The “rise of China” narrative in the twenty-first century is replacing the long-standing “rise of Japan” story line of the twentieth century. This article examines the role of wars in redirecting public opinion and, in particular, the effect of the 1894–95 war in refracting Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) reforms since the 1860s into “failures” and contemporary Meiji (1868–1912) reforms into “successes.” To grasp this dramatic reversal, we need new interpretations of the 1894–95 Sino-Japanese War that will unravel the Japanese and global propaganda that engulfed the world press in this “Social Darwinian” era of scrambling empires out of which the “rise of Japan” and the “fall of China” narratives emerged.
Challenging this standard narrative, the article uses Meiji woodblock prints of the war to demonstrate how “optical illusions” were constructed to support a Japanese master-narrative of Qing “backwardness,” which influenced not only Europeans and US citizens but also modern Chinese reformers and revolutionaries in their efforts to fashion a “new” China that would one day catch up with and surpass Japan. This 1895 reversal of narratives lies in the background of the 2006 MIT controversy, namely, the current “great reversal” occurring between Japan and China. The MIT controversy thus serves as an indicator of a sea change in the global perceptions of China and Japan in the present day. The current reversal that sparked the MIT controversy must be understood in light of a new historical context that has challenged a perennial Japan-centered perspective since 1895, namely, that the Japanese are the dominant power, culture, and people in East Asia.
The rise of a China-centered narrative since the late 1990s has superseded the assumed preeminence of Japan in Asia, a preeminence that began in the aftermath of what the Japanese misrepresented as the so-called “First” Sino-Japanese War. Japanese accounts since 1895 have conveniently repressed Toyotomi Hideyoshi's 1592 invasion of Korea, for example, which touched off the actual first Sino-Japanese War and led to the unilateral withdrawal of Japan's troops from the Korean peninsula. Hideyoshi's defeat was displaced as a false start in Sino-Japanese relations after 1895.