Several highly significant events occurred in 1894. Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu’s negotiations with Britain to revise the unequal treaties began to make progress, finally reaching success with the signing of a more equitable commercial agreement that summer. This treaty became the basis for revision of the remaining unequal treaties Japan had had to agree to with other powers, hence excising a humiliation to the national honor.
Meanwhile, a more explosive sequence of events began when the pro Japanese Kim Ok-kyun was assassinated in Shanghai in April. Te Chinese government declined to release the body to Kim’s Japanese friends, instead returning it to Korea, certainly in full knowledge of what was likely to happen and how the Japanese government would react. The corpse was draped in a shroud inscribed “arch rebel and heretic.” On the same ship was the assassin, who received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked. The Korean king then mutilated Kim’s body in a particularly grisly manner, and punished his family members as well. While this treatment was considered appropriate for traitors, which from China’s and Korea’s point of view, Kim certainly was, the Japanese government perceived the manner in which it was carried out to have been designed to humiliate their country.
Japanese public opinion, fanned by angry articles in the nation’s news papers, was infuriated. The Japanese military, already resentful over the more conciliatory policies of the country’s statesmen, determined that it was necessary to intervene. Defeating Li Hongzhang’s well-regarded Beiyang army would free Korea defnitively from the Chinese sphere of influence as well as silence domestic critics who criticized their government’s unwillingness to take action. It might also serve to dissuade the Russian government from trying to establish a sphere of influence on the Korean peninsula, which Japan regarded as vital to its own security. Since the trans-Siberian railway would give Russia a direct conduit to the Pacific Ocean, Japanese statesmen were concerned that its completion would be tantamount to a Russian version of America’s Monroe Doctrine.
When the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion broke out in Korea in 1894, the tinderbox of tensions was ignited. The Korean king, on the advice of Li Hongzhang’s representative in Korea, Yuan Shikai, requested that China send troops to help suppress it. In accordance with the Li-Ito Convention, China notified Japan that it was doing so. Ignoring the Korean king’s request that Japan not send troops, Japan immediately dispatched them nonetheless. Although the official explanation was that soldiers were needed to protect Japanese nationals and property, the large number of troops that were sent and their instantaneous dispatch indicated prior preparations. Japanese troops moved into Seoul and captured the king.
Tokyo announced that it would not withdraw the troops until the Korean government had implemented a program of thorough reform. Li Hongzhang, realizing that his troops would be unable to stand up to those of Japan, tried unsuccessfully to persuade foreign powers to mediate. There was considerable feeling among Western powers that the weak, corrupt Korean government was badly in need of reform; perhaps Japanese pressure was what was needed. At the end of July, the ship Kowshing, carrying more than a thousand Chinese troops, was intercepted by Japanese naval vessels and refused the commander’s orders to follow its ships to port. After several hours of negotiations, the commander, Togo Heihachiro, later to become the hero of the Russo-Japanese War, ordered the Kowshing sunk.
On August 1, 1894, each country declared war on the other. Japan’s declaration accused China of interfering in Korea’s domestic affairs, of refusing Japan’s offer to jointly sponsor reforms, and of opening fire on Japanese ships. China’s declaration repeatedly referred to the Japanese as dwarfs, woren, or dwarf pirates, wokou. Adding insult to insult in this face-conscious culture, the Chinese side had the declaration translated into English, accompanied by a note explaining that the word was used in an “opprobrious sense.” In her definitive study of the Sino-Japanese War, S. C. M. Paine characterizes such language as equivalent to repeatedly spitting in the emperor’s face. At frst, foreign observers assumed that Chinese forces would win. Tis was quickly proved wrong, as Japanese forces achieved victory after victory in what could only be considered a humiliating defeat of their larger neighbor. China’s regionally based armies had a tendency to avoid battle, feeling that they did not have a stake in the outcome. Battleships, including some modern vessels whose capabilities exceeded those of the Japanese, were hoarded rather than used. Corruption siphoned money meant for military modernization into luxury items for dishonest officials. A subordinate of China’s most outstanding admiral, Ding Ruchang, disobeyed Ding’s order to put the flagship in a position to fire on the Japanese fleet and instead fired the main guns at the bridge on which Ding was standing. The admiral escaped death, but his leg was crushed, seriously affecting his ability to direct the battle.
Incredibly, the Chinese managed to sustain the attitude of superiority even in the face of defeat. For example, in November 1894, an eminent scholar-official wrote:
The island barbarian Japanese have inscrutable temperaments and petty dispositions. Their hearts are like those of jackals and wolves, and they possess poison like the bees and the scorpions .. They dare to title their emperor as the son of heaven in the land of the rising sun. It look them 48,000 years before they made contact with China, while in 3,600 years they still have not accepted our celestial calendar. . [I]llegitimately assuming the reign title of Meiji [i. e., Enlightened Rule], they in reality abandon themselves all the more to debauchery and indolence. Falsely calling their new administration a reformation, they only defle themselves so much the more. . As for Korea, all the world knows it is a vassal of China. And yet Japan took military action there without reason. Is this not deliberately provocative? . How can we tolerate this willingness to act like the dog of the ancient tyrant Chieh barking at the sage-king Yao? Both the immortals and human kind are angry, the entire world takes offense.
