Cao Dawei & Sun Yanjing. China’s History. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2011.
Measures to Intensify Imperial Power during the Ming and Qing Dynasties
The Ming and Qing dynasties (before the Opium War) lasted from 1368 to 1840 in Chinese history.
At the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the situation of class differences and national contradictions was deteriorating, which triggered large-scale peasant insurgence. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang headed a peasant army to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty, defeat the leaders of other peasant uprisings, and establish the Ming Dynasty with its capital in Yingtian (Nanjing, Jiangsu).
Emperor Taizu (Zhu Yuanzhang) and Emperor Chengzu (Zhu Di) of the Ming Dynasty enforced imperial power by abolishing the prime minister, creating the system of the Grand Secretariat, and setting up secret services to enforce control over grassroots thinking and cultural circles. They moved the capital to Beijing during their reign, formulating the basic structure of the Ming Dynasty system of centralized monarchic despotism. At the same time, the rulers of the early Ming Dynasty implemented economic policies to encourage cultivation of wastelands, reduce corvee and taxes, reward those who planted cash crops, and lift the social status of the craftsmen, which helped recover and develop the economy. The Yongle Period (1403-1424) of Emperor Zhu Di saw social stability and strong national strength and was another prosperous time in Chinese history.
In the early days of the Wanli Period (1573-1620), prime minister Zhang Juzheng reformed the taxation and corvee systems and implemented the Single-Whip Reform to combine original land taxes, corvee, and incidental taxes into one, and levied taxes based on land area. The reform stimulated development of the commodity economy, and more than thirty industrial and commercial cities emerged south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. New changes similar to capitalism in western countries appeared in the handicraft workshops.
In the late Ming Dynasty, land mergers deteriorated. Peasants, forced out of their homeland, abandoned a vast amount of land, which deteriorated into wasteland.
At the end of the Ming Dynasty, the invasion of the Late Jin and natural disasters over several consecutive years finally triggered large-scale peasant uprisings that involved millions of people and lasted nearly twenty years. In March 1644, the insurgent peasant army headed by Li Zicheng occupied Beijing, and Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide. The Ming Dynasty came to its end. In April of the same year, the Qing army, which had arrived at Shanhaiguan Pass, managed to summon Wu Sangui, commander of Ningyuan of the Ming Dynasty, to surrender and conquered the insurgent peasant army. Thereafter, the Qing moved the capital from Shengjing (Shenyang, Liaoning) to Beijing in September, seizing the supreme dominion of the country.
The Manchu, who established the Ming Dynasty, were a new federation of ethnic groups formed after Nurhachi unified the Jurchen tribes during the late Ming Dynasty. Nurhachi proclaimed himself Khan and established a kingdom named Late Jin. His son Huangtaiji ascended the throne and proclaimed himself emperor in Shengjing and changed the title to Qing. After entering Shanhaiguan Pass, the Qing army seized land on a large scale, forced the poor to be their servants, and compelled the residents in southeastern coastal areas to move inward 30 to 50 li. They also forced the Han people to shave their hair and braids with the threat that “if you want to live, you must cut your hair; if you keep your hair, you will be killed” to follow the system of the Qing, making it a symbol of the reign of Manchu nobility. The policies of ethnic group oppression and the backwardness of the production relationship implemented in the early Qing Dynasty worsened the social economy, already seriously damaged by years of civil war. The trend of evolving into a modern society was interrupted.
The cruel policies implemented in the early Qing Dynasty aroused fierce resistance. Campaigns against the Qing rulers sped their demise. The basic crisis, a separation between the land and the laborers at the end of the Ming Dynasty, was removed via peasant warfare. This created a favorable environment for economic recovery in the early Qing Dynasty. During the reigns of Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Yongzheng, and Emperor Qianlong, the social economy developed rapidly and reached a new height in the history of China.
The Ming and Qing dynasties saw further strengthened centralism and highly inflated imperial power.
The Six-Department System from the Sui and Tang dynasties remained basically unchanged during the Ming and Qing dynasties, while the Three-Ministry System was adjusted and reformed to further reduce the power of the prime ministers and to reinforce the power of the emperor.
During the period of Hongwu (1368-1398) in the early Ming Dynasty, the Zhongshu Ministry was cancelled, and the post of prime minister was removed. The emperor was in direct charge of the six departments and handled state affairs in person. Zhu Yuanzhang set up the position of Diange Daxueshi (Imperial Grand Scholar) to help him handle state affairs and documents. The cabinet system was developed during the Yongle Period (1403-1424). In the early Ming Dynasty, the cabinet had no power to decide state affairs independently and functioned only as an assistant to the emperor. But the power of Daxueshi (Grand Scholar) became increasingly strong, and the cabinet head resembled the prime minister of earlier times.
Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty set up the Military Affairs Division. A hub from which the emperor could issue orders and handle state affairs, the division took part in discussions on all critical state affairs, such as the military and administrative programs, civil and diplomatic affairs, including official promotions, removals, assignments, and important case hearings, and drafted orders for the emperor.
The ministers of the Military Affair Division were, however, of lower rank, with no dedicated government office or subordinates, and were forbidden from contacting officials without authorization. All reports submitted by the officials were presented directly to the Emperor, then forwarded to the Military Affairs Division to ensure that the will of the emperor was followed. The decisionmaking and administration system centered on the emperor was efficient and confidential, enabling the emperor to maximize his control over the political situation and state affairs.
