Asia’s Response to a Europeanizing World

A perceptive Chinese observer might have found something revealing in the disgrace which in the end overtook the Jesuits, at first so acceptable, at K’ang-hsi’s court. For more than a century these able men had judiciously and discreetly sought to ingratiate themselves with their hosts. To begin with they had not even spoken of religion, but had contented themselves with studying the language of China. They had even worn Chinese dress, which, we are told, created a very good impression. Great successes had followed. Yet the effectiveness of their mission was suddenly paralysed; their acceptance of Chinese rites and beliefs and their Sinicizing of Christian teaching led to the sending of two papal emissaries to China to check improper flexibility. Here, for historians, if not for contemporaries, was a sign that Europeans, unlike other intruders, might not in the end succumb to its cultural pull.

There was a message for all Asia in this revelation of the intransigence of European culture. It was going to be more important to what was about to happen in Asia - and was already under way there - than even the technology of the newcomers. It was certainly more decisive than any temporary or special weaknesses of the eastern empires, as China’s own history was to show. Under K’ang-hsi’s immediate successors, the Manchu empire was already past its peak; its slow and eventually fatal decline would not have in itself been surprising given the cyclical pattern of dynastic rise and fall in the past. What made the fate of the Ch’ing dynasty different from that of its predecessors was that it survived long enough to preside over the country while it faced a quite new threat, one from a culture stronger than that of traditional China. For the first time in nearly two thousand years, Chinese society would have to change, not the imported culture of a new wave of barbarian conquerors. The Chinese Revolution was about to begin.

In the eighteenth century, no Chinese official could have been expected to discern this. When Lord Macartney arrived in 1793 to ask for equality of diplomatic representation and free trade, the confidence of centuries was unshaken. The first western advances and encroachments had been successfully rebuffed or contained. The representative of George III could only take back polite but unyielding messages of refusal to what the Chinese emperor was pleased to call ‘the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea’. It can hardly have made the message more palatable that George was also patted on the back for his ‘submissive loyalty in sending this tribute mission’ and encouraged to ‘show even greater devotion and loyalty in future’.

The assumption of their own cultural and moral superiority came as naturally to the educated Chinese as it was to do to the European and American missionaries and philanthropists of the next century, who unconsciously patronized the people they came to serve. It embodied the Chinese world view, in which all nations paid tribute to the emperor, possessed of the Mandate of Heaven, and took it for granted that China already had all the materials and skills needed for the highest civilization and would only waste her time and energy in indulging relations with Europe going beyond the limited trade tolerated at Canton (where by 1800 there were perhaps a thousand Europeans). Nor was this obviously nonsense. Nearly three centuries of trade with China had failed to reveal any manufactured goods from Europe which the Chinese wanted except the mechanical toys and clocks they found amusing. European trade with China rested on the export to her of silver or other Asian products. As a British merchant concisely put it in the middle of the eighteenth century, the ‘East India trade . . . exports our bullion, spends little of our product or manufactures and brings in commodities perfectly manufactured which hinder the consumption of our own’.

Yet for all official China’s confidence in her internal regime and cultural superiority, signs of future difficulties can be discerned in retrospect. The secret societies and cults, which kept alive a smouldering national resentment against a foreign dynasty and the central power, still survived and even prospered. They found fresh support as the surge of population became uncontainable; in the century before 1850 numbers seem to have more than doubled to reach about 430 million by 1850. Pressure on cultivated land became much more acute because the area worked could be increased only by a tiny margin; times grew steadily harder and the lot of the peasantry more and more miserable. There had been warning signs in the 1770s and 1780s, when a century’s internal peace was broken by great revolts such as those which had so often in the past been the sign of dynastic decline. Early in the next century they became more frequent and destructive. To make matters worse, they were accompanied by another economic deterioration, inflation in the price of the silver in which taxes had to be paid. Most daily transactions (including the payment of wages) were carried out in copper, so this added to the crushing burdens already suffered by the poor. Yet none of this seemed likely to be fatal, except, possibly, to the dynasty. It could all be fitted into the traditional pattern of the historic cycle. All that was required was that the service gentry should remain loyal, and even if they did not, then, though a collapse of government might follow, there was no reason to believe that in due course another dynasty would not emerge to re-enlist their loyalty and preserve the imperial framework of an unchanging China. This time, though, it was not to happen like that, because of the drive and power of the nineteenth-century barbarian challenge.

The inflation itself was a result of changing relations with the outside world which within a few decades made nonsense of the reception given to Macartney. Before 1800 the West could offer China little that she wanted except silver, but within the next three decades of the nineteenth century this ceased to be so, largely because British traders at last found a commodity the Chinese wanted and India could supply: opium. Naval expeditions forced the Chinese to open their country to sale (albeit at first under certain restrictions) of this drug, but the ‘Opium War’, which began in 1839, ended in 1842 with a treaty which registered a fundamental change in China’s relations with the West. The Canton monopoly and the tributary status of the foreigner came to an end together. Once the British had kicked ajar the door to western trade, others were to follow them through it.

Unwittingly, the government of Queen Victoria had launched the Chinese Revolution. The 1840s opened a period of upheaval which took over a century to come to completion. The revolution would slowly reveal itself as a double repudiation, both of the foreigner and of much of the Chinese past. The first would increasingly express itself in the nationalist modes and idioms of the progressive European world. Because such ideological forces could not be contained within the traditional framework, they would in the end prove fatal to it, when the Chinese sought to remove the obstacles to modernization and national power. More than a century after the Opium War the Chinese Revolution finally shattered for good a social system which had been the foundation of Chinese life for thousands of years. By that time, though, much of old China would already have vanished. By that time, too, it would appear that China’s troubles had also been a part of an even wider upheaval, a Hundred Years’ War of Asia and the West, whose turning-point came in the early twentieth century.

These implications matured only slowly. In the beginning, western encroachments in China usually produced only a simple, xenophobic hostility and even this was not universal. After all, for a long time very few Chinese were directly or obviously much concerned with the coming of the foreigners. A few (notably Canton merchants involved in the foreign trade) even sought accommodation with them. Hostility was a matter of anti-British mobs in the towns and of the rural gentry. At first many officials saw the problem as a limited one: that of the addiction of the subjects of the empire to a dangerous drug. They were humiliated, in particular, by the weaknesses which this revealed in their own people and administration; there was much connivance and corruption involved in the opium trade. They do not at first seem to have seen the deeper issue of the future, that of the questioning of an entire order, or to have sensed a cultural threat; China had suffered defeats in the past and its culture had survived unscathed.

The first portent of a deeper danger came when, in the 1840s, the imperial government had to concede that missionary activity was legal. Though still limited, this was obviously corrosive of tradition. Officials in the Confucian mould who felt its danger, stirred up popular feeling against missionaries - whose efforts made them easy targets - and there were scores of riots in the 1850s and 1860s. Such demonstrations often made things worse. Sometimes foreign consuls would be drawn in; exceptionally a gunboat would be sent. The Chinese government’s prestige would suffer in the ensuing exchange of apologies and punishment of culprits. Mean while, the activity of the missionaries was steadily undermining the traditional society in more direct and didactic ways by preaching an individualism and egalitarianism alien to it and by acting as a magnet to converts to whom it offered economic and social advantages. The inability of the imperial government to stamp out Christianity was a telling indicator of the limits of its power.


