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China in the Early Modern Period



Basic Features


Political Organization: Empire

                                     The Emperor ruled with the Mandate of Heaven.

                                     Concept of Middle Kingdom

                                     Recurring cycle of dynasties that first win, and then lose the

 Mandate of Heaven.

                                    Highly developed bureaucracy.  Exam system for public service.


Social Organization: (hierarchy taken from Confucius) Scholars

                                                                                        Peasants (in reality peasants were

 at the bottom of society)





Value Systems:    Traditional rites and religion. (polytheistic)

                             Heaven, Mandate of Heaven, ancestor worship

                             Confucius- “Rational humanism”- emphasized duty, tradition,

                                    maintenance of social harmony. Analects.

                             Taoism- “intuitive mysticism”- emphasized harmony with nature.

                             Buddhism- Sought release from this world.


China was characterized by extraordinary cultural continuity spanning thousands of years.



Timeline of the Ming and Qing Dynasties



Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.)


1368-    The leader of the successful Chinese rebellion against the Mongol rulers of

            China proclaimed the beginning of a new dynasty in China.


1402-1424-   Reign of Ch’eng-tsu who moved the capital to Peking (1421).


1405-1433      - Voyages of Cheng-Ho announced the potential of Chinese supremacy at

 sea between China and the east coast of Africa.


1408-     Under Ch’eng-tsu’s patronage a compendium of  22,877 rolls of Chinese

            literature was completed.


1460’s-1470’s-  The Great Wall was strengthened.


1514    - Portuguese reached China


1549-     St. Francis Xavier landed in China.

1551-1610   - Matteo Ricci worked in China.


1557    - The Portuguese established a base at Macao.


1550’s-1560’s-  The Ming held off renewed Mongol attacks.


1600-   China’s population reached about 150 million.



Qing (Ching, Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912)


1644-  Qing dynasty came to power in northern China.


1662-1727     - reign of K’ang-hsi


1681-   Final resistance to Qing rule eliminated. Southern China brought under

 Qing control.


1683-  Coastal pirates were brought under control with European help, and with Japan’s

self-imposed isolation.


1689- Treaty of Nerchinsk settled border problems with Russia.


1697-  K’ang-hsi led the conquest of western Mongolia.


1700-    The population of China recovered to 150 million after tumultuous

17th century.


1704-1742      -  Papal decisions issued against the Jesuit positions in the Rites Controversy.


1707-    The Chinese kicked out all European missionaries but the Jesuits.


1720-    Chinese extended influence into Tibet.


1727-    Treaty with the Russians stabilized the northern border and secured Chinese

 control over the eastern steppes.


1737-1795-  Reign of Ch’ien-lung.  Under this emperor China reached its greatest

            economic prosperity and its greatest geographic extent.


1757-    Canton declared the only port available for foreign trade and traders.


1773-    The Jesuit order was dissolved by the Pope. The remaining Jesuits in China were



1796-1804  -     The White Lotus rebellion broke out.


1800 A.D.  -   The population of China reached 300 million.



Overview of China under the Ming and Qing Dynasties


In general a tight, stable society there prevented any widespread expansion of new thoughts in China as in 16th century Europe.

In the traditional Chinese worldview all foreigners were barbarians. This view was held by the Chinese through the nineteenth century.  


Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.)




Under the Ming, there occurred an enormous extension of land used for agriculture.

Chinese trade and mercantile sector expanded under the Sung dynasty and had continued to thrive under the Mongols. International trade, in particular, had grown under the Mongols. As part of the backlash against foreigners that followed the overthrow of the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty in China, the new dynasty established firm state control over sea trade.

With the abandonment of its fleets in 1434 China ceased to be a player in trade in the Indian Ocean, and Chinese merchants and artisans were left with a restricted overseas market for their goods. While internal trade remained brisk, as did long-distance overland trade (for a while), it is worth noting that China’s withdrawal from the world’s oceans and the trade they carried came at almost precisely the moment Europe was beginning its explorations.

