World History 2 26 - 2.3.2 China’s Dynastic Exchanges

Japan was not the only nation that turned inward in the seventeenth century. China did so as well when the Hongwu emperor, the first Ming dynasty emperor, attempted to reverse the effects of foreign occupation after defeating the Mongols in 1368. To prevent the dangerous effect of outside ideas and potential challenges to his rule, Hongwu decided that Chinese contact with foreign lands would consist primarily of visits by vassals from tributary states. By limiting trade to the exchange of tribute goods, China also hoped to pressure other nations, which greatly desired its products, to accede to its demands. One of the strongest of these demands was that the Ashikaga shoguns prevent Japanese pirates from preying on China and its vassal state of Korea, which the Japanese rulers were unable to do. In 1371, all private foreign trade was forbidden. Several years later, all foreign trade officially came to an end when the Maritime Trade Intendancies’ offices in the port cities of Ningbo, Guangzhou, and Quanzhou, through which all tribute goods were to flow, were closed. Harbors were filled with rocks and wooden stakes to prevent ships from using them. Ships were destroyed or left to rot in their docks. A shore patrol was instituted to catch anyone attempting to engage in trade. Though the punishment was death, smugglers widely violated the rule.

By cutting off access to foreign trade outside the tribute system, the Ming government greatly reduced its tax revenue, which left it constantly short of funds. To reduce the cost of government, Hongwu made wealthier peasant families responsible for collecting taxes and maintaining order in their villages, saving the expense of paying officials to do so. Soldiers’ families were given land to farm in order to make the army self-supporting. High taxes were imposed on merchants and scholarly elites. These reforms were largely unsuccessful. Soldiers often could not raise enough food to support themselves and either sold the land they had been given or deserted. Even wealthy peasants could not always afford to provide the services the government expected of them. Local officials lacked necessary funds, and they began to impose additional fees on peasants.

Hongwu’s son, the Yongle emperor, the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, was a bit more curious about the world outside China and more desirous of tribute than his father. Between 1405 and 1421, he dispatched Zheng He, a trusted palace eunuch, on a series of six voyages throughout the Indian Ocean. The purpose of these voyages was to demonstrate the wealth and power of China by distributing gifts to foreign rulers, thus prompting them to pledge themselves as vassals and offer tribute to the Ming emperor.

The first fleet departed in 1405. It consisted of 317 ships and 27,000 people, including sailors, soldiers, scholars, craftspeople, and fortune-tellers. It rode the monsoon winds from the coast of Fujian in southeast China to the Kingdom of Champa in southern Vietnam, where the crew traded silks and porcelain for lacquer wood, rhinoceros horn, and elephant ivory. The ships then visited Aceh, Majapahit, and several other city-states in Indonesia, where many Chinese merchants lived. From there, they moved on to Sri Lanka and Calicut. In Calicut, the crew traded for pearls, peppers, gems, and coral. On the return leg, Zheng He brought diplomats from the states he had visited to meet the emperor. On later voyages, the ships visited Persia, Arabia, and East Africa, and on one return trip, a ship carried a giraffe as a gift for the Ming emperor (Figure 2.20).

Painting (a) shows a man leading a giraffe with a rope tied around the giraffe’s head. Text appears above the giraffe. Woodblock print (b) shows four Chinese ships at sea.
Figure 2.20 Originally sent from the Somali Ajuran Empire in Africa, (a) the giraffe shown in this copy of a fifteenth-century painting was later given to the Yongle emperor by the sultan of Bengal. Zheng He’s historic fleet (b), which carried such treasures back to China, is depicted in a Chinese woodblock print of the early seventeenth century. (credit a: modification of work “Chen Zhang's painting of a giraffe and its attendant” by China National Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Chinese woodblock print, representing Zheng He's ships” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1430, the Xuande Emperor, the Yongle emperor’s grandson, ordered Zheng He to undertake his seventh and final voyage. These forays were China’s last significant effort to make contact with overseas lands for many decades, however. Factions at court worried about the effect of outsiders and their ideas on the empire, as well as the cost of the trips. Following Zheng He’s death, his charts and records were destroyed, and the ships of the fleet were left to rot.

China continued to interest itself in the affairs of territories it bordered, however. In 1406–1407, China invaded Vietnam to restore the Tran emperor to his throne after it had been usurped. A Vietnamese revolt ended China’s occupation of the country in 1427. The victorious Lê dynasty then pledged loyalty to China as a vassal state. In 1449, a Chinese military expedition into Mongol territory ended in the slaughter of the Chinese at the Battle of Tumu. In 1592 and 1597, Ming armies helped Korean troops repel a Japanese invasion. At other times, though, the Ming attempted to avoid conflict whenever possible. After the 1449 defeat of the Chinese by western Mongols (known as the Oirat) at the Battle of Tumu, construction began on a new Great Wall to supplement the original Great Wall, the earthen fortifications erected by the Qin in the third century BCE. It was hoped that the new fortification would protect China from the outside world.

