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A short history of the First Sino-Japanese War

Last Updated on 2021/06/29

The First Sino-Japanese War (中日甲午戰爭, Zhōngrì Jiǎwǔ Zhànzhēng) was an armed conflict that took place between July 25, 1894, and April 17, 1895, between the Qing Dynasty of China and the Japanese Empire for control of Korea.

The war shifted the balance in the region, which came under Japanese influence.

The prestige of the already declining Qing dynasty suffered another blow.

The humiliating loss of Korea as a tributary state triggered unprecedented public protests.

Who won the first sino-japanese war

The Chinese defeat triggered a series of political upheavals that culminated in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 led by Sun Yat-Sen and Kang Youwei. The conflict demonstrated the inadequacy of the Qing dynasty armies, unable to modernize the army, against the Japanese military forces of the Meiji period.

The War in China is known as the Jiawu War (甲午戰爭, Jiǎwǔ Zhànzhēng) following the traditional Chinese sexagenarian system for calculating time (Ganzhi).

Related articles: Japanese war prints of the Sino-Japanese war, History of the Boxer Rebellion

Japan of the Meiji Restoration and China of the Qing Dynasty before the War

The pre-war years saw the emergence of Japan. During the Meiji Restoration years, the government embarked on a series of reforms to centralize and modernize the country, including sending delegations and students around the world.

These reforms quickly transformed the country, taking it from the feudal era to the modern industrial age.

Japan’s reforms under the Meiji government had given significant priority to the creation of a modern and effective national army, particularly in the construction of a modern naval fleet, modeled after the British Royal Navy. 

At the start of hostilities, the Japanese fleet consisted of 12 modern warships, 8 corvettes, one armored warship, 26 torpedo boats, and numerous auxiliary/armored merchant cruisers and converted liner ships.

The Qing Dynasty had also attempted to modernize the country both politically and militarily but had been less successful. Despite a numerically much larger army than Japan’s, despite the production and purchase of weapons from abroad, Chinese troops remained poorly armed and disorganized, compared to the Japanese army.


Korea under the Joseon Dynasty traditionally was a tributary state of China. Public opinion was divided between conservatives who wanted to maintain traditional subordination to China and reformists who instead saw Japan and Western nations as models for modernizing the country.

Upon the death of Cheoljong of Joseon in January 1864, according to Korean protocols of succession, Gojong of Korea at the age of 12, ascended the throne. Being too young to rule, his father, Yi Ha-ŭn, became the Heungseon Daewongun, or regent in his son’s name. 

After attempting to consolidate power, the regent in 1873 was removed, allowing the country to open up and abandon isolationist policies.

In 1876 was signed the Treaty of Ganghwa to encourage trade between Korea and Japan.

King Gojong (later Emperor Gwangmu) in 1884. Photo by Percival Lowell

In these years Korea began to look towards the United States, also in an anti-Russian function. In 1880, King Gojong established diplomatic relations with the United States, and thanks to Chinese mediation, was signed the Treaty of peace, friendship, commerce, and navigation between Korea and the USA in 1882. In the following years, similar treaties were signed with other Western nations (Great Britain and Germany in 1883, Italy and Russia in 1884, France in 1886).

To modernize the country, the Koreans began to study and accepting Western technology while preserving the cultural heritage of the country. In the early years of the decade, Koreans modernized the country by looking to Japan and sending young Korean aristocrats to Japan to be trained as special forces (Pyŏlgigun).

The Japanese viewed the Korean situation with concern. Neighboring Korea was too backward and weak to resist external threats and interference. If Korea had been an independent and modern nation, it would have been able to withstand the external pressures while protecting the vulnerable western borders of the Japanese archipelago. At the same time, through this modernization process, Japan would have increased its importance on the Korean peninsula.

However, the Japan of the ’80s was impoverished by the rebellions of the samurai and peasants of the previous decade. At first, therefore, Japan proposed itself as a model to follow rather than providing real assistance, except for the training of the Pyŏlgigun contingent.

The major concern on the Japanese side, however, was the Chinese efforts to hinder the reform process in Korea, trying to re-establish the subordination relationship.

The Crisis of 1882 and the Reassertion of Chinese Influence

Queen Min Korea
Empress Myeongseong, known informally as Queen Min.

