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Nationalism Through Colonialism in Asia

In the 19th and and early 20th centuries, Europe had made its way across the ocean to claim the ancient lands of the East in the act of bringing ‘civilization’ to the land. The truth of Europe’s purpose became evident as European nations called the lands their own and began to rape them of resources and of their sense of cultural uniqueness. When the twentieth-century enveloped the world, so did the actions of men in Europe that would change the face of Asia and beyond forever. As Europe was forced to look inward due to conflict, the Eastern nations began to find themselves again under the umbrella of nationalism and a struggle to survive.

The concept of nationalism is not something that can be found in ancient times though one could argue many actions as such. It was not a concept that philosophers, religious leaders, nor political leaders would understand nor support fully. Prior to the twentieth-century, people were defined by their cultures which could easily morph over the years. Groups would absorb other cultures and create new ones that would in turn generate new cultures that would continue on to do the same to others.

The idea of a nation was not something earlier cultures would relate to. This idea was redefined and recognized in the new century based on “capitalism, bureaucracy, industrialism, urbanization, secularism and the like” which were modern concepts and ideas that had begun generations before but were just taking on the power to change the world. One could ask how these modern concepts could define nationalism and how they could be so powerful. It could all be blamed on colonialism and the imperialist movements of Europe in the East. It was these concepts that pushed the European nations beyond their borders and to the rest of the world.

Europe found itself able to travel further than ever before. That alone was wonderful, but the drive to travel further was what was so new. European industry was being conceived. The demand for resources that could only be found outside Europe pushed the nations to explore and exploit the lands they found. When the industrial revolution exploded, the tremors from it could be felt around the world. It pushed Europeans to the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, and the Far East to discover more resources for the expanding industrial world which in turn was pushed by political and societal demands.

As the European powers found new lands and new resources, they began to ‘claim’ the lands which in turn became a race for them. The number of conquered lands became pawns in a game of who was the biggest and strongest. It was not too long before Britain could proudly proclaim that the sun never set on her empire as she had colonies literally around the world.

As the Eastern cultures became subjugated to the European powers, the sense of self became lost. They were no longer the unique cultures that they were before the invasion of Europeans. They were now colonies of Britain, Holland, France, or Spain. Once independent, they belonged to a foreign entity they could not fully understand. This stripped them of all power they once had. A “sense of abject helplessness” was left for those who once led their people. They now found themselves unable to defend their homeland or even to claim their heritage.

The machine of imperialism was too strong for them. These powers could not be overthrown nor pushed a little bit. The natives were lacking what they needed most as they had “neither wealth nor skills nor military might” which would be needed to win such a defensive action. For many years, they let themselves be controlled until the chinks within the armor of the imperialist nations were seen. This gave them hope and a dream for freedom, but without the skills, money, and military strength the dream could have been easily killed. But there was one resource that the imperialist did not respect the people.

Those that caught the dream turned to the people. By reminding them of their culture and the common heritage they possessed, the leaders of the nationalist movements were able to connect to the people and spread the dream. Nationalism has been described as being a “profoundly militant, cross-class, populist movement” since it can connect so many people of one culture like nothing else. This is true in every culture that has welcomed the spread of nationalism. Stripping away all social classes, political claims, and religious identifies, nationalism reaches into the soul of the person and connects them in a way that no other ideal ever could. In Asia, this came at a time when the European powers were pulling their influence back giving the native population more freedom and numerous chances to find their cultural heritage and embrace it.

In China, the British influence was extremely strong. During the imperialist era, British citizens brought their homeland from across the sea and stamped it upon the Chinese landscape, government, and all of society. The China that existed before the British appearance was no more. The culture was decidedly British. The safest course for the native Chinese was to hide behind the mask of subjectivity. The end result was the loss of Chinese identity. It was only through nationalism that the Chinese began to find themselves again. This was aided by the fact that other nations, specifically Japan, wanted to subjugate China. Complete loss of identity was always a threat to the nation. This common threat would be the key to helping the people pull together and bind themselves under the theme of nationalism.

Japan was a nation that found nationalism before the twentieth century rolled around. Yet it would be that same nationalism that would define Japan in the new century. Japan was one of the few Asian cultures to not fall completely under the European thumb. Instead, the nation found a way to meld with the Europeans in order to not be completely lost. Nationalism, therefore, did not have such a hard struggle in Japan as “there was no question but that it would aspire to become a nation-sate on the European model.” It kept its identity while embracing the aspects of European culture it could use to become stronger and move into the modern world as a major power instead of a subjugated colony. Nationalism did not have such a hard road as it was part European.

The key to Japan’s survival was the fact it was willing to absorb European ideals and thoughts while never losing itself. It was still Japan while being able to play with the big European powers. It was the Meiji restoration prior to the turn of the century that was the successful move Japan played. The restoration was founded on Japanese nationalism which “identified with the position and ideology of the Emperor, the focus of the new state becoming the emperor system” which gave the Emperor authority but not power which gave the people the power. It would be this strong sense of nationalism that would help Japan stay strong as it moved forward in various armed conflicts and would help the nation remain independent after the few defeats it encountered.

In India, Britain helped the rise of nationalism by twisting the thumb it ruled the natives by. Though there were various religions in the Indian area, they had a common enemy — Britain. In 1919, British soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians in Jalianwala Bagh. This was proof to the native Indians that the British were not looking out for their best interests. The sense of nationalism that was brewing under the surface erupted. It was the perfect timing for leaders such as Gandhi to rise up and appeal to the masses.

Most nationalism did not come to fruition until after World War II, yet the seeds for it were set earlier in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines found the tide of nationalism after the imperialist nations weakened during the WWII. It could also be contributed to the examples of other nations successful struggles for independence with nationalism pushing it forward.

Scholars have traced the development of nationalist ideas all the way back to the middle of the seventeenth century in Europe during the midst of the religious wars. It was at that time that an “elevation of the principle of state sovereignty over other nonterritorial principles of authority” developed as well as the “elaboration of a diplomatic system of resident embassies with extraterritorial but reciprocated privileges.” It grew and developed and eventually spilled out from the West to the East as the Western powers began to conquer the Eastern cultures.

The sown seeds did not begin to sprout until after World War I when in 1919 Europe was being redrawn based on “national lines and in accordance with the principle of national self-determination” giving the people the sense that they should be sovereign instead of the dynastic leaders. The people began to look at themselves differently. They began to look at themselves as a unit. The nations that were shaped by such modern ideas pulled together to reach back in time to find the heartbeat of their cultural past and a sense of individualism and uniqueness.


Leifer, Michael, ed. Asian Nationalism. London: Routledge, 2000.

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Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

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