What Did It Mean to Be Modern in Early 20th Century East Asia?

What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia? In the early 20th century, East Asia went through a process of modernisation to cope with the challenges brought by the Western powers. This process of modernisation was characterised by numerous features, ranging from military, political, economic, industrial and technological reforms to changes in the legal, administration, diplomatic as well as education and women. There were long term socio-political and cultural impacts which shaped the modern East Asia in the early 20th century.

While modernisation was in no way equivalent to Westernisation, many in the early 20th century saw the West as a model for modernisation. Modernisation in East Asia was thus more often than not taken as a process of learning from or even imitating the West. This essay will argue that Japan, Korea and China shared similar themes in the path towards modernity even though they developed in different ways. One of the most important steps towards modernisation for all 3 regions of East Asia was the reform (increasing levels of freedom) for women.

In the early 20th century Japan, Korea and China underwent economic and industrial development taking the first steps towards modernisation. However, the significant difference lay in the fact that Korea underwent this process of industrial and economic modernisation under Japanese colonial rule therefore one may argue that the significance of their development was much greater. Japanese corporations took advantage of international technological and managerial innovations often called the “second industrial revolution”. Japan’s electrical technology became second to none.

Electric street cars appeared in Tokyo in 1904, several years after they had appeared in Seoul. Of Japanese households, 85% had electricity in 1935, compared to 68% in the United States. Techniques of mass production required both standardised equipment and scientific management or Taylorism, an American theory of rational labour practice that Japan adapted to make the work force more efficient. A dual structure characterised Japan’s modern economy. Therefore, for Japan modernisation meant a rise in industrial advances and production thus a booming economy.

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Scholars’ views of Korea’s colonial period generally divide into two broad categories. The first takes a negative view of Japan but the second fits the colonial experience into major trends that lasted to the end of the 20th century. This included abolishing inherited social status as a barrier to advancement; liberating women from male domination; introducing modern mass media and popular culture; creating a modern economy through heavy investment in railroads, bridges and harbours; establishing a modern financial sector in the 1920s; and industrialising the peninsula in the 1930s.

A small middle class of businessmen and shopkeepers arose and half million farmers were converted to factory workers and miners. In retrospect, the most important economic contribution was Japan’s use of state-led industrialisation involving planning and controls of all kinds in the process of late industrialisation to catch up to the advanced economies of western imperialists. Colonial economic policy aimed at expanding agricultural production by investment in reclamation, irrigation, chemical fertiliser and the introduction of new seeds to grow rice for export to Japan.

Some people benefited more than others out of the economic boom in Korea from 1910-1925. This economic boom saw a rise in the price of rice. Korean landlords most of whom were Yangban (landed or unlanded aristocracy), fared far better than sharecroppers and Japan succeeded in winning tangban landlords compliance to colonial rule by granting them noble titles and guaranteeing their private property rights. As a result landlords took little part in the development of active nationalist resistance to Japanese rule.

Taking this into consideration it is not unreasonable to suggests that while Japanese colonial rule brought about tyranny, exploitation of the Korean economy, its reduction of the mass of the population to bare subsistence and its attempt to obliterate Korean culture without granting equal citizenship rights it also encouraged developmentalism thus a profound increase in economic development. World War One gave China’s businesses and industries a chance to flourish.

Britain, France, Germany and Russia were preoccupied with what was happening in Europe and no longer had spare goods to export. Imports from the West thus dropped dramatically, giving Chinese manufacturers a chance to sell more profitably. At the same time, the demand for products from China increased dramatically, giving Chinese manufacturers a chance to sell more profitably. At the same time, the demand for products from china increased helping china’s export industries. The number of Chinese textile mills increased from 22 in 1911 to 109 in 1921.

Tonnage of coal produced grew from 13 to 20 million tons between 1913 and 1919. Modern banking took off: between 1912 and 1923, the number of modern banks increased from 7 to 31. Telephone and electric companies were formed not only in major cities but also in county seats and even in market towns. New fortunes were made. For instance, the Rong brothers from a family of merchants in Wuxi built a flour mill in 1901 and another in 1913. As opportunities opened up, they built eight new factories between 1914 and 1920 expanding into textiles.

Therefore, like Japan and Korea, modernisation for China also meant an increase in industrialisation and economic production which brought the first steps towards modernity in the early 20th century. In Japan the path towards modernisation also meant the adoption of constitutional government and an imperial democracy. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, it provided for a form of constitutional monarchy, in which the emperor of Japan was an active ruler and wielded considerable political power over foreign policy and diplomacy which was shared with an elected Diet.

The Diet primarily dictated domestic policy matters. After the Meiji restoration, which restored direct political power to the emperor, Japan underwent a period of political and social reform and modernisation aimed at strengthening Japan to the level of the nations of the Western world. The immediate consequence of the constitution was the opening of the first parliamentary government in Asia. In the early 20th century the struggle for democracy engaged academic theorists, journalists, feminists, outcasts and working men and women who expressed themselves in riots and in efforts to organised unions.

