Part IV – The Silk Road – Cosmopolitan and Confucian Revival: Tang Dynasty 618 – 907 CE & Song Dynasty 960 – 1279 CE


Camels were often used to move goods through the deserts of the Silk Road

As the Tang Dynasty got stronger after the fall of the Sui Dynasty in 618 CE, it confronted what was becoming a familiar set of challenges for all Chinese emperors wishing to consolidate control over a unified China. These challenges included managing the power struggles of court where eunuchs, concubines, official-scholars, and royal family members all jockeyed for power and control. In addition, they had to keep tax coffers filled through high agricultural productivity and maintain a strong military in order to defend northern borders while preventing that same military from challenging imperial authority. Added to all of this was the threat of regional power growth, the execution of large public works for the benefit of the entire Chinese society, and the maintenance of moral cultural authority so as to earn the loyalty of its subjects. It was, as ever, a tall order.

The underpinning of this moral cultural authority was increasingly challenged during the Tang and Song Dynasties as the Chinese encountered greater cultural diversity than they had in previous eras. Specifically, the Tang court was one of the most cosmopolitan courts in all of China’s history. During the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road flourished and sea trade with Southeast Asia developed, as more and more Chinese migrated south. The influence of Buddhism continued to grow, causing in turn a revival of Daoist thought and study. In 1127 CE, the Song Dynasty in the north was ultimately overrun by nomadic tribes, causing the Chinese courts to flee south. Yet, despite all of these international influences, China continually returned to the values of its ancient Confucian culture as the best way to create a homogeneous, unified, prosperous, and stable society.

Tang Dynasty 618-907 – Reform

Expensive and failed military campaigns against the northern part of what is now Korea led to excessive tax increases which eventually caused revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Li Yuan, a major military commander, turned against the Sui, founding the Tang Dynasty in 618. It took until 624 for all of China to come under his rule. Once reunification had been achieved, Li Yuan demobilized his armies, preventing the rise of powerful regional generals that, much as he had done, might lay claim to the throne. Powerful southern families were forced to move north and the Sui’s “rule of avoidance” was implemented, so that no official could serve in his home district. The first Tang emperor continued the equal field system, ensuring that land was allocated equally to adult male taxpayers on the basis of an annual census.

Buddhist monk practicing in China today

One of Li Yuan’s more controversial policies was his attempt to limit the power of the Buddhist and Daoist centers which were formerly beyond the reach of imperial tax collection, enabling them to establish huge landholdings and large numbers of tenant farmers. These great estates transcended political boundaries, threatened the new regime, and represented a potentially significant tax base which could be used to restore depleted imperial coffers. By mid-626, the Emperor ordered that only three Buddhist and one Daoist monasteries were permitted in the capital, and only one of each faith in each prefecture, a spectacular restriction given that it was estimated that within the capital and surrounding areas alone were over 120 Buddhist and 12 Taoist monasteries. Yet the order was never fully enacted because Li Yuan was deposed by his second son Tang Taizong, who later reversed his father’s order.

Building on the civil and military achievements of his father, Tang Taizong embarked on a program of civil reform tempered by Confucian principles, while engaging in military campaigns which expanded the territorial boundaries of the empire. At the heart of the civil reform was the expansion of the Sui’s legal reform. The result was the creation of a far-reaching legal code, the oldest surviving code in China today. The Tang code persisted as the foundation of Chinese legal practice until the 14th century, and served as model legal codes for Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The Tang Dynasty – Innovation

By Lautam17 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of an ancient Chinese mechanical clock

The Tang Dynasty also saw innovation with gunpowder, mechanical clocks, and more extensive use of water power. Tang scholars devoted much time to systematizing knowledge and historical texts, and the civil service examinations were reinstated. Book printing was developed; the world’s oldest existing printed book is a copy of the Buddhist text the Diamond Sutra, dated 868. The scroll format for long text began to be superseded by flat books with folded pages, a format much more convenient for storage. The invention of printed books revolutionized the imperial communication of ideas, and continued to facilitate the creation of a homogeneous Chinese culture, as norms and expectations were able to be even more widely dispersed.

