A very sketchy Chinese History as a reference for the Western reader Part 2


Unlike in the Mediterranean, the miracle of unity occurred again in China at the end of the sixth century, at the time when Muhammad founded Islam. The coincidence of timing is interesting. Between the second and third centuries BC, Rome was defeating Carthage and becoming the main player of the Mediterranean; in 221 BC, the first Qin emperor vanquished all his enemies. In the third century AD, both the Roman and the Han empires suffered a crippling crisis, yet Rome survived, while the Han vanished. In the sixth century AD, China again found its unity, while the imperial Roman rule of the Mediterranean was never again recovered.

The Chinese feat was the result of a court plot in one of the competing kingdoms of the time and aggressive campaigns led by an ethnic Chinese person who claimed to descend from the Han ruling family. The man, who called himself Emperor Wen, founded the short-lived Sui dynasty. Following the practice of the time, he employed both Xiangbei, a tribe related to the Xiongnu and considered to be proto-Mongolic, but also the semi-barbarian population in area of modern Sichuan. He redistributed land in a more equitable way to increase productivity, standardized coinage, and led massive infrastructural works of which the most notable is the building of the Grand Canal, linking for the first time the Yellow River basin with the Yangzi River basin. Also, he encouraged the spread of Buddhism for the first time.

Buddhism had arrived in China in the first century AD, and with the fall of the Han empire had spread in the country along with other religions coming from the west: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. However, Buddhism was by far the most successful because Chinese monks traveled to northern India and brought back extensive literature that was interpreted by meshing it with the popular indigenous Taoist religion. In the sixth and seventh centuries AD, sinicized Chan Buddhism (which the Japanese pronounce Zen) had become possibly the biggest religion in China.

Military activism depleted the dynasty, and the heavy last blow was the disastrous campaigns against the Korean peninsula’s Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of the peninsula at the time. Rebellions started all over the empire, and at about the same time Emperor Wen was killed by one of his advisers, while at the capital a general of Turkic descent, Li Yuan, took over the power and founded the Tang dynasty. This began in 618 AD and ended in 907, almost 300 years later.

Coming from a long period of division, there was little promise in the beginning that the Tang would manage to hold onto the vast empire and crack down on the many uprisings popping up all over the vast territory. They were already dividing the space into dozens of competing kingdoms, like not long before. But the empire held up, and the Tang dynasty turned out to be a seminal period in the history of China.

It proved forever that the unity China found during Han times was not a quirk, but a recurring theme: the empire would split but then would reunite, as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a popular novel, later put it.

This cultural myth was and is very important in China and marks a clear difference from the myth of the Roman Empire in the West. This latter myth, although inspiring for many later governments, including those of the present U.S. and Russia, is something buried in the past, since the fifth century AD, when the empire lost control of the whole of the Mediterranean and its western, seminal part was crushed by the invasion of Germanic populations. The Tang conversely proved and proves that China will always be one.

Surely many are the reasons for this, and Western history is remarkably full of failed attempts to recover the unity of the Mediterranean. One was with Justinian in the sixth century (right at the time of the Sui) and another with the Turks in the 15th century, for instance, as we shall see, who took over Byzantium and the Sultan assumed the title of “Roman Emperor” while trying to “conquer back” Rome, defended by the Pope and the Spanish armada.

Yet perhaps there are also geographical reasons why the Tang succeeded in what many attempted and failed in the west. China, as we saw, had external threats coming from only one direction: the northwest. Once the difficult and porous border was secured, control of the remaining area became easier. The Mediterranean is conversely all exposed—threats could and did come from all directions. Moreover, in China the area of control was a vast flat land between jungles, mountains, and a sea. Therefore, full control through a land strategy would suffice. In the West with the Roman empire conversely the area of control was a sea with slivers of coast along it. This imposed a two-fold strategy, naval and land-based and land threats came from the vast northern border with the Eurasian Steppes, with barbarian populations with nothing to lose, north and west of the Black Sea; and from the east and south, home of the mighty and structured Persian empires.

