Nationalism in East Asia Research Paper

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Nationalism in East Asia challenged a broad international system known as the Chinese World Order. In particular, nationalism in modern Japan played the most important role in dissolving this system.

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1. The Chinese World Order

The scholar J. K. Fairbank and others (1968) have noted that the Chinese World order of premodern East Asia was a far-reaching international system characterized by the existence of an emperor considered to have been designated by heaven because of his innate virtue. He was referred to as a ‘son of Heaven’ and had the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ to rule. The emperor was considered to rule the world (tianxia, ‘all under heaven’) as a ‘child of Heaven,’ and his subjects ostensibly enjoyed the benefits of benevolent rule reminiscent of the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese civilization described in ancient sacred texts. In reality, the power of the Chinese emperor had a limited reach, and there were a number of foreign tribes on the outskirts of the clearly defined spheres of Chinese civilization. Under the Chinese World Order, however, all subjects were ideally expected to be protected by the emperor, regardless of differences in their race, ethnicity, place of birth, or language—similar to the corpus christianum of the Middle Ages in Europe.

One basic principle of the Chinese World Order was that it attempted to enfold these foreign tribes in its system and stave off invasion through tributary missions and other rituals. Thus, many foreign rulers from surrounding areas shared and benefited from the common idea of a Chinese World Order. They used the system to their own advantage by sending tributary missions to Chinese dynasties which in turn gave them authority and protection in their own areas. Chinese emperors entered into feudalistic relationships with these rulers under this tributary system, providing them with royal titles, official seal and a calendar system in return for their loyalty. Foreign rulers, in turn, benefited by securing long-lasting political relations with Chinese dynasties through tributary missions. In addition, the tributary system played a significant role in functioning as a broad network of exchange of people, commodities, and information among different regions (Hamashita 1990).

There has been academic dispute over when and how the Chinese World Order was developed and maintained. Some argue that it can be dated as far back as the ‘Spring and Autumn’ and ‘Warring States’ periods (770–221 BC), while others claim that the prototype of the system can be identified in the age of the Sui-Tang dynasties (581–907), with refinement of the system being completed as late as the MingQing period (1368–1911). These theories notwithstanding, certain characteristics are indisputable: the Chinese World Order constituted one of the primary ways for China to regard its world, and it had a great impact in connecting many disparate and broad regions through their common use of the Chinese written language.

2. The China-Centered View Of China’s Neighbors

The philosophy of China as the center of the world (made evident by the Chinese character word for China, ‘Middle Kingdom’), which constituted the Chinese World Order, was not always used solely by Chinese emperors. For example, in seventh century Japan, which was undergoing the formation of a state, the self-consciousness of the people as an independent state was enhanced by their admiration of China and their emulation of Chinese imperial political systems. Later, in the seventeenth century, when the Ming dynasty was destroyed by a non-Han ethnic minority (the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty), a powerful new discourse arose in tributary countries such as Korea and Vietnam which claimed that they, not the Manchus, were the legitimate successors to the Chinese dynasty, given their long history of tributary relations with China.

In Japan, where the tributary system never took root, a number of intellectuals expressed their outright hostility against Chinese civilization, which had entered Japan through the widespread use of Chinese characters and Chinese literary texts. For instance, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some Confucian scholars claimed that the term ‘Middle Kingdom’ was meant to refer only to Japan. Other nativist scholars studying Japanese classical literature during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) claimed Japan was the ‘land of the gods,’ effectively placing Japan above China. Anti-Chinese sentiment against Qing (Manchu) China prevailed in the peripheral countries such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and played an important role in forming a political and societal basis for national self-consciousness, because of the natural hostility of these nations towards the ‘usurper’ dynasty (Arano 1988).

Early modern Japan engaged in the process of forming an independent national consciousness earlier than other East Asian nations. Never having been a tributary of China, Japanese scholars were able to form their own ideology of international relations during this period of relative stability (Toby 1984). In addition, Japan successfully maintained an individual route for economic trade with Western countries during the peaceful Tokugawa era. In this respect, it can be said that the Japanese state in the early modern age had already begun to separate itself from a China centered Asia well before the nineteenth century, when the formation of a modern state along the lines of Western nation states was begun.