The control of the central government over local areas was beefed up during the Ming and Qingdynasties. In the Ming Dynasty, the Buzhengshi Division was set up to manage the provincial administrative affairs. The Tixing Anchasi and Duzhihui divisions were set up to manage criminal law, and military and administrative affairs, respectively. The three divisions, as offices of the central government in the provinces, were independent from one other. Their officials discussed all critical issues before reporting to the central government, facilitating vertical leadership.
In the Qing Dynasty, in addition to the viceroy who governed one or several provinces, a Xunfu (governor) was set up in the provinces to take charge of administrative affairs. The viceroy and Xunfu were favorites of the emperor and had the right to send confidential reports to the emperor. Sometimes the viceroy and Xunfu would be based in the same city and kept one another in check. Their tenure was not long, facilitating the control of the emperor.
The Ming and Qing dynasties also promoted reform in the southwestern areas. They dismissed the hereditary Tusi and appointed officials called Liuguan to manage local administration in a style similar to that of the central plains. The Qing Dynasty set up a “general” in the northwestern and northeastern areas, respectively, to handle military and administrative affairs and enforce control.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the supervision system became even more rigid. Duchayuan was set up at the central level and was responsible for inspecting and impeaching the officials. Duchayuan appointed censors to supervise the local officials. Corresponding to the six departments, six special divisions were set up to inspect the six departments and rectify their malpractices. The supervision system played an active role in cracking down on separatist forces, rectifying the official administration, punishing corruption, improving administrative efficiency, and consolidating centralist rule. However, the focus of the supervision system in the Ming and Qing dynasties was on assessing the loyalty of officials, not on assessing their job performance. Hence, there was little supervision of and constraints applied to the decision-making process of the emperor.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the kinship-based clan organizations were widely established in rural areas. The wide control net formed by Baojia (neighborhood administrative system) and clan organizations extended even to remote areas and became a powerful tool for the rulers to control the population.
In the early Ming Dynasty, the emperors set up Jinyiwei (Brocade-Clad Guards) and the Dong Chang (secret police). The two organizations were authorized to detect and investigate crimes via torture and killing. To establish the absolute authority of the imperial power, the Ming Dynasty also instituted the Tingzhang System, whereby the emperors could arbitrarily flog any minister who they found unsatisfactory at the imperial court. The relationship between the king and his ministers became one of a master and his slaves.
The centralized regime of the ancient China was well organized and contributed to efficient management of a vast territory and a large population by professional bureaucrats selected via the imperial examination system. The regime was of great significance as it promoted the formation of a multi-ethnic nation and boosted economic and cultural development for a long time. However, the separation of power in ancient China was merely a form of check and balance under imperial power and it could not veto the emperor. It was merely a supplement to the rule of absolute monarchy.
Consolidation and Development of a Unified Multi-ethnic Country
The Ming and Qing dynasties (before the Opium War) witnessed unprecedented consolidation and development of China as a unified multi-ethnic country.
In the early 16th century, the western colonial forces rapidly expanded into the eastern world following Portugal and Spain’s successful opening of the navigation routes. In 1548, troops of the Ming Dynasty heavily defeated the invading Portuguese fleet in Shuangyu near Ningbo, Zhejiang, burning seventy-seven battleships of different sizes. After that incident, the Portuguese employed means of deceit and bribery, saying their commercial ships had suffered windstorm, and were thus permitted to set up sheds in Macao to rest and dry their clothes. They went on to build ramparts, barbettes, and official mansions on the pretext of defending the invasion of the Dutch. In 1621, the Ming government destroyed the Qingzhou city built by the Portuguese, and levied an annual tax of 20,000 taels of silver upon the Portuguese in Macao. That paved the way for Macao’s later development into a colonial site, though the Ming Dynasty still had sovereignty over Macao.
In the middle Ming Dynasty, Japanese warriors, merchants, and pirates oft en harassed the southeastern coastal areas. They even once attacked Shanghai and Suzhou and finally reached Nanjing. In 1555, Qi Jiguang was entrusted to resist the Japanese pirates in eastern Zhejiang. He won nine battles in Taizhou and drove the Japanese pirates away in 1565.
In 1598, the Spanish attacked Guangdong, building houses at Hutiaomen. But their houses were later burnt down by the Ming troops, and the Spanish were chased out of Chinese territory.
In 1642, Dutch colonists invaded and occupied Taiwan, where they cruelly exploited the Taiwanese and their resources. In 1661, Zheng Chenggong, who had initiated wars against the Qing Dynasty in southeastern coastal areas, led a troop of 25,000 soldiers and hundreds of battleships to cross the straits eastward from Jinmen, successfully capturing Chiqian City, the strategic site of the Dutch troops. After another eight months of siege, he launched a fierce attack and finally forced Frederick Coyett, the Dutch Governor, to sign a document of surrender. Zheng’s successful reoccupation of Taiwan checked the further eastward expansion of the western colonists, ensured the stability of China’s southeastern provinces, and played an indirect role in protecting other Asian countries.
