The First Sino-Japanese War

China's Qing Dynasty Surrenders Korea to Meiji Japan

Both sides made historical and propaganda prints during the First Sino-Japanese War
Japanese woodblock print depicting a battle in the First Sino-Japanese War, 1895. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

From August 1, 1894, to April 17, 1895, the Qing Dynasty of China fought against the Meiji Japanese Empire over who should control late Joseon-era Korea, ending in a decisive Japanese victory. As a result, Japan added the Korean Peninsula to its sphere of influences and gained Formosa (Taiwan), the Penghu Island, and the Liaodong Peninsula outright. 

However, this did not come without loss. Approximately 35,000 Chinese soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle while Japan only lost 5,000 of its fighters and service people. Worse yet, this would not be the end of tensions — the Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, part of the first actions of World War II.

An Era of Conflict

In the second half of the 19th century, the American Commodore Matthew Perry forced open ultra-traditional and secluded Tokugawa Japan. As an indirect result, the power of the shoguns ended and Japan went through the 1868 Meiji Restoration, with the island nation quickly modernizing and militarizing as a result.

Meanwhile, the traditional heavy-weight champion of East Asia, Qing China, failed to update its own military and bureaucracy, losing two Opium Wars to the western powers. As the preeminent power in the region, China had for centuries enjoyed a measure of control over neighboring tributary states, including Joseon Korea, Vietnam, and even sometimes Japan. However, China's humiliation by the British and French exposed its weakness, and as the 19th century drew to a close, Japan decided to exploit this opening.

Japan's goal was to seize the Korean Peninsula, which military thinkers considered a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." Certainly, Korea had been the staging ground for earlier invasions by both China and Japan against one another — for example, Kublai Khan's invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 or Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempts to invade Ming China via Korea in 1592 and 1597.

The First Sino-Japanese War

After a couple of decades of jockeying for position over Korea, Japan and China began outright hostilities on July 28, 1894, at the Battle of Asan. On July 23, the Japanese entered Seoul and seized the Joseon King Gojong, who was retitled the Gwangmu Emperor of Korea to emphasize his new independence from China. Five days later, fighting began at Asan.

Much of the First Sino-Japanese War was fought at sea, where the Japanese navy had an advantage over its antiquated Chinese counterpart, mostly due to the Empress Dowager Cixi reportedly siphoned off some of the funds meant to update the Chinese navy in order to rebuild the Summer Palace in Beijing.

In any case, Japan cut the Chinese supply lines for its garrison at Asan by a naval blockade, then Japanese and Korean land troops overran the 3,500-strong Chinese force on July 28, killing 500 of them and capturing the rest — the two sides officially declared war on August 1.

Surviving Chinese forces retreated to the northern city of Pyongyang and dug in while the Qing government sent reinforcements, bringing the total Chinese garrison at Pyongyang to about 15,000 troops.

Under cover of darkness, the Japanese encircled the city early in the morning of September 15, 1894, and launched a simultaneous attack from all directions. After approximately 24 hours of stiff fighting, the Japanese took Pyongyang, leaving around 2,000 Chinese dead and 4,000 injured or missing while the Japanese Imperial Army only reported 568 men injured, dead, or missing. 

After the Fall of Pyongyang

With the loss of Pyongyang, plus a naval defeat in the Battle of Yalu River, China decided to withdraw from Korea and fortify its border. On October 24, 1894, the Japanese built bridges across the Yalu River and marched into Manchuria.

Meanwhile, Japan's navy landed troops on the strategic Liaodong Peninsula, which juts out into the Yellow Sea between North Korea and Beijing. Japan soon seized the Chinese cities of Mukden, Xiuyan, Talienwan, and Lushunkou (Port Arthur). Beginning on November 21, Japanese troops rampaged through Lushunkou in the infamous Port Arthur Massacre, killing thousands of unarmed Chinese civilians.

The outclassed Qing fleet retreated to supposed safety at the fortified harbor of Weihaiwei. However, the Japanese land and sea forces laid siege to the city on January 20, 1895. Weihaiwei held out until February 12, and in March, China lost Yingkou, Manchuria, and the Pescadores Islands near Taiwan. By April, the Qing government realized that Japanese forces were approaching Beijing. The Chinese decided to sue for peace.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki

On April 17, 1895, Qing China and Meiji Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War. China relinquished all claims to influence over Korea, which became a Japanese protectorate until it was annexed outright in 1910. Japan also took control of Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula.

In addition to the territorial gains, Japan received war reparations of 200 million taels of silver from China. The Qing government also had to grant Japan trade favors, including permission for Japanese ships to sail up the Yangtze River, manufacturing grants for Japanese companies to operate in Chinese treaty ports, and the opening of four additional treaty ports to Japanese trading vessels.

Alarmed by the quick rise of Meiji Japan, three of the European powers intervened after the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed. Russia, Germany, and France particularly objected to Japan's seizure of the Liaodong Peninsula, which Russia also coveted. The three powers pressured Japan into relinquishing the peninsula to Russia, in exchange for an addition 30 million taels of silver. Japan's victorious military leaders saw this European intervention as a humiliating slight, which helped spark the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905.