This paper explores the political, social and economic tendencies prevailing in Korea, Japan and China during the 18th and the 19th centuries. The historical happenings or domestic and international level are discussed and their impacts are followed. The paper concludes that even though the three East Asian states went through different experiences, there were some similar traits in their histories.
By the beginning of the 18th century Korean society has undergone a lengthy influence of Confucianism. The Korean society has adopted Confucian structure and rules. Neo-Confucian teachings originally appeared in China and were adopted by some other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Japan, although the Korean leaders of Choson period demonstrated exceptional devotion to Neo-Confucianism and focused on the re-shaping of the society according to its laws and demands.
Even though the Korean society of that period had a number of levels and there was a huge gap between the upper, middle, and lower classes, the introduction of Neo-Confucian norms really helped to add homogeneity to the Korean population and unify the people under one culture bringing them together. Neo-Confucian teachings united the people of Korea under the three main aspects: loyalty to the rulers, respect towards parents, and distinction between the statuses of men and women (Seth 151).
These norms were the ultimate basis for the formation of the Choson society. The rules established clear hierarchy in the society and brought harmony and order to the state by means of letting every member of the society know exactly what their role and place there was. During this period the Korean culture started to evolve and re-mold itself developing significance and independence from other East Asian cultures. For example, the unique Korean system of writing appeared in this period.
By the beginning of the 19th century the Korean society and political regime had been enjoying unity of twelve centuries. The structure of the society was carefully maintained as a highly virtuous and righteous one with proper values and rules. Yet, the intrusion of Western Imperialism brought radical changes. In 1832, the British first offered to trade sending their ships to the Korean ports. The leaders of Korea made it clear that international trade did not interest them.
Since then the visits from the French, the British, the USA, and Russians became repetitive, yet the Koreans were not willing to open their country for the outsiders (Seth 9). Eventually, Korea was forced to trade internationally. This was one of the causes for the upcoming crisis that occurred along with the major shift in the power when the King died without leaving an heir. Western presence supporting Christian community in Asia aggravated religious clashes.
They included the execution of some Western missionaries and the following armed conflicts with France and the USA trying to “set order” in what they perceived as a “barbaric nation”. Another threat appeared from the side of Japan. As a result, Korea was forced to start a self-strengthening program to be able to resist the imperialistic moods. The beginning of diplomatic relationships with the outsiders broke the old traditions of Korean people. It resulted in the creation of the State Affair Management Office and a serious research of advanced weaponry.
China has always been recognized as a country with rich culture, sophisticated economy and enormous resources. By 1500s the Chinese have developed rather strong consumer culture, and dynamic fashion following the trends dominant in the rest of the world (Holcombe 160).The Chinese managed to maintain relatively harmonious environment trading with the Western states. The main reason for the crisis that started in the 18th century was the rapid growth of the country’s population that reached 400 million by that time. The lands became a serious issue. A major deal of the territories in rural China was occupied by fields.
The number of crops planted in China grew as international trades introduced the country to sweet potatoes, tobacco, and peanuts. High land fragmentation caused tensions among farmers. The growth of population created serious confusion in the state bureaucracy because the same number of organs was to handle hundreds of thousands of citizens. Political control in the country was challenged by the overall dissatisfaction in the masses. This caused a wave of rebellions all over the country and diminished the political control over the population even more.
At the same time, dominant Western states started to persuade China to engage into trading relationships with them. When the Chinese refused convinced that trading relationships with the industrialized West would not be useful for them, the Westerners could not tolerate the rejection. The series of armed conflicts followed. For example, the Opium War between Britain and China that started in 1839 and ended three years later in 1942 resulted in the defeat of China which allowed Britain to force it to open the ports and trade under the conditions of the British (Gray 88).
The conflicts continued and eventually China was also forced to start trading with the United States and then Japan. One more outcome of the armed conflicts and imperialistic intrusion of the West was the division of the county into the spheres of interest of such states as Japan, Britain, Germany, France, and the US, which risked tearing the state apart. The cultural responses to the pressures of the West divided the Chinese leaders into three groups: the ones who supported Westernalization and wished to abandon the Chinese traditions as old-fashioned and regressive, the ones who wanted to force the foreign intruders out of the state and be back to the traditional ways, and the ones who wanted to adopt western discoveries and inventions to strengthen China and preserve its true cultural essence. A series of rebellions weakened the state government and led to decades of crisis.
The population of Japan in the 18th century also experienced a significant growth. Interestingly, a significant portion of the Japanese population of that period dwelled in the urban areas, the tendency to move to the cities developed very early in Japan. The urbanization there was far more progressive than that of Europe where 80% of the population still lived in rural districts (Gordon 22). The 17th century in Japan is frequently called the “boom century” as the rapid economic development of the country allowed the improvement of commerce, trades, literacy, communications, and transportation.
The 18th century was different. Severe famines hit the country and reduced its population. Mass starvation led to extinction of many villages and the practice of infanticide. Tokugawa regime that continued through that period maintained the complex hierarchy in the Japanese society, which was recognized as the only natural way of living. Yet, the crisis jeopardized the well-built structure and resulted in protests from the side of poor citizens dissatisfied with the taxes. Besides, the old ideology that dictated that women were to be kept uneducated and fulfill the roles of service providers for their men started to get altered under the influences coming from China, which enforced education for women (Gordon 33).
The Western impacts in Japan turned its low-grade crisis into a rather severe revolutionary situation (Gordon 46). The French leaders anticipated to integrate Japan into the international trading relationships with Europe. At the same time, the USA ships kept appearing at the shores of Japan with various requests trying to start a diplomatic relationship.
Moreover, by the beginning of the 18th century Russian explorers moved towards Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and Hokkaido. This action also resulted in a request of trading privileges. Soon, Britain joined the tendency and started to send the ships to Edo and Nagasaki. The Japanese saw Western intruders as barbarian predators gathering to take over their territories and divide Japan into spheres of influence as they did in China. Regardless of carefulness of the Japanese leaders, the clash still happened because Western expansive moods did not take no for an answer.
Finally, the trade through treaty-ports, just like in the case of China, was opened. This increased the rates of criminal activity in Japan, shifted the balance in taxation, put many domestic merchants out of business, and caused inflation. Consumers, as well as the producers started to protest, this led to a series of disorders and riots in the country (Gordon 51). The beginning of diplomatic and trading relationships with the countries of the West led to significant power crisis in Japan. Tokugawa regime approached its breaking point.
In conclusion, Korea, Japan and China followed different historical paths with several similar features such as the population growth, a period of blossom before a large crisis and the pressure created by the Western imperialism. The reaction to the intrusions from the West was similar, the Asian states attempted to preserve their self-sufficiency, as a result all of them fell into large socio-economic crises that changed their histories forever.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Gray, Jack. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Holcombe, Charles. A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.
Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period Through the Nineteenth Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.