Asian History

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Compare and contrast how China and Japan dealt with the arrival of Europeans.

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Beginning in earnest in the 17th century, European merchants were eager to get their hands on goods and products from China and Japan. Both Asian nations were reluctant to open up to these outsiders and strictly limited their access to their markets. Just a handful of Dutch ships were permitted into Japanese ports throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and given a modest trading post in Hirado. The Chinese limited European trading to just a few ports with very little access to the nation's interior.

By the mid-19th century, growing Western pressure forced both China and Japan to grant more access to foreign traders; however, the way it unfolded for each nation was very different. When the Chinese attempted to ban the import and sale of opium, they entered into a series of disastrous wars with Great Britain. The Chinese defeat led to a slew of one-sided treaties that forced them to allow certain European powers greater access to their country. This was a huge humiliation for China.

The Japanese took note of China's humiliation at the hands of European powers, and when the American Navy sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, they quickly opened up their nation to the outside, but on their own terms. Unlike China, the Japanese did not resist Western influence but attempted to learn from it. Following certain Western models, they quickly modernized and industrialized their nation, and within just a few decades, Japan became one of the major players on the world stage. Contrast this to China, which would spend the late 19th and early 20th centuries wracked by internal conflicts and subjected to humiliating outside pressures from the West.

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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.

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