How Manchuria Changed the World

Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history being made today.

The athletes of the world might currently be competing for titles in Beijing, but it was in northeast China where the battle for world supremacy was played out one century ago.

Manchuria, a strategic region of Asia bordering Mongolia, Russia and Korea, was the site of a war between two fledgling superpowers in 1905, whose outcome set history on a different course.

The short, little-known Russo-Japanese War had far-reaching effects, playing a part in turning Russia into a Communist nation and, with its victory, Japan into the decisive leader in the East at the time.

It was the first time an Eastern country had defeated a Western power in the modern age, and many of the brutal trench-warfare tactics invented in Manchuria would be carried over onto the battlegrounds of World War I.

Many candidates vied for Manchuria

Originally part of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and then the birthplace for the last great empire of China from 1644–1912, the resource-rich lands and strategic seaports of Manchuria have long attracted foreign interest.

The 450,000-square-mile territory, which could easily swallow the states of California and Texas put together, was a contentious place in the early 20th century. By the end of the 1890s, Russia had made inroads in

Manchuria by supporting China against Japanese invasion of the area, getting permission to build its iconic Trans-Siberian Railway across the territory and gaining access to Chinese ports.

Unofficial annexation of the area by Russia was all but complete after a Chinese uprising against western influence, called the Boxer Rebellion, was swiftly crushed.

With China weakened militarily, Japan saw an opportunity to claim parts of Manchuria for itself, protecting its interests in the Korean peninsula in the process. In February of 1904, it declared war on Russia, altogether ignoring China, who still technically ruled the area.

The Russians and Japanese spent a year and a half fighting each other on Chinese soil, with most observers expecting the powerful Russian army to prevail easily. The war dwarfed anything the world had ever seen, with the use of heavy artillery inflicting massive losses on both sides.

To the shock of the globe, Japan ultimately defeated its imperial rival, using many of the successful tactics — from trench-digging to the use of machine guns — that would become the standard in battle during World War I.

Presided over by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the post-war treaty saw Russia lose all its holdings in China and Japan gain effective control southern Manchuria, securing its influence in Korea, which it would officially takeover in 1910. China wasn't even consulted during the negotiations.

Japan empowered; Russia embarrassed

The Japanese victory over Russia in Manchuria did much to shake up the balance of world power. Embarrassed and discontent, the people of Russia revolted against imperial rule in the later months of 1905 — the precursor to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that would finally topple the czars and turn Russia into the Soviet Union.

Japan, meanwhile, gained immediate prestige on the world stage.

Though it did not technically rule Manchuria, Japan's uncontested presence in the area gave it access to a rich coffer of raw materials, putting the empire on the path towards colonial domination of the East, industrialization and the intense militarization that it displayed during World War II.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the Russo-Japanese War, less apparent then but certainly more so in the century to come, was its transformative effect on traditional Chinese society, historians say.

Humiliated by both Russia and Japan, two relatively "modern" nations, in 1905 the Chinese government made reforms that westernized its education systems. In 1912, China abandoned a tradition going back over 2 millennia, overthrowing the imperial system and establishing a republic.