The Tang Dynasty – The Silk Road


The Silk Road thrived under the Tang Dynasty, bringing many foreign influences, which made the Tang court become one of the most cosmopolitan courts in China’s history. Buddhism also flourished under the Tang, who generously supported Buddhist monasteries and commissioned further Buddhist sculptures. The famous Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, made a 17 year trip to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures which provided the Chinese with a better understanding of many different Buddhists schools. His journey was later recounted in the famous Chinese fiction work Journey to the West.

Due in part to the Tang’s nomadic influences, women were given a relatively high status during the Tang Dynasty. One of China’s most powerful women, Empress Wu, ascended the dynastic throne in 690 as emperor, the only female in China to formally take the title Emperor, and ruled until 705.

Tang Poetry and Art

Tang-era poet Du Fu

Poetry became increasingly important in the Tang era. It was seen as the most authentic and revealing way to articulate feelings and thoughts. Poems were recited at banquets, used to court women, recorded people’s daily activities, and described historic events or scenes of natural beauty. The Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty contains over 48,000 poems written by 2200 Tang poets. Three Hundred Tang Poems contains samples from all the great Tang poets, including two of China’s greatest poets Li Bo and Du Fu. In fact, many Chinese consider the Tang to be the height of their civilization, particularly culturally. Tang-era costume dramas are shown on Chinese TV almost daily, and the pockets that Westerners refer to as Chinatown in their major cities are often referred to by Chinese people as Tangren Jie meaning “Tang people’s street”.

What life was like for the subjects of the Tang who lived far from the imperial capital has been revealed, in part, by a large number of documents found in a cave temple at Dunhuang, in the northwest of China where the Silk Road starts to cross the desert. These documents showed that Tang imperial policies, such as the equal field system, were established even in the far reaches of its empire. The documents also revealed that the state exerted at least some control over local markets, as fragments of official price lists showed that authorities established prices for three qualities of a wide range of goods traded in government-supervised markets, including foodstuffs and textiles. Primary books found with the documents showed that Confucian social ethics primers were used even in schools run by Buddhist monasteries.

Northern Song Dynasty 960-1127 – Northern Rebellion, Regionalism and Reunification

PericlesofAthens at en.wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Emperor fleeing the rebellion of An Lushan 755

By 763, the Tang Court was losing control over its empire. Despite imperial safeguards, in 755 a Chinese general, An Lushan, was able to amass 160,000 troops along China’s northern frontier, and then march on the capital. The Tang government never fully recovered from this rebellion and, after eight years of fighting, was forced to negotiate for peace. The government abandoned the equal field system, instead giving each region tax quotas, allowing them to raise these quotas with great leeway. Government withdrawal from control of land ownership facilitated the growth of large, commanding states. Eventually, these states became so powerful that the country again fragmented. Yet the Tang’s retreat from regional markets, as they lost control over the country, had the unintended consequence of stimulating economic trade. A new economic network of markets and towns began to emerge alongside the official state hierarchy of administrative centers.

Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

The fifty years between the Tang and Song dynasties is called the ‘Period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms’ because of the five fleeting regimes in the North and the 10 minor kingdoms competing for power in the South. The period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms was marked by renewed militarism, which saw some generals building armies by sharing the same family name between generals and soldiers. This practice allowed military generals to build up an elite army of adopted sons whose kinship was not given by birth, but was earned through sharing the hardship in achieving a common goal.

