HISTORIC  HISTORIQUE  HISTORIEK

 

Defeat in first Sino-Japanese war a turning point that shocked China

 

  
The 2,300-ton Chinese ironclad cruiser Zhiyuan, bought from a British shipyard in Elswick, was destroyed and sank in the Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea in September 1894

UNDER the scorching August sun, a vintage, 90-meter-long iron-clad vessel, clearly an anachronism on the seas, is gradually taking shape in Dandong Harbor, one of northern China’s busiest ports.

The ship, scheduled to be launched in September, is not a merchant vessel, but an exact replica of famous Chinese battleship Zhiyuan, which sank in 1894.

At a cost of 37 million yuan (US$6 million) — funded entirely by donations from entrepreneurs and military buffs — the replica is intended as a tribute to the War of Jiawu that broke out 120 years ago.

The rebirth of Zhiyuan, a 2,300-ton ironclad cruiser, reminds us of the first Sino-Japanese War, known in China as the War of Jiawu ­— “Jiawu” referring to the year 1894 under the traditional sexagenary system — or Nisshin Senso in Japan, meaning Japan-Qing War.

During the Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea on September 17, 1894, fought between the Japanese Allied Navy and Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Zhiyuan Captain Deng Shichang (1849-1894 sailed his badly damaged cruiser in a last-ditch attempt to ram and sink the Japanese cruiser Yoshino.

Zhiyuan was hit by torpedoes and sank. Deng drowned with 250 of his men. After exchanging broadsides for nearly five hours, the Chinese fleet lost five ships, Japan none.

His heroism and that of the Chinese Navy are deeply etched in the mind of every Chinese. Zhiyuan’s sinking also marks the tragic end of the short-lived Beiyang Fleet (1888-1894).

Although 120 years have passed, the War of Jiawu continues to generate a vast number of books, academic papers, films, TV series and debates.

Strong echoes of that war still reverberate. And memories of the wounds inflicted on China are vivid.

After its defeat in 1894, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, whereby it ceded Taiwan, the Penghu group of islands and paid 250 million Kuping taels in war reparations to Japan. It was also forced to recognize the autonomy of Korea, once a vassal state — a move that paved the way for Japan’s future annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

The pains inflicted are not only physical but also and more lastingly, psychological.

“The defeat by Japan, an opponent China had looked down upon, triggered a bigger wave of political reforms and democratic ideas,” said Jiang Ming. Jiang is an amateur historian and expert on the evolution of Chinese naval power in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).


Rude awakening

The humiliation is evident. From the Tang Dynasty (618-907) onwards, Japan had been a student of China, acknowledging the China-centered tributary system by regularly sending emissaries to China to study its culture. These pilgrimages went on until 1853, when US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his black ships into waters off Edo (today’s Tokyo) in a show of intimidation and forced the secluded nation to open up to the outside world.
Thereafter, Japan learned that China’s position as the world’s leader in science and culture had been replaced by the West.

To keep rapacious Western powers at bay and avoid the same fate that befell China, Japan discarded its infatuation with the Middle Kingdom and embarked on a path of audacious modernization, a process later known as Meiji Restoration. The former student of Confucianism was now hungry for anything Western, be it weapons, railways, inventions, or modern forms of government.

At about the same time, a similar “Look-to-the-West” movement was taking hold in China, spearheaded by a handful of senior politicians known as the Yangwu reformists, such as Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) and Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909). Unlike the Japanese, they thought Western-style gunboats and machinery would suffice to save China. And political reform, which was anathema, could be conveniently eschewed.

The Yangwu movement was a response to China’s previous military defeats at the hands of Westerners. Yet “insofar as the Chinese acknowledged their inferiority to Westerners, they felt superior to the Japanese. So the War of Jiawu was like a rude awakening, stripping them of their last fig leaf,” Lian Degui told Shanghai Daily.
“Before the war, most Chinese thought Japan was not our equal, even the Western world thought more or less the same. But Li Hongzhang presciently noted a risk of defeat, because he knew that Japan was no longer a backward country after Meiji Restoration,” said Lei Yi, renowned historian and researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Contrary to popular expectations, China was bested by the “uncivilized” and “benighted” country that it had held in contempt for centuries. The former roles of teacher and student were decisively switched. Japan’s victory was like a poisoned dagger plunged deep into China’s wounds — barely healed since the first Opium War — and it poignantly reminded the smug reformists that their initiative had only copied superficial aspects of the West, namely, its technology rather than institutions. The War of Jiawu was a litmus test of the Yangwu movement and Meiji Restoration — in which the latter prevailed, without question.

In assessing the damage, some Chinese realized how piecemeal their reform was, and how ignorant they were about the long way Japan had come.

