East Asia during the Early Modern Age

China under the Ming and Qing Dynasties: The Ming ("brilliant") dynasty (1368 -1644), which assumed power with the collapse of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, restored China to native rule. Established by Hongwu (1368-1398), Ming emperors were determined to prevent further invasions of China. The Mongols had been enough. The Emperor Yongle moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421 where he could keep a close watch on the Mongols and other nomadic peoples of the North. Although Ming armies managed to control the Mongols for some time, they eventually lost their effectiveness. In the 1440’s Mongol armies massacred Chinese armies. In 1449, they captured the Ming emperor himself.

To protect China from Mongol invasion, Ming emperors ordered construction of the Great Wall of China. It was built by hundreds of thousands of workers over many years, and ran 1550 miles. It varied from 33 to 49 feet high and had watch towers, signal towers, and accommodations for troops sent to the border. Ming emperors also sought to eradicate any Mongol or other foreign influence in China. They encouraged individuals to abandon Mongol dress and the use of Mongol names. Institutions ignored by the Mongols were reinstated, such as the study of Confucianism. The system of civil service examinations, abandoned by the Mongols, was also reinstated.

The Ming dynasty declined in the mid sixteenth century. From the 1520’s to the 1560’s, pirates and smugglers ravaged the east coast of China, operating at will. Ming officials called the pirates Japanese; in fact they were mostly Chinese. The Ming navy and coastal defenses could not stop them, and their attacks at times even ventured inland. In 1555, sixty seven pirates went on a three month rampage in which they looted a dozen cities in three provinces and slaughtered four thousand people. In the meantime, Ming emperors secluded themselves in the Forbidden City, an imperial enclave in Beijing, and received news from the outside world only from eunuch servants and administrators. At times they ignored government affairs for decades while they lived in decadence. Eunuchs were able to gain influence by supplying emperors with concubines, and then used that influence to enrich themselves. Corruption and inefficiency reached crisis levels and the state was eventually weakened. Forty years were required to suppress the Chinese pirates because of government inefficiency.

A series of famines occurred in the early seventeenth century when many peasants starved. Others survived only by eating grass roots and bark. A series of peasant revolts erupted and grew stronger as cities one by one withdrew from loyalty to the Ming emperor. Manchu invaders from the north allied with rebels and attacked the Ming dynasty. By the 1640’s rebel forces controlled most of China. The last Ming emperor had been sheltered from bad news by court eunuchs, and did not know the location of rebel forces until they stormed the walls of the Forbidden City. As the rebels looted the area, the emperor and his family committed suicide. The Ming dynasty came to an ignominious end.

The Manchus, from Manchuria, seized Beijing, and proclaimed a new dynasty, the Qing ("pure") which survived from 1644 to 1911. The Manchus were primarily nomads who had clashed with the Chinese for years. They had been unified by an ambitious chieftain, Nurhaci (r. 1616-1626.) Qing forces had expelled Ming armies from Manchuria and captured Korea and Mongolia. After capturing Beijing, they extended their influence throughout China, although it took them forty years to do so. They were successful primarily due to military prowess and popular support for the Manchu. Chinese generals deserted the Ming dynasty because of its corruption; and Confucian scholars and bureaucrats deserted the dynasty because they despised the eunuchs who dominated the court. Manchu ruling elite had been schooled in Chinese language and Confucianism, and commanded more respect from scholar-bureaucrats than the Ming emperor himself.

The Manchu were careful to preserve their cultural identity. They forbade intermarriage between Chinese and Manchus; prohibited Chinese from traveling to Manchuria or learning their language. They forced Chinese men to shave the front of their heads and grow a queue as a sign of submission. Two Manchu rulers helped the Manchu consolidate their hold on China: Kangxi a Confucian scholar and avid reader applied the teachings of Confucius to his policies. He organized flood control and irrigation projects based on the Confucian principal that a ruler should provide for the welfare of his people. He conquered the island of Taiwan where Ming loyalist and retreated, and made it part of his empire; and also imposed a Chinese protectorate over Tibet. His policies were continued by his grandson, Qianlong, who expanded Chinese influence north to Turkestan and encouraged merchants to settle there, hoping to stabilize it and prevent further nomadic incursions. He made Vietnam, Burma and Nepal vassal states of the Qing Empire. A sophisticated and capable ruler, he reportedly composed more than one hundred thousand poems. During his reign, the treasury was so full that on four occasions, he cancelled tax collections. As he grew older, he entrusted much of his responsibility to his favorite eunuchs, and spent most of his time hunting and his harem; a practice his successors followed. By the nineteenth century, the Qing dynasty was in serious trouble.

