Early Modern China
Global Connections ~ East and West
Painting of Canton c. 1800
"Modernity" word cloud
Even to suggest that East Asia had an early modern period remains somewhat controversial. The word modern comes from Late Latin, and the entire concept of modernity emerged originally in the specific context of European history. There is, furthermore, no denying the driving role that was played by western Europe (and its overseas colonial offspring, including the United States) in giving shape to what we think of as the modern world. With regard to non-Western civilizations, there is still a tendency to prefer imagining them as societies that had always been changelessly traditional, from some primordial beginning until relatively recently, when the process of modernization (often assumed to be synonymous with Westernization) finally started as a direct consequence of contact with the modern West. East Asian history is still commonly divided into only two major parts, premodern and modern, with the point of transition placed somewhere in the nineteenth century. Yet, paradoxically, the use of paper money, printing, gunpowder, urbanization, market-based commercialization, complex bureaucratic administration, and a relatively fluid meritocratic sociopolitical order based on the examination system all make Song Dynasty China (960-1279) seem curiously modern already a thousand years ago! The idea of a changeless static East Asia, at any rate, is a fantasy, sustained only by lack of historical knowledge. (HEA, 167)
Traditional vs. Modern Society
In the view of Michel Foucault ... “modernity” as a historical category is marked by developments such as a questioning or rejection of tradition; the prioritization of individualism, freedom and formal equality; faith in inevitable social, scientific and technological progress, rationalization and professionalization, a movement from feudalism (or agrarianism) toward capitalism and the market economy, industrialization, urbanization and secularization, the development of the nation-state, representative democracy, public education (etc.) (Foucault 1977, 170–77). (Wikipedia/Modernity)
Britain and France carving up the globe like a roast
So, when does “modernity” begin in China?
Centripetal Force: pulling in toward Confucius
Map showing the Grand CanalGiven China’s huge size, most of China’s trade has always been domestic. The Ming government inadvertently helped facilitate internal trade by reopening and maintaining the Grand Canal. Some twelve thousand government barges plied this canal to bring tax grain from the south to the capital at Beijing in the north, and the private vessels that also took advantage of this manmade waterway, as well as of the many other rivers and canals of south China, were beyond count. Increasing regional economic specialization further stimulated interregional domestic trade. Animated image of a Japanese Pirate (Wako/Wokou)For example, concentration on the cultivation of cotton for textile production in the lower Yangzi River area created a local demand for imported food grain that was satisfied by shipments of rice from further upriver. By the 1730s such shipments had reached a volume in excess of a billion pounds a year. The invention, by at least Ming times, of that invaluable tool of trade, the abacus, is another indication of growing commercialization. ... At sea off the Ming coast, in any single day, there might be as many as 1,200 ships. Although much coastal shipping was for domestic purposes, the volume of foreign trade was also substantial. Since the Ming government viewed foreign trade with suspicion, however, a large portion of this traffic operated outside the law, including both smuggling and piracy. The contradiction between growing trade and government restriction of it reached its climax in a period of so-called “Japanese pirate” raiding (in Japanese, Wako; in Chinese, Wokou) along the Ming coast, especially in the 1540s-1550s. Although actual Japanese people were certainly among these pirates, many of the seaborne marauders were really Chinese or Korean. (HEA, 168-9)
The Tribute System: various nations gathered in Beijing to demonstrate loyalty and engage in trade
For the first 142 years of the Ming Dynasty, the only legally acknowledged foreign trade had been that which was conducted under the rubric of formal diplomatic tribute missions (though these were sometimes merely fictitious pretexts for trade, and there was much extralegal activity), but in 1509, Guangzhou (in English, Canton) was legally opened to private merchants from tributary countries, and in 1567, a port in Fujian Province was opened to private Chinese traders. By that date, there was also already a permanent Portuguese presence on the southeast coast of China. Conditions were significantly changing, and China was being swept up into the now, for the first time, truly global trade routes that had been opened by the great early modern European Age of Exploration. (HEA, 169)
Map showing Dutch trade routes
Andre Gunder Frank has recently argued that Europe, in its early modern Age of Exploration, did not really pull the rest of the world into a European-centered economic system — at least, not initially. “Instead, Europe belatedly joined ... an already exi[s]ting world economy,” in which, if any location could truly be called “central” prior to about 1800, “it was China.” Early modern Europeans, moreover, still had no product that would sell consistently in China, except for money itself. But in the matter of cash, the Europeans were fortunate. Between 1492 and 1800, some 85 percent of the world’s total silver supply, and 70 percent of its gold, came from the new European colonies in the Americas. In Ming China, raw silver literally was money, and early modern Europeans used a substantial portion of their New World silver to pay for imported Chinese luxury products such as porcelain, silk, lacquerware, and (later) tea. (HEA, 170-1)
A "Tael" of Silver
The world’s largest economy at the time desperately needed silver so it could expand. By the 1530s, the situation had become so severe and the potential profits from the silver trade so great that merchants dared to ignore the government’s ban on trade with foreign nations. ...