In 1882, the Korean Peninsula was hit by a severe drought that led to famine and discontent among the population. The Korean state itself was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the military had not been paid for months. The Pyŏlgigun special forces themselves were frowned upon because they were better equipped than the ordinary military.

Informed of the situation, King Gojong ordered the distribution of rice allowances to the military. Due to the incompetence of the Korean hierarchies, however, the rice rotted, and the distribution infuriated the soldiers. On July 23, the military rose in Seoul (the Imo Incident. Imo is the nineteenth year of the sexagenary cycle, 1882). The enraged soldiers headed for the residence of Min Gyeom-ho, the government’s superintendent of finance and Queen Min‘s nephew. The superintendent ordered the arrest and execution of the rioters. However, the rioters broke into his residence. Not finding him, they destroyed his possessions. The rebels plundered an armory where they took possession of weapons and ammunition and headed for the prison, where after overpowering the guards, they freed not only their comrades but also political prisoners. 

The rioters shifted their attention to the Japanese. One group headed for Lieutenant Horimoto’s quarters and killed him. Another group of about 3,000 people headed toward the Japanese legation where several officials and the diplomat Hanabusa Yoshitada resided. The legation was surrounded. Hanabusa gave orders to burn the structure along with many important documents and fled through the back gate to the harbor, pursued by Korean rioters who killed 6 Japanese soldiers and seriously wounded 5 others. The survivors were rescued by a British-flagged ship, which took them to Nagasaki.

The rioters also tried to eliminate Queen Min, who narrowly escaped the angry mob.

imo incident
Ukiyo-e depicting the flight of the Japanese legation in 1882.

China sent 4500 soldiers to Korea under the command of General Wu Changqing who managed to restore control, crushing the rebellion. The Japanese sent four warships and a battalion to Seoul to safeguard Japanese interests that demanded compensation for the losses suffered. 

Following the rebellion, China was able to reassert its influence on Korean politics, hindering the process of reform and modernization that Korea had undertaken, re-establishing the relationship of tributary state, favoring Chinese parties in trade relations, and maintaining armed forces in the country.

During the 1980s, as we have seen, two opposing factions had emerged. On the one hand, there was a small group of reformers who revolved around the Gaehwadang, the Enlightenment Party, frustrated by the inability of the country to modernize and expression of the yangban class, the small Korean nobility who saw in Meiji Japan an example to emulate.

The conservative groupSadaedang, included not only the Min royal family but also other prominent figures in Korean politics. Although they viewed the modernization of the country favorably, they preferred the gradual Chinese approach to opening up the nation.

After the Imo incident, the conservatives slowed down the reform process, even more, increasing the Korean state’s traditional dependence on China.

The Gaspin Coup

In 1884 reformers in the Gaehwadang party staged a coup, taking advantage of the temporary reduction of Chinese forces in the territory, engaged in the war against France for control of Annam in Vietnam. In December, aided by Japanese minister Takezoe Shinichiro, who secured the support of the Japanese contingent guarding the legation in Seoul, the reformers arrested King Gojong during a banquet hosted by the director of the General Postal Administration. The king was handed over to the Japanese, who then killed numerous officials and officers of the Sadaedang faction.

After the coup, the Gaehwadang faction formed a new government and outlined a program of reforms, breaking the traditional taxation relationship with China, abolishing the privileges of the ruling class, establishing equal rights for all, reorganizing land tax laws, canceling the privileges of certain trade groups and establishing free trade, setting exemplary penalties for corrupt officials, and creating a modern system of justice that included patrols and royal guards.

Yuan Shikai

The new government lasted only a few days, mainly because of the disproportionate forces in the field. 140 Japanese soldiers would have to face more than 1500 Chinese soldiers stationed in the city, under the command of General Yuan Shikai. Within a few days, the Chinese forces had the better of the Japanese, killing 40, and forcing the Japanese to flee and the surviving Korean reformers to exile.

In January 1885, Japan sent two battalions and seven warships to Korea. The troop movement resulted in the 1885 treaty between Japan and Korea where Japan pledged to repay the damage caused and diplomatic relations were restored. Meanwhile, Yuan Shikai remained in Seoul continuing to interfere in Korean domestic politics and marking the decline of Japanese influence on the peninsula.

