A Brief History of China



The Mandate of Heaven







The Ming Dynasty
Using the nautical technology inherited from the Song, the eunuch admiral Zheng He mounted seven naval expeditions of Chinese fleets between 1405 and 1433, with up to sixty vessels. They toured much of Southeast Asia, the east and west coasts of India (including Calicut, where ninety years later Vasco da Gama was to make his Asian landfall), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Persian Gulf and Hormuz, Aden, Jidda (from where seven Chinese went to Mecca), and on to east Africa. Some ships may have gone as far as the Cape of Good Hope, or even around it. They brought back giraffes, zebras, and ostriches to amaze the court, and tributary agreements with gifts from a host of new states. ...
... Some of the ships were larger than anything previously built in the world, 400 feet long and of 500 tons burden, with four decks. They were reported nevertheless to be faster sailers than the Portuguese caravels or Spanish galleons of a century or two later, especially with a favorable wind. ... Zheng He’s ships, like those of the Song, were built with double hulls and up to a dozen separate watertight compartments. Despite their far-flung voyages and their many encounters with storms and unknown coasts, few were ever lost. They were provided with detailed sailing directions, at least for the waters nearer home, as well as compasses. ...

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, 81]
... The expeditions were very expensive, and were stopped after 1433, perhaps mainly for that reason. ... But the abandonment of the maritime expeditions, like the move to Beijing, was a symptom of the Ming’s basic conservatism once the first half-century had passed. ... While the Portuguese were just beginning to feel their way cautiously along the west African coast in sight of land, Chinese fleets of far larger ships dominated the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific and traded in most of the ports. They did not try to cross the Pacific or continue westward to Europe, which they were clearly capable of doing, only because to their knowledge there was nothing in either direction to make such a voyage worthwhile. ... The conquest of the seas, global expansion, and a sea-based commercial revolution were left to the poorer and less complacent Europeans, who, from both their own and the Chinese point of view, had more to gain thereby — and less to concern them or to take pride in at home. [East Asia: A New History, 126-8]
...but then came the Manchu...


Qing Dynasty

In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the Ming court slowly lost control of its rural bureaucracy and, as a result, of its tax structure. Pressed at the same time for more money to pay and supply the troops needed to counter the attacks of the Jürchen tribesmen who were growing in power and seizing great areas of land in Manchuria, the court both increased extra levies on those populated areas that it still controlled and laid off many employees in the northwest, where the danger to the state seemed less pressing. One of those laid off in this economy move was a post-station attendant from a rural family named Li Zicheng. [SMC, 21]
With the Manchu armies to his east and Li Zicheng’s forces to his west, General Wu Sangui was in a desperate situation. His only hope to survive was by allying with one of his opponents. Among arguments for joining Li were the fact that he was Chinese, that he seemed to have the support of the local people, that he promised to end the abuses that had marked the late Ming state, and that he held Wu’s father as a hostage. Otherwise, Li was an unknown quantity, violent and uneducated; moreover, the behavior of his army in Peking after he had seized the city in April 1644 was not encouraging to a wealthy and cultured official like General Wu. Li’s troops had looted and ravaged the city, attacking and pillaging the homes of senior officials, seizing their relatives for ransom, or demanding enormous payoffs in “protection money.” Even though Li had declared the formal founding of a new dynasty, he was unable to control his own generals in Peking, and Wu might well have wondered how effective Li would be in unifying China.

As for allying with the Manchus, there was the disasdvantage that they were ethnically non-Chinese, and their Jürchen background included them in a history of semicivilized frontier people whom the Chinese had traditionally despised; furthermore, they had terrorized parts of north China in their earlier raids and had virtually wiped out some of the cities they had occupied. Yet in their favor was the early development of their embryonic regime, the Qing, which offered a promise of order: the six ministries, the examination system, the formation of the Chinese banners, the large numbers of Chinese advisers in senior positions — all were encouraging signs to Wu. And their treatment of senior Chinese officials who surrendered had been good. [SMC, 32]
A Letter from Wu Sangui to Dorgon
Renshen Day, 4th Moon, 1644
Our country has had good relations with your northern dynasty for more than two hundred years. Now, for no reason, we face this national catastrophe. Your northern dynasty should consider our plight with compassion. Moreover, these mutinous officials and bandits also cannot be tolerated by your northern dynasty. To be rid of this violent evil will be greatly favorable to you. ... Moreover, it is impossible to calculate how much wealth or the number of women the roving bandits have already accumulated; when your righteous army arrives all this will be yours and this shall be a great profit. As the world’s greatest hero, your majesty has this opportunity to rip down what is withered and rotten: certainly there will never be a second chance!
       I beg you to consider the loyal and righteous words of this solitary official of a destroyed kingdom and immediately summon crack troops to enter the central and western zones. I, Sangui, will lead my command to arrive at the gates of the capital. We can then destroy the roving bandits who have taken the court and make manifest great righteousness in China. Then will our dynasty repay your northern dynasty merely with wealth? We will give land as a reward and absolutely shall never betray our word. ... [
DC, 22-3]

Dorgon’s Reply
Guiyu Day, 4th Moon, 1644

We always wanted to cultivate a good relationship with the Ming and often sent you letters; however, the Emperor and officials of the Ming did not consider the chaos afflicting the state or the death of its troops and people and you never replied. Therefore, on three occasions our state launched campaigns to show your officials, troops, and common people that we wanted the Ming Emperor to make careful plans and befriend us. We shall do this no longer. We seek only to pacify the nation and give the people rest. ... When your excellence dispatched an envoy with your letter, I was enormously happy and, therefore, am leading my army forward. Your excellence thought to repay your [Ming] lord’s graciousness toward you and refused to share the same sky with the roving bandits. This is certainly the righteousness of a loyal subject! ... If your excellence is willing to lead your troops to us, we will enfeoff you with a domain and ennoble you as a prince. Your state will then be avenged and you and your family will be protected. Your posterity will enjoy wealth and nobility as eternal as the mountains and rivers. [DC, 23-4]