KEY POINTS across East Asia—by Era



In the 16th century, under the Ming (1368-1644)

  • the Chinese economy was still the most sophisticated and productive in the world, and
  • the Chinese probably enjoyed a higher standard of living than any other people on earth.

In the 18th century under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), founded by the invading Manchus,

  • continued this splendor.
  • Contemporary Chinese called the 18th century "unparalleled in history," when all aspects of culture flourished.
    • China was a prosperous state with
    • abundant natural resources,
    • a huge but basically contented population, and
    • a royal house of great prestige at home and abroad.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, however, four key issues dominate China's history.

  • China's conflict with an aggressively expanding West in the 1800s, beginning with the demands made by England, through the British East India Company, at the end of the 1700s:
    • When the industrializing European states attempted to entice China into the newly forming world economy in the late 1700s and early 1800s, their overtures were rebuffed.
      • the Chinese, who quite rightly felt that they had little to gain from trade with these states.
    • Western military power was far superior to that of the Chinese, however, and England, as was true with the other imperial powers, was intent on "opening up" trade with China.
    • Silver, minted by the Spaniards in their new territories in the Americas, eventually travels across the Pacific, through Manila, and into China as the commodity the Europeans can trade for the goods they seek from China (the Spanish or "Mexican dollar")
    • Asia is the center of the world economy at this time and China, a "sink" for silver. The British eventually find a way to reverse this trade pattern with the introduction of opium in the 1800s…and go to war with China when the Chinese try to stop them. (Opium War, 1839-1842)
    • China was defeated in a series of military confrontations and forced to sign "unequal treaties" that
      • opened Chinese ports (known as "treaty ports"), first to European, and then to American and Japanese traders.
      • made China relinquish legal jurisdiction over sections of these port cities and over foreigners residing in China.
      • excluded Chinese nationals from facilities and areas controlled by foreigners.
      • forced the China to allow Western Christian missionaries to proselytize in the interior of the country.
    • Following the Second Opium War (1856-60), Westerners further humiliate the Chinese by attacking and sacking the main imperial dwelling of Old Summer Palace
    • Between the first major confrontation, the Opium War of 1839-42, and the early 1900s, the British, French, Germans, Americans, and then the Japanese competed for "spheres of influence" within China until it was at risk of being "carved up like a melon."
  • Internal crises that were occurring simultaneously within China
    • By the late 1700s the strong Chinese state contained seeds of its own destruction, particularly its expanding population.
      • Having remained at 100 million through much of history, under the peaceful Qing, the population doubled from 150 million in 1650 to 300 million by 1800, and
      • The population reached 450 million by the late nineteenth century (cf. population of the U.S. was 200 million in the 1980s).
    • By then, there was no longer any land in China's southern and central provinces available for migration:
      • the introduction of New World (American) crops through trade - especially sweet potatoes, peanuts, and tobacco, which required different growing conditions than rice and wheat - had already claimed previously unusable land.
      • With only 1/10 of the land arable, farmers had an average of only three (3) acres, with many having only one acre.
      • The right of equal inheritance among sons (versus primogeniture as practiced in Japan) only hastened the fragmentation of land holdings.
    • To compound these problems, the state's political control was diminishing.
      • The size of the bureaucracy remained the same while the population grew.
      • By the 19th century, district magistrates at the lowest level of the Chinese bureaucracy were responsible for the welfare, control, and taxation of an average of 250,000 people.
      • This left control and responsibility for government increasingly in the hands of local leaders whose allegiances were to their localities and families, rather than to the state.
        [The weakness of the state and the disruption of the economy due to the Western presence left China unable to provide for its huge population]
    • Natural catastrophes (drought and famine) and man-made disasters (especially floods from deteriorating water-control works, made worse by over-reclamation (with the new crops), of the wetlands, lowlands, and mountain slopes, that were necessary to control water runoff, hit China in the late 19th century.
    • A series of rebellions occurred across the country.
      • The Taiping (185l-1864), Nian (Nien) (1853-1868), Moslem (1855-1873), and Boxer (1898-190l) rebellions all took place in the latter part of the 19th century.
      • During the Taiping Rebellion, rebel forces controlled a large portion of China, and established their capital in the city of Nanking.
    • The power of the central government was further weakened as military power was delegated to the provinces to control these rebellions.
