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Sunburnt Dragon: The Treaty of Shimonoseki

Today we remember 17 April 1895, the day Qing Empire and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki 下関条約/馬關條約. After losing horrendously against the Japanese Empire, The Qing Empire gave up its suzerain status over Korea. Liaodong, Penghu (the Pescadores) and Taiwan were officially ceded to Japan. Qing China was forced to pay 200 million taels (兩 liang/ryō; in total 8 million kilograms) of silver to Japan. Japanese merchant vessels were henceforth allowed to operate on the Changjiang 長江 (Yangtze River) and four more Chinese ports, including the inland river port of Chongqing, were opened to foreign trade. This marked the end of the Qing Empire’s naval capacities through the destruction of the Beiyang Fleet. The Qing boasted the eighth strongest navy in the world before the war. It also significantly lowered the Qing Empire’s prestige in the world and propelled Japan to the forefront in international politics as a new and serious contender for regional dominance. The abysmal performance of the Qing military had dire consequences. On the international stage, Western powers were beginning to adjust their attitude to the Qing Empire: it was clear that the Qing were not to be feared or respected.

The First Sino-Japanese War

Historical Context

The First Sino-Japanese war is referred to in China as the Jiawu Zhanzheng 甲午战争 (Jiawu War), in Japan as the Nisshin sensō 日清战争 (Japan-Qing War) and in Korea as the Cheong-il-jeon-jaeng 清日战争 (Qing-Japan War). Japan and Qing China of the 19th early century seem to be in similar situations. Both countries had largely agrarian economies, were based on feudal societies, most of their denizens were self-sufficient subsistency farmers, and the West sought an open door policy with both Japan and the Qing Empire, since both of them practised isolationism. In order to do so, the West used their specialty, violence, to blast open the door to both countries. Nevertheless, that is where the superficial similarities end. One will find that Japan and Qing China were in essentially different positions when the economical, political and societal background of the two countries are examined more thoroughly.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was the last dynasty in China to be ruled by an Emperor. China’s power was extremely centralised as absolute rulership rested in the hands of the Emperor. The country’s generated wealth was overwhelmingly agrarian and had been so for a very long time, therefore, the Qing believed acquiring wealth from land was the only correct way to generate wealth. As such, the Empire sought to contain any forms of diversification or free development of commerce. These ideas were closely guarded by the Empire’s officials. Government officials were selected from candidates who passed the Imperial Exams, who would be fully immersed in the Imperial ideals. Dissenting thoughts had little chance of taking root, making the Chinese Imperial system stable and resistant to change. There was little leeway for the incorporation of new ideas.

The Xianfeng Emperor (reign 1850-1861) absolutely despised anything Western and had therefore no desire to deal equally with the West. This “Dulimbai Gurun” (Land of the Centre), was the centre of the universe which had no need for trade with barbarous fringe lands such as France and the US. The Qing Empire stood high and mighty above all others. Receiving these countries as equals would have meant the lowering of prestige for the Xianfeng Emperor and the Qing Empire. The Qing gates remained closed.

The Opium Wars (1st 1839-1842; 2nd 1856-1860) were the first two of the thrashings the Qing Empire received for the belief that closing the border to the West was an effective strategy. Of course, being defeated in war says nothing about your inferiority or superiority as a civilisation. Might does not make right. Yet, the Manchu Qing, being conquerors themselves, did believe in “might makes right,” since they conquered the more culturally developed Ming Dynasty and defined the superiority of Manchu culture through military victory. Evidently, the High Qing had a highly militarised culture and placed immense emphasis on the might of arms (Waley-Cohen, 5). Their military prowess necessarily meant the superiority of their civilisation and culture (26). During the Late Qing, the Manchus had to deal with these humiliating defeats that were a historical anomaly rather than a rule for the expansionist Qing.

Naturally, the Qing Empire sought to strengthen their military to rectify this historical anomaly of being weak. They responded quickly, the Self-Strengthening Movement was born in 1861.

The Tokugawa/Edo period (1603-1868) can be characterised by harsh laws, strict authority and low social mobility, all of this to ensure the preservation of the Shogun’s power. De-facto power was held by the Shogun with his seat in Edo (modern day Tokyo) and did not lie with the Emperor in Kyoto. This Shogun was the liege lord of the regional daimyō, who were able to rule in relative autonomy with their own armies and right to carry-out justice. The daimyō commanded a class of retainers. This was truly a feudal system.

By the end of the 18th century a capitalist economy was budding in Japan. This period saw the rise of wealthy farmers and the merchant class. In Japan, the inheritance of land was hereditary and family status was hereditary. So, while the wealthy merchants were gaining wealth, there was little possiblity for them to gain much political power due to their inability to own land. As can be expected, this proved to be problematic for the stability of the Tokugawa reign. By the mid 19th century, the traditional agriculture based natural economy of Japan had changed.

The change in the economic structure of Japan gave the governors of Japan a new challenge: to resist or not to resist. Most of the governors opted to maintain the established order by protecting the established feudal system. One of the main ways they attempted to do so was by implenting the sakoku 鎖国 policy; secluding Japan from the rest of the world for 220 years. While peace in the land and stability of the regime was maintained, the West was striding ahead in industry and military technology.

This is when the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 and 1854 to force Japan open through gunboat diplomacy. Japan was humiliated, it was forced to sign two unequal treaties that would prove to be extremely unpopular with the clans that fought against the Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, who were already dissatisfied due to their systematical exclusion from influential positions in the Shogunate. Through the Emperor’s uncharacteristic involvement in politics, with orders being given to expel the foreigners, the sparks of rebellion were struck.

This set off a period known as the Bakumatsu 幕末, it sparked the Boshin War which spelled the ultimate end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or the Bakufu 幕府. It also saw the establishment of the Meiji government and the restoration of power to the Japanese Emperor.

