Reading

Western Imperialism in East Asia

Introduce students to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia with this historical overview and map.  
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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — CA

Subject

  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Culture & Identity
  • Resistance

In his later years, the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes wrote that “the world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach, I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.” 1

Rhodes was an imperialist, and to an imperialist, “expansion was everything.” Imperialism is the policy of expanding the rule of a nation or empire over foreign countries by force. In the 1800s, European nations acquired great wealth and power from both the natural resources of the lands they conquered and the forced labor of the people from whom they took the land. Imperialists used ideas from eugenics and Social Darwinism to justify their conquests. To imperialists like Rhodes, the idea that there would soon be no opportunity for further expansion was unsettling.

The French held similar views. In a speech to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1884, Jules Ferry, who twice served as prime minister of France, said:

Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly! We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races. . . . I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races. . . . In the history of earlier centuries these duties, gentlemen, have often been misunderstood, and certainly when the Spanish soldiers and explorers introduced slavery into Central America, they did not fulfill their duty as men of a higher race. . . . But in our time, I maintain that European nations acquit themselves with generosity, with grandeur, and with the sincerity of this superior civilizing duty. 2

Armed with these ideas of racial and cultural superiority, Western nations expanded into Asia from the mid 1850s to the beginning of World War I. The "Age of Imperialism" was fueled by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, and it profoundly influenced nation-building efforts in Japan and China. As the desire to exert regional strength grew, Japan also began to expand its colonial influence across East Asia.

 

  • 1W. T. Stead, ed., The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes (London: William Clowes Ltd., 1902), quoted in Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan, Imperialism Past and Present (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 15.
  • 2 Jules Ferry, “Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies, March 28, 1884," Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry, ed. Paul Robiquet (Paris: Armand Colin & Clie., 1897), trans. Ruth Kleinman, available from the Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook

From the mid-1850s to the beginning of World War I, many Western nations were expanding into Asia. The "Age of Imperialism" was fueled by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, and it profoundly influenced nation building efforts in Japan and China. As the desire to exert regional strength grew, Japan also began to expand its colonial influence across East Asia.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "Western Imperialism in East Asia," last updated December 10, 2018.

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