  • Leadership disagreement about how best to respond to these combined challenges and the extent and nature of the changes that were required.
    • The ability of the Western nations and then Japan to impose their economic demands on China by force of arms was jarring to the Chinese view of themselves as a highly developed civilization.
    • Moreover, the Western notion of a system of international relations conducted among sovereign nation-states challenged Chinese identity as an advanced, universalistic civilization.
    • It was also difficult for the Chinese, whose emperor had been recognized as the supreme authority by countries bearing tribute to the Chinese court, to adapt to the system that had evolved in Europe by the 1800s whereby sovereign nation-states interacted as equals.
    • Conflicting views within China of how it should respond to foreign pressures fell roughly into three categories:
      • pro-traditionalism, which sought to completely reject any import of Western culture and to strengthen the country through reform-within-tradition and cultural revival; and
      • the idea of adopting Western technology in order to preserve the essence of Chinese civilization, "Western learning for application, Chinese learning for essence."
      • anti-traditionalism, which rejected the traditional claims of cultural superiority, dismissed Chinese culture as sick, corrupt, and useless, and advocated complete Westernization;
    • The Chinese emphasis on the
      • moral role of government,
      • the perfectibility of man, and
      • the belief that moral qualities and not technical expertise merited reward and ultimately benefited society,
      • led to an unwillingness to cultivate a class of technical experts-- in industry or in government.
  • Search for a form of government to lead China:
    • 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War – humiliation from China's defeat by Japan in struggle for dominance in Korea
    • 1898: 100 Days of Reform under the Kwangxu Emperor
      • Thwarted by Empress Dowager Zixi and conservatives
      • Boxer Rebellion, 1899-1901, against foreigners, including Qing (Manchus), manipulated by traditionalists to target Westerners and missionaries
      • Invasion, retaliation, and looting by combined Western forces; Old Summer Palace completely destroyed
      • Dynastic decline:
    • 1912 Collapse of Qing Dynasty and the dynastic system – Republican Government established
      • Sun Yat-sen led the forces calling for a republican government
      • Sun Yat-sen defers to warlord Yuan Shikai as president
      • The collapse of the dynastic system ushered in the turbulent "warlord period," however, with regional power centers competing for control.
    • 1919 Versailles Treaty terms at conclusion of WW I—Turning Point in China
      • During WW I (1914-1918), China sent workers to France to support the war efforts of the Allies. China also formally declared war on Japan in 1917.
      • The peace negotiations took place in Paris in 1918
        • U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proposed “14 Points” to be included in the peace, among them the right of self-determination for nations
        • China assumed that that Japanese rights on Chinese soil, in the province of Shandong, would be returned to Chinese sovereignty by the treaty.
      • The Allies instead awarded the rights to Germany.
      • When news of the treaty provisions reached China, a massive, popular demonstration took place on May 4, 1919 – protesting this continued rejection of China's rights on its own territory by the imperialist powers.
      • China's experienced a rise in “nationalism” expressed in developments that came to be known as the “May 4th Movement”
      • As China's predicament worsened, some intellectuals began to argue that these Confucian values were at the root of China's inability to repulse the military and political incursions of the West and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
      • The outpouring of popular outrage coalesced in a new nationalism with repeated cries for a "new culture" that would reinstate China to its former international position.
      • The way out of China's problems, many believed, was to adopt Western notions of equality and democracy and to abandon the Confucian approach which stressed hierarchy in relationships and obedience.
        • “Science” and “Democracy” became the code words of the day.
      • Marxism appealed to some Chinese as a Western theory that claimed to be “scientific” and ultimately “democratic,” while predicting the demise of imperialism
        • The Russian Revolution had occurred in 1917 during WW I
        • The new government soon (1924) renounced imperialist rights granted to the Tsarist regime
    • The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang/KMT) formed in Oct 1919
    • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in Shanghai in 1921.
    • From 1920s-1950, war and revolution;
      • KMT and CCP fight for political leadership;
      • Japanese encroachment continues with invasion in 1937 and WW II in China


Japan and the West: The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868)

  • The prolonged period of peace fosters great economic and social changes in Japanese society, culture, and the economy, setting the stage for rapid modernization in the subsequent Meiji period.

