Education About Asia: Online Archives

Why Did Japan Succeed and China Fail? And Isn’t Modernization the Same Thing as Westernization?

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While walking through the hallways of a high school near the university where I teach, a set of posters hanging outside a classroom caught my attention. The posters had been drawn by students in a tenth grade world history class. Their assignment, I learned later, was to represent in visual form the differences between the modern historical experiences of Japan and China, particularly in relation to the two countries’ responses to Western imperialism in the nineteenth century. (note 1) 

The posters provoked in me two different reactions. One was admiration: the projects demonstrated remarkable creativity and insight, and I shuddered to think how my own tenth-grade work would have paled in comparison. I was also pleased to learn that the students were actually studying East Asia in some depth, especially considering the time constraints faced by high school world history teachers. (note 2) The students in this class were addressing, in a rather sophisticated manner, some of the same issues that professional historians of modern East Asia spend their time discussing— namely, imperialism, modernization, Westernization, and the differences between the historical trajectories of Japan and China since the nineteenth century.


1. My sincere thanks to these students for agreeing to let me use their posters for this article.

2. These time constraints have always existed, but in Virginia—as in many states—they have become more pressing due to the increasing emphasis on “Standards of Learning” exams as a tool for determining teacher and student success.