In the 19th century, after a long period of isolationism, China and then Japan came under pressure from the West to open to foreign trade and relations. The Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States had created a wide gap between them and the West, leaving the two Asian nations behind technologically and military. In that period, neither of them had the power to stand up to the Western nations, and eventually both had to sign unequal treaties that forced them to open their ports and cities to foreign merchants.
However, the way this process happened in each country and their reaction to it were very different, attracting the interest of many historians (Lockwood, 1956). How could two civilizations apparently so similar to each other react so differently to the same historical event? This essay, therefore, will argue that the main differences in Japan and China’s response to the West in the 19th century were that Japan yielded to Western pressure to open to trade while China refused to, and that Japan successfully modernized while China failed to. It will also present as the reasons for the difference in initial reaction China’s lesser understanding of the West and the historical timing of the Western intrusion; and as the reasons for the difference in modernization Japan’s familiarity with borrowing culturally from others, the rise of its reformist elite, and its pluralistic political system.
First of all, the way China and Japan reacted to the West’s increasing pressure to open to trade was very different. Both countries had long maintained isolationist tendencies, with limited commerce with the West. China welcomed foreign trade, but western merchants had no privileges there and were confined to Canton, where they could only deal with the Co-hong, a group of traders (Edwardes, 1973). Japan was even stricter, allowing commerce only with the Dutch, who had access to only one port, Dejima (Rosenberg, 1978).
This situation was not to be...
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