Chinese tradition during the Ming and Qing dynasties denominated the Emperor as the "Son of Heaven," one who had heavenly power to maintain order on earth. As a sacred being, every element of his life was carefully orchestrated. He was attended by thousands of eunuchs and kept a harem with hundreds of concubines. His daily activities were carefully planned and his wardrobe bore designs which were forbidden to anyone else. The written characters of his name were taboo. Those who were privileged to receive a rare private audience were required to perform the kowtow: kneel three times and touch their head to the floor nine times. Severe punishment was administered for even the most minor offense.

Day to day operation of the empire was left to scholar bureaucrats appointed by the emperor. Most were well educated and literate, from a class known as the scholar gentry. Most had passed rigorous civil service exams and held academic degrees. Education for advanced degrees, available only to males began at an early age when tutors were often employed. By age twelve, they had memorized several thousand characters, studied calligraphy, essay composition and poetry. They also studied Confucius’ Analects. Administration of the examination itself was under a tightly controlled environment. Competition for degrees was ferocious with occasional cheating, and one who passed and received his degree was not guaranteed a government job. The examinations were open to anyone of any class, so some upward mobility was possible; but because travel to examination sites was expensive, the wealthy had an advantage. The exam itself took three days and two nights with no breaks or interruptions. During that time the candidates, limited to 300 in number, stayed in tiny rooms and wrote "eight legged essays’—essays with eight distinct sections. If one died during the examination period, his body was wrapped in a straw mat and thrown over the walls of the compound. The significance of the examination and education system is that it guaranteed that Confucianism would be at the head of the Chinese education system.

Economic and Social Changes: During the Ming and Qing dynasties, global trade brought China enormous wealth and agricultural production rapidly expanded due to new crops from the Americas. This in turn led to rapid population growth.

The Chinese family was hierarchical, patriarchal and authoritarian. The father was the head of the household and passed leadership on to his oldest son. Ancestors were venerated as a matter of Confucian propriety; and children were expected to honor and care for their parents during the latter’s elder years. Chinese moralists painted the people of China as one large family who owed the same filial piety which children owed to fathers to the Emperor himself as the father figure of the society. Family groups were organized into clans which might number into the thousands. Members of a clan might come from all social classes, although the gentry normally dominated. Clans supported education and often gave poor candidates an opportunity to succeed on civil service exams. Clan organization served as a vehicle to transmit Confucian values from the gentry to all social classes within the clan.

Women were subordinate to family males at an early age and became tighter during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Boys were preferred to girls as newborns. Boys had the opportunity for education and possible government service; girls normally married and became members of other family groups. Infanticide of newborn girls was sadly not uncommon. Widows were encouraged not to remarry, but to honor the memory of their husbands. Special honors were given to those who committed suicide to be with their husbands. Foot binding became a popular practice in which young girls’ feet were tightly bound with linen. The result was a foot that would not support the weight of an adult. Bound feet were considered sexually arousing by men. It was most common among wealthy classes, as it demonstrated that the family could support itself without the woman’s physical labor. Commoners often bound the feet of pretty girls in hopes of finding a favorable spouse and enhance its social standing. Marriages were contracted with the purpose of continuing the male line of descent. Once married, a woman could not divorce her husband, but he could divorce her for adultery, theft, disobedience or lack of offspring.

The Chinese economy was agricultural, in accordance with the Confucian idea that land was the source of everything laudable. The Emperor himself normally plowed the first furrow of the planting season. Still, arable land was limited (probably 10 percent) and farmers had to rely on intensive agricultural practices to feed China’s growing population. Every available parcel of land was cultivated. The introduction of maize, sweet potatoes and peanuts from the Americas permitted farmers to use lands previously uncultivated. The food supply thereby increased as well as the Chinese population. The influx of American and Japanese silver in the early seventeenth century also benefited the Chinese economy. The population grew by 40 per cent in a half century which placed pressure on resources, but created a market for entrepreneurs who had access to a large labor force.

Globally, China exported silk, porcelain, tea and lacquer ware. Few goods were imported, but large quantities of silver were. The Chinese economy was based on silver and fueled manufacturing. Most economic growth was tightly controlled by the government. Following the reign of Yongle, the Qing government attempted to end maritime trade altogether. An edict of 1656 forbade "even a plank from drifting to the sea." These attempts had only limited success, as ships continued to trade in Japan and in Southeast Asia. The strictest exportation decrees were lifted in the 1680’s but trade, particularly by foreign merchants, was strictly controlled. Portuguese merchants were limited to the port of Macau, and the British could only deal with the merchant guild of Guangzhou. Large scale commercial ventures by Chinese merchants were also discouraged. As a result, large vessels such as that sailed by Zheng He, and large companies such as the East India companies of Europe were impossible. Chinese merchants still managed a lucrative trade, particularly in Manila, where they exchanged silk and porcelain for American silver. They also traded with the Dutch at Batavia for silver and as far as Borneo, Sumatra, and Thailand. Interestingly, economic expansion took place during a time when technological development, which had been immense during the Tang and Song dynasties, slowed dramatically. Chinese armed forces adopted European cannon and firearms which were based on technology that had originated earlier in China itself. Little technological innovation for agricultural or industrial purposes occurred during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The primary reason was that Ming and Qing emperors favored political and social stability over technological improvements, which they feared would lead to radical changes. Also, skilled workers were readily available because of the population increase, so the need for technology was obviated. As a result, although China remained prosperous and most of its population employed, it fell woefully behind Europe in technological developments.

Scholar bureaucrats and gentry held the highest positions in Chinese society below the Emperor and his family. They wore distinctive clothing (usually a black gown with blue borders and insignia indicating their rank), could not be called as witnesses in a legal proceeding by commoners; were immune from corporal punishment and exempt from labor service and most taxes. Most owned land which was their primary source of income. Some also operated pawn and rice shops. Some also were silent partners in merchant enterprises, although their primary source of income was government service, which was only accessible if one held an academic degree. They often resided in cities and towns rather than the countryside.

There were three ranks of commoners below the gentry: Peasants, including anyone from day laborers to tenant farmers, constituted the largest class. They were considered the most honorable of the classes, as they performed honest labor and provided food to the populace. Artisans were immediately below peasants on the social scale. They consisted of craftsmen, barbers, physicians and those who worked in manufacturing plants. They had higher incomes than peasants and were normally employees of the state or gentry. Merchants, from street peddlers to wealthy traders were the lowest class. They were considered as unscrupulous social parasites and had little legal protection. Even so, they often received support from the gentry in the form of investment, and merchants often provided their sons with an education to prepare them for the government examination which would entitle them to gentry status. As a result, the line between merchants and gentry was often blurred. Unlike the Dutch and English, merchants did not form cooperative relationships with government authorities (such as the joint stock companies of Europe which enjoyed wide government support.) They were permitted to engage in small scale commerce, and some foreign merchants were allowed to trade through official guilds, but the government aim was to preserve the agricultural nature of Chinese society. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the military and "mean people." Armed forces were considered by Confucian moralists to be a necessary evil. Civilian bureaucrats were placed in the highest positions of command to prevent military dominance. The end result, of course, was a largely ineffective military. "Mean people" were slaves, indentured servants, prostitutes and other low life types.

New Cultural Influences and the Return of Christianity: Ming and Qing emperors supported Confucian tradition, particularly that systematized by Zhu Xi, the Song dynasty founder of neo-Confucianism. He had combined Confucian ideals with Buddhist philosophy and emphasized self discipline, filial piety and obedience to rulers, all of which appealed to the Emperors. They supported education, particularly at the Hanlin Academy, a research institute for Confucian scholars. Yongle, who sponsored the Yongle Encyclopedia mentioned earlier, was a Ming emperor. A smaller project, the Collection of Books, was more influential because it was actually printed and distributed. A much larger work, Qianlong’s Complete Library of the Four Treatises, ran to 93,556 pamphlet size volumes, but was too large to publish. Manuscript copies were placed in seven libraries throughout China.

Although Confucianism was officially promoted, a popular culture grew in the cities of China primarily novels with stories of conflict, horror, excitement and at times pornography. Confucian scholars looked upon them with disdain, as they had little relation to the realities of the world; but they were immensely popular in tea houses and wine shops.

Some novels offered insight into Chinese life. Among them: Romance of the Three Kingdoms involved the collapse of the Han dynasty. Dram of the Red Chamber was a story of cousins deeply in love who could not marry because their families would not agree. Journey to the West told of the travels of a famous Buddhist monk, Xuanzang who traveled with a magic monkey who could jump 10,000 kilometers (6,215 miles) in a single bound. This story was wildly popular. IN 1987, it was revived by a Chinese American novelist, Maxine Hong in a novel entitled Tripmaster Monkey.

