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Japanese Connection       


by Prof. Ralph Croizier

The first known Chinese visitors to Japan were Buddhist monks in the sixth century A.D. Since then, cultural interchange between the two countries, though often interrupted, remained an important part of East Asian history. But the direction of the cultural influence was almost entirely one way, from China' she "Middle Kingdom," universal empire, repository of all true civilization the remote island kingdom of the Eastern seas.

Never incorporated within the Chinese empire or even its outlying tributary state system, Japan still could be considered, by Chinese and Japanese alike, as belonging at least partly within the Chinese sphere of cultural influence. Chinese who went to Japan, such as the Buddhist monks of the Tang period or the Confucian loyalists of the late Ming, came as purveyors of higher civilization and as teachers to the culturally provincial Japanese.

Therefore, it was a major reversal in the historic relations between the two countries when, in the aftermath of Japan's startling victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Chinese students started flocking to Japan to learn how the Japanese had so quickly mastered the secrets of Western "wealth and power." In 1895 there were only 200 Chinese students in Japan; by 1900 the number had grown to 700. After the second dramatic display of Japan's modernization, the victory over Russia in 1905, the number jumped to 5,000, reaching a peak of 8,000 in 1908.

But numbers tell only part of the story. For a crucial transitional generation of Chinese intellectuals and political leaders, Japan became the closest, most accessible, and possibly most relevant mentor for how to build a modern industrialized nation-state. The repeated defeats and humiliations of the late nineteenth century, climaxed by the Boxer debacle in 1900, had shown that China's own tradition no longer provided the necessary lessons for survival in the new world of imperialistic power politics. Especially for young intellectuals, those answers had to be sought more in Western learning than Confucian texts. Study abroad suddenly seemed the quickest and most effective way to get that Western learning. Japan was not only closer and more economical to live in than Western nations, but it also had absorbed Western knowledge without losing its distinctive natural identity.  Moreover, Japanese culture and language seemed less remote for young Chinese contemplating study abroad. The object was Western learning, but the medium was late Meiji Japan. And, of course, the medium affected the message.

Chinese Students and the Meiji Model

Intellectuals were not the only Chinese attracted by Japan's success in modernization. Even the conservative Qing government saw the Meiji model as a means of instituting controlled political change and, especially after 1900, actively sponsored students going to Japan. But the Qing government found it much easier to encourage students to study in Japan than to control what they learned and how they applied it. Many students who went to study Western science ended up in more familiar humanistic subjects; others turned to political organization, military science, and social theory. Often they failed to complete a formal course of studies at a recognized Japanese school, but they did absorb the radical political ideas circulating among overseas students and the general atmosphere of late Meiji Japan. It was, of course, an atmosphere highly charged with the fierce nationalism of a country that had recently overcome threats to its independence and emerged victorious in two wars.

Sharing the animus against Western domination, but much more successful in dealing with it, Japanese nationalism was an inspiration and a source of envy to many of the Chinese studying in Japan. Against a background of continued government weakness and national humiliation, it turned many of these young intellectuals toward a militantly revolutionary nationalism. In August 1905 the veteran anti-Manchu revolutionary SunYat-sen fused various provincial student groups into the Alliance Society (Tong meng hui). This was the organization that would spearhead the Revolution of 1911 and be the direct ancestor of the Chinese Nationalist party (Guomindang). Founded in Tokyo with its headquarters and revolutionary publication (The People's Newspaper, or Min bao) there, it drew a large number of overseas Chinese students into its organization and, Through the running controversy with the organ of the reform party of Liang Qichao, the New People's Newspaper (Xin min congbao), it stirred political and patriotic feelings among many more.

Especially from 1905 to 1911, Tokyo was the matrix for the new ideas that were moving the next generation of China's intellectual and political leaders away from the world of their fathers. It was also the center of the revolutionary agitation that would end the imperial system. Japan had become a transmitter of Western ideas, an inspiration for Chinese nationalism, and a convenient place for revolutionary organization. At a crucial turning point in Chinese history, the millennium-long relationship between the two countries was reversed. China, with many of her most able and ambitious youth going to Japan as eager students rather than culturally self-confident missionaries, now became the cultural borrower. For a brief period, the decision makers and opinion molders of China conservatives, reformers, and revolutionaries alike Japan as China's mentor in modernization. The period was not long, because Japan's own imperial ambitions would make her the chief enemy of twentieth-century Chinese nationalism, but at this juncture the Japanese connection was fundamental in molding the intellectual and political leadership of early twentieth-century China. This fascination with the Japanese example reached its peak of intensity between 1905 and 1911, exactly the period in which the three young Cantonese artists who would form the Lingnan School arrived in Japan...................................................





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