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This paper revisits the old theses of the contrasting paths to modernization between Japan and China. It develops a new analytical framework regarding the role of ideology and ideological change—Meiji Japan’s decisive turn towards the West pitted against Qing China’s lethargic response to Western imperialism—as the key driver behind these contrasting paths. Our framework and historical narrative highlight the contrast between Tokugawa Japan’s feudal, decentralized political regime and Qing China’s centralized bureaucratic system as a key determinant driving the differential patterns of ideological realignment. We argue that the 1894-95 Japanese naval victory over China could not be justified under the prevailing Imperial Chinese ideology and thus served as the catalyst for China’s subsequent ideological transformation, which occurred via borrowing Japan’s successful Meiji reforms of both institutions and ideology. Our analytical framework, developed from a comparative historical narrative, sheds new insights on the importance of ideology and ideological change for our understanding of political and economic change.


ESI Working Paper 24-09



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