The Meiji Restoration and Late Qing Reform: an Analysis of Outcomes

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Before Western incursion in South East Asia, both China and Japan had enjoyed self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Whereas China had limited its contact to the outside world to limited trade at a few ports—a system known as the “Canton” system, Japan, however, had completely shut itself to the outside world—an attempt to stay foreign influence on its radical feudal political system. This brought significant frustration to western powers such as the British Empire who sought access to the vast economic opportunities present in China. As a result of such increasing tension between China and the British Empire, both kingdoms entered into military conflict during the Opium War in 1839, in which China was humiliated and forced to agree to demeaning reparations. After the Opium War in 1853, Japan was visited by a delegation from the United States that bid Japan amongst other things, that Japan open its ports up to trade. The Japanese agreed to the terms forced upon them not out of a willingness to engage with outside interaction, but out of intimidation from the United States whose delegation had arrived to port in Japan with a fleet of steel-structured, steam-powered navy gunships that totally outclassed and outgunned the most advanced of the battleships in the paltry Japanese navy. In an effort to better resist the effects of western incursions in both kingdoms, China and Japan both took up agendas focused on self-reformation, meant to result in a stronger kingdom that would be able to compete with western imperialists powers. Japan’s Meiji restoration is widely regarded as the most successful and radical transformation of a society whereas the Qing reformation ended in failure. An analysis of the social and political aspects of both China and Japan gives an explanation to Japan’s success and China’s failure—the key to Japan’s success lies in its history of socio-political upheaval and encouragement of individual achievement.

As a nation, China had been a prominent power for over millennia. Its political and social structure produced a relative stagnation of its society in terms of social, cultural and political development. This was partly due to the structure of administration of the country that functioned through strict institutions and facilities that connected the Emperor to the administrators of towns and villages through members of the cabinet, advisors, regional and district governors, amongst other officials. This socio-political system was developed based on Confucian ideals. The use of Confucianism as a state religion allowed for the inculcation of a standard set of values amongst the peoples of China. These values that emphasized a respect for authority at the family and national levels, as well as the improvement of the metaphysical nature of man against his environment, allowed for a state of socio-political stability that was perpetuated by government officials who had demonstrated a deep understanding and adherence to Confucian ideals in passing the Chinese Civil Service Examination.

This socio-political system the peoples of China a relatively stable living environment, it hampered the cultivation of industriousness by individual Chinese people. A system of highly regulated public agenda and a great expectation of personal conduct in relation to the ideals of Confucianism led to most efforts for change in society coming to being a result of authoritative decision. It is for this reason—the prior lack of personal ambition and drive—that the Qing reformation resulted in failure. In 1898, Emperor Guangxu declared the start of the Qing reformation—a plan to strengthen China and make it a powerful force in opposition to western imperial forces. The edicts that comprised this effort were reflected in the ideals of Kang Youwei who was appointed as an official in the reform process. The Qing reformation focused on a...
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