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Sino-Japanese War still stings China

WEIHAI, China -- When China and Japan first went to war 120 years ago this Friday, Beijing suffered a “national humiliation” that resonates to this day as tensions between the Asian rivals intensify again.

Unlike most defeated nations, China marks the anniversaries of its losses with fervor, as the ruling Communist Party — which espouses nationalism in its claim to a right to rule — reinforces a narrative of historical victimization.

Years in the making, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5 was fought for control of Korea, which at the time paid formal tribute to China's Qing emperors but was increasingly coveted by Tokyo, whose ambition was to emulate the empires of the Western powers.

The shooting began with a naval clash off Korea's west coast in late July, a week before war was formally declared on Aug. 1, 1894.

Less than nine months later, Japan had destroyed the Qing Beiyang fleet, routed Beijing's troops in Korea and China, and secured an overwhelming victory. Tokyo seized strategic territory, including Taiwan, and sowed the seeds of a maritime dispute that endures into the 21st century.

On Liugong island, a hilly anchorage off the eastern city of Weihai and the former home of the Beiyang fleet, the pictures, documents and weapons in a museum dedicated to the conflict blame not only Japan's “war of aggression” but also China's weakness, corruption and backwardness at the time.

“The humiliating defeat ... proved that underdevelopment can cause defeat,” reads one display.

On a promenade in Weihai, across the Yellow Sea from the Korean peninsula — still a geopolitical hotspot today — local resident Liang Kongteng said: “The Japanese came to China and they killed many people. As a country we have to be strong.”

'Open wound'

The war heralded the looming end of China's centuries of imperial rule, and once-isolated Japan's rise as a global power.

A decade later Japan stunned the world by defeating Russia, before colonizing Korea and later establishing a puppet state in Manchuria, setting the stage for its full invasion of China in 1937 in the lead-up to World War II.

“The war overturned the traditional balance of power in Asia, when Japan unseated China as the dominant power,” said SCM Paine, professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College, who wrote a book on the 1894-5 conflict.

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