The process of undermining China also went forward directly by military and naval means; there were further impositions of concessions by force. But there was a growing ambiguity in the Chinese response. The authorities did not always resist the arrival of the foreigners. First the gentry of the areas immediately concerned and then the Peking government came round to feeling that foreign soldiers might not be without their value for the regime. Social disorder was growing. It could not be canalized solely against the foreigners and was threatening the establishment; China was beginning to undergo a cycle of peasant revolts which were to be the greatest in the whole of human history. In the middle decades of the century the familiar indicators multiplied: banditry, secret societies. In the 1850s the ‘Red Turbans’ were suppressed only at great cost. Such troubles frightened the establishment, and threw it on to the defensive, leaving it with little spare capacity to resist the steady gnawing of the West. These great rebellions were fundamentally caused by hunger for land, and the most important and distinctive of them was the Taiping rebellion or, as it may more appropriately be called, revolution, which lasted from 1850 to 1864.

The heart of this great convulsion, which cost the lives of more people than died the world over in the First World War, was a traditional peasant revolt. Hard times and a succession of natural disasters had helped to provoke it. It drew on a compound of land hunger, hatred of tax-gatherers, social envy and national resentment against the Manchus (though it is hard to see exactly what this meant in practice, for most of the officials who actually administered the empire were, of course, themselves Chinese). It was also a regional outbreak, originating in the south and even there promoted by an isolated minority of settlers from the north. The new feature behind the revolt, and one which made it ambiguous in the eyes of both Chinese and Europeans, was that its leader, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, had a superficial but impressive acquaintance with the Christian religion in the form of American Protestantism. This led him not only to rewrite the Decalogue with a new emphasis on filial piety, but, among other things, to denounce the worship of other gods and destroy idols and to talk of establishing the kingdom of God on earth. He felt rejected by his own culture, for he had been unsuccessful in the examinations which conferred status on low-born Chinese. Within the familiar framework of one of the periodic peasant upheavals of old China, that is to say, a new ideology was at work and showing itself subversive of the traditional culture and state. Some of its opponents at once grasped this and saw the movement as an ideological as well as a social challenge. Thus the Taiping rebellion can be seen as an epoch in the western disruption of China.

The Taiping army at first had a series of spectacular successes. By 1853 they had captured Nanking and established there the court of Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, now proclaimed the ‘Heavenly King’. In spite of alarm further north, though, this was as far as they went. After 1856 the revolution was on the defensive. Nevertheless, it announced important social changes (which were to be praised later by Chinese communists) and although it is by no means clear how widely these were effective or even appealing, they had real disruptive ideological effects. The basis of Taiping social doctrine was not private property but communal provision for general needs. The land was in theory distributed for working in plots graded by quality to provide just shares. Even more revolutionary was the proclaimed extension of social and educational equality to women. The traditional binding of their feet was forbidden and a measure of sexual austerity marked the movement’s aspirations (though not the conduct of the ‘Heavenly King’ himself). All this reflected the mixture of religious and social elements which lay at the root of the Taiping cult and threatened the traditional order.

The movement benefited at first from the demoralization brought about in the Manchu forces by their defeats at the hands of the Europeans and from the usual weaknesses shown by central government in China in a region relatively remote and distinct. As time passed and the Manchu forces were given abler (sometimes European) commanders, the bows and spears of the Taipings proved insufficient. The foreigners, too, came to see the movement as a threat but kept up their pressure on the imperial government while it grappled with the Taipings. Treaties with France and the United States, which followed that with Great Britain, guaranteed the toleration of Christian missionaries and began the process of reserving jurisdiction over foreigners to consular and mixed courts. The danger from the Taiping brought yet more concessions: the opening of more Chinese ports to foreign trade, the introduction to the Chinese customs administration of foreign superiors, the legalization of the sale of opium and the cession to the Russians of the province in which Vladivostok was to be built. It is hardly surprising that in 1861 the Chinese decided for the first time to set up a new department to deal with foreign affairs. The old myth that all the world recognized the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ and owed tribute to the imperial court was dead.

In the end, the foreigners joined in against the Taipings. Whether their help was needed to end it is hard to say; certainly the movement was already failing. In 1864 Hung died and shortly afterwards Nanking fell to the Manchu. This was a victory for traditional China: the rule of the bureaucratic gentry had survived one more threat from below. None the less, an important turning-point had been reached. A rebellion had offered a revolutionary programme announcing a new danger, that the old challenge of peasant rebellion might be reinforced by an ideology from outside deeply corrosive to Confucian China. Nor did the end of the Taiping rebellion mean internal peace; from the middle of the 1850s until well into the 1870s there were great Muslim risings in the north-west and south-west as well as other rebellions.

Immediately, China showed even greater weakness in the face of the western barbarians. Large areas had been devastated in the fighting; in many of them the soldiers were powerful and threatened the control of the bureaucracy. If the enormous loss of life did something to reduce pressure on land, this was probably balanced by a decline in the prestige and authority of the dynasty. Concessions had already had to be made to the Western powers under and because of these disadvantaged conditions; between 1856 and i860 British and French forces were engaged every year against the Chinese. A treaty in 1861 brought to nineteen the number of ‘treaty ports’ open to western merchants and provided for a permanent British ambassador at Peking. Meanwhile, the Russians exploited the Anglo-French successes to secure the opening of their entire border with China to trade. Further concessions would follow. It was evident that methods which had drawn the sting of nomadic invaders were not likely to work with confident Europeans, whose ideological assurance and increasing technical superiority protected them from the seduction of Chinese civilization. When Roman Catholic missionaries were given the right to buy land and put up buildings Christianity was linked to economic penetration; soon the wish to protect converts meant involvement in the internal affairs of public order and police. It was impossible to contain the slow but continuous erosion of Chinese sovereignty. Never formally a colony, China was beginning none the less to undergo a measure of colonization.

Then there were territorial losses as the century wore on. In the 1870s the Russians seized the Ili valley (though they later handed much of it back) and in the next decade the French established a protectorate in Annam. Loosely asserted but ancient Chinese suzerainty was being swept away; the French began to absorb Indo-China and the British annexed Burma in 1886. The worst blow came from another Asiatic state; in the war of 1894-5 Japanese took Formosa and the Pescadores, while China had to recognize the independence of Korea, from which they had received tribute since the seventeenth century. Following the Japanese success came further encroachments by other powers, provoked by the Russians, who established themselves in Port Arthur. England, France and Germany all extracted long leases of ports at the end of the century. Before this, the Portuguese, who had been in China longer than any other Europeans, converted their tenure of Macao into outright ownership. Even the Italians were in the market, though they did not actually get anything. And long before this, concessions, loans and agreements had been exacted by western powers to protect and foster their own economic and financial interests. It is hardly surprising that when a British prime minister spoke at the end of the century of two classes of nation, the ‘living and the dying’, China was regarded as an outstanding example of the second. Statesmen began to envisage her partition.

