After the defeat of emperor Kublia Khan, the Mongol dynasty in China weakened. In 1368, a peasant and his rebel army overthrew the last Mongol emperor, took the name Hongwu (“totally warlike”), and founded the Ming Dynasty. Ming means “brilliant” and lasted 300 years - until 1644. During this period, China grew to include Korea, Mongolia and parts of Central and Southeast Asia.
To help him become popular and accepted by the people, Hongwu lowered taxes and revived traditional Confucian principles in government and society. He brought back and improved the civil service exam to make sure that he could hire qualified bureaucrats to work for his government. Hongwo eliminated anyone who he saw as challenging his authority; over time he had thousands of rivals killed.
When Hongwu died in 1398, his son Yonglo became emperor, ruling from 1402 to 1424. Yonglo moved the Ming capital to Beijing and built a vast imperial city there surrounded by high walls. This city complex became known as the Forbidden City because most people were forbidden from entering it. Some of the Forbidden City’s more famous structures were the “Gate of Divine Might,” the “Palace of Heavenly Purity,” and the “Hall of Supreme Harmony.” This city within a city was surrounded by a moat and included dozens of palaces, halls, temples, homes and other buildings. Only the golden-colored rooftops could be seen by the common people who had to stay outside the 35-foot high walls.
To extend China’s influence, Yonglo sent China’s own version of Christopher Columbus on seven voyages around the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. The commander was a Chinese Muslim admiral named Zheng He. He and 300 ships called junks docked at major ports in over 50 countries in Southeast Asia and Africa where he left gifts from the emperor and demanded tribute in return. Most of his voyages were peaceful, but on the third voyage, the ruling family in Ceylon demanded huge payments of Chinese silk and gold in exchange for protecting Zheng He’s ships. Zheng He marched on the capital, took the royal family captive, and set sail for China. Only after they agreed to kowtow (kneel 3 times and touch their foreheads to the ground 9 times to show respect) to the Chinese emperor were they allowed to go home.
Zheng He returned to China with wonderful gifts from the places he visited. Besides gems, metal, medicine, cloth and agricultural products, he brought back exotic animals such as ostriches, lions, tigers, zebras and giraffes (which the Chinese thought were unicorns!) These animals formed the zoo that is still in Beijing today.
Chinese junks were amazing ships. Held together with iron nails, they were the largest seagoing vessels in the world at the time. Called “whales,” they had 5 huge sails, several decks and measured 400 feet in length. Passengers slept in comfortable cabins with bathrooms. Crew members took their families on extra long voyages and grew vegetables and spices on the decks in huge wooden tubs. Junks carried firefighting equipment, lifeboats and scientific instruments for taking samples of sea life from the ocean floor. Warships were equipped with weapons, such as catapults for tossing firebombs and bamboo tubes for firing small gunpowder rockets. The Chinese invented rudders for steering, the use of multiple masts, and the world’s first compasses carved from lodestone. These ideas didn’t make their way to Europe for over 200 years.
After Yonglo died in 1424, the Ming emperors lost interest in exploration. The cost of the expeditions was high, and critics argued that since Chinese culture was far superior to all others, such contacts were useless. They claimed that China could only be corrupted by contact with foreigners and foreign cultures. This desire to be isolated from the rest of the world would lead to their downfall 400 years later…
THE QING DYNASTY
In the late 1500s, the Ming dynasty lost the confidence of the people because of weak rulers who raised taxes and crop failures resulting in famine. Rebellions broke out and in 1644, the Manchu people from the northwest (Manchuria) seized Beijing and started the Qing (“pure”) Dynasty. The Manchus required Chinese men to wear their hair in the Manchu style, with the front of the head shaved and a long braid down the back called a queue. Any man who refused was punished.
Westerners – especially the British - were eager to buy Chinese teas, silks and porcelain, but none of their trade items interested the Chinese. As a result, Westerners had to pay with silver. In the 1700s, the British East India Company controlled England’s trade with China. They were allowed to dock only in specific port cities in the south, and forbidden to travel in China or even talk with ordinary Chinese people. When England petitioned the Qing emperor to allow more trade in the country, the emperor banned the petitioner from China for life and executed the Chinese man who had written the request for him. I guess that meant “NO!”
The Brits were angry about this and the fact that they had to pay silver for the goods they wanted so badly. In the late 1700s, they discovered a product that the Chinese wanted after all: opium, a powerful drug extracted from poppy seeds and flowers. Originally, it was used as a diarrhea medicine, but mixed with tobacco and smoked, it was an extremely addictive drug. Opium was outlawed, but The British East India Company bought it from producers in Turkey and India and smuggled it into China. By 1800, it is estimated that one in ten Chinese was addicted to opium.
The Qing emperor appealed to Queen Victoria of Britain, asking her to stop the smuggling, but she refused. The Chinese official, Lin Zexu confiscated and destroyed 30,000 chests of British opium. British sailors killed a Chinese civilian and refused to turn them over for punishment; instead, they declared war on China. The Opium War lasted from 1839-1842. Because China had been isolated from the world for so long, their war technology was sadly out of date. They tried to fight British guns and iron-clad steamships with bows, arrows, spears and swords. In the end, the British won and forced the Chinese to sign a humiliating treaty. China had to pay the cost of the war (21 million dollars), give Hong Kong to Britain as a colony, and open up 5 more ports for trade. Worse than that, the Chinese had to allow the Brits to continue to sell them opium. China’s control of its own borders and its own affairs was over.