss in the Opium Wars primarily came from their ignorance of Western military power, leading to significant consequences in the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842. It was due to these humiliating treaties that the Chinese people developed a mistrust of the West.  Until the late 1800s, large areas of China remained free from Western contact and influence. As a result of this, China went through reform programs such as the Self-Strengthening Movement, the Late Qing Reforms, and more. For the purpose of this blog post, we can compare the Self-Strengthening Movement to the Meiji Restoration.

The Scramble for China, which predominantly took place in the 1890s after China lost the Sino-Japanese War.

China was unwilling to modernise due to Confucian and Traditionalist beliefs. Fengshui made them believe that coalmines and railways were disruptions to the spirit of ancestors. China and Britain were seen as so radically different from the other that each country believed that the other was a barbarian. Japan, on the other hand, was more accepting of change. Japan was able to learn from the mistakes of China. As China had, Japan did not want to suffer from the unequal treaties, and they viewed the foreigners as superior. Japan sent people abroad, and people such as Ito Hirobumi came back with a vast knowledge of the west. Japan believed in “wakon yosai”, which referred to Japanese spirit, western techniques”. Looking at all the evidence presented above, it can be suggested that China’s inability to look Westward, and Japan’s desire to take inspiration from countries such as Britain and Germany directly led to the failures and successes of their respective reformation programs. It is important to consider the fact that Japan’s reformation came from their desire to be transnationally powerful, to mingle with the West and grow into a significant power, while China was unwilling to look at change until the 1911 revolution by Sun-Yat Sen.

Looking To The West for Reform: China v. Japan

One thought on “Looking To The West for Reform: China v. Japan

  • April 21, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post, not least because one of my initial ideas for my end of year project was to analyze how transnational Japan’s westernization was. One thing I found interesting from your post was the idea that China did not want to modernize because of its ‘Confucian and Traditionalist beliefs’ because it reminded me of my reading of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj last semester. One of Gandhi’s ideas was that India should not emulate Japan’s westernization because it would lose its ‘true identity’ as a nation. Gandhi believed that a nation has a true self that is only found when you take technology and modernization away. For instance, Britain’s true self was to be a Christian nation, but after its Industrial Revolution, it lost this ‘true identity’ and became less Christian and increasingly secularized. A similar process happened in Japan where westernization turned Japan away from its ‘superior’ traditional characteristics which the nation was born with.

    People often misinterpret Gandhi and assume that he was outright anti-British. He was not. Instead, he was anti-modernization and only opposed Britain’s involvement in India because Britain brought over technology and railroads etc. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi states explicitly that he did not mind Britain being involved in India, provided that they renounce their modernization process in India and allow it to return to its traditional state. He even urged Britain to renounce modernization so that it too could return to its ‘true self’ (in this sense Gandhi actually wanted the best for Britain too!). With all this in mind, I can see how the desire to maintain tradition and resist modernization in China could exist.

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