Exam preparation materials


1. China

By 1368, the Ming Dynasty booted out the last of the Mongol rulers in China and restored power over the empire to the native Chinese. The Ming Dynasty ruled until 1644. During this time, the Ming built a strong centralized government based on traditional Confucian principles, reinstated the civil service examination, and removed the Mongol influence by reinvigorating Chinese culture.

In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese also did something quite extraordinary: They built huge fleets. Zheng He, a Chinese navigator, led fleets throughout southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, all the way to East Africa, a century before the Europeans did the same. Had the Chinese continued to explore and trade, they may have become the dominant colonial power. But instead, within a few decades, the Chinese abruptly stopped their naval voyages. Increasingly, Chinese society turned inward.

The Ming government attempted to prop up their failing economy by changing easily counterfeited paper money to a “single-whip” system based on silver currency. Initially, Japan supplied the silver (much to the benefit of the shoguns in Japan), but with the discovery of American silver sources, China established trade relations with the Spanish through the Philippines. Although this exchange fueled a period of commercial expansion, inevitably, the silver flooded the Chinese market and the government was unable to control the resulting inflation.

By the sixteenth century, the Ming dynasty was already in its decline, just as the Europeans were beginning to sail toward China. Pirates increasingly raided port cities, and the Portuguese set up shop in Macao. Still, the Chinese were able to keep the Europeans at a safe distance. However, internal problems persisted. By the seventeenth century, famines crippled the Chinese economy, and peasant revolts erupted against the increasingly powerless Ming rulers. In 1644, the Ming emperor invited a group ofQing warriors from nearby Manchuria to help him quell a peasant uprising, but instead, the Qing ousted the emperor. With that act, the Ming Dynasty ended and the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty began. The Manchus ruled China until 1912.

Focus On: Environmental Change and Collapse

The new food crops that arrived in Europe, Africa, and Asia from the Americas (cassava, corn, peanuts, and potatoes) were high in calories, easy to grow in previously uncultivated areas, and, as a result, allowed for massive population increases. There crops along with new agricultural technologies, and political stability were initially a boon to China’s economy and productivity. However, the new population levels could not be sustained over the long term, and a period of global cooling in the late seventeenth century put pressure on agricultural lands and hastened the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. In Europe, the arrival of potatoes finally stabilized a food supply and a population that had been devastated by centuries of cold weather, poor farming, and epidemic disease.

Because the Qing were from Manchuria, they were not ethnically Chinese. They attempted to remain an ethnic elite, forbidding the Chinese to learn the Manchu language or to marry Manchus. Yet, because the Manchus comprised a mere 3 percent of the population, they needed the help of ethnic Chinese to run the country. Therefore, the civil service examination gained new heights. Even members of the lower classes were able to rise to positions of responsibility as the Manchus opened up the floodgates to find the best talent.

Manchu emperors were well steeped in Chinese traditions. Both Kangxi, who ruled from 1661 to 1722, and his chief successor, Qianlong, who ruled from 1735 to 1796, were Confucian scholars. Both emperors not only supported the arts, but also expanded the empire. Kangxi conqueredTaiwan and extended the empire into Mongolia, central Asia, and Tibet. Qianlong added Vietnam, Burma, and Nepal to the vassal states of China.

In all of this expansion, the Chinese did not aspire to conquer the rest of the world, or even interact with it very much. They stayed focused on China and its surrounding neighbors. The Manchus did trade with the Europeans, and granted rights to the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, but they were vigilant about and successful at controlling trade relations through the mid-eighteenth century. The Manchu were fierce protectors of their culture. When they felt threatened by European advances, they expelled them. In 1724, for example, Christianity was banned. In 1757, trade was restricted to just one city, Canton. Still, trade with Europeans was substantial. The Europeans bought large quantities of tea, silk, and porcelain. In exchange, the merchants received huge sums of silver, which created a new rising class of merchants in Chinese coastal cities.

2. Japan

During the sixteenth century in Japan, a series of shoguns continued to rule while the emperor remained merely as a figurehead. But as the century went on, Japanese feudalism began to wane and centralized power began to emerge. The shogun still ruled (as opposed to the emperor), but the power of the feudal lords was reduced. This coincided with Japanese exposure to the West. In 1542, the Portuguese established trade with the empire (they also introduced guns to the Japanese). Within a decade, Christian missionaries streamed in. By the end of the century, not only had a few hundred thousand Japanese converted to Christianity, but the Jesuits took control of the port city of Nagasaki and trade flourished. Japan was well on its way to westernization.

In 1600, the trend changed dramatically. In that year, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa Shogunate, a strict and rigid government that ruled Japan until 1868. The shogun further consolidated power away from the emperor and at the expense of thedaimyo (feudal lords). Ieyasu claimed personal ownership to all lands within Japan and instituted a rigid social class model, inspired somewhat by Confucianism but in practice more like the caste system. Four classes (warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant) were established and movement among the classes was forbidden.

The Tokugawa period—also known as the Edo period because Tokugawa moved the capital to Edo (modern-day Tokyo)—was marked by a reversal in attitudes toward Western influences. Within two decades, Christians were persecuted. By 1635, a National Seclusion Policy prohibited Japanese from traveling abroad, and prohibited most foreigners from visiting Japan (limited relations were kept with China, Korea, and the Netherlands). In other words, Japan became increasingly secluded. The policy remained in place for nearly 200 years.

Tokugawa was very serious about this policy. He was worried that Japan would be overrun by foreign influences. Keep in mind that Spain had claimed the nearby Philippines and that the English and Portuguese kept trying to make their way into China. So, in 1640, when a group of Portuguese diplomats and traders sailed to Japan to try to negotiate with the emperor and convince him to open up a dialogue, the shogun had every member of the Portuguese delegation executed on the spot. The message was clear. Japan was off limits.

The absence of foreign influences allowed Japanese culture to thrive. During this time period, Buddhism and Shinto remained at the center of culture, and unique Japanese art forms also prospered. Kabuki theatre and a new form of poetry, haiku, became very popular. Artists gave their lives to the creation of richly detailed scrolls, wood-block prints and paintings. In other words, under a strong central authority, Japanese culture underwent its own renaissance. Unlike the European Renaissance, however, it was strictly intended for domestic consumption.

Contrast Them: India, China, and Japan on European Aggression

No doubt about it, the Japanese under the Tokugawa Shogunate reacted most decisively against European colonialism. China and India both allowed trade and European occupation of port cities, although China increasingly limited it under the Manchus. India was the least suspecting of the Europeans, and it paid dearly. In the next chapter you’ll see the consequences of these three attitudes toward the Europeans: India was overrun, China was partially overrun, and Japan, after briefly falling prey to outside influence, turned the tables and became a colonizing empire itself.

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