During the Ming and the Qing dynasties, rudiments of capitalism began to take shape in the socio-economic development. However, the centralized despotism and coercion in politics restrained the development of new productive forces. The stratum of townspeople swelled constantly in this social background. The early signs of the ideology of enlightenment started to appear. The representative figures were Li Zhi, Huang Zongxi, Gu Yanwu, Wang Fuzhi and Dai Zhen in the end of the Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty. They exposed the irrationality of the system of autocratic monarchy, condemned the hypocrisy and cruelty of Neo-Confucianism, advocated practical learning of managing state affairs and proposed a notion that both industry and commerce were foundations. At the same time this criticism on the whole was still in the primary stage. An developed system of thought had not yet come into existence. Therefore, these social critics were not able to put forward a blue print for social reform.
Confronting the increasingly mature traditional culture, the ruling class took it as their key task to arrange the academic achievements in a systematic and comprehensive way. The Ming and the Qing dynasties employed plenty of manpower and abundant financial resources to collect and systemize a tremendous amount of ancient books. They compiled in succession the following works: Great Encyclopedia of Yongle and Corpus of Ancient and Modern Books, with materials taken from various sources and arranged according to subjects; the large-scale series Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature; the general anthology of prose and verse Complete Collection of Tang Prose and Complete Collection of Tang Poetry; large reference books The Kangxi Dictionary, Peiwen Yunfu and Exegesis of Confucian Classics. Meanwhile there was an upsurge of textual criticism, engendering the fairly influential “Qian Jia School”. By means of scholium, the scholars were engaged in textual research and annotation of Confucian classics and other ancient works from the angles of grapheme and phonology. They also emended the ancient books from the angles of edition and catalogue. Their exegetics of words in ancient books contributed tremendously to preserving and inheriting the traditional culture.
In the literary world of the Ming and the Qing dynasties, the greatest success was attained in the creation of novels. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Heroes of the Marshes and Pilgrimage to the West and A Dream of Red Mansions were regarded as the four greatest classical novels. The famous collections of short stories included three collections of short stories edited by Feng Menlong and Strange Tales from a Lonely Studio. A number of magnum opuses appeared in the realm of science and technology, such asCompendium to Materia Medica written by Li Shizhen, A Survey of Flood-Prevention Work by Pan Jixun, Complete Treatise on Agriculture by Xu Guangqi, Exploitation of the Works of Nature by Song Yingxing, Xu Xiake’s Travel Notes by Xu Xiake, and Biography of Almanac Compilers by RuanYuan. A bizarre outlook of the culture in the Ming and Qing dynasties thus formed: brilliant cultural consummation within the backdrop of the decadent political atmosphere.
During the Ming and the Qing dynasties, the cultural exchanges between China and the foreign countries were developing increasingly. Different from the previous process, which mainly spread Oriental culture to the West, the introduction of Western Learning to China became an important phenomenon then. Between the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty, the missionaries from the West arrived in China. While evangelizing with their gospels, they translated into Chinese considerable Western literature on astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and other subjects, bringing with them advanced Western science and technology to China. However, their sphere of religious activity was rather limited and the people who had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the knowledge were confined to the literati and officialdom in the imperial court. The Opium War in 1840 ushered in the era of the introduction of Occidentalism into China on a large scale, with the gateway of China being forced to open wide. It was stamped with a distinctive color of colonial invasion. Meanwhile, the knowledge about mathematics, physics, chemistry, geography, astronomy, medicine, and agriculture was introduced to China. Western social science was brought to China as well, greatly transforming the Chinese superstructure and ideology. The traditional culture was confronted with momentous challenges.