Imperial China

One explanation of the striking continuity and independence of Chinese civilization is its remoteness; China seemed inaccessible to alien influence, far from sources of disturbance in other great civilizations. Empires came and went in both countries, but Islamic rule made more difference to India than any dynasty’s rise or fall made to China, which was also endowed with an even greater capacity to assimilate alien influence. This may have been because the tradition of civilization rested on different foundations in each country. In India the great stabilizers were provided by religion and a caste system inseparable from it. In China it rested on the culture of an administrative elite which survived dynasties and empires and kept China on the same course.

One thing we owe to this elite is the maintenance of written records from very early times. Thanks to them, Chinese historical accounts provide an incomparable documentation, crammed with often reliable facts, though the selection of them was dominated by the assumptions of a minority, whose preoccupations they reflect. The Confucian scholars who kept up the historical records had a utilitarian and didactic aim: they wanted to provide a body of examples and data which would make easier the maintenance of traditional ways and values. Their histories emphasize continuity and the smooth flow of events. Given the needs of administration in so huge a country this is perfectly understandable; uniformity and regularity were clearly to be desired. Yet such a record leaves much out. It remains very difficult even in historical times - and much more difficult than in the classical Mediterranean world - to recover the concerns and life of the vast majority. Moreover, official history may well give a false impression, both of the unchanging nature of Chinese administration and of the permeation of society by Confucian values. For a long time, the assumptions behind the Chinese administrative machine can only have been those of a minority, even if they came in the end to be shared by many Chinese and accepted, unthinkingly and even unknowingly, by most.

The official culture was extraordinarily self-sufficient. Such outside influences as played upon it did so with little effect and this remains impressive. The fundamental explanation, again, is geographic isolation. China was much further removed from the classical West than the Maurya and Gupta empires. She had little intercourse with it even indirectly, although until the beginning of the seventh century Persia, Byzantium and the Mediterranean depended upon Chinese silk and valued her porcelain. Always, too, China had complicated and close relations with the people of central Asia; yet, once unified, she had for many centuries on her borders no great states with whom relations had to be carried on. This isolation was, if anything, to increase as the centre of gravity of western civilization moved west and north and as the Mediterranean was more and more cut off from East Asia, first by the inheritors of the Hellenistic legacy (the last and most important of which was Sassanid Persia), and then by Islam.

China’s history between the end of the period of Warring States and the beginning of the T’ang in 618 has a chronological backbone of sorts in the waxing and waning of dynasties. Dates can be attached to these, but there is an element of the artificial, or at least a danger of being over-emphatic, in using them. It could take decades for a dynasty to make its power a reality over the whole empire and even longer to lose it. With this reservation, the dynastic reckoning can still be useful. It gives us major divisions of Chinese history down to this century, which are called after the dynasties which reached their peaks during them. The first three which concern us are the Ch’in, the Han, and the Later Han.

The Ch’in ended the disunity of the period of Warring States. They came from a western state still looked upon by some as barbarous as late as the fourth century BC. Nevertheless, the Ch’in prospered, perhaps in part because of a radical reorganization carried out by a legalist-minded minister in about 356 BC; perhaps also because of their soldiers’ use of a new long iron sword. After swallowing Szechuan, the Ch’in claimed the status of a kingdom in 325 BC. The climax of Ch’in success was the defeat of their last opponent in 221 BC and the unification of China for the first time under an emperor, and the dynasty which gives the country its name.

Although the Ch’in empire was to last only fifteen years after this, it was a great achievement. China from this time may be considered the seat of a single, self-conscious civilization. There had been earlier signs that such an outcome was likely. Given the potential of their own Neolithic cultures, the stimuli of cultural diffusion and some migration from the north, the first shoots of civilization had appeared in several parts of China before 500 BC. By the end of the Warring States Period some of them showed marked similarities which offset the differences between them. The political unity achieved by Ch’in conquest over a century was in a sense the logical corollary of a cultural unification already well under way. Some have claimed that a sense of Chinese nationality can be discerned before 221 BC; if so, it must have made conquest itself somewhat easier. Fundamental administrative innovations by the Ch’in were to survive that dynasty’s displacement by the Han, who ruled for two hundred years (206 bc-ad 9), to be followed after a brief interlude by the almost equally creative Later Han dynasty (ad 25-220). Though they had their ups and downs, the Han emperors showed unprecedented strength. Their sway extended over almost the whole of modern China, including southern Manchuria and the south-eastern province of Yueh. The Later Han, indeed, went on to create an empire as big as that of their Roman contemporaries. They faced an old threat from Mongolia and a great opportunity towards the south. They handled both with skill aided by the tactical superiority given their armies by the new crossbow. This weapon was probably invented soon after 200 BC and was both more powerful and more accurate than the bows of the barbarians, who did not for a long time have the ability to cast the bronze locks required. It was the last major achievement of Chinese military technology before the coming of gunpowder.

In Mongolia at the beginning of Han times lived the Hsiung-Nu, whom we have already met as the forerunners of the Huns. The Ch’in had sought to protect their domains on this frontier by unifying a number of existing earthworks into a new Great Wall, to be further elaborated by later dynasties. The Han emperors took the offensive, driving the Hsiung-Nu north of the Gobi desert and then seizing control of the caravan routes of central Asia, and sending armies far west into Kashgaria in the first century BC. They even won tribute from the Kusharas, whose own power straddled the Pamirs. To the south, they occupied the coasts as far as the Gulf of Tonkin; Annam accepted their suzerainty and Indo-China has been regarded by Chinese statesmen as part of their proper sphere ever since. To the north-east they penetrated Korea. All this was the work of the later or ‘eastern’ Han whose capital was at Loyang. From there they continued to press forward in Turkestan and raised tribute from the oases of central Asia. One general in ad 97 may have got as far as the Caspian. No real settlement, though, followed these military successes.

