Stewart LONE

A series of prints by artist Hashimoto Chikanobu (1838–1912) showing Japanese troops surprising Chinese soldiers at Weihaiwei, and the death of a Chinese officer who had led his troops into battle during a snowstorm in 1895.

The First Sino-Japanese War was a turning point in the modern history of East Asia: The victory of a smaller but more modernized Japan shocked the much larger, traditional Chinese empire. The war propelled Japan into the ranks of power and plunged China into political upheaval that continued into the twentieth century.

The First Sino-Japanese war was fought between August 1894 and April 1895. (The Second Sino-Japanese war, known to the Chinese as the War of Resistance against Japan, took place from 1937–1945; after 1939 the conflict joined with the worldwide struggle known as World War II.) It was started by Japan, which sought to take over China’s position of hegemony in Korea. Japan’s aggression was not motivated principally by China, but instead by fear of the West. Since the 1870s, Japan, unlike China and Korea, had adopted full-scale Western-style modernization, and this left them militarily exposed in an era of accelerating Western colonialism. Japan’s particular fear was that Russia would expand through northeast China and, by seizing Korea, could be in a position to destroy Japan. Historically, China had been the protector of Korea, and following a Japanese-backed attempted coup d’état in Seoul in 1884, Beijing had stationed troops in the peninsula to maintain order. An internal uprising in 1893–94 gave Japan an excuse to send its own troops to Korea. These were ostensibly to assist in restoring order but in reality they were meant to provoke conflict with China and create a pretext for war.

Battles on the mainland were concentrated initially in the north of Korea, but by late 1894 they reached across the border into China’s northeastern region of Manchuria; in January 1895, Japan opened a second front by attacking China’s Shandong Province. The war expanded further in March 1895 as Japanese forces invaded the Pescadores and Taiwan in search of a colonial base to their south. The single major naval battle occurred in the Huang (Yellow) Sea in September 1894. The decisive engagement of the land war arguably was in November 1894 at Lushun, known to the West as Port Arthur. This was China’s strongest naval base, however, it fell to the Japanese in one day. Despite this, or because of it, Japanese soldiers then engaged in a massacre of Chinese civilians in the town; this is proven by Japanese eyewitness accounts that speak of the heaped corpses of men, women, and children.

The longest period of fighting was in Taiwan. There the Japanese claimed to have pacified the island by November 1895, but in fact, guerrilla resistance continued well into 1896. The Japanese army responded by razing villages and, according to some observers, killing as many as 17,000 Taiwanese (mainly Chinese immigrants from the eastern provinces) in this part of the war.

During the war, the Chinese army mobilized about one million men, and the Japanese about 240,000. But China was never able to utilize this numerical advantage. Beijing neither wanted nor was prepared for war, and the Chinese sought to negotiate peace at the earliest opportunity. In addition, well over half the Chinese soldiers were untrained conscripts. The Chinese military also suffered from incompetent generals, a lack of any kind of uniformity in equipment or weapons, and shortages of ammunition. Furthermore, the men received no medical support, which greatly increased the risk of dying from illness or injury and naturally reduced their appetite for combat. For these reasons, Japan won every battle on land and sea with very few losses of life, although the Chinese resistance was sometimes fiercer than later historians have suggested.

A wider problem for China in this (and in its earlier wars in the nineteenth century) was disunity. At the official level, the South China fleet refused to fight Japan, just as the northern fleet had refused to assist the south in the war against France in the mid-1880s. This means that it is actually misleading to speak of a war between China and Japan; Japan fought as a nation, China fought as regions. At the popular level, China had none of Japan’s modern technologies for organizing mass support; a politically engaged Chinese-owned press emerged only after (and as a consequence of) the war, while a system of national schooling for mass literacy was still decades away. Instead, the relative localization and brevity of the war on the mainland benefited Japan, and Japanese forces there encountered little or no public opposition. Indeed, Chinese businessmen and farmers in Manchuria profited by supplying the Japanese army.

At the peace conference in Shimonoseki, Japanese demands included a massive indemnity for its war expenses, China’s acknowledgement of the formal independence of Korea, and the cession to Japan both of Taiwan and the Liaodong peninsula in southern Manchuria. But in what is known as the Triple Intervention, the governments of Russia, France, and Germany combined to pressure Japan into relinquishing any territorial claim in Manchuria. In return for this concession, China was forced to increase the indemnity, bringing the total to $21 million, said to be about one-third of the government’s total revenue.

Among the long-term consequences of the war, four stand out. First, the independence of Taiwan from mainland control began with Japan’s colonization in 1895. In the twenty-first century, this remains a final lost territory and reminder of perhaps the greatest period of national weakness in Chinese history. Second, Japan had always been a marginal and despised presence in Asia: Its defeat of China was an unparalleled shock to the educated Chinese elite. This persuaded intellectuals to advocate radical social, political, and military reforms (some of these being attempted in the 1898 One Hundred Days’ Reform); it also encouraged the nascent revolutionary movement ultimately to be organized under Sun Yat-sen. Third, in November 1897, the German navy seized part of Shandong Province as a belated reward for its part in the Triple Intervention. Other powers quickly followed with their own demands for territorial and economic concessions. This scramble to exploit China’s postwar weakness led many observers to predict the imminent collapse of China as an entity; the humiliation and assault on China’s territorial integrity also served as a major catalyst to the reform and revolutionary movements. Fourth, within weeks of Germany’s action, the Japanese government began repairing Sino-Japanese relations by approaching China’s most powerful provincial leaders with an offer to educate Chinese military students in Japan. The first of these students arrived in Tokyo in 1898; they would exert an important Japanese influence on the modern Chinese army, which was to last at least until the 1920s. These military students, however, were also soon followed by many civilian compatriots, and by 1904, Tokyo had become the center of the Chinese student revolutionary movement which helped bring about the collapse of the monarchical system in 1911–1912. Thereafter, and up to the present, Chinese nationalism largely refused to tolerate further insult at the hands of any foreign power.

Further Reading

Elleman, B. (2001). Modern Chinese warfare, 1795–1989. London: Routledge.

Paine, S. C. M. (2003). The Sino-Japanese
War of 1894–1895: Perceptions, power, and primacy
. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Source: Lone, Stewart. (2009). Sino-Japanese War, First. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1987–1990. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The Chinese offer their surrender on the deck of a Japanese warship.

Itoh Sukeyuki, admiral of the Japanese naval forces.

A woodcut print showing scenes related to the war between China and Japan, 1895. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Sino-Japanese War, First (Dì-Y? Cì Zh?ng-rì Zhànzh?ng ???????)|Dì-Y? Cì Zh?ng-rì Zhànzh?ng ??????? (Sino-Japanese War, First)

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