Why did Japan become an imperialist

The birth of China in Japan

The relationship between China and Japan is a difficult one per se. The sinologist and economist Kai Vogelsang describes in a guest article how the two countries have influenced each other over the centuries.

The Chinese nation has a great history spanning more than five thousand years during which its civilization has peacefully spread to East Asia and the world. The Opium Wars, however, plunged China into a long crisis through the aggression of the imperialist Western powers and Japan - until the CPC led the country on the glorious path of national rebirth. This is how the Chinese media, officials and school books describe Chinese history, or similar, it has been repeated countless times abroad.

Alone, none of this is true.

There can be no talk of five thousand years of history, and the spread of Chinese civilization did not take place peacefully. Above all, however, none of this can be attributed to a “Chinese nation” - because it has not existed at all for thousands of years. The inhabitants of the areas that are now China have always identified with their family, their hometown, their province, but not with “China”. Until the end of the 19th century, it would not have occurred to the Chinese to speak of their “nation”, and even the name “China” was alien to them. It was the “imperialist powers”, especially the Japanese, who first gave the Chinese the idea that they were a nation.


In short

  • In Japan, the Chinese found the name for their country and learned about the concept of the nation.
  • Thousands of Chinese students and scholars moved to Japan to study as early as the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, and especially in the early 20th century.
  • Practically the entire political and social vocabulary of the modern age was adopted from Japanese into Chinese.
  • At the turn of the century, Japan's influence in China was so great that observers spoke of a Japaneseization of China.

“Every country on the globe, like England or France, has a common name for the whole country. Only the Middle Kingdom has none, "complained a Chinese envoy to Japan, Huang Zunxian, around 1880:" The Japanese call us 'Shina'; The English call us “China” and the French call us “China”. But these are not names that we used ourselves. " In fact, the Chinese should only find their name and their self-image as a nation in Japan.

In Japan of all places! The small, "semi-barbaric" island on the other side of the "billowing sea" was not worth mentioning for the Chinese for centuries. Hadn't the Japanese "little boys" taken over their entire high culture - writing, literature, religion, art, science and technology - from the Tang, Song and Ming dynasties? At best, the Japanese were considered good students who could never hold a candle to the Chinese elite.

But times had changed radically. From the beginning of the Meiji period, 1868, the Japanese had reformed their entire society in a tremendous effort and had become a modern industrial nation: an ascent that reached its preliminary climax in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95, in which the Japanese inflicted a crushing defeat on Qing forces. The "tots" had defeated their teachers: the greatest possible humiliation.

Yet the Chinese did not react with a national furore, as they have so often done in the 21st century - because nation and nationalism were still unknown to them. Instead, senior scholars chose to learn from Japan. As early as 1896, the Qing government sent 13 young men to Japan to study. Thousands were to follow in the next few years to do an apprenticeship with the former students.

In addition to the Japanese language and the modern sciences, the Chinese students mainly learned something about themselves there. Because they had not traveled to Japan as "Chinese", but as Hunanese, Sichuan, Shanghai or Cantonese. Compatriots in Tokyo and Yokohama kept to themselves: they spoke their own dialects, published their own newspapers, and made their own soups. They would never have thought of calling themselves “Chinese” together.

The Japanese are completely different. For them, all the strangely braided figures were “Shinajin”, Chinese, or better: “Chinamen”, because the word was used as a dirty word. "Stupid, stupid, your age is a 'Shinajin'", the children teased: This word sounded so contemptuous that some Chinese shamefully avoided asking about their origins in order not to have to say that they were a "Shinajin". For many students, these insults, not the seminars and lectures, became the defining experience of their studies abroad: Here they not only experienced that the Japanese successfully staged themselves as a nation, but they themselves, the "Shinajin", were also addressed as a nation.

"In Japan, the Chinese students recognized commonalities that connected them across all compatriots, classes and dialects and that set them apart from the Japanese."

Named “Shinajin” across the board by the Japanese, the Chinese students recognized commonalities that connected them across all compatriots, social classes and dialects and that set them apart from the Japanese. In this way, the national idea gradually infiltrated the minds of the international students: the Chinese nation was born in Japan.

Its beginnings were by no means as glorious as they are portrayed today. Being “Chinese” was a problem. Nothing makes the mishap clearer than the fact that the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century faute de mieux themselves used the terms “Shina” and “Shinajin” (Chinese: “Zhina” or “Zhinaren”) to identify themselves : Even the names for China and the Chinese were taken from Japanese - namely the mock names!

The Chinese nation suffered from the birth defect of inferiority. The only descriptions that existed of her were the condescending depictions of the Japanese and other foreigners. The Chinese are unreliable, dishonest, cringing and cowardly, they lack community spirit and empathy, they are cruel and do not trust each other themselves: These and other denigrations were attached to the word "Shinajin" - and like the word itself they used it The Chinese also adopt these "national" ascriptions.

