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The Roots of Chinese/Japanese Rivalry

BOSTON – The anti-Japan protests that continue to roil China are just another indication of the rise of a potent Chinese nationalism. After a century slowly fomenting among Chinese intellectuals, national sentiment has captured and redefined the consciousness of the Chinese people during the last two decades of China’s economic boom. This mass national consciousness launched the Chinese colossus into global competition to achieve an international status commensurate with the country’s vast capacities and the Chinese people’s conception of their country’s rightful place in the world.

Rapidly, visibly, and inevitably, China has risen. Indeed, our era will likely be remembered as the time when a new global order, with China at the helm, was born.

Competitive national consciousness – the consciousness that one’s individual dignity is inseparably tied to the prestige of one’s “people” – worked its way into the minds of China’s best and brightest between 1895 and 1905. In 1895, China was defeated by Japan, a tiny aggressor whom the Chinese dismissively called wa (the dwarf). China was already accustomed to rapacious Western powers squabbling over its riches, but had remained self-confident in the knowledge of these powers’ irrelevance. However, the assault from Japan, a speck of dust in its own backyard, shattered this self-assurance and was experienced as a shocking and intolerable humiliation.

Japan’s triumph in 1905 over “the Great White Power,” Russia, repaired the damage to China’s sense of dignity. From the Chinese point of view, Russia was a formidable European power, one feared by other Western powers. Its defeat, therefore, was seen as a successful Asian challenge to the West, in which China, its intellectuals felt, was represented by Japan.