Before the end of the nineteenth century it became clear to many Chinese intellectuals and civil servants that the traditional order would not generate the energy necessary to resist the new barbarians. Attempts along the old lines had failed. New tendencies began to appear. A ‘society for the study of self-strengthening’ was founded to consider Western ideas and inventions which might be helpful. Its leaders cited the achievements of Peter the Great and, more significantly, those of contemporary reformers in Japan, an example all the more telling because of the superiority shown by the Japanese over China in war in 1895. Yet the would-be reformers still hoped that they would be able to root change in the Confucian tradition, albeit one purified and invigorated. They were members of the gentry and they succeeded in obtaining the ear of the emperor; they were thus working within the traditional framework and machinery of power to obtain administrative and technological reform without compromising the fundamentals of Chinese culture and ideology.

Unfortunately this meant that the Hundred Days of Reform of 1898 (as the brief ascendancy of the reformers came to be known) was almost at once tangled up in the court politics of the rivalry between the emperor and the dowager empress, to say nothing of Chinese-Manchu antagonism. Though a stream of reform edicts was published, they were swiftly overtaken by a coup d’etat by the empress, who locked up the emperor. The basic cause of the reformers’ failure was the provocation offered by their inept political behaviour. Yet although they had failed, it was important that their initiative had taken place at all. It was to be a great stimulus to wider and deeper thinking about China’s future.

For the moment, though, China seemed to have turned back to older methods of confronting the threat from outside, as a dramatic episode, the ‘Boxer movement’, showed. Exploited by the empress, this was essentially a backward-looking and xenophobic popular upheaval, which was given official encouragement. Missionaries and converts were murdered, a German minister killed and the foreign legations at Peking besieged; the Boxers once more revealed the hatred of foreigners which was waiting to be tapped. Yet their efforts showed how little could be hoped for from the old structure, for its most conservative forces had dominated the movement, not the few reformers who became involved in it. The Boxers were in due course suppressed by a military intervention which provides the only example in history of the armed forces of all the great powers operating under the same commander (a German, as it happened) and the sequel was yet another diplomatic humiliation for China; an enormous indemnity was settled on customs henceforth under foreign direction.

The ending of the Boxer movement left China still more unstable. Reform had failed in 1898; so now had reaction. Perhaps only revolution lay ahead. Officers in the parts of the army which had undergone reorganization and training on western lines began to think about it. Students in exile had already begun to meet and discuss their country’s future, above all in Tokyo. The Japanese were happy to encourage subversive movements which might weaken their neighbour; in 1898 they had set up an ‘East Asian Cultural Union’ from which emerged the slogan ‘Asia for the Asians’. The Japanese had great prestige in the eyes of the young Chinese radicals as Asians who were escaping from the trap of traditional backwardness which had been fatal to India and seemed to be about to engulf China. Japan could confront the West on terms of equality. Other students looked elsewhere for support, some to the long-enduring secret societies. One of them was a young man called Sun Yat-sen. His achievement has often been exaggerated, but nevertheless he attempted revolution ten times altogether. In the 1890s, he and others were asking only for a constitutional monarchy, but that was a very radical demand at the time.

Discontented exiles drew on support from Chinese businessmen abroad, of whom there were many, for the Chinese had always been great traders. They helped Sun Yat-sen to form in 1905 in Japan a revolutionary alliance aiming at the expulsion of the Manchus and the initiation of Chinese rule, a republican constitution, land reform. It sought to conciliate the foreigners, at this stage a wise tactical move. Its programme showed the influence of western thinkers (notably that of the English radical John Stuart Mill and the American economic reformer Henry George). Once again the West was providing the stimulus and some of the ideological baggage of a Chinese reform movement and it was the launching of the party eventually to emerge as dominant in the Chinese Republic.

Its formation, though, may well be thought less significant than another event of the same year, the abolition of the traditional examination system. More than any other institution, the examination system had held Chinese civilization together by providing the bureaucracy it recruited with its internal homogeneity and cohesion. This would not quickly wane, but the distinction between the mass of Chinese subjects and the privileged ruling class was now gone. Meanwhile, returning students from abroad, dissatisfied with what they found and no longer under the necessity of accommodating themselves to it by going through the examination procedure if they wished to enter government service, exercised a profoundly disturbing influence. They much increased the rate at which Chinese society began to be irradiated by western ideas. Together with the soldiers in a modernized army, more and more of them looked to revolution for a way ahead.

There were a number of rebellions (some directed by Sun Yat-sen from Indo-China with French connivance) before the empress and her puppet emperor died on successive days in 1908. The event raised new hopes but the Manchu government continued to drag its feet over reform. On the one hand it made important concessions of principle and promoted the flow of students abroad; on the other it showed that it could not achieve a decisive break with the past or surrender any of the imperial privileges of the Manchus. Perhaps more could not have been asked for. By 1911, the situation had deteriorated badly. The gentry class showed signs of losing its cohesion: it was no longer to back the dynasty in the face of subversion as it had done in the past. Governmentally, there existed a near-stalemate of internal power, the dynasty effectively controlling only a part of China. In October a revolutionary headquarters was discovered at Hankow. There had already been revolts which had been more or less contained earlier in the year. This precipitated one which at last turned into a successful revolution. Sun Yat-sen, whose name was used by the early rebels, was in the United States at the time and was taken by surprise.

The course of the revolution was decided by the defection from the regime of its military commanders. The most important of these was Yuan Shih-k’ai; when he turned on the Manchus, the dynasty was lost. The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ had been withdrawn and on 12 February 1912 the six-year-old - and last - Manchu emperor abdicated. A republic had already been proclaimed, with Sun Yat-sen its president, and a new nationalist party soon appeared behind him. In March he resigned the presidency to Yuan Shih-k’ai, thus acknowledging where power really lay in the new Republic and inaugurating a new phase of Chinese government, in which an ineffective constitutional regime at Peking disputed the practical government of China by warlords. China had still a long way to travel before she would be a modern nation-state. None the less, she had begun the half-century’s march which would recover for her an independence lost in the nineteenth century to foreigners.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was little to show a superficial observer that Japan might adapt more successfully than China to challenges from the West. She was to all appearances deeply conservative. Yet much had already changed since the establishment of the shogunate and there were signs that the changes would cut deeper and faster as the years went by. It was a paradox that this was in part attributable to the success of the Tokugawa era itself. It had brought peace. An obvious result was that Japan’s military system became old-fashioned and inefficient. The samurai themselves were evidently a parasitic class; warriors, there was nothing for them to do except to cluster in the castle-towns of their lords, consumers without employment, a social and economic problem. The prolonged peace also led to the surge of growth which was the most profound consequence of the Tokugawa era. Japan was already a semi-developed, diversifying society, with a money economy, the beginnings of a quasi-capitalist structure in agriculture, which eroded the old feudal relationships, and a growing urban population. Osaka, the greatest mercantile centre, had between three and four hundred thousand inhabitants in the last years of the shogunate. Edo may have had a million. These great centres of consumption were sustained by financial and mercantile arrangements which had grown enormously in scale and complication since the seventeenth century. They made a mockery of the old notion of the inferiority of the merchant order. Even their techniques of salesmanship were modern; the eighteenth-century house of Mitsui (two centuries later still a pillar of Japanese capitalism) gave free umbrellas decorated with their trademark to customers caught in their shops by the rain.

