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10-08-2015, 16:17

CHINA AT ITS APEX

In 1800, the Qing or Manchu dynasty (1644 –1911) appeared to be at the height of its power. China had experienced a long period of peace and prosperity under the rule of two great emperors, Kangxi (1661–1722) and Qianlong (1736 –1795). Its borders were secure, and its culture and intellectual achievements were the envy of the world. Its rulers, hidden behind the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing, had every reason to describe their patrimony as the Central Kingdom, China’s historical name for itself. But a little over a century later, humiliated and harassed by the black ships and big guns of the Western powers, the Qing dynasty, the last in a series that had endured for more than two thousand years, collapsed in the dust (see Map 3.1). Historians once assumed that the primary reason for the rapid decline and fall of the Manchu dynasty was the intense pressure applied to a proud but somewhat complacent traditional society by the modern West. There is indeed some truth in that allegation. On the surface, China had long appeared to be an unchanging society patterned after the Confucian vision of a Golden Age in the remote past. This, in fact, was the image presented by China’s rulers, who referred constantly to tradition as a model for imperial institutions and cultural values. That tradition was based firmly on a set of principles that were identified with the ancient philosopher Confucius (551– 479 b.c.e.) and emphasized such qualities as obedience, hard work, rule by merit, and the subordination of the individual to the interests of the community. Such principles, which had emerged out of the conditions of a continental society based on agriculture as the primary source of national wealth, had formed the basis for Chinese political and social institutions and values since the early years of the great Han dynasty in the second century b.c.e. When European ships first began to arrive off the coast of China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they brought with them revolutionary new ideas and values that were strikingly at variance with those of imperial China. China’s rulers soon came to recognize the nature of the threat represented by European missionaries and merchants and attempted to expel the former while restricting the latter to a limited presence in the southern coastal city of Canton. For the next two centuries, China was, at least in intent, an essentially closed society. It was the hope of influential figures at the imperial court in Beijing that by expelling the barbarians, they could protect the purity of Chinese civilization from the virus of foreign ideas. Their effort to freeze time was fruitless, however, for in reality, Chinese society was already beginning to change under their feet—and changing rather rapidly. Although few observers may have been aware of it at the time, by the beginning of the Manchu era in the seventeenth century, Confucian precepts were becoming increasingly irrelevant in a society that was becoming ever more complex. Nowhere was change more evident than in the economic sector. During the early modern period, China was still a predominantly agricultural society, as it had been throughout recorded history. Nearly 85 percent of the people were farmers. In the south, the main crop was rice; in the north, it was wheat or dry crops. But even though China had few urban centers, the population was beginning to increase rapidly. Thanks to a long era of peace and stability, the introduction of new crops from the Americas, and the cultivation of new, fast-ripening strains of rice, the Chinese population doubled between the time of the early Qing and the end of the eighteenth century. And it continued to grow during the nineteenth century, reaching the unprecedented level of 400 million by 1900. Of course, this population increase meant much greater pressure on the land, smaller farms, and an everthinner margin of safety in case of climatic disaster. The imperial court had attempted to deal with the problem by a variety of means—most notably by preventing the concentration of land in the hands of wealthy landowners— but by the end of the eighteenth century, almost all the land that could be irrigated was already under cultivation, and the problems of rural hunger and landlessness became increasingly serious. Not surprisingly, economic hardship quickly translated into rural unrest. Another change that took place during the early modern period in China was the steady growth of manufacturing and commerce. Trade and manufacturing had existed in China since early times, but they had been limited by a number of factors, including social prejudice, official restrictions, and state monopolies on mining and on the production of such commodities as alcohol and salt. Now, taking advantage of the long era of peace and prosperity, merchants and manufacturers began to expand their operations beyond their immediate provinces. Trade in silk, metal and wood products, porcelain, cotton goods, and cash crops such as cotton and tobacco developed rapidly, and commercial networks began to operate on a regional and sometimes even a national basis. With the expansion of trade came an extension of commercial contacts and guild organizations nationwide. Merchants began establishing guilds in cities and market towns throughout the country to provide legal protection, an opportunity to do business, and food and lodging for merchants from particular provinces. Foreign trade also expanded, with Chinese merchants, mainly from the coastal provinces of the south, setting up extensive contacts with countries in Southeast Asia. In many instances, the contacts in Southeast Asia were themselves Chinese who had settled in the area during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some historians have interpreted this rise in industrial and commercial activity as a process that would have led under other circumstances to an indigenous industrial revolution and the emergence of a capitalist society such as that already taking shape in Europe. By this reasoning, the arrival of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century not only failed to hasten economic change but may actually have hindered it. If this is the case, the challenge that the Manchu rulers faced was as much from within as it was from abroad. Still, the significance of these changes should not be exaggerated. In fact, there were some key differences between China and western Europe that would have impeded the emergence of capitalism in China. In the first place, although industrial production in China was on the rise, it was still based almost entirely on traditional methods of production. China had no uniform system of weights and measures, and the banking system was still primitive by European standards. The use of paper money, invented by the Chinese centuries earlier, had essentially been abandoned. There were few paved roads, and the Grand Canal, long the most efficient means of carrying goods between the north and the south, was silting up. As a result, merchants had to rely more and more on the coastal route, where they faced increasing competition from foreign shipping. There were other, more deep-seated differences as well. The bourgeois class in China was not as independent as its European counterpart. Reflecting an ancient preference for agriculture over manufacturing and trade, the state levied heavy taxes on manufacturing and commerce while attempting to keep agricultural taxes low. Such attitudes were still shared by key groups in the population. Although much money could be made in commerce, most merchants who accumulated wealth used it to buy their way into the ranks of the landed gentry. The most that can really be said, then, is that during the Qing dynasty, China was beginning to undergo major economic and social changes that might have led, in due time, to the emergence of an industrialized society.

 

 

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