China Reunified – Founding of the Song Dynasty

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Taizu founder of the Song Dynasty

China was finally reunified in 960 CE under General Zhao Kuangyin who founded the Song Dynasty under the title Song Taizu. One of Song Taizu’s first steps as leader was to demilitarize China and to recreate a central bureaucratic state organized along strict Confucian ideals where classical scholarship was more highly valued then military expertise. Many new Confucian thinkers, such as the Du You (732-812) and Han Yu (768-824) revitalized Confucian thought. Du You wrote a 5000 page, 200 chapter history of Chinese institutions, Tongdian. Du You argued that corrupt rulers, heavy taxes, and frequent labor service drove the people to seek the protection of local strongmen, and approved of Sui efforts to make tax burdens equitable and reasonable. Han Yu saw China’s problems in much more cultural terms, and argued that a rejuvenation of Confucian learning would bolster the state, by revitalizing values consistent with its subjects’ obedience to the Emperor, and by reminding the ruling classes of their obligation to their citizens. Han Yu felt Buddhism was a barbarian cult and should be eradicated, as it encouraged Chinese citizens to divert from their duty to the Emperor in order to pursue Buddhist observance. Nevertheless, this renewed emphasis on classical scholarship eventually created vulnerability on the northern borders, as book learning was once again emphasized over military skills. Passing civil service examinations was difficult and required years of intense study and preparation, leaving little time for the practice of military arts. The invention of printing during the Tang Dynasty, and its profusion during the Song Dynasty, made books available to more families, increasing the competition for government appointments, but creating a vulnerability to invasion through the prioritizing of academic abilities over military power.

One of Taizu’s biggest achievements was to disband the regional armies that had plagued the Tang. After Taizu had consolidated control, he encouraged commanders to retire on generous pensions and gradually replaced provincial military governors with civil officials. To avert the rise of new regional strongmen, the Emperor eventually put the whole army under civilian control and ensured that his officers were regularly rotated. Yet, despite this military reorganization, the Song was constantly challenged by northern nomads. By 1004 a northern nomadic tribe, the Khitans, managed to occupy much of the Yellow River Valley, forcing the Song to sign a peace treaty with the nomads as equals. In exchange for retreating from the lands surrounding the Yellow River Valley, the nomads extorted huge annual payments from the Chinese in silk and silver, which placed enormous pressure on imperial resources.

Weaknesses of the Song Imperial Governments

Despite its efforts at military reform, and its ample supply of worthy emperors and statesmen, the Song Dynasty faced two main weaknesses. The arrival of printing allowed bureaucratic regulation to multiply, so that governing, and the reform of government, became increasingly cumbersome. For example, rules about the use of one imperial ritual hall filled 1200 volumes. Court struggles also hindered effective rule, as without legitimate means to decide political conflict, disputes among officials seeking to influence the Emperor often escalated; each party lined up allies, and focused their energies on devising ways to oust their opponents. Eunuchs, concubines, and members of the emperor’s extended family constantly vied for power and advantage, often at the expense of what was best for the country.

Song’s Flourishing Economy

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Song Dynasty coin

Despite these challenges of the Northern Song, the Chinese economy flourished during the period. In 742 China’s population was approximately 50 million; by 1100, it had reached almost 100 million people. Its food supply steadily increased and denser settlement patterns aided commercialization. The need to transport the growing quantity and range of Chinese products fuelled the inland and coastal shipping industries, providing employment for shipbuilders and sailors. As trade increased, so did the demand for money. By 997, the Song government was minting 800 million coins a year, two and a half times the largest output during the Tang. This need for currency eventually led to the development of paper money, which originated as trading receipts from deposit shops where traders had safeguarded money or goods. By the 1120s, the Song government took control of the deposit shop system, issuing the world’s first government-backed paper money. The Song, on the whole, proved capable of managing the new paper currency, avoiding over-printing, which would have resulted in high inflation.

The Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279 – Cultural Conservatism and Foot Binding

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Drawing of a bound foot with broken arch and bent under toes

By 1127, the northern nomadic Jurchen established a coalition of tribes under the leader Aguda, and, conquering northern China, forced the Song to flee south. The Southern court, obsessed with regaining the northern heartland, and feeling the threat of its northern neighbors, became less open to foreign ideas, and was more sensitive to issues of Chinese cultural identity. Under the Southern Song Dynasty, women were returned to a more subordinate role as some nomadic influences of the Tang court were extinguished. In particular, foot binding became popular. This excruciating procedure involved tightly binding the feet of very young girls to prevent them from growing normally. The resulting 3 ½ to 4 inch feet were considered to augment a woman’s beauty and make her movements more feminine and dainty. Given the increased fluidity of Chinese society, parents were eager to make their daughters more attractive in order to guarantee good marriages and social status, and were thus willing to subject their daughters to years of debilitating pain and impaired mobility. Yet female literacy also rose with society’s fluidity, as daughters were educated in order to better to educate their sons.

Expanding Southern Song Economy

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Song Dynasty red lacquer tray with gold engraving

The Southern Song Dynasty enjoyed great agricultural productivity, partly due to increased acreage under cultivation, and partly due to new strains of rice that allowed for two and sometimes three crops per year. Many cash crops, such as tea and sugar, generated interregional and international trade, creating a thriving money economy. The Song also ran the largest iron smelting industry in the world, its output being used for the manufacture of weapons, coins, farm implements and nails, among other items. Traditional industries such as silk, lacquer, and ceramics reached the highest levels of technical perfection during this period. This commercial and industrial expansion fuelled the growth of cities and market towns.

Improvements in transportation, the expanding economy, and the invention of the printing press served to tie the distant regions of China more closely together, despite China’s northern occupation. Printing, in particular, contributed to the spread and standardization of ideas and practices. Handbooks on agriculture, childbirth, pharmacy, divination, and Daoist rituals all became more widely available

The Song’s invention of the compass helped the expansion of long-distance trade between China, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The compass is considered one of China’s four greatest inventions, and was symbolically acknowledged during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics along with paper, the printing press and gunpowder. Sea trade from China’s southeast coast to India introduced many spices into the Chinese diet, including pepper, cloves and saffron, and generated much economic prosperity.

Southern Song Art

Dong Yuan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Song Dynasty landscape painting

Landscape painting reached its height under the Southern Song Dynasty. Executed with ink and brushes much like those used for writing, and often accented with colored washes, these paintings showed the beauty, harmony, and magnificence of the natural world highlighting forests and mountains amid streams and valleys. Human beings were absent or were barely visible, showing them to be a small part of the larger harmony of nature. Often these paintings were inscribed with exquisite language and calligraphy which became a key part of the painting itself. Mountains, long seen as sacred places by the Chinese, were key landscape subjects.

The Past in the Present – Historical Themes in Today’s China

Scene from Journey to the West, Summer Palace, Beijing

The Tang Dynasty remains a source of pride among Chinese today, viewed as the high point in Chinese civilizational development and responsible for the invention of one of China’s four great inventions, block printing. Some of the most popular television series in China today are set in the Tang Dynasty era and Journey to the West is one of the most enduring stories in China’s history, with myriad adaptations on stage and screen.

Maintaining control over China’s provinces as the Chinese economy expands remains a key challenge for Chinese leaders today, just as it was difficult for the elite of the Tang and Song dynasties. As China has transformed from a communist to a largely-capitalist economy, it has ceded much control to its regional centers. This growth in regional control has manifested in many ways, the most important of which may be Beijing’s inability to enforce national legislation, such as environmental legislation, throughout its provinces. An insufficient legal system, and lack of press freedoms, has meant that it has sometimes been tricky for Beijing to exert its authority, especially over more wealthy areas. Growing inequality as a result of its rapid economic expansion has also caused regional dissatisfaction, as poor regions see already-wealthier regions get even richer, while they struggle to feed, employ, and educate their populations.

