The Aftermath of 1850

Absorbing the Shock


A major confrontation between China and the Britain were the opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and China was soundly defeated. Under the Treaty of Nanking (1842) Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and opium import was legitimized. China was left to absorb the shock of the defeat.

Several rebellions broke out, the most important one being the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864).

(From Wikipedia)
Its leader was Hong Xiuquan who had failed on multiple occasions to pass the imperial examinations (of those who attempted the examinations, only about 5 percent passed) which consequently denied him access to the ranks of the ruling scholarly elite. Hong experienced a lengthy illness and then after spending many days in bed, he recovered with a changed personality. His cousin Li Ching-fang noticed the pamphlet Hong had received from a Protestant Christian missionary in 1836 after his failed attempt at the imperial examination on a bookshelf inside Hong's house. After reading it Li suggested that Hong should read the material. After studying the material, Hong Xiuquan claimed that the illness he had following his imperial examinations was in fact a vision to the effect that he was the younger brother of Jesus, who was sent to rid China of the "devils," including both the corrupt Manchu rulers and the teachings of Confucius.

An American Baptist missionary became a teacher and an adviser to Hong. The rebel agenda included social reforms such as shared "property in common," equality for women, and the replacement of Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion with their form of Christianity.

The movement had a lot of initial success and controlled roughly a third of Chinese territory for over a decade until they were finally crushed in the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864. There was massive loss of life, with a death toll of about 20 million during the rebellion. The imperial forces that crashed the rebels were organized by European officers, including Charles "Chinese" Gordon. (He was later killed in Sudan.)

In the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party, looked on the rebellion as an inspiration, and Chinese leader Mao Zedong glorified the Taiping rebels as early heroic revolutionaries against a corrupt feudal system. (source Wikipedia)

The Self-Strengthening Movement was an institutional reform in the second half of the 1800s. The aim was to modernize the empire, with prime emphasis on strengthening the military. However, the reform was undermined by corrupt officials, cynicism, and quarrels within the imperial family. As a result, the Chinese fleet was soundly defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Guangxu Emperor and the reformists then launched a more comprehensive reform effort, the Hundred Days' Reform (1898), but it was shortly overturned by the conservatives under Empress Dowager Cixi in a military coup. Why the Japanese were so strong?


Japan was ruled by the hereditary shoguns (military leaders) since 1603 who pacified the country after a series of civil wars. The shoguns has as capital Edo (modern Tokyo) while the Emperor reigned as a religious leader in Kyoto. The shoguns instituted four classes: warriors (samurai), farmers, artisans, and merchants. They also followed a policy of isolation from the rest of the world.

The isolation was broken by the American fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry, first in 1853 and then in 1854. Japan had to sign a series of humiliating treaties with the U.S. and other Western powers. In 1866 a rebellion broke out that was supported by an alliance of low ranking samurai and the merchant class. In contrast to China, the rebellion was successful and the shogunate was abolished. The emperor moved from Kyoto to Edo that was renamed Tokyo (Tokyoto). On January 3, 1868, Emperor Meiji made a formal declaration of the restoration of his power. Japan then went on a rapid program of westernization. There was industrialization and military reforms. Pretty soon Japan (a much smaller country) inflicted a major defeat upon the Chinese (1894) and in 1905 they defeated Imperial Russia. Japan had become a power to be reckoned.

I should add that resistance continued for several years after the restoration. The last stronghold was Aizu that I visited in 1993 when a University opened in that town. Aizu was a center of learning during the shoguns and the new Tokyo government made no investements in the town for over 100 years.

The Japanese realized that liberalization/modernization was a package deal. You could not pick and choose. By 1880 2/3 of Japanese boys and 1/3 of Japanese girls were receiving free primary schooling. Nothing like that in China. Both countries had first railroad in 1876 but by 1896 Japan had 2,300 miles of track while China only 370. [MORR], pp. 523-524.

Political Reform and Modernization

The example of Japan illustrates the need to have political change before a country can modernize (the Ottomans tried and failed after they defeat in Vienna in 1683). But copying the Western political system is harder than it looks. Japan instituted its own political system. It is the only country that replicated successfully Western technological progress.

Imperial Russia failed and this led to the Communist revolution (1917). Only partial success. The same with China (1949). The fall of Communism has led to success in China (Den Xiaoping) but not in Russia.

The trouble is that authoritarian (and totalitarian) regimes create cultures that survive political change. Western Europe was fortunate that the feudal system weakened when it did (13th century). It took over 400 years between the start of the Renaissance and the industrial revolution, so the Europeans had time to adjust.

When the wealth is tied to the land (agriculture or mining) authoritarian control is useful. It keeps the boundaries and also people doing the work. Wars of conquest make sense. Family ties are also important because assets are inherited. Also no special skills are required in farming, compared to manufacturing.

Trade requires order and freedom to flourish. It is far more an individual effort than agriculture or mining. Traders do not have to oppress people, they just have to understand the different cost of goods in different places. Authoritarian regimes suppress trade by taxing or extorting bribes from traders. What seems as corruption to modern eyes it is seen as rightful appropriation by leaders who "own" the land. In an ideal world trade does not require conquests but in practice control of trade routes can be achieved by military means. The "discovery" of America was the result of Ottoman control of the "silk road."

Manufacturing creates a whole new game. Because it requires skills, it requires hiring people by merit rather than family connections. It is only in the industrialized world that meritocracy is well established. It is hard to introduce meritocracy to societies that have relied on agriculture for a long time. When the wealth is the result of added value because of manufacturing wars of conquest make no sense. This is something that Europe (and Japan) failed to understand and suffered through the bloody wars of the 20th century.

The challenge for the developing world is to implement social changes in less than a quarter of the time it took for that to happen in Western Europe.

An Aside on Memes (from Wikipedia)

A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek mimema, "imitated thing", from mimeisthai, "to imitate") and it was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.

Luis Benitez-Bribiesca M.D., a critic of memetics, calls the theory a "pseudoscientific dogma" and "a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of consciousness and cultural evolution". As a factual criticism, Benitez-Bribiesca points to the lack of a "code script" for memes (analogous to the DNA of genes), and to the excessive instability of the meme mutation mechanism (that of an idea going from one brain to another), which would lead to a low replication accuracy and a high mutation rate, rendering the evolutionary process chaotic.

British political philosopher John Gray has characterized Dawkins' memetic theory of religion as "nonsense" and "not even a theory... the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors", comparable to Intelligent Design in its value as a science.

Cultural Inertia

Social habits (memes) do not change fast. They usually require several generations. Sometimes the cause for the success or failure of a group is well hidden. Here is an example. African Americans from the Caribbean tend to be more successful than U.S. born African Americans. Why? The reason seems to be that the British needed a middle class to help them run their colonies. In the U.S. white immigrants filled that niche. Because they were too few whites in the Caribbean, the British had to create a middle class from blacks. This went on for centuries and the result is an elite group of African Americans.

The Big Why

Morris [MORR, Chapter 11] claims that the "West rules because of geography." Both East and West slid into dark ages when second wave axial thought displaced first wave. But collapse was different. In the West Germanic tribes invaded the less well developed parts while in the East barbarians invaded the most developed parts [MORR, p. 563]. Morris thinks that was a big factor. I beg to differ. The superiority of the West seems to the results of historical accidents!

A loosening of political oppression (because of the Crusades) brought progress. And the other historical accident is that the West was ruled by "recent" barbarians who had not learned to form oppressive societies.

Also beware of local optima!

This explains why Western ways were not copied after 1800 when they had proven to be superior. Countries were doing "fine" as long as they did not enter in conflict with the West.

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