Tradition and Change in East Asia China Prior to the Early Modern Period

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Chapter 27

Tradition and Change in East Asia

China Prior to the Early Modern Period

  • From 1279-1368, China was ruled by nomadic Mongols (known as the Yuan dynasty)

  • The Mongols ignored traditional Chinese political and cultural practices and implemented their own practices

  • For example, the Mongols utilized foreign officials (such as Turkish and Persian) in government rather than the traditional Chinese bureaucrats

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

  • Ming (“Brilliant”) dynasty comes to power in 1368 after Mongol Yuan dynasty driven out

  • Ming dynasty marks the return of native Chinese rule

  • Ming dynasty was founded by Emperor Hongwu (r. 1368-1398)

  • The Ming used traveling officials called Mandarins (oversaw enforcement of imperial policies) and large number of eunuchs to maintain control (since eunuchs could not reproduce, the Ming did not consider them a political threat/rival)

  • Ming Emperor Yongle (r. 1403-1424) experimented with sea expeditions (similar to European expeditions), and he also moved the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing to deter Mongol attacks

The Great Wall

  • As evidence by the changing of the capital, one of the Ming dynasty’s major policies was defense, especially from the nomadic Mongols in the north

  • Under the Ming dynasty, the Great Wall of China was constructed

  • Origins of the Great Wall date from before the 4th century BCE, ruins from Qin dynasty in 3rd century BCE

  • These past fortifications were rebuilt under Ming rule, during the 15th-16th centuries

  • Hundreds of thousands of laborers worked on its construction

  • 1,550 miles, 33-49 feet high

  • Guard towers

  • Room for housing soldiers

The Great Wall of China

Eradicating the Mongol Past

  • Another major policy of the Ming dynasty was to eliminate Mongol and foreign influences and return to Chinese traditions and practices

  • Ming emperors encourage abandonment of Mongol names & dress

  • Ming dynasty supported the study of Confucian classics and other Chinese cultural traditions

  • Civil service examinations were renewed under the Ming dynasty (examinations were eliminated under Yuan or Mongol rule)

Ming Decline

  • 16th century maritime pirates (Chinese pirates) harm coastal trade

  • Navy & government unable to respond effectively to pirates

  • In addition to the disruption caused by pirates, Ming Emperors began to seclude themselves in the Forbidden City, a palace compound in Beijing

  • Hedonists (pleasure-seekers): Ming Emperors enjoyed many luxuries in the Forbidden City

  • Ming Emperor Wanli (r. 1572-1620) abandoned imperial activity to eunuchs (eunuchs would provide amusement and concubines to Ming Emperors)

  • With their new positions of authority, eunuchs also enjoyed lives of luxury

  • The growing political influence of eunuchs (and disinterest of Ming Emperors) resulted in political corruption and inefficiency, thus weakening the Ming dynasty

Ming Collapse

  • The Ming dynasty collapsed due to famine & peasant rebellions in the early 17th century

  • Collapse due to the government’s inefficiency to deal with these crises

  • Rebels take Beijing in 1644

  • Manchu fighters enter from the north (Manchuria) and retake city

  • Manchus refuse to allow reestablishment of Ming dynasty

  • Manchus establish Qing (“Pure”) Dynasty in 1644, also use Beijing as capital

  • Qing dynasty would rule China for over 260 years (from 1644-1911)

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

  • Manchus originally pastoral nomads from north of the Great Wall (Manchuria)

  • Manchurian chieftan Nurhaci (r. 1616-1626) unified tribes into a centralized state, developed laws & a powerful military

  • The Manchus soon established control over Korea, Mongolia, & China

  • After taking Beijing in 1644, Manchus engaged in conflicts with Ming loyalists to 1680

  • Manchus receive support from many Chinese who were fed up with Ming corruption

  • After they consolidated their power in China, the Manchus forbid intermarriage (marriage between Manchus and Chinese), the study of Manchu language by Chinese, and force Manchu hairstyles as sign of loyalty (shaved head with a top pony-tail)