This stoked the anger of Japanese, who were already passionate to become treated as equals if not superiors. The image of China among ordinary Japanese citizens also suffered. When soldiers whose educations had taught them that China was the land of the sages encountered the poverty and illiteracy of the Chinese countryside, and shared these observations through letters and conversations with relatives and acquaintances at home, the once revered land came to be regarded as far inferior to their own.
While some responded with their own disparaging characterizations of the Chinese, generally based on nativist views, others tended to be compassionate once victory had been secured. A case in point is the dialogue between Admiral Ito Yuku and his opposite number Admiral Ding Ruchang after the latter’s defeat at Weihaiwei. Tough fate had made them adversaries, the two had previously had cordial relations. Ito pointed out that the defeat had not been Ding’s fault, but that of a government which preferred to choose its officials on the basis of their literary accomplishments rather than their military expertise. He then invited Ding to come to Japan rather than return to Beijing to accept responsibility for the defeat. Ding responded by committing suicide, thereby earning the highest respect of the Japanese. As commented by a newspaper columnist of the time, enmity is temporary, respect endures forever. Admiral Ito ordered Ding’s body returned to China, with flags flying at half-mast and ships firing a salute as the vessel bearing his body lef port. Knowing that the war was essentially over at this point, Ito also returned Ding’s surviving officers. Ding’s own government did not react as well: his corpse was denied proper burial until 1912, and the emperor ordered his surviving officers beheaded.
A similar exchange of views occurred when Li Hongzhang again met Ito Hirobumi, this time to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty at Shimonoseki. Ito reminded Li that, at Tianjin a decade before, he had spoken with Li about reform, regretted that nothing had actually been reformed, and asked why. Li replied that “affairs in my country have been so confined by tradition that I could not accomplish what I desired.”
In a third example, also from the Shimonoseki negotiations, Premier Ito inquired of one of the Chinese translators, the brilliant Luo Fenglu, why China had not learned more from the West. Luo replied, “You see, in our younger days we knew each other as fellow students, and now you are prime minister in your country and I am an interpreter in mine.” As summarized by an astute observer, for years Japanese diplomats had offered the same advice to Chinese diplomats, only to see it ignored. From the Chinese point of view, “They would be damned before they would take advice from `dwarfs.’ And damned they were.”
Even in defeat, the Chinese government refused to treat the victors as equals. Te negotiations were stalled when the Japanese, confronted with a delegation of relatively low-ranking individuals who had arrived without power to make decisions, refused to deal with them. Meanwhile, a group of officials in China who clearly did not comprehend the difficult position that the devastation of their armies and ships had put them in, urged fighting on. A few days afer the envoys’ ship set sail, The Peking Gazette, the official organ of the Chinese government for the publication of memorials and edicts, referred to the Japanese by an even more demeaning term than dwarfs: “dwarf pirates”. After a member of the delegation asked the highly inappropriate question of when he could expect an audience with the emperor, the Japanese sent the delegation back.
Eventually, with the Japanese threatening to advance into Beijing- an action that was easily within their military’s capacity but that civilian statesmen preferred to avoid, fearing Western powers’ reaction-the Chinese dispatched an acceptable delegation. In the resultant Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in 1895, China recognized the full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea, which was henceforth to refrain from paying tribute and performing ceremonies to China that were incompatible with this independence and autonomy. Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. China was to pay an indemnity of 200 million Kuping taels 35 (about 7.5 million kilograms of silver). Four new cities, Shashi, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, were to be opened to Japanese trade, and China granted most favored nation status to Japan.
The mood in Japan was ecstatic; the military had not only assuaged past slights but also brought much honor to the country. However, almost immediately a consortium of three European states-France, Germany, and Russia-intervened. Apprehensive for their own interests in the wake of the Japanese victory, the parties to the Triple Intervention advised Japan to retrocede the Liaodong peninsula. Aware that their military could not withstand the combined forces of the three, Japanese diplomats agreed. A concession that China would have to pay an additional 30 million Kuping, or 1.12 million kilograms, of silver for the retrocession of Liaodong, for a total indemnity of over 9 million kilograms of silver, was scant consolation. An imperial rescript urged the people to “bear the unbearable” and to refrain from rash acts of revenge. Although a number of ritual suicides were reported, citizens in general obeyed the emperor’s command. However, the intervention had other, very serious consequences.
Public opinion was outraged, charging that diplomats had surrendered a valuable prize that had been won through the sacrifices of thousands of valiant young men. The prestige of civilian government fell; that of the military rose. As did support for larger military budgets, so that Japan could never again be humiliated in this fashion, and the desire for revenge. Additionally, the Triple Intervention was interpreted as meaning that the Western powers had not yet accepted Japan as their equal, its impressive reforms not withstanding. In the Japanese view, this attitude extended beyond the three intervening powers: Tokyo had approached other Western powers for help against the consortium, but had been rebuffed. The conclusion was that Western powers understood only military force, and that Japan had best ready itself for such a confrontation. Japanese decision-makers were aware of the so-called Willy-Nicky letters, in which the German kaiser and his cousin, the Russian czar, discussed the dangers of the “yellow peril.”