Many of these changes registered the creation of new wealth from which the shogunate had not itself benefited, largely because it was unable to tap it at a rate which kept pace with its own growing needs. The main revenue was the rice tax which flowed through the lords, and the rate at which the tax was levied remained fixed at the level of a seventeenth-century assessment. Taxation therefore did not take away the new wealth arising from better cultivation and land reclamation and, because this remained in the hands of the better-off peasants and village leaders, this led to sharpening contrasts in the countryside. The poorer peasantry was often driven to the labour markets of the towns. This was another sign of disintegration in the feudal society. In the towns, which suffered from an inflation made worse by the shogunate’s debasement of the coinage, only the merchants seemed to prosper. A last effort of economic reform failed in the 1840s. The lords grew poorer and their retainers lost confidence; before the end of the Tokugawa, some samurai were beginning to dabble in trade. Their share of their lord’s tax yield was still only that of their seventeenth-century predecessors; everywhere could be found impoverished, politically discontented swordsmen - and some aggrieved families of great lords who recalled the days when their race had stood on equal terms with the Tokugawa.

The obvious danger of this potential instability was all the greater because insulation against western ideas had long since ceased to be complete. A few learned men had interested themselves in books which entered Japan through the narrow aperture of the Dutch trade. Japan was very different from China in its technical receptivity. ‘The Japanese are sharp-witted and quickly learn anything they see,’ said a sixteenth-century Dutchman. They had soon grasped and exploited, as the Chinese never did, the advantages of European firearms, and began to make them in quantity. They copied the European clocks, which the Chinese treated as toys. They were eager to learn from Europeans, as unhampered by their traditions as the Chinese seemed bogged down in theirs. On the great fiefs there were notable schools or research centres of ‘Dutch studies’. The shogunate itself had authorized the translation of foreign books, an important step in so literate a society, for education in Tokugawa Japan had been almost too successful: even young samurai were beginning to enquire about western ideas. The islands were relatively small and communications good, so that new ideas got about easily. Thus, Japan’s posture when she suddenly had to face a new and unprecedented challenge from the West was less disadvantageous than that of China.

The first period of western contact with Japan had ended in the seventeenth century, with the exclusion of all but a few Dutchmen allowed to conduct trade from an island at Nagasaki. Europeans had not then been able to challenge this outcome. That this was not likely to continue to be the case was shown in the 1840s by the fate of China, which some of Japan’s rulers observed with increasing alarm. The Europeans and North Americans seemed to have both a new interest in breaking into Asian trade and new and irresistible strength to do it. The Dutch King warned the shogun that exclusion was no longer a realistic policy. But there was no agreement among Japan’s rulers about whether resistance or concession was the better. Finally, in 1851 the President of the United States sent a naval officer, Commodore Perry, to open relations with Japan. Under him, the first foreign squadron to sail into Japanese waters entered Edo Bay in 1853. In the following year it returned and the first of a series of treaties with foreign powers was made by the shogunate.

Perry’s arrival could be seen in Confucian terms as an omen that the end of the shogunate was near. No doubt some Japanese saw it in that way. Yet this did not at once follow and there were a few years of somewhat muddled response to the barbarian threat. Japan’s rulers did not straightway come around to a wholehearted policy of concession (there was one further attempt to expel foreigners by force) and Japan’s future course was not set until well into the 1860s. Within a few years the success of the West was none the less embodied in and symbolized by a series of so-called ‘unequal treaties’. Commercial privileges, extra-territoriality for western residents, the presence of diplomatic representatives and restrictions on the Japanese export of opium were the main concessions won by the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands. Soon afterwards the shogunate came to an end; its inability to resist the foreigner was one contributing factor and another was the threat from two great aggregations of feudal power which had already begun to adopt western military techniques in order to replace the Tokugawa by a more effective and centralized system under their control. There was fighting between the Tokugawa and their opponents, but it was followed not by a relapse into disorder and anarchy but by a resumption of power by the imperial court and administration in 1868 in the so-called ‘Meiji Restoration’.

The re-emergence of the emperor from centuries of ceremonial seclusion, and the widespread acceptance of the revolutionary renewal which followed, was attributable above all to the passionate desire of most literate Japanese to escape from a ‘shameful inferiority’ to the West which might have led them to share the fate of the Chinese and Indians. In the 1860s both the bakufu and some individual clans had already sent several missions to Europe. Anti-foreign agitation was dropped in order to learn from the West the secrets of its strength. There was a paradox in this. As in some European countries, a nationalism rooted in a conservative view of society was to dissolve much of the tradition it was developed to defend.

The transference of the court to Edo was the symbolic opening of the Meiji ‘Restoration’ and the regeneration of Japan; its indispensable first stage was the abolition of feudalism. What might have been a difficult and bloody business was made simple by the voluntary surrender to the emperor of their lands by the four greatest clans, who set out their motives in a memorial they addressed to the emperor. They were returning to the emperor what had originally been his, they said, ‘so that a uniform rule may prevail throughout the empire. Thus the country will be able to rank equally with the other nations of the world.’ This was a concise expression of the patriotic ethic which was to inspire Japan’s leaders for the next half-century and was widely spread in a country with a large degree of literacy, where local leaders could make possible the acceptance of national goals to a degree impossible elsewhere. True, such expressions were not uncommon in other countries. What was peculiar to Japan was the urgency which observation of the fate of China lent to the programme, the emotional support given to the idea by Japanese social and moral tradition, and the fact that in the imperial throne there was available within the established structure a source of moral authority not committed merely to maintaining the past. These conditions made possible a Japanese 1688: a conservative revolution opening the way to radical change.

Rapidly, Japan adopted many of the institutions of western government and western society. A prefectorial system of administration, posts, a daily newspaper, a ministry of education, military conscription, the first railway, religious toleration and the Gregorian calendar all arrived within the first five years. A representative system of local government was inaugurated in 1879 and tenyears later a new constitution set up a bicameral parliament (a peerage had already been created in preparation for the organization of the upper house). In fact, this was less revolutionary than might appear, given the strong authoritarian strain in the document. At about the same time, too, the innovatory passion was beginning to show signs of flagging; the period when things western were a craze was over; no such enthusiasm was to be seen again until the second half of the twentieth century. In 1890 an imperial Rescript on Education, subsequently to be read on great days to generations of Japanese school-children, enjoined the observation of the traditional Confucian duties of filial piety and obedience and the sacrifice of self to the state if need be.

Much - perhaps the most important part - of old Japan was to survive the Meiji revolution and was to do so very obviously; this is in part the secret of modern Japan. But much, too, had gone. Feudalism could never be restored, generously compensated with government stock though the lords might be. Another striking expression of the new direction was the abolition of the old ordered class system. Care was shown in removing the privileges of the samurai; some of them could find compensation in the opportunities offered to them by the new bureaucracy, in business - no longer to be a demeaning activity - and in the modernized army and navy. For these foreign instruction was sought, because the Japanese sought proven excellence. Gradually they dropped their French military advisers and took to employing Germans after the Franco-Prussian War; the British provided instructors for the navy. Young Japanese were sent abroad to learn at first hand other secrets of the wonderful and threatening puissance of the West. It is still hard not to be moved by the ardour of many of these young men and of their elders and impossible not to be impressed by their achievement, which went far beyond Japan and their own time. The shishi (as some of the most passionate and dedicated activists of reform were called) later inspired national leaders right across Asia, from India to China. Their spirit was still at work in the young officers of the 1930s who were to launch the last and most destructive wave of Japanese imperialism.

