Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)

Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)

The Sino-Japanese War between 1894 and 1895 was a conflict between China and Japan primarily over control of Korea. After the Japanese Shogunate government collapsed in 1868, the Meiji government (1868-1912) dispatched Japanese students to Europe and the United States to study Western technology and science to strengthen Japan’s power to compete equally with the Western powers. In just 30 years, Japan was transformed from a divided state to an industrialized country and had become the most powerful state in Asia by the end of the nineteenth century. As a newly rising power, Japan began to adopt an aggressive foreign policy, promoting overseas territorial expansion to protect its own interests and security as well as to expand its overseas trade. Korea naturally became the first target of Japanese expansionism.

For many centuries, Korea had been a tributary state to imperial China, which exerted great influence over the conservative Korean officials who gathered around the royal family. After the First Opium War of 1839-1842 between the Imperial Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and the British Empire, and the French-Chinese War of 1884-1885, China had become weak and was unable to resist political intervention and territorial intrusion by Western imperialist powers. The decline of imperial China provided the Japanese an opportunity to replace Chinese influence in Korea with its own power.

The Japanese believed that Japan had to occupy Korea because Korea’s coal and iron ore deposits would help Japan promote its industrialization. In addition, the Chinese military presence on the Korean Peninsula would pose a serious threat to Japanese national security and interests. For these two reasons, Japan was determined to terminate the centuries-old Chinese suzerainty over Korea.

In Korea, public opinion was divided. Conservative Koreans still tried to maintain the traditional obedient relationship with Imperial China, while the new, young reformists advocated the creation of a closer relationship with Japan and Western powers in the face of the decay of the colossal empire. In 1882, a severe drought broke out across the Korean Peninsula, which resulted in food shortages, causing much suffering and conflict among the Korean people. Korean society was at the edge of starvation, and the government was in danger of bankruptcy because the government was unable to pay its debts, particularly to its armies.

Profound anger was rising amongst the soldiers of the Korean army because they had not been paid for months. As a result, a group of pro-Japanese reformers overthrew the pro-Chinese conservative government of Korea in 1884. In spite of this successful coup, the pro-Chinese Korean armies, with the support of the Chinese troops, were successful in defeating the pro-Japanese reformers and in regaining control of the Korean government in a bloody countercoup. These coup d’etats led to not only the deaths of many pro-Japanese reformers, but also the burning of the Japanese embassy and the deaths of several Japanese security guards and citizens.

This incident contributed to a conflict between Japan and Chinese governments, but the Sino-Japanese Convention of Tianjin (Tientsin) of 1885 helped put down their differences. According to the convention, both Japan and China agreed to withdraw their expeditionary troops from Korea at the same time, send no more military advisors to train the Korean armies, and inform the other side in advance if one party resolved to send armies to the Korean Peninsula. The agreement gave the Japanese a status that almost equaled that of China in Korea, but the Japanese were still irritated by the Chinese government, which was determined to maintain its power and influence in the Korean Peninsula to stop Japanese expansion there.

The Korean situation increasingly deteriorated and the conflict between China and Japan was becoming intensified. In 1894, to answer the call of the Korean emperor, the Chinese government dispatched troops to Korea to put down the Dongxue Rebellion. The Chinese government notified the Japanese government of its plan to send an expeditionary force of nearly 3,000 troops to the Korean Peninsula according to the terms of the Convention of Tianjin. The Japanese believed that the Chinese expeditionary force to Korea would violate the convention and decided to send 8,000 troops to Korea.

The Japanese troops afterward captured the emperor, occupied the imperial house in the capital of Seoul, and established a new pro-Japanese government on June 8, 1894. The new pro-Japanese Korean government authorized Japan to force all Chinese armies out of Korea and to dispatch more Japanese troops to the Korean Peninsula. Since the Qing government refused to recognize the new Korean government, a conflict over Korea between China and Japan seemed unavoidable. By that time, the Japanese military had been ready for a war against the Chinese.

During the era of the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji emperor began to build an effective modern national army and navy. In 1873, national conscription was imposed and a professional army was established, while military schools and arsenals were created. The Meiji government then sent many Japanese military officials to European countries to study the strengths, strategies, and tactics of European armies and navies. By the 1890s, Japan had developed a modern, professional, well-trained army. Well equipped and supplied, Japan’s imperial army of 120,000 troops was divided into two armies and five divisions.

In the meantime, the modern Japanese navy was established with the help of the British Royal Navy, the leading naval power in the world in the nineteenth century. The British sent the naval advisors to Japan to teach and train the Japanese imperial Navy. Meanwhile, the Meiji government sent Japanese students to Great Britain to learn and survey the British navy. The Japanese soon created their own modern warships, such as cruisers and torpedo boats.

In contrast, the Chinese military was not modernized, poorly trained, and inadequately equipped. After suppressing the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864, the Chinese army had been divided into Manchu, Mongol, Hui (Muslim) and Han Chinese armies under the leadership of the  local independent warlords. The Huai and Xiang armies made up the larger Beiyang Army, which was the most powerful army at that time. The divided Chinese armies did not have much strength due to regional rivalry. The Beiyang Fleet was one of the four major Chinese navies in the late Qing Dynasty. Li Hongzhang, the viceroy of Zhili, supported the navies greatly, and the Beiyang Fleet was the leading navy in East Asia before the first Sino-Japanese War.