  • The Qing dynasty, therefore, was concerned with maintaining cultural and ethnic identity

Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722)

  • Qing Emperor Kangxi was a very powerful and effective ruler

  • He was a Confucian scholar & poet

  • Conducted several military conquests: island of Taiwan, Tibet, central Asia

  • Grandson of Kangxi, Qianlong, would become emperor (r. 1736-1795) and also expanded Qing territory

  • Rule of Qianlong was the height of the Qing dynasty

  • Under Qianlong, China experienced great prosperity, so much prosperity that tax collection was cancelled on several occasions

The “Son of Heaven”

  • Although the Qing Emperors appointed Manchus to top administrative or political positions, the Qing continued to employ Ming practices of government

  • The Chinese tradition of the “Son of Heaven” one such example

  • Under the “Son of Heaven” both Ming & Qing Emperors were considered quasi-divine (the emperor had heavenly powers used to maintain order on Earth)

  • Emperors enjoyed hundreds of concubines & thousands of eunuch servants (served as administrators)

  • The name, dress/appearance, and person of the emperor was almost sacred in China

  • Any slight disrespect for the emperor resulted in severe punishment

The Scholar-Bureaucrats

  • In addition to eunuchs (and more prominent than eunuchs), Chinese scholar-bureaucrats ran the government on a day-to-day basis

  • Scholar-bureaucrats were graduates from intense civil service examinations

  • Examinations were open only to men

  • Curriculum: Confucian classics, calligraphy (decorative handwriting), poetry, essay writing

  • Also: history, literature

The Civil Service Examinations

  • There were examinations for entrance into three different levels of government: district (local), provincial (regional), and metropolitan (national) levels

  • Only 300 allowed to pass at highest (metropolitan) level

  • Multiple attempts common

  • Students expected to bring bedding, chamber pots, and other necessary materials for three-day uninterrupted examinations

  • Students searched for printed materials before entering private cells

Examination System and Society

  • Ferocious competition for entrance into Chinese political life

  • Qing dynasty: 1 million degree holders competed for 20,000 government positions

  • Remainder turn to teaching, tutoring positions

  • Some corruption, cheating

  • Advantage for wealthy classes: hiring private tutors, ability to afford expensive examinations, etc.

  • Nevertheless, civil service examinations were open to all men,

  • Civil service examinations, therefore, were a tremendous opportunity for social mobility in China

The Patriarchal Family

  • The ultimate goal of the Ming and Qing dynasties was to preserve political and social control in China

  • Maintaining traditional Chinese practices of patriarchy was one way of maintaining social and political order

  • Traditional system of Chinese patriarchy: Filial Piety

  • Filial piety understood as duty of child to parent, of an individual to emperor; in other words, filial piety was honor and obedience to the patriarch

  • In Chinese families, the eldest son was favored (Chinese father passed authority onto oldest son)

  • Chinese families (and government), therefore, was patriarchal, patrilineal, and authoritarian

Gender Relations During Ming and Qing Dynasties

  • In Chinese society, males received preferential status, while females were subordinated

  • For Chinese families, males were preferred as they had an opportunity to take the civil service exams and provide wealth and status for the family

  • Women, however, had little or no value for Chinese families

  • Economic factor: once married, girls joined husband’s family (ties with previous family cut)

  • Women did not provide any material or financial value to their original families

  • Thus, female infanticide common

  • A sign of honor to deceased husband (filial piety)

  • Chaste widows honored with ceremonial arches

  • Men dominant in marriage; for example, men controlled divorce

  • Grounds: from infidelity to talking too much


  • Origins in Song dynasty (960-1279 CE)

  • Linen strips bound and deform female child’s feet

  • Perceived aesthetic value; in other words, seen as a sign of beauty

  • Footbinding a statement of social status and/or expectations

  • Commoners might bind feet of especially pretty girls to enhance marriage prospects (opportunity to enhance the family’s social status)

Woman with Bound Feet

Population Growth and Economic Development

  • China, under the Ming and especially the Qing dynasty, witnessed great population and economic growth during the Early Modern Period (1500-1800)