In the 1640s, Russian troops launched large-scale invasions into the mainland of China, occupying such northeastern areas as Yakesa and Nerchinsk. They brazenly plundered the areas, severely infringing upon the sovereignty of the Qing Dynasty and endangering both life and property. Qing troops waged two counterattacks in Yakesa in 1685 and 1686, defeating the Russian troops, who were forced to agree to a peace talk with only dozens of remaining soldiers. In 1689, both parties signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk, finalizing Qing sovereignty over the drainage areas of the Heilong and Wusuli rivers, including Kuyedao (Sakhalin Island). The treaty also provided that traveling businessmen of both countries could cross the borders for trade by presenting their passports. After the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the eastern part of the border areas between China and Russia enjoyed a relatively peaceful and stable situation that greatly facilitated bilateral trade.
The period from the Ming Dynasty to the early Qing saw effective counterattacks for safeguarding sovereignty, as well as zigzag but generally upward development in border areas where ethnic groups lived.
In the early Ming Dynasty, the remaining forces of the Yuan Dynasty that retreated to the Mongolian Plateau launched constant military attacks against the southern areas. In the middle of the Ming Dynasty, Wala unified all the Mongolian tribes, defeating a 500,000-soldier troop of the Ming Dynasty at Tumubao. He captured Emperor Yingzong alive and threatened the capital city of Beijing. In the early Jiajing Period of the Ming Dynasty, the Andahan Tribe of Tatar grew particularly strong. Between the Longqing and Wanli periods, Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng initiated new reforms in the bordering areas with a view to “increasing the exchanges between the Han and Mongolians externally and reinforcing defensive systems internally.” Vigorous efforts were made to amend and cement the Great Wall and consolidate northern border defenses. As a result, Andahan couldn’t get through the northern border. His people urgently needed to exchange their goods for the farm produce of the central plains, so he begged for peace talks. The court of the Ming Dynasty accepted his request, conferring the title of King of Shunyi upon Andahan, and agreed to open eleven markets for exchange. From then on, the northern border areas saw a growing population, an increase in reclaimed land, and frequent commodity exchange.
Certain key border towns developed into “pearls at the frontiers” that differed little from the central plains. The Mongolian areas boasted not only a booming stockbreeding sector, but also a fast-developing agriculture, a vast area of reclaimed land, numerous villages, and the rise of Guihua City (present-day Hohhot). The Mongolians and Han people gradually merged with one another in many ways, such as ideology, culture, and folk customs. According to historical records, the Han people “living in bordering areas somewhat looked like the foreign people,” and were called “Han aliens” (Han Yi) during the Wanli Period. The Mongolian leaders also practiced the customs of Han, and even “prayed to be a member of Han in the afterlife.”
After coming into power in the middle 17th century, Galdan, from Mongolia’s Junggar Tribe in the West Desert, constantly launched attacks on its neighboring tribes. He later occupied areas both north and south of the Tianshan mountain range and colluded with the Russians to wage a large-scale rebellion. In 1690, Galdan attacked Inner Mongolia, also threatening to attack Beijing. To maintain national integrity, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty personally led his army in war and defeated the rebel forces in Uklark Poktu. Qing troops carried out wars against Galdan and his successors for another seventy years. They eventually destroyed the aristocratic forces of Junggar in 1571 and unified the areas north of the Tianshan mountain range.
The Qing Dynasty established the post of general in Uliastai (present-day Dzhavkhlant, Mongolia) and counselor minister in Hovd (present-day Hovd in Mongolia). It also set up many military sentries, Kalun, along the northern borders, with many posthouses and smooth post roads, intensifying its direct control over the northern border areas. In the meantime, the Qing Dynasty paid great attention to cultivating its popularity among the top leaders of ethnic groups by implementing the policy of “retaining their own customs based on religious beliefs,” retaining their jurisdiction over their respective tribes, reducing taxes and tributes, awarding ranks of nobility, and paying high salaries. The royal family of the Qing Dynasty married into the Mongolian noble class. In addition, eleven spectacular Lama temples were built outside the Chengde Imperial Summer Resort. There, royal Mongolians who were designated to visit the emperors of the Qing Dynasty accompanied the emperors to practice martial arts and go hunting. That helped coordinate and develop Qing’s relations with all tribes of Mongolia, and helped the Qing Dynasty “rally people of all ethnic groups to consolidate power.”
In the early Ming Dynasty, the court set up seven garrisons with Hami as the center to beef up its control over the northwestern borders. In the early Qing Dynasty, the Uygur ethnic group, Islamic converts distributed in areas south of the Tianshan mountain range, were called “Huibu.” In 1757, Burhan al-Din and Khwaja Jinan, Huibu nobles, launched rebellions. But their tyranny and despotism made them quickly lose popularity among the people and led to their defeat by the Qing troops. In 1762, after suppressing the rebellion, the Qing Dynasty established the post of general in Yili, thereby putting a person in charge of all military and civil affairs in areas both south and north of the Tianshan mountains. The whole Xinjiang area, including the Balkhash Lake, enjoyed unprecedented peace and stability.
