Western Imperialism and Nation Building in Japan and China | Facing History & Ourselves
An Ukiyo-e of the Utagawa school depicting foreigners in Japan, including Russians, Dutch, British, Americans, French and Chinese. A closeup of the Dutch, Americans and Chinese in the center of the picture

Western Imperialism and Nation Building in Japan and China

Students are introduced to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia and its influence on the identities and ambitions of Japan and China.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

In the opening lesson of this unit, students will begin to explore the factors that contributed to Japan’s invasion of China during World War II and the occupation of Nanjing. Through an exploration of primary sources, including a Japanese woodblock print and a political cartoon, they will be introduced to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia and how it influenced both the identities and ambitions of Japan and China. Students will also conduct a comparative analysis of timelines depicting major events in China and Japan during the nineteenth century, beginning to explore the two countries’ divergent responses to Western imperialism and how these developments affected the complexity of nation-building efforts in China and Japan. This lesson and the following one, on the rise of nationalism and militarism in Japan, are both critical for understanding the complex factors that led to the Japanese war crimes known today as the Nanjing atrocities.

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

  • How are nations' identities affected by their contacts and conflicts with others? 
  • How did nineteenth-century Western imperialism influence Japan and China’s modern nation-building efforts? How did the two countries’ responses to Western imperialism differ?
  • Students will understand that for China, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked an era of humiliating defeats at the hands of Westerners and internal strife, including multiple civil wars.
  • Students will understand that Japan largely escaped the worst effects of Western imperialism, and the country emerged out of the nineteenth century with its own imperial ambitions in East Asia.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 reading, available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment

Around the world, change, upheaval, growth, and creativity marked the first decades of the twentieth century. As industrialization continued to expand at a rapid pace, the colonial ambitions of European powers, fueled by beliefs of racial and cultural superiority, spread to Africa and Asia. In some ways, the relationships between foreign powers and their colonial holdings facilitated a global exchange that broke down traditional ideas of national sovereignty. But at the same time, being ruled by foreign powers inspired nationalist and pan-nationalist movements in Asia, which espoused the idea that Asian nations ought to rule themselves. Amidst this climate, both China and Japan continued to forge their own paths toward becoming modern nations.

By the turn of the century, China’s Qing dynasty had not modernized at the same pace as Meiji Japan. As a result, China lacked the infrastructure, military power, and political leadership to challenge Japan’s power in East Asia. After the first Chinese republic was formed in 1911, China began the process of building an industrialized and modernized nation-state, but it was a path fraught with internal strife, violence, and corruption. Across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea), nation building in Japan took quite a different form. After less than four decades of industrialization and modernization, Japan was a nation more unified and nationalistic than ever. Military, education, industrial, and governing reforms all contributed to Japan’s rapid rise. Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, followed by victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, were key turning points in Japan’s emergence as the superior imperial power in the region.

Prior to learning about Imperial Japan’s further expansion into China in 1931 and the outbreak of war in 1937, it is important for students to consider the conditions that precipitated this escalation of conflict. In this lesson, students will begin to explore these factors, focusing specifically on the differing impacts of Western imperialism on Japan and China. This will help students understand the conditions that gave rise to Japan’s invasion of China and the Nanjing atrocities.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

  • The timelines for this lesson (Activity 3) introduce many historical events that will be unfamiliar to students. It is important to clarify that the purpose of the activity is to provide a broad overview of change over time in China and Japan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: students should not take too much time poring over each individual event on the timeline. In addition, you might want to tell students to read the questions at the bottom of the handout before analyzing the timeline and use them to guide their analysis.
  • For additional background for you or, time permitting, to share with your students, consider the following resources on the Facing History website. The videos and readings listed below provide additional context for the overlapping history of modernization and nation building in China and Japan:

The Imperialism Cartoon, 1898, titled “China – The Cake of Kings . . . And of Emperors,” contains inaccurate, offensive stereotypes of Asians. Teachers have the responsibility to acknowledge that images such as this contain stereotypes and to prepare their students to discuss the material in a thoughtful and respectful manner. If you have established a classroom contract, this is an important time to review it with the class. If you have not already established one, you should do so before starting this lesson, using the Contracting teaching strategy (steps 4, 5, and 6).