Traditional Confucian ethics saw trade and merchants as essentially necessary evils. Thus the social status of merchants was very low in China. When merchants became rich, they tended to use their money to obtain education and government positions for their children, and land for themselves in order for their families to join the landed gentry at the top of the social ladder. Ironically, the relative openness of the upper levels of society meant that the mercantile sector continually lost its richest, and perhaps most able members. Of course it also lost their wealth as well. This meant that Chinese mercantile communities had difficulty developing large-scale trade and manufacturing.

Sea-trade with Europeans began in the sixteenth century. Remained limited and tightly controlled. However, the introduction of American food crops helped increase land under production and total food supply. 


Culture and Value system:

The Ming dynasty heavily favored Neo-Confucianism.  Confucian principles said that social leadership depended on learning and moral excellence. The Ming insistence on cleansing Confucianism of later accretions reinforced the conservative nature of Confucian, and therefore Chinese, thought. This conservatism carried into economics and social issues.

Literacy increased under the Ming.

China became increasingly xenophobic.



Under the Ming: foreign influences were reduced.  With the reassertion of traditional Confucian views on occupational status, merchants and artisans remained at the bottom of the social ladder.

The landed gentry again asserted their dominance in society and government.

The population increased. Ming: population c. 60 million in 14th century, up to circa 150* million by 1600. American crops introduced.

Education and the exam system provided a means for substantial social mobility.



Gunpowder technology supported the strength of the central government. Therefore it actually sustained an ancient ideal rather than something new.

The Ming essentially gave up the ability to control the oceans off the coast of China. As a consequence they sometimes used Europeans to try to curb piracy and smuggling.


Politics and Government:

With the Ming, China once again had an indigenous dynasty. The Ming ruled as traditional Chinese emperors. They were further supported by gunpowder technology, economic prosperity and a strong nationalist feeling among the people following the expulsion of the Mongols.

Early Ming rulers extended China’s dominance to Korea and southeast Asia. Expeditions were also undertaken versus the Mongols. The Great Wall was strengthened and extended. By 1424, China had established a kind of loose suzerainty over the Indian Ocean.

Soon, however, political infighting became a problem. On the one side were the landed gentry who traditionally had dominated Chinese government and the economy. Their interests were primarily agricultural. They favored a more traditional focus on inland affairs and inland borders. On the other side were the eunuchs employed in the government to balance the influence of the gentry. Their interests were more closely tied to the mercantile sectors of the economy. The conflicts between these two groups in the early fourteenth century expressed themselves in the debate over the importance of overseas trade and contact for China. Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese launched a series of sea voyages, led by the Muslim eunuch Cheng Ho, which carried Chinese fleets as far as East Africa. The first voyage included 27,800 men, 62 large ships, 255 smaller vessels. The third voyage was of a similar scale. The voyages were a means of demonstrating Ming claims to supremacy.  However, the movement of the capital north to Beijing from the south was an early sign of the influence of the landed gentry. In 1434, they won a total victory. The Emperor decided that the empire’s focus needed to be on the north and on its traditional agriculture and internal trade. Moreover, it was the traditional worries about northern steppe invaders that required military attention and resources, not the shores of southern China. International contacts beyond her traditional sphere of influence were neither of particular economic value, nor culturally beneficial. The victory of the agricultural interests of the landed gentry led to the almost complete abandonment of Chinese sea-borne mercantile and military fleets.  China literally beached its navy and it merchant fleet. With the withdrawal of the Chinese from the seas, piracy and smuggling became chronic problems.


Qing dynasty (1644-1912 A.D.)


The Manchu tribes established a small state north of China in the early seventeenth century.  They were basically sinified before their conquest.



Following the unrest of the early and mid-seventeenth century, China’s population rebounded to 150 million by 1700. In the next century, China’s population would grow greatly.

Population growth puts strain on the economy by the end of the 18th century. See similar strains in Japan and France. Marginal lands now occupied. Increased Chinese emigration

The traditional structure of Chinese society remained largely unchanged. However, as the population grew, relatively fewer people found it possible to move up the social ladder through entry into the bureaucracy via the exam system.


Although European traders and merchants exposed the Chinese to most of the new thought, art, and technologies emerging in Europe, the traditional Chinese disdain for barbarian cultures (the Europeans were actually referred to as the “South Sea barbarians.”) together with the renewed Qing emphasis on Neo-Confucianism led the Chinese to ignore the information they received about Europe.

Neo-Confucianism remained the official state doctrine. This doctrine emphasized the memorization of the great classics, and the removal of all later (and especially foreign) elements.

There was a great deal of literary activity in China under the Qing especially in the form of short stories and novels.  Scholarship flourished in 18th century China. There was some truly important new work, but over-all Chinese scholarship tended to narrow with a focus on the philological- textual studies. However, contributions to linguistics, astronomy, mathematics, geography, and philosophy continued to be made. There was also some historical writing. Numerous schools of painting existed mostly traditional. Kao Chi’i-p’ei (Manchu) painted with the balls of his fingers, the side of his hand, and a long fingernail split like a pen for drawing lines. There was a distinctive movement to move outside the sophisticated, refined modes of traditional painting- some emphasized simpler, more awkward styles, while others allowed “eccentricities” to show. Wood block prints were very popular



Trade with Europeans remained limited, but significant.

There were important agricultural advances: superior strains of rice were developed, irrigation methods were improved, and a better fertilizer was discovered (soybean cakes). The rising use of American crops helped to increase production as well, especially sweet potatoes and peanuts.  For a while the rise in agricultural production allowed tax rates to fall. Standards of living and life expectancy both seem to have risen.  Internal trade also grew greatly. The balance of foreign trade was also in China’s favor through the 18th century.



Through much of the 18th century, the Manchu “Banners” (field units) remained the backbone of the army.

By 1727, China had gained an unprecedented level of control over the eastern steppes, and had established spheres of interest with the expanding Russian Empire. Turkestan and Tibet were added to the Empire in the early 18th century.

However, the northern-focused Qing dynasty was unable to control piracy and smuggling on its coast. It enlisted European aid on this front.



The Manchus named their dynasty the Qing. They essentially adopted Chinese political theory, institutions, and practices. Civil administration was largely restored to the Chinese. However, military matters remained in Manchu hands.

The Qing employed a two-fold administrative system- provincial governors, usually Chinese, paired with military leader, usually Manchu,  well into 18th century.

Although the population was growing rapidly in the 18th century, the bureaucracy was not growing at the same rate, so it became harder to obtain positions in government. The exam system became increasingly competitive. By 1788- eight exams required to reach highest levels. The criteria for judging papers increasingly formalistic.





The Chinese Value Systems


By 1500 A.D., the Chinese world view was built on the foundations of several systems of thought and belief that evolved in early China prior to the birth of Christ: 1) an indigenous Chinese polytheism and belief system, 2) Confucianism, 3) Daoism, and 4) Legalism.

The earliest Chinese religion was a polytheism similar to those found around the world in early civilizations. One of the key elements of this belief was an emphasis on ancestor worship. This type of veneration was centered on the family and continues in some places today. Another key idea was the notion that nature existed in a balance of apparently opposite forces. The emphasis on the wholeness of being and on the need for harmony and balance became central components of the Chinese world view.  Finally, the emphasis on the derivation of political power from the chief deity, Heaven, unified Chinese political thought for thousands of year. According to early political thought in China, political rule was only legitimate when confirmed by Heaven. In early Imperial China, this evolved into the notion of the Mandate of Heaven by which the imperial dynasties were given divine legitimacy by Heaven as the earthly rulers reigned with Heaven’s mandate. However, the mandate not only gave authority to the Emperors, but also made them responsible for the well-being of their subjects. Poor rule could result in the withdrawal of the Mandate and it transfer to a new, more worthy, dynasty. Thus China’s remarkable  4500 year series of dynastic cycles retained a fundamental  way of looking at the world throughout its entire history.


Traditional world view and indigenous religion of China


Problem: Disharmony.


All Chinese thoughts centers on the notion that there is an underlying harmony we must seek to discover and to mold our lives to fit. There is a clear sense of an ordered reality. Humans, however, are susceptible to losing the patterns of harmony around us in nature. So the basic human problem is disharmony.



Cause: Turning from Harmony


There are several ways of seeing the human disharmony: lost sight of pre-existing harmony around us; failure to create and maintain harmony by performing the proper rituals and committing ourselves to the right ordering of our lives. Traditional Chinese religion blames restless spirits, for causing disharmony, because humans have failed to properly acknowledge and tend them. All agree that humans choose the path to disharmony and it is up to them to find the actions that will restore harmony.


Reality: The Harmony of Yin and Yang


Two interacting, interdependent, complementary forces at work in nature- yin and yang. The yang force is described: active, hard, warm, dry, bright, positive expansive, procreative, and masculine. The yin force: passive, soft, cold, wet, dark, negative, contracting, and feminine. No moral connotations. Everything in nature and society consists of these two energies interacting with one another. Men are predominantly yang, women are predominantly yin. Healthy person however maintains the balance within.

The ever-present spirits of traditional Chinese religion were either  earthly (yin) or heavenly (yang). Each person also has both spirits. At death the earthly spirit becomes an ancestral spirit, while the heavenly spirit merged with the ground upon the dissolution of the body.

In nature the five basic elements are either yang or yin. Wood and fire = yang, metal and water=yin; earth=both.  The interaction of yin and yang evident in seasons. Yin dominates in winter, yang emerges in spring and summer, and yin returns in autumn.

Always a sense of balance, a sense of a right time for actions and a right place to build structures that are in harmony with the interacting forces. The alternation between growth and decline, waxing and waning of the moon, and success and failure all reflect cosmic interaction.


 End: harmony in this life


Harmony is especially a this-worldly phenomenon. An important part of the goal of traditional Chinese religion was the harmonious family, a society ruled and inhabited by virtuous persons living harmoniously. Life beyond death is an issue, but the focus is on transformation of the person and of society in this world.



Means: discerning and living in harmony


Te= inherent power or virtue. It is the principle that allows or creates harmonious human life. Where virtue is present, harmony will be found, and where it is absent so too will be harmony.

Filial piety (Hsiao)- became especially prominent under Confucians, but was part of earliest Chinese thought. Literally refers to loyalty of son shown to father, but was also used to describe the respect and reverence anyone in an inferior social position shows for superiors. It imbued East Asian cultures with a very powerful respect for authority.

Another aspect of living in harmony came through ancestor worship. Many gods were originally ancestors.  The proper worship of these spirits through offerings of incense and food in temples, shrines, and home altars helped maintain harmony.

Divination,  practiced from the earliest times, was a window into the state of cosmic balance. Originally, divinations were made through the reading of cracks in bones or tortoise shells. Later this cracking was associated with broken and unbroken lines. These lines were eventually arranged in eight trigrams. The patterns these trigrams made when put together in hexagrams were arranged and  interpreted in the I Ching, which became in effect a handbook of divination.



Sacred: A Fundamental Harmony


According to the Chinese worldview and throughout East Asia there is a strong belief in an underlying order to the cosmos.  For Taoists fundamental harmony is found in the Tao. Confucianists, on the other hand, say harmony is manifested in the well-ordered society.  Mahayana Buddhism, Shintoism and even the teachings of Chairman Mao assert some basic ordering principle to reality.

Two concepts played a large role in Chinese government. During the Shang dynasty the deity Shang Ti (Ruler on High) was worshiped. He was thought to determine the success of human endeavors, and even of crops. The emperor’s diviners consulted him before embarking on any endeavor. Shang Ti was the guarantor of the world’s moral order. He ruled over the celestial hierarchy in a kind of model bureaucracy. Morphed into the “Jade Emperor” During the Chou dynasty, heavenly power identified less personally as Tien (heaven). Emperors came to be known as Son of Heaven. Conducted special ceremonies intended to maintain the harmony between Heaven and Earth. Rulers maintained authority only so long as they maintained the Mandate of Heaven. When rulers fail to maintain harmony n society through the promotion of virtue, they lose their right to rule- thus revolution is inevitable.