Tentative diplomatic encounters with Rome in Han times suggest that expansion gave China much more contact with the rest of the world. Until the nineteenth century this was in the main by land, and besides the silk trade which linked her regularly with the Near East (caravans were leaving for the West with silk from about 100 bc), China also developed more elaborate exchanges with her nomadic neighbours. Sometimes this was within the fictional framework of tribute acknowledged in turn by gifts, sometimes within official monopolies which were the foundation of great merchant families. Nomadic contacts may explain one of the most astonishing works of Chinese art, the great series of bronze horses found in tombs at Wu-Wei. These were only one among many fine works of Han bronze-workers; they evidently broke more readily with tradition than the Han potters, who showed more antiquarian respect for past forms. At a different level, though, Han pottery provides some of the earliest exploitations in art of the subject-matter of the daily life of most Chinese in the form of collections of tiny figures of peasant families and their livestock.

This was a brilliant culture, centred on a court with huge, rich palaces built in the main of timber - unhappily, for the result is that they have disappeared, like the bulk of the Han collections of paintings on silk. Much of this cultural capital was dissipated or destroyed during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the barbarians returned to the frontiers. Failing at last to provide China’s defence from her own manpower, the Han emperors fell back on a policy tried elsewhere, that of bringing within the Wall some of the tribes who pressed on it from outside and then deploying them in its defence. This raised problems of relations between the newcomers and the native Chinese. The Han emperors could not prolong their empire for ever, and after four hundred years China once more dissolved into a congeries of kingdoms.

Some of these had barbarian dynasties, but in this crisis there is observable for the first time China’s striking powers of cultural digestion. Gradually the barbarians were swallowed by Chinese society, losing their own identity and becoming only another kind of Chinese. The prestige which Chinese civilization enjoyed among the peoples of Central Asia was already very great. There was a disposition among the uncivilized to see China as the centre of the world, a cultural pinnacle, somewhat in the way in which the Germanic peoples of the West had seen Rome. One Tatar ruler actually imposed Chinese customs and dress on his people by decree in 500. The central Asian threat was not over; far from it, there appeared in Mongolia in the fifth century the first Mongol empire. None the less, when the T’ang, a northern dynasty, came to receive the mandate of heaven in 618 China’s essential unity was in no greater danger than it had been at any time in the preceding two or three centuries.

Political disunity (the T’ang dynasty was in origin a rebel regime which came out on top) and barbarian invasion had not damaged the foundations of Chinese civilization, which entered its classical phase under the T’ang. Among those foundations, the deepest continued to lie in kinship. Throughout historical times the clan retained its importance because it was the mobilized power of many linked families, enjoying common institutions of a religious and sometimes of an economic kind. The diffusion and ramification of family influence were all the easier because China did not have primogeniture; the paternal inheritance was usually divided at death. Over a social ocean in which families were the fish that mattered presided one Leviathan, the state. To it and to the family the Confucians looked for authority; those institutions were unchallenged by others, for in China there were no entities such as Church or communes which confused questions of right and government so fruitfully in Europe.

The state’s essential characteristics were all in place by T’ang times. They were to last until this century and the attitudes they built up linger on still. In their making, the consolidating work of the Han had been especially important, but the office of the emperor, holder of the mandate of heaven, could be taken for granted even in Ch’in times. The comings and goings of dynasties did not compromise the standing of the office since they could always be ascribed to the withdrawal of the heavenly mandate. The emperor’s liturgical importance was, if anything, enhanced by the inauguration under the Han of a sacrifice only he could make. Yet his position also changed in a positive sense. Gradually, a ruler who was essentially a great feudal magnate, his power an extension of that of the family or the manor, was replaced by one who presided over a centralized and bureaucratic state. Three hundred prefectures provided its administrative armature.

This had begun a long way back. Already in Chou times a big effort was made to build canals for transport. Great competence in organization and large human resources were required for this and only a potent state could have deployed them. A few centuries later the first Ch’in emperor had been able to link together the existing sections of the Great Wall in 1400 miles of continuous barrier against the barbarians (legendarily, his achievement cost a million lives; true or not, the story is revealing of the way the empire was seen). His dynasty went on to standardize weights and measures and impose a degree of disarmament on its subjects while itself putting in the field perhaps a million soldiers. The Han were able to impose a monopoly of coining and standardized the currency. Under them, too, entry to the civil service by competitive examination began; though it was to fade out again, not to be resumed until T’ang times, it was very important. Territorial expansion had required more administrators. The resulting bureaucracy was to survive many periods of disunion (a proof of its vigour) and remained to the end one of the most striking and characteristic institutions of imperial China. It was probably the key to China’s successful emergence from the era when collapsing dynasties were followed by competing petty and local states which broke up the unity already achieved. It linked China together by an ideology as well as by administration. The civil servants were trained and examined in the Confucian classics; under the Han, legalism finally lost its grip after a lively ideological struggle. Literacy and political culture were thus wedded in China as nowhere else.

The scholars had been deeply offended by the Ch’in. Though a few of them had been favoured and gave the dynasty advice, there had been a nasty moment in 213 BC when the emperor turned on scholars who had criticized the despotic and militaristic character of his regime. Books were burned and only ‘useful’ works on divination, medicine or agriculture were spared; more than four hundred scholars perished. What was really at stake is not clear; some historians have seen this attack as an offensive aimed at ‘feudal’ tendencies opposed to Ch’in centralization. If so, it was far from the end of the confusion of cultural and political struggle with which China has gone on mystifying foreign observers even in this century. Whatever the sources of this policy, the Han took a different tack and sought to conciliate the intellectuals.