Mizuno Toshikata, “Captain Awata“. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Published in 1895. (Image is cropped and mirrored)


Chinese Substance, Western Application

The Manchu military commanders of the late Qing dynasty attempted to strengthen their armies by adopting new technology. They thought that adopting new weapons while maintaining the old military structure and hierarchy was sufficient.

The influential Confucian scholar Feng Guifen 馮桂芬 (1809-1874) noted that although France and England were hundreds of times smaller than the Qing, they were much more powerful. He accredited their success to their great skill in four areas: utilising all human resources, exploiting the soil to the fullest, maintaining close bonds between ruler and subject and ensuring the accord of word with deed. The first task at hand for the Qing to grow stronger was that they had to learn one thing from the foreigners: to have “strong ships and sharp cannon” (船坚炮利) (Spence, 189).

Statesman and scholar Zeng Guofan 曾国藩 (1811-1872) was thoroughly convinced by Feng’s arguments. Machines and technology were imported from the West. They were installed in an arsenal in Shanghai. In 1868, the first Chinese built steam ship, the SS Tianqi, was launched. Soon, at the Shanghai and Fuzhou arsenals schools for mechanics and navigation were opened.

Yooningga dasan Hvwangdi
The Tongzhi Emperor
Japanese Spirit, Western Technique

The Japanese military commanders of the late Tokugawa period attempted to strengthen their traditional militaries by adopting new technology. They soon realised that adapting new technology required an organisational change as well (Jaundril 5).

The military reform and the attempt to modernise was initiated by the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, the efforts implemented by the Shogunate were too sporadic to truly modernise the Japanese military. Merely adopting Western “musketry” in existing military units was not thorough enough of a change. A sufficient change in organisation would have meant the revitalisation or disbandment of the old military system, needless to say, the stubborn forces behind the traditionalists made progress in this area difficult, even after the Shogunate fell.

The Meiji Restoration had as its goal not to abandon Japanese culture in favour of Western culture. On the contrary, the borrowing of Western technology was in order to strengthen the country and therefore to allow it to return to an idealised past. The Western models were tools to be used, the Japanese soul, or spirit, was to be maintained as the foundation of the Empire.

Meiji tennō

The Self-Strengthening Movement was effective. A period known as the Tongzhi Restoration commenced. New structures were developed for collecting customs and handling foreign relations. Modern ships and modern weapons were constructed, international law and modern science were being taught in schools. The Manchus and the Chinese worked together to preserve traditional culture by selectively choosing what Western learning to adopt. Things were looking up for the Qing Empire until the Qing lost its prospects for strong leadership when the Tongzhi Emperor died in 1875 at the age of 18 due to overindulgence in pleasure seeking among the Imperial Harem and imbibing too much alcohol (Spence, 208).

His mother, the famous Empress-Dowager Cixi, continued to take the reins, reigning the Empire. She appointed Guangxu, a nephew of hers, as the new Emperor. He was from the same generation as Tongzhi, and therefore violated Imperial succession laws. The Tongzhi Emperor was survived by his pregnant wife, Empress Xiaozheyi (the daughter of Chongqi, the Mongol Nobleman mentioned in War in China: the Ravishment of the North). 100 days after the death of Tongzhi, Empress Xiaozheyi and her unborn child died under suspicious circumstances, securing Guangxu’s position as Emperor and Cixi’s position as the regent.

The strength of the Qing waned. Many of the prominent and capable proponents of modernisation either fell out of favour, were preoccupied quelling rebellions or died. Henceforth, the Qing Empire’s modernisation efforts were largely initiated by one man; Li Hongzhang 李鸿章 (1823-1901). He continued to push for reforms in educational, entrepreneurial and diplomatic areas and made great strides doing so. Especially in his efforts buildings arsenals, railways, telegraph and educational systems.

Li Hongzhang managed to construct the state-of-the-art Beiyang navy funded by custom-taxes and new trade taxes. The Qing, by this time, had many soldiers, but no one commanded them centrally. The Qing succeeded in modernising the military equipment in the newly trained armies, but failed to modernise its organisation. Therefore, the problem with Qing forces wasn’t the hardware. The weakness was its political disorganisation and the conflicting interests of the many involved actors (Hayford, 100).

That said, the reforms the Meiji Restoration made to Japan were thorough and revolutionary. One of the first things to be tackled was the monbatsu 门阀: land reforms were enacted. The traditional Japanese domains ruled by daimyō were dismantled, liberating the government from traditional social structures. The land-tax reforms then provided the government with a steady stream of revenue. The government also implemented education and nationwide conscription. The latter of which caused no small degree of protest among commoners not wanting to go to war, and the traditional military not wanting to lose its positions and prestige. Nevertheless, these reforms formed the basis of Japan’s strength (Beasley, 8).

As for what the Meiji regime did to modernise the Japanese military, the transformation of the Japanese military from “an aspect of social status into a national obligation” was a 40 year effort initiated by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa Shogunate failed to realise total reform because the traditional military system was inextricably linked to the sociopolitical order of the Feudal Bakuhan system 幕藩体制. So, these social structures formed as a barrier to modernisation of the military. The dismantling of the domains and their militaries paved the way for the Meiji government to implement their revolutionary Conscription Ordinance in 1873.

Becoming a soldier was now a patriotic duty and legal obligation for all Japanese men. This allowed for the maximum moblisation of Japanese subjects. Japan then faced the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. This rebellion forced the leaders to halt their reforming and modernisation efforts to focus on acquiring firepower to defeat the rebels. It was a also a “dress rehearsal” for national mobilisation and long-term campaigns. The victory over the rebels solidified the position of the universal military service (Jaundrill, 181).

After the rebellion, the Japanese military underwent a thorough campaign in modernising and restructuring their national army. The Japanese military administration was standardised, the language in the Conscription Ordinance was refined and a program of ideological education was instituted. This approach was extremely effective and made the Japanese army well-organised, well-staffed and well-trained, just in time for the First Sino-Japanese War (Jaundrill, 181).


