We have in the preceding tales brought down from a remote period the history of the two oldest nations now existing on the face of the earth. There are peoples as old, but none others which have kept intact their national organization and form of government for thousands of years. Invasion, conquest, rebellion, revolution, have kept the rest of the world in a busy stir and caused frequent changes in nations and governments. But Japan and China lay aside from the broad current of invasion, removed from the general seat of war, and no internal convulsion or local invasion had been strong enough to change their political systems or modes of life. And thus these two isolated empires of the East drifted down intact through the ages to the middle of the nineteenth century, when their millennial sleep was rudely broken and their policy of isolation overthrown.
This was due, as has been shown, to the coming of the navies of Europe and America, bent on breaking down the barriers that had been raised against the civilization of the West and forcing these remote empires to enter the concert of the nations and open their ports to the commerce of the world. Concerning all this we have no tales to tell, but a brief account of the effect of foreign intercourse upon China and Japan will fitly serve to close our work and outline the recent history of these two great powers of the East.
There are marked differences of character between the Chinese and the Japanese, and these differences have had a striking effect upon their recent history. In the Japanese we find a warlike and aggressive people, a stirring and inquisitive race, not, like their neighbors on the continent, lost in contemplation of their ancient literature and disdainful of any civilization but their own, but ready and eager to avail themselves of all that the world has to offer worth the having. In the Chinese we find a non-aggressive people, by nature and custom disinclined to war, asking only, so far as outer nations are concerned, to be let alone, and in no sense inquisitive concerning the doings of the world at large. Of their civilization, which goes back beyond the reputed date of the Deluge, they are intensely proud, their ancient literature, in their conception, is far superior to the literatures of all other nations, and their self-satisfaction is so ingrained that they still stand aloof in mental isolation from the world, only the most progressive among them seeing anything to be gained from foreign arts. These differences in character have given rise to a remarkable difference in results. The Japanese have been alert in availing themselves of all things new, the Chinese torpid and slow, sluggishly resisting change, hardly yielding even to the logic of war.
There is nothing in the history of the world to match the phenomenal progress of Japan since the visit of Commodore Perry in 1853. If it had been the people of the United States, instead of those of that archipelago of the Eastern seas, that in this way first gained a knowledge of the progress of the outer world, they could not have been readier in changing their old institutions and ideas and accepting a new and strange civilization offered them from afar than have been the alert islanders of the East.
When the American fleet entered the Bay of Yedo it found itself in the heart of a civilization and institutions a thousand years and more of age. The shogun, the military chief, was the actual ruler of Japan, as he had been for many centuries before, the mikado, the titular ruler, being still buried in that isolation into which he had long since withdrawn. It was only a dim tradition with the people that the mikado had ever been emperor in fact, and they looked on him as a religious potentate to be worshipped, not as a ruler to be obeyed. The feudal system, established in the past centuries, was still intact, the provincial lords and princes being held in strict vassalage by the shogun, or tai-kun (great king), as he then first termed himself. In truth, Japan was still in its mediŠval state, from which it showed scarcely a sign of emerging.
The coming of the foreigners made a sudden and decided change in the situation. Within less than twenty years the whole condition of affairs had been overturned; the shogun had been deposed from his high estate, the mikado had come to his own again, the feudal system had been abolished, and the people beheld with surprise and delight their spiritual emperor at the head of the state, absolute lord of their secular world, while the military tyranny under which they so long had groaned was irremediably annulled.
Such was the first great step in the political revolution of Japan. It was followed by another and still greater one, an act without a parallel in the history of autocratic governments. This was the voluntary relinquishment of absolutism by the emperor, the calling together of a parliament, and the adoption of a representative government on the types of those of the West. In all history we can recall no similar event. All preceding parliaments came into existence through revolution or gradual growth, in no other instance through the voluntary abdication of autocratic power and the adoption of parliamentary rule by an emperor moved alone by a desire for the good of his people and the reform of the system of government.
Japan had learned the lesson of civilization swiftly and well, her ablest sons devoting themselves to the task of bringing their country to the level of the foremost nations of the earth. Young men in numbers were sent abroad to observe the ways of the civilized world, to become familiar with its industries, and to study in its universities, and these on their return were placed at the head of affairs, industrial, educational, and political. No branch of modern art and science was neglected, the best to be had from every nation being intelligently studied by the inquisitive and quick-witted island youth.
The war with China first revealed to the world the marvellous progress of Japan in the military art. Her armies were armed and disciplined in accordance with the best system of the West, and her warlike operations conducted on the most approved methods, though only native officers were employed. The rapidity with which troops, amounting to eighty thousand in all, and the necessary supplies were carried across the sea, and the skilful evolution, under native officers, of a fleet of vessels of a type not dreamed of in Japan thirty years before, was a new revelation to the observing world. And in another direction it was made evident that Japan had learned a valuable lesson from the nations of Christendom. Instead of the massacres of their earlier wars, they now displayed the most humanitarian moderation. There was no ill treatment of the peaceful inhabitants, while ambulances and field hospitals were put at the disposal of the wounded of both sides, with a humane kindness greatly to be commended.
