BEIJING – When China and Japan first went to war 120 years ago this Friday, Beijing suffered a “national humiliation” that resonates to this day as tensions between the Asian rivals intensify again.
Unlike most defeated nations, China marks the anniversaries of its losses with fervor, as the ruling Communist Party, which espouses nationalism in its claim to a right to rule, reinforces a narrative of historical victimization.
Years in the making, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 was fought for control of Korea, which at the time paid formal tribute to China’s Qing emperors but was increasingly coveted by Tokyo, whose ambition was to emulate the empires of the Western powers.
The shooting began with a naval clash off Korea’s west coast in late July, a week before war was formally declared on Aug. 1, 1894. Less than nine months later, Japan had destroyed the Qing Beiyang fleet, routed Beijing’s troops in Korea and China, and secured an overwhelming victory.
Tokyo seized strategic territory, including Taiwan, and sowed the seeds of a maritime dispute that endures into the 21st century.
On Liugong Island, a hilly anchorage off the eastern city of Weihai and the former home of the Beiyang fleet, the pictures, documents and weapons in a museum dedicated to the conflict blame not only Japan’s “war of aggression,” but also China’s weakness, corruption and backwardness at the time.
“The humiliating defeat . . . proved that underdevelopment can cause defeat,” reads one display.
On a promenade in Weihai, across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula, still a geopolitical hot spot today, local resident Liang Kongteng said: “The Japanese came to China and they killed many people. As a country we have to be strong.”
The war heralded the looming end of China’s centuries of imperial rule, and once-isolated Japan’s rise as a global power. A decade later Japan stunned the world by defeating Russia, before colonizing Korea and later establishing a puppet state in Manchuria, setting the stage for its full invasion of China in 1937 in the lead-up to World War II.
“The war overturned the traditional balance of power in Asia, when Japan unseated China as the dominant power,” said SCM Paine, a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, who wrote a book on the 1894-5 conflict.
“Ever since, China has been trying to restore its former position of preeminence,” Paine said, stressing her views do not represent those of her institution or the U.S. government. “That preeminence was not only military but also economic, diplomatic, technological, and cultural.”
For China, the long ago war may as well have been yesterday. The anniversary has been frequent fodder for its state-controlled newspapers, magazines and television.
In an editorial last week, the state-run China Daily newspaper said the defeat by China’s “worst enemy in history” still forms “an open wound in (the) Chinese national psyche.”
The conflict’s clearest legacy today is a bitter dispute over small, uninhabited islands near Taiwan called Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan. Tokyo took control of the islands in January 1895, when it says they were unoccupied. Beijing counters they have always been its “inherent” territory, and will not give up its claim.
Now the two sides, both with increasing military ambitions and capabilities, warily eye each other’s ships and aircraft in the area, leading to fears of conflict as Washington, Tokyo’s defense ally, watches carefully.
Japan is a liberal democracy with a free media, but the China Daily claimed that under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe it is “strikingly similar” to the country that went to war in 1894. “International concerns about the likelihood of history repeating itself in Northeast Asia are not groundless,” it said.
In Japan, remembrance of the war is less intensely political, but can be tinged with nostalgia for a time of military heroes, and even a sense of high-mindedness that Chinese and Koreans find offensive.
“I think for Japan the Sino-Japanese War was a ‘war of ideals,’ ” historical novelist Fuyuji Domon wrote in Rekishi Kaido, a popular history magazine.
Japan was standing up against Western encroachments in Asia, and seeking to secure Korea’s independence from China and Russia, he suggested. “Thus, war between Japan, which wanted to secure Korea’s independence, and the Qing, which wanted it to remain subordinate, became unavoidable.”
One section of the museum on Liugong is titled in English as “Japan’s Desire of Controlling China,” but at the exit visitors are treated to a reassuring array of video images of China’s modern naval and air power, driving home a message of security, if not invincibility.
The concept resonates with visitors.
“I believe China has now become strong and I feel we Chinese can really face up to history,” said schoolboy Yang Shunfeng, 16. “Now we can defend our sovereignty and won’t bow our heads to the Japanese like before.”