  • During the Early Modern Period, China was largely agricultural

  • But only 11% of China arable (suitable for agriculture or growing crops)

  • Intense, garden-style agriculture necessary to support the population

  • Very productive system of agriculture

  • American food crops introduced in 17th century

  • Columbian exchange (foods brought by the Spanish Manila Galleons) introduced maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts to China

  • These American crops could be grown in previous, unproductive land

  • Like in Europe and Africa, new foods result in increased population

  • Rebellion and war reduce population in 17th century

  • Offset by population increase due to American crops

Chinese Population Growth

Foreign Trade

  • Chinese exports included silk, porcelain, tea, and lacquer ware

  • Chinese in turn import relatively little

  • Spices, animal skins, woolen textiles

  • In return for its export goods, China was paid with silver bullion from Americas

  • Silver the main form of monetary currency in China

  • After Emperor Yongle’s early maritime expeditions (1405-1433), the Ming dynasty abandons large-scale maritime trade plans

  • Maritime expeditions very expensive and the Ming dynasty did not want its subjects to interact with foreign merchants or peoples

  • This policy would continue under the Qing dynasty

Trade in Southeast Asia

  • Despite the Ming and Qing dynasty’s policies, Chinese merchants continue to be active in southeast Asia, esp. Manila

  • Chinese merchants have extensive dealings with the Dutch VOC

  • The Chinese government’s policies, however, did prevent China from developing any large scale trading or commercial enterprises (like England and the Netherlands had)

Government and Technology

  • During Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th centuries), China was a world leader in technology

  • Chinese technological innovation, however, stagnates during Ming and Qing dynasties

  • European cannons purchased, based on early Chinese invention of gunpowder

  • The Chinese government suppressed technological advancement, fearing social instability would result

  • The Ming and Qing dynasties feared that too much technological advancement would result in deep changes in China, thus disrupting social and political order

  • In addition to preserving order, the large Chinese population also prompted the government to suppress technological innovation

  • Large population meant a large supply of Chinese laborers; thus, instead of inventing new technology for increased productivity, the Chinese government and merchants employed large numbers of Chinese laborers to increase productivity

Social Classes in Chinese Society

  • Early Modern China was a socially stratified society; in other words, China had a social hierarchy

  • The Emperor and the imperial family were at the top of the hierarchy

  • Privileged Classes second on the hierarchy

  • Scholar-bureaucrats, gentry (land-owners)

  • Distinctive clothing with ranks

  • Immunity from some legal proceedings, taxes, labor service

  • Working classes

  • Peasants, artisans/workers, merchants

  • Confucian doctrine gives greatest status to peasants (support the entire population)

  • Merchant activity not actively supported; nevertheless, because of the opportunity to gain large profits, merchants had the ability to enhance their social status

  • Lower classes

  • Military, beggars, slaves


  • Recall: the goal of the Ming and Qing dynasties was to maintain social and political order in China

  • Accomplished by returning to Chinese traditions

  • Confucian philosophy was one such tradition

  • The Ming and Qing dynasties supported a version of Confucian thought promoted by the scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE)

  • This form of thought, known as neo-Confucianism, combined Confucian morality with Buddhist logic

  • Neo-Confucianism emphasized the values of self-discipline, filial piety, and obedience to rulers

  • Neo-Confucianism, therefore, was the official imperial ideology of China from the 14th to the early 20th centuries

  • Funding for the Hanlin Academy in Beijing

  • Provincial schools provided neo-Confucian education throughout China

Christianity in China

  • Roman Catholic Christians had presence in China prior to the Early Modern Period (1500)

  • Catholicism in China, however, disappeared with plague and social chaos of the 14th century

  • Jesuits return to China under Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who attempted to convert Ming Emperor Wanli

