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History: The Modernization of Asia Essay

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2021


As history shows, attempts to establish contact between countries become fruitful either under external duress or because of internal conflict, those within seeing more benefit in creating new relationship trends than in perpetuating old ones. The appliance of pressure to countries of South, Southeast, and East Asia, presented as calls for “modernization,” has been aimed at restructuring Asian nations in a Western manner. These attempts while not always fruitful did not consistently fail, with China, Japan, India, and Vietnam having different reactions towards European demands, resulting in varying vectors of nationalistic thought. Thus, the modernization of Asia through the adoption of Western ideas and a break from traditional imperialist forms of government through its reimagining became the main aim of nationalistic movements, following national self-identification.

Office of Emperor

It is crucial to give attention to the existing systems of government at the time of Western interference, particularly to the Emperor’s rank, to examine the effect of Western nations within specific countries. The perception of the emperor decided the population’s loyalty to the current government and their course of action in reimagining it.1 An apt example would be the Vietnamese nationalistic movement, which, having decentralized their conception of nationality from the emperor found an identifying factor within themselves, thus becoming self-sufficient in their self-perception.2 There was no opportunity for the Emperor to sway the nationalistic movement directly to react towards western influence having lost the confidence of the people. The Chinese example, however, demonstrates how a government can garner negative attitudes toward themselves and towards their allies by proxy.3 Hence, analyzing the examples, it is possible to discern the role of the emperor as one that may influence their people only when having not just their support but also their admiration.

Nationalistic Movements by Country

With a different historical context, each country reacted according to its history to Western influence, with some welcoming it within reason, and others seeing in it the epitome of exploitative relationships. The varying influences of government, intelligentsia, and the ordinary people, each altered the course of nationalistic movements, bringing about long-contemplated internal change. The ultimate effect, however, can be seen as a reimagining not just of the inner workings of Asian governments but also their external territorial claims that based themselves on nationalistic thought.


The fourteen-point popularity of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the catalyst to the creation of Chinese nationalism and an active nationalistic movement. Wilson’s conception of self-determination, something created to suit the nation-creation of European states, held for China “the promise of regaining national dignity lost in eighty years of semi-colonial humiliation under the unequal treaty system.”4 From the displeasure with the pro-Western government, stimulated by the neglect of Western powers of Chinese demands for territories by the very concept of national determination, erupted the May Fourth Movement. The demonstrations led to the creation of public pressure upon government officials, influencing their reversion from Western spheres of influence.

The nationalist movement did not consider the monarchy as a competent rallying point for the future China creation, as the government had discredited itself in the eyes of the people. Instead of the emperor, ideas of territory, national borders, and spirituality became the ideological basis for Chinese nationalism, which bordered on transnationality.5 The idea that the system of government should be revamped instead of changed was created as per the trends in the thought of that time, stemming from the Chinese conception of renewal.6 Instead of the imperial system, the scheme proposed by the May Fourth Movement was built upon the people and intellectuals, and thus, helped to usher in the future success of the Communist order in China.


Japan was one of the first countries to attempt a reconstruction of their government and their nationalistic specifics aimed at a cultural unity of the Japanese people and their supremacy in Asia as its safe-keepers. Japan actively perceived Toynbee’s later conceptions, which centered on global civilization as a mix between the technological advancements of Western countries and Eastern spirituality.7 Thus, the breaking of the Western dominion over Asia was the prevalent idea of the Japanese nationalistic movement, which was self-assigned due to their alleged attunement to both Eastern and Western requirements for a civilization.


Similar issues raised by the perception of nationalism and its link to territory could be applied to India. Not only the recurrence of the concept of renewal but also the importance of spirituality and opposition of Eastern countries on this basis to the irreverent West stimulated the creation of the Indian nationalist movement.8 Indian nationalism, territorial in essence, relied on the unity of different cultures, languages, and people within its borders, despite having no rallying point other than their joining through government and philosophy. Thus, a government as a representative of its entire people, regardless of ethnic background, became the staple of Indian nationalism.


Following South and East Asian examples of nationalism, the Vietnamese conception, however, forms itself in terms that do not encroach on transnationalism and regional dominance. French-controlled Vietnam searched for self-identification through not only its own experience but also relying on the history of Chinese and Japanese nationalism, and applying those to its specifics. The evolution of the dan concept demonstrates the self-identification process of the Vietnamese people, highlighting the switch of the leading role ascribed to the public, with dan coming to mean “citizens of a modern state.”9 The government, having defamed itself, created precedence for nationalistic reliance on the people’s enlightenment, not on the emperor’s morality, supposedly ushering in “periods of ideological ferment [that] occur when there is cultural strain.”10 Thus, the turn towards communism, prevalent in numerous Asian nationalistic movements, in Vietnam is equally rooted in the people, their identification, and break from traditional imperialism.


The importance of the adoption of western technological progress to assert independence or in hopes of regional dominance became a recurrent theme in numerous Asian nationalistic movements, especially following the conception created by Toynbee mentioned above. Researchers could trace Westernization, despite it seemingly not affecting the renowned Asian spirituality, even within the attitude towards the emperor, as changing the traditional way of thinking.11 Westernization could be seen as a break away from tradition, and thus could be immediately linked with nationalistic movements, due to their rallying for internal change. However, nationalistic movements largely did not outline westernization as an end-goal, which would solve the problems of a nation, but did present it as one of the tools that the people could effectively use.


The cases of nationalistic movements discussed and presented above highlight the similarities and differences between them, most importantly concerning their attitudes towards Western influence as rising from their status as either partners or subservient captives. Reimagining the nation as one linked together by either tradition, or pan-Asiatic spiritualism ushered in an age of dubiousness of government and the need for its overhaul by new trends of thought. The specifications of either movement led to different ways of recognition of nationality, in most cases deemed essential through a break from the traditional definition by the government. While using the tools provided by westernization such as western philosophy and technological advancements, Asian countries rejected sovereign westernization, leaving their defining national traits uninfluenced. Thus, through governmental remaking Asian nations finalized their self-identification and created conceptions and systems that could not be entirely considered Eastern or Western.


Duara, Prasenjit. Journal of World History 12, no. 1 (2001): 99-130. Web.

Halsey, Stephen R. Journal of the Economic & Social History of the Orient 56, no. 3 (2013): 392-432. Web.

Popkin, Samuel L. The Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 2 (1985): 349-357. Web.

Schmidt, Hans. Diplomatic History 22, no. 1 (1998): 1-28. Web.


  1. Samuel L. Popkin, “Colonialism and the Ideological Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution–A Review Article,” The Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 2 (1985): 350, Web.
  2. Popkin, “Colonialism,” 350.
  3. Hans Schmidt, “Democracy for China: American Propaganda and the May Fourth Movement,” Diplomatic History 22, no. 1 (1998): 16-18, Web.
  4. Schmidt, “Democracy,” 15.
  5. Prasenjit Duara, “The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism,” Journal of World History 12, no. 1 (2001): 112-113, Web.
  6. Stephen R. Halsey, “Money, Power, and the State: The Origins of the Military-Fiscal State in Modern China,” Journal of the Economic & Social History of the Orient 56, no. 3 (2013): 428, Web.
  7. Prasenjit Duara, “The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism,” Journal of World History 12, no. 1 (2001): 104, Web.
  8. Duara, “Discourse,” 111-114, Web.
  9. Samuel L. Popkin, “Colonialism and the Ideological Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution–A Review Article,” The Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 2 (1985): 349-352, Web.
  10. Popkin, “Colonialism,” 352.
  11. Popkin, “Colonialism,” 351.
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