China, Japan, and the Contest for ‘Asia’

By Torsten Weber

China’s recent rediscovery of the Silk Road for its ‘One Belt-One Road’ initiative reaffirms the country’s claim to being acknowledged once again in its role as the ‘Central Kingdom’. Its ambition is global but at its core lies China’s position in Asia. Until the late 19th century, China was at the centre of a tribute system, which hierarchically defined its relations with its neighbours in West and East Asia, including Japan. Japan’s rise since the late 19th century, however, triggered a contest for political, economic, and military hegemony in the region which led to the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894/95. Claims to leadership were also negotiated through political-intellectual debate in the public sphere. In the first decades of the 20th century, this dispute crystallized in the neologism Asianism (Japanese Ajiashugi, Chinese Yazhou zhuyi) which claimed ‘Asia for the Asians’ and geopolitically advanced the idea of an Asian Monroe Doctrine. As a new ism, it converged existing ideas of Asian commonality (‘same script, same race’), and as a regionalist idea, it conceptually challenged different versions of internationalism, nationalism, and imperialism. In addition, China as the most populous and largest country contested the most powerful and modern country, Japan, for the role of the representative and leader of Asia.

Cover of “Embracing ‘Asia’ in China and Japan”. Palgrave 2018.

My monograph, Embracing ‘Asia’ in China and Japan: Asianism Discourse and the Contest for Hegemony, 1912-1933, focuses on the period between the publication of the first Asianist pamphlet in China (1912) and the founding of the imperialist Greater Asia Society in Tokyo (1933) to analyze this debate as a multi-level contest between solidarity-based, internationalist conceptions and nationalist or imperialist conceptions of Asianism.

After the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1912 and under the influence of the First World War, different conceptions of Asianism started to seize the public sphere in East Asia. To many, the War had signaled the bankruptcy of Western civilization and the opportunity for the realization of Asian self-determination. While some debaters envisioned a peaceful coexistence of everyone who defined himself or herself as Asian (regardless of nationality and colour), others defined ‘Asia’ in a racialist manner and proposed to take revenge against the ‘Euro-American’ Whites for their imperialist exploitation of the region. Temporarily, Asianism therefore became known as the ‘White Peril thesis’ which self-affirmatively rejected discriminatory Western discourse of Asians as the so-called ‘Yellow Peril’. Chinese and Japanese Socialists, on the other hand, momentarily embraced Asianism as a political concept that potentially united the world’s disadvantaged and oppressed against any kind of hegemonism. Despite major differences, all of these conceptions displayed a new consciousness of the global political and discursive order in which ‘Asia’ had changed from a foreign-referential, foreign-imposed, peripheral, and mostly negative and denied (in Japan) or largely ignored (in China) concept to one that was self-referential, self-defined, central, and widely affirmed and embraced. By the late-1920s, large portions of Japanese, Chinese, and other Asians had started to embrace ‘Asia’, albeit not necessarily because they were firm believers in a joint Asianist undertaking. Rather, many used Asianism opportunistically as a banner to conceal nation-centred imperialist or other hegemonic ambitions, which hardly differed from the Western imperialism that Asianism initially had sought to overcome. Therefore, the famous Japanese China scholar Takeuchi Yoshimi (1910-77) had referred to some conceptions of Asianism as mere fig-leaves for Japanese imperialism. Nevertheless, through Asianism discourse Asians had self-defined and reclaimed authority over ‘Asia’ in a reversal of what Edward Said later famously described as Orientalism. However, since Asianism in principle presupposed an East-West divide and consequently did not fundamentally challenge the stereotypical portrayals of self versus other, Arif Dirlik characterized the mechanism underlying much of Asianism discourse in the 1910s and 1920s as ‘self-Orientalisation’.

Transnational Asianism discourse, which involved Chinese, Japanese, and other Asians as well as Europeans and Americans, flourished during the 1910s and 1920s but eventually facilitated what Prasenjit Duara calls the ‘hijacking of Asianism’ by the Japanese military for imperialist propaganda after the Manchurian Incident of 1931. At the same time, it influenced the domestic power struggle within China where Sun Yat-sen’s writings and speeches on Asianism served as a blueprint for collaboration with Japan, in particular by Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing regime during the 1940s.

In addition to a detailed case study of the legacy of Sun Yat-sen’s famous Asianism speech in Kobe (1924), this book also provides the first in-depth study of the two Pan-Asian Peoples’ Conferences of 1926 (Nagasaki) and 1927 (Shanghai) where civil society delegates from different Asian countries had assembled to initiate several pan-Asian projects ‘from below’. Further chapters study the influence of interwar pan-European ideas on Asianism and the legacy of Asianism in the continuing political antagonisms in East Asia in the 21st century. The book demonstrates that while Asianism helped to counter negative Orientalist views held in the West by establishing self-defined and positive conceptions of ‘Asia’, as a transnational and civil society driven project it failed to overcome the hegemony of imperialist ambitions and nationalist realities in the first half of the 20th century.


Torsten Weber. Picture: private.

Torsten Weber is a historian of modern East Asia and a Senior Research Fellow at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ Tokyo) where he is also Head of the Humanities Section. He holds an M.A. in Chinese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and a Ph.D. in Japanese Studies from Heidelberg University. His research focuses on the history of Japanese–Chinese relations and interactions from the modern to the contemporary era, including the politics of history and memory. His publications include several articles and book chapters on Japanese and Chinese conceptions of Asia from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. In addition to his book Embracing ‘Asia’ in China and Japan, he has recently published ‘Apology Failures: Japanese Strategies in Dealing with its Imperialist Past Towards China and Korea’, in: B. Bevernage/N. Wouters (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of State-Sponsored History After 1945. New York: Palgrave 2018, pp. 801-816; and ‘From Versailles to Shanghai: Pan-Asianist legacies of the Paris Peace Conference and the failure of Asianism from below’, in: U. M. Zachmann (ed.) Asia after Versailles: Asian Perspectives on the Paris Peace Conference and the Post-War World, 1919-1933. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017, pp. 77-97.


Citation: Torsten Weber: “China, Japan, and the Contest for ‘Asia’”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.05.2018,

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