By James Ricalton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Women with bound feet, Beijing 1900

The appropriate role of women in Chinese society has continued to be debated through modern times. As the West began to demonstrate its technological, military, and economic dominance from the mid-1800s onwards, and as China’s belief in its natural superiority eroded, China looked at the role of women in its society as symbolic of its larger problems. During the Song Dynasty, the more independent, nomadic-influenced role of women in the Tang Dynasty was curtailed, as Confucian scholars argued that China would need to return to conservative, patriarchal, conservative values if it wished to regain its lost territory, and to reconsolidate its centralized rule. The binding of women’s feet took the Confucian principle of female subordination to a new extreme. The practice continued until the twentieth century, demonstrating just how engrained both the aesthetic ideals and the subjugation of women generally had become.

What Happened Next?

After being driven south by the northern frontier nomadic peoples, the Song were eventually defeated by a Mongol army led by Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan. Kublai established the first non-Han Chinese led dynasty, the Yuan, and expanded his territory to include Tibet and what is now Xinjiang, giving the Yuan Dynasty borders very close to the China we see today. The story continues in The Mongol Empire.

Part V – The Mongol Empire: Yuan Dynasty 1279 – 1368


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Map of the Mongol Empire

The Yuan marked the only time that China was entirely conquered by the Mongols. Increasingly, by the end of the Song Dynasty, when the Chinese refused to trade on what the Mongols felt were acceptable terms, the herders had the mobility and military skills to get what they wanted by launching raids. Eventually, what the Mongols wanted was all of China. The Mongols used Chinese traditions to consolidate their rule over the Chinese people. Yet the Mongols also kept many Mongol customs and were influenced by the traditions of the distant parts of its wide-reaching Empire which, at its zenith, controlled not only China but also large parts of the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe, making the Yuan one of China’s most international courts. The Mongols brought China renewed access to the Silk Road. Chinese exports of tea, silk and porcelain soared and were to remain China’s preeminent foreign currency generators throughout the Yuan dynasty. Chinese technologies such as paper printing, gunpowder, and the compass were also spread to the distant reaches of the world over these trade routes, influencing development trajectories in places as far-away as Europe.

Before the Yuan  – Conquest of Northern China by the Tribal Dynasties of the Liao and Jin 907-1234

Over the course of four centuries, parts of China were increasingly conquered by nomads who each formed their own dynasties – the Khitan’s Liao Dynasty, (907-1125), the Jurchen’s Jin Dynasty (1125-1234), climaxing with the Mongol’s Yuan Dynasty (1234-1368) which eventually encompassed all of China when the Southern Song finally capitulated to the Mongol conquest in 1276.

By Rashid al-Din [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mongol soldiers training for battle

Despite the strong tribal affiliations of the various peoples of the steppe, the social organization of these nomads was remarkably similar. Patrilineal, the nomad families lived in clans which would merge into tribes with tribal chiefs selected for their military skill. All men were trained as potential warriors, learning to ride and shoot. Clans and tribes regularly preyed on each other, seizing cattle, horses, and women. Captives became slaves or servants. The alternative to fighting was to form alliances and a strong tribal leader would, at times, build large coalitions. However, while the building of these alliances may have been initiated by one or a few chiefs, they were not, nevertheless, autocratic; major decisions were collectively reached at assemblies of military leaders. Loyalty and duty held the alliances together, as did the spoils of war campaigns. Yet such campaigns could not be indefinitely sustained and, within a generation or two, alliances often broke down and allied tribes would again return to combat.

Mongolian_steppe - wiki

Mongolian steppe

During the time leading to the formation of the Yuan Dynasty, the changing border zone between the steppe and China-proper was a large, fluid frontier settled by both nomads and ethnic Chinese where differences of ethnicity and ways of life between the two were not always clear-cut. Frontier non-Chinese might remain as herdsman, or they might become farmers or soldiers in Chinese military units, while the ethnic Chinese continued farming, engaged in forced government service, or served in the military, much as they had in the past. Some non-Chinese viewed themselves as part of their ethnic tribe, while others acknowledged the Chinese government and assimilated into the Chinese population.

