Late Imperial China
The Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties
[The Song founder] Emperor Taizu was acutely aware of the fragmentation that had been caused by warlordism since the middle of the Tang Dynasty, and of the frequency of military coups like the one that had brought him to power ... [and as a result] he was determined to clearly separate military command from civilian administration. Emperor Taizu hosted a legendary palace banquet for his senior generals at which, with a toast, he relieved them of their military commands and retired them to lives of civilian comfort in the capital. ... [These] policies would be successful enough that dynastic change would thereafter be very much less frequent and would never again be the result of an internal military coup. Although there were roughly eight dynasties in premodern Chinese history, only three of them came after the Song (not counting peripheral alien regimes that sometimes extended into Chinese territory). Each of the relatively few remaining changes of dynasty, furthermore, can be attributed to foreign invasion. The premodern Chinese sociopolitical order became rather remarkably stable in the thousand years remaining after the Song Dynasty began in 960 — but the flip side of this same coin was also a long-term decline in the prestige of military service and relative military weakness. China would thereafter repeatedly be threatened with foreign conquest. (HEA, 132-3)
The paradox of the Song Dynasty is that, although it was a time when China led the world in technology, commercial prosperity, and sophisticated culture and the arts — and a time when China may have held a third of the world’s total population — yet even after the Song reunification was complete (by about 978), it was still a somewhat diminished, militarily more vulnerable China. The loss of control over Inner Asian borderlands not only made the Song a geographically smaller empire, but also deprived it of horses and high quality cavalry supplied from the borderlands (cavalry that was, furthermore, less expensive than regular imperial garrisons because it was composed of self-sustaining pastoral nomads), forcing the Song to spend more of its revenue on the military than the Tang Dynasty, even as it was militarily weaker. At the same time, Song China was also now surrounded by significant foreign powers. (HEA, 133)

Compounding the paradox of a militarily weak Song Dynasty that nonetheless managed to flourish culturally and economically, after the loss of the north in 1127, the geographically much diminished Southern Song in some respects may have actually even entered the most flourishing phase of the whole dynasty. Although the land area controlled by the Song had shrunk dramatically, the Southern Song was the period when what has been called China’s “medieval economic revolution” reached its climax. (HEA, 135-6)
Song Dynasty Chinese society was commercialized, technologically sophisticated, and urban. The city-dwelling population of Song China may have even been equal to the entire urban population of the whole rest of the world at the time. It was not uncommon for wealthy merchants to combine their capital for fixed periods of investment, credit was available on commission from local brokers, and even futures contracts with commissioned agents were already being signed. Commercialization had become so pervasive that market forces determined even such activities as the sale of concubines (secondary wives) and religious behavior. For example, it was now normal to hire different types of religious professionals to perform different specific religious services, as a kind of market transaction, and to abandon any god who did not appear able to deliver tangible blessings. Coal-fired blast furnaces were producing iron in quantities that may have peaked in the eleventh century at levels nearly equal to that of all Europe combined as late as 1700. Gunpowder was put to at least limited military application, for example, as an igniter for naphtha-based flame throwers. Paper money — which had first appeared in late Tang — was in wide circulation, and the technology of woodblock printing was promoting a revolution in the availability of books.  (HEA, 136-7)

The Four Great Inventions

Diamond Sutra (868): the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book

Song dynasty jiaozi: the world’s earliest paper money

The compass was invented in the early Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
and then adopted for naval use in the Song dynasty

The Confucian Revival
The increased availability of books may have also contributed to a major social transformation. In late imperial China, beginning with the Song, although there certainly were other ways of becoming wealthy, there was to a very large extent only one true elite career path: that of the scholar-official, or mandarin. The word mandarin is English, not Chinese. It is derived from Portuguese (and ultimately Sanskrit), but it is nonetheless used to describe a very uniquely Chinese sociopolitical class. In China, of course, there was nothing new about an association between elite status and a career in government, but the late imperial mandarins now — unlike their ancient predecessors — held office overwhelmingly on the strength of academic degrees obtained through anonymously graded written tests. The Chinese imperial civil service examination system finally came of age in the Song dynasty. ... For better or for worse, the examination system helped shape the kind of society late imperial China became. To a remarkable degree, it was a society focused on education and book learning. The elite were scholars. According to Confucian notions of rule by moral example, government itself is essentially an act of educating people to improve themselves. Confucius is regarded as China’s first teacher.
       On balance, the examination system never really permitted as much upward social mobility as is sometimes imagined by enthusiasts. True rags-to-riches cases were rare, and a large stratum of relatively wealthy families produced most degree holders. The system also did not reward technological or scientific innovation. But by any premodern standard, this was a relatively fluid social order, with elite status not directly hereditary and opportunities for advancement through ability and effort clearly visible (if not always actually attainable). The examination system provided at least the appearance of fairness of opportunity, and at the same time ensured that the elite were extremely well educated and steeped in common Confucian values. This, too, helps to explain why late imperial Chinese society was exceptionally stable.
(HEA, 137-9)
The Mongols conquered the largest land empire in the history of the world. In the west, they overran parts of Poland and Hungary and pushed as far as the Adriatic Sea. In the south, they raided into India, although they did not then attempt to occupy it. In the northeast, the Mongols won the submission of Korea. Two huge amphibious invasions of the Japanese islands were both scattered by typhoons, with disastrous results, however, and repeated strikes southeast into the region of Vietnam became mired in tropical jungles and fierce resistance. Even the Mongol Empire eventually reached its limits. While the Mongol conquests were still accumulating, meanwhile, Chinggis Khan’s grandson, Khubilai Khan (1215-1294), was acclaimed as Qaghan — that is, Khan of Khans, or Great Khan — in 1260 and began to consolidate a semi-Chinese-style Yuan Dynasty based at Beijing, in the east. ... Despite all this, the Yuan Dynasty did not prove very enduring. By the time he had completed his conquest of the Southern Song in 1279, Khubilai Khan was already in his late sixties. He was old by the standards of the day, and his final years were dogged by failures. Khubilai Khan, for example, attempted to impose a new universal writing system, based on Tibetan, which simply failed to win acceptance. His two invasions of Japan were disasters. In 1294, he died. Within a few years after his death, the Mongol empire in China began to tear itself apart amid succession disputes. Such struggles over succession were a frequent feature of steppe history. Although the steppe tradition was that leadership should be broadly hereditary within a single family, there were no fixed rules for selection, and descent could just as easily pass from older brother to younger brother or from father to younger son, as from father to eldest son. The result was that when a khan died, it was normal for there to be a power struggle.
       In addition, and catastrophically, the bubonic plague (or something like it — the identification remains controversial) also made its appearance in the Mongol-ruled Yuan Empire sometime around the 1320s. From there, the plague may have spread along the newly established transcontinental Mongol trade routes to the Mediterranean and Europe, where the resulting Black Death had a major impact on medieval European history. In China, it has been estimated that as much as a third of the entire population may have died of the plague. For many, it seemed as if the end of the world was at hand.
(HEA, 143-6)
The Ming Dynasty

Both out of reaction to the memory of Mongol rule, and perhaps also due to sensitivity about his own extremely humble origins, the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang (known as emperor by the posthumous temple name Ming Taizu, r. 1368-1398) was notoriously paranoid and despotic. Paradoxically, however, he also upheld as never before a Confucian ideal of puritanical austerity and of limited government by means of moral example. His vision of the empire was one of a vast collection of semiautonomous peasant villages. Taxes were deliberately held low and paid in kind (i.e., in rice or some other commodity rather than money). The total civilian government bureaucracy was initially kept to only about eight thousand. Physical movement was also restricted. Under the Ming founder, an official certificate was required for anyone to travel more than thirty miles from home, and travel beyond the Ming borders without official permission was punishable by death. (HEA, 147-8)
Hongwu retained the broad outlines of the government system of previous dynasties...[though his] style of government tended toward personal control. He became suspicious, for example, of a man who had helped him gain power, Hu Weiyong. In 1380 Hu was accused of treasonable contacts with Mongols and Japanese and was executed. The affair was a cause célèbre, with no fewer than 15,000 persons said to be involved. The emperor took the occasion to strengthen his direct control of the army and to eliminate the office of prime minister and the body, the Central Chancellery, over which the prime minister presided. (China: Its History and Culture, 124-5)
[On the other hand, once] the new government was firmly established, an enormous effort was immediately made to restore the economic situation, which at this point, as during most of Chinese history, meant reviving the agricultural yield. Neglected dikes and canals were repaired, and land abandoned during the rebellions was again brought under cultivation. Tax exemption for a number of years was granted as an inducement to peasants to move into the ruined areas — parts of the emperor’s own province of Anhui, for instance, had been completely depopulated. Some figures given by Gernet indicate that the effort was successful, for the amount of land brought back annually into cultivation was almost three times as great in 1379 as it was in 1371. At the same time a major program of tree planting was undertaken, involving among others palms, mulberry, and lacquer trees. (China: Its History and Culture, 123-4)