This led first to the formalization of Confucian doctrine into what quickly became an orthodoxy. The canonical texts were established soon after 200 BC. True, Han Confucianism was a syncretic matter; it had absorbed much of legalism. But the important fact was that Confucianism had been the absorbing force. Its ethical precepts remained dominant in the philosophy which formed China’s future rulers. In ad 58 sacrifices to Confucius were ordered in all government schools. Eventually, under the T’ang, administrative posts were confirmed to those trained in this orthodoxy. For over a thousand years it provided China’s governors with a set of moral principles and a literary culture doggedly acquired by rote-learning. The examinations they underwent were designed to show which candidates had the best grasp of the moral tradition discernible in the classical texts as well as to test mechanical abilities and the capacity to excel under pressure. It made them one of the most effective and ideologically homogeneous bureaucracies the world has ever seen and also offered great rewards to those who successfully made the values of Confucian orthodoxy their own.

The official class was in principle distinguished from the rest of society only by educational qualification (the possession of a degree, as it were). Most civil servants came from the landowning gentry, but they were set apart from them. Their office once achieved by success in the test of examination, they enjoyed a status only lower than that of the imperial family, and great material and social privileges besides. Officials’ duties were general rather than specific, but they had two crucial annual tasks, the compilation of the census returns and the land registers on which Chinese taxation rested. Their other main work was judicial and supervisory, for local affairs were very much left to local gentlemen acting under the oversight of about two thousand or so district magistrates from the official class. Each of these lived in an official compound, the yamen, with his clerks, runners and household staff about him.

The gentry undertook a wide range of quasi-governmental and public service activities, which were both an obligation of the privileged class and also an insurance of much of its income. Local justice, education, public works were all part of this. The gentry also often organized military forces to meet local emergencies and even collected the taxes, from which it might recoup its own expenses. Over the whole of these arrangements and the official class itself, there watched a state apparatus of control, checking and reporting on a bureaucracy bigger by far than that of the Roman empire and at its greatest extent ruling a much larger area.

This structure had huge conservative power. Crisis only threatened legal authority, rarely the social order. The permeation of governmental practice by the agreed ideals of Confucian society was rendered almost complete by the examination system. Moreover, though it was very hard for anyone not assured of some wealth to support himself during the long studies necessary for the examination - writing in the traditional literary forms itself took years to master - the principle of competition ensured that a continuing search for talent was not quite confined to the wealthier and established gentry families; China was a meritocracy in which learning always provided some social mobility. From time to time there were corruption and examples of the buying of places, but such signs of decline usually appear towards the end of a dynastic period. For the most part, the imperial officials showed remarkable independence of their background. They were not supposed to act on such assumptions of obligation to family and connection as characterized the public servants drawn from the eighteenth-century English gentry. The civil servants were the emperor’s men; they were not allowed to own land in the province where they served, serve in their own provinces, or have relatives in the same branch of government. They were not the representatives of a class, but a selection from it, an independently recruited elite, renewed and promoted by competition. They made the state a reality.

Imperial China is thus not best seen as an aristocratic polity; political power did not pass by descent within a group of noble families, though noble birth was socially important. Only in the small closed circle of the court was hereditary access to office possible, and there it was a matter of prestige, titles and standing, rather than of power. To the imperial counsel lors who had risen through the official hierarchy to its highest levels and had become more than officials, the only rivals of importance were the court eunuchs. These creatures were often trusted with great authority by the emperors because, by definition, they could not found families. They were thus the only political force escaping the restraints of the official world.

Clearly, in the Chinese state there was little sense of the European distinction between government and society. Official, scholar and gentleman were usually the same man, combining many roles which in Europe were increasingly to be divided between governmental specialists and the informal authorities of society. He combined them, too, within the framework of an ideology, which was much more obviously central to society than any to be found elsewhere than perhaps in Islam. The preservation of Confucian values was not a light matter, nor satisfiable by lip-service. The bureaucracy maintained those values by exercising a moral supremacy somewhat like that long exercised by the clergy in the West - and in China there was no Church to rival the state. The ideas which inspired it were profoundly conservative; the predominant administrative task was seen to be the maintenance of the established order; the aim of Chinese government was to oversee, conserve and consolidate, and occasionally to innovate in practical matters by carrying out large public works. Its overriding goals were regularity and the maintenance of common standards in a huge and diverse empire, where many district magistrates were divided from the people in their charge even by language. In achieving its conservative aims, the bureaucracy was spectacularly successful and its ethos survived intact across all the crises of the dynasties.

Below the Confucian orthodoxy of the officials and gentry, it is true, other creeds were important. Even some who were high in the social scale turned to Taoism or Buddhism. The latter was to be very successful after the Han collapse, when disunity gave it an opportunity to penetrate China. In its Mahayana variety it posed more of a threat to China than any other ideological force before Christianity, for, unlike Confucianism, it posited the rejection of worldly values. It was never to be eradicated altogether, in spite of persecution under the T’ang; attacks on it were, in any case, probably mounted for financial rather than ideological reasons. Unlike the persecuting Roman empire, the Chinese state was more interested in property than in the correction of individual religious eccentricity. Under the fiercest of the persecuting emperors (who is said to have been a Taoist) over four thousand monasteries were dissolved, and over a quarter of a million monks and nuns dispersed from them. Nevertheless, in spite of such material damage to Buddhism, Confucianism had to come to terms with it. No other foreign religion influenced China’s rulers so strongly until Marxism in the twentieth century; even some emperors were Buddhists.

