The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea and the Birth of Modern East Asia

Tijs Hopman

The Great Game of imperialist rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia during the 19th century is a well-known subject for historians of 19th-century imperialism; but another Great Game, in East Asia, is often overlooked, though its historic reverberances are of no less – or perhaps of even more – significance today. This is the premise of the story told by Sheila Miyoshi Jager. According to Jager, the imperialist struggles that took place in East Asia during the 19th century largely helped shape the future course of each participatory country. Focusing in particular on the conflict of influence between Russia and Japan in Korea, Jager argues that this conflict can be identified as the other Great Game; imperialist rivalry that was not only isolated to the strife for hegemony over the Korean peninsula, but which had a profound effect on the region as a whole, shaping the way towards the modern geopolitical status quo of the area and the world.

As such, the main characters of Jager’s narrative are primarily countries and states, and people that played a crucial role in directing the course of action for these socio-political entities. Starting her story in 1860, with the start of Russian eastward expansion, Jager narrates the events leading up to the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. Though one could justifiably argue to start a narrative of imperialism in East Asia with the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), the ‘opening’ of Japan in 1853, and the years following it, Jager argues that Russia’s arrival in the East, and its interest in Korea, set in motion a series of events that would fracture the previous regional harmony of the Confucian world order. Influenced by the narratological style of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) and Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990), Jager’s book is chronologically structured from 1860 to 1910, focusing on Korea, but making ample room for events surrounding the peninsula, such as the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).

Because the narrative is chronologically structured, the book itself comprises six parts dividing the period between 1860 and 1910, ending with a final reflection. Each part starts with a small synopsis and foreshadowing of the contents and importance of the events narrated in the part ahead. The book starts with a short prologue about the origins of Russian expansion into the Far East. Continuing from here on, the first part is about Russian territorial aggrandisement in the East, the rise of Meiji Japan, social strife in Korea, and the uncertain hegemony of China. From there, the book takes the reader along Korean court intrigue and diplomacy with foreign powers (Part II); the (First) Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Boxer Uprising (Part III); the recalibration of power dynamics after these events and its effect on the Korean peninsula (Part IV); the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905, Part V); and finally, the rise of Japan, annexation of Korea, and future clash with the US (Part VI), ending with a short reflection on these events and their importance for modern geopolitical status quo and stability of the region.

In the execution of this narrative structure, Jager shines as an historian and storyteller. The book has an absorbing flow to it, together with both a clearness of style and vivacity of characters. The intrigue and political dynamics in and surrounding the Korean court are concisely narrated and explained from angles of different parties. The Battle of Nanshan is evocatively portrayed as the horrific progress of modern warfare, a precursor to the devastation of the 20th-century wars. Figures like king/emperor Kojong, the Taewon Gun, Sergei Witte, or Ito Hirobumi are portrayed vividly, and Jager provides interesting explorations of the motives and actions of each character. In using a wide range of sources, written in a wide range of languages, Jager succeeds not only in conjuring these interesting historical events and people, but also in analysing the meaning of events, policies, and actions in a lucid way. In doing so, Jager puts the perspectives from different parties to the fore; the Koreans are not simple victims of Japanese, Russian, or Chinese imperialism and intrigue, but their place, and the consequences of their actions, have their rightful place within the history of East Asia. Jager succeeds in writing a lively and thorough historical narrative.

However, in connecting the events of the book to the present day, Jager seems to suggests a certain kind of – problematic – narratological teleology and historic determinism. Jager ends the book with the annexation of Korea by Japan and a short analysis of the historic course the main countries of the book would take thereafter. The position of Japan at this point in time, in the face of a different international political course taken by the US, would almost inevitably put the two in future collision. However, more than 30 years passed between Korean annexation and Pearl Harbor. Within that span of time, a lot of things happened that warrant their own analysis and were not a priori certain to happen. A similar point can be made about Jager’s interpretation of the current geopolitical status quo and the events of the 19th century. The span of time in between it seems too far stretched for the events themselves – for example of the decline of Chinese hegemony in the area as the reason why China wants to reorient its modern position in the area – to shape current political visions and policy. Instead it seems much more likely that narratives of history are constructed and instrumentalised in such a way as to legitimise policy and national visions. Of course the events of the 19th century might still have an effect on the region today, or they might being used by politicians, but to overlook the period between 1910 and today, without a thorough analysis of this period of time and its many and monumental events, together with an in-depth analysis of the policy and statements of modern politicians, Jager’s statements about the connection between the other Great Game and today seem flimsy and fragile.

Nevertheless, Jager succeeds in providing a well-written narrative of the imperialist struggles that took place in East Asia during the 19th century. Using a vast and wide variety of sources, she portrays the historical narrative in a vivid, clear, and deep way that is both accessible to newcomers to the field of East Asian history and the history of imperialism, as well as to those that are more familiar with the history of this area and this topic. For the first kind of reader, the book will be an accessible introduction and survey. For the latter reader, the one that is more familiar, Sheila’s narrative will be an interesting overview, a vantage point for future research, or the narrative might be a topic of historiographic debate in itself. And even though Jager’s connection between the 19th century and today might be a topic of contention, this, together with the superbly written narrative, illustrates that the Great Game of East Asia is a lively topic for debate, and through its contentious (historiographic) nature, warrants more attention.