Isolationism and Imperialism

The history of isolationism and imperialism that existed between East Asian nations and Western nations is intriguing. This is because it shows the numerous attempts by the East Asian nations to fight imperialism in all ways through isolationism and the latter discovery of the importance of the Western nations’ advantage and hence the acceptance of imperialism. In order to understand this, a discussion of the relationship between imperialism and isolationism in this period, the reaction of East Asian countries in relation to this relationship and how some countries departed from this is necessary. 


The Interplay of Isolation and Imperialism and How East Asian Countries Coped With Imperialist Threats

One of the methods used by the East Asian countries against imperialism was long isolationist tendencies. Countries such as China and Japan exercised restricted commerce with the western countries. However, China was a bit lenient with these countries, but some privileges were removed since traders from the western countries were allowed only at some point and were also allowed to deal with only some few traders in China. This was also the case with Japan, which could only trade with a few countries. The lack of desire to trade with the European countries can be seen in Lin’s letter that was written to Queen Victoria. In this letter, the author argues that Europeans did not have much in terms of goods that the Chinese wanted to purchase. The British only had Opium, which the British traders had in large amount and grew in countries like India. Chinese rulers therefore felt bad for the trade, which boomed because most Chinese developed high dependences on the drug.  This was facilitated by the weak government that had failed to act. In addition, some Chinese officials were corrupt and they support the bad trade through acceptance of bribes. Therefore, isolationism was seen as the only way that opium trade could be stopped between China and the barbarians. 

The Chinese also exercised isolationism by developing strict rules against trade with the European nations. One of the laws, for example, restricted Chinese people from selling the Opium drug since anyone found in this trade would be convicted to death.  Some of the rulers even tried to have this law apply to some British traders. This can be seen in the same letter that Li wrote to Queen Victoria whereby he politely asked to execute some of the British traders who went against the rule using the Chinese law. China rulers also exercised this isolationism by asking their people to limit to follow traditional texts, which had been used from the earlier traditional dynasties. Since they were the information contained in them about the west was limited, the Chinese rulers couldn’t comprehend the immense changes that had taken place in the West especially during the Industrial era. On the other hand, Japan’s interest was more than China since the country was interested in the knowledge that the west shared. 

This was also the case among the Japanese. For example, in one of the documents written in Japan during this period, the writer emphasizes on the traditional customs. The writer of the document expressed concern that the nation’s values were changing and being altered by those of the Buddhists, Christians and the Shamans. The document expresses concern over the laws of the west, which are based on the teachings of Jesus. The laws, according to the document are imperialist laws as they try to suppress other countries. However, the document’s writer explains that Japanese rulers and ministers managed to grasp the laws and suppress them before they could make major changes in the country. The document also explained how the Japanese allowed the Dutch teachings among its own because these unlike those of other western nations only wanted to teach them how to understand the Dutch language. In this document, the hate of the imperialist nation is evident as the document’s writer views Japanese people as more civilized than the westerners who are known as barbarians in this case. The document also explains some extreme measures that some of the conservative citizens would take I order to suppress the effects of the westerners on them. Some of these would include acts such as eating of dogs and wearing clothing abhorred by the westerners. 

The Extent To Which Isolation Seen As A Proper Reaction To Imperialist Infringements

The British, on their part did not take this isolationism well because they benefitted from it. British, for example, pressured the Chinese rulers into a more open trade. This was however, not received by the Chinese government as they rejected the demands and animosity stemmed between the two countries. However, when all forms of strategies failed, China came up with a grand strategy that would help in fighting the enemies and the effects of imperialism on them. In one of the Chinese documents against the west, the writer explained that they could only fight imperialism, and in this case barbarians. This would involve using the same people to fight against the enemies. They had to apply the same techniques being used by the westerners in order to fight them. The document explains about a perfect strategy of fighting these people and based on the writers’ argument, the technique was developed from past nations that fought the same influence. The document asks the Chinese people not to fully allow themselves to succumb to the barbarians during a fight with them. It says, “We must not try to drown ourselves in the river merely to show our heroism”.  The document also explains of other defensive strategies that involve peaceful negotiations in order to get control of the border in what is known as maritime defense. The document also explains another strategy of fighting with the west and this includes allying with other nations such as Russia. In yet another strategy, the writers of the document note the importance of learning the strengths and weaknesses of their enemies. The weakness would be used for striking the enemy in a place that hurts the most while they would perfect their strength in order to match that of the enemies. 

Why Some East Asian Nations Chose To Depart From Isolationism and How They Did It

Although isolationism seemed the best way of curbing the effects of imperialism in these Asian countries, the tendency would not last long. China and Japan would later grasp the importance of the barbarian countries, which in this case was positive effect because of the fact that the western nations were more industrialized than the Asian nations.  Japan, for example, came up with an Institute that would investigation the Barbarian Books. This would be done through the translating texts from the west. Later, this became more pronounced as scholars from this area were allowed to provide and speak freely about what they knew or had learned. Through this, the Japanese became more capable of assessing the situation of the barbarians and their situation too. They also managed to assess the situation clearly and understand the kind of power that the west held in relation to the Asian nation such as the Chinese. This helped the Japanese in relaxing the isolationism and making decisions without prejudice of wanting to protect their culture and their country against imperialism.

It was thus possible for the Asian nations to become industrialized like the western nation after they opened up trade for the European nations through treaties. As explained earlier, Japan was first in this and China followed later. Japan realized that making the nation a world power would only be possible if they allowed the west to modernize them.  Japan therefore allowed foreign scholars and technicians while its own people were sent to the west in order to learn from them. The Chinese people, on the other hand, attempted to meet the political and the military challenges that the West posed on the country. This was done while the attempting to adapt to the learning offered by the west such as learning related to technology. The nation’s rulers, however, emphasized on the Chinese values while reformers as well as conservative tried hard to make sure that China followed the right path  and was protected the people against the pressured presented by the west. 

Is isolationism a reaction that was unique to the 19th century?

Although the practice of isolationism was seen much during the period discussed, it is not solely the only period that isolationism was practiced. In the 20th century, during the Great Depression, America’s public opinions were pushed into isolationism. In this case, things like involvement in international politics and avoidance of military conflicts were advocated by most people who valued isolationism especially after the First World War. George Washington, for example, was a heavy advocator of this isolationism and did not see the need of American involvement in the wars of the Europe and other nations. This period is explained by most as a period of peace and security because of the nation’s ability to remain detached from the rest. 

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