In any event, what is perhaps most important is that the Tang “restoration” was sensibly different from the Han empire. Two social elements seem noteworthy: the reform of the bureaucracy and the integration of foreigners.

The Tang was the first to set up a system of exams to accede to a treasured bureaucratic career, whereby officials could rule the empire for the emperor. This was something also new that has since then become a feature of the Chinese imperial rule.

Bureaucrats existed in China since the earliest times—the Zhou Li reported on them. But they were chosen by the sovereign either by casual encounters, as some stories are eager to tell us, or by a system of recommendations. Both recommendations and encounters were notoriously unreliable.

Officials or common people would recommend someone who was indebted to them, and thus his hold on the position would be flawed from the beginning. Casual encounters were just too unpredictable and in reality very rarely worked. A system of objective exams would provide a totally fair opportunity to any and all citizens to serve the emperor.

In theory nobody would be indebted to anybody and there were no vagaries of encounters. Moreover, the system would provide a means for social promotion. Even people who did not pass the exam could see the fair opportunity given to anybody who was smart and studied hard. Common people could save money to have their children study and become high officials. Society was suddenly more mobile and thus had fewer reasons for rebellion. Meanwhile, there would be more reasons to be loyal to the ruler.

The system was used on a small scale earlier, but scholars agree about the importance of empress Wu Zetian, around 655, in expanding the role of the examination and appointing to high positions people who had passed the final exam.

Certainly the exam system was not totally fair. There could be all kinds of cheating, but a social ladder was in place that reined in systematically the power of aristocratic families.

The second element was the integration of foreigners. Mongolic tribes served in the army; Persian traders—with their beards, hooked noses, and peaked caps—were a common feature in porcelains of the period. They were in fact so common that Hu, a word originally meaning barbarian from Central Asia, became a common Chinese surname. Different religions spread quickly in the empire, replacing almost all old beliefs and cults.

The management of these different peoples is evident in the remaining map of the Tang capital, Chang’An (Eternal Peace). The sprawling city of one million was divided into scores of walled sections: one for each for religion or craft. Curfews were imposed and heavy sanctions threatened those who disobeyed them. But the capital was also awash with stories of leisure and poetry and dance at night, well past curfew, and of holes made in the battered-earth walls once the official gates of a section were closed.

The Tang dynasty was a time of classical poetry and a painting renaissance, which became the cornerstone of Chinese culture, along with the earlier philosophical works and historical writings. Inspired by the new Buddhist sense of emptiness and hollowness, both poetry and painting delved into natural descriptions. Clouds dimming and blurring mountains and forests illustrated the void of our existence, where people were tiny, almost invisible specks in the scenery.

The new internal strength of the empire projected the Tang into Central Asia. However, in 751, the Tang were checked and defeated in the Fergana Valley in the battle of Talas, by the Arab Abbasid force that was trying to push east. The battle of Poitiers, where the Franks stopped the advance of the Arabs in France was less than 20 years earlier, in 732. The Arabs did not advance further east, in any case, but the Tang projection beyond their foothold in Central Asia was stopped forever.

The Tang were more successful against the bellicose Tibetans who were descending from their mountains into the fertile Chinese flatland and had not yet converted to Lamaist Buddhism. The fight for the first time put the then powerful Tibetan empire into some kind of loose subjection of the Tang.

Those military feats were undermined by the crippling An Lushan (755-763) rebellion that although quashed left the empire wakened and sowed the seeds of its eventual demise about a century later with the Huang Chao rebellion. Decades of great confusion ensued until in 960, through a court plot in one of the fledgling post-Tang kingdoms, Taizu founded the Song dynasty. He took the next decade to conquer back all of China, which he and his successors held until 1126. Warfare and diplomacy were used to fend off the northern neighbors, the Mongols, especially those of the kingdom of Liao, who had by then acquired many technologies originally developed by the Chinese and kept peace with the Song.

