Dates: August 1, 1894 to April 17, 1895
Belligerents: Qing Dynasty China, Meiji Japan
Dispute: Who should control late Joseon-era Korea?
Outcome: Decisive Japanese victory - Japan adds Korean Peninsula to its sphere of influence, gets Formosa (Taiwan), the Penghu Islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula outright.
Casualties: China - approximately 35,000 killed or wounded; Japan - approximately 5,000 killed or wounded
Background to the First Sino-Japanese War:
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the American Commodore Matthew Perry forced open ultra-traditional and secluded Tokugawa Japan. As an indirect result, the power of the shoguns ended, Japan went through the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and the island nation began to quickly modernize and militarize.
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 nineteenth century drew to a close, Japan decided to exploit this opening.
Japan decided 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. The Korean government had previously called in Qing Chinese troops that June to help suppress a rebellion; Japan then sent "reinforcements" as well, over the protests of both the Koreans and Chinese. Even though the rebellion was quelled within two weeks, the Chinese and Japanese troops remained. 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. (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 one another on August 1.
Surviving Chinese forces retreated to the northern city of Pyongyang and dug in. The Qing government sent reinforcements, so the total Chinese garrison at Pyongyang numbered about 15,000. 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. The Japanese Imperial Army lost only 102 men killed, and 466 injured or missing.
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. 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 1904-05.