The crudest indexes of the success of the reformers are the economic, but they are very striking. They built on the economic benefits of the Tokugawa peace. It was not only the borrowing of western technology and expertise which ensured the release in Japan of a current of growth achieved by no other non-western state. The country was lucky in being already well-supplied with entrepreneurs who took for granted the profit motive and it was undoubtedly richer than, say, China. Some of the explanation of the great leap forward by Japan lay also in the overcoming of inflation and the liquidation of feudal restraints, which had made it hard to tap Japan’s full potential. The first sign of change was a further increase in agricultural production, little though the peasants, who made up four-fifths of the population in 1868, benefited from it. Japan managed to feed a growing population in the nineteenth century by bringing more land under cultivation for rice and by cultivating existing fields more intensively. Though the dependence on the land tax lessened as a bigger portion of the revenue could be found from other sources, it was still upon the peasant that the cost of the new Japan fell most heavily. As late as 1941, Japanese farmers saw few of the gains from modernization. Relatively they had fallen behind; their ancestors only a century earlier had a life expectancy and income approximating to that of their British equivalents, but even by 1900 this was far from true of their successors. There were few non-agricultural resources. It was the increasingly productive tax on land which paid for investment. Consumption remained low, though there was not the suffering of, say, the later industrialization process of Stalin’s Russia. A high rate of saving (12 per cent in 1900) spared Japan dependence on foreign loans but, again, restricted consumption. This was the other side of the balance sheet of expansion, whose credit entries were clear enough: the infrastructure of a modern state, an indigenous arms industry, a usually high credit rating in the eyes of foreign investors and a big expansion of cotton-spinning and other textiles by 1914.

In the end a heavy spiritual cost had to be paid for these successes. Even while seeking to learn from the West, Japan turned inward. The ‘foreign’ religious influences of Confucianism and even, at first, Buddhism were attacked by the upholders of the state Shintoist cult, which, even under the shogunate, had begun to stress and enhance the role of the emperor as the embodiment of the divine. The demands of loyalty to the emperor as the focus of the nation came to override the principles embodied in the new constitution which might have been developed in liberal directions in a different cultural setting. The character of the regime expressed itself less in its liberal institutions than in the repressive actions of the imperial police. Yet it is difficult to see how an authoritarian emphasis could, in fact, have been avoided, given the two great tasks facing the statesmen of the Meiji Restoration. The modernization of the economy meant not planning in the modern sense but a strong governmental initiative and harsh fiscal policies. The other problem was order. The imperial power had once before gone into eclipse because of its failure to meet the threat on this front and now there were new dangers, because not all conservatives could be reconciled to the new model Japan. Discontented ronin - rootless samurai without masters - were one source of trouble. Another was peasant misery; there were scores of agrarian revolts in the first decade of the Meiji era. In the Satsuma rebellion of 1877 the government’s new conscript forces showed that they could handle conservative resistance. It was the last of several rebellions against the Restoration and the last great challenge from conservatism.

The energies of the discontented samurai were gradually to be siphoned off into the service of the new state, but this did not mean that the implications for Japan were all beneficial. They intensified in certain key sectors of the national life an assertive nationalism which was to lead eventually to aggression abroad. Immediately, this was likely to find expression not only in resentment of the West but also in imperial ambitions directed towards the nearby Asian mainland. Modernization at home and adventure abroad were often in tension in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, but in the long run they pulled in the same direction. The popular and democratic movements especially felt the tug of imperialism.

China was the predestined victim and was to be served much more harshly by her fellow-Asians than by any of the western states. At first she was threatened only indirectly by Japan. Just as China’s supremacy over the dependencies on her borders was challenged in Tibet, Burma and IndoChina by Europeans, so the Japanese menaced it in the ancient empire of Korea, long a tributary of Peking. Japanese interests there went back a long way. In part they were strategic; the Tsushima straits were the place where the mainland was nearest. But the Japanese were also concerned over the possible Far Eastern ambitions of Russia, particularly in Manchuria, and over China’s inability to resist them. In 1876 an overt move was made; under the threat of military and naval action (like those deployed by Europeans against China, and by Perry against Japan), the Koreans agreed to open three of their ports to the Japanese and to exchange diplomatic representatives. This was an affront to China. Japan was treating Korea as an independent country and negotiating with it over the head of the imperial court in Peking, which claimed sovereignty over Korea. Some Japanese wanted even more. They remembered earlier Japanese invasions of Korea and successful piracy on its coasts, and coveted the mineral and natural wealth of the country. The statesmen of the Restoration did not at once give way to such pressure, but in a sense they were only making haste slowly. In the 1890s another step forward was taken which led Japan into her first major war since the Restoration, and it was against China. It was sweepingly successful, but was followed by national humiliation when in 1895 a group western powers forced Japan to accept a peace treaty much less advantageous than the one she had imposed on the Chinese (which had included a declaration of Korea’s independence).

At this point resentment of the West fused with enthusiasm for expansion in Asia. Popular dislike of the ‘unequal treaties’ had been running high and the 1895 disappointment brought it to a head. The Japanese government had its own interests in backing Chinese revolutionary movements and now it had a slogan to offer them: ‘Asia for the Asians’. It was becoming clear, too, to the western powers that dealing with Japan was a very different matter from bullying China. Japan was increasingly recognized to be a ‘civilized’ state, not to be treated like other non-European nations. One symbol of the change was the ending in 1899 of one humiliating sign of European predominance, extra-territoriality. Then, in 1902, came the clearest acknowledgement of Japan’s acceptance as an equal by the West, an Anglo-Japanese alliance. Japan, it was said, had joined Europe.


Russia was at that moment the leading European power in the Far East. In 1895 her role had been decisive; her subsequent advance made it clear to the Japanese that the longed-for prize of Korea might elude them if they delayed. Railway-building in Manchuria, the development of Vladivostok, and Russian commercial activity in Korea - where politics was little more than a struggle of pro-Russian and pro-Japanese factions - were alarming. Most serious of all, the Russians had leased the naval base of Port Arthur from the enfeebled Chinese. In 1904 the Japanese struck. The result, after a year of war in Manchuria, was a humiliating defeat for the Russians. It was the end of tsarist pretensions in Korea and South Manchuria, where Japanese influence was henceforth dominant, and other territories passed into Japanese possession to remain there until 1945. But there was more to the Japanese victory than that. For the first time since the Middle Ages, non-Europeans had defeated a European power in a major war. The reverberations and repercussions were colossal.

The formal annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, together with the Chinese Revolution of the following year and the end of Manchu rule, can now be seen as a milestone, the end of the first phase of Asia’s response to the West, and as a turning-point. Asians had shown very differing reactions to western challenges. One of the two states which were to be the great Asian powers of the second half of the century was Japan, and she had inoculated herself against the threat from the West by accepting the virus of modernization. The other, China, had long striven not to do so.

In each case, the West provided both direct and indirect stimulus to upheaval, though in one case it was successfully contained and in the other it was not. In each case, too, the fate of the Asian power was shaped not only by its own response, but by the relations of the western powers among themselves. Their rivalries had generated the scramble in China which had so alarmed and tempted the Japanese. The Anglo-Japanese alliance assured them that they could strike at their great enemy, Russia, and find her unsupported. A few years more and Japan and China would both be participants as formal equals with other powers in the First World War.

