Just like World War I was not the first “world war”, so too the “First Sino-Japanese War” was not the first time that the Chinese and Japanese had fought each other. However, it was the first time that Imperial China and the Japan of the post-Meiji Restoration had come to blows. The way China was so swiftly and completely defeated shocked the world, given the disparity between the two powers in the ways in which national strength had always been measured. China had vastly more land, more resources, more people, more wealth of every kind, how could they possibly lose? They did lose though and for China this was a bigger shock than their losses in the south to the British or French. Losing to Europeans was rather like losing to invaders from Outer Space. Losing to Japan, however, was totally different. China had long regarded the Japanese as being little more than a nest of pirates. They often referred to them as “dwarves”, uncivilized and, indeed, were previously held to be a vassal state of Imperial China. In every way, the Japanese were an enemy unworthy of being taken seriously. Losing to them in 1895 was a blow to the entire traditional worldview of Imperial China.
This came about, oddly enough, from the burgeoning railroad industry in China. Local provinces had built their own railroads but when the imperial government decided to nationalize the railroads, as a means of collateral to obtain foreign loans, the provincial authorities were outraged. Some organized their own security forces to defend the railroads and there were clashes between them and imperial troops. Taking advantage of this unrest were a couple of secret societies working together who planned a sort of terrorist attack. However, their bomb exploded prematurely which alerted the Qing authorities and who began a crackdown on these organizations. One group, the Literary Society, knew they were marked for arrest and execution and so planned to simply mount an uprising of their own and hope others joined their cause. However, again, the local Qing viceroy was made aware of the plot and quick action was able to stop it with many of the leadership being arrested. At every point, the would-be revolutionaries were failing and often through their own mistakes.
|Wuchang rebel military flag|
This makes it extremely frustrating for monarchists who, in China, are inevitably portrayed as being on the same side as the foreigners when, in fact, the rebellion only happened because the foreigners withdrew their support for the continuation of the dynasty. Adding to monarchist frustration is the fact that the loyalists were never really defeated. The Qing court dispatched General Yuan Shih-kai and his formidable Beiyang Army which won the Battle of Yangxia and recaptured Hankou and Hanying from the rebels only to have Yuan Shih-kai do a double-cross and offer to deliver the surrender of the Qing forces in exchange for being given power in the post-Qing republic. This is what ultimately came about as, after securing his secret agreement with the rebels but still posing as a loyal general, Yuan Shih-kai persuaded the court that their cause was lost and that the best thing to do would be to abdicate in exchange for a promise of favorable treatment which he would guarantee.