Interview: Benjamin Elman

Recent Features


Interview: Benjamin Elman

“The ‘rise of China’ narrative can be read in different ways, and for Japan it is a challenge.”

Interview: Benjamin Elman

Military engagement between the Japanese and Chinese in the first Sino-Japanese War

Credit: Artist unknown

Benjamin Elman is a professor of Chinese studies at Princeton University and a leading scholar on the intellectual history of China. He has written widely on the examination system, scholarship, ethics, science and technology and governance in China from the Song Dynasty to the present. His recent publications include: From Philosophy To Philology; Classicism, Politics, and Kinship; A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China; On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900; and A Cultural History of Modern Science in Late Imperial China. He recently spoke with Emanuel Pastreich about the history and future of East Asian integration, and the role of technology and the West.

When people talk about the future of East Asia, and the potential for integration, they say, “Well, Europe has been integrated from Roman times but East Asia has no such precedent. In fact Japan has never really been part of a unified architecture in Asia.” Is there something in the way East Asia has evolved in the 2,000 years that limits future integration, or is that not an assumption we should make?

In order to understand global issues, one needs to understand the regional issues that undergird them. China, Japan, Korea, and to some degree Vietnam and other portions of South Asia have become a very viable regional group. China is increasingly influenced by the nations around it in economics and politics. To understand the region’s potential, we need to consider the historical development of the Chinese empire, the economic impact of the Tokugawa government (17th-19th centuries), and, ultimately, how Korea was a part of economic and scientific change influencing both sides.

Korea often served as a conduit for medical knowledge, for Buddhist and Confucian metaphysics, and for technological innovations. Korea has been caught in the middle historically as China continued to surpass Korea in terms of its military and economic power and influence in East Asia during the Ming and Qing dynasties. I think that when Japan’s Toyotomi Hideyoshi led invasions (1592 and 1597) of Korea that fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape and reduced Korea’s role in the economic and political order of the region.

We tend to underestimate just how big Japan was in the global economy in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Tokugawa reunification of Japan after the battle of Sekigahara (1600) brought together a population of 25-27 million under a highly disciplined military. That meant that Japan was not just an island, but a powerful state capable not only of invading Korea and marching all the way to the Yalu River, but also capable of challenging the Ming Dynasty. Innovations in naval warfare and the decision of the Ming to throw their full weight into the campaign against Japan meant that Hideyoshi was forced to give up the campaign against the Ming, but the consequences of that campaign were that Korea was devastated and is only now starting to recover its self-confidence. The Gyeongbok Palace remained in ruins until the middle of the 19th century. Japan took advantage of Korea’s decline.

Hideyoshi dragged tens of thousands of people from Korea back with him, experts in printing and publishing, scholars, naturalists, mathematicians, and doctors. Japan ungraded its technological capacity and Korea was set back in spite of the failure of Japan to occupy the country. Korea no longer played the same role as a medieval conduit for culture and an innovator in science and technology.

It had been true before that China and Japan had many indirect relationships in terms of the silver trade, but Japan after the Tokugawa unification refused to be part of the tributary system that the Ming had carried on with the Ashikaga regime (1336–1573) for a period of time. Korea was caught in the middle, playing the role of a tributary state in the Chinese centered economy, and still trading with the Japanese outside of the tributary regime.

There existed complex economic exchanges in the seventeenth century in terms of trade and commerce long before the Europeans become an important power as marauding pirates, and later in legalized trade, through the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, and the Spanish.

The Ming efforts to quell the threat of Sino-Japanese wokou pirates who operated in the seas between the two countries from the 16th century were successful, opening up a peaceful realm for trade. As a result trade increased dramatically in East Asia and the Europeans were drawn into it. Although political relations were indirect, trade was direct and the silver trade had a direct impact on the domestic economies throughout East Asia. After the fall of the Ming, Japan turned inward, but there were new external political and economic forces at work that changed Japan forever.

Japan had a strong government, advanced technology, and an economy of scale that made it fundamentally different than the island nation it had been before. Here was a semi-unified economic unit with 30 million people in it and a diverse economy. In the early 18th century France was the largest demographic unit in Europe with an equivalent population and England had only 10 million. The Dutch were just a few million, as were Portugal and Spain.

The scale of the trade in East Asia, including South Asia and India, was much larger than the scale of trade in Europe in the 18th century. The rise of the West was a long-term story. But to read backward from the Opium Wars and say that the rise of the West was inevitable following those events of the 15th and 16th centuries is rather dubious. Scholars today note that the rise of the West in the 17th and 18th centuries did not represent the rise of a new modern civilization, but rather the fruition of a global economic trading system centered around China, Japan, and Korea which reached such a scale that it drew in the French, the English, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Spanish. Wealth was generated in Europe from trade in the New and Old Worlds, but much of that wealth originated in Asia. 

In the standard narrative of the Opium Wars we hear that the Western Europeans, England specifically, were more sophisticated in culture and technology and ran a more complex international system. What do you think? 

I don’t think we should read that back teleologically into the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, we should not assume that everything the West did back then was somehow preparation for what the West would do in the 19th century. From the seventeenth century the large-scale economic trade in Asia drew the Europeans to the region. Look at what happened to Taiwan in the 15th to17th centuries: Everyone wanted Taiwan. Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Japan planned to invade it, the Spanish and Dutch occupied it, and the Portuguese were interested in it. The wokou pirates were active and ultimately Taiwan was the scene of a civil war between the Ming loyalists and the Manchus. The Manchus ultimately secured Taiwan and made it part of Fujian province for the first time.

China established powerful trading units before the Opium War that integrated Guangzhou and Canton and brought in others from the trading networks of the Yangtze Delta and elsewhere. The global trading system, trade of scale, started in China with the Qing unification and the Europeans were drawn into it because of its value. Ultimately the English, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the Dutch were integrated into a trading community in Southeast Asia (and the Japanese indirectly), especially trade through Macau and the islands outside Hong Kong. This trade system was called the “Canton trade,” and it was the most dominant trade route in the 17th and 18th centuries.

So powerful was the Canton trade that England found itself in a tremendous deficit with China and thus the drive to sell opium to the Chinese led to the final denouement of the Opium War, and the breakdown of the Canton trade. Of course the the Opium War was a single event, but it was the result of many long-term economic developments leading to the treaty ports in East Asia after 1850.

And of course we must take into consideration the issue of technology transfers via the Jesuits. 

So if there had been a similar military conflict, say in the early-eighteenth century, the Western technological advantage would not have been so decisive up to the 1790s?

That’s right. When the British sent the Macartney Mission to China in 1793 they tried to get China to open its other ports, but the Qianlong emperor just refused. British technological power was not yet significantly advanced over that of China. But Britain was just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The breakthrough with the steam engine was still not applied beyond removing water in mines. Lord Macartney was already aware of this new technology as a novelty. When Lord Macartney showed the steam engine to the Canton traders, they also were intrigued, but it had no lasting significance, and the mission was deemed a failure. Only by the middle of the 19th century, at the time of the Opium Wars, did steam engine power start to mature, and the British navy gained a considerable advantage over the Chinese.

One of the essential questions about the Opium War is when and why did Europe pull ahead of China so decisively. Could it be that at a certain point the newly developed technologies in Europe started to accelerate exponentially – not because of any act of man but following their own internal logic? Or was the reason simply that because Europe fought so many wars in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was pushed forward technologically in a decisive manner?

Shifts in science and technology did make a difference. The new Newtonian mechanics served as a framework for a whole new set of applied technologies. You cannot build steam engines, steamships, without technical manufacturing that requires engineering and advanced mathematics such as the calculus. So, the old strengths of Europe in shipbuilding were still there, but the Europeans had made a decisive step forward in terms of mechanizing in a systematic manner the use of steam power. The new mathematics and psychics after Newton were introduced to some degree to China via the Jesuits. These technologies were transmitted to Korea and then to Japan. But the revolutionary nature of the changes was not yet obvious to the Chinese, Japanese and the Koreans until the early 19th century, after the British and their allies defeated Napolean on land and sea.