China needed money to pay for this massive project, however, as well as such other projects as the extension of the Grand Canal to Beijing, which the Yongle emperor had made his capital, and the building of a massive complex of palaces and imperial offices in Beijing known as the Forbidden City. In 1567, the Ming dynasty reversed the policy that had prohibited foreign trade, and soon European merchant ships began arriving again. In 1577, Portuguese merchants, who had already been trading in China in violation of the law, were given permission to establish a factory at Macao. Of even greater interest to the Chinese, though, were Spanish galleons from Manila, carrying silver from mines in the Americas. When they left China, these ships took with them Chinese silks, satins, taffetas, velvets, damasks, and brocades, as well as ready-made clothing. One ship carried fifty thousand pairs of silk stockings. The Spanish also carried out the blue and white Chinese porcelain that had become the rage in Europe, along with ginger, cotton cloth, pearls, musk, saltpeter to make gunpowder, sapphires, rubies, and cages of songbirds along with other exotic goods.

China’s economy boomed, and many Chinese peasants began to focus on producing goods for the foreign market. Some specialized in raising cotton and weaving cotton textiles. Others raised mulberry trees and harvested their leaves to sell to families that raised silkworms (which feed on the leaves). Peasants who specialized in the raising of silkworms in turn sold their cocoons to others, who boiled them to kill the larvae and unreeled them to make silk thread. This thread was sold to households that wove silk cloth, which might then be passed on to those who specialized in embroidery. In Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, people mass-produced porcelain.

As the Ming economy grew, so too did its population. Crops from the Americas such as sweet potatoes and maize were adopted by many peasants, especially those who lived in hilly, dry regions like Sichuan. These crops grew well and provided abundant calories for farm families. Hot and sweet peppers from the Americas were added to regional cuisines, transforming them, and peanuts added not only variety but an important source of fat in diets lacking meat. These new crops ultimately proved harmful, however. As hillsides were cleared to plant corn, for example, regions became deforested and lost their valuable topsoil. Population growth was also not accompanied by an increase in cultivated land sufficient to support the added numbers of people, and in many regions, farmers found themselves tilling smaller fields as the generations passed.

New wealth led many commoners to imitate the nobility, building large homes with courtyards and gardens, purchasing fine rosewood furniture, collecting art and antiques, and hiring tutors to educate their children and prepare their sons for the examinations that would earn them jobs in the imperial bureaucracy. Restaurants, inns, and taverns sprang up in market towns and cities across the country as people became able to afford leisure activities. A flourishing printing industry produced not only agricultural manuals and copies of the Confucian classics but also plays and novels, some with erotic scenes and storylines. Guidebooks advised people traveling on business about where to stay and eat and also provided information about sites of historical interest. Increasingly, people began to travel for pleasure as well. In the cities prostitution boomed, and at the very top of a complex hierarchy, courtesans hired themselves out to wealthy merchants to entertain male guests at parties by playing music or competing with them in poetry contests.

Not all members of Ming society were pleased by the changes taking place in China. The burst of commercial activity made many prosperous, but not everyone benefited. As income disparities grew, resentments did as well. Members of noble families were appalled by the fact that many commoners could now dress and live as they did. Greater opportunities for commoners and changes in the structure of society were reflected even in the interpretation of the teachings of Confucius. Zhu Xi, a Confucian scholar of the Southern Song dynasty whose works were influential at the beginning of the Ming dynasty, had agreed with Confucius that all people possessed the ability to lead moral lives, but he believed this inner morality could become evident only through a process of intensive education. In the middle of the Ming dynasty, however, the scholar Wang Yangming rejected Zhu Xi’s teachings. According to Wang, morality was intuitive, and people could cultivate their moral natures while still participating in the mundane affairs of everyday life. Even the uneducated could understand moral truths. Other writers of the Ming era criticized the traditional structure of the family, which Confucius had considered the basis of an orderly society, and preached that it was not necessary to conform to what society considered “proper” modes of behavior. These doctrines frightened the more conservative members of society.

Dueling Voices

Proper Behavior for Women

In East Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, public concern for the morals of a rapidly changing society was reflected in a focus on women’s behavior. Chinese and Japanese scholars wrote works admonishing elite women about how to behave so as to protect their reputations and those of their families. Following are excerpts from treatises of advice for women from both of these countries, the first from China and the second from Japan.