Prelude to War

The assassination of Kim Ok-gyun

Kim Ok-gyun in Nagasaki, Japan

In March 1894, pro-Japanese Korean revolutionary Kim Ok-gyun was assassinated in Shanghai. Kim had fled into exile in Japan in 1884 following the failed coup. However, the Meiji government exiled him to the Ogasawara Islands. Kim was lured to Shanghai, where he was murdered by a compatriot in a room of a Japanese inn in the International Quarters.

British authorities turned the body over to the Chinese, who took it to Korea where it was cut up and displayed throughout the Korean provinces as a warning to other potential insurgents.

Japan saw this act as an outrageous affront to the dignity of the nation. Not only had the Chinese authorities failed to punish the murderer, but they had consented to the mutilation of Kim’s body. 

Donghak’s rebellion

In a context of international tension, the Donghak Rebellion, the largest peasant uprising in the country’s history, broke out in Korea towards the end of April. Peasants rose against excessive taxation and government inability. 

By May, the Chinese had begun mobilizing their forces in Zhili and Shandong provinces and Manchuria to intervene on the Korean peninsula to quell the uprising. 

On June 1, the Donghak rebel army began to move towards Seoul. The Chinese government requested Qing intervention to suppress the revolt.

On June 2, the Japanese government decided it would send troops into Korea if the Chinese did so. On June 3, King Gojong on the recommendation of the Min clan and under the insistence of Yuan Shikai, requested the help of Chinese forces to suppress the rebellion. The rebellion now seemed to be no longer a problem as it could be contained without Chinese intervention.

On June 6 China sent 2500 men under the command of General Ye Zhichao to the port of Asan, about 79 kilometers from Seoul. On June 25 another 400 troops arrived. Ye Zhichao could therefore count on almost 3000 soldiers. However, on June 11 the revolt was crushed.

The Japanese government, which was closely observing what was happening on the Korean peninsula, feared that the rebellion would lead to an increase in Chinese influence on Korea. Therefore, once it learned that China had sent troops into the country, Japan deployed its warships to the region to temporarily counterbalance the Chinese forces. 

According to the Japanese, the Chinese had violated the Tientsin Convention by not informing the Japanese government of their decision. The Chinese protested that the Japanese had been informed. 

The first Japanese troops arrived in Seoul on June 9 and another 3,000 landed in Incheon on June 12. On June 13, the Japanese government ordered the commander of troops stationed in Korea to remain in the territory. On June 22 more reinforcements arrived in Korea. On June 26 the Korean king Gojong requested the withdrawal of Japanese forces. On June 27 arrived in Chemulpo a reinforcement brigade under the command of General Oshima Yoshimasa of about 8000 soldiers.

At this stage, the Japanese denied any willingness to intervene. The Qing refused the Japanese invitation to cooperate in reforming the Korean government. When the Koreans asked Japan to withdraw its troops, the Japanese refused. 

In early July 1894, the Japanese captured Korean King Gojong, occupied the royal palace, Gyeongbokgung in Seoul, and on July 23, 1894, replaced the Korean government with members of the pro-Japanese faction.

The new government granted the Japanese army the right to expel the Qing forces, who were already in retreat from the country since the Donghak rebellion did not require their intervention to be crushed. The Qing Dynasty recognized the new Korean government as illegitimate.

On July 25, the first conflict of the war, the Battle of Pungdo, broke out.

The Sino-Japanese War begins

Japan before the war could rely on a fast and modern army and fleet. China, on the other hand, had a large, poorly armed, and disorganized army. In those years China attempted to create a new and modern naval fleet, the Beiyang Fleet, solicited by Empress Cixi and sponsored by Li Hongzhang, the viceroy of Zhili, who had also created the Huai army. The Beiyang Fleet was to be the strongest navy in East Asia. The empress explicitly ordered the expansion of the fleet, but upon her retirement, the maintenance and development of the fleet were neglected. The Confucian advisor and imperial tutor Weng Tonghe suggested to Emperor Guangxu to cut off all funding for the development of the fleet and the army, since, according to him, Japan posed no real threat. The dynasty, therefore, allocated these funds to deal with the crisis caused by the multiple natural disasters that struck China at the beginning of the 1990s.