After the Opium Wars of 1839-42 the Chinese begin to very rapidly produce their own steamboats. The technology was introduced by Chinese who were trading with Singapore and with Indonesia. They were the first to figure out how steam engines were constructed. So, from the 1840s until the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese (and subsequently the Japanese) painfully learned how to make steamboats. There was only about 20-30 years when the English had this technology virtually to themselves.

Recent research suggests that it was not that the Chinese, Koreans or Japanese “failed” to understand the nature of the Industrial Revolution. Rather the domestic political situations were such that the problems of dealing with these new forces – the British in particular – were caught up with complex domestic political issues. The Taiping Rebellion, for example made new knowledge of the West politically sensitive and led to the final decline of the Qing Dynasty. The Taipings forced China to develop arsenals and shipyards, in Wenzhou, Fuzhou, Shanghai and elsewhere. The new shipping technology was up to date and powerful. But those naval ships were useless during a major domestic civil war on land.

China was torn apart by internal conflicts like the Taiping Rebellion and could not create a unified navy in the manner that Japan did. Whereas Korea and China were able to drive Japan out through a series of naval battles in the 1590s, by the late nineteenth century, that was not the case. The Japanese unified navy surprisingly defeated the Chinese, but no one in China thought the Japanese would be able to do that well until they saw their actions in 1894-95. The Japanese won the battles decisively. The difference was less a matter of technology than of organization, political context, and background. The Chinese and Manchus could not unite together in a cultural and ideological sense to work for a common goal.

It does seem that cultural and institutional problems kept China from taking advantage of its own strengths.

Cultural factors are very, very important. Let us take the Fuzhou shipyard built as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement. At the start the Japanese worked with the French and mimicked the Fuzhou shipyard as they built their own model navy. During the 1880s, the Japanese adopted the British model for shipbuilding, and started to turn the Yokosuka Shipyard into a copy of a British shipbuilding yard. The Japanese were united culturally and ready to move very quickly.

In a sense the 1830s and 1840s were the beginning of an exponential rate of technological change, which is now still dramatically changing our world. That initial “failure” to make the leap that England and France made was not only a problem for China. It was the undoing of many powers of the 18th century, such as the Ottomans, Persians, and Moghul Indians.

In hindsight, it seems as if the Opium Wars were the signal event in modern history where the British imposed their global trading system on the Chinese. But, a more careful consideration of the previous two hundred years suggests that it was rather Europe that was being drawn into the massive trading network formed by China, Japan, and Korea (although Korea was more resistant to the network), rather than China being forced to join the trading system of the West. For the most part the Chinese were open to the West as long as the trade was peaceful and the basic rules of the tributary system were followed regarding when ships could enter ports. The Canton System of trade that extended from the city of Guangdong, was the foundation for global trade in the 18th century in East Asia – the richest part of the world.

The Chinese were open to the Jesuits and translated many of their texts concerning mathematics, physics and astronomy. Once translated into Chinese, those Western ideas circulated through the entire region. Trade was open in Asia and it formed the basis for supra-national networks for goods and for intellectual exchange.

But although the Chinese somewhat understood Aristotelian science and combined it with their own science, the Newtonian revolution of the 18th century, and the following rise of steam engines, was not so well understood. Chinese had no idea how fundamentally these new technologies were transforming the East Asian world after 1850.

When you look at China, Japan, Korea today, and listen to the discussion about trade and integration, how do today’s events appear in light of developments over the last three centuries?  

In the 20th century it was the rise of Japan that posed the greatest challenge to the Asian order. And the fall of the Japanese empire did not alter that reality. Japan emerged after the Second World War with the technology and expertise to be a central player in the industrial world, granted there was a new patronage relationship with the Americans. Today we see an imitation, but not a return to earlier political structures wherein the Chinese were the central power.

Similarly, the role of Koreans as intermediaries between the two groups is being repeated again as well. Both China and Korea are playing a far larger role than they had in the 20th century.