With the decline of education today, women in the inner quarters have really ceased to be governed by rites and laws. Those born in villages are accustomed to hearing coarse words and those [born] in rich households have loose, proud, and extravagant natures. Their heads are covered with gold and pearls and their entire bodies with fine silks. They affect lightheartedness in behavior and cleverness in speech, but they mouth no beneficial words and perform no good deeds. . . .

At the high end are those [women] who wield their writing brushes and aspire to [develop] their talents in . . . poetry so as to brag that they are superb scholars. At the low end are those who strum vulgar [tunes] on their stringed instruments and sing lascivious words, almost like prostitutes.

—Lü Kun, Models for the Inner Quarters

A woman must always be on the alert and keep a strict watch over her own conduct. In the morning she must rise early and at night go late to rest. Instead of sleeping in the middle of the day, she must be intent on the duties of her household; she must not grow tired of weaving, sewing, and spinning. She must not drink too much tea and wine, nor must she feed her eyes and ears on theatrical performances . . . ditties, and ballads . . . . In her capacity as a wife, she must keep her husband’s household in proper order. If the wife is evil and profligate, the house will be ruined. In everything she must avoid extravagance, and in regard to both food and clothes, she must act according to her station in life and never give in to luxury and pride.

—Kaibara Ekken, The Great Learning for Women

  • What kinds of behavior were these writers trying to encourage in women? Why were these behaviors important?
  • What evidence do you see in these excerpts that women’s lives had been affected by what we would call consumer culture?
  • Where do you see evidence of women’s freedom? Where do you see the influence of Confucian values?

The days of the Ming were numbered. In the early seventeenth century, the onset of one of the intervals of the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling in the northern hemisphere, brought low temperatures and droughts in many parts of the country, leading to famine in some areas. Floods devastated other regions. Farmers whose crops had failed or who had inherited plots of land too small to support their families were unable to pay their taxes or their rents. Even those who could pay had difficulty finding the silver with which the law said taxes must be paid.

The government needed silver more than ever. The cost of supporting the imperial family had grown astronomically; over the years, court officials had used their positions to amass great wealth, often through corruption, and the war in Korea had been tremendously costly. With silver in short supply, the emperor sent court officials to the provinces, supposedly to inspect mines. In reality, the job of the officials was to confiscate silver held by merchants. When a group of Chinese officials arrived in Manila in 1603 to take silver from Chinese merchants there, the Spanish, believing China was planning to attack the city, killed twenty thousand Chinese residents and were no longer willing to trade with China. With the imperial government lacking sufficient funds to pay the army, Chinese soldiers were laid off. In 1627–1628, hungry, impoverished, and angry soldiers and peasants rose up in revolt in northern China. By 1632, violence had spread to other provinces. This made it even harder for government officials to collect taxes, which Beijing had raised in 1639, angering people even more.

North of the Yellow River, discontented peasants formed an army led by Li Zicheng. In the area between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, other rebels were led by Zhang Xianzhong. Province after province erupted in violence. In April 1644, Li Zicheng’s peasant army seized Beijing. In desperation, the last Ming emperor hanged himself in the palace garden after killing most of his family. Li declared himself the ruler of China and the founder of a new dynasty. He did not rule long enough to establish his dynasty, however. The next rulers of China were the Manchus.

The Manchus were members of an ethnic group that lived northeast of the Great Wall in southern Manchuria. They were descended from Jurchen pastoralists who had established the Jin dynasty that ruled northern China from 1115 to 1234 until their defeat by the Mongols. The Manchus had then settled down and become farmers. In the late sixteenth century, the Manchu leader Nurhaci formed the Manchu tribes into a state that paid tribute to the Ming emperor. In 1616, as the Ming dynasty began to collapse, the Manchus attacked Chinese settlements on the Liaodong Peninsula. They forced artisans to provide weapons for their army and farmers to provide food. Officials and army officers who were willing to submit to them were given positions in the Manchu administration. Those who rebelled were massacred.

Following Nurhaci’s death in 1626, his son Hong Taiji proclaimed himself the leader of the Qing (“pure,” “clear”) dynasty. As he expanded Manchu control over Chinese territory, he adopted Chinese forms of administration and incorporated greater numbers of Chinese officials in his government. Chinese bureaucrats and army officers, disgusted with the corruption of the Ming government and its inability to respond to the country’s problems, began to defect to the Manchus in large numbers. Fearing ongoing chaos following Li Zicheng’s capture of Beijing, Ming general Wu Sangui, who was charged with guarding the eastern end of the Great Wall, allowed the Manchu armies through. On May 27, 1644, Wu Sangui’s troops and Manchu forces defeated Li Zicheng’s army and took control of Beijing. The Manchu armies swept south, but Ming resistance there was fierce, and it was not until 1683 that all of China was brought under Manchu control.

