Friday, January 05, 2007

New Year Question 2: The Legacy of Queen Victoria in East Asian History


The most significant landmark in modern history of East Asia is the Opium War. When Queen Victoria’s fleet defeated the Chinese Empire, the Chinese world order had been destroyed. The Middle Kingdom was dragged into the British world order of free trade and the Lockean liberalism. Most Asian nations failed to understand the real meaning of the Western impact. Only the Japanese took it seriously. Why didn’t Asians understand, or even didn’t try to understand the Western civilization?

This is the fundamental question in Modern East Asia. The Japanese concluded that the Chinese Empire could no longer sustain peace and stability in East Asia, and they had to adapt themselves to the Victorian world order. Therefore, Japanese people had made a Copernican decision, called “Datsu-a Nyuu-oh”, which literally means getting out of Asia and going into the West. A xenophobia nation off the East Coast of Asia has suddenly changed into a xenophile nation, and absorbed Western ways of thinking with unprecedently great passion. Finally, Japan itself succeeded in joining Western Great Powers Club. Through this way, Japanese people disentangled themselves from the Dark Age. Before Meiji modernization, Japan was a distinct nation in East Asia ―― a nation of unique and sophisticated civilization ―― but not a distinguished nation. Precisely evaluating the Western impact on Asia, could Japan evolve into a distinguished nation.

On the other hand, the Chinese and their Asian neighbors were still dormant, and believed in the Confucius vision of the world that Chinese Emperor would continue to rule the earth on behalf of the heaven. Under the Ce-feng system, the Chinese Emperor reins over kings allover the world. Therefore, China had never recognized equal partnership with any nations. Tributary trade was a proof of loyalty to China. Neighbor kings submitted products in their realms to Chinese Emperor, and they received benevolence gifts from the Emperor in return.

This Chinese world order is incompatible with modern system of political economy. The guardian of free trade, British Empire was the most qualified actor to destroy this sort of Dark Age system in East Asia. The Royal Navy had blown away outdated Confucian system with gunfire. Chinese and Asians did not understand it. No wonder they were conquered by Great Powers. It was the age of colonialism.

To my regret, Japanese leaders during the wartime forgot the lessons from the Opium War, and wasted huge energy to build the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Zone.

The Opium War offers many implications to present days. Currently, the West is trying to incorporate the Middle Kingdom to the global economy. American policymakers have much to learn from British experiences. The Western impact still has some influence on Japanese-Asian relations. Therefore, it is quite important to think of this question again and again.