3. The Western Threat And The Acceptance Of International Law

The Chinese World Order underwent a tremendous change in the nineteenth century when Western nations began incursions into Asia in search of trading opportunities. During the Qing dynasty, a series of wars between Western nations and China in 1840–2 and 1858–60 compelled a small number of intellectuals to promote the urgent necessity of strengthening state defenses. The treaties concluded between China and the Western powers forced China’s involvement in the Western nation state system. As symbols of this, the first bureau of foreign affairs, the Zongli-Yamen (Office for General Management), was established in the capital city in 1861, and the exchange of permanent missions also began in the 1870s (Bannno 1964, 1973). However, high-ranking Qing government officials as well as officials responsible for making foreign policy actually regarded these treaties as an extension of their tributary policy; therefore, they did not regard these new relations with the West as relations among equal, independent nation states, let alone with China as a subordinate. Although Chinese territory was repeatedly invaded, few Chinese were able to reach across societal divisions to form a consciousness of national crisis and national identity. As long as the conventional, historical Chinese view of the world (with China at the center) remained alluring, it was difficult for the Chinese to rally around a nationalism which would necessitate that they actually view their nation as one of many nations in the world.

Meanwhile, nationalism was growing rapidly in Japan—perhaps partially because Japan had never been free of a consciousness of itself as on the periphery of dominant Chinese civilization, and so had long tried to carve out an independent identity. The catalyst for the rapid growth of nationalism and nation strengthening movements was the Opium War (1840– 2) in China, which called Japan’s attention to the danger of the Western powers and their interest in East Asia. Japanese nationalism was aimed at strengthening and modernizing Japan along the lines of a Western-style nation state, and to encourage Japan to abide by the system of international law which theoretically supported the formation of a nation state. As soon as the first international treaty was concluded between the USA, the UK, and Russia in 1854, a political movement called sonno joi (‘revere the emperor, expel the barbarian’) was launched to overthrow the bakufu and establish the Emperor as the head of the state. This movement led to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. With the aim of defending itself against the threat of the Western powers, the Meiji government energetically promoted policies aimed at modernizing Japan’s industries, military power, and constitutional system. The end goal was to establish a fully-fledged modern nation state, with the emperor at its head, which would earn the respect of the Western nations.

Meiji statesmen and bureaucrats learned the principles of sovereignty and the territory through their studies of international laws (bankoku koho in Japanese, wanguo gongfa in Chinese) which were introduced from China during the late Tokugawa period. Their main goal was to abolish the ‘unequal treaties’ which Japan had been forced to sign with the West in the 1850s. Japan also sought influence in some East Asian territories in which China had been dominant, such as Taiwan and Korea. Japanese expansionism brought about increasing regional tensions with the Qing dynasty over influence in Taiwan, Ryukyu and Korea, and the tension finally culminated in military clashes between the two countries.

4. The Sino–Japanese War Of 1894–5 And The Advent Of Modern Nationalism

The Sino–Japanese War of 1894–5 was a major catalyst in promoting the growth of nationalism in Japan and transforming the East Asian world order. This war, which broke out over struggles between the two countries over supremacy in Korea, culminated in Japan’s unexpectedly thorough victory over China. The tributary system was finally dissolved with the granting of the unconditional independence of Korea, which had been Qing China’s closest tributary state. Taiwan also became a colony of Japan. The result was a new East Asian world order with Japan at its center, replacing China.

The mobilization of the Japanese people during the Sino–Japanese (1894–5) and Russo–Japanese (1904–5) Wars marked a decisive turning point for Japan and the formation of national self-identity. In the wake of the Russo–Japanese War, modern Japan began to expand its image of empire with a view to invading the Chinese continent, since Japan was given rights and interests in Korea and Manchuria as part of the spoils of war. The war united patriotic militarists and also promoted an unprecedented sense of alliance among people in Japan from different regions or social classes.

China’s defeat during the Sino–Japanese War was a tremendous shock to the Chinese. Moreover, the sense of crisis in China was intensified by the fact that a small country which had long been regarded as a backward area unexpectedly defeated the Chinese army with military power adopted from Western civilization. It was at this momentous time that a true sense of Chinese nationalism first appeared as the old Chinese World Order finally was dissolved. In particular, the news on the military defeat of China rendered the serious impact on lower level bureaucrats and progressive intellectuals, and they attempted to promote nation state building along the lines of Meiji Japan. Although this reform movement (bianfa) failed in 1898 under the pressure of conservatives, the Qing government attempted their own top-down reforms, and the transition to a modern constitutional state was launched on a large scale during the first decade of the twentieth century.

During this period, efforts to build up a nation state were also being made in the former tributary countries such as Korea and Vietnam, especially among the lower stratum of elite. In Vietnam and Korea, nationalism came into being through anti-imperialist movements against France in the case of Vietnam and against Japan in the case of Korea. Taiwan’s nationalistic movement was born when the Taiwanese opposed Japanese colonial discrimination during the 1920s under the influence of Wilsonian ideas of national self-determination prevailing since World War I. Decades later, a separate form of nationalism in Taiwan gained strength that was based upon a consciousness of Taiwan as separate from the Chinese continental government.