Despite what many Chinese had feared, the early Qing emperors proved good rulers. They strove to preserve their identity as Manchus, but they also embraced Chinese culture. The first Qing emperor, Kangxi, toured China to acquaint himself with his new domain. He adopted the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus and ordered that each of the government’s six major ministries be led by Manchu and Han Chinese co-administrators. Kangxi governed according to Confucian principles and maintained the system of imperial examinations for government jobs.

The Manchu were careful to maintain their superior positions, however, and demanded loyalty from the Chinese. For example, local positions in government were usually given to Han Chinese bureaucrats, but supervisory positions were given to Manchus. All males were also required to demonstrate their acceptance of Manchu rule by wearing the distinctive Manchu hairstyle; the front part of the head was shaved, and the hair in the back was grown long and braided into a single queue. After 1645, men who did not wear their hair in this fashion were subject to execution.

Link to Learning

Read about the tours Kangxi took through China to learn about his empire. Click on the links on the page to see the painted scrolls that were made to depict the regions he visited.

Like other Chinese rulers, Kangxi also supported Buddhism. He tolerated other religions, including Christianity, which was permitted so long as Chinese Christians continued to be filial sons and daughters who venerated their ancestors, a practice the Jesuits supported. The Jesuits’ efforts to learn the Chinese language and their respect for Chinese culture made them more successful at winning converts than the Dominicans and Franciscans. But members of these other orders grew jealous and complained to the Pope about the Jesuits’ willingness to accommodate Chinese practices. When the Vatican ruled that all church services must be conducted in Latin and that Chinese Christians must be ordered to abandon their ancestral rites, Kangxi decreed that missionaries who complied would have to leave China.

Kangxi and his successors Yongzheng and Qianlong attempted to redress the problems that had seemed to lead to the downfall of the Ming. They placed China on secure financial footing, and fearing that the Ming had succumbed to lax moral standards brought on by wealth and luxury, Qing scholars returned to the teachings of Zhu Xi. Morally suspect plays and novels were banned, and great emphasis was placed on traditional Confucian values. For example, Qianlong visited his mother every day to display his devotion to her (Figure 2.21). Female chastity was encouraged, and so many memorial arches were erected by communities to commemorate “chaste widows,” women who had refused to remarry after the death of their husbands, that the government attempted to bring an end to the practice in the nineteenth century by declaring that only women who committed suicide upon becoming widows could be so memorialized.

This painting shows Emperor Qianlong. The emperor wears long robes and a hat. He sits at a table with paper and ink nearby. He holds a paintbrush in his right hand and strokes his long beard with his left hand.
Figure 2.21 Although he was a Manchu, Emperor Qianlong embraced Confucian values and tried to live the life of a Confucian scholar. Every day he spent hours working on affairs of state, visited his mother, and then dedicated himself to writing poetry and admiring works of art. This eighteenth-century painting of him in his study was made by Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit at Qianlong’s court. (credit: “Qianlong in his studies” by Chiumei Ho/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Qing, however, continued the Ming policy of interacting with other countries as little as possible. Like the Ming, they did intervene in Asia where it seemed their interests were at stake. For example, in 1683, the island of Taiwan, a base for pirates and a refuge for fleeing Ming loyalists, was made part of China. In 1720, Qing armies took control of the city of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In the 1750s, they fought Mongols and Uighurs in central Asia and incorporated the province of Xinjiang (“new province”) into China.

During the Qing dynasty, China continued to rely on foreign trade income, and European demand for Chinese products did not cease. The Qing remained wary of Europeans, however, and wished to minimize contact with foreigners as the Japanese had done. Non-Chinese were allowed to reside in Macao, but after 1759 they could conduct trade only through the port of Guangzhou and trade only with the Co-hong, the official Chinese merchant guild. While in the city on business, they had to stay in a special quarter for Europeans. When they had finished their transactions, they had to depart.

In the eyes of the Chinese, Europe was an inferior place that possessed nothing of interest. Although European scientific knowledge was impressive to some, most Chinese merchants and officials maintained a disdainful attitude toward the West that was reflected in the way in which Qianlong received Lord George Macartney, who visited China in 1793 on behalf of the British king. Qianlong demanded that Macartney, as the representative of an inferior monarch, demonstrate his respect by kneeling and knocking his head on the ground, the traditional way in which vassals greeted the emperor. Macartney refused to do so, and Qianlong announced that he was willing to accept the British monarch as a vassal but did not consider him an equal. He also refused Britain’s request to establish a permanent embassy in China. China, he noted, already had everything it needed, and Britain had nothing of value to offer.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax