Indigenous Responses, East Asia

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Indigenous Responses, East Asia

To analyze the historical experience of East Asia and its interaction with the West, including the United States, it is necessary to recognize that such indigenous responses were initiated by major trends radiating out of Western Europe. These trends include the expansion of European industrial-capitalist modernization because of inter-European rivalry, Protestant as well as Catholic Christian evangelization, and the rise of imperialistic colonialism across the world in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. When the United States initially interacted with East Asian civilizations in the early 1800s, it did so as a third-tier Western power, often piggybacking on the much more extensive and intrusive activities of Europeans. East Asian nations did not clearly distinguish between European and American culture until the United States rose in the twentieth century to world-power status.

In the long historical period prior to the arrival of Westerners in East Asia, the region was influenced primarily by the ancient Chinese civilization and secondarily by subcontinental Indian religion and culture. Asians were accustomed to political and cultural influences, negative and positive, coming to them over land from the west via the Silk Road (an ancient trade route), by ship on the Indian Ocean, or on horseback from the northern steppes. The arrival of Western Europeans in south Chinese seaports in the 1500s on trading ships—later followed by military flotillas—was a new phenomenon that was not viewed as a major threat by the great and small peoples of East Asia. However, in the 1800s the superior firepower held by the Western traders enabled the East Asian region and peoples to be systematically absorbed into a colonial empire system with radically different religious, technological, political, commercial, and social elements from the indigenous Asian societies. The resulting psychological shock followed by backlash strongly contributed to the rise of modern nationalism in East Asia in the twentieth century.

Imperial China during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, an empire of different cultures and peoples, thought of itself as the natural leader of Asia. It was ill-equipped to deal with the arrival of Westerners, especially the British, whose own industrialization depended upon the opening up of new markets and the search for more raw materials. When China was reluctant to, and even hostile toward, trade for Western goods, European merchants blamed local Chinese bureaucrats and regulations. The British in two Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) humbled the Chinese military and forced China to permit westerners to establish zones for trade and residence in major Chinese coastal cities. Such Western European economic imperialism was explained away by the West as bringing civilization and modernization to the barbaric Asian world.

For the Chinese to be thought of and treated by Westerners as unequal inferiors, particularly as codified in the unequal treaties, was unbearable. It was considered shameful for the Manchu Chinese officials in Peking (modern Beijing) and in the treaty ports to be revealed as powerless to stop foreign encroachment. This identity crisis intensified as the Western foreign powers (Britain, Russia, Germany, France, and Belgium) moved north into China, carving out large territories in which Chinese people were barred and local laws were not Chinese but Western.

In response to such treatment and feelings of both inferiority and anger, local antiforeigner movements mushroomed. The two most famous violent responses were the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) and the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). Also, there was an intellectual self-strengthening movement within the Chinese government and intelligentsia after the 1840s to study "Western learning." Despite some success, this movement ultimately failed because Chinese officials could not abandon their old Confucian bureaucratic mentality. The United States, which did not have any concessions, in 1899 declared an "open-door" policy to protect China from total dismemberment, and this action made a strong favorable impression on the Chinese people.

With the fading of Chinese influence in Asia in the 1800s, the Western powers took over the peripheral Southeast Asian states that had acknowledged Chinese suzerainty. France colonized Vietnam and established a protectorate over Cambodia. Britain moved into Burma (Myanmar) from subcontinental India and built up the colony of Hong Kong. The Dutch took over the Muslim island chain of Indonesia. The United States, feeling locked out of China, turned its attention to Japan, which had an isolationist Tokugawa government that only permitted one Western trading ship a year to land at its southern city of Nagasaki.

In 1853 U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry (1794–1858) led a small flotilla, known as the Black Ships, into today's Tokyo Bay to force the Japanese to abandon their isolationist policies. The Japanese response to the shock of the arrival of American and other Western armed trading vessels was seen twelve years later in the Meiji Restoration (1868). For the next thirty years, Japan embraced Western technology and successfully modernized the military and domestic industrial sector. The success of this modernization was revealed clearly in the early 1900s when Japan defeated both the Czarist Russian and the Chinese navies, and became a colonial power in China, Taiwan, and Korea. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a Chinese backlash to this Japanese militarism, but imperial Japanese aggression continued to expand throughout Asia until open conflict with the United States and Britain broke out during World War II (1939–1945).

Despite the loss of the Russo-Japanese War, Russia's centuries-long push into Asia continued across Siberia to the Pacific and then down into Mongolia. The Mongols, who had been allies of the Manchus during the Qing period, lost much territory during the dynasty to the Chinese in southern Inner Mongolia, and were in danger of total incorporation. When in 1911 the Qing dynasty was overthrown and the Chinese Republic was founded, Mongolia found support for its independence from the Bolshevik Russian government newly installed in Moscow. Mongolia became a communist republic in 1924 and remained a Soviet satellite—independent but strongly influenced by the Russians—until there was a peaceful democratic revolution in 1990.

Asian indigenous reactions toward the United States as distinct from the European West generally did not become pronounced throughout the region until after World War II. After the United States defeated and occupied Japan, it attained superpower status and vied with the Soviet Union for influence in East Asia in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Japan was drawn into the American orbit, while other Asian nations achieved independence by rejecting their Western occupiers. Often nationalist movements among the indigenous peoples became mixed with communist peasant movements, particularly in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

With the end of the Cold War period in the 1990s and the new economic global integration, the triumph of liberal democratic market systems is now labeled (or criticized) as "American" rather than "Western." Yet such East Asian reactions are intertwined intimately with nationalistic responses to the forced economic, social, cultural, and military changes inflicted by Western nations over centuries in successive waves upon historic, indigenous East Asian societies.

see also Assimilation, East Asia and Pacific; Boxer Uprising; China, First Opium War to 1945; China, to the First Opium War; Chinese Revolutions; Empire, Japanese; Korea, from World War II; Korea, to World War II; Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific; Taiping Rebellion; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific.


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