Meanwhile, Japan’s example and, above all, its victory over Russia, were an inspiration to other Asians, the greatest single reason for them to ponder whether European rule was bound to be their lot. In 1905 an American scholar could already speak of the Japanese as the ‘peers of western peoples’; what they had done, by turning Europe’s skills and ideas against her, might not other Asians do in their turn?

Everywhere in Asia European agencies launched or helped to launch changes which speeded up the crumbling of Europe’s political hegemony. They had brought with them ideas about nationalism and humanitarianism, the Christian missionary’s dislocation of local society and belief, and a new exploitation not sanctioned by tradition; all of which helped to ignite political, economic and social change. Primitive, almost blind, responses like the Indian Mutiny or Boxer rebellion were the first and obvious outcome, but there were others which had a much more important future ahead. In particular, this was true in India, the biggest and most important of all colonial territories.

In 1877 Parliament had bestowed the title of ‘Empress of India’ upon Queen Victoria; some Englishmen laughed and a few disapproved, but it does not seem that there were many who thought it mattered much. Most took the British supremacy there to be permanent or near-permanent and were not much concerned about names. They would have agreed with their compatriot who said ‘we are not in India to be pleasant’ and held that only a severe and firm government could be sure to prevent another Mutiny. Others would also have agreed with the British viceroy who declared as the twentieth century began that ‘As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straightaway to a third-rate power.’ Two important truths underlay this assertion. One was that the Indian tax-payer paid for the defence of much of the British empire; Indian troops had been used to sustain it from Malta to China and in the subcontinent there was always a strategical reserve. The second was that Indian tariff policy was subordinated to British commercial and industrial realities.

These were the harsh facts, whose weight was harder and harder to ignore. Yet they were not the whole story of the Raj. There was more to the government of a fifth of mankind than just fear, greed, cynicism or the love of power. Human beings do not find it easy to pursue collective purposes without some sort of myth to justify them; nor did the British in India. Some of them saw themselves as the heirs of the Romans whom a classical education taught them to admire, stoically bearing the burden of a lonely life in an alien land to bring peace to the warring and law to peoples without it. Others saw in Christianity a precious gift with which they must destroy idols and cleanse evil custom. Some never formulated such clear views but were simply convinced that what they brought was better than what they found and therefore what they were doing was good. At the base of all these views there was a conviction of superiority and there was nothing surprising about this; it had always animated some imperialists. But in the later nineteenth century it was especially reinforced by fashionable racialist ideas and a muddled reflection of what was thought to be taught by current biological science about the survival of the fittest. Such ideas provided another rationale for the much greater social separation of the British in India from native Indians after the shock of the Mutiny. Although there was a modest intake of nominated Indian landlords and native rulers into the legislative branch of government, it was not until the very end of the century that these were joined by elected Indians. Moreover, though Indians could compete to enter the civil service, there were important practical obstacles in the way of their entry to the ranks of the decision-makers. In the army, too, Indians were kept out of the senior commissioned ranks.

The largest single part of the British army was always stationed in India, where its reliability and monopoly of artillery combined with the officering of the Indian regiments by Europeans to ensure that there would be no repetition of the Mutiny. The coming of railways, telegraphs and more advanced weapons in any case told in favour of the government in India as much as in any European country. But armed force was not the explanation of the self-assuredness of British rule, any more than was a conviction of racial superiority. The Census Report of 1901 recorded that there were just under 300 million Indians. These were governed by about 900 white civil servants. Usually there was about one British soldier for every 4000 Indians. As an Englishman once put it, picturesquely, had all the Indians chosen to spit at the same moment, his countrymen would have been drowned.

The Raj rested also on carefully administered policies. One assumption underlying them after the Mutiny was that Indian society should be interfered with as little as possible. Female infanticide, since it was murder, was forbidden, but there was to be no attempt to prohibit polygamy or child marriage (though after 1891 it was not legal for a marriage to be consummated until the wife was twelve years old). The line of the law was to run outside what was sanctioned by Hindu religion. This conservatism was reflected in a new attitude towards the native Indian rulers. The Mutiny had shown that they were usually loyal; those who turned against the government had been provoked by resentment against British annexation of their lands. Their rights were therefore scrupulously respected after the Mutiny; the princes ruled their own states independently and virtually irresponsibly, checked only by their awe of the British political officers resident at their courts. The native states included over a fifth of the population. Elsewhere, the British cultivated the native aristocracy and the landlords. This was part of a search for support from key groups of Indians, but often led the British to lean on those whose own leadership powers were already being undermined by social change. Enlightened despotism at their expense, but in the interests of the peasantry (such as had been shown earlier in the century), none the less now disappeared. These were all some of the unhappy consequences of the Mutiny.

Yet no more than any other imperial government was the Raj able permanently to ensure itself against change. Its very success told against it. The suppression of warfare favoured the growth of population - and one consequence was more frequent famine. But the provision of ways of earning a living other than by agriculture (which was a possible outlet from the problem of an over-populated countryside) was made very difficult by the obstacles in the way of Indian industrialization. These arose in large measure from a tariff policy in the interest of British manufactures. A slowly emerging class of Indian industrialists did not, therefore, feel warmly towards government, but were increasingly antagonized by it. The alienated also came to include many of the growing number of Indians who had received an education along English lines and had subsequently been irritated to compare its precepts with the practice of the British community in India. Others, who had gone to England to study at Oxford, Cambridge or the Inns of Court, found the contrast especially galling: in late nineteenth-century England there were even Indian members of parliament, while an Indian graduate in India might be slighted by a British private soldier, and there had been uproar among British residents when, in the 1880s, a viceroy wished to remove the ‘invidious distinction’ which prevented a European from being brought before an Indian magistrate. Some, too, had pondered what they read at their mentors’ behest; John Stuart Mill and Mazzini were thus to have a huge influence in India and, through its leaders, in the rest of Asia.

Resentment was especially felt among the Hindus of Bengal, the historic centre of British power: Calcutta was the capital of India. In 1905 this province was divided in two. This partition for the first time brought the Raj into serious conflict with something which had not existed in 1857, an Indian nationalist movement.

The growth of a sense of nationality was slow, fitful and patchy. It was part of a complex set of processes which formed modern Indian politics, though by no means the most important in different localities and at many levels. Moreover, at every stage, national feeling was itself strongly influenced by non-Indian forces. British orientalists, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had begun the rediscovery of classical Indian culture, which was essential both to the self-respect of Hindu nationalism and the overcoming of the subcontinent’s huge divisions. Indian scholars then began to bring to light, under European guidance, the culture and religion embedded in the neglected Sanskrit scriptures; through these they could formulate a conception of a Hinduism far removed from the rich and fantastic, but also superstitious, accretions of its popular form. By the end of the nineteenth century this recovery of the Aryan and Vedic past - Islamic India was virtually disregarded - had gone far enough for Hindus to meet with confidence the reproaches of Christian missionaries and offer a cultural counterattack; a Hindu emissary to a ‘Parliament of Religions’ in Chicago in 1893 not only awoke great personal esteem and obtained serious attention for his assertion that Hinduism was a great religion capable of revivifying the spiritual life of other cultures, but actually made converts.