The First Sino-Japanese war broke out over long brewing animosity between the Japanese and the Qing Empires over Korea. The Qing was emerging from a whole avalanche of problems including some of the bloodiest and most devastating rebellions in human history. To sum them up: the most prominent were the Eight Trigrams Revolt (1813), the Taiping (1851-1866), the Nian (1851-1868), the Panthay (1855-1873), the Dungan (1862-1873), and Xinjiang Rebellions (1862-1878). While the Qing regime proved remarkably resilient surviving for as long as it did, it had no real feasible strategies planned to resist the encroaching Western powers. The Japanese Empire had been making its moves, conquering places such as Ryukyu (present day Okinawa) and sailing to Taiwan in a punitive expedition. The next step in Japan’s grand strategy was to take Korea. They were aware of Russian ambitions and attempted to prevent the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway by seizing Korea, thereby thwarting Russian ambitions in East-Asia (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 17). Japan wanted to change the regional balance of power and come out on top. The Qing Empire refused to cede its suzerain status over Korea, refused to acknowledge Japan as equals even, while it held on to its pride and prestige as the regional suzerain. Alas, the superiority of the Qing was of a bygone era.

By this period, Joseon Korea was an extremely isolated feudal state ruled by the Korean king under vassalage of the Qing Empire. Their isolation policy was much more strict than either the Qing or Japan’s. It was strict to such a degree as to become known as the Forbidden Country (Olender, 14). Japan and Qing had long been engaged in a rivalry over Korean support since the 1870’s. The Qing backed the conservative Korean proponents, such as Queen Myeongseong’s (명성/明成) clan, and the Japanese backed the reformists. In 1885, a clash between Qing and Japanese troops occurred due to an attack on the Royal Palace, perpetrated by the Japanese aligned reformist Kim Ok-gyun (김옥균/金玉均), killing conservative officials. Kim Ok-gyun, however, had made a fatal miscalculation, the Qing troops stationed in Seoul outnumbered the Japanese troops 7 to 1. The Japanese were forced out the Korean capital. The rebellion achieved the exact opposite of what Kim Ok-gyun intended, reformers were exiled or executed, the conservative position was strengthened and Chinese influence expanded. In the same year, Japan and the Qing Empire agreed to withdraw their troops from Korea. Korea was now under combined protection from both Qing and Japan. In the ensuing years, the Qing slowly regained some of its lost influence, both economically and politically. Japan was at a disadvantage and had to act if it wanted to grasp Korea.

In March 1894, the Tonghak Rebellion (동학농민혁명/ 東學農民革命) broke out. It was a strongly religious anti-feudal, anti-foreign peasant rebellion which threatened the Korean regime. King Gojong of Korea (고종/高宗) called for aid from the Qing. The Qing, somewhat reluctant, sent a small detachment of troops to Asan in Korea and informed the Japanese of this move. The Japanese responded by sending some troops to Jemulpo (present day Incheon). The rebellion melted away upon hearing of the Qing intervention, but the Qing would only recall its troops if Japan did so too. Japan had no intention of doing so (Orlender, 16).


Japan initiated the war without a declaration of war, as seems typical for the Japanese Empire. On the 25th of July 1894, three Japanese cruisers launched a naval attack on two Qing warships sailing home from Asan. This battle, the Battle of Pungdo 豐島 (Ma. Fengdao; Ja. Hoto-oki), marked the beginning of the First Sino-Japanese War. While pursuing the fleeing ships, the Japanese cruisers stumbled upon the Gaosheng 高陞 (a.k.a. Kowshing), a British ship leased by the Qing to transfer 1,100 soldiers and officers to Korea. The Qing generals refused to listen to Japanese demands to follow them into port. The crew on the Gaosheng mutinied and demanded to return to Dagu 大沽. After some fruitless negotiations, Captain Tōgō Heihachirō ordered the Gaosheng to be sunk, drowning all Qing soldiery aboard. On the same day, the Japanese skirmished against Qing troops in the Battle of Soenghwan (a.k.a. Battle of Asan), just south of Seoul, which had now been occupied by Japanese forces. The 4,000 Japanese under Ōshima Yoshimasa 大島 義昌 (great great grandfather of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō) assaulted the Qing forces, also 4,000 strong, and won by outflanking the Qing forces. The Qing, under commander Ye Zhichao 葉志超, fled with the remainder of his forced to Pyongyang 平壤 . As a response to these hostilities, the Qing declared war on the 31st of July (Olender, 56). Japan then declared war on August 1st, 1894 (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 21).

Li Hongzhang had hoped to avoid war with Japan. His adopted son Li Jingfang had been minister of Japan from 1890 to 1892 and had just returned to reinform his adoptive father about Japan. Li Hongzhang was therefore well aware of Japan’s strength. Alas, Japan was well-prepared for war and had drawn up their battle plans long beforehand. Li Hongzhang, who was now in charge of the war efforts, was apprehensive. His plan was to draw out the war, as he knew the Japanese were at a disadvantage in a prolonged campaign, the burden would be too great on Japan’s economy. So, time was in favour of the Qing. Indeed, Li Hongzhang’s plan was to fight the Japanese on land in Korea, and if these failed, he would continue to fight them on land, so as to wear them down in a war of attrition. Even though his Beiyang Fleet was state-of-the-art, he opted not to use these ships in this war. He wanted to use them to defend the capital and prevent Japanese landing parties to threaten the Capital, but mainly, he wanted to preserve the navy to fight Japan another day.

Li Hongzhong: the man who fought an entire nation all by himself.
Image: Li Hung Chang in 1896. Mrs. Archibald Little (1903). Li Hung-Chang: His Life and Times. London: Cassell & Company.

The Battle of Pyongyang

By September, the Qing had sent 13,000 men of the Beiyang Army to Korea, well equipped armies with ample supplies in order to defend Pyongyang and seize the Korean peninsula from the Japanese. They had no contingency plan, and essentially hoped for the best. This was in stark contrast to the Japanese who had drawn up plans of action for each phase of the war and eventual worst-case scenarios, including homeland defence (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 28).

