Envy and Antipathy: Chinese historical attitudes toward Japan

Yajun wrote a post yesterday talking about the complex feelings many Chinese have for Japan, and how a mixture of envy and empathy seem to be trumping old hatreds…for the time being at least.

It’s tempting to reduce the history of Japan/China relations to the horrific events of the Second World War, but the Sino-Japanese relationship goes back much further than that, and has long been characterized by a mixture of envy and antipathy.

Leaving aside the very earliest records of “Dwarf Pirates” and the occasional spat over Korea in centuries past, today’s attitudes have their roots in the tumultuous years at the end of the 19th century.  As China struggled with “Self Strengthening,” Japan roared ahead with a centralized program of modernization, industrialization, and reform.  So stunning was Japan’s success — and China’s apparent failure — that late into the 20th century it was still fashionable for scholars, both foreign and Chinese, to make direct comparisons between the two, forgetting that despite their proximity, Meiji Japan and Qing China were working with a very different set of geographic, political, economic, and strategic variables.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1895-1896 not only shocked China, it stunned the world and announced Japan’s arrival as a regional power.  Japan’s newly modernized armed forces decimated the fragmented Qing ‘navy,’ whose commanders bickered over strategic commitments while their sailors watched in dismay as shells supposedly filled with gunpowder failed to detonate when fired. (Many shells had their powder replaced by corrupt factory officials with sand, among other shenanigans.)  No other international conflict up to that point — not the Opium War nor even the Anglo-French invasion of 1860 — affected China more deeply.

By the turn of the 20th century, Japan had joined the European powers as Imperialist bullies of a dying empire.  Over half the troops in the 1900 Allied Relief Expedition against the Boxers were from Japan.  Boycotts of Japanese goods were a nascent form of ‘nationalist’ organizing among merchants in China.  Japan’s territorial ambitions —  supported by European and American powers — roused China’s youth to action in the May Fourth Era, and during the eponymous 1919 demonstrations against Japan’s seizure of Shandong province at the end of World War I, anti-Japanese anger became action. Demonstrators took to the streets to protest Japanese treachery, then turned on weak and traitorous Chinese politicians, crippling the government of Duan Qirui, and giving a new generation of radicals and reformists  their first heady taste of mass politics.

When war broke out in the 1930s, popular fury against Japanese aggression (and toward a KMT government seemingly unwilling or unable to stop the encroachment) reached such an extent that Zhang Xueliang (whose father had been assassinated by the Japanese eight years earlier) orchestrated the 1936 kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek.  While in captivity, Chiang was forced to accept  Zhou Enlai’s “Godfather” offer for the KMT to join the CCP and fight the Japanese.

Nevertheless, within a year Japanese imperial troops had conquered most of North and East China. As Yajun noted, the atrocities of this period are well-remembered in China through textbooks, the media, museums, patriotic education monuments, television, and movies.

But what is striking to me is how despite all of the conflict several generations of Chinese students and activists studied in Japan, and many more held up Japan as model by which to judge China’s present and plan her future.

The signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (ending the Sino-Japanese War) incited young scholars already gathered in Beijing for the triennial Imperial Exams to present a petition to the emperor calling for reforms.  The main drafter of this petition, Kang Youwei, would later serve the court for 100 Days in 1898, urging the young Guangxu Emperor to model himself and his reforms, in part, after the Meiji Emperor.

In 1906, Japan emerged victorious from the Russo-Japanese War, the first time in modern history an East Asian nation had defeated a European nation on the battlefield, and young Chinese began to see in Japan the possibilities that China too could someday successfully stand up to the Western powers.

The list of students who studied in Japan in the early 20th century reads like a who’s who of Modern Chinese history: Lu Xun, Chiang Kai-shek, Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, Zhou Enlai, Qiu Jin, and Song Jiaoren, among many others.  Japan provided a convenient haven for those who had run afoul of Qing authorities, and benefited from being close, cheaper than studying in Europe or North America, and offering a more familiar dietary, linguistic, and cultural environment.  The large number of Chinese students and exiled radicals in Japan attracted organizers seeking to rally impressionable young Chinese to their cause.  The Tongmenghui 同盟会, the precursor of the KMT, was founded by Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren in Tokyo in 1905, even as Kang Youwei was urging his fellow Chinese in Japan to eschew revolution and support his vision of a reformed constitutional monarchy.

The exacting and disciplined Japanese military culture left a profound mark on many young men, most famously Chiang Kai-shek, who in later years may have surrounded himself with people so corrupt they had to screw their pants on every morning, but who lived his own life as an exercise in warrior asceticism.

Even the language of modernity in China owes a great debt to Japanese.  Faced with the challenge of translating new ideas using old characters, neologisms like democracy 民主主义 and revolution 革命 appeared first in Japanese before being re-imported to China.  Ancient terms (such as 卫生 “preserving life”) were imbued with new modern meanings (“hygiene”).

As I read and hear Chinese reactions to the tragic events in Japan, I am reminded of this complex legacy.  Some people wish to donate money and supplies to help in the relief effort, others wonder why “poor Chinese” need to help rich Japan.  There are those comments, linked to in Yajun’s post, expressing a mixture of admiration and wonder at the “disciplined” nature of Japanese society, and not so subtly pointing out how China (once again) “fails” to measure up to Japan according to ever shifting standards of modernity and development.  And of course, there are the shrill voices of bleating nationalist sheep taking perverse pleasure in Japanese suffering.  (Though lest China be singled out in this regard, it’s wise to recall that “Pearl Harbor” was a trending topic on Twitter over the weekend.)

As Yajun wrote, it is a complicated relationship, and one I believe can’t be simply reduced to the historical memories of World War II.  Hopefully, something good can emerge from this horrific tragedy, and empathy will replace antipathy as the dominant chord in relations between these two great countries.