Western Intrusion breaking Japan's Self-imposed Isolation

  • 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, commanding a squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels, sailed into Tôkyô harbor aboard the frigate Susquehanna.
    • Perry, on behalf of the U.S. government, forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States and demanded a treaty permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. merchant ships.
    • This was the era when all Western powers were seeking to open new markets for their manufactured goods abroad, as well as new countries to supply raw materials for industry.
    • It was clear that Commodore Perry could impose his demands by force. The Japanese had no navy with which to defend themselves, and thus they had to agree to the demands.
  • the Japanese knew that his ships were just the beginning of Western interest in their islands.
    • Russia, Britain, France, and Holland all followed Perry's example and used their fleets to force Japan to sign treaties that promised regular relations and trade.
    • They did not just threaten Japan — they combination their navies on several occasions to defeat and disarm the Japanese feudal domains that defied them.
  • In 1854 a treaty was signed between the United States and Japan which allowed trade at two ports. In 1858 another treaty was signed which opened more ports and designated cities in which foreigners could reside, “Unequal Treaties” similar to those that China was forced to sign..
    • The trade brought much foreign currency into Japan disrupting the Japanese monetary system.
    • Because the ruling shôgun seemed unable to do anything about the problems brought by the foreign trade, some samurai leaders began to demand a change in leadership.
    • The weakness of the Tokugawa shogunate before the Western demand for trade, and the disruption this trade brought, eventually led to the downfall of the Shogunate and the creation of a new centralized government with the emperor as its symbolic head.

Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

  • Convinced that modernization depended on abolishing the feudal order, a group of middle-ranking, reform-minded samurai overthrew the military government of the Shôgun in 1868 and set Japan peaceably on a course of radical modernization perhaps unparalleled in history.
  • They launch the reform movement under the guise of restoring the emperor to power, thereby eliminating the power of the shogun, or military ruler, of the Tokugawa period. The emperor then took the reign name "Meiji" meaning "enlightened rule," Hence the title, "Meiji Restoration" of 1868.
  • Carried out in the name of restoring rule to the emperor, the Meiji “Restoration” was in many ways a profound revolution
    • Economic, political, and social changes that have taken place during the preceding 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) lay the basis for the rapid transformation of Japan into a modern industrial power, with a constitution, a parliament, a national, compulsory education system, a modern army and navy, roads, trains, and telegraph — in less than 50 years.
    • The emperor's effective power remains the same, but the reformers use the imperial symbol to rally public support and national sentiment for rapid modernization. Note that In China, where a foreign power, the Manchus, holds imperial power from 1644-1911 (Qing dynasty), the similar use of imperial legitimacy — to mobilize popular support for social and political transformation to meet the challenge of the West — is not possible.
  • The Japanese carry out this modernization by very deliberate study, borrowing, and adaptation of Western political, military, technological, economic, and social forms — repeating a pattern of deliberate borrowing and adaptation seen previously in the classical period when Japan studied Chinese civilization (particularly in the 7th century to 8th century).
    • The new leaders studied the political, economic, and social institutions of the Western powers and selectively adopted those suited to their purpose.
    • In 1889 a constitution was promulgated establishing a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government -- but left it accountable to the emperor rather than to the people.
    • Administrative power was centralized in a national bureaucracy which also ruled in the name of the emperor.
    • The classes were declared equal, so that
      • samurai and their lords lost their feudal privileges
      • the role of merchants — formerly despised as profit hungry — began to be respected.
    • The enthusiastic adoption of new Western technologies caused an explosion of industrial productivity and diversification.
    • A national military and universal conscription were established.
    • Compulsory public education was introduced both
      • to teach the skills needed for the new nation and
      • to inculcate values of citizenship in all Japanese.
  • Always dependent on foreign trade, Japan was hard hit by the world depression that began in 1929.
    • The farmers who had grown the silk that was exported to the United States found no market for their product once the roaring twenties and the craze for silk stockings collapsed with the stock market crash.
    • Japan's dramatic economic growth slowed, and social problems increased, especially in the countryside.