During the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty, the court set up Nu’ergan Dusi in Telin, the estuary of the Heilongjiang River, granting jurisdiction over the drainage areas of the Heilongjiang and Wusuli rivers. In 1433, the imperial inspector minister of the Ming Dynasty had the stone tablet “Reconstruction of the Yongning Temple” erected. The tablet recorded details of the court’s administration over Nu’ergan Dusi in Han, Mongolian, Jurchen, and Tibetan characters, serving as witness to the joint efforts of all ethnic groups in developing the northeastern areas.
Telin is where the Manchu people rose and later replaced the Ming Dynasty with the Qing Dynasty. In the early Qing Dynasty, the post of general was established in Fengtian, in Jilin, and in Heilongjiang to strengthen Qing’s patrol and defense along the Sino-Russian border and to check Russian invasions. That ensured stability and safety in the border areas and led to unprecedented development in Northeast China.
Tibet accepted the jurisdiction of the Ming Dynasty after the Yuan Dynasty ended. The court sent troops on several occasions to put down rebellions plotted by Junggar nobles and to defeat the invading Gurkha tribe. Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty formally conferred the title of Dalai Lama upon the Fifth Dalai. Emperor Kangxi later conferred the title of Panchen Erdini upon the Fifth Panchen. In 1727, the Ming court set up the post of Minister to Tibet. In 1793, an imperial decree was issued, stipulating that the rights of official appointment and removal, administrative, financial, military, and foreign affairs of Tibet were under the Minister to Tibet.
Emperor Qianlong further formulated the “Golden Vase Lottery” system, ordering that candidates for the reincarnated Living Buddha of Lamaism must be supervised by the Minister to Tibet and be determined by drawing lots in the golden vase awarded by the court. Those measures helped stabilize the political situation in Tibet, pushed forward the local economy, and further made Tibet an inalienable part of China.
The Ming and Qing dynasties adopted the policy of “changing tribal authorities to regular officials” in southwestern areas, abolishing the post of Tusi and implementing a regime system identical to those of inland areas. Furthermore, efforts were made to register households and population, measure land and reclaim barren fields, sort coins and grains, exempt Tusi’s miscellaneous taxes and duties, build roads, and set up schools. Advanced production techniques were also introduced from the inland areas, promoting local economic growth.
After a century-long struggle against invasions from the outside and rebel forces from within, the Qing Dynasty finally founded a unified and consolidated country. Its vast territory stretched from Balkhash Lake and Congling in the west, to the Sea of Okhotsk and Sakhalin Island in the east, and extended from Siberia in the north, to the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the south, and to Taiwan and other islands in the southeast—which basically laid a foundation for China’s present territory. Some neighboring countries as well were subject to or were tributary states of the Qing Dynasty.
There were great advancements in the border areas during the first half of the Qing Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the agricultural produce of northeastern China not only supplied local needs, but was also transported to inland areas. The four cities of Qiqi Ha’er, Mo’ergen, Hulan, and Heilongjiang boasted grain storage of up to 450,000 dan. Since the late Ming Dynasty, some key towns in the border areas between Han and Mongolia, such as Zhangjiakou, saw the emergence of various shops, including silk, cloth, wool, and grocery shops, that extended four or five li. Areas north of the Tianshan mountains boasted up to 560,000 mu of military agricultural colonies during the the mid-reign period of Emperor Qianlong alone. In particular, Yili was a place “where there were vast numbers of immigrants from inland areas, densely distributed villages, herds of sheep and horses, and crowds of merchants. Even the best of Shaoxing and Kunqu Opera could be seen there.”
The formation and development of China as a unified multi-ethnic country was not only reflected in definite political accord, consolidated military defenses in border areas, and mutual economic dependency between inland and bordering areas, but also in harmonious relations among ethnic groups as well as close cultural exchanges.
At a critical time during the resistance of the Russian invasion, Kerk Mongolia was completely defeated due to a sudden attack from Galdan of the Junggar Tribe. When discussing the solution, the top Mongolian leaders said, “Russians never embrace Buddhism, and they have customs, languages, and clothes different from ours, so mixing with the Russians is not a strategy for long-term stability. If we emigrate to the inland areas and submit to the Emperor of theMing Dynasty, we could enjoy a happy life for thousands of years.”
In the third year of the reign of Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty (1630), the Turehot Tribe, which had been forced by Junggar to move to areas around the Volga River, began their journey back to the motherland in 1770 after experiencing a great deal of hardship and difficulties. These examples show that only when the nomadic economy at the frontiers was combined with a commodity economy typical of the central plains and areas south of the Yangtze, and when all ethnic groups merged with one another based on a shared mutual culture, did the vast expanses of the border areas become part of a unified multi-ethnic country.
Prosperity of Farming Civilization and Embryonic Modern Industry
The period from the 13th to 18th centuries, the heyday of the Ming and Qing dynasties, witnessed great advances in agriculture and all-around development in both social and economic fields.
In the second half of the Ming Dynasty, the Single-Whip Reform was implemented, integrating the original land taxes, corvee, and incidental taxes into one. Taxes were levied based on land area alone. The reform stimulated development of the commodity economy, and some rich people even abandoned their land and engaged in commercial business. In the early Qing Dynasty, the reform of Substitution of Farming Land Tax for Poll Tax, adopted to levy taxes only according to land area, completely canceled the poll tax and weakened personal bondage. That marked the maturity of the ancient tax system and a significant renovation in treatment of the working class.
