China and East Asia

The Chinese state

During the subsequent two thousand years, the leaders of the Chinese state would all be referred to as “emperors” and the country itself referred to as an “empire.” Yet since one dynasty continuously was replaced by another, there is little continuity in Chinese history and the struggles for political power resulted in both revolutions and prolonged periods of wars. Moreover, several of the dynasties were not Chinese at all butestablished by foreign invaders. Despite this political diversity, there is a striking continuity when it comes to cultural values. Most emperors embraced Confucian ideals and were active participants in the various rituals which Chinese culture prescribed — including ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven at various times of the day, month and year. The emperors saw themselves as Sons of Heaven who ruled by virtue of the mandate that Heaven had given them. In addition, a large and rule-bound bureaucracy helped to provide a sense of continuity from one dynasty to the next. For our purposes, there is no reason to discuss every dynasty, but we can briefly mention the most important ones — the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing — with a focus on China’s relations to the rest of East Asia.

The rulers of the Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220, were far more successful than the Qin when it came to maintaining themselves in power. The Han dynasty lasted for well over four hundred years. While the First Emperor may have established many of the imperial institutions, it was during Han that the same institutions were consolidated and developed. The Han state organized a proper bureaucracy run by a professional class of administrators whose salaries were paid for by taxes on key commodities such as salt. In a sharp break with the cynical doctrines of the Qin, the Han emperors made Confucianism into the official philosophy of the state. All administrators were supposed to read the Confucian classics and to serve the people with virtue and benevolence. The emperor was placed at the head of the administrative system, but in practice, his power was constrained by court conferences where his advisers made decisions by consensus. The Han state took charge of society and organized economic activities, including the building of roads and canals; large state monopolies were established for the production and sale of salt, iron, and liquor. The coins minted during the Han dynasty helped expand trade and made it possible to pay taxes in cash rather than in kind. Han-era coins, with their distinctive square holes at the center, were to remain the standard means of payment until the Tang dynasty, three hundred years later. Not surprisingly, Chinese to this day refer to themselves as hanren, “Han people.”

Speaking of trade, it was during the Han dynasty that the caravan routes first were developed which connected China with Central Asia, India, and the world beyond. Although the Roman Empire and Han China had no direct connections with each other, the goods traded along these routes did. It was now that Chinese silk became a fashionable item among Roman elites and Roman glassware ended up in China. This trading network is often referred to as the “Silk Road,” although that term is a nineteenth century invention by a German scholar. Besides, many more items than silk were traded and there was never only just one road. The caravan routes brought foreign people and ideas to China too, such as Buddhism which has its origin in India. Central Asia was not only a site of trade but also of military engagements. The Han state was continuously harassed by a confederation of nomadic peoples known as the Xiongnu. Nomadic peoples would continue to make trouble for Chinese farmers and for the Chinese state for much of the subsequent two thousand years.

The Tang dynasty, 618-907, is perhaps best remembered today for its cultural achievements. It was during Tang that arts like calligraphy and landscape painting first were developed, and when writers like Li Bai and Du Fu composed the poems which all subsequent generations of Chinese schoolchildren have been made to recite. Economically the country was thriving. China-wide markets in land, labor, and natural resources were developed, and many technical innovations took place, including paper-making and woodblock printing. There were extensive mining and manufacturing of cast iron and even steel, and trade was brisk along the caravan routes. Well-fed and prosperous, China’s population grew quickly, counting some fifty million people. It was during Tang that the system of entrance examinations was conclusively established. In order to get a job as a government official, you were required to pass a demanding test on Confucian philosophy and on the classics of Chinese literature. Since the imperial bureaucracy was the main road to social and economic success, the country’s elite effectively came to be selected through these examinations. It was no longer enough to come from an aristocratic family or to have money.

Tang dynasty China exercised a strong cultural influence over all countries with which it came into contact. This was, for example, the time when Japan, Korea, and Vietnam adopted a Chinese-style writing system and when Confucian philosophy and Chinese arts spread far and wide. During the Tang, it was very fashionable to be Chinese. At the same time, the Tang dynasty was wide open to the rest of the world, with foreign goods, fashions and ideas entering China along the caravan routes. Through renewed contacts with India, Buddhism was further developed and indigenous Chinese sects such as Chan — what the Japanese later were to call “Zen” — were established. Chinese people dressed in foreign clothing and Chinese men married women from Central Asia. The Tang dynasty was a cosmopolitan empire where people from all over the world would mingle — Persian and Jewish traders, Arabic scholars and travelers, conjurers from Syria and acrobats from Bactria.