Then the semi-Mongolic population of the Jurchen rebelled against the Liao and launched an attack on the Song.

The empire didn’t fall apart but resisted until 1127, and until 1279 in the south. It was a unique period in China. The Southern Song dynasty, as the time is known, is widely recognized as the period when historically China came closest to developing a full-fledged capitalist economy. Merchants rose to prominence and set up industries that produced resources helpful to support the country against pressures from the Jin’s Jurchen and the Khitan, the semi barbaric states established in the north.

However eventually the inability of the Song to mount a proper counteroffensive against the northern kingdoms and the rise of a new Mongolic power under the guidance of Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai put an end to the Song empire.

The 140 years of the Southern Song were significant also because for the first time we saw the break of unity of all under heaven (tianxia), the idea of unity of the known world, and the rise of the concept of a central state, (zhongguo), used for the Southern Song dominion. At the time, in fact, Chinese language and Chinese culture were still used in the expanded koiné, as it was the common written language and common culture for the Mongolic kingdoms, the Korean peninsula, and the emerging powers in Vietnam and Japan. In this context the Southern Song was the Central State, the Zhongguo.

The concept is actually old. During the Spring and Autumn period, the core states in the central plain were deemed the truest heirs of the ancient legacy and thus were called Zhongguo, whereas the peripheral states were considered newcomers, almost semi-civilized. In Buddhist literature, sometimes India was referred to as Zhongguo, to underscore its cultural centrality in the spread of Buddhism. The Southern Song then adopted the name, which recognized both the break with the unity of tianxia and the centrality of Chinese state.

The Mongol rule over all of China was a very traumatic event. The Mongols tried to keep separate from the Chinese people, in order to not be assimilated and mollified by the Chinese mores. The court language was Persian and foreigners were promoted over Chinese, including hundreds, if not thousands of “frank” merchants (Marco Polo’s family was one of them).

The huge political continuity of the Mongol empire throughout the Eurasian continent created for the first time a space of peace that boosted trade and cultural exchanges. However the overstretch of the Mongol rule and the lack of proper political management left China practically in the hands of bandits and warlords in the second half of the 14th century. The rebellion of the Red Turbans further weakened the Mongols, and eventually a local chieftain, the penniless peasant and Buddhist monk Zhu Yuanzhang, who had joined the Red Turbans, defeated all enemies and established the Ming dynasty, which ruled for 276 years (1368–1644).

Painfully aware of the dangers from the north, the Ming concentrated on closing itself off from foreign attacks and interference. The defenses of the Great Wall were reinforced, and rather than the old system of battered earth, the Ming used a kind of cement made by mixing sand, water, and the flour of glutinous rice.

The one important geopolitical change to the Chinese vision of the state came during this time: the capital was moved from the central area of modern Henan, surrounded by lines of mountains on the northwest and southeast, to modern Beijing[1]. Beijing was on the edge of the northern steppes, very close to the Great Wall in the north and with a open space to the south. Therefore the court could immediately learn about and intervene in case of threats from Mongols or Manchus, and it would be also easy to reach the southern fertile lands in the case of rebellion. It was a massive change of heart about the conception of the strategic priorities of the state. The previous location in Henan was defensive. Mountains ridges protected the capital from attacks but also made difficult interventions against invasions or rebellions. The move of the capital meant that the Empire would take more risks but also it would be more proactive in countering threats. It was a reaction to the huge shock of the Mongol invasion and conquest. This was made possible by the imperial inability to counter-react in time. This was a political mode that lasted until present times.

Early redistribution of land brought a windfall of wealth, witnessed in a sharp increase in population, which reached possibly 200 million people in the early 15th century. But then revenues were produced by a smaller number of registered farmers. Many were expelled from their land or “donated” their land to eunuchs or monks, who were tax-exempt. Without children, eunuchs and monks were often stand-ins for powerful and rich landlords. Meanwhile, pirates from Japan came raiding the Chinese coast, and some local Chinese actually joined the foreign raiders, adding chaos and tearing apart the social fabric of the empire.