Christianity had disappeared from China in the fourteenth century when the plague was epidemic and the Yuan dynasty collapsed. It returned in the sixteenth century, primarily due to Jesuit missionaries. The mission to China was founded by an Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci who hoped to convert the entire Country, beginning with the emperor. A brilliant scholar, he mastered Chinese characters and Confucian learning which opened doors for the Jesuits. They were able to dazzle their hosts with European science, technology, and mechanical gadgets. They corrected Chinese calendars such that they now correctly predicted solar eclipses and prepared maps of the world which—diplomatically—placed China at the center of the world. They even supervised the casting of bronze cannon. Their most popular improvisation was that which the Chinese called "self ringing bells," in essence a spring driven mechanical clock.

The Jesuits’ main goal was conversion to Christianity. Ricci wrote a treatise entitled The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven in which he argued that the teachings of Jesus and Confucius were very similar, perhaps identical. He argued that neo-Confucian scholars had altered Confucius’ own teachings; therefore adoption of Christianity would represent a return to pure Confucianism. They held religious services in Chinese and allowed converts to continue the veneration of ancestors. Even so, they attracted few converts. The main problem was the exclusivity of Christianity, which like Islam, claimed to be the only true religion. The Chinese had honored Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism and the proposition by the Jesuits that these were false religions was a premise the Chinese were reluctant to accept. Although they were not successful in spreading Christianity, Jesuit operations in China made China known to Europeans. They described China as a rational and ordered society. European rulers began to design their own systems after Confucian models and the philosophes of the Enlightenment saw its rational morality as a desirable alternative to Christianity. This was the first exposure of Chinese ideas in Europe since the writings of Marco Polo.

Squabbles between the Jesuits and members of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders ultimately ended the mission to China. The latter, apparently jealous of the Jesuits, complained to the Pope about services in Chinese and the tolerance of veneration of ancestors. The Pope agreed, and forbade either; and further ordered that services be conducted according to strict European standards. In response, the emperor Kangxi ordered the preaching of Christianity to stop, and the religion disappeared by the mid eighteenth century.

The Unification of Japan: Japan was effectively ruled by a Shogun, ("Military governor") from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. The Emperor, although the titular head of the government, was merely a figurehead. Conflicting claims led to civil war, such that Japanese historians refer to the sixteenth century as the era of sengoku—"the country at war." In 1600, the country was ultimately reunited under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu, (r. 1600-1616) under a military government known as the bakufu (‘tent government." The Tokugawa dynasty ruled Japan until 1867.

To stabilize the country, the shoguns needed to control the 260 daimyo (‘great names") who were powerful territorial lords and held vast hereditary lands. Each exercised practically absolute rule over his area; many traded with European mariners and from them learned how to manufacture firearms. The Shogun governed his own domain from Edo (present day Tokyo) and instituted a policy of "alternate attendance" which required the daimyo to spend every other year at court. The end result was the daimyo spent their resources on lavish residences at Edo rather than on military forces. The Shoguns also imposed marriage alliances between families, discouraged them from visiting one another, and required permits for work on daimyo castles. They were not even allowed to meet with the Emperor without the Shogun’s permission.

The Shoguns were aware of the European conquest of the Philippines and feared the Europeans might make alliances with the daimyo and supply them with weapons, if not conquer the country outright. A series of edicts issued in the 1630’s forbade relations with other lands; a restriction that remained in effect for over two hundred years. Europeans were expelled from Japan, foreign merchant ships were not permitted to land, Japanese were forbidden from traveling abroad on pain of death, and even foreign books were banned. Only a small number of Chinese and Dutch merchants were allowed to trade under tightly controlled conditions.

In one instance in 1640 a Portuguese merchant ship arrived at Nagasaki to test the ban. Sixty one members of the crew were beheaded and the others released to tell the story back home. Japan was off limits.

Economic growth took place in Japan as a result of new crop strains, new methods of irrigation and the use of fertilizer which increased rice production, as well as that of cotton, silk, indigo and sake. Villages moved from subsistence agriculture to a market economy. This led to rapid population growth with the population increasing by one third in the seventeenth century. Afterward, the population stabilized as Japanese families sought to maintain or raise their standard of living. This was accomplished by contraception, late marriage and abortion, but mostly through infanticide, which was euphemistically called "thinning out the rice shoots." This was done because Japan was (and is) land poor. Population increases strained resources which caused financial difficulties for local communities.

Chinese cultural influences were prominent in Tokugawa Japan. Confucian hierarchy was followed in ranking ruling elite. The most privileged, in order were the Shogun, daimyo and samurai warriors. Next were peasants and artisans with merchants at the bottom of the social ladder. An extended period of peace, however, undermined the social order. The ruling elite had long been warriors who lived by the code of bushido. However, there were now no wars to fight, and daimyo and samurai became administrators and government officials. Some even became scholars, and act which their ancestors would have despised. Ultimately, they fell into financial difficulty. Their income (usually rice paid by peasants who worked their lands) did not keep pace with costs. They often lived beyond their means attempting to impress others and soon became indebted to "rice brokers" who converted rice to cash. In the meantime, merchants became increasingly wealthy and Japanese cities flourished. By 1700, the population of Edo was close to one million. Wealthy merchants often contracted marriage with elite families to improve their social standing.

Formal education in Japan began with the study of Chinese language and literature. Philosophical, legal and religious works were written in Chinese. Common people embraced Buddhism, also a Chinese import. Japanese Shoguns promoted neo-Confucianism with its emphasis on filial piety and loyalty to superiors. Neo-Confucianism was the official ideology of Tokugawa Japan by the early eighteenth century.

Some scholars, however, sought to establish a uniquely Japanese identity. They scorned neo-Confucianism and even Buddhism and promoted Shinto for Japanese identity. Scholars of native Japanese learning considered the Japanese as superior to others and all foreign influences as perverse. They glorified the purity of Japanese society before it was adulterated by Chinese and other influences. A popular culture developed because of the prosperous merchant class. Middle class culture blossomed in Kyoto, Osoka, and Edo. "Floating worlds’ (ukiyo) were established which provided teahouses, theaters, brothels and public baths to escape the rules of conduct that governed public behavior. The culture was at times secular, satirical, even scatological. A new form of literature, "books of the floating world" was created by Ihara Saikaku, much of whose work dealt with the theme of love. In The Man Who Lived for Love, he wrote of a townsman who devoted his life to sexual pleasure from the age of eight. He wrote of erotic rather than aesthetic love, and was very popular. New forms of drama also appeared, notably the kabuki theater featuring skits combined with singing, dancing, etc. Some of the performances were quite bawdy. Kabuki actors were expected to ad lib and improvise. Also, the bunraku, a puppet theater in which chanters told a story acted out by puppets.

Christianity first came to Japan under a Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier in 1549. Unlike China, many Japanese converted enthusiastically, some for the benefit of European trade others by sincere conversion. By 1615 there were 300,000 Christians in Japan. The end result was a backlash from government officials and moralists who hoped to preserve traditional Japanese culture. The Tokugawa shoguns had restricted Christianity because they believed it would allow the daimyo to establish relations with European military powers. Now, Confucian and Buddhist scholars resented the exclusivity of Christianity and many converts resented the fact that they were forbidden from becoming priests or occupying leadership positions in the Church.

Between 1587 and 1639 a number of decrees were issued ordering Christian missionary efforts to halt and for Japanese Christians to renounce their faith. Missionaries who refused to leave and Japanese who refused to abandon the religion were tortured; they were often executed by crucifixion or burning at the stake. The campaign was so effective that many abandoned Christianity, even Europeans living there. One in particular, the Portuguese Jesuit Christovao Ferreira, head of the Jesuit mission in Japan, renounced his religion under torture, adopted Buddhism, and interrogated many Europeans who came to Japan. Tens of thousands abandoned the religion, and Christianity survived only as a secret underground religion.

Although they worked to prevent a recurrence of Christianity, the Tokugawa shoguns did allow Dutch merchants to trade at Nagasaki after 1639. This became their principal source of information about Europe and the rest of the world. Some Japanese scholars learned Dutch as a means of communicating with foreigners. They called this "Dutch learning," and it brought considerable knowledge to Japan. The ban on foreign books and learning was lifted in 1720 and Dutch learning became important. Medical and scientific treatises were translated and Japanese scholars learned to draw according to linear perspective. Astronomy was also popular. By the mid-eighteenth century, even the Tokugawa shoguns were enthusiastic proponents of Dutch learning.