The arrogance of the Japanese

Some intellectuals downright chastised themselves with unfavorable comparisons between Chinese and Japanese - these combative, those merry and slavish, these vital, those morbid, these progressive, those backward - others called on the Chinese to embrace the "Japanese spirit" ("Yamato damashii" ) and to adopt his warrior ethos ("Bushido"). In spite of the unbearable arrogance of many Japanese, most of the educated Chinese of the day orientated themselves to them in one way or another.

If the Chinese once taught Japan, it was the other way around. It was only in Japan that the Chinese got to know their own history: for it was Japanese historians who were the first to write “Chinese” history - not the history of individual dynasties, but the history of a nation. "It is a shame," said the Chinese scholar Luo Zhenyu later, "that the history of our country could not be written by one of our compatriots, but by someone from another country."

Other areas of Chinese (!) Culture were also presented by Japanese scholars for the first time: Chinese literary history, the history of Chinese philosophy, Chinese art history, even Chinese sinology drew its inspiration and its name (“Hanxue” - “Kangaku” or “Guoxue”) »-« Kokugaku ») from Japanese. These and many other works were translated from Japanese into Chinese over the next few years: from 1902 to 1904 alone, over 500 titles. These translations brought modern discourse to China - in Japanese terms.

Practically the entire political-social vocabulary of the modern age has been transferred from Japanese into Chinese in this way: «Culture», «Society», «Progress», «Science», «Politics», «State», «Citizen», « Philosophy »,« Law »,« History »,« Economy »,« Civilization »,« Race »,« Class »,« Individual »,« Democracy »,« Republic »,« Truth »,« Organization »,« Capitalism » , "Communism", "Revolution" and hundreds of other terms came to China as loan words from Japanese: They opened up a new world for the Chinese. Without them, the modern Chinese language would be inconceivable, and even modern China would be inconceivable without the Japanese influence.


"To build a national school system, Japanese school rules, educational writings and entire textbooks were translated."

In the early 20th century there was a real “Japan fever” in China. Not only did the Chinese take over the term “nation” (“minzoku” - “minzu”) from Japan, but Japan also made a decisive contribution to the major “nation building” project that began in those years. To build a national school system, Japanese school rules, educational writings and entire textbooks were translated. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, 1912, most of the textbooks used in Chinese schools were adaptations or direct translations of Japanese textbooks. The Japanese established educational schools in Beijing and other cities to train the first generations of Chinese teachers, and they sent highly decorated academics to teach in Chinese schools and universities.

Even more: Japanese manufactories, chambers of commerce and industrial fairs provided models for the industrialization of China in the late Qing period; the Japanese played a decisive role in building the modern Chinese military and police force: Kawashima Naniwa, a veteran samurai, headed the Beijing Police Academy for a decade. The public order that now reigned in Chinese cities was decidedly Japanese. The same was true of the legal system: Japanese jurists drafted a new criminal law, a civil law, and a commercial law, and even the constitution that the Qing drafted in their final years was based in important ways on the Meiji constitution.

Japanese organized the Beijing police

The influence of Japan was so great in these years that Western observers spoke of the “Japaneseization of China”: “Japanese cotton fabrics, Japanese beer and mineral water in every hotel, Japanese cigarettes in all street stalls and Japanese imitations of all well-known branded goods from brandy to bicycles. . . The training of soldiers and the reorganization of the army, it seems to outsiders, have been completely handed over to the Japanese. . . The Beijing police have been reorganized by the Japanese. . . I don't know of any movement that has so much potential as the one that is currently underway and that amounts to the Japaneseization of China ”(journalist George Lynch). When finally a revolutionary movement that had started in Japan overthrew the Qing dynasty and in 1912 a president, Sun Zhongshan, took office with a Japanese name, many agreed: "This new China will be a Japanese China!"

Even if things turned out differently and China's “Japan fever” died out with the First World War and the notorious “21 demands”, at the latest with the occupation of Manchuria and the atrocities of World War II - the ties to Japan remained. It was evident in the “people's diplomacy” of then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in the 1950s, the “Joint Declaration” of 1972, and in the Japanese investments of the 1980s and 1990s, which made a major contribution to China's sensational economic growth.

"Most young people in China have no idea how much we were influenced by Japan at that time," the writer Zhou Zuoren once said. Today, when China is showing off so self-confidently, it would be good to remember that the beginnings of this proud nation are barely more than a century ago, that it by no means came together on its own, but was only brought about through external descriptions, and that Japan, that is now considered an archenemy, China not only inflicted unspeakable suffering, but also shaped it decisively in its modernization. It would be good to remember that "China" was born in Japan.

To person

Kai Vogelsang, sinologist and economist

From 1989 to 1994 Kai Vogelsang studied Sinology and Economics in Hamburg and Taipei. In 1997 he received his doctorate in Sinology from the University of Hamburg. After teaching assignments at the University of Bremen and research stays in China, he was a research assistant at the Institute for Sinology at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich from 1999 to 2005. In 2004 Vogelsang received his habilitation. From 2006 to 2008 he was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Humanities at Kyoto University as a Heisenberg fellow. In 2008 he was appointed professor of Sinology at the University of Hamburg. Most recently, his book “China and Japan: Two kingdoms under one sky” was published.