China and the World

In thrall to history

New books seeks to explain Sino-Japanese rivalry


If the relationship between China and the United States is the most important relationship in the world, then arguably the second most important relationship is that between China, which is about to become the world’s largest economy, and its neighbour, Japan, the third largest economy.”

So begins Ezra Vogel’s latest book – China and Japan: Facing History – which sets out to explain this long relationship. The Harvard professor describes that relationship as “tense, deep and complicated”.

Vogel starts in the 7th century, and takes the reader through long periods of commercial and cultural exchange, with Japan even developing its language from written Chinese.

Japan was a tribute state of Imperial China for some of this time, between 600-838; and again from 1403-1547. Between those periods there were more occasional exchanges, particularly via Buddhist monks.

But under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan retreated into isolationism and contact with China was limited. Chinese goods were still much desired (especially silk), but traders were allowed to visit only through restricted ports.

The fates of both countries would not come together again until the late 19th century, when both were trying to reposition themselves on the world stage: China still reeling from the Opium Wars; Japan from the arrival of Commodore Perry.

Japan’s approach was to learn as much as it could from the West technologically and industrially, and when it wanted to demonstrate its new proficiency China was its first target.

Japan’s shock victory in the 1895 Sino-Japanese war led to China’s loss of Taiwan and served as the start of an emboldened Tokyo flexing its military muscle across the region. In China some politicians like Kang Youwei (see WiC458) advocated learning from Japan. He encouraged the translation of thousands of Japanese books and many Chinese went to Japan to study in the late Qing and Republican periods.

A cosmopolitan elite enjoyed spending time in both nations too. The Republic’s founder Sun Yat-sen, the writer Lu Xun and two of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, all spent key formative years in Japan.

In Japan the ideas of pan-Asianism were on the rise. Atsumaro Konoe was a leading figure, arguing that China and Japan should ally against European colonial influence in the region.

The First World War marked another watershed moment: the two nations were notionally on the same side (that of the Entente), but Japan used the conflict to expand its sphere of influence within China through its Twenty-One Demands (which Vogel calls “aggressive and ham-fisted”; it pressed for Japanese advisors to be placed in the Chinese government); plus its activities in the northeast (Manchuria) and its conquest of former German treaty ports like Qingdao. In 1919 the Versailles Treaty again left China feeling mistreated. The Chinese government had hoped that it might recover Shandong (territory which had been held by Germany). Instead it was confirmed as Japanese – part of a wartime deal done with the UK in exchange for Japan sending its warships into the Mediterranean to protect Entente convoys.

The dispute over Shandong led to the May Fourth Movement (see WiC450). This uprising helped usher in the chaos of the Warlord Period, which made China more vulnerable to later invasion. The horrors of the Second World War are well known – most controversially among Chinese for the Nanjing Massacre, a longstanding resentment.

Vogel explains that long-dormant enmities were easy to revive, however. In China, for instance, the imperial government made much of the crimes of “Japanese Pirates” over many years. This became part of a collective cultural memory, with Japanese pirates appearing as villains in stories for local children.

The Japanese had long memories too, and a great fear of invasion by China. The belief that they had been saved from Chinese attack in the past by divine intervention (the kamikaze winds that blew Kublai Khan’s invading ships away in 1274) became part of their own folk legends.

Vogel says “the risk of dangerous incidents is high” today thanks to disputes over maritime territory and because fewer than 10% of each nation’s people tell pollsters they hold a favourable opinion of the other.

But Vogel also adds that no two countries “can compare with China and Japan in terms of the length of their historical contact”. The two Asian giants should reset their relationship, he counsels, by creating more common ground and by choosing to work together in areas like environmental protection, global economic development and scientific research.

On the positive side, the Sino-US trade and tech tensions seem to have persuaded Beijing not to simultaneously antagonise Tokyo. A state visit to Japan by President Xi Jinping is scheduled for next year.

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