National consciousness, like the political activity it was to reinforce, was for a long time confined to a few. The proposal that Hindi should be India’s language seemed wildly unrealistic when hundreds of languages and dialects fragmented Indian society and Hindi could only appeal to a small elite seeking to strengthen its links across a subcontinent. The definition of its membership was education rather than wealth: its backbone was provided by those Hindus, often Bengali, who felt especially disappointed at the failure of their educational attainments to win them an appropriate share in the running of India; by 1887 only a dozen Indians had entered the Indian Civil Service through the competitive examination. The Raj seemed determined to maintain the racial predominance of Europeans and to rely upon such conservative interests as the princes and landlords, to the exclusion and, possibly even more important, the humiliation of the babu, the educated, middle-class, urban Hindu.

A new cultural self-respect and a growing sense of grievance over rewards and slights were the background to the formation of the Indian National Congress. The immediate prelude was a flurry of excitement over the failure of the government proposals - because of the outcry of European residents - to equalize the treatment of Indians and Europeans in the courts. Disappointment caused an Englishman, a former civil servant, to take the steps which led to the first conference of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in December 1885. Vice-regal initiatives, too, had played a part in this, and Europeans were long to be prominent in the administration of Congress. And they would they patronize it for even longer with protection and advice in London. It was an appropriate symbol of the complexity of the European impact on India that some Indian delegates attended in European dress, improbably attired in morning-suits and top-hats of comical unsuitability to the climate of their country, but the formal attire of its rulers.

Congress was soon committed by its declaration of principles to national unity and regeneration: as in Japan already and China and many other countries later, this was the classical product of the impact of European ideas. But it did not at first aspire to self-government. Congress sought, rather, to provide a means of communicating Indian views to the viceroy and proclaimed its ‘unswerving loyalty’ to the British Crown. Only after twenty years, in which much more extreme nationalist views had won adherents among Hindus, did it begin to discuss the possibility of independence. During this time its attitude had been soured and stiffened by the vilification it received from British residents who declared it unrepresentative, and the unresponsiveness of an administration which endorsed this view and preferred to work through more traditional and conservative social forces. Extremists became more insistent. In 1904 came the inspiring victories of Japan over Russia. The issue for a clash was provided in 1905 by the partition of Bengal.

Its purpose was twofold: it was administratively convenient and it would undermine nationalism in Bengal by producing a West Bengal where there was a Hindu majority, and an East Bengal with a Muslim majority. This detonated a mass of explosive situations that had long been accumulating. Immediately, there was a struggle for power in Congress. At first a split was avoided by agreement on the aim of swaraj, which in practice might mean independent self-government such as that enjoyed by the white dominions: their example was suggestive. The extremists were heartened by anti-partition riots. A new weapon was deployed against the British, a boycott of goods, which, it was hoped, might be extended to other forms of passive resistance such as non-payment of taxes and the refusal of soldiers to obey orders. By 1908 the extremists were excluded from Congress. By this time, a second consequence was apparent: extremism was producing terrorism. Again, foreign models were important. Russian revolutionary terrorism now joined the works of Mazzini and the biography of Garibaldi, the guerrilla leader-hero of Italian independence, as formative influences on an emerging India. The extremists argued that political murder was not ordinary murder. Assassination and bombing were met with special repressive measures.

The third consequence of partition was perhaps the most momentous. It brought out into the open the division of Muslim and Hindu. For reasons which went back to the percolation of Muslim India before the Mutiny by an Islamic reform movement, the Arabian Wahhabi sect, Indian Muslims had for a century felt themselves more and more distinct from Hindus. Distrusted by the British because of attempts to revivify the Moghul empire in 1857, they had little success in winning posts in government or on the judicial bench. Hindus had responded more eagerly than Muslims to the educational opportunities offered by the Raj; they were of more commercial weight and had more influence on government. But Muslims, too, had found their British helpers, who had established a new, Islamic college, providing the English education they needed to compete with Hindus, and had helped to set up Muslim political organizations. Some English civil servants began to grasp the potential for balancing Hindu pressure which this could give the Raj. Intensification of Hindu ritual practice, such as a cow protection movement, was not likely to do anything but increase the separation of the two communities.

Nevertheless, it was only in 1905 that the split became, as it remained, one of the fundamentals of the subcontinent’s politics. The antipartitionists campaigned with a strident display of Hindu symbols and slogans. The British governor of eastern Bengal favoured Muslims against Hindus and strove to give them a vested interest in the new province. He was dismissed, but his inoculation had taken: Bengal Muslims deplored his removal. An Anglo-Muslim entente seemed in the making. This further inflamed Hindu terrorists. To make things worse, all this was taking place during five years (from 1906 to 1910) in which prices rose faster than at any time since the Mutiny.

An important set of political reforms conceded in 1909 did not do more than change somewhat the forms with which to operate the political forces which were henceforth to dominate the history of India until the Raj came to an end nearly forty years later. Indians were for the first time appointed to the council which advised the British minister responsible for India and, more important, further elected places were provided for Indians in the legislative councils. But the elections were to be made by electorates which had a communal basis; the division of Hindu and Muslim India, that is to say, was institutionalized.

In 1911, for the first and only time, a reigning British monarch visited India. A great imperial durbar was held at Delhi, the old centre of Moghul rule, to which the capital of British India was now transferred from Calcutta. The princes of India came to do homage; Congress did not question its duty to the throne. The accession to the throne of George V that year had been marked by the conferring of real and symbolic benefits, of which the most notable and politically significant was the reuniting of Bengal. If there was a moment at which the Raj was at its apogee, this was it.


Yet India was far from settled. Terrorism and seditious crime continued. The policy of favouring the Muslims had made Hindus more resentful while Muslims now felt that the government had gone back on its understandings with them in withdrawing the partition of Bengal. They feared the resumption of a Hindu ascendancy in the province. Hindus, on the other hand, took the concession as evidence that resistance had paid and began to press for the abolition of the communal electoral arrangements which the Muslims prized. The British had therefore done much to alienate Muslim support when a further strain appeared. The Indian Muslim elites, which had favoured cooperation with the British, were increasingly under pressure from more middle-class Muslims susceptible to the violent appeal of a pan-Islamic movement. The pan-Islamists could point to the fact that the British had let the Muslims down in Bengal, but also noted that in Tripoli (which the Italians attacked in 1911) and the Balkans in 1912 and 1913, Christian powers were attacking Turkey, the seat of the Caliphate, the institutional embodiment of the spiritual leadership of Islam, and Great Britain was, indisputably, a Christian power. The intense susceptibilities of lower-class Indian Muslims were excited to the point at which even the involvement of a mosque in the replanning of a street could be presented as a part of a deliberate plot to harry Islam. When in 1914 Turkey decided to go to war with Great Britain, though the Muslim League remained loyal, some Indian Muslims accepted the logical consequence of the Caliphate’s supremacy, and began to prepare revolution against the Raj. They were few. What was more important for the future was that by that year not two but three forces were making the running in Indian politics: the British, Hindus and Muslims. Here was the origin of the future partition of the only complete political unity the subcontinent had ever known and, like that unity, it was as much the result of the play of non-Indian as of Indian forces.