However, the corrupt Qing government spent much money on building the Summer Palace in Beijing while stopping purchase of any modern weapons, arms, and ammunitions after 1891. The Beiyang force (Beiyang Army and Beiyang Fleet) was the best equipped and best trained, standing for the new, modernized military of China, but the Beiyang Fleet did not obtain any new warships after it was founded in 1888. Warships were not maintained correctly, and disorderliness was widespread among the Chinese navy. The morale of the Chinese armies was usually very low by reason of lack of pay and prestige. To make things worse, many in the Chinese armies were using opium and became opium addicts, which significantly reduced the strength of the military.

The Chinese tried to use Korea to restrain the more imperialist encroachment of Japan in East Asia, but their weak military helped contribute to Japanese aggression in Korea. The Sino-Japanese War was officially declared on August 1, 1894, although some naval skirmishing had already occurred. In July 1894, the Chinese had 3,500 troops in the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese army defeated the Chinese in a series of battles around Seoul and Pyongyang. After Pyongyang fell to the hands of the Japanese army, the Chinese retreated from northern Korea and then took up defensive positions in fortresses along their side of the Yalu River, a river between the Korean Peninsula and China. The powerful Japanese army began to invade Manchuria after defeating the Qing army in October.

The modern Japanese navy defeated China’s Beiyang Fleet at the mouth of the Yalu River at the Battle of Yalu on September 17, 1894. The Chinese navy, after losing 8 out of 10 warships, was forced to retreat behind the fortifications of the Weihaiwei naval base, and Japan’s domination of the sea was secured. The Japanese lost no time in launching a sudden land attack across the Liaodong Peninsula and smashed the rest of the Beiyang Fleet at the naval base with intense shelling from the heavy cannons on land. After Weihaiwei, Shandong (Shantung) Province, fell to the Japanese on February 2, 1895, the Japanese quickly occupied Manchuria.

After defeating the Chinese army and navy, on March 23, 1895, the Japanese military invaded the Pescadores Islands off the west coast of Taiwan. In a short military campaign without any bloodshed, the Japanese overcame the islands defended by the Qing force and took over the major town of Makung. This successful campaign prohibited the Chinese forces in Taiwan from being strengthened and gave the Japanese government an opportunity to force the Qing government to surrender Taiwan to Japan in the negotiation thereafter. Poor preparation, inadequate training, and a great disparity between weapons and munitions were the major reasons for China’s defeat in the war. In addition, the war was fought largely with Li Hongzhang’s forces without any support from other Chinese.

Faced with these repeated defeats, the Qing government under great pressure was compelled to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki on April 17, 1895. Under this treaty, the Qing government recognized the entire independence of Korea and surrendered the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu Islands to Japan. The Treaty provided that China pay Japan 200 million taels as reparation and that China have to conclude a commercial treaty with Japan to allow Japanese ships to operate on the Yangzi (Yangtze) River, to establish factories in treaty ports, and to open four more ports to foreign trade.

Japan forced the Chinese government to sign the treaty, but some European powers, especially Germany, Russia, and France, did not want to allow the Japanese to establish a colony on the Liaodong Peninsula in mainland China. As a result, Japan, under great pressure from the European powers, was compelled to stop colonization of the Liaodong Peninsula in exchange for another 30 million taels as indemnity on April 23, 1895.

The first Sino-Japanese War helped prove the supremacy of Japanese military tactics and training as a result of the acceptance of a Western-style military. The Japanese triumph in the war was also the consequence of the successful modernization and industrialization in Japan from 1868 to 1894. The defeat of China helped cement Japan as a regional power, if not a great power on equal terms with the Western powers, and a dominant power in Asia. As the Japanese reputation was rising, Japan began to challenge the Western powers’ interest in East Asia. One of the results of the challenge was the Russo-Japanese War between 1904 and 1905 when the Japanese military tried to force Russia out of northeast China.

The consequence of the first SinoJapanese War indicated that the military strength and sovereignty of the Qing dynasty had been severely weakened. The defeat of imperial China with 400 million in population by a small island state of Japan was a great insult to the Chinese. The result of this war also underlined the failure of the SelfStrengthening movement in China from 1861 to the 1890s to strengthen the Chinese state and modernize the Chinese military.

The outcome of the war revealed the Qing government’s incompetence and serious corruption. Thereafter, many Chinese intellectuals demanded political and social reform in China, which resulted in the Hundred Days Reform of 1898 under the leadership of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. The reform movement failed, but it paved the way for the 1911 Revo1 ution, which finally overthrew the Qing dynasty and established a republic in China in 1912.

Dr. Guangqiu Xu

See also: Chinese Revolution of 1911; Beiyang Army; Li Hongzhang; Manchuria; Manchus; Mongols; New Army; Opium War, First; Qing Dynasty; Russo-Japanese War; Self-Strengthening Movement; Shimonoseki, Treaty of; Sino-French War; Xiang Army.


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