There was an obvious progression in management and production techniques. The Exploitation of the Work of Nature, written at the end of the Ming Dynasty, covered about thirty techniques in both industrial and agricultural production, gaining for China a leading position in the world. Two-season rice was promoted and per unit production increased significantly. The introduction and expanded planting area of high-yield plants such as corn and sweet potato, in addition to the widespread planting of cotton, significantly increased food and clothing options. The big increase in grain output not only satisfied the needs of the growing population, but also facilitated the cultivation of economic crops, paving the way for a flow of people from the agricultural sector to the handicraft sector, altering the traditional economy.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the market-responsive private handicraft sector grew rapidly, replacing government-operated workshops.
Commodity circulation expanded in the middle Ming Dynasty. Silver was the major currency, and commercial capital became increasingly active. Businessmen with huge sums of money traded and transported bulk commodities across the country, and became more deeply involved in production.
In the middle and late Ming Dynasty, some distribution centers for handicrafts and raw materials that appeared in areas along the Grand Canal and south of the Yangzte developed into industrial and commercial cities. Clusters of numerous merchants and intermediary businessmen proliferated; they introduced deals for sellers and buyers and appraised commodity quality and prices. In Suzhou, Songjiang, Hangzhou, Jiaxing, and Huzhou alone, the more than 30 cities and towns of the middle Ming Dynasty increased to more than 200 in the early Qing Dynasty.
The national strength of the Ming and Qing dynasties was particularly reflected in its expanding farmland and growing population. Total area of farmed land rose from 850 million mu in the Ming Dynasty to around 1 billion mu in the Qing Dynasty. The registered population surged from 66 million in the early Ming Dynasty to more than 100 million at its end, and reached 410 million in 1840, the 20th year of the reign of Qing Emperor Daoguang.
From 1720 to 1820, the proportion of China’s GDP in the world’s total increased at a rate far higher than that of all European countries combined. At the beginning of the 19th century, six of the world’s ten cities with 500,000 or more residents were in China. From the middle and late Ming Dynasty to the early Qing Dynasty, half of the world’s total silver output flew into China. China was a major center of world economy and trade.
A new form of business operation known as workshop handicraft emerged in some economically developed areas in the middle Ming Dynasty. Historical records show that in the Wanli Period, most households in Suzhou were employed in silk weaving, and “most of the households in the northeast city were workshop owners.” The presence of detailed division of labor, such as weaver, damask worker, yarn worker, dyer, and cartwright, indicate that production had reached a certain size and had a relatively high technique. The record that “the workshop owners provide the fund while the workers labor” indicates a pure employment relationship.
The workshop owners provided production materials and wages, “paying by day or hour,” and the laborers enjoyed personal freedom. Records showing employees “as common people who earn their own livings” and “asking others who haven’t been employed to substitute for them in case of absence due to particular reasons” also indicate that employees had personal freedom. In Suzhou, in addition to weavers who worked for the same employer all the time, temporary craftsmen went to different sites according to their particular specialties, and waited for employment from the big employers. Hence, there was a functioning job market.
This way of doing business featured a division of labor and a high degree of socialization and working efficiency. It represents qualitative changes when compared to traditional government-operated workshops and small private workshops. Private businesses that earned added profit from labor encouraged free employment, an indicator of the early emergence of capitalism.
The Tongsheng Well Contract (1779) in the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, and the Tianyuan Well Contract (1796) in the reign of Emperor Jiaqing, show that business forms such as a joint partnership, “sharing responsibilities and profits based on respective shares,” had already been adopted in the production of salt in Zigong, Sichuan, showing signs of the modern stock system.
The changes that differentiated the economy of the late Ming and Qing dynasties from previous economic modes indicate that the overdeveloped agricultural sector had been changing all along. Rise of the new elements had paved the way for the evolution of a civilization based on industry.
Culture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties: A Mixture of Old and New
The Ming and Qing dynasties saw drastic changes in Chinese society and were a turning point of great historical significance. Extraordinarily sharp contradictions and conflicts between old and new forces resulted in a pattern of intertwining new and old elements in science and ideology.
The development of a commodity economy triggered the demand for renovated techniques, promoted scientific and technological growth, and gave rise to a number of scientists who made breakthroughs in traditional scientific fields.
An Outline Treatise of Medical Herbs, written by Li Shizhen of the late Ming Dynasty, covers an extensive range of subjects, including medicine, pharmacy, biology, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and phenology. He initiated the classification methods for Chinese medicines, categorizing them in the inorganic sphere, plant sphere, and animal sphere based on the principle of “from small to big” and “from humble to noble”—a system that clearly incorporates the ideas of biological evolution. Li also pointed out the similarities between apes and human beings. Darwin cited parts of the book that dwell on the seven species of chicks and the domestication of goldfish in his argument for “the differentiation occurring in the domestication of animals and plants.” Li was the first to bring forward the idea of the “brain being the house of original spirit,” saying human thoughts were the function and product of brains, which is of great significance.
