Question: What was the Manchu Empire’s response to Western imperialism and why did it fail?
In the 19th century, after a long period of isolationism, China and then Japan came under pressure from the West to open to foreign trade and relations. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States had created a wide gap between them and the West, leaving the two Asian nations behind technologically and military. In that period, neither of them had the power to stand up to the Western nations, and eventually both had to sign unequal treaties that forced them to open their ports and cities to foreign merchants.
However, the way this process happened in each country and their reaction to it were very different, attracting the interest of many historians (Lockwood, 1956). How could two civilizations apparently so similar to each other react so differently to the same historical event? This essay, therefore, will argue that the main differences in Japan and China’s response to the West in the 19th century were that Japan yielded to Western pressure to open to trade while China refused to, and that Japan successfully modernized while China failed to.
It will also present as the reasons for the difference in initial reaction China’s lesser understanding of the West and the historical timing of the Western intrusion; and as the reasons for the difference in modernization Japan’s familiarity with borrowing culturally from others, the rise of its reformist elite, and its pluralistic political system.
First of all, the way China and Japan reacted to the West’s increasing pressure to open to trade was very different. Both countries had long maintained isolationist tendencies, with limited commerce with the West. China welcomed foreign trade, but western merchants had no privileges there and were confined to Canton, where they could only deal with the Co-hong, a group of traders (Edwardes, 1973). Japan was even stricter, allowing commerce only with the Dutch, who had access to only one port, Dejima (Rosenberg, 1978).
This situation was not to be accepted by the Western nations for long, however, and by 1834 Lord Napier was sent by Britain to pressure the Chinese into allowing a more open trade. The Chinese government rejected his requests, and animosity arose between the two nations, with Chinese mobs surrounding the merchants’ quarter in Canton (Edwardes, 1973).
Tensions eased temporarily, but the situation precipitated due to the British illicit trade in opium. In 1839, the new imperial commissioner Lin Tze-hsu arrived in Canton and confiscated 20,000 chests of opium from the British. Further disagreements, especially concerning the British’s refusal to hand over to Chinese authorities a sailor accused of killing a Chinese man, led to an armed naval confrontation in November 1839. This marked the beginning of the first of the Opium Wars, which would result in Chinese defeat and the establishment of a system of unequal treaties (Edwardes, 1973) (Martin, 1968) (Fairbank and Reischauer,1989).
Japan, on the contrary, was much more receptive to the demands of Western envoys. In 1853 Commodore Perry was sent by the United states to give an ultimatum to Japan to open its ports, and when he returned the next year the Japanese authorities accepted to negotiate with him (Storry, 1960) (Rosenberg, 1978). This was a very different attitude to that of the Chinese, whose “view of the non-Chinese world recognized no appreciable difference between merchants and governments.
All were barbarians” (Edwardes, 1973, p.298), and therefore refused to recognize the threat represented by the British officials. In the end, treaties with the West, through which China and Japan’s long-lasting seclusion came to an end, were signed by both nations: the Treaty of Kanagawa by Japan (Hall, 1979) and the Treaty of Nanking by China (Martin, 1968).
However, China’s treaty was signed after heavy military losses and under much more unfavorable terms than Japan’s, due to its refusal to acknowledge the superior power of the West.
An important factor causing this difference of reactions to Western pressure between Japan and China was historical timing. Western nations didn’t force Japan to end its isolationism until the 1850s, more than a decade after the beginning of the First Opium War in China. This was because they were already engaged in other parts of Asia, which created a “buffer” (Norman, cited in Moulder 1977, p.128), and because its lack of resources and demand for Western goods lessened Japan’s attractiveness to the West (Moulder, 1977).
Despite its isolation, Japan was kept informed of what was happening abroad during the Opium War, and “the Dutch had repeatedly warned them through Nagasaki that they would have to accede to foreign demands” (Reischauer, 1978, p.119). Therefore, Japan was able to see first-hand the results of China’s defiance of Western demands, before it was its turn to respond to them. China, on the other hand, had no proof of Western military superiority and no previous examples to be guided by.