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Japan and China reacted to European contact in ways that were mostly rather different. The two countries both thought the Europeans were culturally inferior to themselves, but the Japanese were much more willing to learn about European science and technology.
Both the Chinese and the Japanese felt that the Europeans were barbarians. They were particularly repelled by the smell of these foreigners who ate much fattier diets and who did not typically wash very often. They also felt the Europeans lacked subtlety and were rather crass in their behaviors.
The similarities, however, largely end there. The Chinese tried to simply ignore the Europeans. They were able to do this to some degree because the Europeans did not have anything they wanted. They were willing to take European silver in exchange for tea and otherwise leave the Europeans alone. This worked until around the time of the Opium Wars when the Europeans forced China to open itself more.
The Japanese, by contrast, were more eager to learn from the Europeans. It is true, of course, that the Japanese closed their country. They did not let Europeans in and they did not let Japanese out. But they did still let some European ways in to the country. They were willing to get European technologies such as guns because they felt those things could be useful to them.
This pattern continued for a long time. Even after it became clear that the Europeans could defeat the Chinese militarily, the Chinese did not try to adopt European ways to any great extent. By contrast, the Japanese industrialized and modernized rapidly after Perry “opened” Japan in the 1850s.
Both China and Japan had faced similar challenges from the West (both faced severe challenges from Western imperial powers and ended up signing unequal treaties with the West, with the new foreign presence instilling new waves of domestic turbulence) but had responded in very different ways. The elites of both countries responded to the challenges posed by Western penetration by initiating reforms. In Japan, the Meiji regime chose to remake themselves entirely through Westernisation, while in China, the Qing government chose instead to hold on to traditional Chinese values and institutions. China’s efforts at reforms, including the Self-Strengthening Movements and the Tongzhi Restoration, were in essential traditional answers to traditional problems. There was no significant, large-scale industrialisation in China and the Machus displayed little willingness to abandon traditional imperial institutions that were incapable to dealing with contemporary problems. Chinese cultural pride was just too deeply ingrained, so much so that it became an impediment, blinding many Chinese and preventing them from recognising the need to learn from the barbarians and for fundamental change. On the other hand, Japanese efforts to adopt foreign technology to meet their military and industrial needs were largely successful. The Meiji regime, however, saw that military technology and industrialisation could not be separated from institutional structures that had produced and accompanied such developments in the West, and showed little hesitation in transforming or abolishing traditional institutions in favour of those that could give Japan the modernity it needed to survive. Overall, the Meiji Restoration was a tremendous success for the Japanese and allowed them to join the ranks of Western new imperial powers.
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