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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds As historians, we try to avoid moral judgments. We look dispassionately and objectively at the past. But we do ask value-loaded questions when we think about success, historically speaking, who succeeded and who failed? And when we look back this week and late-19th century China and Korea, we have to ask what were the reasons for the failure? But again, as historians, when we ask that question, we try to think as much as possible in their terms, not just in our own terms, with the benefit of hindsight. And when we think back in their terms, we ask ourselves how did they frame their own sense of failure or the predicament that Chinese and Koreans found themselves in this period of history?

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds And one striking phrase comes out. Even though they were facing novel challenges, really what we’d describe as modern challenges, competing with modern powers from the industrialised West, the Chinese Confucians, for example, even the statecraft reformers that we’ve been learning about, framed this new modern problem with a very traditional concept using a four-character Chinese phrase that literally means chaos within and calamity without. The subtext of that being domestic rebellion and foreign aggression. And that’s precisely the problems that both traditional China and Korea faced as they moved into the 19th century. For China, the horrible wake-up call was when British ships landed in 1839 and set off the first Opium War.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds And the Qing militarily found itself completely unprepared to defend its coasts against British steamships and warships. A couple decade, a decade and a half later, in the 1860s, the problem got even worse. Because at this point, the Qing was simultaneously trying to quell a massive domestic rebellion, known as the Taiping Rebellion, or really historians now would call it the Taiping Civil War, that divided the empire virtually in half, separating the southern part into a new Taiping kingdom arrayed against the Qing.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds And at the same time, had to fight off combined British and French forces, who invaded in the second Opium War in 1860, even reaching the suburbs of the capital city and famously, or infamously to Chinese, burning down the beloved Summer Palace of the Qing rulers. Joseon Korea faced the same dilemma of chaos within and calamity without. For example, in 1862, having to quell a major peasant rebellion, while the same time fending off encroachment from a whole range of powers, including European powers like Britain and France; but also the new Pacific powers like the United States and Japan; and in the background, looming over all of this, the Eurasian giant Russia.

Skip to 3 minutes and 17 seconds The Yellow Sea, in particular, became a staging ground for attacks or probing expeditions, with a number of conflicts fought on the island of Ganghwa off the west coast, just off of today’s Incheon, in the 1860s and 1870s. Now, the Qing was watching all of this and, of course, was nervous and taking new steps to try and adjust, to some extent modernise, elements of its relationship with Korea, to protect the peninsula and really protect its own hegemony over the peninsula. In 1880, the Qing advised Korea to begin negotiations with the United States voluntarily, to open up to the US and sign a treaty that would actually help Korea use the United States to counterbalance against other powers.

Skip to 4 minutes and 7 seconds You can watch the Qing, in the 1880s, moving on other parts of its periphery, in similar ways to modernise, you could say, its control over these bordering regions. So, for example, the Qing made a province out of the island of Taiwan, which up until then had been more loosely integrated into the mainland. And also made a province of Xinjiang, which is, of course, still a Chinese province. Which at that point was under a great deal of pressure from Russia, which was prying away pieces of that huge area of Northwest China.

Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds So the Qing, in order to strengthen its grip on Taiwan and Xinjiang, made provinces out of both and at the same time tried to modernise the foreign relations of, not just its foreign relationship with Korea, but Korea’s foreign relationships with other states. So Joseon Korea found itself in a dilemma of not knowing who to fear the most and who to trust for their protection. On top of all of this, you had a period of intense factionalism, both at the court in Seoul and at the court in Beijing.

Skip to 5 minutes and 17 seconds You had a sort of constant power vacuum at the highest level, which, on the Qing side, was embodied by the paramount leadership of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who though she could pull strings from behind, could never properly rule in her own name being a woman in a patriarchal Confucian state. And yet was constantly manipulating different factions, playing one off of the other. A similar kind of family intrigue and politically divided atmosphere obtained in Seoul, where the young king and his wife, and her family behind them, were in a constant power struggle with his uncle, vying for supremacy. Meanwhile, the lines between who was a reformer and who was a conservative, and which formed power was backing whom, were constantly shifting.

Skip to 6 minutes and 13 seconds So in this period, where you had domestic pressures unrest, and you had foreign pressures, foreign aggression, it was the worst of all times to have a weak central leadership. And that’s precisely what both the Qing and Joseon states faced. So it was a period when you could say things fell apart. And as we’ll learn this week, there was one power that was rapidly rising, that was highly centralised, whose economy and military were growing, that had an alternative plan for how to put the pieces back together again.

When things fall apart

For Qing China and Joseon Korea, the 19th century was a statecraft nightmare of “chaos within, calamity without,” in other words—domestic rebellion and foreign invasion. They were caught in a similar dilemma of who to fear the most, which threat to prioritize, who– if anyone– could be trusted as an ally, and how to rapidly generate sufficient “wealth and power” in order to compete with Japan and the West, or at least, keep them at bay. Things were falling apart, and Japan in particular emerged with a new way to put them back together again.

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