Well before this, Taoism had developed into a mystical cult (borrowing something from Buddhism in the process), appealing both to those who sought personal immortality and to those who felt the appeal of a quietistic movement as an outlet from the growing complexity of Chinese life. As such it would have enduring significance. Its recognition of the subjectivity of human thought gives it an appearance of humility which some people in different cultures with more aggressive intellectual attitudes find attractive today. Such religious and philosophical notions, important as they were, touched the life of the peasant directly only a little more than Confucianism, except in debased forms. A prey to the insecurities of war and famine, his outlet lay in magic or superstition. What little can be discerned of his life suggests that it was often intolerable, sometimes terrible. A significant symptom is the appearance under the Han of peasant rebellion, a phenomenon which became a major theme of Chinese history, punctuating it almost as rhythmically as the passing of dynasties. Oppressed by officials acting either on behalf of an imperial government seeking taxes for its campaigns abroad or in their own interest as grain speculators, the peasants turned to secret societies, another recurrent theme. Their revolts often took religious forms. A millenarian, Manichaean strain has run through Chinese revolution, bursting out in many guises, but always positing a world dualistically divided into good and evil, the righteous and the demons. Sometimes this threatened the social fabric, but the peasants were rarely successful for long.

Chinese society therefore changed very slowly. In spite of some important cultural and administrative innovations, the lives of most Chinese were for centuries little altered in style, appearance or reality. The comings and goings of the dynasties were accounted for by the notion of the mandate of heaven and although great intellectual achievements were possible, China’s civilization already seemed self-contained, self-sufficient, stable to the point of immobility. No innovation compromised the fundamentals of a society more closely woven into a particular governmental structure than anything in Europe. This structure proved quite competent to contain such changes as did take place and to regulate them so as not to disturb the traditional forms.

One visibly important change was a continuing growth of commerce and towns which made it easier to replace labour service by taxation. Such new resources could be tapped by government both to rule larger areas effectively and to provide a series of great material monuments. They had already permitted the Ch’in to complete the Great Wall, which later dynasties were further to extend, sometimes rebuilding portions of it. It still astonishes the observer and far outranks the walls of Hadrian and Antoninus. Just before the inauguration of the T’ang, too, at the other end of this historical epoch, a great system of canals was completed which linked the lower Yangtze valley and its rice-growing areas with the Yellow River valley to the north, as far as Hangchow to the south. Millions of labourers were employed on this and on other great irrigation schemes. Such works are comparable in scale with the Pyramids and surpass the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. They imposed equally heavy social costs, too, and there were revolts against conscription for building and guard duties.

It was a state with great potential and a civilization with impressive achievements already to its credit which entered its mature phase in 618. For the next thousand years, as for the previous eight hundred, its formal development can be linked to the comings and goings of the dynasties which provide a chronological structure (T’ang, 618-907; Sung, 960-1126; Mongol ascendancy, 1234-1368; Ming, 1368-1644; Manchu or Ch’ing, 1644-1912). Many historical themes overrun these divisions. One is the history of population. There was an important shift of the demographic centre of gravity towards the south during the T’ang period; henceforth most Chinese were to live in the Yangtze valley rather than the old Yellow River plain. The devastation of the southern forests and exploitation of new lands to grow rice fed them, but new crops became available, too. Together they made possible an overall growth of population which accelerated under the Mongols and the Ming. Estimates have been made that a population of perhaps eighty million in the fourteenth century more than doubled in the next two hundred years, so that in 1600 there were about 160 million subjects of the empire. This was a huge number, given populations elsewhere, but there was still great increase to come.

The weight of this fact is great. Apart from the enormous potential importance it gives to China in world population history, it puts in perspective the great manifestations of Chinese culture and imperial power, which rested on the huge mass of desperately poor peasants utterly unconcerned with such things. For the most part their lives were confined to their villages; only a few could hope to escape from this, or can have envisaged doing so. Most could have dreamed only of obtaining the precarious, but best, security available to them: the possession of a little land. Yet this became more and more difficult as numbers grew and gradually all available land was occupied. It was farmed more and more intensively in smaller and smaller plots. The one way out of the trap of famine was rebellion. At a certain level of intensity and success this might win support from the gentry and officials, whether from prudence or sympathy. When that happened, the end of a dynasty was probably approaching, for Confucian principles taught that, although rebellion was wrong if a true king reigned, a government which provoked rebellion and could not control it ought to be replaced for it was ipso facto illegitimate. At the very end of this road lay the success of a twentieth-century Chinese revolution based on the peasants.

For many centuries, population pressure, a major fact of modern China’s history, made itself felt to the authorities only in indirect and obscured ways, when, for instance, famine or hunger drove men to rebellion. A much more obvious threat came from the outside. Essentially the problem was rather like that of Rome, an overlong frontier beyond which lay barbarians. T’ang influence over them was weakened when central Asia succumbed to Islam. Like their Roman predecessors, too, the later T’ang emperors found that reliance on soldiers could be dangerous. There were hundreds of military rebellions by local warlords under the T’ang and any rebellion’s success, even if short-lived, had a multiplier effect, tending to disrupt administration and damage the irrigation arrangements on which food (and therefore internal peace) depended. A regime thought of as a possible ally by Byzantium, which had sent armies to fight the Arabs and received ambassadors from Haroun-al-Raschid, was potentially a great world power. In the end, though, unable to police their frontier effectively, the T’ang went under in the tenth century, and China collapsed again into political chaos. The Sung empire which emerged from it had to face an even graver external threat, the Mongols, and were in due course swallowed after the barbarian dynasty which had evicted them from north China had itself been engulfed by the warriors of Chinghis Khan.

During the whole of this time, the continuity and recuperative power of the bureaucracy and the fundamental institutions of society kept China going and were particularly exploited by the first Sung emperors. As after earlier dynastic change, the inheritors of power continued to turn to existing officialdom (an estimate for the eighteenth century gives less than 30,000 civil and military officers actually in post). They thus drew into the service of each new government the unchanging values of the Confucian system, which were strengthened, if narrowed, by disaster. Although the origins of the examination system of recruitment to the bureaucracy went back to Han times, it was under the Sung that it was established as a major feature of government. Only a small number of especially crucial matters were ever expected to be the reserved province of the imperial government. Confucian teaching supported this distinction of spheres of action and made it easy for a dynasty to be displaced without compromising the fundamental values and structure of society. A new dynasty would have to turn to the officials for its administration and to the gentry for most of its officials who, in their turn, could get some things done only on the gentry’s terms.