Taoism: The Way of Nature


Problem: Resisting the Flow


Cause: Striving.


When we allow ourselves to be deluded by the idea of a unique, permanent self we fall victim to desire. We try to become something. We strive to become permanent in an “unreal” way.


Reality:  The Tao and its Power


The world we experience is the manifestation of the unmanifest Tao. The pattern of the Tao is one of return- coming into being, maturing, decaying and they returning to the Tao. Everything part of this cycle. Everything has is own Te, it own destiny or power which will naturally manifest itself in living if not masked by desire.


End: Harmony with the Tao.


This means a simple and natural life, seeing life and death as part of the eternal Tao. For those leaders who lead the life of natural goodness, their society will be in harmony with the Tao.


Means: Action without Assertion.


Wu wei= inaction or non-purposiveness.  To practice wu wei is to act without asserting oneself. It means to have no ambitions, nor desire for fame or power- simply to be yourself.  B living spontaneously the person allows the Tao to come to its true expression , and “virtue” (te)will be natural rather than forced. Rather than seeking to “do good” for others, goodness will naturally emanate for the person in non-manipulative acts of kindness.


Sacred: The Nameless and Eternal Tao.


The Tao cannot be named or described. It is not God. It is sometimes described metaphorically as a stream of water in constant motion that wears down all in its path over time. It is the mother of all life. It is like a valley for the emptiness of the valley gives it reality. It is like a block of wood, the course of creativity, the void, or a deep pool.



Confucianism: The Way of Virtue


Problem: Social Chaos


Cause: A Breakdown of Virtue


When rulers don’t live virtuously people failed to follow their social roles. According to Confucius, the social and political chaos of his era was due its failure to adhere to proper behavior, to virtue. Education is the key to instructing people in virtue. This education in virtue focused on the models presented by past rulers and past society.  Confucian education then is essentially an attempt to restore the past, and is thus inherently a backward looking system of thought.


Reality: Life-giving, Relational, Harmonius


All reality is relational beginning with the hierarchical relationship between heaven and earth. Each part is patterned to work for the good of the whole and yet at the same time to realize it own nature. When we accept our role and seek to live in conformity with it, then reality is harmonious.

The harmony of the universe depends on an ordered, virtuous society.


End: A Harmonious Society


The ideal life was that of the “Gentleman.” (or Gentleman-Scholar)  The “Gentleman” was formed through a process of moral formation. The ideal was to realize one’s potential for good through the family and through public service.  The Gentlemen was always filial. He was the kind and just father, the loyal and faithful official, the righteous and judicious husband, the sincere and tactful friend.


Means: the Virtuous Life


The path to all this was education in specific virtues. The gentleman would maintain a balance between the inner virtues and the outer virtues


Inner virtues:

Jen = humaneness. The person seeks the good of others. The humane person naturally considers others. For rulers this meant a concern for the needs of every person.

Shu= reciprocity  Not doing to others you would not have them do to you.

Hsueh= self-correcting wisdom. Hsueh is a self-reflection and evaluation wherein

one strives always to be aware of where one is short of attaining perfection in virtues.


Outer virtues:

Li= propriety or good form. It can mean proper rites and rituals. It can also mean something like courtesy or treating others with the proper reverence and respect. In general it is a right and proper order to be followed in any circumstance. Without “li” society loses sight of how people are to treat each other.  Propriety is expressed most clearly in five human relationships: 1) ruler and subject, 2) father and son, 3) husband and wife,  4) eldest sons and younger brothers, and 5) elders and juniors in general. The concept of li also included proper religious rituals, ancestor veneration, and the worship of the deities and other spirits.

Hsiao= filial piety. Respect for elders.

Cheng ming= rectification of names.  Words are important. When words are degraded and lose their meaning society suffers. In particular titles must be respected.


Overall we should be trying to manifest the “te” natural virtue within us.


Sacred: Making the Tao Great.


Confucius believed one should actively seek virtue.