One cold winter night in 1899, Don Mariano Ponce, envoy of the First Philippine Republic in Japan, was hosted to dinner by the renowned former samurai and future Japanese prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. The guests included some of the influential members of Tokyo’s cosmopolitan circuit who had taken some interest in the recent success of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, as well as the looming war between the new Philippine Republic and the United States. Among them was the famous Dr. Sun Yat Sen, leading Chinese intellectual and advocate for China’s transformation.

Sun would eventually lead the Xinhai Revolution against the Qing Dynasty, become the first president of China, and be honored by both the People’s Republic and the Taiwan-based Chinese Republic as the father of New China. That night, however, it was Ponce who was the star.

Sensing an opportunity to advance Manila’s interest, Ponce did not lose time regaling the group with stories of Filipino exploits, passionately articulating the underlying message of his mission: all Asian peoples have a moral duty to aid the Philippine cause. Sun was so impressed that he immediately wrote his well-connected Japanese contact, the pan-Asianist Touten Miyazaki, thus:

“I visited [the Philippine representative in Yokohama] and revealed my secret support for him. He was overjoyed, and promptly entrusted me with a great matter: the import of guns. It was our very first meeting, and see how he trusted me! I must do everything within my power for this cause. Moreover, this man’s spirit is exactly the same as ours. I want to ask you to use all your strength for these valorous Filipinos.”

In retrospect, enlisting the Chinese revolutionary to the Philippine cause was not a difficult task. Sun had known about events in the Philippines from reports and essays published by Chinese journalists and intellectuals since 1898, and had always been sympathetic. Still, gaining his support was a tangible measure of success for Ponce’s diplomacy, and a stark contrast to the failure of the other missions that Manila dispatched to Washington and Paris at around the same time.

For President Emilio Aguinaldo, the Ponce mission was a steep investment, ranking fourth among twenty-four items in the tight budget for the first fiscal year of the fledgling Philippine Republic. The goal of the mission was to seek Japanese support for Philippine resistance against America.

The Filipinos had sensed then that Tokyo could be swayed. At that time, the Japanese were eager to be recognized as leaders of an emerging pan-Asianist movement. At the same time, however, the Japanese government was reluctant to needlessly provoke the United States. Ponce’s strategy therefore focused on targeting sympathetic individuals. Sun, who had by then created a considerable political network in Japan, proved to be a valuable ally.

It was through Sun and Miyazaki that Ponce was able to purchase 10,000 rifles, six million rounds of ammunition, at least one single fixed cannon, and other arms amounting to 155,000 yen from Japanese trader Kihatiro Okura. The arms were stealthily dispatched to the Philippines aboard the steamship Nunobiki Maru. Alas, the ship sank off the coast of Shanghai on July 21, 1899.

Undaunted, Sun and Ponce pressed on for a second shipment, but the difficulties they faced eventually proved insurmountable. The discovery of the Nunobiki Maru shipwreck basically confirmed American intelligence reports of covert Filipino-Japanese collaboration, prompting the United States to pressure Japan. Eager to avoid a diplomatic ruckus, Tokyo tightened its leash on Japanese politicians sympathetic to the Philippine cause. By 1905, Japan had concluded the so-called Taft-Katsura protocol with the United States. This agreement apparently provided for mutual recognition of Japanese and American spheres of influence in Korea and the Philippines, respectively.

It has been argued that Sun sought to cultivate personal ties with the leaders of the Philippine movement as a matter of political strategy. Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo, who has done extensive research on the activities of early Philippine leaders in Japan, once postulated that Sun saw the First Philippine Republic as a possible ally that could aid the Xinhai Revolution in China, and therefore considered its victory over the Americans as a crucial Chinese interest.

If this was true, then Sun had overestimated the prospects of the First Republic. The Filipinos were doomed from the start given superior American firepower and their own internal squabbles, and even if by some sort of miracle they had prevailed, they would probably have spent their energies on the painful political process of unifying the Philippines. They would therefore have had neither the time nor the resources to intervene in Chinese affairs.

Still, it is generally accepted that the First Philippine Republic did raise a modest sum that was sent in support of the Xinhai revolutionaries on the mainland. The Philippine Republican Army at that time was no doubt familiar and likely sympathetic with the Chinese cause, having among their midst officers of pure Chinese descent, including the immigrant Hou Yabao who later on became General Jose Ignacio Paua.

But whatever his motivations, Sun’s involvement with the Philippine cause represented an inflection point in the evolution of the Chinese’ conception of international relations. For many centuries, the Chinese saw their “Middle Kingdom” as the only occupant of the highest tier of the universal pecking order. With the arrival of the west in 1793, however, this worldview was disrupted.

In the face of western superiority, the Chinese initially wallowed in ludicrous self-denial. Then, through a humiliating experience, they came to eventually accept that they were, in fact, just one among equals. China’s coming to terms with the western-imposed Westphalian world order was therefore a result of an interesting psychological process. Not a few historians assert that the Philippine story played a significant role in this process.

At around the same time that the British were coercing the decaying Qing Dynasty to open China up for western exploitation, the Philippines was witnessing unprecedented economic development brought about by increasingly globalizing international trade, of which Manila had become a node.