On the 15th and 16th of September, the Japanese army, 10,000 strong, under Lieutenant-General Nozu Michitsura 野津 道貫, launched a three-pronged assault on Pyongyang. Lieutenant-General Nozu led the Main Division which approached from the Southwest. Colonel Satō Tadashi was to lead the Wonson Column as a flanking force and to intercept retreating Qing troops to the Northeast. Major-General Tatsumi Naofumi was to lead the Sangnyong Column as another flanking force. Finally, Major-General Ōshima Yoshimasa was to lead the Combined Brigade in a frontal assault from the South (Elleman, 100). There were several Qing armies present at Pyongyang with ill-coordinated commanding generals: 3,000 under Ma Yuguan, 3,500 under Zuo Baogui and 6,000 under Wei Rugui and 1,500 under Nie Guilin (Elleman, 99).

The Main Division commenced the attack in the early morning of September 15th. The battle lasted for twelve hours. The Combined Brigade attacked as well and took some of the redoubts in the South. The Main Division was repulsed and the Combined Brigade was unable to hold those redoubts. Meanwhile, the Wonson and Sangnyong Columns had taken the Moktan-tei 牡丹台 fortress North of Pyongyang (Moranbong). This fortress was on an elevated position overlooking the city, and therefore perfect for artillery to be placed in. Eager to end the battle quickly, Major-General Ōshima ordered 54 field guns, now in Moktan-tei, along with Vice-Admiral Itō Sukeyuki’s naval artillery to bombard Pyongyang.

General Zuo Baogui 左寶貴, a Hui Muslim, was determined to die before he surrendered. He performed ablutions (ghusl) before the battle in preparation to meet Allah (swt). His Muslim troops offered stiff resistance to the Japanese. Zuo Baogui died to cannonfire while defending the Hyeonmumun 玄武門 (Ma. Xuanwumen, Ja. Genbu-mon), the Northern gate of Pyongyang (Lynn, 44). The improved artillery of the late 19th century made short work of the fortifications, the old veteran commanders who had gained their experience fighting in the Taiping and Nian Rebellions many decades prior, had not taken into account the different nature that artillery had taken on since then (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 29). The Japanese bombardment was too strong and the remaining Qing commanders contemplated retreat or surrender.

In the night following the bombardment, the Qing forces fled. The Battle of Pyongyang was over and the Japanese had won a decisive victory and with it, captured almost all of Korea. This battle was one of the most hard fought battles of the entire war as the Qing forces fought valiantly with Zuo Baogui being praised especially for his courage (Elleman, 101). Superior training, organisation and tactics, however, were not to be overcome by valiance and courage alone.

A popular imagination of the taking of Hyeonmumun (Genbu-mon) by private Harada Jūkichi 原田重吉氏. He was reported to have scaled the walls and opened the gates by himself, letting his comrades into the city. It is rumoured that the actual soldier who climbed the wall and opened the gates was Matsumura Aktaro. On the background the Chinese flag with the character bao 寶 can be seen. This is the second character in Zuo Baogui’s name, who defended this gate and gave his life doing so. Image: Mizuno Toshikata, The First to Reach Genbu Gate.

The Battle of Yalu

Ding Ruchang 丁汝昌, another hardened veteran from the Taiping and Nian wars, was the commanding admiral of the Beiyang Fleet. He had pushed for a more aggressive strategy, taking the offensive initiative in searching out and engaging the Japanese Fleet. Indeed, it might have been a sound strategy, as all Japanese troops and supplies had to be transported by sea to Korea, the Japanese army was most vulnerable at sea. Nevertheless, Li Hongzhang ordered the Beiyang Fleet not to go beyond the Yalu-Weihaiwei line, freely giving up dominance over the sea to the Japanese. And, much like how Li Hongzhang refused to aid the Southern Fleet during the Sino-French War ten years prior, the Southern Fleet refused to come to Li Hongzhang’s Beiyang Fleet in this war. There is an obvious moral to the story here, but I’ll spare you my preaching for once.

On 17 September, following the Battle of Pyongyang, during a patrol from Yalu to Lüshun, the Beiyang Fleet under Admiral Ding Ruchang was engaged by the Japanese fleet under Vice-Admiral Itō Sukeyuki. The Battle of Yalu commenced. It was a great naval engagement with 10 ships from each Empire facing each other on the open seas. On paper, the Beiyang Fleet had several advantages. The Ding Yuan and Chen Yuan outclassed any of the ships the Japanese possessed and the armouring on both these battleships were too strong for the small calibre Japanese ordnance to penetrate. The rest of the Beiyang Fleet consisted of cruisers smaller and slower than the Japanese cruisers, but with heavier guns 200mm guns that outranged the Japanese fleet. However, in reality the Beiyang Fleet had several weaknesses from the get go. The tactics adopted by the Ding Ruchang were flawed. He formed a line abreast with his ships, but placed the weakest ships on the flanks, this left them vulnerable to be eliminated one by one by the enemy navy. Vice-Admiral Itō capitalised on this error and sent out Rear-Admiral Tsuboi Kōzō and his Flying Squadron to destroy the right flank. Admiral Ding responded by changing the formation, putting his own flagship Ding Yuan at risk, but putting the rest of his ships in good position to fire.

Vice-Admiral Itō sent the Flying Squadron out in order to break up the Beiyang formation. The Flying Squadron was to pass the right flank of the Beiyang line. Vice-Admiral Itō then planned to attack in the rear, forcing the Beiyang fleet to have to make a 180 degrees turn, which in practise was impossible, thus throwing the entire formation into disarray. The Main Squadron would then move in to destroy the battleship while the Flying Squadron take care of the rest. In a stroke of luck, one of the shots fired destroyed the signalling mast on the Ding Yuan, crippling the Beiyang Fleet’s ability to give out orders. The various Qing vessels were truly on their own now. The Japanese cruisers sunk 4 Qing ships and got away without having lost a single ship themselves.

Deng Shichang

Many of the Japanese ships were heavily damaged, but had managed to stay afloat due to many of the Qing shots not exploding as they were filled with cement and porcelain. Also, many shots were of the incorrect calibre, making them unable to be fired. The fact is, much of the Beiyang ammunition had been condemned. The Beiyang fleet had a serious ammunition shortage caused by corruption as its funds were embezzled. Indeed, out of frustration, Captain Deng Shichang 鄧世昌 ordered to ram the Yoshino with his own cruiser, the Zhiyuan. Underway, his ship was torpedoed and sank. Deng Shichang was determined to go down with the ship. His dog swam to the Captain in an attempt to save him. They never surfaced. If the Beiyang fleet had proper ammunition, they “might have carried the day” (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 31). As it stood, Japan came away victorious and gained command of the sea. The morale of the Beiyang Fleet was shattered and never again took to open waters.

The Great Victory of the Battle of Haiyang Island (alternative name for the Battle of Yalu)

The Battle of Jiuliancheng

The first phase of the Japanese plan as envisioned by General Yamagata Aritomo 山縣 有朋, Commander-in-Chief of the 1st Army of Japan, was to quickly take Korea. The second phase would then be invading the Manchurian homeland of the ruling Qing Manchus and to threaten the historical capital of Mukden (a.k.a. Fengtian or Shenyang). Another Army would strike Shandong and then aim for Beijing and the 3rd Army, still in Hiroshima, would land at Dagu (near Tianjin) and strike directly at Beijing (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 32). This plan was mainly risky because it relied on their command of the sea, which was not guaranteed at all at the start of the war. Yet, after the previous two remarkably successful battles, both the sea and Korea belonged to Japan. It seems everything was going according to plan. Japan had achieved its operational goals within two months and taken very few losses while doing so. It was now time to launch the second phase.

The Qing troops retreated to the Yalu river, the border between China and Korea. Viceroy Li Hongzhang had restructured the army after the defeat at Pyongyang and made Song Qing the commander. Jiuliancheng guarded the Yalu river and were the headquarters of the Qing military in this region, it was widely regarded as impregnable. 28,000 Qing soldiers defended Jiuliancheng. General Song Qing fortified the Northern banks of the Yalu river for seven miles one way and ten miles the other.

In October, General Yamagata Aritomo arrived in Uiji, on the Southern side of the Yalu River. On October 24th, General Yamagata sent a small flanking force led by Colonel Satō upstream across the Yalu River. They faced heavy fire, but were successful in crossing. Satō’s plan was to attack the village of Hushan from the rear, where a number of the Beiyang troops were stationed. The main force of the Japanese would attack Hushan from the front. On the morning of the 25th, the Japanese forces constructed a pontoon bridge across a normally unfordable section of the deep and wide river. Hushan was attacked from two directions. The Japanese artillery again decimated the defenders inside the fort. General Yamagata laid siege to Hushan. The fort fell by noon. The rest of the day was spent in preparation for the assault on the city Jiuliancheng which would take place on the early morning of the 26th.

The Japanese forces divided in three columns to approach the city. To their surprise, they faced no resistance. The Japanese had scouts scale the walls and found out that the Qing had abandoned the defence on the night of the 25th. The Beiyang forces had slipped out of the city secretly, and therefore could not destroy the massive amount of supplies they had gathered in Jiuliancheng. The Japanese found 66 cannon, 35,000 shells, 3,300 rifles, three million rounds of ammunition and food supplies that proved to be crucial (Elleman, 105). General Song Qing likely ordered a retreat from this greatly defensible position due to fear of being outflanked by the Japanese 2nd Army. An actual pitched defence likely would have resulted in heavy casualties for the Japanese 1st Army (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 33). Instead, all he succeeded in doing was to give Japan uninhibited access to Manchuria and supplies to help them through the winter months.

Fukushima Toshimitsu, “The Fierce Battle on the Pontoon Bridge at Jiuliancheng,” Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, dated October 1894

The Battle of Lüshunkou

The Japanese 1st Army split into several corps and continued from Jiuliancheng to Fenghuangcheng and chased the Beiyang troops into the Motian Pass. The other took a Northwestern arc, also in in pursuit of the Beiyang troops. The 1st Army combined at Lianshanguan and took it on the 12th of November. The forces that were pursued by the 1st were now pinned here. Making them unavailable for the defence of Lüshun. The 1st Army continued towards Mukden, in order to divert the Qing forces from Lüshun further.

The 2nd Army under Lieutenant-General Yamaji Motoharu was responsible for the taking of Lüshunkou. They landed in the Liaodong Peninsula on the 24th of October, during the Battle of Jiuliancheng. The 2nd faced unfavourable odds against the Qing forces again in Jinzhou. Yet again, the Japanese forces surmounted those odds and defeated the Qing forces. The loss of Jinzhou was significant. The Qing forces previously pinned by the 1st, now moved out to retake Jinzhou. 8,000 men under General Song Qing marched from the Motian Pass to assault Jinzhou, but were defeated.

The Japanese continued to siege down Lüda (a.k.a. Dalian). When the Qing forces fled Lüda in a hurry, they failed to destroy sensitive intelligence, and left the plans for the minefields in Lüda and the defence of Lüshunkou for the Japanese to study. With the minefields circumnavigated, the Japanese had now converted Lüda into a naval base for themselves.

On the 21st of November, General Nogi Maresuke 乃木 希典 assaulted Lüshunkou (a.k.a. Port Arthur). Lüshunkou was well fortified; the fortifications were modern, well situated and well supplied. The fortifications of Lüshunkou took 16 years to build and were considered superior to the defences of Hong Kong (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 197-198). The Japanese, on the other hand, lacked even the proper ammunition for their siege guns. The advantage was once again on the Qing side. The taking of Lüshunkou was by all estimates a very daunting task.

