One of the most interesting figures of Meiji Japan was Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901). Trained in western languages, Fukuzawa served as interpreter on missions taken by Meiji leaders to study the wider world, especially the United States and Europe. Fukuzawa concentrated on the study of western societies and became the leader in introducing the Japanese people to western ways in a wide range of books he wrote, through a newspaper he published, and via the academy he established, which became the first private university in Japan. Characterized by a broad curiosity, great energy, and a rare independence of mind, Fukuzawa was the leading intellectual of Meiji Japan.
David Lu, ed., Japan: A Documentary History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe (1997): 351–53.
The Qianlong Emperor
In 1793 the Earl of Macartney arrived in Beijing with a retinue of assistants and a baggage train of gifts carefully selected to impress the Qianlong emperor (1735–1795) with the ingenuity, utility, and scientific sophistication of British manufactures. Macartney was on a mission from King George III of Great Britain. His goals were to establish diplomatic relations between the two great sovereign powers for the first time and to negotiate agreements that would allow British traders access to coastal ports other than the established center at Canton, as well as relief from various fees, bribes, and fines that the Celestial Emperor’s officials imposed. The following document shows the emperor’s response. The British delegation was unsuccessful, and diplomatic relations were rebuffed. Half a century would pass before the irritating trade restrictions were repealed at gunpoint in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839–1842).
E. Backhouse and J. O. P. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 322–24, 326, 330–31.
Boxers United in Righteousness
The nineteenth century saw an accumulation of disasters for China. In two Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s, British invasion forced the trade concessions demanded earlier. These conflicts helped to prompt the immensely destructive Tai-ping Rebellion (1850–1864). Various official reform movements encountered too many internal obstacles to effect much change. China lost a war to Japan in 1894 and was forced to accept a series of “unequal treaties” and agreements that granted “spheres of influence” to European powers. In 1899 internal disorder escalated. This time a portion of the imperial court headed by the Empress Dowager backed the opponents of western domination. The Boxers, drawing recruits from throughout the north China plain, killed western and Chinese Christians and besieged the embassies of foreign powers in Beijing itself. In July 1900 an unprecedented multinational army of British, German, American, Russian, French, Japanese, Austrian, and Italian troops entered Beijing to restore order and rescue the hostages. The International Expeditionary Force smashed the native army, looted Beijing, and, under the watchful eye of the international press, engaged in “punitive picnics” to exterminate opposition in the countryside.
China had a long tradition of secret societies and popular support for “social banditry” to help the poor. The Boxers United in Righteousness, who arose in Shandong province during the famines described earlier, followed ancient forms of aid and famine relief for their recruits. But the Boxers combined their appeals for social justice with calls to “Support the Qing, destroy the Foreign.” Like resistance movements in other parts of the world, they saw their country’s disasters as caused by its toleration of foreigners, especially the Christian missionaries whose numbers were increasing as western control of China became more pronounced. Recruits to the Boxers undoubtedly believed the terrible rumors of bizarre western religious practices requiring mutilation of women and children. They used magical charms and physical exercise rituals to invite the gods to inhabit their bodies, making them invulnerable to the guns and explosives of western armies. As with other resisters, this faith proved illusory. The Boxers were easily dispatched by the soldiers of the West, as were countless Chinese peasants who were innocent of any role in this conflict between cultures.
Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. University of California Press (1987): 299–300.
By 1260 the Mongol Empire in the west stopped expanding; in the east the conquest of southern Song China in 1278 by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai effectively ended Mongol expansion. Even before this time, however, the Mongols had shifted from being brutal plundering conquerors to clever administrators. They employed subjects from all over their lands to assist them in the task, always difficult for nomads, of ruling settled territories, drawing Persian administrators to China and vice versa. The second half of the thirteenth century has sometimes been called the “Pax Mongolica,” the Mongol peace, as their rule secured the safety of the trade routes across the steppes and encouraged the exchange of goods and ideas throughout their vast empire and beyond.
It was in this setting that the most famous visitor to the world of the steppe nomads, the Venetian Marco Polo (c. 1253–1324), made his career. Marco’s father and uncle were merchants who had visited the court of Kubilai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan and emperor of China, between about 1260 and 1269, returning with a request from the Great Khan for Christian missionaries. They set out again in 1271 with two Dominican friars (who gave up almost immediately) and young Marco. They arrived at Kubilai’s capital in northern China in 1274 or 1275, and Marco entered into service in the Mongol government, traveling widely through the empire for nearly twenty years. Although doubts have been raised about whether Marco actually did travel to China (or even existed), none of the doubts are well founded, and we can accept the picture he paints of his travels as largely accurate. He and the elder Polos left in the early 1290s, reaching Venice again in 1295.
While in a Genoese prison, Marco told his account to a romance writer named Rustichello of Pisa, who tried to shape Marco’s largely utilitarian accounts of cities, goods, and travel routes into a tale of adventure and strange lands. The stylistic result is far from successful, but the book was nonetheless hugely popular in a Europe at the height of its medieval prosperity and eager for more information about the largely mysterious world around it. The text enjoyed widespread readership for several centuries, influencing explorers (including Christopher Columbus).
Selections from The Book of Ser Marco Polo, trans. Henry Yule (London, 1874), i, 241–60.