Modernization in China and Japan


Institutional Affiliations

After a very long time of living in isolation, Japan and China facedintense pressure during the late nineteenth Century to open up theirborders and allow foreign trade and international relations withother countries. During this time, a wide gap had been createdbetween Europe and the United States with respect to China and Japanbecause of the industrial revolution (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009).China and Japan were left behind both technologically and in militaryprowess. The result was that both China and Japan could not matchWestern powers and were forcefully made to sign unequal treaties thatleft them with no option, but to open their cities and ports toforeigners. Interestingly, the two countries reacted very differentlyto this situation leading to vast differences in their modernizationprocess. This paper compares and contrasts the modernization processof China and Japan during the second half of the nineteenth centuryand throughout the twentieth century by analyzing their challengesand at the time the social/political/cultural reforms theyencountered.

China and Japan’s Modernization Process andTheir Challenges

Both China and Japan related in a similar way to Western powers inthe late 19th Century by isolating themselves from Western influence.They both restricted trade with the West (Ebrey &amp Walthall,2009). Although China allowed trading with merchants from the West,it restricted them to Canton, and they could only trade with a groupof merchants called Cohong. Furthermore, these foreign traders werenot given any privileges in China. Japan, on the other hand, tradedwith only Dutch merchants who were also restricted to one port calledDejima.

However, this situation changed in the mid-nineteenth century.Because of industrialization, Western powers gained a lot of militaryprowess and used it to force Japan and China out of their isolationthus forcing them to open up for trade and exploitation (Ebrey &ampWalthall, 2009). The Chinese, however met the challenge of the Westaggressively. They ended up defeated at the hands of the Britishduring the famous Opium war (1839-42) and made to sign a number of‘unequal treaties.’ In addition, the Boxer rebellion of theChinese against imperialism and foreigners in (1899-1900) dealtanother fatal blow in China when they suffered another defeat (Ebrey&amp Walthall, 2009). Japan, in contrast learned from China’sdefeat, and when Commodore Perry issued them with an ultimatum in1853 to open their ports, they agreed to negotiate with him (Ebrey &ampWalthall, 2003).

In China, the Chinese population responded to Western influence in adifferent way to the elite (Manchu) who were concerned more aboutthemselves than the country. This is illustrated in the Taipingrevolution (1850-65) (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2003). In thisrevolution, the Chinese peasants came together to challenge thesystem of Confucianism. They wanted to modernize and make socialreforms in China. However, this revolution threatened the Westbecause it was quite nationalistic, and they teamed up with the Qingdynasty to crush it. The Japanese, on the other hand, too, had arevolution that proved far more successful than China’s. Incontrast to China, Samurai reformers defeated the Tokugawa in thename of the Meiji emperor. Consequently, they started reformstargeted at modernizing Japan. They abolished feudalism, buildfactories, roads, banks, post offices among others (Ebrey &ampWalthall, 2003).

The Chinese elite in contrast to the Japanese continued to ignore thedanger of Western expansionism and suffered another defeat during thesecond Opium wars prompting them to address the issue. They,therefore, began some weak reforms called the “self-strengtheningmovement” in 1860- 95 that wanted to preserve the civilization ofChinese people using Western ways (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009). Thesereforms were, however agricultural focused that still highlighted theimportance of the gentry class. This contrasts sharply with theirJapanese counterparts who removed the Samurai class. Thesesuperficial reforms thus failed because the gentry class was notsincere about making any economic progress in China.

The Qing dynasty in China was overthrown in 1911 but was insteadreplaced by a weak republic (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009). Thisrevolution also ended Confucianism as the new culture that embracedWestern values was created. After the First World War, this attitudebecame sour in China because Western Powers treated them badly theystarted boycotting Western products and rejected Western values. Inaddition, China lacked a clear direction since it had done away withits political and social systems, but was to replace them. Japan, incontrast, was headed to become a world power. They came up with aconstitution and set about building its own Navy during its years ofMeiji reforms. It also defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905emerged in the First World War as a strong world power. Its ‘unequaltreaties ended and it won itself territories in China and a seat onthe Council of the League of Nations (Ebrey &amp Walhall, 2009).

China took a longer time to modernize than Japan because theyinitially had very limited knowledge of the West. The ruling class inChina prohibited scholarly interests and instead restricted people toreading orthodox books only. The only books available had repeatedlybeen read since the Ming dynasty and were thus outdated (Ebrey &ampWalthall, 2009). Therefore, when China was faced with the threat ofWestern influence, they had no idea about how they could deal withit. Japan, in contrast, was very interested in gaining knowledgeabout the West. They relaxed their laws about Western education andbuilt an institute to investigate barbarian books in 1811 that becamea school in 1857 (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009).

Japan’s modernization to become an industrialized nation occurredfaster than that of China. After they had overthrown the Shogunateand started the Meiji reforms, the Japanese leaders realized the factthat they would need the help of the West to become a world power(Ebrey &amp Walhall, 2009). They hired foreign professionals andtechnicians, sent Japanese citizens to study in the West, establishedtaxation systems, and a coin system and build western infrastructure.China, on the other hand, also made attempts at modernization aftersuppressing the Taiping rebellion in the year 1864 (Ebrey &ampWalthall, 2009). However, in contrast to Japan, China’smodernization was limited to a very small scale. Chinese rulers onlymade changes that benefited them and not the entire population. Theinfrastructure and other developments initiated only improved thelives of few people. China’s modernization efforts were thus verysuperficial in comparison to Japan that even adopted a constitution.

The Pluralistic nature of Japan’s government was also a significantfactor in differentiating the modernization process between Japan andChina. Japan established a centralized government authority, whichwas balanced by the existence of a clan system. However, in China astiff bureaucratic system suppressed any initiatives towardscompetition. The ruling class, the gentry, and peasant classstructure were so rigid in China that there was no space for a middleclass to develop and steer the country towards modernization andindustrialization (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009). Meanwhile, in Japan,their flexible political and social institutions allowed forcompetition that resulted in more development and industrialization.

Culturally, although both Japan and China had Confucianism in theirsocieties, their approaches to neo-Confucianism were very different.Zhu Xi set up an ideological school that was completely binding tothe attitudes and behavior of Chinese people (Ebrey &amp Walthall,2009). In Japan, however, neo-Confucianism was only studied in schoolat an academic level. In addition, the pragmatic school of mind thatwas set up by Wan Yangmin was studied to counterbalance and widen theworldview of Japanese scholars (Ebrey &amp Walthall, 2009). Thisfostered an element of secularism among the Japanese elite that savedthem from resistance to Western reforms. Secondly, Japan was alsoethnically and culturally homogeneous, and this was instrumental inits having greater internal unity and understanding as opposed toChina, which is heterogeneous and faced the challenge of differentethnic tribes and languages.


Japan and China are two nations that have come a long way in theirquest to modernize and develop. Initially, the two countries hadisolated themselves from Western influence, but when they were forcedout of their isolation, they both responded differently to thesocial, political, and cultural challenges that lay ahead. Chinaresponded slowly by initially resisting the modernization and Westerninfluence, whereas Japan was more receptive and seized on theopportunity to develop. China however learned from their errors andhas since made a lot of progress in modernization. Both China andJapan had to accept Western influence, change their political,cultural, and social systems in order to expand and develop.


Ebrey, P., &amp Walthall, A. (2009). East Asia: A cultural,social, and political history (2nd ed.). Belmont, Calif.:Wadsworth.