Yet, the lack of communication between the defending forces positioned in the forts around Lüshunkou prevented any kind of co-ordinated defence effort. The Japanese were able to just capture these forts one by one, and used the captured artillery to rout the Qing forces. During the disorganised rout, the Qing left all of the fortifications intact and yet again neglected to destroy present supplies. The Qing Empire had now lost its most advanced naval dockyard and the remnants of the Beiyang Fleet had lost their home base. The Beiyang Fleet fled to Weihaiwei. The Japanese were well aware that in order for them to become the dominant power in the region, the Qing naval capabilities had to be nullified. This goal was now nearly complete.

The Massacre of Lüshunkou

When the Japanese troops entered Lüshunkou, they found that the Qing troops had most barbarously tortured and killed Japanese prisoners of war. Japanese soldiers were found disembowelled, had their eyes gouged out, their hands cut off and their bodies were mutilated in all kinds of ways. James Allan reports: “the bodies of the Japanese soldiers killed in encounters with the enemy as they closed on the place, were often found minus the head or right hand, sometimes both, besides being ferociously gashed and slashed. Corpses were still hanging on the trees when the fortress fell” (Allan, 67). He comments that “it is not surprising that their former comrades should have been maddened by the sight” (68). In total, there were 13 killed and 20 wounded Japanese soldiers (Lone, 158).

The otherwise disciplined and ordinary Japanese soldiery, relieved at their easy victory against the daunting defences at Lüshunkou, spurred on by their contempt of the Chinese and after being enraged at the sight of their many mutilated comrades, finally released all their pent-up frustrations and started a 5-day killing spree which spared no one. Unarmed men, children, women, all perished at the hands of the bloodlusted killer. The entire population of Lüshunkou was massacred. Lone states that “according to Japanese historian Fujimura Michio, up to 60,000 Chinese were murdered by the Japanese army” (Lone, 143). Lone caveats this number by saying that they appear to be inflated. Nevertheless, a large scale massacre eerily similar to the Nanking Massacre took place without a doubt.

As we entered the town of Port Arthur (Lüshunkou), we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; […] it was unbounded joy.

Okabe Makio, a soldier in the 1st Army, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 155

Their victory in Lüshunkou would for the first time to foreign observers, show the brutality of the Japanese Military; a grim prelude to the Second Sino-Japanese war. James Creelman, Thomas Cowan and Frederick Villiers were all reporters who became personal eyewitnesses to the carnival of death that followed the fall of Lüshunkou. Their reports on the massacre reached international news and blemished the prestige of the Japanese Empire in Western eyes.

The sign of the Red Cross was jeered at, and in the midst of the orgies of blood and rapine, with troops trampling over the bodies of unarmed victims who lost their homes, the fat field marshall and his generals paced smiling, content at the sound of rifle shots mingling with the music of the national hymn and the clink of wine glasses.

James Creelman, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 163

The sheer scale of the murder and rape made the observers at the time wonder if Japan really had modernised. They claimed Japan was merely wearing the “outward garb civilisation, without having gone through the process of moral and intellectual development necessary to grasp the ideas upon which modern civilisation is founded” (Creelman as quoted in Lone, 163). This critique was hollow. The modern “civilisation” of America still upheld many inhumane institutions and, together with other Western “civilised” nations, wreaked havoc upon Asian, African, American or Australian nations.

The Japanese were well aware of this; a reporter from Shin Chōya News 新朝野新聞 wrote: “It is a regular habit with civilised Christians of the West to see no wrong in anything they do themselves to Oriental and non-Christian races, […] Civilised Occidentals have often slaughtered Orientals and other heretics or savages, as though they were no better than fattened animals destined to die under the butcher’s knife. During the past century, the history of savage nations that have come in contact with Christian Occidentals is all but written in blood” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 215). It once again points out the sheer hypocrisy the West practised. Nonetheless, ’tis a tu quoque, if ever I’ve seen one. Pointing out their hypocrisy doesn’t take away the fact that the massacre was, in every sense of the word, unadulterated evil.

I saw corpses of women and children, three or four in the streets, more in the water … Bodies of men strewed the streets in hundreds, perhaps thousands, for we could not count – some with not a limb unsevered, some with heads hacked, cross-cut, and split lengthwise, some ripped open, not by chance but with careful precision, down and across, disembowelled and dismembered, with occasionally a dagger or bayonet thrust in the private parts. […] I saw a junk stranded on the beach, filled with fugitives of either sex and of all ages, struck by volley after volley until – I can say no more.

Thomas Cowan, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 156

It is important to distinguish modernity from civilisation. There is no guarantee that a modern industrialised nation is any more moral than the so called barbaric societies of the past. Modern industrialised nations have been just as immoral as “backward” states have ever been. Indeed, who can say that Attila the Hun was more brutal than Stalin. Who can say that Chinggis Qan was more methodical and ruthless than Adolf Hitler? Who can say that Timur the Great was more flippant in his disregard for human life than Winston Churchill? Evidently, it is absolutely not a guarantee that modernity leads to morality.

The Battle of Weihaiwei

It was this moment that the unity between the Japanese Military and Japanese politics fell in twain. General Yamagata Aritomo’s original plan to topple the Qing government was opposed by Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi, who feared that the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent civil war would trigger Western intervention. Japan would then have greater worries than dealing with the Qing. To prevent General Yamagata from defying the order not to attack Beijing, the Prime Minister arranged for General Yamagata to be relieved of his duties. So, now the strategy had been altered from its original. The 2nd Army, instead of continuing toward Beijing, would now focus mainly on completely annihilating the naval capabilities of the Qing. To realise this goal, taking Lüshunkou was not enough. Weihaiwei, the only remaining naval base of the Beiyang Fleet would have to be taken as well.