The Song dynasty, 960-1279, was another period of economic prosperity and cultural flourishing. A number of important technological inventions were made at this time, including gunpowder and the compass. Making creative use of the invention of paper-making technology, the Song was the first to issue banknotes. Paper money helped spur trade, although it also caused inflation. This was when large manufacturing industries were established which produced consumer items for a market which included the whole of the country. The economic changes provided ordinary people with new opportunities. Poor people could rise in the world and rich people could become richer still. Often members of the newly affluent middle class would establish themselves as patrons of the arts. Scholars and connoisseurs of culture would gather in gardens and private retreats to view works of art or to recite poetry and drink tea, and there were lively, if more plebeian, entertainment quarters in all major cities. During the Song dynasty, literacy increased, books became readily available, and the study of the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy made great strides.

In military terms, the Song emperors were far less successful. Like all Chinese dynasties, they were menaced by tribes attacking them from the north, in this case above all by the Jurchen, a people from whom the Manchus would later claim their descent. In 1127, the Jurchen captured the Song capital of Kaifeng and forced the emperor to retire. In an audacious move, the Song elite relocated their court to the southern city of Hangzhou, just west of present-day Shanghai. Although they had lost much of their territory, and the move was a source of great embarrassment, the economy continued to develop. China’s population doubled in size during Song, above all since farming expanded and since new species of rice came to be used. The Song strengthened their navy and built ships that could travel to Southeast Asia and trade with the islands of what today is Indonesia. They strengthened their army too and began using gunpowder as a weapon. Yet the military setbacks continued. The Song dynasty came to a final end in 1279 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan overran Hangzhou, deposed the emperor and established a new dynasty, the Yuan, 1271-1368.

Despite their spectacular success as conquerors, the Yuan dynasty lasted less than one hundred years and in 1368 the Mongols were replaced by the Ming, a dynasty once again led by Chinese people. The Ming dynasty lasted until 1644. The Ming dynasty too enjoyed economic success. There was now a China-wide market for consumer goods such as fabrics and foodstuffs, as well as for prestige items like porcelain and furniture. Since many of these items were produced in large series, many objects from the Ming period, such as vases and teacups, are still with us today, fetching high prices at auctions around the world. During Ming, gardens became a fashionable setting for social and cultural life. In Hangzhou and in the neighboring city of Suzhou, rich merchants competed ferociously with each other in establishing and extending their gardens. Meanwhile, the Chinese state returned to its Confucian roots after the Mongolian interruption. Administrators were once again selected in terms of their knowledge of the Confucian classics.

During the Ming dynasty, relations with the rest of the world were rather more complicated than during the Yuan. The Ming rulers had little knowledge of the steppe and little appreciation for trade. Or rather, the Ming dynasty was a time when the issue of foreign trade was hotly contested between various court factions. The group most strongly in favor of trade were the eunuchs, the emasculated courtiers who made up the staff of the imperial palace. The most successful trader among them was Zheng He, 1371-1433. He brought thousands of vessels with him on no fewer than seven far-flung journeys of exploration and trade which took his fleet to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even to the east coast of Africa. Yet soon after Zheng He returned from these journeys, foreign travel was banned and all ocean-going ships destroyed. The Confucians at court, in their wisdom, decided that foreign contacts on this scale were too disruptive of the Chinese way of life. Although the policy on foreign trade would continue to fluctuate in response to various power struggles, China increasingly closed itself off from the rest of the world. Not coincidentally perhaps, extensive work on the structures known as the “Great Wall of China” took place at this time.

The Qing dynasty, 1644-1912, which replaced the Ming was the last imperial dynasty. It was established by the Manchu tribes which overran Beijing in 1644, and who, in subsequent decades, proceeded to conquer the rest of the country. In contrast to the Mongols, the Qing emperors adopted many institutions from their predecessors such as the bureaucracy and the entrance examinations, and also many customs, such as the elaborate rituals which the emperors were required to perform. Yet the Qing were at the same time intensely proud of their Manchu heritage. Manchu princes were taught how to ride a horse and shoot arrows, and at the imperial court in Beijing visitors were often treated to displays of equestrian arts or, in the winter, to skating competitions. The Qing rulers were Confucians in the ceremonial sense of all emperors, but they were at the same time great patrons of Buddhist temples, especially of the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.

Two of the Qing emperors had particularly long and successful reigns. Emperor Kangxi ruled for sixty-one years, between 1661 and 1722, and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong, ruled for almost as long, from 1735 to 1796. These hundred-plus years was a time of great military expansion. This was when Taiwan was incorporated into the empire, together with vast areas to the north and the west, including much of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The Chinese made wars, if less successfully, in Vietnam and Burma as well, and stopped the Russians from advancing southward from Siberia. Even if the state treasury suffered as a result of these extensive campaigns, the economy of the country as a whole was thriving. Both Kangxi and Qianlong were patrons of scholarship and the arts. Kangxi’s name is associated with a great character dictionary which helped standardize the Chinese language. And on Qianlong’s orders, a great anthology of all Chinese books was compiled — containing some 3,450 works in 36,000 volumes. Yet the Qing policies on foreign trade closely mirrored those of the Ming. During Qing too there were prohibitions and control.