Ancient History & Civilisation

2. The Ming and the Ch’ing

Fall of the Mongols—The Ming Dynasty—The Manchu invasion—The Ch’ing Dynasty—An enlightened monarch—Ch’ien Lung rejects the Occident

Not for four centuries was China to know again so brilliant an age. The Yüan Dynasty quickly declined, for it was weakened by the collapse of the Mongol power in Europe and western Asia, and by the sinification (if so pedantic a convenience may be permitted for so repeated a phenomenon) of the Mongols in China itself. Only in an era of railroads, telegraph and print could so vast and artificial an empire, so divided by mountains, deserts and seas, be held permanently under one rule. The Mongols proved better warriors than administrators, and the successors of Kublai were forced to restore the examination system and to utilize Chinese capacity in government. The conquest produced in the end little change in native customs or ideas, except that it introduced, perhaps, such new forms as the novel and the drama into Chinese literature. Once more the Chinese married their conquerors, civilized them, and overthrew them. In 1368 an ex-Buddhist priest led a revolt, entered Peking in triumph, and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming (“Brilliant”) Dynasty. In the next generation an able monarch came to the throne, and under Yung Lo China again enjoyed prosperity and contributed to the arts. Nevertheless, the Brilliant Dynasty ended in a chaos of rebellion and invasion; at the very time when the country was divided into hostile factions, a new horde of conquerors poured through the Great Wall and laid seige to Peking.

The Manchus were a Tungusic people who had lived for many centuries in what is now Manchukuo (i.e., the Kingdom of the Manchus). Having extended their power northward to the Amur River, they turned back southward, and marched upon the Chinese capital. The last Ming emperor gathered his family about him, drank a toast to them, bade his wife kill herself,* and then hanged himself with his girdle after writing his last edict upon the lapel of his robe: “We, poor in virtue and of contemptible personality, have incurred the wrath of God on high. My ministers have deceived me. I am ashamed to meet my ancestors. Therefore I myself take off my crown, and with my hair covering my face await dismemberment at the hands of the rebels. Do not hurt a single one of my people.”15 The Manchus buried him with honor, and established the Ch’ing (“Unsullied”) Dynasty that was to rule China until our own revolutionary age.

They, too, soon became Chinese, and the second ruler of the Dynasty, K’ang-hsi, gave China the most prosperous, peaceful and enlightened reign in the nation’s history. Mounting the throne at the age of seven, K’ang-hsi took personal control, at the age of thirteen, of an empire that included not only China proper but Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, Indo-China, Annam, Tibet and Turkestan; it was without doubt the largest, richest and most populous empire of its time. K’ang-hsi ruled it with a wisdom and justice that filled with envy the educated subjects of his contemporaries Aurangzeb and Louis XIV. He was a man energetic in body and active in mind; he found health in a vigorous outdoor life, and at the same time labored to make himself acquainted with the learning and arts of his time. He traveled throughout his realm, corrected abuses wherever he saw them, and reformed the penal code. He lived frugally, cut down the expenses of administration, and took pride in the welfare of the people.16 Under his generous patronage and discriminating appreciation literature and scholarship flourished, and the art of porcelain reached one of the peaks of its career. He tolerated all the religions, studied Latin under the Jesuits, and put up patiently with the strange practices of European merchants in his ports. When he died, after a long and beneficent reign (1661-1722), he left these as his parting words: “There is cause for apprehension lest, in the centuries or millenniums to come, China may be endangered by collisions with the various nations of the West who come hither from beyond the seas.”17

These problems, arising out of the increasing commerce and contacts of China with Europe came to the front again under another able emperor of the Manchu line—Ch’ien Lung. Ch’ien Lung wrote 34,000 poems; one of them, on “Tea,” came to the attention of Voltaire, who sent his “compliments to the charming king of China.”18 French missionaries painted his portrait, and inscribed under it these indifferent verses:

Occupé sans relâche à tous les soins divers
D’un gouvernement qu’on admire,
Le plus grand potentat qui soit dans l’univers
Est le Meilleur lettré qui soit dans son Empire*

He ruled China for two generations (1736-96), abdicated in his eightyfifth year, and continued to dominate the government until his death (1799). During the last years of his reign an incident occurred which might have led the thoughtful to recall the forebodings of K’ang-hsi. England, which had aroused the Emperor’s anger by importing opium into China, sent, in 1792, a commission under Lord Macartney to negotiate a commercial treaty with Ch’ien Lung. The commissioners explained to him the advantages of trading with England, and added that the treaty which they sought would take for granted the equality of the British ruler with the Chinese emperor. Ch’ien Lung dictated this reply to George III:

I set no value on objects strange and ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. This, then, is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which could only result in inconvenience to yourself. I have expounded my views in detail and have commanded your tribute envoys to leave in peace on their homeward journeys. It behooves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.19

In these proud words China tried to stave off the Industrial Revolution. We shall see in the sequel how, nevertheless, that Revolution came. Meanwhile let us study the economic, political and moral elements of the unique and instructive civilization which that Revolution seems destined to destroy.

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