The 2nd Army remained in the Liaodong Peninsula to take Haicheng on the 13th of December, Fuzhou on the 19th of December and Gaiping on the 10th of January 1895. Haicheng is a city due North of the Liaodong peninsula, and sits at the crossroads connecting Beijing to Niuzhuang (present day Yingkou, an important treaty port just to the South of Haicheng), Mukden and Liaoyang. The city was so vital, in fact, that the Qing launched 5 offensives to retake the city. These were the only offensives the Qing launched during the entire war and all failed. The taking of Haicheng opened the land communication lines between the 1st Army and 2nd Army.

Migita Toshihide, Colonel Satō attacking fortifications at Niuzhuang, dated 1895

The Japanese armies continued to march West. The 2nd Army split so that a part of the army could feint an attack on Dengzhou. The real target, however, was Weihaiwei. Whereas Japan attacked Lüshunkou partially to gain a new base of operations, the attack on Weihaiwei was meant to utterly destroy the remnants of the Beiyang Fleet, thereby securing Japanese naval superiority for the foreseeable future. The main force embarked on the ships and landed near Rongcheng (located on the tip of the Shandong peninsula, opposite to the Liaodong peninsula separated by the Bohai sea).

The defence of Weihaiwei and the command of the Beiyang Fleet were the responsibility of Admiral Ding Ruchang, who had lost the Battle of Yalu. The defences of Weihaiwei were even more impregnable than those of Lüshunkou; 57 heavy guns, 20 of which on land fortification, guarded the fort. Additionally, around 6,500 men garrisoned the fort and those 6,500 men had additional cannon in the form of mountain guns as well as mitrailleuses. The defences at Weihaiwei were designed by German military advisors and widely considered impregnable. To illustrate, Captain William M. Lang, who trained the Qing naval forces for a while, said: “In my opinion Weihaiwei is impregnable” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895,235). Vice-Admiral Sir Edmund R. Fremantle and 100 other British officers, after inspecting Weihaiwei, unanimously pronounced it impregnable “if any real attempt had been made to defend it” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 236).

In preparation of the Japanese assault, Admiral Ding had closed the harbour with booms (3-inch thick steel cables spanned across the harbour on anchored buoys), so no one could enter. The Japanese objective was to destroy the fleet, so the Japanese reinforced the barricades by preparing contact torpedoes on the other side. Admiral Ding Ruchang assumed that the Japanese forces would attack from the sea in a naval assault. He was mistaken. General Ōyama Iwao and Admiral Itō planned to take Weihaiwei by land, just as Lüshunkou was taken. The Japanese army left Lüda (adjacent to Lüshunkou) between 19 and 22 January.

Toshikata Mizuno, “A suicide squadron of seven men came ashore under heavy fire in the battle of Weihaiwei. Shortly after landing they scaled the hills leading to the gate of the fort and threw the gate open for their companions,” 1895

The Japanese forces landed at Rongcheng between 20 and 23 January. It was a particulary harsh winter; yet, the frost, snow and winter gale did little to deter the determined advance of the Japanese army. They set out on lunar new year on the 26th of January. On January 30th, the Japanese launched a three-pronged assault on the forts surrounding Weihaiwei. The highest ranking Japanese casualty of the war occurred when Major-General Ōdera Yasuzumi was felled while storming one of the forts. The forts fell quickly and when a fort in the near vicinity of Weihaiwei fell, the morale of the Qing troops stationed in Weihaiwei shattered. The Japanese entered Weihaiwei on the 2nd of February, only to find it abandoned by the Qing military. Admiral Ding destroyed some of the forts near the harbour to deny their usage to the Japanese. However, most of the forts were captured by the Japanese. They used the heavy guns in these forts against the remaining Qing positions as well as Beiyang Fleet in the harbour. On the 12th of February the last Qing hold-out fell.

Utagawa Kunimasa V, “Death of Major General Odera at the Battle of Weihaiwei”, dated February 1895

Admiral Ding Ruchang, as the defeated leader, took responsibility for his failure and took his own life by drinking poison. Three of his captains followed his example and shot themselves. This particular act earned them the respect of the Japanese military and indeed the Japanese nation. According to the revived ideals of Bushidō 武士道, death was the only honourable action after military defeat. The Japanese fleet lowered their flags to half mast and fired a salute in his honour. After the declaration of surrender was offered the Japanese, they showed extraordinary leniency by releasing Ding’s men. Japanese schoolboys called Admiral Ding’s action “the noblest thing of which they had ever heard” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 231).

Admiral Ding Ruchang was out of his element as a naval commander. His experience leading armies was as a cavalry commander. Perhaps this explained his blunders at the Battle of Yalu. It was probably not advisable to place army men in command of the navy, but this just serves to highlight the severe lack of eligible commanders the Qing dynasty had (moreso its inability to select effectively from its immense pool of talent). Admiral Ding also attempted to scuttle the remainder of the Beiyang Fleet and to blow up more forts guarding the harbour, lest they fall into the hands of the Japanese. However, his soldiers mutinied and refused to carry out these orders. The men under Ding’s command were not loyal to him, Ding was from the province of Anhui and his soldiers were largely from Fujian. That they were fighting for one cause made no difference, regional discrimination in China transcended loyalty to the Empire. More importantly, Imperial law dictated that the destruction of 20 or more firearms was punishable by death. Blowing up an entire fort and scuttling these expensive ships which took decades and years of revenue to build, would probably disgrace one’s entire clan for generations. As one can see, the questionable logic behind the Imperial reward and punishment system actively hindered the proper command of war in this new era.