The Ming founder’s fourth son (born of a Mongol consort) seized the throne by force from his own nephew in 1402, becoming the third Ming emperor, known to history as the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1425). This Yongle Emperor had some astoundingly grandiose ambitions. Most notably, he commissioned a series of naval expeditions under the command of a Chinese Muslim eunuch named Zheng He (1371-1433). For the first expedition in 1405, a fleet of sixty-two large ships — some as large as approximately four hundred feet in length — was assembled, carrying some 27,800 persons. By 1433, seven major voyages had been launched, which sailed up the eastern seaboard of Africa, cruised past Hormuz into the Persian Gulf, and ventured into the Red Sea. A small party apparently even made it to Mecca. These voyages brought back tribute from Hormuz, Mogadishu, Bengal, and other places; a king from Ceylon was taken back to China; and also such exotic beasts for the imperial menagerie as giraffes from Africa. (HEA, 148)
The scale of these immense naval expeditions, which dwarfed anything European monarchs could have put to sea at that time, is breathtaking. Nonetheless, they were not actually voyages of exploration, since they followed trade routes that had already been well known since Roman times. Zheng He’s father, a Muslim, had apparently already even made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The voyages did not make any significant new discoveries, nor were they intended to promote trade because the Ming government was not much interested in trade (and private commerce was developing on its own initiative, anyway). The voyages were expensive and put a considerable strain on imperial resources. Confucian officials, always concerned with reducing taxes and “giving rest to the people,” were convinced that such expeditions were not worth the cost. After 1433, the expeditions stopped entirely. (HEA, 148)
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Comparisons with Columbus
Whereas Columbus’s crew eked out the days on their diet of hardtack supplemented by bread baked with ocean water, Zheng He’s men traveled in style. Columbus traveled with 4 boats, Zheng He with 317. The Santa Maria was 24 meters (80 feet) long, with a capacity of 250 metric tons (280 English tons). The treasure ships were at least 120 meters (400 feet) long and carried 2,200 metric tons (2,500 English tons). … All comparisons between the Chinese and the European ships make the same point: the Chinese ships exceeded the European ships, often by a factor of ten or more, in size, staff, and equipment. (The Open Empire, 381)
Of the seven expeditions, the first, fourth, and last may be considered to be representative and also to exhibit features of special interest. The first, from 1405-1407, comprised 28,000 men and visited Champa in southeast Vietnam, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, Ceylon, and Calicut on the west coast of south India. The fourth expedition (1413-1415) reached Calicut and Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, while a separate flotilla made a direct crossing from Sumatra to the east coast of Africa at Mogadishu in Somalia, a straight run of some 3,700 miles, and then went on to Aden in Arabia before returning home. It was not until the end of the same fifteenth century that the Portuguese explorers were to attempt ocean crossings of such magnitude. The seventh expedition (1431-1433) called at Champa, Java Palembang in Sumatra, Malacca, the Malabar coast, and Hormuz, while some ships reached Jedda in the Red Sea, the port for Mecca. (China: Its History and Culture, 128)

Tribute or Trade?
The motives which lay behind these voyages are not entirely clear. The primary one was probably not commercial but concerned politics and international prestige. In all likelihood Yong Le’s ambition to assert Chinese power in all directions led him to extend the tribute system to Southeast Asia, Ceylon, and south India. The tribute system was a practice which had developed since Han times, whereby foreign states sent tribute to the Chinese capital in return for political and commercial recognition. The eunuchs and others stood to gain commercially, and the court incidentally acquired some new and exotic gifts such as zebras, ostriches, and giraffes, the last identified with the fabled unicorn of good fortune. (China: Its History and Culture, 128)
After the Voyages?
In the early fifteenth century, the Ming Dynasty had the most powerful navy in the world, but over the next hundred years, this mighty fleet shriveled away. In 1525, there was even an imperial edict ordering the destruction of all oceangoing ships. Ironically, however, even as the Ming government was apparently retreating into conservative isolationism, private Chinese commerce was entering a new age of dynamic growth by the sixteenth century. China was approaching the threshold of its early modern era. (HEA, 148-9)