  • Ricci mastered Chinese before his first visit in 1601

  • Ricci and the Jesuits also brought western mechanical technology to China

  • Prisms, harpsichords, clocks

  • A means to gain the acceptance of the Chinese

Confucianism and Christianity

  • The ultimate goal of Ricci and the Jesuits was to gain Chinese converts

  • Ricci argued that Christianity was consistent with Confucianism

  • He also argued that the differences between the two philosophies was due to Neo-Confucian (Buddhist) distortions

  • Despite their efforts, the Jesuits only gain a few converts in China

  • Approx. 200,000 mid 18th century, about 0.08 percent of population (225 million)

  • Jesuits allowed Chinese converts to maintain their traditional practices (i.e., honoring ancestors) and Jesuit priests conducted religious ceremonies in Chinese

  • Christian absolutism (Christianity as the only true religion) difficult for Chinese to accept

  • For several centuries the Chinese had adhered to several several philosophies or ideologies (Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, etc.), therefore it was not easy for the Chinese to abandon these philosophies and accept just one

Confucianism and Christianity

  • In the 18th century (1700s), Franciscans and Dominicans convince Pope that the Jesuits were compromising Christianity with Chinese traditions (e.g. ancestor worship)

  • The Pope agrees and order Jesuits to conduct Christian practice in European style or form, free from Chinese influence or traditions

  • In response to the Pope’s order, Qing Emperor Kangxi bans Christian preaching in China

  • Essentially the end of Christian missionary work in China

  • Although they ultimately failed, the efforts of Jesuit missionaries brought more knowledge of China to Europe and vice-versa (more knowledge of Europe and the world to China)

The Unification of Japan

  • Shoguns rule Japan, 12th-16th centuries

  • Large landholders with private armies

  • Emperor merely a figurehead

  • Constant civil war: 16th century sengoku, “country at war”

  • Tokugawa Ieyasu (r. 1600-1616) establishes military government

  • Bakufu: “tent government”

  • Establishes Tokugawa dynasty (1600-1867)

Control of Daimyo (“Great Names”)

  • Approximately 260 powerful territorial lords

  • Independent militaries, judiciaries, schools, foreign relations, etc.

  • From capital Edo (Tokyo), shogun requires “alternate attendance”: daimyo forced to spend every other year at court

  • Controlled marriage, socializing of daimyo families

  • Beginning 1630s, shoguns restrict foreign relations

  • Travel, import of books forbidden

  • Policy strictly maintained for 200 years

Economic Growth in Japan

  • End of civil conflict contributes to prosperity

  • New crop strains, irrigation systems improve agricultural production

  • Yet population growth moderate

  • Contraception, late marriage, abortion

  • Infanticide: “thinning out the rice shoots”

Population Growth

Social Change

  • End of civil disturbances create massive unemployment of Daimyo, Samurai warriors

  • Encouraged to join bureaucracy, scholarship

  • Many declined to poverty

  • Urban wealthy classes develop from trade activity

Neo-Confucianism in Japan

  • Chinese cultural influence extends through Tokugawa period

  • Chinese language essential to curriculum

  • Zhu Xi and Neo-Confucianism remains popular

  • “Native Learning” also popular in 18th century

  • Folk traditions, Shinto

Floating Worlds (ukiyo)

  • Urban culture expressed in entertainment, pleasure industries

  • Marked contrast to bushido ethic of Stoicism

  • Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), The Life of a Man Who Lived for Love

  • Kabuki theatre, men playing women’s roles

  • Bunraku puppet theatre

Christianity in Japan

  • Jesuit Francis Xavier in Japan, 1549

  • Remarkable success among daimyo

  • Daimyo also hoping to establish trade relations with Europeans

  • Government backlash

  • Fear of foreign intrusion

  • Confucians, Buddhists resent Christian absolutism

  • Anti-Christian campaign 1587-1639 restricts Christianity, executes staunch Christians

  • Sometimes by crucifixion

Persecution of Catholics

Dutch Learning

  • Dutch presence at Nagasaki principal route for Japanese understanding of the world

  • Before ban on foreign books lifted (1720), Japanese scholars study Dutch to approach European science, medicine, and art

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