Recurrent disunity did not prevent China’s rulers, sages and craftsmen from bringing Chinese civilization to its peak in the thousand years after the T’ang inauguration. Some have placed the classical age as early as the seventh and eighth centuries, under the T’ang themselves, while others discern it under the Sung. Such judgements usually rest on the art-forms considered, but even Sung artistic achievement was in any case a culmination of development begun under the T’ang, between whom and the Han much more of a break in style had been apparent. It was in fact the most important break in the continuity of Chinese art until this century.

T’ang culture reflects the stimulus of contacts with the outside world, but especially with central Asia, unprecedentedly close under this dynasty. The capital was then at Ch’ang-an, in Shensi, a western province. Its name means ‘long-lasting peace’ and to this city at the end of the Silk Road came Persians, Arabs and central Asians who made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. It contained Nestorian churches, Zoroastrian temples, Muslim mosques, and was probably the most splendid and luxurious capital of its day, as the objects which remain to us show. Many of them reflect Chinese recognition of styles other than their own - the imitation of Iranian silverware, for example - while the flavour of a trading entrepot is preserved in the pottery figures of horsemen and loaded camels, which reveal the life of central Asia swirling in the streets of Ch’ang-an. These figures were often finished with the new polychromatic glazes achieved by T’ang potters; their style was imitated as far away as Japan and Mesopotamia. The presence of the court was as important in stimulating such craftsmanship as the visits of merchants from abroad, and from tomb-paintings something of the life of the court aristocracy can be seen. The men relax in hunting, attended by central Asian retainers; the women, vacuous in expression, are luxuriously dressed and, if servants, elaborately equipped with fans, cosmetic boxes, back-scratchers and other paraphernalia of the boudoir. Great ladies, too, favour central Asian styles borrowed from their domestic staff.

The history of women, though, is the history of one of those other Chinas always obscured by the bias of the documentation towards the official culture. We hear little of them, even in literature, except in sad little poems and love stories. Yet presumably they must have made up about half of the population, or perhaps slightly less, for in hard times girl babies were exposed by poor families to die. That fact, perhaps, characterizes women’s place in China until very recent times even better than the more familiar and superficially striking practice of foot-binding, which produced grotesque deformations and could leave a high-born lady almost incapable of walking. Another China still all but excluded from the historical evidence by the nature of the established tradition was that of the peasants. They become shadowly visible only as numbers in the census returns and as eruptions of revolt; after the Han pottery figures, there is little in Chinese art to reveal them, and certainly nothing to match the uninterrupted (and often idealized) recording of the life of the common man in the fields, which runs from medieval European illumination, through the vernacular literature to the Romantics, and into the peasant subjects of the early Impressionists.

Official culture also excluded the tenth or so of the Chinese population who lived in the cities, some of which grew as time passed to become the biggest in the world. Ch’ang-an, when the T’ang capital, is said to have had two million inhabitants. No eighteenth-century European city was as big as contemporary Canton or Peking, which were even larger. Such huge cities housed societies of growing complexity. Their development fostered a new commercial world; the first Chinese paper money was issued in 650. Prosperity created new demands, among other things for a literature which did not confine itself to the classical models and in colloquial style far less demanding than the elaborate classical Chinese. City life thus gradually secreted a literate alternative to the official culture, and because it was literate, it is the first part of unofficial China to which we have some access. Such popular demand could be satisfied because of two enormously important inventions, that of paper in the second century BC, and of printing before ad 700. This derived from the taking of rubbed impressions from stone under the Han. Printing from wood blocks was taking place under the T’ang and movable type appeared in the eleventh century ad. Soon after this large numbers of books were published in China, long before they appeared anywhere else. In the cities, too, flourished popular poetry and music which abandoned the classical tradition.

The culture of Ch’ang-an never recovered from its disruption by rebellion in 756, only two years after the foundation of an Imperial Academy of Letters (about nine hundred years before any similar academy in Europe). After this the T’ang dynasty was in decline. The Sung ascendancy produced more great pottery; the earlier, northern phase of Sung history was marked by work still in the coloured, patterned tradition, while southern Sung craftsmen came to favour monochromatic, simple products. Significantly, they attached themselves to another tradition: that of the forms evolved by the great bronze-casters of earlier China. For all the beauty of its ceramics, though, Sung is more notable for some of the highest achievements of Chinese painting, their subject-matter being, above all, landscape. As a phase of Chinese development, though, the Sung era is more remarkable still for a dramatic improvement in the economy.

In part this can be attributed to technological innovation - gunpowder, movable type and the sternpost all can be traced to the Sung era - but it was also linked to the exploitation of technology already long available. Technological innovation may indeed have been as much a symptom as a cause of a surge in economic activity between the tenth and thirteenth centuries which appears to have brought most Chinese a real rise in incomes in spite of continuing population growth. For once in the pre-modern world economic growth seems for a long period to have outstripped demographic trends. One change making this possible was certainly the discovery and adoption of a rice variety which permitted two crops a year to be taken from well-irrigated land and one from hilly ground only watered in the spring. The evidence of rising production in a different sector of the economy has been dramatically distilled into one scholar’s calculation that within a few years of the battle of Hastings, China was producing nearly as much iron as the whole of Europe six centuries later. Textile production, too, underwent dramatic development (notably through the adoption of water-driven spinning machinery) and it is possible to speak of Sung ‘industrialization’ as a recognizable phenomenon.