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Lesson Plans


  • To open the lesson, project or distribute copies of the Japanese Woodblock Print, 1861 to students. To provide students with the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the image, do not offer any context at this time, including the title of the image.
  • Lead students through a See, Think, Wonder activity, pausing after each prompt to give them time to record their thoughts. Consider asking students to add one or two more ideas to each response before moving to the next question. This step can push students to examine the image more closely, perhaps making a new observation or inference or posing a new question.
  • Ask students to debrief with a partner using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Alternatively, if you projected the image, you might invite students one at a time to the board to share their “sees” and “thinks,” having them point to details in the image as they present. You might also list some of their “wonders” on the board or on chart paper to refer to later in the lesson. Once students have shared, tell them that they will be returning to the cartoon once they have learned more about the period.
  • Pass out copies of the reading Western Imperialism in East Asia, and read it aloud with students. Be sure to also take time to analyze the map at the bottom of the reading. The last two discussion questions below focus on the map. Discuss the following questions as a class:
    • What motivated European nations to colonize Africa and Asia in the 1800s? How did they justify their conquest of other lands and people?
    • What do you notice about the boundaries of the Qing empire, the last imperial dynasty of China, which ruled from 1644 to 1912?
    • What do you notice about the boundaries of Japan? How did they change over time?
  • Break the class into groups of three to four students, and give half the class the handout Timeline of Major Events in Japan, 1853–1919 and half the class the handout Timeline of Major Events in China, 1839–1919. Ask students to answer the following questions (questions 1 and 2 on the handout) in their small groups:
    • What do you think are the most significant events that occurred in your assigned country (Japan or China) during this period?
    • How would you summarize the impact of Western imperialism on your assigned country during this period?
  • Once students have had enough time to investigate their timeline, apply the Jigsaw strategy by asking students to leave their “expert” groups and find partners who worked with the opposite timeline to form “teaching” groups. Instruct the “teaching” groups to take turns summarizing their timelines, sharing their answers to questions 1 and 2 on their handouts and recording information from their partners to answer questions 3 and 4.
  • Reconvene the whole class and discuss students’ answers to the questions. Make sure that students understand the following points:
    • China faced internal conflict, including multiple rebellions, as well as crippling defeats at the hands of Western, and later Japanese, imperial powers.
    • Japan emerged out of the nineteenth century having suffered far fewer defeats from Western imperialism. Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, followed by victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, were key turning points in Japan’s emergence as the strongest imperial power in the region.

Return to the Japanese Woodblock Print, 1861 that students investigated at the beginning of class. Share with students the title and date of the cartoon, “Foreigner and Wrestler at Yokohama” (1861), and explain that it is from Japan. Ask students to write down any new insights they have about the image in their journals and to write inferences about its meaning based on the information they’ve gathered so far in class. Ask volunteers to share their observations with the class, and then share the following explanation of the print:
In this humorous print produced by Yoshiiku, as foreign ships loom over the horizon, a sumo wrestler (representing Japan) unceremoniously upends the foreign upstart. According to the inscription, Herushana was a foreign wrestler over 2.6 m (8 ft 6 in.) tall who had traveled undefeated until his arrival in Yokohama, where he expected further triumph. This was a popular theme at the time. At a time of sensitivity over Japan's relative level of development and ability to resist Western advances and firepower, this wrestling triumph must have been reassuring! 1

  • 1Rebecca Salter, Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards (London: A & C Black, 2006), 85.
  • Let students know that they will now be viewing a political cartoon that contains inaccurate, offensive, and racist stereotypes of Asians. (You may wish to return to your classroom contract to set the tone for viewing this image.)
  • Then project or distribute copies of the Imperialism Cartoon, 1898 (titled “China – The Cake of Kings . . . And of Emperors”) and have students analyze the cartoon using the See, Think, Wonder teaching strategy. Encourage students to refer to the information from their timelines for help formulating their ideas about the meaning of the cartoon.
  • Ask students to write a two- or three-sentence caption for the cartoon. Their captions should draw on the historical information they investigated in class and should explain the cartoon to a reader who is unfamiliar with this history. Students can refer to the explanation of the Japanese print from the previous activity when writing their own captions.


Evaluate students’ captions to see how they are understanding the history explored in this lesson. Students should cover the following details:

  • This French political cartoon, published in 1898, depicts China as a pie about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese court official helplessly looks on.
  • By 1898, when this cartoon was published, China had made significant concessions in a number of unequal treaties, signed under duress after the country suffered defeats by various imperial powers. Note too that the cartoon shows Japan as an imperial power alongside the European countries.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Western Imperialism and Nation Building in Japan and China lesson plan.

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