“Admiral Ding Juchang of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Totally Destroyed at Weihaiwei,
Commits Suicide at His Official Residence” by Mizuno Toshikata, February 1895


Weihaiwei was the final straw. The naval capacities of the Qing Empire had been totally annihilated. The two forts that guarded the Bohai gulf which granted access to Tianjin and Beijing were captured and destroyed. The Japanese armies were almost at full strength as they hadn’t lost much more than a thousand men in the Korea, Manchuria and Shandong campaigns combined. What needed to be done was clear. Li Hongzhang tried to sue for peace with Japan. Li Hongzhang was sent to Shimonoseki and arrived on the 19th of March. What Li Hongzhang perhaps lacked in military strategy, he made up for abundantly in diplomatic skill. The negotiations did not go smoothly for the Japanese Prime Minister. As the negotiations were going on, the Japanese army bombarded and took the Penghu (a.k.a. the Pescadores) on the 23rd and 24th of March. On the 24th of March, a fanatical Japanese youth attempted to assassinate Viceroy Li. The Viceroy was hit below his eye. This was a blemish on the prestige of the Japanese Empire. To make up for this fumble, Emperor Meiji agreed to a three week armistice with the Mainland of the Qing, which excluded Penghu and Taiwan. Viceroy Li was wounded severely, but the man’s tenacity allowed him to return to the negotiating table two weeks later on April 10th. Seven days later, on April 17th exactly 125 years ago from today, both parties settled on the terms and signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Failure at Modernising

In terms of modernisation, why did Japan succeed where the Qing failed? In a sense, the Tokugawa Shogunate’s instability as a system and its inability to squash the development of budding capitalism is what quickened the downfall of its own stifling feudal institution and social order that made place for a vibrant new regime. The new regime could facilitate reform far better than the old regime ever could. We can see that during the coup d’état in Japan, the old Shogunate and its supporters lost their social privileges all to make way for the supporters of the new regime, who were previously the downtrodden. To contrast, the Qing’s talent in eliminating dissent and the preservation of the nobility’s privileges is what prevented the downfall of the established Imperial order. The Qing supported modernisation only as a means of preserving their own power. So, any reform that would go beyond purchasing better weapons and researching new technology, such as an organisational, social or economical reform, would be out of the question, since these reforms would almost by definition threaten the power and position of the Qing rulers. However, it was exactly those organisational, social and economical reforms that lie at the heart of modernisation.

“They had construed modernization narrowly in terms of technology and particularly military technology, failing to appreciate the extensive institutional, civilian, and human foundation required for modernization and laid by Japan through its westernizing reforms.”

(Paine, The Japanese Empire, 33)

Losing the War

So then, the Qing failed at modernising… however, the Qing stil had considerable hardware at its disposal. After all, at the start of the war, foreign observers including the Japanese themselves, concluded that the Qing had the advantage. Nobody, however, could have predicted the spectacular military incompetence displayed by the Qing. The reason for the Qing disastrous use of its military had several reasons.

Firstly, the Manchus were primarily concerned with maintaining their power and rule over China and not the defence of China. Incorrect usage of their material, giving too much military power to a Han Chinese general or pooling the Han Chinese forces together in a national army was akin to giving the Han Chinese an immediate means to topple the Qing government. The Qing government had to hold the Beiyang Fleet as a bargaining chip to maintain their hold on China. The Manchu were less afraid of the Japanese than they were of a Han Chinese revolution, which, even without the modern hardware, had almost toppled the Qing in the 1850’s. Simply said, the parts of the Qing Empire were not loyal to the center.

Secondly, the Qing Empire was fighting the war as if it were fighting its traditional Central Asian enemies (such as the Dzungars) and protected targets vital in those conflicts. Yet, Japan was a naval power that invaded China from the seas. The primary goal of the Qing should have been to prevent the Japanese troops from landing in China at all. For that to have been possible, they should have protected Lüshunkou, the only port capable of maintaining the Beiyang Fleet. Instead, the Qing spread its forces thin throughout Manchuria, made no use of the Beiyang Fleet and allowed Lüshunkou to be taken.

Through these examples we can see that the problems Qing China had, in my belief, were not necessarily due its failure to modernise. The ruling class of Manchus practised separatism, it was the only way to ensure the maintenance of Manchu supremacy in an Empire where they were in the absolute minority. It worked for two centuries, but by the end of the Dynasty there was so much distrust between the Han soldiery and the Qing rulership that it’s hardly surprising the morale of the Han commanders and soldiers was as low as it was. The Qing wasn’t for them and they weren’t for the Qing. If they were, the Southern Fleets would surely have rushed to the aid of the Capital, surely the soldiers would not have been so eager to abandon their posts and surely, generals like Wei Rugui, Song Qing and Ye Zhichao would not have displayed such blatant cowardice. Compare this to Japan, where soldiers were loyal to their country and loyal to their Emperor, owed in part to the impressive propaganda machine of the Japanese Empire. The only soldiers who matched the Japanese in loyalty and bravery in China appear to have been the soldiers who fought for something they believed in: whether those were the loyal Captain Deng or the Muslims troops under Zuo Baogui.

Perhaps the failure of the Qing simply rested on the fact that the people stopped believing in the idea of the Qing. After all, the Qing justified their rule by their strength of arms, but also the upholstery of the moral principles of Confucianism. However, once the people saw that the ruling class of Manchus did not uphold those lofty ideals, they stopped believing in the benevolence of the Emperor. Why should one care for an Emperor who doesn’t care for you? Moreover, once the foreign gunboats humiliated the Qing again and again, how can you expect the people believe in the military supremacy of the Empire when it is so abundantly clear they are not powerful at all?

Faith, principles, morals and ideas: these things are intangible and can never be destroyed by a bullet, but you can be destroyed by your failure to uphold them. It is therefore my belief that a man is not worth anything but his ability to uphold his principles. Losing your principles is the same as dying, it is your spiritual death and it is worse than a physical one. Zuo Baogui is respected because he never gave up his faith. Deng Shichang and his dog are remembered fondly because they never gave up their loyalty. Ding Ruchang was honoured even by his enemies because he kept his dignity as a commander and took responsibility for his failure. Betraying promises, betraying trust, betraying morals; that was the true failure and ruin of the Late Qing and anyone walking the same path.

Migita Toshihide, “Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive,” October 1894. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

2 thoughts on “Sunburnt Dragon: The Treaty of Shimonoseki

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