Japan, in contrast, knew China well, as evidenced by its spying activities in the run-up to the war. In 1886, Japanese spies set up the largest intelligence network in China, run from a Japanese store called Rakuzendou in Hankow, today’s Wuhan, and gathered intelligence about Chinese economy, politics, culture, geography and military. The intelligence proved indispensable in Japan’s victory in 1894.

China’s pervasive ignorance of Japan might have been mitigated by one sober, open and prescient mind, if only his book had been given the official imprimatur earlier and widely distributed.

Hardly had the ink dried on the ignominious Treaty of Shimonoseki, when a publishing house in Guangzhou published in late 1895 the manuscript “A Note on Japan” by Huang Zunxian, ex-Chinese attache in Japan.

Readers were shocked to find that this book, a panoramic sketch of Japan, was written in 1887. Criticism was immediately heaped on Huang for the delay in its publication. Had it been released earlier, critics asserted, Japan would not have been perceived as an adversary so easily vanquished, and the warmongers would have thought twice about doing battle.

But hindsight is 20-20, said historian Lei Yi, acknowledging a universal truth. In fact, Huang had tried desperately to get his book published, to no avail, as its value was not duly recognized in the beginning.

Similarly dismissed in China was the seminal book “Illustrated Records of Maritime Nations,” written by scholar-turned-strategist Wei Yuan in 1842. After selling a mere 1,000 copies, it was banned as a result of the stultifying policy of a regime fearful of foreign influence. Nonetheless, it was a bestseller in Japan, and there it was reprinted more than 20 times within several years.

In spite of its reluctant exposure to the outside world, the Qing Dynasty appeared modernized on the outside. But inside, it was still decades, if not centuries, behind Western powers. None illustrates this better than the ill-fated Beiyang Fleet itself.

A majority of the fleet’s warships had been bought from British and German shipyards. Its two flagships, the German-made Dingyuan and Zhenyuan, were arguably state-of-the-art gunboats with their respective 7,335 tonnage and formidable cannons. Still, the entire fleet was organized around outmoded military concepts and lacked modern strategy. Thus, it was doomed to fail.

“The navy is supposed to be a highly professional military service in modern times. Yet, except for its elite warships, the Beiyang Fleet lacked a full command system, a general staff or a logistics supplier,” said Jiang, the naval expert.


Primitive naval tactics

By contrast, there emerged a whole chain of command in post-Meiji-era Japan, comprising the ministries of army and navy and naval HQs. The Japanese military was also better equipped and serviced with field hospitals and army rations. “They even began producing canned food for soldiers,” said Jiang.

In addition to its flawed preparation for war, another contributor to China’s naval defeat was its primitive tactics.

The Beiyang Fleet was down, but not out after the sea battle. Its flagship Dingyuan was shelled more than 700 times but it remained intact and afloat. After repairs and proper rest for the crews, the fleet could have been relaunched, full steam ahead. But its founding father, Li Hongzhang, decided otherwise. No, the remaining ships would be called back to defend their HQs in Weihaiwei — a decision that proved critical in the fleet’s eventual annihilation.

“Li’s offshore defense tactics offer a glimpse into the absence of naval supremacy in China over the past 120 years,” said Lian, the think-tank expert.

Citing US Admiral Alfred Mahan’s acclaimed book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” he explained that the navy’s job was not to passively defend a country’s coastlines, but to actively project a nation’s power into the wider ocean to secure national interests. Gunships and cannons alone are just part of what constitutes command of the sea.

In the case of the Beiyang Fleet, its panoply of modern ships could not compensate for the lack of an audacious seafaring tradition ever since the self-imposed isolation of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) . “The fleet could only be sitting ducks if it was deployed close to home. The navy must take the fight to others,” Lian told Shanghai Daily.

Mahan’s book was published in 1890. Word of it had yet to trickle into China. As with the “Illustrated Records of Maritime Nations” and “A Note on Japan,” the Chinese again missed the latest trends in world military development. The demise of the Beiyang Fleet was the result of its many anachronisms, according to Lian.

He lamented that China has only recently realized the importance of developing a blue-water navy. Over the past century, it paid dearly for the loss of naval supremacy. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), Japanese troops attacked from three directions, one from Manchuria, the others from Shanghai and Guangzhou, where its troops arrived by sea. “China’s coastlines were left totally unguarded,” said Lian.

If the navy’s defeat is understandable, the rout of the imperial Qing army on the battlefield can only be seen as a harbinger of a dynasty teetering on collapse. The ragtag Qing troops did not win a single battle, and retreated all the way from Korea to China. Officers even deceived their superiors with fabricated tales of victories. For example, General Ye Zhichao, China’s point man in Korea, lied about his “exploits,” while, in fact, he and his demoralized men trekked 250 kilometers in six days to flee the marauding Japanese. This spineless behavior earned him the nickname “runaway general.” It only took one day for Lushun, the so-called “No. 1 fortification in East Asia,” to fall into Japanese hands.