India was the largest single mass of non-European population and territory under European rule in Asia, but to the south-east and in Indonesia, both part of the Indian cultural sphere, lay further imperial possessions. Few generalizations are possible about so huge an area and so many peoples and religions. One negative fact was observable: in no other European possession in Asia was there such transformation before 1914 as in India, though in all of them modernization had begun the corrosion of local tradition. The forces which produced this were those which have already been noted at work elsewhere: European aggression, the example of Japan, and the diffusion of European culture. But the first and last of these forces operated in the region for a shorter time before 1914 than in China and India. In 1880 most of mainland South-East Asia was still ruled by native princes who were independent rulers, even if they had to make concessions in ‘unequal treaties’ to European power. In the following decade this was rapidly changed by the British annexation of Burma and continuing French expansion in Indo-China. The sultans of Malaya acquired British residents at their courts, who directed policy through the native administration, while the ‘Straits settlements’ were ruled directly as a colony. By 1900 only Siam was left as an independent kingdom in the region, those of Indo-China having succumbed to French imperialism.

Cambodia and Laos had been shaped by religious and artistic influences flowing from India, but one of the countries of Indo-China was much more closely linked to China by its culture. This was Vietnam. It had three parts: Tonkin in the north, Annam, its central area, and Cochin in the south. Vietnam had a long tradition of national identity and a history of national revolt against Chinese imperial rule. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was here that resistance to Europeanization was most marked. Europe’s connections with Indo-China had begun with seventeenth-century Christian missionaries from France (one of them devised the first romanization of the Vietnamese language) and it was the persecution of Christians which provided the excuse for a French expedition (briefly assisted by Spanish forces) to be sent there in the 1850s. There followed diplomatic conflict with China, which claimed sovereignty over the country. In 1863 the emperor of Annam ceded part of Cochin under duress to the French. Cambodia, too, accepted a French protectorate. This was followed by further French advance and the arousing of Indo-Chinese resistance. In the 1870s the French occupied the Red River delta; soon, other quarrels led to a war with China, the paramount power, which confirmed the French grip on Indo-China. In 1887 they set up an Indo-Chinese Union, which disguised a centralized regime behind a system of protectorates. Though this meant the preservation of native rulers (the emperor of Annam and the kings of Cambodia and Laos), the aim of French colonial policy was always assimilation. French culture was to be brought to new French subjects whose elites were to be gallicized as the best way to promote modernization and civilization.

The centralizing tendencies of French administration soon made it clear that the formal structure of native government was a sham. Unwittingly, the French thus sapped local institutions without replacing them with others enjoying the loyalty of the people. This was a dangerous course. There were also other important by-products of the French presence. It brought with it, for example, French tariff policy, which was to slow down industrialization. This eventually led Indo-Chinese businessmen, like their Indian equivalents, to wonder in whose interests their country was run. Moreover, the conception of an Indo-China which was integrally a part of France, and whose inhabitants should be turned into Frenchmen, also brought problems. The French administration had to grapple with the paradox that access to French education could lead to reflection on the inspiring motto to be found on official buildings and documents of the Third Republic: ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Finally, French law and notions of property broke down the structure of village landholding and threw power into the hands of money-lenders and landlords. With a growing population in the rice-growing areas, this was to build up a revolutionary potential for the future.

Japan and China provided catalysts for Indo-Chinese grievances embodied in these facts and the legacy of traditional Vietnamese nationalism soon made itself felt. The Japanese victory over Russia led several young Vietnamese to go to Tokyo, where they met Sun Yat-sen and the Japanese sponsors of ‘Asia for the Asians’. After the Chinese Revolution of 1911, one of them organized a society for a Vietnamese Republic. None of this much troubled the French who were well able to contain such opposition before 1914, but it curiously paralleled conservative opposition to them among the Vietnamese Confucian scholar class. Though they opened a university in 1907, the French had to close it almost at once and it remained closed until 1918 because of fears of unrest among the intellectuals. This important section of Vietnamese opinion was already deeply alienated by French rule within a couple of decades of its establishment.

Further south, too, French history had already had an indirect impact in Indonesia. By the end of the nineteenth century there were some sixty million Indonesians; population pressure had not yet produced there the strains that were to come, but it was the largest group of non-Europeans ruled by a European state outside India. Their ancestors had nearly two centuries of sometimes bitter experience of Dutch rule before the French Revolution led to the invasion of the United Provinces, the setting up of a new revolutionary Republic there in 1795 and the dissolving of the Dutch East India Company and, soon afterwards, a British occupation of Java. The British troubled the waters by important changes in the revenue system, but there were also other influences now at work to stir up Indonesia. Though originally an outcropping of the Hindu civilization of India, it was also part of the Islamic world, with large numbers of at least nominal Muslims among its peoples, and commercial ties with Arabia. In the early years of the nineteenth century this had new importance. Indonesian pilgrims, some of them of birth and rank, went to Mecca and then sometimes went on to Egypt and Turkey. There they found themselves directly in touch with reforming ideas from further west.

The instability of the situation was revealed when the Dutch returned and had, in 1825, to fight a ‘Java War’ against a dissident prince which lasted five years. It damaged the island’s finances so that the Dutch were constrained to introduce further changes. The result was an agricultural system which enforced the cultivation of crops for the government. The workings of this system led to grave exploitation of the peasant which began in the later nineteenth century to awaken among Dutchmen an uneasiness about the conduct of their colonial government. This culminated in a great change of attitude; in 1901 a new ‘Ethical Policy’ was announced, which was expressed in decentralization and a campaign to achieve improvement through village administration. But this programme often proved so paternalistic and interventionist in action that it, too, sometimes stimulated hostility. This was utilized by the first Indonesian nationalists, some of them inspired by Indians. In 1908 they formed an organization to promote national education. Three years later an Islamic association appeared, whose early activities were directed as much against Chinese traders as against the Dutch. By 1916 it had gone so far as to ask for self-government while remaining in union with the Netherlands. Before this, however, a true independence party had been founded in 1912. It opposed Dutch authority in the name of native-born Indonesians, of any race; a Dutchman was among its three founders and others followed him. In 1916 the Dutch took the first step towards meeting the demands of these groups by authorizing a parliament with limited powers for Indonesia.

Though European ideas of nationalism were by the early years of the twentieth century at work in almost all Asian countries, they took their different expressions from different possibilities. Not all colonial regimes behaved in the same way. The British encouraged nationalists in Burma, while the Americans doggedly pursued a benevolent paternalism in the Philippines after suppressing insurrection originally directed against their Spanish predecessors. Those same Spanish, like the Portuguese elsewhere in Asia, had vigorously promoted Christian conversion, while the British Raj was very cautious about interference with native religion. History also shaped the futures of colonial Asia, because of the different legacies the various European regimes played upon there. Above all, the forces of historical possibilities and historical inertia showed themselves in Japan and China, where European influence was just as dramatic in its effects as in directly ruled India or Vietnam. In every instance, the context in which that influence operated was decisive in shaping the future; at the end of a couple of centuries of European activity in Asia, much (perhaps most) of that context remained intact. A huge residue of customary thought and practice remained undisturbed. Too much history was present for European expansion alone to explain twentieth-century Asia. The catalytic and liberating power of that expansion, none the less, was what brought Asia into the modern era.

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