And Japan is profoundly aware of the risk of being marginalized in some future order. Japan tries to play both roles. Asserting its commitments to America’s new order and complying with a modified containment theory, Japan at the same time engaged deeply with the Chinese concerning trade, investment and increasingly technology in large scale, low-key, business events.   

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 fell on the 300th anniversary of the unsuccessful naval battles with the Joseon and the Ming. But in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan won dramatically and occupied several Chinese ports. This war led the Japanese to start thinking about expansion into Manchuria as a viable strategy.

Japan became the dominant player in economics and international relations until the late 20th century. Currently the rise of China has started to overshadow Japan. Recent nuclear challenges in Japan such as Fukushima have made Japan less obviously the leading advanced nation in East Asia. Increasingly China and Korea, especially in trade and technology, are becoming dominant. In many fields, from trade and manufacturing to research and development, Korea has become a major player. But China has recently also shown signs of decline in its own growth potential.

The nationalist narrative of the Chinese position vis-à-vis the Japanese is critical in Chinese politics and they need to stress that China is now the dominant player. The new rise of China will result in a new battle for dominance (in one form or another) in the 21st century and the role of Korea may end up playing a role similar to its role before the seventeenth century, before the British, the Portuguese, the Spanish and others entered the market.

I think that Japan’s wariness of China and Korea is an indication of the profound shifts going on. The “rise of China” narrative can be read in different ways, and for Japan it is a challenge. For Korea it is an opportunity to return to a prominence it has not had in many centuries.

What of the U.S. role in East Asia? Why has the U.S. played such a role over the last century, and what do you think the prospects are for the future? 

The U.S. began to play into East Asian trade and commerce in the 19th century. So, at the time of the Opium War the U.S. was a much smaller scale state interested in trade with China. The efforts to find the North-Western passage from East to West across the North American continent, which led to the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Louisiana Purchase, and the establishment of the United States on the West Coast, was all about getting to the Pacific Ocean. But the point was not just to catch fish on the coast; the United States wanted to be involved in the China trade from the Pacific side.

In a sense, the decision to make the United States a continental power was related to China’s economic strength even in its weakened state in the early 19th century.

In the 19th century Philadelphia merchants, Boston merchants, and the merchants of Virginia and southern U.S were orienting their businesses towards the China market and sending their new clipper ships there. So, the U.S. was also sucked into the China trade, even late in the game when China was no longer considered such a great power. The United States was still not a great power, but nonetheless it had a hand to play in that trading network. As the U.S. becomes more and more influential in the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. plays the “open door” card at the time, arguing for some sort of transparency in trade and investment in China.

Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 had everyone in Europe worried, the French, the Russians, the English, about Japanese expansion. And ultimately the French and the Russians and the Germans intervened in the Tripartite Intervention in 1895 to kick the Japanese out of Port Arthur and make sure the Treaty of Simonoseki did not give too much influence to Japan.

In the contemporary world, the U.S. has completely replaced the Europeans in East Asian diplomacy. Regarding diplomatic issues within East Asia, only the Russians are active because they are in Siberia. Ultimately the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians are willing to let the U.S. represent them today in a manner that would have been impossible a century ago.

So when we see a transformation of the world in the nineteenth century, we should understand that this process was not just the result of powerful Western empires, but that Asia also played a role in creating this new world.

For that matter, the current “rise of China” is but a return to earlier pre-eminence.

Perhaps the question will be whether China, when it reaches a higher level of geopolitical power, will continue to adhere to international law, or will it rather, like the United States after it replaced Great Britain as the top dog, turn more to arguments of exceptionalism?

The future, I think, is going to be built around the Pacific. The question is whether the Pacific is a “Chinese lake,” or is it an “American lake”? What will be the role of Korea and Japan in that lake?

I think we are seeing at this point that although U.S. economic interests are linked to China, Korea and Japan, the actual nuts and bolts of the sophisticated East Asian economy is quite far away from the direct experience of Americans. It is possible that in the future we will decide that our interests go as far as Hawaii and that’s it.

China may end up as the dominant player, but it will not be the only player, and ultimately the Chinese will have to deal with the Japanese and the Vietnamese, and less so with the Americans (if current trends continue).