In 1812, or around two decades after Ambassador Macartney quibbled with Qing mandarins over whether to kowtow to the self-declared “Son of Heaven,” Spain, the colonial master of the Philippines, adopted the so-called Cadiz Constitution. This constitution affirmed the principles of freedom of thought and the separation of powers, and was therefore among the most liberal European constitutions of its time. Although the Cadiz regime was short-lived, it was a watershed moment in Spanish liberalization, and its principles endured and eventually reached Philippine shores.

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Filipinos began to become exposed to European liberalism. Soon they became the first colonized Asian people to demand equal rights with and eventually independence from their colonial masters. In 1880, Filipino expatriates in Europe formed the Propaganda Movement that established the philosophy and ideology that would later underpin the Philippine Revolution of 1896. That revolution would then force Spain into a standstill in 1897 and, after a short interlude during which its leaders took respite in Hong Kong, eventually defeat the Spanish and literally push them against the medieval city walls of Manila in 1898.

The Filipinos then created Asia’s first constitutional republic that year, and for a few months they maintained a parliament and a supreme court; printed stamps and minted coins; built a professional army; and attempted international diplomacy – in other words, they cloaked their revolutionary movement with the full panoply of statehood, which would have passed every western requirement of civilized nationhood were it not for their race. Within less than two years, however, the Americans, betraying their own national values, stole the Philippines from the Filipinos, sparking a bloody war that ended in Filipino defeat in 1902.

The Chinese press initially paid little attention to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and the subsequent Philippine-American War that broke out in 1898. Initial wire reports, informed by tales from Spanish refugees who spoke ill of “Aguinaldo’s banditry,” framed those events in the context of characteristic lawlessness of a stereotypical backwater colony. In 1899, however, excerpts from President Aquinaldo’s stirring speeches started to percolate in China, presumably through Hong Kong. The Chinese press, having discovered the sophistication of the Philippine movement, gradually changed the tone of its coverage.

The emerging Chinese intelligentsia, who had by then become increasingly disillusioned with their country’s state of affairs, eventually realized that the Filipinos, heretofore perceived to be primitive, were in fact prosecuting Asia’s first national struggle against the west. The Philippine case was promising, too. Not only did the Filipinos win against Spain, they were also giving the Americans a serious run for their money. The story had a profound impact on Chinese thinking.

For many years, Confucian philosophy viewed the correlation of powers as an element of what the Chinese call the li, a concept that is crudely translated in western philosophy as natural law. The li emphasizes harmony in social relationships between student and teacher, servant and master, emperor and subject – and basically strong and weak. It is a profound concept that cannot be oversimplified, but its ultimate premise is the idea that power disparities are somehow metaphysically preordained. This premise was also applied in the traditional Chinese conception of the world order, hence the “Middle Kingdom” complex.

It was in this context that the Philippine cause proved to be a powerful story. The idea that a smaller nation like could dare stand up to the predominant powers of those times upended the traditional Chinese worldview to some degree. The following passage from an essay by a Chinese intellectual at that time, the Guangdong editorialist Ou Jujiya, distilled the new meaning that the Philippines represented for a new China then:

“The Chinese elite have lost all hope. Their level of thinking stops at a conviction that to be strong is sufficient for taking advantage of the weak; to be big is sufficient for taking advantage of the small; to be numerous is sufficient for torturing the few. They have no knowledge of the fact that strong and weak have no definite form; big and small do not define strength; numbers do not define principle; that self-reliance can turn weak into strong, self-strengthening can turn small into big, and the unity of the people can turn the few into the many.

“Just look at the small islands of the Philippines led by native people opposing the preeminent rising power of the world, America… So, what of our China, with its vast territory and huge population, which is thousands of times bigger than the Philippines? If the Philippines can be self-reliant, what is the logic behind the claim that China cannot be? Please, let us now consider the Philippines.”

In her 2002 book Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, American Sinologist Rebecca E. Karl dedicated an entire chapter on the profound effect of the Philippine Revolution and the subsequent Philippine-American War on China’s nationalist awakening. In this chapter, Karl argued that Ou’s writings on the Philippines effectively challenged the validity of such “seemingly immutable categories” as “civilization,” “strong,” “weak,” “big,” and “small” – concepts that formed a central part in the enduring premise of the classical Chinese conception of a hierarchical cosmic order. In a way, therefore, Ou’s exegeses represented a rejection of the traditional emphasis on maintaining cosmic harmony, which exhorted individuals, and indeed peoples, to know their place in this cosmic order.

This new thinking on the Philippines was therefore part of the gradual departure from China’s “Middle Kingdom” pretentions at that time. In a symbolic demonstration of how a smaller nation can also upstage an older civilization, the future chief justice Liang Qiahao, who at that time was China’s most famous public intellectual, declared:

“The Filipino is a fellow Asian and my kindred. He has twice waged war against the white man, and never faltered despite difficult odds. To this, I must kowtow and prostrate myself on the ground.”

In short, the Chinese intelligentsia’s hopeful acclaim of the Filipino revolutionaries and their fledgling republic represented a rupture from classical Chinese indifference to peripheral peoples and cultures. The Philippines, after all, was on the fringes of the ancient Sinocentric world order, barely a bearer of Sinic civilization. Yet here it was now, providing a model for a weakened China to confront an ascendant west.