The Exploitation of the Work of Nature, an encyclopedia of Chinese science written in the 17th century, covers all major industrial techniques of the time, including those of agriculture, textiles, mining, metallurgy, chemical engineering, boat building, and weaponry; it also contains bibliographies of Chinese and non-Chinese sources, a glossary, and appendices on Chinese dynasties, measurements, and transmission of techniques to the West. Compiled by Song Yingxing in the late period of the Ming Dynasty, the encyclopedia has been translated into Japanese, English, German, French, Italian, Russian, and other languages.
Zhu Zaiyu, a descendant of the royal family of the late Ming Dynasty, resigned from his office on seven occasions in order to commit himself to scientific research. He proposed the thought of “principles reflected by numbers and numbers from principles” and created the Twelve-tone Equal Temperament, solving the theoretic problem of achieving tone change in musical instruments that puzzled people for more than 2,000 years. Joseph Needham (1900-1995) called him “a man from the times of Renaissance although he is far away from Europe.”
In An Agricultural Encyclopedia, Xu Guangqi of the Ming Dynasty not only summarized previous and current achievements, but also incorporated ideas and methods from western agricultural science and technologies based on long-term experiments. As “the first to introduce the western science,” Xu is reputed to be an epoch-making Chinese scientific pioneer in modern history for his spotlight on mathematical research and persistence in investigation, experiment, observation, and summary, all elements of modern scientific research.
Xu Xiake’s Travel Diaries, published in the late years of the reign of Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty, is distinctive from common travel notes in many aspects, such as his descriptions of igneous rock, terrestrial heat and springs, the erosive effect of flowing water on rocks, and the dependency of plants on climate. His scientific investigation, featuring precise description and in-depth analysis, paved the way for research in natural science. In 1953, the Chinese Academy of Science re-investigated the fifteen water-eroded caves that he once explored and drew roughly similar data. Joseph Needham appraised his traveling dairies as “having amazing capability in analyzing various sorts of landforms and employing a wide range of jargon in a very systematic way,” and added that the book “reads more like investigative records finished by a field explorer in the 20th century than something written by a scholar in the 17th century.”
The multitude of scientists who emerged in the late Ming Dynasty paid greater attention to experiments and mathematical methods typical of modern scientific research. Generally speaking, however, science and technology in the Ming and Qing dynasties lagged far behind that of the West. The high-handed cultural policy and the highly stereotyped and rigid writing style adopted for the imperial examination only exacerbated the situation, leading to an increasingly wide gap between China and the West.
The Ming and Qing dynasties exercised tight control over the ideological and cultural fields, and, in the early Qing, literary inquisitions in particular were frequently used to crack down on opponents and keep thoughts under control. People would be questioned, condemned, and sent to jail for reasons of boldly discussing political affairs and encroaching upon the dignity of emperors. For instance, Wang Xihou, an official candidate in the imperial examination from Jiangxi, was beheaded, as were all of his seven descendents because, in his book, he failed to refer properly to the posthumous titles of the three emperors, including Kangxi. Hai Chengyin, the provincial governor of Jiangxi, was sentenced to death on probation for weak supervision, and another two officials were also suspended from duty for not pointing out the “false” parts. These cruel literary inquisitions forced intellectuals to divorce their commentaries from real life and to engage in writing books with obsolete thought to protect themselves.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Neo-Confucianism had occupied a dominant position in the official ideology. The examinations focused on the Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books refer to The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Confucian Analects, and The Works of Mencius. The Five Classics include The Book of Odes, The Book of History, The Book of Changes, The book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. All are classic books of Confucians. The answers had to be based on the notes and commentaries of Zhu Xi. Personal views could not be aired, and the writing style was rigid, composed of eight parts called “Eight-part Essay” or “Stereotyped Writing.” The imperial examinations, to a great extent, evolved into a tool of the court to bring the people’s thoughts under strict control.
Xie Jishi, a censor during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, was condemned as “unscrupulous” and exiled to the border areas because he made notes to the Neo-Confucian books in a way different from those of Cheng and Zhu. Such cultural depotism led to a depressing situation among intellectuals and seriously hindered scientific and cultural growth.
The Ming and Qing dynasties witnessed both huge changes and intertwining contradictions of all sorts. On the one hand, despotic rule increased and ritual norms became more and more rigid. On the other hand, the ruling class grew extremely corrupt. Political and religious situations got out of control. The peasants uprising at the end of the Ming Dynasty increased public suspicion of and criticism of the despotism and established rules. The emergence of new economy and the introduction of modern western science in the middle Ming Dynasty offered fresh impetus to cultural renovation. Some enlightened intellectuals at the turn of the Ming and Qing dynasties, responding to the new commodity economy, initiated a wave of enlightenment that called for personal liberation, equality, and democracy.
Li Zhi of the Ming Dynasty, famous for his heterodoxy, lashed out at the Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism being promoted by the ruling class, and denied the claim that the doctrines of Confucianism and Mencius were the best. In his eyes, Confucius was not a saint, but “a common person” and the Four Books and Five Classics should not be the only standards for thinking. Li said every person had unique motives and “individual habits in dressing and eating reflect the relations among people.” It is a natural gift to seek material pleasure and every one can follow one’s nature to emancipate one’s personality.