The Beiyang fleet had two German ironclads, the Dingyuan and the Zhenyuan, which found no counterpart among the Japanese fleet. However, because of the poor conditions in which the vessels were kept, the indiscipline of the crews, and the weapons mounted on the ships, the Chinese fleet remained only an apparent concern. The Chinese command was unable to instruct their ships with clear orders, and they attacked their enemies with outdated strategies. The slowness of the ships, the tactical inability, the negligence in maintenance, the insubordination of the crews, decreed the Chinese defeat at sea.

Chinese ironclad Zhenyuan
The Chinese ironclad Zhenyuan

Chinese troops were simultaneously engaged in facing the Japanese in Korea and the Dungan uprising in northwest China. 

In July 1894 the Chinese troops in Korea were far outnumbered by the Japanese army and could only be supplied by sea through Asan Bay. Japanese efforts, therefore, concentrated on breaking the Chinese supply chain. 

On July 25 the cruisers YoshinoNaniwa and Akitsushima sank the gunboat Kwang-yi while the cruiser Tsi-yuan managed to retreat. The ships had been sent to meet the Kow-shing, a British merchant vessel that was carrying 1100 Chinese troops with supplies and equipment.

The Japanese cruiser Naniwa intercepted the Kow-shing and captured its escort. The Japanese command ordered the European personnel and the ship’s commander to be transferred aboard the Naniwa. The 1100 Chinese troops on board the merchant ship, however, rebelled against the decision, and after hours of negotiations, the Japanese captain Tōgō Heihachirō ordered to fire on the vessel. The ship was hit and began to sink.

Some members of the European crew, in the confusion, tried to escape, but Chinese troops fired at them. The Japanese rescued three British crew members, including the captain, and 50 Chinese, and took them to Japan. Other Chinese soldiers were rescued by other European military ships in the area.

Depiction from the French periodical Le Petit Journal (August 1894) of the sinking of the Kowshing and the rescue efforts of the French vessel Le Lion.
Depiction from the French periodical Le Petit Journal (August 1894) of the sinking of the Kowshing and the rescue efforts of the French vessel Le Lion.

The sinking of the ship caused a diplomatic incident between Japan and Britain, but the actions taken by the Japanese were justified by the laws regarding the treatment of mutineers, the Chinese troops. According to many, the 1100 soldiers on board the ship represented the best of the Chinese army.

The Conflict in Korea

General Ōshima Yoshimasa, with orders to expel Qing forces from Korean soil, led a brigade of about 4,000 soldiers rapidly toward Asan Bay to confront the Chinese garrison troops, about 3880 soldiers, led by General Ye Zhichao.

The Chinese, anticipating the arrival of enemy forces, had strengthened their defenses. But the reinforcements aboard the Kow-shing had been lost. 

Between 27 and 28 July, the two armies clashed just outside Asan. The Chinese were defeated, leaving on the field weapons and ammunition, retreating towards Pyongyang. The Japanese took the city of Asan on July 29, thus breaking the Chinese encirclement of Seoul. The Chinese lost about 500 soldiers, while the Japanese 88.

On August 4, the remaining Chinese forces in Korea retreated to Pyongyang, where they joined reinforcements from China. The troops defending the city consisted of about 13000-15000 soldiers, who began to improve the defenses.

On September 15, Japanese armies converged on Pyongyang from several fronts. They assaulted the city and defeated the Chinese, who surrendered. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, some Chinese troops were able to escape by retreating to the coastal city of Uiju.

In the battle had perished more than 2000 Chinese soldiers, while the Japanese dead were 102. On the morning of September 16, the Japanese army entered Pyongyang.

Our Army’s Great Victory at the Night Battle of Pyongyang
“Our Army’s Great Victory at the Night Battle of Pyongyang” by Kobayashi Toshimitsu, September 1894 [2000.051] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The defeat of the Beiyang fleet

In early September, Li Hongzhang decided to reinforce Pyongyang by sending the Beiyang fleet to escort reinforcements. But the Chinese fleet was lured off the Shandong Peninsula by the arrival of the Japanese cruisers Yoshino and Naniwa, which were mistaken by the Chinese for the Japanese main fleet, losing valuable time.