It is not easy (the evidence is still disputed) to say why this remarkable burst of growth took place. Undoubtedly there was a real input to the economy by public - that is, governmental - investment in public works, above all, communications. Prolonged periods of freedom from foreign invasion and domestic disorder also must have helped, though the second benefit may be explained as much by economic growth as the other way around. The main explanation, though, seems likely to be an expansion in markets and the rise of a money economy which owed something to factors already mentioned, but which rested fundamentally on a great expansion in agricultural productivity. So long as this kept ahead of population increase, all was well. Capital became available to utilize more labour, and to tap technology by investment in machines. Real incomes rose.

It is even harder to say why, after temporary and local regression at the end of the Sung era, and the resumption of economic growth, this intensive growth, which made possible rising consumption by greater numbers, came to an end. None the less, it did, and was not resumed. Instead, average real incomes in China stabilized for something like five centuries, as production merely kept pace with population growth. (After that time, incomes began to fall, and continued to do so to a point at which the early twentieth-century Chinese peasant could be described as a man standing neck-deep in water, whom even ripples could drown.) But the economic relapse after Sung times is not the only factor to be taken into account in explaining why China did not go on to produce a dynamic, progressive society. In spite of printing, the mass of Chinese remained illiterate down to the present century. China’s great cities, for all their growth and commercial vitality, produced neither the freedom and immunities which sheltered men and ideas in Europe, nor the cultural and intellectual life which in the end revolutionized European civilization, nor effective questioning of the established order. Even in technology, where China achieved so much so soon, there is a similar strange gap between intellectual fertility and revolutionary change. The Chinese could invent (they had a far more efficient wheelbarrow than other civilizations), but once Chou times were over, it was the use of new land and the introduction of new crops rather than technical change which raised production. Other examples of a low rate of innovation are even more striking. Chinese sailors already had the magnetic compass in Sung times, but though naval expeditions were sent to Indonesia, the Persian Gulf, Aden and East Africa in the fifteenth century, their aim was to impress those places with the power of the Ming, not to accumulate information and experience for further voyages of exploration and discovery. Masterpieces had been cast in bronze in the second millennium BC and the Chinese knew how to cast iron fifteen hundred years before Europeans, yet much of the engineering potential of this metallurgical tradition was unexplored even when iron production rose so strikingly. What he called ‘a sort of black stone’ was burnt in China when Marco Polo was there; it was coal, but there was to be no Chinese steam engine.

This list could be much lengthened. Perhaps the explanation lies in the very success of Chinese civilization in pursuit of a different goal, the assurance of continuity and the prevention of fundamental change. Neither officialdom nor the social system favoured the innovator. Moreover, pride in the Confucian tradition and the confidence generated by great wealth and remoteness made it difficult to learn from the outside. This was not because the Chinese were intolerant. Jews, Nestorian Christians, Zoroastrian Persians, and Arab Muslims long practised their own religion freely, and the last even made some converts, creating an enduring Islamic minority. Contacts with the West multiplied, too, later under Mongol rule. But what has been called a ‘neo-Confucian’ movement was by then already manifesting tendencies of defensive hostility, and formal tolerance had never led to much receptivity in Chinese culture.

Invasion by the Mongols showed China’s continuing seductive power over its conquerors. By the end of the thirteenth century, all China had been overrun by them - and this may have cost the country something like thirty million lives, or well over a quarter of its whole population in 1200 - but the centre of gravity of the Mongol empire had moved from the steppes to Peking, Kubilai’s capital. This grandson of Chinghis was the last of the Great Khans and after his time Mongol China can be considered Chinese, not Mongol; Kubilai adopted a dynastic life in 1271 and the remainder of the Mongol era is recorded as that of the Yuan dynasty. China changed the Mongols more than the Mongols changed China, and the result was the magnificence reported by the amazed Marco Polo. Kubilai made a break with the old conservatism of the steppes, the distrust of civilization and its works, and his followers slowly succumbed to Chinese culture in spite of their initial distrust of the scholar officials. They were, after all, a tiny minority of rulers in an ocean of Chinese subjects; they needed collaborators to survive. Kubilai spent nearly all his life in China, though his knowledge of Chinese was poor.

But the relationship of Mongol and Chinese was long ambiguous. Like the British in nineteenth-century India, who set up social conventions to prevent their assimilation by their subjects, so the Mongols sought by positive prohibition to keep themselves apart. Chinese were forbidden to learn the Mongol language or marry Mongols. They were not allowed to carry arms. Foreigners, rather than Chinese, were employed in administration where possible, a device paralleled in the western khanates of the Mongol empire: Marco Polo was for three years an official of the Great Khan; a Nestorian presided over the imperial bureau of astronomy; Muslims from Transoxiana administered Yunan. For some years the traditional examination system was also suspended. Some of the persistent Chinese hostility to the Mongols may be explained by such facts, especially in the south. When Mongol rule in China collapsed, seventy years after Kubilai’s death, there appeared an even more exaggerated respect for tradition and a renewed distrust of foreigners among the Chinese ruling class.

The short-run achievement of the Mongols was, none the less, very impressive. It was most obvious in the re-establishment of China’s unity and the realization of its potential as a great military and diplomatic power. The conquest of the Sung south was not easy, but once it was achieved (in 1279) Kubilai’s resources were more than doubled (they included an important fleet) and he began to rebuild the Chinese sphere of influence in Asia. Only in Japan was he totally unsuccessful. In the south, Vietnam was invaded (Hanoi was captured three times) and after Kubilai’s death Burma was occupied for a time. These conquests were not, it is true, to prove long-lasting and they resulted in tribute rather than prolonged occupation. In Java, too, success was qualified; a landing was made there and the capital of the island taken in 1292, but it proved impossible to hold. There was also further development of the maritime trade with India, Arabia and the Persian Gulf, which had been begun under the Sung.

