Lecture Twenty-Eight China and Japan—19th-Century Pressures Scope

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Lecture Twenty-Eight China and Japan—19th-Century Pressures

Scope: China and Japan shared many characteristics, largely because of Japan’s long period of imitation. Yet their reactions to new Western pressure and the changing dynamics of the world economy were strikingly different, establishing two separate East Asian models whose impact is still felt today. Comparison here reveals a history important to East Asia but also suggests some of the wider forces operating in the Long 19th Century: some societies sought to emulate Japan while others responded in terms more similar to those of China. Japan, once forced to open more fully to the wider world, quickly embarked on major changes, while also demonstrating the possibility of modernizing without fully Westernizing. China long resisted pressures to reform, yielding only incompletely after 1900 when, to many observers, it already seemed too late. The causes and the results of this East Asian differentiation are significant to the course of world history over the past two centuries.


  1. In this lecture, we will compare Japanese and Chinese developments in the Long 19th Century, particularly from the 1840s–1850s onward.

    1. A number of societies can be brought together to examine how 19th-century factors were shaped by particular experiences.

    2. Japan and Russia constitute an interesting comparison. Both of these fundamentally non-Western societies launched significant industrial revolutions by the 1890s, although the processes of doing so differed.

    3. The Japanese-Chinese comparison is fruitful for a number of reasons.

      1. There is a marked contrast between a society that introduced successful reforms (Japan) and a society that was unusually laggard (China).

      2. Nonetheless, these two societies shared many features. The close interaction of Japan and China raises the question of why one experience would differ so much from the other.

      3. This comparison reveals significant implications for the 20th and even 21st centuries.

  2. Both Japan and China were essentially forced to address the fact of new Western power by developments in the middle of the 19th century.

    1. The first Opium War, beginning in 1839, revealed the capability of Western military forces to unseat Chinese policy intentions and traditions. The Chinese also realized that the West was so eager to gain access to Chinese wealth and markets that it would push virtually any product that would accomplish this end.

    2. Japan’s introduction to Western power took place a little later.

      1. The arrival of Western fleets from 1853 onward was a statement that if Japan did not open its markets, the Western powers would come in force.

      2. Military clashes occurred between Western forces and those of Japan. The West imposed constraints on Japanese activity that would ease only in the early-20th century.

      3. Thus, forced entry and unwelcome intrusion are factors in both cases.

    3. China, with its great political tradition, might have reacted more successfully to this intrusion than Japan. The Chinese also had technological superiority and greater natural resources than Japan. As both societies were forced into change, Japan might have been expected to have more difficulty.

    4. Japan did, of course, have some assets.

      1. In the 18th century, it had begun to open itself to foreign influence.

      2. It moved clearly toward dissemination of education.

  3. Beginning in 1868, Japan launched a series of reforms in what is called the Meiji era (Meiji meaning “enlightened”).

    1. The Meiji era included reforms in an impressive variety of categories, beginning with politics.

      1. In 1868, the feudal system was abolished, and the Japanese gradually developed a system of parliamentary monarchy with a constitution based on limited suffrage.

      2. Japan also saw the emergence of a new elite that would come to dominate government.

    2. Early in the process, Japan began to create a European-style military structure with a modern navy and upgraded technology.

    3. Japanese infrastructure was modernized; railroad networks were established that, along with shipping, unified the Japanese islands.

    4. Japanese enthusiasm for new public health measures permitted rapid expansion of the population.

    5. In 1872, the Japanese mandated a mass education system for both boys and girls.

      1. Educational reform included modifications of the Confucian intellectual approach, which tended to emphasize tradition over creative thinking and scientific innovation.

      2. Schooling was provided in modern languages, including English and German.

    6. The Japanese enthusiasm for change extended to consumer items, such as toothpaste.

      1. By 1900, department stores were established in Tokyo.

    7. These reforms did not represent a complete cave-in to Westernization.

      1. In the 1880s, Japan pulled back from creating a Western educational system, introducing textbooks that focused on Japanese traditions.

    8. The reforms included a massive effort at industrialization.

      1. By the 1890s, Japan was beginning to establish a significant factory system with a strong emphasis on export production.

      2. Japanese industrialization was stimulated by high taxes on the peasantry, which helped free up funds for investment, and by poor working conditions.

      3. The capacity to seize much of the silk export market from the Chinese provided vital opportunities for foreign earnings and capital formation in Japan that would fuel a more general industrial development.

      4. By the second decade of the 20th century, Japan would move into heavy industrialization, a process that would ultimately yield a share of world industrial leadership to the Japanese by the second half of the 20th century.