Centrifugal Force: pulling out toward European silver
The amount of silver flowing into China reached new heights after the first silver from the New World reached Asia. The Spanish discovered huge reserves of silver in Peru in the 1540s, but only thirty years later did they perfect the use of mercury to refine it. Spanish galleons carried the silver from the New World to Spain’s colony in the Philippines, at Manila, where Chinese merchants from Fujian and Guangdong traded Chinese goods, most often tea, porcelain, and high-quality silks. ... One scholar estimates that between 1570 and 1600, 7.5 percent of the total output of silver from Peruvian mines ended up in China, where it constituted an infusion equal to eight times China’s own silver stocks. The size of the Chinese community in Manila provides an indirect measure of the growth in trade between Spain and China. In 1570, forty Chinese lived in Manila. By 1600, the Chinese community had exploded to fifteen thousand people. (The Open Empire, 377)
Painting entitled "On the River during the Qingming Festival"
New World silver transformed the Chinese economy down to its roots, although the central government never formally acknowledged it. The tax system established by the Ming founder presumed a barter economy in which individual cultivators paid their taxes in grain and labor once every ten years. As the sixteenth century progressed, though, and as more New World silver entered the economy, certain areas began to pay their taxes with money. The first stage toward commutation was to use cloth; as the century progressed, this changed to silver. ...
Animated gif of the "Qingming" painting
Most taxpayers ended up paying taxes every year. Their tax was assessed partially on the basis of how many able-bodied men were in the household and partially on the basis of landholdings. With the exception of households that performed certain labor services, such as delivering grain, most households paid a tax in silver in place of their original labor assignment. (The Open Empire, 377-8)
Centrifugal Force: pulling out toward the rest of the world
Map showing Chinese trade in Southeast Asia
Early Ming policies may have discouraged foreign ships from coming to China, causing Muslim traders to withdraw from China’s coasts and weakening the linkage between the Indian Ocean and South Sea. ... But the early Ming restrictions also had the unintended consequence of giving Chinese merchants a near monopoly of China’s maritime foreign trade. Chinese people, who had already been active in Southeast Asian trade since late Tang times, fanned out across Southeast Asia in increasing numbers beginning especially after about 1500. These ethnic Chinese merchants may have often been unattached to any particular Chinese government ... but they were very active throughout Southeast Asia, and usually retained some sense of Chinese identity. (HEA, 170)
Centrifugal Force: pulling out toward the rest of the world
The Arrival of the West
Portrait of Matteo RicciIn the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) was the largest company in the world, and the Dutch became the most dynamic European presence in Pacific waters. Although the focus of their attention came to be directed at what is now called Indonesia, the Dutch also attempted to trade with China. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the Dutch imported some three million pieces of Chinese porcelain (which was often simply called “china,” or chinaware) into Europe and established a successful outpost on the island of Taiwan. On Taiwan the Dutch erected their second-largest fortress in Asia, and there they purchased silk from Chinese merchants to exchange for silver in Japan. ... Europeans were therefore among the participants in China’s overseas trade by the seventeenth century, but they hardly constituted a dominant presence. Even so, Europe had already begun to make an impact on China. The telescope, for example, was introduced to China by 1618, within thirty years of its European invention around 1590. A European-style map, with captions written in Chinese, was prepared by the Italian Catholic missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in 1584. This was quickly copied and printed by the Chinese. A copy of a revised version of this map was eventually even hung in large panels on the wall of the emperor’s palace in Beijing. In addition to his mapmaking contributions, Ricci also worked with the Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) to produce the first good Chinese translation of Euclid in 1607. This same Chinese scholar, Xu Guangqi, later rose to the highest office in the Ming government and became a baptized Christian, taking the Christian name Paul.
Centrifugal Force: pulling out toward (the Christian) God
Cover of Jonathan Spence's "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci"Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit. The Jesuits were a Roman Catholic counterreformation order that produced some of the best-educated minds in seventeenth-century Europe. Jesuits were expected to undergo a nine-year course of study that included mathematics and astronomy, classical philosophy, art, and the humanities as well as Christian theology. ... Matteo Ricci became the first European Christian missionary since Mongol times to be allowed to reside in Beijing. Ricci may have also been the first European ever to learn to speak the Chinese language proficiently. With his profound erudition, scientific knowledge, and accommodating approach, Matteo Ricci made a favorable impression on many Chinese. The Jesuit mission to China enjoyed a measure of real success, and by the end of the seventeenth century, there may have been two hundred thousand Chinese Christian converts. (HEA, 171-2)
Centrifugal/Centripetal: China pulled both outward and inward by the Manchu Qing Dynasty
Map illustrating the Manchu Quest
The Manchu Conquest
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)
The Qing Dynasty was a vast multiethnic conquest empire that, by the eighteenth century, may have ruled over as much as 40 percent of the world’s total population. It had three official languages, Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese, with Tibetan also enjoying considerable prominence. The eighteenth-century Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1796) reportedly was able to speak Manchu, Mongol, Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and Tangut. During the seventeenth century, the Manchu language remained dominant in government, and even in the eighteenth century Manchu was still commonly spoken at meetings of the Grand Council. But the Banner People made up only 1 percent of the total population of their empire, and it became a struggle for many of them to maintain competence in their own language. The Chinese language tended to prevail, and today Manchu is nearly extinct as a living language. (HEA, 179)
Centripetal Force: pulling inward toward Confucius
The Qianlong Emperor in his study
The Success of the Qing
The Failure of Modernity

[Qianlong and his ministers maintained] the Confucian tradition of political thought that idealized low taxes and minimal government, since whatever the ruler took was a diminution of a fixed store of goods available to the people. The ruler’s duties were to find and employ the most talented and unselfish ministers, to listen to them, and to set an example to ministers and people of virtuous conduct and moderate expenditure; to seek to increase revenues in order to “enrich the state and strengthen the military” was to be distracted from these fundamental duties and to go the route of Qin. The defeat of the Wang Anshi policies had been the last time that more dynamic and growth-oriented state policies had been seriously considered. (Mountain of Fame, 239)
Chinese Calligraphy Brush
The Kangxi EmperorA brilliant ruler, a scholar, and an all-around personality ... [Kang Xi] had a genuine love of scholarship and succeeded in attracting to his side some of the best Chinese literati of the time. A small group was attached to his personal study, and they and wider committees of scholars collaborated in works to which he wrote prefaces. Thus there appeared under Kang Xi’s patronage the The Kangxi Dictionarygreat dictionary of some 40,000 characters, a collection devoted to calligraphy and painting, an extensive treatise of geography, and a complete edition of the works of Zhu Xi. The vast encyclopedia, Tu Shu Ji Cheng, begun in the seventeenth century, was published in 1728.