During the turn of the Ming and Qing dynasties, great thinkers included Wang Fuzhi, Huang Zongxi, and Gu Yanwu. Wang Fuzhi emphasized that natural laws are embodied in the material world, and these laws could be correctly understood through observation. His philosophy toppled the theoretic foundation of apriorism of Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism. He also confirmed the rationality of emotional desire and selfish desire as natural instincts of human beings.
Huang Zongxi alleged in public that, “the emperor is the biggest bane of the world.” In his philosophy, the ruler and the subject were not master and servant, but equal teacher and friend, completely denying the obsolete ethical norms of the time. He also advocated substituting “the laws of the world enabling every person to get their own share” for “the single law of a family” that binds everybody, so as constrain the rule of the emperor.
In view that scholars addicted to reading the annotations of Cheng (Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi) and Zhu (Zhu Xi) were seriously removed from reality, Gu Yanwu exclaimed that “every person is responsible for the rise and fall of the world.” He insisted on being pragmatic and caring about the national economy and people’s livelihood, and being dedicated to social reform.
The thinkers during the Ming and Qing dynasties also put forward diverse theories and assumptions about restricting imperial power. The most prominent concept was to advocate freedom of speech, and to establish bottom-to-top supervision mechanisms to ensure clean politics, proper decisions, and social stability.
The progressive thinkers criticized Neo-Confucianism using an unprecedented incisive style of writing, initiating a wave of progressive thinking characterized by profound and novel philosophical concepts, political insight, and a practical, critical spirit. Their thoughts had a tremendous, centuries-long enlightening influence and gave great inspiration to later generations.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, commercial and industrial towns developed, and the citizen class that emerged promoted the development of literature. Chapter-style novels, developed from play scripts of the Song and Yuan dynasties, focused on narration and mirrored people’s lives and social reality. Novels became the mainstream literature.
Of the great literary classics that gained nationwide popularity during the Ming Dynasty, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong, was the first full-length historical novel in Chinese history. The Water Margin, written by Shi Nai’an, was the first heroic and martial art novel. The Journey to the West, written by Wu Cheng’en, typified the genre of immortal beings. The Golden Lotus, written by Xiaoxiaosheng from Lanling, was an exemplary novel that describes the ways of life and the changes in social customs. Popular short stories that feature ordinary citizens during the late Ming Dynasty vividly describe the life experiences and pursuits of common people, accurately reflecting the social reality of the time.
The Qing Dynasty saw the emergence of a number of great critical works. A Dream of Red Mansions, written by Cao Xueqin, is the best of these. The book focuses on the tragic love story of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu, and presents the general condition of society through the rise and fall of a noble family. While the plots in the novel are complicated, the narrative threads are clearcut. The language is concise and vivid, the characters lively and full of personality. The book is recognized by many as the pinnacle of China’s classic novels.
In addition, The Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, written by Pu Songling, is “a book of indignation” aimed to express the author’s dissatisfaction with social darkness. The Scholars, written by Wu Jingzi, reveals and satirizes the ugly side of society.
Painters with highly developed personal styles emerged in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bold and unconstrained, their works stood in sharp contrast to traditional Chinese paintings.
Among these painters, the eight famous reclusive artists and Shi Tao were all clansmen of the Ming Emperor, and became monks after the Ming Dynasty was destroyed. Through calligraphy and paintings, they expressed their experience of life and their sorrow over the destroyed old dynasty. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, eight artists, known as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, broke conventional rules in painting and manifested works that expressed their sharply defined personalities. Most of their works were impressionistic in style and focused on flowers and birds. As one of the eight eccentrics, Zheng Xie, alias Zheng Banqiao, was good at painting orchids and bamboo.
In the middle and late period of the Ming Dynasty, Kunqu Opera—which combines poetry, music, singing, dance, and drama—prevailed on both sides of the Yangtze River. It developed into an opera performed nationwide, and is called “the origin of all kinds of opera.” Kunqu Opera features elegant lyrics and sweet soothing tunes accompanied by pauses. Ming performers sang and danced; soft dance and gentle arias were combined to amuse the ears and eyes of the audience.
Anhui Opera took a dominant role during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty by absorbing singing and performing styles from Hubei Han Tune, Kunqu Opera, Qinqiang melody, and Bangzi melody. On such a basis, a new form of opera—Peking Opera—came into shape in Beijing. Peking Opera is integrated with the essence of ancient opera art and presents an almost perfect artistic pattern. By using artistic means of singing, speaking, gestures, and acrobatics, performers are able to represent the society at large on a small stage.
Peking Opera took the distinctive Chinese opera to a new level and continues to shine in the hall of human culture.
Crisis before Modern Times
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the historical development of the world experienced significant changes. One after another, the main European countries leaped from early capitalism to capitalist class revolution and embarked on the road to modern industrial civilization.
The Chinese empire reached a new height in agricultural civilization and some changes from the traditional mode emerged in the social economy, and intellectual and cultural circles, with a tendency toward industrial civilization. However, when the British capitalist revolution occurred, China was mired in peasant wars at the end of the Ming Dynasty, after which it entered a track completely different from that of western countries.