The nomads’ ultimate success in conquering and ruling China derived in part from the skills and experience they acquired co-habituating with the Han Chinese in these frontier areas. The Khitan, for example, adopted hereditary succession on the Chinese model so that son would succeed father. They also adopted many governing institutions from Chinese practices. Ultimately, the reigning elite of the Khitan became culturally ambidextrous, adroit in both Khitan and Chinese ways but, nevertheless, remaining distinct from the Chinese population, predominantly preserving their tribal customs.

Khitans hunting with eagles

The Khitans were eventually brought down by the Jurchens, a tribal people originating in the mountains of eastern Manchuria whose descendants would later found the Qing Dynasty. The Jurchens’ military success derived in part from their use of Chinese experts in military siege warfare. Like the Khitans before them, the Jurchens found that Chinese political institutions were effective not only at ruling the Chinese majority, but also at controlling their own nobles. Unlike the Khitans, the Jurchens were quick to adopt Chinese language, dress, and rituals. Nevertheless, by the 1100s, there was a growing backlash against the Jurchen’s increasing sinification from some Jurchen elite. In 1161, for instance, Jurchen military commanders executed the Jin emperor and then implemented efforts to revitalize the Jurchen heritage, including the use of Jurchen as a written language, the translation of Confucian classics into Jurchen, civil service examinations testing mastery of Jurchen, and punishment of those Jurchens practicing Chinese customs. Despite these efforts, sinification of the Jurchens continued. By the end of the Jin dynasty, most Jurchens spoke Chinese, wore Chinese clothes, had adopted Chinese-style surnames, and had married with the local population.

Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368  – International Dynastic Court, Silk Road, Western Contact and Marco Polo

While the Jin Dynasty had successfully managed to conquer and rule Northern China, they never fully managed to pacify the Mongolian steppe. This was to prove their downfall. When a drop in the mean annual temperature reduced the supply of steppe grass for grazing animals, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan solved his people’s subsistence crisis by attacking the Jurchens.

Ghengis Khan

Coronation of Ghengis Khan

Ghengis’ career as the Great Khan, or Mongolian overlord, began in 1206 when he was selected by a Mongolian assembly of military leaders. Genghis proceeded to organize Mongolian society into one of the most effective military machines the world has ever known. He built his army on units of 1000 horsemen, cutting across tribal affiliations, and he created an elite bodyguard of 10,000 sons and brothers of commanders, which served directly under him. To minimize internal strife under his command, he created simple but draconian laws; robbery, for instance, was punished by death. Despite being illiterate, in order to communicate his orders more effectively, he also had the Uyghur script used for writing Mongol.

Capable of enduring extreme privation, and travelling at astonishing speeds, his Mongols were superb warriors. Most of his soldiers travelled with several ponies and all were expected to shoot accurately at full gallop. Using terror effectively, Ghengis’ troops looted resisting cities. Genghis Khan was said to have declared that there is no greater joy than slaughtering one’s enemies, taking their horses and cattle, and raping their women. Cities that did not resist were left untouched. Those that resisted were devastated. When the Mongol armies first swept across the North China plain in 1212-1213, for instance, Ghengis’ armies left 90 cities in rubble. When Ghengis captured Zhongdu (roughly present day Beijing) in 1215, it was said to have burned for more than a month.

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan

By 1226, Ghengis was close to defeating the Jin in Northern China when he unexpectedly died. As a result, the Mongols halted their advancement to select a new Khan, as all Khans needed to be decided by assembly. In 1234, the Mongols finally defeated the Jin and took control of northern China. By 1253, the Mongols began to advance on the south, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai, among others. The Song raised large armies to fight the Mongols and employed the best available military technology, including simple hand guns, rockets, and flamethrowers. Both sides had sophisticated military catapults which hurled incendiaries and other loads. Nevertheless, the Song’s lack of horses proved a major disadvantage. Without a large cavalry force to face its enormously mobile enemies, Song defenders were largely restricted to positional warfare, fighting behind enormous fortressed walls. These were easily isolated. For a time, such fortresses blocked Mongol access to parts of the Song-held interior. Yet, by 1279, Kublai Khan had conquered all of southern China. In total, the Mongols numbered no more than 1.5 million. Their ultimate success derived in part by their willingness to incorporate other ethnic groups into their armies and government. In their efforts to conquer the Jurchens, for instance, the Mongols recruited both the Khitan and Chinese. Regardless of their ethnic group, those who served the Mongols faithfully were repaid with both wealth and position.