On September 14, the Japanese combined fleet began actively seeking a confrontation with the Beiyang fleet.

The capture of Pyongyang ensured the expulsion of Chinese troops from Korean soil.

Admiral Ding at the head of the Beiyang fleet, informed of the defeat, proceeded to the Yalu River where he guessed it would be the next line of conflict.

Chinese troops were landed at the mouth of the river.

The German-built cruiser Jingyuan

On September 17, 1894, the Japanese fleet reached the Beiyang at the mouth of the Yalu River.

The ensuing naval battle lasted from morning to dusk and saw a Japanese victory.

By evening, the Beiyang fleet was collapsing, most of the ships had fled or sunk, and the two battleships were now out of ammunition. The Japanese destroyed eight of the ten Chinese warships, ensuring Japanese dominance of the Yellow Sea.

The battle became a tool of internal propaganda in Japan.

The Invasion of Manchuria

With the fall of Pyongyang, the Chinese abandoned northern Korea and entrenched themselves on fortifications along the Chinese side of the Yalu River near Jiuliancheng. Meanwhile, the Japanese, once they obtained reinforcements, moved quickly toward Manchuria.

On October 24, the Japanese managed to cross the river without being seen using a floating bridge.

On October 25 they attacked the Hushan outpost and the Japanese captured Jiuliancheng.

General Yamagata proceeded to occupy the nearby city of Dandong. The Japanese had thus secured a presence in China with only 4 killed and 140 wounded.

The Japanese First Army split into two. General Nozu Michitsura advanced toward Mukden (Shenyang), while General Katsura Tarō pursued the fleeing Chinese troops into the Liaodong Peninsula.

“Illustration of the Second Army’s Assault on Port Arthur” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1894
[2000.414] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

During the autumn the Japanese had conquered by now the cities of Tatungkau, Takushan, Xiuyan, Tomucheng, Haicheng, Kangwaseh, Jinzhou, and the bay of Dalian, where the strategic port of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) was located, which fell on November 21. The inhabitants of the city were massacred by the Japanese

The Fall of Weihaiwei

The Chinese had retreated to the fortifications of Weihaiwei. Weihaiwei was put under siege for 23 days. Between January 20 and February 12, 1895, the most intense fighting took place. On February 12, Weihaiwei fell into Japanese hands. By March, the Japanese were reorganizing to march on Beijing. On March 23, the Japanese occupied the Pescadores Islands (the Penghu Archipelago that consists of about 90 islands in the Taiwan Strait). 

Scene of the Land-based Battery Attack on Weihaiwei
“Scene of the Land-based Battery Attack on Weihaiwei ” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, February 1895 [2000.254] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Treaty of Shimonoseki

The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed on April 17, 1895. According to the treaty, China recognized the independence of Korea and ceded the Liaodong PeninsulaTaiwan, and the Penghu Islands to Japan in perpetuity. The famously disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were not mentioned in the treaty but were equally annexed by Japan.

China was also to pay 200 million taels as reparations for war damage. The Qing also signed a trade treaty that allowed Japanese ships to operate on the Yangtze River, and to open other ports to foreign trade.

Russia, Germany, and France, however, intervened and forced Japan to give up the Liaodong peninsula in exchange for 30 million silver taels.

On May 29 the Japanese forces landed in the north of Taiwan, defeated within 5 months the republican forces, and occupied the main cities of the island.

The war as well as demonstrating the Japanese superiority in the military field, contributed to the collapse of the Qing dynasty, unable to resist the changes and to face the internal revolts. 

Traditionally China had always seen Japan as a subordinate state, part of the Chinese cultural sphere. The defeat against Japan was a blow to national pride. Xenophobic feelings grew culminating in the Boxer Rebellion five years later.


  • Wikipedia 1, 2, 3
  • The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • The making of modern Japan by Jansen, Marius B,
  • Kim, Chong Ik Eugene, and Han-kyo Kim. Korea and the Politics of Imperialism, 1876-1910 (Univ of California Press, 1967)
  • Morse, Hosea Ballou. (1918). The international relations of the Chinese empire vol 2 1861–1893

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