In western countries, commercial economy replaced the natural economy, industrial production replaced handicraft workshops, state power marked by rule of law replaced the privilege of kings and nobles, reasoning broke the hold of religious doctrines that dated from the Middle Ages, and science overcame ignorance. The industrial revolution helped the western bourgeoisie “create more massive and more colossal productive forces than those created by all preceding generations together.” But the Qing monarchs, even during the prosperous era of Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong, knew nothing about the historic transformation caused by the spread of industrial civilization, causing the country to sink into its deepest crisis, a watershed moment when China changed from being a leading world power to being a country stuck in the past.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the economic structure, characterized by a combination of farming and weaving and self-sufficiency, still took a dominant role throughout the country, but private handicraft and commercial sectors gained strong momentum. From the late Ming Dynasty onward, social values and morality became money-and benefit—oriented. Thitherto despised businessmen were granted high social status. Even Emperor Yongzheng sighed when he said, “I feel it ridiculous that businessmen top all the professions—and scholars, on the contrary, are located in the lowest positions.” Correspondingly, proposals that “handicraft and commerce jointly constitute the foundation of society” and “the rich are those the whole state depends upon” were put forward in the civil society.
However, the rulers of the Qing Dynasty believed that “one more person engaged in commercial business would reduce one peasant working in the farmland,” and thus insisted on implementing the policies of “encouraging all the peasants to commit themselves to farming” and “making both labor and land exhausted.” This highly intensive mode of production, which confined vast numbers of excessive labor to limited farmland, significantly dampened the impetus of scientific innovation. The long-term family production structure featuring “man tills and women weaves” also hindered the handicraft development, and froze and consolidated the natural agricultural economy.
The rulers of the Qing Dynasty considered that “mining is bound to result in the gathering of people, which would further lead to turbulence.” Therefore, on multiple occasions they issued orders forbidding mining, and imposed redundant and heavy commercial taxes on the activities of businessmen and owners of workshops. Under this policy, businessmen and workshop owners could not increase production by accumulating capital, forcing some commercial capital into land exploitation, which inhibited large-scale industrialization.
While practical study prevailed and western learning gradually flowed into the east, the court of the Qing Dynasty still kept pragmatic knowledge about science and technology at arm’s length, continued its system of official selection through stereotyped writing, constrained the people’s minds with Neo-Confucianism, and vigorously launched literary inquisitions. This made it difficult for modern elements in political and ideological fields to develop. Instead of using uniform, standardized, and efficient educational selection mechanisms to push for industrialization and social transformation, the Qing Dynasty went against the social trend, stubbornly replicating old bureaucratic and legal systems and seriously hindering the process of modernization.
Before the 16th century, China’s ocean navigation and ship-making techniques took a leading position in the world. From 1405 to 1433, the Ming Dynasty sent Zheng He on voyages to Southeastern Asia and the Indian Ocean. Zheng led hundreds of huge ships and thousands of sailors, reaching more than thirty countries in Asia and Africa and increasing friendly exchanges and economic communication. However, the Ming Dynasty characterized this work as “giving more but getting less” and seldom took economic benefits into account. The government forced or supervised the production of most goods for export, which led a vast number of craftsmen to flee, and put an end to the feat of ocean navigation, considering it “bad policy.”
The Qing court posed as a Celestial Empire, believing that it “had abundant resources and products and didn’t need to exchange goods with alien nations.” Meanwhile, it closed its doors to the outside world by prohibiting sea trade and foreign trade, with a view to preventing “alien” invasion and avoiding anti-Qing forces in coastal areas. It closed all the trade ports except the port of Guangzhou, and only allowed the officially franchised organization Shisan Hang to manage foreign trade. Though the closed-door policy played a certain role in defending the nation against western colonists, it did not narrow the gap between the west and China. Instead, the policy curbed the development of foreign trade and navigation, and the Qing Dynasty lost an opportunity to tap overseas markets, stimulate capital expansion, and promote industrialization through foreign trade. Instead it fostered stagnation and took China far away from the developmental tide sweeping the world.
After the Ming Dynasty, western Jesuits came to China. They helped spread advanced western science and technologies while preaching, allowing western learning to flow into the eastern world. This offered rare opportunities for China to broaden its horizon and merge into the tide of industrial civilization. Xu Guangqi, at the end of the Ming Dynasty, timely put forward the proposal of “overtaking the western counterparts by learning wildly from the other’s strong points and combining them with local features based on assimilation of knowledge.” But the rulers of the Qing regime stuck to the idea that China was different from foreign nations, and that all western knowledge originated from Chinese culture. The communication between east and west came to a halt following the exile of the Jesuits during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng.
The rapid growth of capitalism put the entire world into a torrential flow of commodity circulation. Western powers swarmed into other lands across the ocean, plundering valuable resources and objects, trading slaves, and establishing colonial rule. That resulted in a swift change in the balance between western powers and the Qing Empire. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, George Lord McCartney (1737-1806), an emissary from Britain, once claimed that it would take only several three-mast battleships to destroy the whole coastal fleet of the Qing Dynasty if China were to forbade Sino-British trade or cause severe loss. The seemingly ridiculous prediction did come true, causing Emperor Daoguang to sigh and say, “what a shame it is to not repel the attack of two alien ships! It is no wonder we are despised by the alien nations given our poor military strength.”
The first Opium War in 1840 finally disrupted the natural process of China’s societal evolution. The Chinese people then faced a solemn and arduous war to gain national independence, and embarked slowly on a complex, twisting, and unique road to modernization.