Since it failed to survive, the Mongol regime cannot be considered wholly successful, but this does not take us far. Much that was positive was done in just over a century. Foreign trade flourished as never before. Marco Polo reports that the poor of Peking were fed by the largesse of the Great Khan, and it was a big city. A modern eye finds something attractive, too, about the Mongols’ treatment of religion. Only Muslims were hindered in the preaching of their doctrine; Taoism and Buddhism were positively encouraged, for example by relieving Buddhist monasteries of taxes (this, of course, meant heavier impositions on others, as any state support for religion must; the peasants paid for religious enlightenment).

In the fourteenth century, natural disasters combined with Mongol exactions to produce a fresh wave of rural rebellions, the telling symptom of a dynasty in decline. They may have been made worse by Mongol concessions to the Chinese gentry. Giving landlords new rights over their peasants can hardly have won the regime popular support. Secret societies began to appear again and one of them, the ‘Red Turbans’, attracted support from gentry and officials. One of its leaders, Chu Yuan-chang, a monk, seized Nanking in 1356. Twelve years later he drove the Mongols from Peking and the Ming era began. Yet like many other Chinese revolutionary leaders Chu Yuan-chang became an upholder of the traditional order. The dynasty he founded, though it presided over a great cultural flowering and managed to maintain the political unity of China, which was to last from Mongol times to the twentieth century, confirmed China’s conservatism and isolation. In the early fifteenth century the maritime expeditions by great fleets came to an end. An imperial decree forbade Chinese ships to sail beyond coastal waters or individuals to travel abroad. Soon, Chinese shipyards lost the capacity to build the great ocean-going junks; they did not even retain their specifications. The great voyages of the eunuch Cheng Ho, a Chinese Vasco Da Gama, were almost forgotten. At the same time, the merchants who had prospered under the Mongols were harassed.

In the end the Ming dynasty ran to seed. A succession of emperors virtually confined to their palaces while favourites and imperial princes disputed around them the enjoyment of the imperial estates registered the decline, and eunuchs emerged as dominant figures in government. Except in Korea, where the Japanese were beaten off at the end of the sixteenth century, the Ming could not maintain the peripheral zones of Chinese empire. Indo-China fell away from the Chinese sphere, Tibet went more or less out of Chinese control and in 1544 the Mongols burnt the suburbs of Peking.

Under the Ming, too, came the first Europeans to seek more than a voyage of trade or discovery. In 1557 Portuguese established themselves at Macao. They had little to offer that China wanted, except silver; but Jesuit missionaries followed and the official tolerance of Confucian tradition gave them opportunities they successfully exploited. They became very influential at the Ming court after one of them, Matteo Ricci, established himself there in 1602. But while he and other Jesuits were admired for their learning by some Chinese officials, others began to feel alarmed. By then, though, besides the mechanical toys and clocks which the missionaries added to the imperial collections, their scientific and cosmographical learning had begun to interest Chinese intellectuals. The correction of the Chinese calendar, which one Jesuit carried out, was of great importance, for the authenticity of the emperor’s sacrifices depended on accurate dating. From the Jesuits the Chinese learnt also to cast heavy cannon, another useful art.

Early in the seventeenth century, the Ming needed any military advantages they could procure. They were threatened from the north by a people living in Manchuria, a province to which they later gave its name, but who were not known as Manchu until after their conquest of China. The way was opened to them in the 1640s by peasant revolt and an attempted usurpation of the Chinese throne. An imperial general asked the Manchu to help him and they came through the Wall, but only to place their own dynasty, the Ch’ing, on the throne in 1644 (and incidentally wipe out the general’s own clan). Like other barbarians and semi-barbarians, the Manchu had long been fascinated by the civilization they threatened and were already somewhat sinicized before their arrival. They were familiar with the Chinese administrative system, which they had imitated at their own capital of Mukden, and found it possible to cooperate with the Confucian gentry as they extended their grip on China. The attachment of Manchu inspectors stimulated the bureaucracy who needed to change little in their ways except to conform to the Manchu practice of wearing pigtails (thus was introduced what later struck Europeans as one of the oddest features of Chinese life).

The cost of Manchu conquest was high: some twenty-five million people perished. Yet recovery was rapid. China’s new power was already spectacularly apparent under the Emperor K’ang-hsi, who reigned from 1662 to 1722. This roughly corresponded to the reign of Louis XIV of France, whose own exercises in magnificence and aggrandizement took different forms but showed curious parallels on the other side of the world. K’ang-hsi was capable of a personal violence which the Sun King would never have permitted himself (he once attacked two of his sons with a dagger) but for all the difference in the historical backgrounds which formed them, there is a similarity in their style of rule. Jesuit observers speak of K’ang-hsi’s ‘nobility of soul’ and the description seems to have been prompted by more than the desire to flatter, and justified by more than his patronage. He was hard-working, scrutinizing with a close eye the details of business (and its manner, for he would painstakingly correct defective calligraphy in the memorials placed before him) and, like Louis, he refreshed himself by indulging his passion for hunting.

Characteristically, though K’ang-hsi was a foreigner and unusual among the Chinese emperors in admiring European skill (he patronized the Jesuits for their scientific knowledge), the merits of his reign were set firmly within accepted tradition; he identified himself with the enduring China. He rebuilt Peking, destroyed during the Manchu invasion, carefully restoring the work of the Ming architects and sculptors. It was as if Versailles had been put up in the Gothic style or London rebuilt in Perpendicular after the Great Fire. K’ang-hsi’s principles were Confucian and he had classical works translated into Manchu. He sought to respect ancient tradition and assured his Chinese subjects their usual rights; they continued to rise to high office in the civil service in spite of its opening to Manchus, and K’ang-hsi appointed Chinese generals and viceroys. In the style of his personal life the emperor was, if not austere, at least moderate. He enjoyed the bracing life of the army and on campaigns lived simply; in Peking the pleasures of the palace were deliberately reduced and the emperor relaxed from the burdens of state with a harem of a mere three hundred girls.