For Japanese intellectuals liberalism meant representative government, constitutionalism, and rule by law. It meant individual rights and freedom from undue governmental interference in the individual’s life. It distinguished between the naturalness of society and the artifice of the state. Intellectuals who professed liberal views jeopardised their careers. For example, Yoshino Sakuzo had to resign his position at Tokyo University because he had argued that people are the basis of the state and the aim of the state is to promote their well-being.

The public interest had to in their view, supersede private, partial interests of oligarchs, bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen. Minobe Tatsukichi argued that according to the constitution, the Diet, in particular the lower house was the organ that represented the people. Therefore, it is clear that in Japan modernisation not only meant an improvement in industrial production and economic strength, but more significantly it meant the expression by the people for democracy and new liberal ideas imported from the West.

A new modern culture was emerging in East Asia along with education which was emphasised significantly in Korea in the early 20th century. Radio broadcasting began in 1927 under the Japanese Korean broadcasting company and Korean language programs expanded from a third to half of airtime and in 1933 the first all Korean station was allowed. It devoted many programs to Korean history, science, the arts, international affairs, translations of western plays, popular songs with a distinct Korean flavour and standardisation of Korean grammar. In Japan the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 ushered in modern Japanese culture.

Modern culture incorporated a second wave of westernisation driven not by national goals but by individual inclinations. After the earthquake, there emerged theatres, galleries, exhibition halls, and rooftop arcades and in 1927 the first subway in Asia connected corporate headquarters in Ginza with movie houses and cafes in Asakysa. The new middle class consumed a modern culture removed from politics. Mass literacy spurred the development of mass media. Self-help books and magazines taught the rudiments of popular science, how to be modern, how to succeed in business and how to create the perfect home environment.

Cinemas showed films from abroad alongside domestically produced animated cartoons and historical dramas. This modern mass culture promoted a privatising world of leisure and self-expression. In China the new culture movement took the lead in rejecting traditional values. For example, articles were written that promoted the importance of rejection of Confucianism so that China could attain equality and human rights. Leaders of the movement proposed ending use of the classical literary language because it was a “dead language” according to Hu Shi.

By 1919 New youth written entirely in vernacular Chinese was joined by many other periodicals aimed at young people aspiring for new china. Magazines were filled with articles on western ideas including socialism anarchism, democracy, liberalism Darwinism pragmatism and science. All the major political and intellectual revolutionaries of the early 20th century spoke out on the need to change the ways of thinking about women and their social roles. Early in the century the key issues were foot binding and women’s education. Anti-foot binding campaigns depicted the ustom as standing in the way of modernisation by crippling a large part of the population. As women gained access to modern education they began to participate in politics. Schools for women were becoming more common in this period. In 1907 the Qing government mandated the opening of schools for girls. By 1910 there were over 40000 girls’ schools in the country, with 1. 6 million students and by 1919 this had increased. Schools offered much more than literacy; they offered a respectable way for girls to interact with unrelated people.

After 1920 opportunities for higher education also rapidly expanded leading to a growing number of women working as teachers, nurses and civil servants in the larger cities. At the end of World War One the treaty of Versailles ceded former German holdings in China to Japan instead of returning the territories to China even though China had sent troops to fight with the Allies in Europe. Such unfair treatment sparked a widespread intellectual uprising known as the May 4th movement. Focussing on the need for national strength and modernisation this movement also encompassed widespread cultural and literary innovation.

These cultural products also saw new representations of women as two distinct archetypes: the New Woman and the Modern Girl. The new emphasis on women in the early 20th century and the public movements taking place (May 4th) show that to China modernisation meant a more Western liberal approach than ever before. To conclude one may argue that to be modern in East Asia in the early 20th century meant different things to Japan, Korea and China. However, similarities were greatly emphasised. For Japan there developed a robust parliamentary democracy supported by an electorate that encompassed the entire male population.

The industrialised economy and modern bureaucracy fostered the growth of a well-educated middle class. Overall modern Japan contained conflicting visions of what it meant to be Japanese. For Korea Japanese colonial rule had both positive and negative effects. It established models for successful enterprises and by breaking down hereditary status barriers it opened opportunities to people previously blocked from upward mobility. By introducing modern education it introduced some Koreans to science, foreign languages and social science and enabled the birth of modern mass culture.

In short Japanese colonialism produced wealth and poverty, acceptance and animosity, revolutionary potential and conservative reaction. For China modernisation meant the end of the two thousand years of monarchical government, the importance of nationalism and the emergence of political parties. Through the spread of modern schools and new publications a large proportion of the population knew of western countries and ideas. Radically new ideas such as individualism and democracy were being widely discussed and advocated. However, overall of most importance to the whole of East Asia was the similar way in which women were revolutionised.

In Japan, Korea and China one may argue that the process of modernisation had the greatest impact on women and that one of the biggest aspects of adopting a more modern western culture in early 20th century East Asia, was the freedom for women to play more public roles in society. Bibliography 1. Edwin Arnold, Asia’s first parliament: Sir Edwin Arnold describes the step in Japan, New York Times 26 January 1891 2. Ebrey, Walthall and Palais, East Asia: a cultural, social and political history second edition 2009 3. Sarah E Stevens, Figuring modernity: the new woman and the modern girl in republican China volume 15 number 3 2003

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