The War That Made Asia

tags: Korea, Asia, Russo-Japanese War



Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was previously a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @washburnt.

Compared with the global conflicts of the subsequent century—and even the great struggles of that which preceded it—the war that broke out on the Korean Peninsula in the summer of 1894 was a brief and relatively bloodless affair. In six months of fighting, on land and at sea, military casualties never exceeded those of Waterloo or Gettysburg. At a time when most in the West still regarded East Asia as a distant backwater, the war attracted little attention outside of its own neighborhood.

Yet for those seeking to understand the perilous politics of the region today, there is no better place to start than the First Sino-Japanese War, which pitted China's fading Qing Dynasty against an ascendant Meiji Japan in a contest for regional supremacy. Japan's runaway victory not only marked a dramatic turning point in East Asia’s political order, but also helped to set the stage for several major fissures which still bedevil the region: the division of Korea; the uncertain status of Taiwan; and the increasingly dangerous dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

TODAY, KOREA’S situation at the center of Northeast Asia is a source of economic advantage, and is one reason the South Korean cities of Incheon and Busan are among the busiest transportation and shipping hubs in the world. For much of recorded history, however, it has also been a source of tragedy, as armies from the Asian mainland and the Japanese archipelago have used the Korean Peninsula either a bridge or a buffer. Two sets of invasions—by the Mongols, in the thirteenth century, and the Manchus, in the seventeenth—helped tie Korea to China, which itself also fell to the same bands of northern horsemen.

While Korea had always been greatly influenced by its giant neighbor, it became a particularly eager protégé after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was replaced by the Ming, during which time Korea’s Joseon Dynasty adopted a strict form of Confucianism as its governing philosophy and borrowing extensively from Chinese art and philosophy. The establishment of the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty in 1644 dealt a painful blow to Korea’s political and intellectual elite, which regarded the northerners as unworthy heirs to the Middle Kingdom’s throne, although Joseon continued to pay tribute under duress.



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