Japanese Aggression Against China During the 19th Century
The antagonistic foreign relations between China and Japan during the 19th century were a function of many factors that ultimately resulted in the weakening of China and the strengthening of Japan. There is little doubt that the factors which precipitated the aggression of Japan against the Chinese were as much a function of Japanese opportunism as it from the concern and impact resulting from European influence and Russian expansionism on China. Thus the relationship between the two Asian nations is a complex tapestry involving threads from many other nations both regional and global. The growing aggression that Japan displayed particularly during the latter portions of the 19th century was significant and represented a major change in the region and yet the changes that occurred between the two countries were simply a prelude to the coming imperial might that Japan would display in the 20th century. But to understand what led to the breakdown in civil relations and the ultimate change of regional hegemony it is not simply important to understand the aggressive acts that took place in China but it is also important to examine the factors that influenced events within China that created the strategic opening for Japan's success against China.
The latter stages of the Tokugawa period ending in 1867 had lasted for more than 250 years and had seen ten emperors come and go. As the 1900s passed the mid-century mark the strengths of China ebbed and flowed and the foreign interests and influences in the nation heightened. Foreign interest and foreign influence helped to set the stage for the complex and difficult years that would come in the areas of international relations that rounded out the last half of the 19th century. This paper presents the influencing conditions in China, the key events that increased tensions between Japan and China as well as some of the major aggression by Japan toward China. Through the presentation of these factors the relationship between these two major Asian nations during the 19th century should be evident as well as the motivations behind the actions taken by Japan against its Western neighbor.
Influencing Conditions in China
Feudal China during the Manchu period was capped off with the rise of the Ch'Ing Party which was consumed with preservation and maintaining power. These characteristics may have played not only a role in shaping the years in which the group held sway but may have also been part of the reason for the its eventual defeat. During the Manchu period China had been provided with impressive cultural and national growth in population and land however, toward the end of the period the feudal system was unable to contain the growing unrest in the country. Much of the dissatisfaction among the masses was the result of famines and floods which led to considerable strife in the nation. This turmoil caused significant instability and resulted in several rebellions such as the Taiping and Nien rebellions toward the end of the Manchu dynasty. These rebellions weakened the nation and helped to create a vulnerability of the Chinese state that had not previously existed.
Before the problems that so significantly impacted the ability of the nation to feed its people China was faced with problems that resulted in conflicts with European powers. For years the English had benefited from a triangular trade involving tea, opium and silver which had caused a dramatic level of addiction and corruption in China. "The Ming adherents who took Formosa from the Dutch learnt from them the smoking of the drug as an antidote to malaria and passed the habit on to their fellow countrymen on the mainland ... The habit soon became a racial as well as a social menace to China and the attention of the Court was drawn to it." 1 For many in the Chinese government, the opium trade was a detestable business that was not only hurting Chinese citizens but was devaluing the currency. Efforts were made to stop the importation of opium which proved unsuccessful and eventually a thriving indigenous opium business grew up within China's borders. Eventually, the opium issue led to wars with England and France in which China was further weakened.
The Opium Wars were not necessarily the beginning of the new era in China which is often assigned by Western Scholars. 2 However, as has also been pointed out by Hsu there is a great deal of benefit that can be gained from examining the development of 19th century China in the context of these wars. In particular these conflicts are important when considering how French and English relations were impacted by the efforts of the Chinese to disrupt the flow of opium into China. And symbolically, with the fall of The Old Summer Palace during the second opium war commonly referred at The Arrow War, the end of feudal Manchu dynasty was all but complete. By that point in history a British embassy had been established in Beijing and a toleration of Christianity was being forced on the Chinese as part of the end to hostilities. The result therefore of the opium wars was that China was left searching desperately for a way to regain its lost strength. Paradoxically, many of the steps that China took to regain its footing were Western developments. With the introduction of more trade, the opening of mines and increased diplomacy with Western nations China had begun to advance further. However, these steps were so wholly unfamiliar that many of the Ch'Ing government never quite maximized their uses and refused to modernize entirely. In fact, the life of Sino-foreign relations was effectively cut off after the Treaty of Tientsin in 1868 leaving the Chinese in a state of suspended development that further opened the way for Japanese aggression.
The influences of the West and China's preoccupation with the conditions caused by the events of Western powers left the nation vulnerable in many ways. "The intrusion of the West can be construed as a kind of catalyst, precipitating traditional China into its modern counterpart." 3 Thus, while China grappled with internal strife and international wars, the island nation of Japan dealt with its own feudal problems but also eyed the opportunities that were presenting themselves with respect to China and Chinese territory. A series of events both encouraged and enabled Japan to take aggressive action against the Chinese that altered the relationships of the nations and shifted the balance of power in the region.
Key Events That Increased Tensions
"Although the meeting of Western and Chinese history began in the 16th century, its effect did not become significant until the middle of the 19th century, when the intensified activities of the West led to radical change in China." 4 This statement could apply to many conditions affecting Japan but certainly none was more important in the latter half of the 19th century than changes that affected Sino-Japanese relations. Several strategic moves on the part of the Japanese infuriated the Chinese and led to the deterioration of foreign relations and ultimately to war.
Many of the tensions that occurred between China and Japan centered on the nation of Korea which had been a tributary nation of China. Many changes were occurring in Korea at the end of the Tokugawa period in China which seemed to reveal an opportunity for Japan. Following the Korean's display of self-determination by persecuting Christians and a further showing of open hostilities toward the French and Americans, Japan attempted to establish relations with Korea. Although the efforts ended in failure, they were the precursor for other actions taken by Japan to actually threaten Korea. Japan's aggression against Korea displayed how utterly incapable the Chinese were at protecting the vassal state which led to the Treaty of Kanghwa which declared that Korea was an independent nation.
Clearly, the efforts of the Japanese to sever relations between Korea and China raised the ire of the Chinese and significantly impacted Sino-Japanese foreign relations. This incident was exacerbated by the fact that the treaty further opened opportunities for other nations as well as Japan to influence Korea and thereby negatively impact China. The treaty did not however signal the end of Chinese influence in Korea. Instead, it had simply raised tensions between the Chinese and Japanese because of the additional effort China had to exert to maintain its control of Korea following the incident. As a direct result of Japanese involvement, the control that China had previously enjoyed over Korea would not return.
Major Aggression against China
The Meiji period (1868-1912) which clearly does not encompass all of the 19th century, includes a significant shift from attitude to action from Japan toward China which resulted in a number of aggressive moves. The groundwork prepared by the severance of the Korean vassal state combined with the continued weakening of China following the internal strife, wars and rebellions within the nation provided the opportunities that led to Japanese actions. The shrewd and…