Pretty much as the title asks. I've heard it put forward that China's far more decentralised nature made it far harder to counteract conservative forces and enact sweeping change but even so what about Korea and how true was said sentiment anyway?
[emphasis mine]Literacy also came hand-in-hand with a strong knowledge base, general educational infrastructure, and above all: money. That last was especially important, because industrialization is a lot easier when you have a wealthy investor class interested in making more money via industry, and Japan had one thanks to 200 years of peaceful internal trade and economic development, plus the general degradation of the economic power of the landowning samurai class. And despite the closed nature of Japan they imported a good deal of Western scientific knowledge even before Commodore Perry came knocking through Dutch traders in Nagasaki.
So would you say in many ways the reaction of those at the top in terms of social atavism and recollection of past events like said rebellion in the 10s was in many ways the blocking force in wide institution lead reform and then the lack of singular strong personages in the form of a legitimate leader like Meiji to rally around then also prevented narrow personally directed reform?Wow, talk about a complicated question...
IMHO, in China the greatest opposition to reform actually came from the traditionally-literate bureaucratic class, who recognized the threat that Western ideas posed to their worldview and social position. In Qing China, for example, reform leaders constantly had to defend themselves against qingyi (a sort of vox populi for Qing officials), whose cumulative influence the Manchu Court could not afford to ignore. As a result, modernizing reforms (i.e. those that took the Chinese state away from a traditionally Confucian orientation into a Western fiscal-military one) could only be conducted on a very ad-hoc and partial basis.
As an example, the depth + breadth of the Qing Self-Strengthening Reforms, especially in its non-military aspects, depended very much on the political influence of the Prince Gong faction in court, especially combined with Li Hongzhang (LHZ) in the bureaucracy. The Qing court did not have the political capital to issue a national directive for reform - LHZ didn't even hold formal national office, being Commissioner of the Northern Ports + Viceroy of the Capital Region. As a result, reforms moved faster when LHZ was politically ascendant (1860s), and slowed drastically when he was less so (1870s-90s). Their direction also depended on what LHZ liked (Navy, weapons, merchant shipping, foreign policy) versus what he chose to ignore (education, local govt, the "land economy").
The Qing court couldn't ignore qingyi not because they were Manchus ruling over Han, but because imperial policy post-Qianlong stressed consultation with the bureaucratic-gentry class rather than suppressing them. Qianlong in his late years engaged in repeated "struggle sessions" in order to dominate the bureaucracy; this alienated the monarchy + bureaucracy from society-at-large and resulted in rebellion during the 1810s. After the near-death experience from the various rebellions of the 1850-60s, the Qing had no desire to re-engage in such alienation, and in any case, the young Qing Emperors and Dowager Empresses that succeeded Daoguang had no capability of doing so.
The Qing had plenty of access to Western knowledge and Western-trained personnel; there was simply never the political ability to employ them for systematic reform. Even then, the Qing (on the surface) seemed on the brink of modernization in the 1870/80s, with modern armaments, experiments in industrial production/technology, regularized diplomacy, and even some forays into imperialism re: Korea and Tonkin. Ultimately, however, the partial nature of their reforms came to haunt them in the Sino-Japanese War of 94-5, exposing the poor training and logistics backup of the Qing compared with Japan and inaugurating a new era of semi-colonization for China.
All this is to say that ultimately, the Qing failed to 'modernize' because it failed to comprehensively reform, and that was because it could not override opposition from the traditionally-educated bureaucrats at court and the gentry that backed them in broader society. This is in contrast to Japan which, almost immediately after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, established comprehensive reform projects such as the Ministry of [Western] Education (1871), Home Ministry i.e police + local admin (1873), and legal reform (started 1872). Apart from the differing nature of the Tokugawa-era bureaucratic class, a key reason why the process went much more smoothly in Japan was that the Meiji oligarchs had squashed the opposition through military means, i.e. the Boshin War. Whatever opposition that wasn't co-opted into the new Japanese order had very little leverage by which to resist the tide of reform, as Saigo Takamori would find out in 1877.
Going from this, it's possible that the Qing could have modernized with a more despotic yet reform-minded leadership at its head. Sympathetic accounts of Empress Dowager Cixi see her as this, but she was unfortunately hamstrung by her not-very-legitimate political position, which meant more collaboration with the bureaucrats.
I would say so - Institution-wise, Emperor Jiaqing's reforms to the Grand Council (in the wake of rampant abuse of authority by Qianlong's favorite Heshen) in the 1800s-10s made it less likely that a reformist GC could override bureaucratic opposition to modernization (not that such momentum could be sustained if the Emperor opposed it). Even Prince Gong, who sort of led the GC from 60s-84 felt it necessary to repeatedly hand responsibility over to Li Hongzhang so the latter could be blamed if things went wrong, particularly when it came to diplomacy.So would you say in many ways the reaction of those at the top in terms of social atavism and recollection of past events like said rebellion in the 10s was in many ways the blocking force in wide institution lead reform and then the lack of singular strong personages in the form of a legitimate leader like Meiji to rally around then also prevented narrow personally directed reform?
I suspect the homogeneous nature of Japan may have assisted the modernisation. It allowed very rapid political development; from a 'traditional feudal' system to a modern 'nation-state' within ~50 years. It could take the new glue of patriotism and slather it on, which allowed the Japanese society to carry itself through the disconcerting developments - in effect, jumping from [to borrow Weber's terms for a moment] 'traditional domination' to a 'rational-legal' one.
Many 'traditional empires' failed at this, usually due to the kaleidoscope nature of their populations. They didn't have any handy 'glue' to keep everything together when they were at the iffy point between 'ending the OldWays' and the 'start of the NewWays'.
This also meant that there was less openings for good old 'divide and rule' when the Foreign Devils turned up...