K’ang-hsi extended imperial control to Formosa, occupied Tibet, mastered the Mongols and made them quiescent vassals. This was something of a turning-point, as final as anything can be in history; from this time the nomadic peoples of Central Asia at last begin gradually to recede before the settler. Further north, in the Amur valley, another new historical chapter opened when, in 1685, a Chinese army attacked a Russian post at Albazin. There had been earlier clashes in Manchuria. Negotiations now led to the withdrawal of the Russians and the razing of their fort. The treaty of Nershinsk which settled matters conceded by implication that Russia was reorganized as an independent entity, and not as a vassal kingdom. Among its clauses one prescribed that boundary posts should be set up with inscriptions not only in Russian, Manchu, Chinese and Mongolian, but also in Latin. The suggestion had been made by a French Jesuit who was a member of the Chinese delegation and like the establishment of a frontier line at all, was a symptom of changing Chinese relation ships with the outside world, relationships developing faster, perhaps, than any Chinese knew. The treaty was far from being the final settlement of accounts between China and the only European power with which she shared a land frontier but it quietened things for a time. Elsewhere, Manchu conquest continued to unroll; later in the eighteenth century Tibet was again invaded and vassal status reimposed on Korea, Indo-China and Burma. These were major feats.

At home, peace and prosperity marked the last years of Manchu success. It was a silver age of the high classical civilization which some scholars believe to have reached its peak under the later Ming. If it did, it could still produce much beauty and scholarship under the Manchu. Great efforts of compilation and criticism, initiated and inspired by K’ang-hsi himself, opened a hundred years of transcription and publication which not only spawned such monsters as a 5000-volume encyclopedia, but also collections of classical editions now given canonical form. In K’ang-hsi’s reign, too, the imperial kilns began a century of technical advance in enamelling which produced exquisite glazes.

Yet however admirable, and however the emphasis is distributed between its various expressions in different arts, Manchu China’s civilization was still, like that of its predecessors, the civilization of an elite. Although there was at the same time a popular culture of great vigour, the Chinese civilization which Europeans were struck by was as much the property of the Chinese ruling class as it always had been, a fusion of artistic, scholarly and official activity. Its connection with government still gave it a distinctive tone and colour. It remained profoundly conservative, not only in social and political matters but even in its aesthetic. The art it esteemed was based on a distrust of innovation and originality; it strove to imitate and emulate the best, but the best was always past. The traditional masterpieces pointed the way. Nor was art seen as the autonomous expression of aesthetic activity. Moral criteria were brought to the judgement of artistic work and these criteria were, of course, the embodiments of Confucian values. Restraint, discipline, refinement and respect for the great masters were the qualities admired by the scholar-civil servant who was also artist and patron.

Whatever appearances might suggest at first sight, therefore, Chinese art was no more directed towards escape from conventional life and values than that of any other culture before the European nineteenth century. This was also paradoxically apparent in its traditional exaltation of the amateur and the disapprobation it showed towards professionals. The man most esteemed was the official or landowner who was able to execute with sureness and apparent lack of effort works of painting, calligraphy or literature. Brilliant amateurs were greatly admired and in their activities, Chinese art escapes from its anonymity; we often know such artists’ names. Its beautiful ceramics and textiles, on the other hand, are the products of tradesmen whose names are lost, often working under the direction of civil servants. Artisans were not esteemed for originality; the craftsman was encouraged to develop his skill not to the point of innovation but towards technical perfection. Central direction of large bodies of craftsmen within the precincts of the imperial palace only imposed upon these arts all the more firmly the stamp of traditional style. Even a brilliant explosion of new technical masteries at the imperial kilns during the reign of K’ang-hsi still expressed itself within the traditional canons of restraint and simplicity.

The final paradox is the most obvious and by the eighteenth century it seems starkly apparent. For all her early technological advances China never arrived at a mastery of nature which could enable her to resist western intervention. Gunpowder is the most famous example; the Chinese had it before anyone else, but could not make guns as good as those of Europe, nor even employ effectively those made for them by European craftsmen. Chinese sailors had long had the use of the mariner’s compass and a cartographical heritage which produced the first grid map, but they were only briefly exploring navigators. They neither pushed across the Pacific like the more primitive Melanesians, nor did they map it, as did later the Europeans. For six hundred years or so before Europe had them, the Chinese made mechanical clocks fitted with the escapement which is the key to successful time-keeping by machines, yet the Jesuits brought with them a horological technology far superior to the Chinese when they arrived in the sixteenth century. The list of unexploited intellectual triumphs could be much lengthened, by important Chinese innovations in hydraulics, for example, but there is no need to do so. The main point is clear. Somehow, a lack of interest in the utilization of invention was rooted in a Confucian social system which, unlike that of Europe, did not regard as respectable any association between the gentleman and the technician.

Pride in a great cultural tradition continued to make it very hard to recognize its inadequacies. This made learning from foreigners - all of whom were barbarians, in Chinese eyes - very difficult. To make things worse, Chinese morality prescribed contempt for the soldier and for military skills. In a period when external threats would multiply, China was therefore dangerously cramped in her possibilities of response. Even under K’ang-hsi there were signs of new challenges ahead. In his old age he had to restore Manchu power in Tibet, when Mongol tribes had usurped it. The Russians were by 1700 installed in Kamchatka, were expanding their trade on the caravan routes and were soon to press on into the Trans-Caspian region. Even peace and prosperity had a price, for they brought faster population growth. Here, unsolved because unrecognized and perhaps insoluble, was another problem to upset the stability of the order authorized by the mandate of heaven. By 1800 there were over three hundred, perhaps even four hundred, million Chinese, and already signs were appearing of what such an increase might portend.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!