In the middle of all this came one of the strangest events of Chinese maritime history. The Ming launched a series of massive expeditions under the command of Muslim eunuch Zheng He (1371–1433). His larger ships were over 100 meters long and carried hundreds of sailors on four tiers of decks, and the whole expedition at one time counted some 30,000 people, about 100 times larger than Columbus’ expedition to America. As the voyages came just a few decades before the Portuguese circumnavigated Africa and the Spaniards discovered America, this proves that the Chinese at the time were technologically fully capable of surpassing the European feats.

In fact, Zheng He’s fleet reached as far as western Africa and brought back gifts and homages from many far away peoples. There were seven voyages between 1405 and 1433, designed apparently to establish a Chinese presence over the Indian Ocean trade, impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin, and extend the empire’s tributary system. But these grand voyages, unlike those of the Europeans, drained the state coffers rather than replenishing them. They were thus discontinued. The ships were burned and so were all public documents of those trips in order to discourage similar later enterprises.

However, international trade reached the Ming Empire after the discovery of America and Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe in the early 16th century. China saw the rapid adoption of many American agricultural products. American hot peppers became a staple ingredient in the inland southern cuisine of Sichuan and Hunan. Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons became very common.

These voyages can be also be perceived as a Ming probing into threats coming from the Sea – they were none, and none of them was comparable to threats which were mounting from the North where semi barbarians kingdoms were emerging.

But it was American silver that changed the economy of China and saved the dynasty for a time in the 16th century. Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch merchants developed an appetite for Chinese industrial products, like silk and porcelain, which they paid for in American silver. This trade remonetized the Chinese economy, which was over-reliant on papers notes (first introduced possibly during the Tang dynasty). But trade was not proactive and not encouraged by the state. Chinese traders in fact started moving into Southeast Asia at the time and established a strong trading post in Manila around 1550–1560. However the Spaniards gained control of Manila and kicked out the Chinese traders. They were not backed by the court, which actually considered them some kind of nuisance.

The Spanish took over Manila and made it their base for trade in Asia, America, and Europe in 1570, the same year when they also stopped the Turkish advance in the Mediterranean at the battle of Lepanto.

From the Spanish foothold in Macau, the Jesuits also started their cultural voyage in China, with Matteo Ricci, who reached Beijing, producing the first modern map of the world for Emperor Wan Li. Ricci died in 1610 in Beijing. The Ming collapsed in the middle of the 17th century with the rebellion of Li Zichen. Loyalist generals then called in the Manchu, who had established a strong empire on the northern Ming borders since the middle of 16th century. The Manchu quashed the rebellion, but then claimed the power for themselves, stressing to be the real continuity of the Ming (meaning “bright”) and calling themselves Qing (“clear”). The Jesuits played both sides and soon were used by the Manchu to produce modern cannons. Also their translations of classic Chinese works massively influenced Europe, which saw China as a model culture.

It took about 40 years for the Manchu to consolidate their power in China and quell all pro-Ming forces. This concentration created a huge adjustment in Central Asia, where the Russians started pushing east. After vanquishing the last Ming loyalists, who had fled to the island of Taiwan, which the Dutch had earlier conquered, Emperor Kangxi in 1689 stopped the Russian advance in the south and with the Treaty of Nerchinsk signed the first formal treaty with a European power.

Yet peace was not secured. It took more fights against the Dzungar Mongols (allied to the Russians) to secure the northern border. Moreover Kangxi also dispatched two armies to Tibet, and installed a Dalai Lama (of the Yellow sect, as is the present Dalai Lama, in place of one from the Blue sect) sympathetic to the Qing. The Dzungars rebelled and were totally crushed in massive extermination war around 1755. At the same time, from South Asia, the English were probing toward the Himalayas and Central Asia. For the first time in history, Central Asia was no longer a mostly empty space controlled by nomadic tribes. Modern, organized states divided this space among themselves and built new empires on it.

Here the Qing was for a time by far the strongest power. With a population with over 300 million people, it was home to one-third to half of the global GDP. Their social system, hinging on the privileges of the aristocracy of the banner-men, the eight groups of people who had joined the Manchu coalition in early days, provided a strong structure. Yet there was growing pressure from the north, even as demand for silk, porcelain, and tea (which made drinkable the foul hot water in Europe) brought in more silver.

In 1756 the Qing established a system that restricted maritime trade to Canton and gave monopoly trading rights to private Chinese merchants. That is, the Qing eventually partially imitated the system of the Spanish over two centuries earlier, with merchants backed by the state. But by then it was too little too late. In fact the English system of merchants-state relationsip had become more comprehensive.

In 1793, the British East India Company, with the support of the British government, sent a delegation to China led by George Macartney to further open trade. The imperial court viewed trade as of secondary interest, whereas the British saw maritime trade as the key to national welfare. The Qing turned down the offer. In the meantime, China had accumulated about 70% of the silver in the world and a huge trade surplus. The English at the beginning of the 19th century, winners of the wars against Napoleon, saw that the only product the Chinese merchants were willing to buy was opium. But opium, although at the time legally traded in England, was forbidden in China as an addictive drug which was causing large social problems.

These pressures were to trigger the first Opium War in 1839. In the two decades before that, the Qing were growing worried by the renewed Russian pressures in the north, while the Europeans, who for about two centuries saw China as the model country, started viewing it as a place of barbarians.

With hindsight generations of experts saw that China had grossly miscalculated threats. But actually based on a realistic assessment perhaps Beijing’s calculations at the time were rational. For four hundred years, since Zheng He’s voyages, China had probed onto the seas and thence no threat had ever come. The greatest challenge was that of pirates, based also on parts of the Chinese coasts, who made life difficult for the coastal people but posed no existential danger. Moreover, Chinese tradesmen, living on the coasts or in South East Asian countries, were sometimes in cahoots with these pirates and thus could not be sponsored by the state, they were enemies of the state. They would attack the Chinese state, not back it, and they were reciprocated.

Coastal trade, controlled and managed would conversely only help China, as the great silver inflow had proved since the 16th century. Therefore, the whole issue was that of management of these attacks. They had occurred under different flags, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English.

On the other hand threats from the north were much more real. The Mongols had overthrown the Song, the Tang themselves came to power thanks to their strong Turkic allegiances. The Ming had consolidated their power only because they had radically changed the perspective of their power, with the move to Beijing, and even that had not been not enough when exposed to the double threat of difficulties raising from a rebellion within and pressures from a strong empire outside. To the Chinese at the time the Russian strains in Siberia was the continuation of their own way into the Ming Empire, the continuation of the Mongol forces, allied to the Russians.

Therefore the rational choice was right: accept a small defeat with the English and concentrate more on the Russians. What the Manchu court missed however was a grander assessment of the global situation. The world for the emperor was still China and its neighborhood. The court didn’t see the global world arising and coming to its doorsteps. For over 300 years, despite the growing trade of the Europeans in the region, the cultural influence of the Jesuits, the Chinese had brushed off taking a serious interest in what was happening politically and strategically outside their backyard.

They had grown no interest in imitating the European Powers in sending off ships to trade independently with the Americas. The oceans were to the Chinese possibly something like the northern steppes – something too vast to firmly dominate with their own close administration and thus it was enough to keep them at bay. They didn’t see the nimbler European structures of ventures, trade and invasion as something to learn from. It was rather something that could undermine their own firm grip on traditional land administered power.

That is, as in the 5th century BC Qi’s state grasping Guang Zhong’s ideas changed the politics of China, since the 17th century, since Matteo Ricci’s China’s inability to see the deeper political sense and consequences of western encroachment, created the situation that lead to the fatal misunderstanding of the first Opium War. From there China entered its “century of humiliation” but also modernity. That is an almost religious awakening: we understand greater truths only by humbling ourselves.

[1] I am indebted to professor Lu Xiang for this point.