5. Nationalism And Asianism

As mentioned earlier, modern Japan was the first East Asian country to create a unified nation state successfully, and it struggled to build up a national identity under the strong outside pressures of Western forces and with the new common national goal of ‘leaving Asia, entering Europe’ (Datsu-a nyu-ou). However, the nationalism of the expanding Japanese empire that had already incorporated Okinawa and Hokkaido in its territories took on a new form when Taiwan and Korea were colonized by Japan in 1895 and 1910, respectively. A new discourse of Asianism emerged that had the goal of opposing Western imperialism against all Asian nations by uniting the Asian nations under Japanese leadership. This ideology led to new complications owing to the variety of ethnicities and national loyalties that existed in East Asia (Takeuchi 1963).

One example of an Asianist thinker was the Meiji intellectual Tokutomi Soho (1863–1957), who promoted an idea of democracy among the common people (heimin-shugi) that also stressed the importance of a strong power in Asia to oppose Western powers. He was particularly provoked by the Triple Intervention of Russia, France and Germany in 1895, which was perceived as the ultimate example of Western arrogance against Japan.

Asianism would only succeed if it accommodated itself to the new regional order, which was constantly changing in response to factors such as the gradual worsening of Japanese–Chinese relations and global changes in the wake of World War I. The possibility of Sino–Japanese cooperation against the West seemed stronger with the publication of works such as Sun Yat-sen’s Greater Asianism in 1924 (Sun 1986).

However, in spite of the lofty ideals of the building of a new East Asian order, the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and the start of the Sino–Japanese war in 1937 meant that the autonomy and unification of the Asian nations was not brought to fruition. Certainly, right after the outbreak of hostilities, the idea of ‘East Asian Cooperativism’ differed from other philosophies such as liberalism or communism as it attempted to promote a principle that would unify Asia during this period of total war. Such ideas were an important test of the possibilities of redefining the traditional boundaries of the state and its people. They were also a criticism of self-serving Japanese policies towards China and of the general attitude towards Chinese nationalism. These were a new manifestation of the possibilities of the principle of Asianism (Hasikawa and Matsumoto 1970).

However, aggression continued to maintain a stubborn relationship to unity within Asianist thought. The constantly expanding battlefront and the continued use of military aggression against Asian peoples eventually destroyed the hope of Asian unification. Euphemistic slogans such as ‘Liberation of the [Asian] people’ or ‘Building a new order’ inevitably became fodder for Japan to deceive itself and justify aggressive war against its neighbors. The wartime concept of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ (Dai to-a kyoei ken) was another manifestation of pan-Asianism. In spite of the lofty principle of Asian cooperation behind the idea, proponents of this concept were never able to take on a point of view critical of Japan’s increasing aggression and imperialism. It was not until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945 that these discourses justifying Japanese imperialism disappeared.

6. Ethnic Nationalism In The Periphery

The Qing dynasty dissolved in the wake of the Revolution of 1911. The new Republic of China aimed at establishing a highly centralized state that would embark on a number of industrial, societal, and educational reforms. Rural skirmishes with warlords and regional military cliques occupied the energies of the government, however, and the unification of the nation was not achieved until the Nanking Nationalist Government was established in 1928. Mongolia and Tibet both virtually declared independence from China on the grounds that the former tributary relationship was severed when the Chinese emperor abdicated in 1912. Undoubtedly, the Chinese central government did not approve of independence, but it was difficult for the government to rule these areas in an effective way since they needed to maintain diplomatic relations with countries such as the USSR and the UK, which enjoyed a number of concessions in those regions. The tendency for non-Han regions to distance themselves from the central government grew stronger (Mancall 1984). One such example could be found in the independence of the ‘Outer Mongolia’ in 1924.

During the 1930s and 1940s, there were a number of political movements for independence by Muslims of Turkish descent in the area of East Turkestan (Xinjiang province), as well as military disputes between Tibetans and Chinese in the co-habitated areas of Tibet. Although areas such as Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan, and Tibet were merged into China under direct governmental control when the Peoples’ Republic of China was established in 1949, ethnic nationalism in these areas reportedly has become increasingly vigorous in recent years (Mori 1998).


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  2. Banno M 1964 China and the West, 1858–1861: The Origins of the Tsungli Yamen. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
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  4. Fairbank J K (ed.) 1968 The Chinese World Order; Traditional China’s Foreign Relations. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
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