Chinese Nationalism and Japan in the Era of Imperialism

Sun Yat-sen, first president of the Republic of China
Sun Yat-sen, first president of the Republic of China

For 50 years, between 1895 and 1945, China maintained a non-cooperative foreign policy towards the Japanese. This was probably rather justified, due to the steady colonisation of China-proper by Japan throughout the period, ending with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what is crucial to understanding Sino-Japanese relations during the ‘era of imperialism’, is that nationalism played a significant part in the generation of such foreign policy – not geopolitics, or economics. Simply, the desire for self-determination, after a century of dominance and humiliation by external forces, pushed through the emergence of an independent and self-governed Chinese state. There were of course various strands and factors that moulded together to form this nationalism – namely, one line focusing on China itself, and another laced with anti-Japanese sentiment. But it is interesting to analyse their interconnectivity in defeating the forces that threatened such a Chinese state.

Development of General, Civic Nationalism

It would be foolish to suggest that anti-Japanese sentiment was born in 1895. The roots of such disdain lie another 50 years previously, at the end of the First Opium War between China and Britain. The treaties that emerged from the conflict, fought by the British in order to keep Chinese markets open to the opium trade (the drug had been banned by the Qing government leaving the British with no leverage of tea exchange), were the first of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ that were forced upon various East Asian nations as a method of ‘passive colonialism’. The humiliation that followed grew into uprisings such as the Taiping Rebellion between 1850 and 1864, and the Boxer Rebellion around 1900. The former was a manifestation of the frustration towards the inept Qing government, whilst the latter was a strike at the millions of foreigners that had settled in one way or another in China during the 19th Century. Both were centrally nationalistic movements, without a genuine material external opponent. Other factors such as the Sino-French War of 1894-5 over Northern Vietnam should be noted as significant but in different ways.

This form of nationalism would arise again in the ‘inter-war period’ (simply a time reference, due to the lack of relevance of the term outside of Europe). Upon the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the death of the hailed ‘father’ of Nationalist China Sun Yat-sen in 1925, another civil war broke out. The Communists and the Nationalists fought a bitter conflict, which included many damaging events – the most significant of which was perhaps the 1927 Shanghai Massacre, in which the Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party) killed thousands of Chinese communists in a bid to restore full power to themselves. The conflict only truly ceased upon the full invasion of China by the Japanese in 1937. The point here is thus – that nationalist spirit was high in China throughout the era of imperialism, and was very much ready to transcend itself onto a distinct external enemy.

Anti-Japanese Sentiment

As mentioned, the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 set in motion a nationalist discourse that would dictate the entirety of Chinese foreign policy towards Japan until August 1945. This particular war was fought over control of Korea, which was considered important as a springboard onto mainland Asia for the Japanese. The occupation of what had also been Chinese controlled land ignited a Sinic fire – it also signalled a shift in the balance of power away from Qing China in East Asia, a movement that proved the government unworthy and called for a nationalist push to change China’s fortune.

Over the next 30 years, Japan consolidated its position on the eastern frontier of the Asian mainland. Inroads were made into Manchuria after the defeat of the Russians in 1905, and after having already claimed the island of Formosa (Taiwan), Korea was annexed in 1910. Thus, the establishment of a Japanese puppet state in Manchukuo (over what is considered to be Manchuria in northeast China) really burned the nationalist spirit in Beijing and Shanghai. A vote of no cooperation was likely to last forever at that rate, and upon the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (in which Japan invaded China proper) in 1937, the nationalists and the communists united in opposition to their imperial neighbours for the first time. The infamous Nanjing Massacre – which still causes political tension between the two countries – later that year, was perhaps the single greatest factor in the generation of Chinese foreign policy based upon nationalism.


There are of course many other factors that have not been mentioned, but which certainly contributed to the nationalist spirit in China. Many of these were more symbolic than physical. Their absence from this analysis, however, proves just how torrid a century the Chinese nation had between 1842 and 1945. The enemy varied, finalising itself in the over-exertive Japanese. The aim of the nationalism changed too, as both the Qing government, communists and KMT all considered themselves Chinese nationalists. Perhaps it was the delay in allying such sentiment that dragged out China’s century of humiliation. Regardless, it is difficult to find an equivalent in world history, where nationalism plays such a deep and complex part in foreign policy, as it did in China towards Japan.

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