Central Themes and Key Points
China: The Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1912)
  • China has outstanding naval capacity in the early 1400s (see the discussion of the Ming voyages in the unit Ming Voyages: 1405-1433).
  • The Chinese political and social order is at its height in this "late imperial" period of the last two dynasties: the examination system has, from the Tang dynasty onward, created a strong centralized and fully functional civil service in place of an aristocratic elite with a territorial base of power. Scholar-gentry, residing at home as they study for the next level of examination or await official appointment, support the work of the appointed district magistrate (who, by regulation, cannot be from the district) and form one elite class of Confucian literati that governs China.
  • By the 1700s the Chinese governmental practice in general, and civil service examination system in particular, becomes a model for emulation championed by the Physiocrats and other political activists seeking to reform government in Europe, and particularly in France.
  • Qing imperial power is at its height under three strong emperors, who rule in succession: Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735), and Qianlong (1736-1795) and expand the borders of Chinese territory to the greatest extent since the Han empire. Military campaigns in the 1700s bring Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang), Outer Mongolia, and Tibet under Chinese domination.
  • Advanced commercial development takes the place of industrial development in China: geographic unity, river systems, and canals facilitate the development of internal trade in China. The mainland of China forms a natural unit almost cut off by mountains and desert from the Eurasian land mass to the west and south. Its size and the political unity that prevails for much of its late imperial history promote interregional trade within China. The absence of trade barriers within this unified country and the existence of a vast and varied geography mean that shortages in one part of China can be made up through trade with another. Similarly, labor needs in one area can be filled by migration or by shifting manufacture to another area. Geographic factors that facilitate this internal trade are the Yangtze River, the complex network of rivers in the south, and China's long coastline. China thus never feels pressure to develop labor-saving technologies or to engage in extensive expansionist or colonizing activities, in contrast to the West and Japan. (Contrast with the political and economic history of Europe, where the existence of many small countries leads to trade barriers and local shortages, prompting individual countries to pursue technological advances, wage costly wars, and engage in imperialism.)
  • A primitive national market, remarkable given China's vast territory, exists in certain essential commodities such as grain, cotton, and tea. The Chinese state does not control commercial development. Responsible for popular welfare, it emphasizes the production of staple food crops; merchants are viewed as unproductive and constitute the lowest class in the traditional Confucian hierarchy. From the Tang dynasty (618-907) onward, however, with growing population and expansion of territory, state control of the economy is gradually reduced. Except for strategic goods like salt and certain metals like copper and lead needed for currency, the state does little to control commerce. (This contrasts with European states where cities are required to be chartered by the royal house, and with Japan, where cities are allowed to develop only in the castle towns of the daimyo and in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, which has special functions in the central government.) Moreover, the Chinese government does not rely very heavily on commercial taxation; its main source of income is land and salt taxes. (This contrasts with Western Europe where government taxes on commerce are heavy.) This environment fosters the development of an intricate market network which extends deep into the countryside and which is comprised of periodic village markets with links to regional markets. A number of factors, including China's size, the difficulties involved in conducting long-distance trade using metal currencies, and the minor role played by government in regulating the economy — help explain why China is the first country to develop paper money, sophisticated brokerage practices, and banking institutions.
  • The Chinese use a tribute system as a basis for trade and restrict access of foreign traders to Chinese markets, particularly by limiting them to specified ports under controls established by the central government. Under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795) the Western trading companies are limited to Canton (today, Guangdong) where they have contact only with officially designated Chinese firms, or hong. (This comes to be known as the "Canton System" under which the British chafe by the 1790s.)

Europeans in China, 1500s-1750

  • The Portuguese, leading the early Western European attempts to reach the Asian markets by sea in the 15th and 16th centuries, first reach China in 1514 in the form of both a formal embassy and trading pirates. The latter provoke the displeasure of the Chinese government by building a fortress on Chinese territory and disrupting established trade patterns, and by buying Chinese children offered by kidnappers. By 1557, however, the Chinese government grants the Portuguese trading rights on the peninsula of Macao (south of Canton). (Control over Macao was ceded to Portugal 300 years later, in 1887, under treaties imposed upon the Chinese; the territory is reverting from Portuguese to Chinese control at the beginning of the 21st century.)
  • The Portuguese establish themselves as major actors in the "carrying trade," or exchange of goods, between Asian countries, and become involved in trade between China and Japan — thereby earning money to purchase those commodities wanted back in Europe.
  • In 1565, the Spanish — competitors of the Portuguese for territorial and trading rights in the areas newly reached by sea — establish themselves in the Philippines and claim it for Spain. Manila becomes the entrepot for the Spanish in conducting trade with China, as Macao is for the Portuguese. Silver, minted by the Spaniards in their new territories in the Americas eventually travels across the Pacific, through Manila, and into China as the commodity the Europeans can trade for the goods they seek from China (the Spanish or "Mexican dollar"). Asia is the center of the world economy at this time and China, a "sink" for silver. (The British eventually find a way to reverse this trade pattern with the introduction of opium in the 1800s.)

The Catholic Controversy over Chinese Rites

  • Catholic missionary orders are central to the Portuguese and Spanish entry into China, attempting to bring the faith and world view of Christian Europe to Asia. The Jesuits, in the person of Matteo Ricci, enter China from Macao in 1582; Ricci receives an audience with the Chinese emperor in 1601. Interested in Chinese rites and customs and knowledgeable about astronomy, the Jesuits are retained in the imperial court and function as court advisors for 150 years, under Ming and Qing emperors. (Knowledge of astronomical patterns was essential to Chinese emperors in fulfilling their roles as mediators between heavenly order, natural order, and human order and in performing the annual calendrical rites.)
  • The Franciscan and Dominican missionary orders arrived in China in the 1630s with the Spanish. They challenged the Jesuit toleration of Chinese morality as equal to Christian morality and the Jesuit acceptance of Chinese ancestral worship as a civil, not a religious, rite. The Chinese responded by labeling Christianity a heterodox sect (one challenging to official authority). The "Rites Controversy," as it came to be known, lasted for 100 years, from ca. 1640-1742, and involved the Chinese emperors and the Pope. In 1742 the Pope ended the controversy by ruling against the Jesuits and requiring Catholic missionaries to forbid the practice of Chinese "rites and ceremonies." Christian missionary activity subsided in China for the next century, until the treaties imposed upon the Chinese by European governments in the late 1800s (beginning with the Opium War (1839-1842) and the Treaty of Nanking (1842)) provided them with new bases of operation on Chinese territory.

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