  4. In China, where there was no clear decision to embark on reform, the pattern was vastly different.

    1. The first railway line built in China by a private company was torn up by the government in a show of resistance to progress and imitation.

    2. The Chinese were modestly interested in Western military innovations, but they did not organize the kinds of military and political changes that would allow them to catch up to Western standards.

    3. China’s responses to modernization were further complicated by internal unrest and civil war in the middle of the 19th century.

    4. China’s reactions were also hampered by the tendency of the Western powers and Russia to seize chunks of Chinese territory, where they then developed industry.

      1. These intrusions reduced Chinese economic capacity and increased hostility to foreigners.

      2. The Boxer Rebellion would be an understandable manifestation of this anti-foreign hostility.

    5. Only in the 1890s did the Chinese begin to come to terms with the new situation.

      1. Chinese university students began to go to Japan and the United States; Christian missionary activity established new educational institutions in China; and traditional practices, such as foot-binding, declined.

      2. Unfortunately, this reaction was late and incomplete.

  1. Why does the experience of China contrast so markedly with that of Japan?

    1. Western encroachments on China were much more unsettling than those on Japan, partly because the West had an older, historical thirst for Chinese access. The Japanese produced some goods the West wanted, but there was less pent-up demand for interference.

    2. Western intervention also caught Japan and China in different phases of the political cycle.

      1. The Chinese were in one of their periodic political doldrums, which meant that Western intrusion was less effectively opposed.

      2. The Tokugawa shogunate had some problems of social unrest and difficulty collecting sufficient tax revenues, but the Japanese state encountered the West at a point of greater strength.

    3. Although Japan and China both operated within a Confucian tradition, Japanese Confucianism was somewhat less traditionalist, less bent on absolute resistance to foreign influence, and more interested in spreading the benefits of education than the system in China.

    4. Japanese feudalism, which had been absent for some time from the Chinese tradition, may also have created an advantage for Japan.

      1. The extent to which feudal classes remained in Japan gave that nation a quicker appreciation of the military aspects of the Western challenge than occurred in China, where the military had less voice.

      2. Japanese feudalism may also have created group loyalties that could be used for industrialization and political action.

    5. Japan had a history of successful imitation, and China did not.

      1. From their earlier interactions with China, the Japanese knew that it was possible to imitate without losing cultural identity or surrendering to foreigners

      2. China’s major experience of imitation, the importation of Buddhism, had ended badly, as had its experience with the Mongols.

    6. The Japanese borrowed from the West while controlling Western influences much more effectively than any other non-Western society in the Long 19th Century.

      1. The Japanese regulated Western ownership during industrialization and modified Western influence by maintaining traditions of group loyalty and emperor worship.

  2. By the end of the Long 19th Century, the differences between Japan and China had significant consequences.

    1. In the 1890s, Japan and China went to war, and the Japanese, with their modern military and industrial strength, won fairly handily.

      1. One result of the conflict was a pattern of ongoing Japanese influence in Korea.

    2. Japan would soon also confront Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Again the Japanese won. Russia, although industrializing, remained a more cumbersome society and had more trouble bringing military force to bear in the Pacific than did the Japanese.

    3. Power balances shifted as the Japanese began to make their own claim to global power. Comparative differences between Japan and China were translated into ongoing military hostilities, extending into renewed Japanese attacks on China in the 1930s and into World War II and beyond.

    4. A somewhat less concrete result of the different paths of Japan and China in the Long 19th Century involves social stability.

      1. Japan’s reform experience, including its industrialization, created massive social tension.

      2. In China, many leaders believed that the only way to mount a successful response to Western intrusion was through outright revolution.

  1. The Japanese experience at the end of the Long 19th Century was unique.

    1. Japan experienced modernization without full Westernization and would become an important addition to the roster of industrial and military powers of the modern world.

    2. The Chinese sluggishness in responding to outside challenge was greater than that of many other societies but, in many ways, more typical. Many societies had difficulty addressing the implications of Western power for effective political and economic operation at home.

    3. The Chinese deficit here, however, was not permanent. When we introduce the final period in world history in the next lecture, we will see not only the significance of Japan’s ongoing role but the growing muscle of China in world affairs, as well.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What are the main ways in which Japan proved to be a case of successful modernizing without fully Westernizing? In what ways was the Japanese experience unique?

  1. What was the relationship between China’s “failure to modernize” and the emergence of a revolutionary process in 1910?

  1. Why does the experience of China contrast so markedly with that of Japan?

  1. Review your notes on the Ottoman Empire that you took over the break. How did the Ottoman Empire deal with western pressures? What was the result? In what ways is the Ottoman experience similar to or different from the Japanese experience? From the Chinese experience?

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