According to orthodox historians, corruption is chiefly to blame for China’s military defeats. Evidence abounds. The Empress Dowager misappropriated what was supposed to be naval expenditures to build the Summer Palace, her private retreat. Opium smoking was common among officers and sailors of the Beiyang Fleet, including its commander Ding Ruchang (1836-1895). These are all indisputable facts, but the real scourge was an ossified political system.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily, Yoda Yoshiie, professor of history at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, said that notwithstanding its bigger naval budget, the Beiyang Fleet was not just corrupt but also in broad disarray. “However, the root cause of its defeat is the divergence between Japanese and Chinese modernization,” said Yoda.
According to him, Japan was already as developed toward the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu (1603-1867) reign as China was during the Yangwu movement. And it went on to become a constitutional monarchy after Meiji Restoration and civil rights movement, whereas China’s interest in reforms didn’t go any further. “China floundered, because its 18 provinces were literally operating like 18 countries, divided as loose sand,” Yoda said.
The nature of China as a severely divided country is best manifested through the fissures splitting the Qing court.
At the time of its establishment, the Beiyang Fleet boasted 25 battleships, making it the largest navy in Asia. But then it stopped growing, and was overtaken in 1894 by Japan’s Allied Fleet, which consisted of 32 vessels. This is because Minister of Revenue Weng Tonghe (1830-1904) refused to finance the expansion of Li Hongzhang’s beloved fleet.

“Weng was the teacher of reform-minded Emperor Guangxu; Li belonged to the conservative Empress Dowager’s faction. That put them on a collision course,” said researcher Lian.

At a personal level, the bad blood between the two, which was as deep as the chasm separating the rival factions, also drained the Beiyang Fleet’s war chest. It was clear that a split Qing court could not respond forcefully to the threat from a united and fully modernized Japan.

What was worse, in a move of self-sacrifice and leadership, Emperor Meiji even cut his own rations and expenses and donated the savings to the navy. Contrast his thrift with the extravagance of the Empress Dowager, who milked the state for her personal enjoyment, and it surprises no one that China would fall behind in the naval arms race.

Sir Robert Hart, the best known Briton in the Qing Dynasty and the second Inspector-General of its customs service, once pointed out with remarkable insight, “I fear we are far from reforms yet. Now and then this huge giant China, jumps up, shouts, yawns and stretches — is evidently awake and going to do great things: The next minute the giant sits down, sips tea, lights a pipe, nods and dozes off as before!”

This inertia can perhaps be understood through a cultural prism. Much like the Dingyuan battleship, the flagship of the Beiyang Fleet, Chinese culture is cumbersome and thus slow-moving, whereas Japan is a fast learner, receptive to wholesale emulation of the West — for better or for worse.

The crushing defeat by Japan had finally jolted the Chinese out of complacency. Historian Lei Yi argued that although the Wuxu Reform that followed the war only lasted a hundred-odd days, the spirit demonstrated by its leaders, in particular Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), is worth remembering by posterity.
“China lost the war. It ceded Taiwan to Japan. Its economy was bled dry by astronomical war reparations. So Kang and Liang were immensely courageous and open-minded in proposing that China learn from the enemy,” said Lei.

The booty of war from China boosted Japanese state coffers, nearly 90 percent of which was spent on military build-up. It worked. In 1905, Japan won the Russo-Japanese War, the first time an Asian nation defeated an established European power. It took Japan 11 years and two wars to make it into the ranks of imperial powers. China, on the other hand, had to endure a hundred years of trials and tribulations before it rose peacefully.

Japan’s linear growth owed much to the continuity of its ruling establishment, a legacy of the Meiji Restoration. In comparison, “Chinese history since Jiawu was too tumultuous and agonizing,” said Lian.

Yoda, however, was less critical of China’s trajectory following 1894. The war ended in China’s defeat, to be sure, but the country then got on the right track of nation-building, regardless of the cycle of revolutions and upheavals, he said.

“Jiawu stoked hatred (for Japan) in the Chinese. But it was also an opportunity for modernization. Hatred didn’t help China grow. In this sense, Jiawu might be a blessing in disguise,” said Yoda.

In the wake of the war, a large number of Chinese students flocked to Japan to study its experience. And Japan, partly out of genuine good will to help its destitute ex-teacher, partly out of growing colonial ambitions, sent “advisors” to China, who helped to build up its legal and education system, among other things.

A strange reversal began. Japan supplied China with a steady trickle of knowledge about the West. But this seemingly innocuous exchange had unintended consequences for the Manchu rulers.

A little more than a decade later, a coterie of revolutionaries, led by an exiled politician named Sun Yat-Sen and ably assisted by Japanese fellow travelers, overthrew their dynasty, spelling the end of China’s 2,000 years of imperial rule. That is, perhaps more than most, the biggest legacy of the war in 1894.


(Wang Xiaolin contributed to the story.)

 

 

 

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