Meiji Foreign Policy

  • Japan, which had isolated itself from international politics in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), enters an international system of the late 1800s where imperialism dominates. Japan rapidly becomes a major participant in this international system and seeks particular imperialist privileges with its East Asian neighbors, China and Korea
    • The leaders of imperial Japan continued to address the issue of Japan's unequal status in the international order.
      • In 1894, more than forty years after Commodore Perry pried Japan open to the outside world, Japan finally succeeded in revising the unequal treaties so that it regained its legal parity with the Western powers.
    • Japan's successful transformation into a modern, military power is demonstrated first in 1894-95 and then in 1905-6.
    • In 1894-95 Japan fought a war against China over the control of Korea and gained Taiwan, Japan's first colony. (Sino-Japanese War) Japan defeats China, long the preeminent power in East Asia, in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 over influence in the Korean peninsula.
    • In 1902, Japan signed an alliance with Great Britain, which signified a dramatic increase in international status
    • In 1904-5, Japan won a war against Russia, one of the major Western powers, in the process Japan defeats Russia, a major Western power, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06 over rights in Manchuria and Korea.
      • Chinese reformers and revolutionaries base themselves in Japan;
      • Western nations take note of Japan's new power.
      • Japan makes Korea a “protectorate” of Japan
    • Japan expanded its empire, annexing Korea in 1910.
    • WWI and the Versailles Peace Treaty 1919
      • Japan was allied with the United States and Britain in World War I, and expected territorial gains at the Versailles peace conference in 1919.
      • German rights in Shandong Province are transferred to Japan, enraging China (May 4th Movement in China)
      • Japan's proposal to have a “racial equality” clause included in the Covenant of the League of Nations was denied by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson
      • The failure of the Japanese to get a clause on racial equality inserted into the covenant of the League of Nations was an insult
      • Japan again learned the lesson that the West regarded imperialism very differently if it was the imperialism of an Asian rather than a European power.
      • Japan was further insulted in 1924 when the United States barred all Japanese from immigration.


Imperialism: Western and Japanese

  • Korea is the last of the East Asian countries to be subjected to imperialism, rebuffing Western demands:
    • By the mid-nineteenth century Korea was one of the last Asian holdouts against Western imperialism, which had conquered much of southern Asia and was making inroads on China. Vietnam, which like Korea was a close tributary state to China, had been conquered by the French in the 1860s.
    • Following the successful opening of Japan to trade and diplomacy with the West in 1854 through the "gunboat diplomacy" of Commodore Perry of the US Navy, the British, the French, and the Americans all attempted to open Korea in a similar fashion.
    • Korea, however, refused to comply to Western demands, and engaged in naval skirmishes with the French and the Americans in the 1860s and early 1870s.
  • In the end, it was Japan, not the West, that forced Korea to open up.
    • The 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa between Japan and Korea, named after the island off the west coast of Korea where it was signed, was a classic "unequal treaty," of the kind Western powers were imposing on Asian countries, including China and Japan, in the nineteenth century.
    • The treaty gave Japan special trading rights and other privileges in Korea that were not reciprocated for Koreans in Japan.
    • The United States and major European countries soon followed with their own treaties of trade and diplomacy with Korea.
  • By the end of the nineteenth century, rivalry over Korea led to war -- both wars won by Japan
    • between Japan and China (1894-95) – the Sino-Japanese War and, ten years later,
    • between Japan and Russia (1904-5) – the Russo-Japanese War, when Korea is made a “protectorate” of Japan
  • In 1910 Japan annexed Korea as a colony,
  • The Choson dynasty ended, after more than 500 years of independent rule.


**Since the history of different parts of what we today call “Vietnam,” we are using a chart to convey developments in different regions over time:


Tale of Kieu (epic poem in Chu Nom, Vietnamese characters), written by Nguyen Du (1765-1820)


Tay Son Rebellion

Tay Son brothers defeat Nguyen and Trinh and unify country

1802-1945, Nguyen dynasty unites entire country

• established by Nguyen Anh, a southern prince, who fought and defeated the Tay Son to become the Gia-long Emperor; moved the capital to Hue in the center of the country.
the second Nguyen ruler adopts a Chinese bureaucratic model, with scholar-officials chosen by examinations in the Confucian classics.

1862-1945, French control Vietnam, dividing it into three "pays" (countries)




Hanoi is capital of French Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia
Romanized script, "Quoc ngu," developed in the 17th century by missionaries to write Vietnamese language, is made official; literacy rate increases