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History: Qing China vs. Tokugawa Japan Essay

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Updated: Jun 30th, 2021

Introduction

Historical and cultural changes in China and Japan were always influenced by their geography, relationships with other nations, and religious beliefs. Thus, the two countries, while being affected by similar ideological concepts, evolved into having different governmental structures. It is vital to note that China had a substantial impact on Japan because the latter often borrowed Chinese traditions to restructure and implement them into its systems.1 Nevertheless, the period from 1600 to 1800 created new ways in which the two nations perceived the world, their families, and the government.2 During this time, Qing China and Tokugawa Japan went through several cultural and governmental changes, where Japan became a modernizer and China remained a center of tradition.

Geography

It should be noted that the two states differ significantly in their geography. First of all, China is almost 26 times larger than Japan, spanning across a significant portion of a continent.3 On the other hand, Japan is situated on multiple islands separated from China and other countries by the sea. Such a difference in land areas implies that Chinese commoners had much more land to work on, as opposed to Japanese landowners. Second, a major part of China’s territory is removed from water (seas or rivers), while Japan’s residents have easy access to the sea.4 Thus, different trade relationships inside the countries and the prevalence of occupations, as well as diet choices, are to be expected. Japan’s removed position affects the systems of the country, making it easier for Japanese rulers to close the nation’s borders or monitor people leaving and entering. China’s size, on the other hand, creates problems for the government, as control over people becomes challenging.

System of Government

It is possible that the countries’ geography was one of the factors influencing the different ruling systems. Both China and Japan were guided by a strong ruler – a dictator who established country-wide and local laws.5 However, Japan had a feudal system of government and land ownership, where “bakuhan taisei” (samurai-officials) had a hereditary system of power.6 These officials constituted a shogunate which, in turn, established feudal domains and controlled local family structures called daimyo.7 A daimyo, usually the male head of the family, was expected to hold the position until death or inability to make decisions. It is also necessary to point out that Japanese samurais and other officials were not chosen according to their managing skills, but their lineage.

China’s ruler also had many local governments to look over the country’s residents and collect taxes. However, all major officials were appointed by the ruler, making the system more dependent on political decisions than on one’s lineage and hereditary opportunities.8 This description implies that people had more opportunities to hold different positions throughout their lives, moving up or down according to their skill and experience. While the central government of China was an absolute monarchy, its rule over local branches was not strict, demanding sufficient efforts from monarchs to obtain the trust from bureaucrats.9 However, China was a civilian state and not a military one with Confucianism being a foundation for all actions.

Society

The society of the two countries was structured similarly to their government systems. In Japan, a strict class separation existed at all levels. The feudal system bound both peasants and lords to their land.10 One could not move away from the owned property, and the peasants’ family was also restricted to one activity. Thus, permanent relationships between peasants and their lords had to be cultivated to ensure the long-term effectiveness of their labor. Families, therefore, viewed their members as contributors to the cause, since the hereditary nature of all rights was the basis of all decisions. The head of the family was the oldest and most capable man, and he chose one of his sons to be a worthy successor.11 Wealth was another factor that separated families – commoners distinguished themselves from others in the same class by accumulating money and items.

In China, society was influenced by classes, but individuals had more mobility than the ones in Japan. A person could choose to alienate the land, move to another province or village to pursue a different career.12 Chinese people followed the teachings of Confucianism and valued education and knowledge above status. Thus, people were not barred from considering a government post as long as they possessed the necessary training. It was normal for families to have sons in different occupations, accumulating wealth and increasing the secure position of the lineage. Moreover, families had a different way of sharing the inherited land and money. All sons of the family received a part of the family’s fortune to continue their lives as residents of the country. Members of poor families who achieved a high position could elevate the status of the next generations.

Religion and Ideology

Both countries founded their beliefs on Confucianism.13 However, Chinese thought was firmly rooted in egalitarian notions, where each person’s talents mattered more than inherited status. On the other hand, Japan perpetuated the significance of one’s lineage and the ultimate rule of class. Nevertheless, the shared ideology of Confucianism created some similarities between the two nations. For example, the notion of respect played a significant role in relationships.14 Young people should respect the old, women should listen to men, all commoners should follow their officials, and the lords should trust their ruler. Confucianism also highlighted the role of the strong government and noted that people were allowed to rebel against weak and ineffective leaders.15 The religion was based on the notion that education was crucial in creating meaning and status for a person, and the Chinese found their teachings on this thought. Japanese borrowed some parts of Confucianism and used it to develop a robust hierarchical rule. However, their ideology was strict regarding ones’ adherence to classes.

Encounters with the West

China and Japan were two agricultural countries until Japan’s industrialization in the middle of Tokugawa rule. Both nations were somewhat removed from international relations, Japan choosing to close off its borders during the discussed period. Nevertheless, Japan attempted to modernize in response to the first arrivals of Western travelers. These foreigners were met with hostility, but the pressure of imperialism moved Japan towards becoming an industrial country.16 Japan’s small government and strong rule also made the country self-sufficient enough to resist the onset of imperialism for some time. China’s size, geography, and ideology had a substantial impact on its slow modernization. China traded some goods with arriving Westerners, but it did not aim to compete with them initially. 17

Conclusion

China and Japan’s development was influenced by many factors, including their location, size, ideology, and religion. Confucianist beliefs highlighted the importance of respect and strong government to both countries. However, in comparison to Japan, China valued education and the ability to choose one’s path more than class restrictions. The size of Japan allowed it to have more effective local governments, although their level of necessary diplomatic skills was low. Chinese systems were less militarized, but the vast territories of the country decreased the authority of local officials. Both countries wanted to remain self-sustained, but Japan decided to close its borders entirely and industrialize aggressively to rival Western Imperialism.

Bibliography

Nakamura, James I., and Matao Miyamoto. “Social Structure and Population Change: A Comparative Study of Tokugawa Japan and Ch’ing China.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 30, no. 2 (1982): 229-269.

Ng, Benjamin Wai-Ming. “Sagacious Monks and Bloodthirsty Warriors: Chinese Views of Japan in the Ming-Qing Period.” Pacific Affairs 77, no. 2 (2004): 312-313.

Sng, Tuan-Hwee, and Chiaki Moriguchi. “Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan Before 1850.” Journal of Economic Growth 19, no. 4 (2014): 439-470.

Footnotes

  1. Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiaki Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence: State Capacity in China and Japan Before 1850,” Journal of Economic Growth 19, no. 4 (2014): 440.
  2. Benjamin Wai-Ming Ng. “Sagacious Monks and Bloodthirsty Warriors: Chinese Views of Japan in the Ming-Qing Period,” Pacific Affairs 77, no. 2 (2004): 312.
  3. James I. Nakamura and Matao Miyamoto, “Social Structure and Population Change: A Comparative Study of Tokugawa Japan and Ch’ing China,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 30, no. 2 (1982): 235.
  4. Ibid., 235.
  5. Sng and Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence,” 439.
  6. Nakamura and Miyamoto, “Social Structure and Population Change,” 237.
  7. Sng and Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence,” 446.
  8. Nakamura and Miyamoto, “Social Structure and Population Change,” 240.
  9. Ibid., 241.
  10. Ibid., 239.
  11. Ibid., 242.
  12. Ibid., 245.
  13. Sng and Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence,” 447.
  14. Nakamura and Miyamoto, “Social Structure and Population Change,” 238.
  15. Sng and Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence,” 447.
  16. Sng and Moriguchi, “Asia’s Little Divergence,” 465.
  17. Ibid., 459.
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