       In his capacity as moral leader of the nation, Kang Xi published in 1670 the Sacred Edict, an amplification of earlier imperial maxims of the fourteenth century, which exhorted the people to be filial and thrifty, to value scholarship and avoid unorthodoxy, and to respect the law and pay their taxes.
(China: Its History and Culture, 142-3)
Bamboo Page Divider
Portrait of the Qianlong EmperorTo preserve the greatness of Chinese culture, Qianlong ... ordered a massive compilation to be made of the most famous literary and historical works of the past. Known as the Four Treasuries (siku quanshu) from its four main components of classics, histories, philosophy, and miscellaneous literary works, this was not just a selection of passages on given topics, as was the Gujin tushu jicheng (the encyclopedia brought forth under Qianlong’s grandfather and father); rather, it was a complete anthology, with learned introductions, into which the works selected were copied in their entirety. The assembling of this collection, which ended up comprising 3,450 complete works and commentaries on 6,750 others, filled 36,000 manuscript volumes and took ten years to complete. It is one of the great achievements of Chinese bibliography. (SMC, 98-9)
Centripetal Force: pulling inward away from (the Christian) God
The Decline of Christianity
The total number of Jesuit missionaries who came to China remained small, however, and they were reluctant to increase their numbers by ordaining native Chinese priests, making it difficult to adequately serve a large Chinese Christian population. By the eighteenth century, moreover, the Jesuit order was under assault in Europe itself. In East Asia the Jesuits had made a conscious decision to adopt local manners and culture, in a policy known as cultural accommodation, to make themselves more acceptable to East Asians. In China, the Jesuits also chose to treat Confucianism as a secular philosophy rather than a religion, and therefore viewed it as somewhat compatible with Christianity. The argument was the reading Confucius should be no more objectionable for a good Christian than studying such other great pagan philosophers as Plato or Aristotle. Even the traditional Chinese offering of food at household ancestral tablets, and some of the rituals conducted for the spirit of Confucius, might be tolerated as purely social obligations rather than heathen religion.
       Other Catholic orders, however, particularly the Dominicans and Franciscans, were outraged by this Jesuit tolerance of Confucian rites. Serious criticism of the Jesuit approach began as early as the 1640s, and altogether, no fewer than eight popes became involved in deciding the so-called rites controversy. In 1704, a Vatican decree banned Christian participation in Confucian rites, and a papal bull (Ex illa die) in 1715 further reinforced this decision. In 1773, the Jesuit order was even (temporarily) suppressed altogether by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1724, meanwhile, a Qing emperor had condemned Christianity. The unraveling of the once promising Jesuit mission to China is symptomatic of an apparently widening gap in mutual appreciation between China and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
(HEA, 180)After the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644, meanwhile, although a scattering of embassies came to China from the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, and the Vatican, there was little formal diplomatic contact between China and the major western European countries. Substantial private trade, however, resumed after the consolidation of Manchu authority. The leading European traders were now the British, who, according to one story, in 1664 first imported two pounds of a curious Chinese leaf thought to have medicinal properties. In a local southeastern dialect, this substance was called something that sounded like “tea” to British ears. The British tea trade would soon grow to enormous importance. By the early 1830s the British were annually exporting thirty million pounds of tea from China, taxes on which “provided about one-tenth of the total revenue of England.” In the meantime, however, a new restriction had been placed on European trade with China. Beginning in 1757, the Qing Dynasty limited all Western maritime trade to only one port: Guangzhou (Canton). (HEA, 180-1)
Map of Guangzhou (Canton)
Crate of Tea
The "Tea Phrensy" (1785 Cartoon)
Painting showing a scene from the First Opium War
Centrifugal/Centripetal: opposing forces of "tradition" and "modernity"