But the lessons taught in this war were of minor interest and importance in comparison with those of a much greater war ten years later. In those ten years the progress of Japan had been proceeding with accelerated rapidity. There was little of leading value in the arts and industries of the West which had not been introduced into this island empire, the equipment of her army vied with that of the most advanced powers, her navy possessed a number of the most powerful type of steel-clad battle-ships, she had been admitted into the family of the great nations by a compact on equal terms with Great Britain, and she had become adapted to cope with powers vastly more capable in the arts of war than China, to deal, indeed, with one of the greatest and much the most populous of European nations.
This was soon to be shown. The Boxer outbreak of 1900 in China ended with Manchuria practically possessed by Russia, a possession which that nation seemed disposed to maintain in defiance of treaty obligations to China and of the energetic protest of Japan. As a result, to the surprise, almost to the consternation of the world, Japan boldly engaged in war with the huge colossus which bestrode Asia and half of Europe, and to the amazement of the nations showed a military aptitude and preparation and a command of resources which enabled her to defeat the armies of Russia in every engagement, to capture the great stronghold of Port Arthur, to win victories on the sea as notable as those on the land, and in the end to impose upon Russia a treaty of peace humiliating in its provisions to the proud Muscovite court. This victorious war settled the status of Japan so far as the decision of the nations was concerned. The island empire was definitely accepted as one of the great powers of the world. Its standing in war had been established, and was rapidly being matched by its standing in peace, its progress in commerce, industry, and science promising to raise it to the plane of the most advanced nations.
While little Japan was thus forging swiftly ahead, great China was stolidly holding back. This was not from lack of intelligence or the disposition to avail itself of material advantages, but from the pride of its people and scholars in their own civilization and their belief in the barbarism of the outer world. This sentiment was so deeply ingrained as to make it hard to eradicate.
China was not without its reformers, and such progressive men as Li Hung Chang had their influence. Steamships made their appearance upon the inland waters of the empire, the telegraph was widely extended, and a navy of modern war-ships was bought abroad. But the army, organized on mediŠval principles, went to pieces before that of Japan, while the ships, though their crews fought with courage and resolution, proved unable to bear the impact of the better handled Japanese fleet.
Aside from its shipping and the telegraph, China at that time showed little disposition to accept modern improvements. The introduction of the railroad was strongly resisted, and commerce, industry, mining, etc., continued to be conducted by antiquated methods. Nothing of value seemed to have been learned from the war with Japan, and even the seizure of parts of its territory by the powers of Europe and the threat to dismember and divide it up among these powers seemed insufficient to arouse it from its sluggish self-satisfaction.
Yet thought was stirring in the minds of many of the statesmen of China, and the small band of reformers began to grow in numbers and influence. The events of the twentieth century—the Boxer insurrection, the capture of Peking by foreign armies, the retention of Manchuria by Russia, and above all the mighty lesson of the Manchurian war, which demonstrated admirably the revolution which modern methods had made in Japan—proved more than even the conservatism of China could endure. Within the few years since the dawn of the twentieth century the torpid leviathan of the East has shown decided signs of awakening. Most prominent among these indications is the fact that the ruling empress, but recently a mainstay of the conservative party, has entered the ranks of reform and given her imperial assent to radical changes in Chinese methods and conditions.
Everywhere in China are now visible indications of the dawning of a new era. The railroad is making its way with encouraging rapidity over the soil of the celestial realm. New and improved methods in mining and manufacture are being adopted. Other evidences of progress in material things are seen in various directions. But most promising of all is the fact that the time-honored method of restricting education to the ethical dogmas of Confucius has been overthrown and modern science is being taught in the schools and made part of the requirements of the annual examinations for positions in the civil service of the empire. A new race of scholars is being made in China, one which cannot fail to use its influence to bring that old empire into the swing of modern progress.
Equally significant with this revolution in the system of education is the seemingly coming change in the system of government. Statesmen of China are now engaged, under the sanction of the empress, in studying the governmental systems of other nations, with a view of a possible adoption of representative institutions and the overthrow of the absolutism which has for ages prevailed. And this is being done at the instance of the government itself, not in response to the demands of insistent reformers. Back of the study of Western methods lies the power to introduce them, and the probability is that before another generation has passed China will be classed among the limited monarchies of the world, even if it be not admitted to the circle of the republics.
These radical changes are of very recent introduction. They are results of the developments of the past few years. But when we see the ball of progress rolling so swiftly and gathering new material so rapidly, we may well conjecture that before many years the China of the past will be buried under its mass and modern China, like modern Japan, take rank among the most progressive nations of the world.