Traditional Mongolian tent or yurt in steppe

Having conquered China, Kublai Khan proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the rightful recipient of the Mandate of Heaven. Kublai Khan formed a court that practiced both Mongol and Chinese traditions. He employed Confucian ministers, created a Chinese style government, adopted a dynastic calendar, and chose the name Yuan from The Book of Changes, the classical work esteemed by the Chinese. Nevertheless, Kublai and his court, like the Khitans before them, purposely avoided many Chinese social and political practices. The Mongol elite conducted their business in Mongolian and passed their summers in Mongolia. Mongols were discouraged from marrying Chinese, and Kublai himself took only Mongol women into the palace. Some Mongol princes erected their tents in the palace grounds as opposed to sleeping in palace accommodation. Mongols also continued to choose the rulers by competition, which was often bloody.

Kublai encouraged the creation of an international Chinese court culture where officials spoke Mongolian, Persian, and Turkic dialects as well as Chinese. He also encouraged the creation of a highly international official cuisine, which reflected influences from the regions throughout the extended Mongolian empire, which included not only the Yuan Dynasty but also large parts of Central Asia. In terms of religion, Kublai Khan preferred native religious practices focused on shamanism, rain–making, and fertility magic, but he also showed royal patronage and support to Chinese Daoists and Buddhist missionaries from Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, grew rapidly during the Yuan Dynasty.

Begtse, Protector of Mongolian Buddhism

The ethnic hierarchy of the Yuan’s diverse society was particularly complex. The Mongols enjoyed the most advantage, followed by the allies of the Mongols from areas outside China such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Former subjects of the Jin such as the Jurchens, sinified Khitans, and the Jin Chinese had second position. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the former subjects of the Song. Each of the ethnic groups experienced different methods of taxation, judicial process, and appointment to office. The Chinese from the North, for instance, were taxed in ways that reflected Jin practices, whereas the Chinese in south were taxed in accordance with Song precedents. Each ethnic group was also judged and sentenced according to its own legal traditions; the Chinese, for instance, were the only ethnic group to be tattooed if convicted of theft.

Other ethnic divisions reflected the Mongols efforts to maintain dominance over the Chinese majority. The Chinese were not allowed to own weapons or to gather in public. It was also illegal for them to trade in bamboo, as it was used to make bows and arrows. If a Mongol murdered a Chinese, he was usually freed by paying a fine. If a Chinese murdered a Mongol, however, he was subject to severe penalties, usually execution.

Chinese Traditions to rule Chinese People

Yuan-era Temple of Mencius, Confucius most important follower

Although it would not have been the first choice to be ruled by ‘barbarians’, Confucianism did not hold that it was a barrier to the conqueror of China also receiving the Mandate of Heaven. The Chinese belief in their own superiority emanated not from a sense of ethnic supremacy, but from one of cultural pre-eminence. If the barbarians adopted Chinese ways – Confucian values, ancestor worship, and Chinese civil bureaucracy, Chinese clothes and customs – they could become superior just like the Han Chinese.

However, neither the Khitans nor the Mongols became fully sinified. The Mongols were able to finesse this to some extent because ancestor worship stated that one’s obligations to one’s forebears meant that it would be a violation a filial piety if a sinified barbarian’s ancestors were not accorded the greatest respect. Worshipping with respect often meant that the barbarians needed to preserve and to worship in a manner that was consistent with their ancestral traditions. The Confucian obligation of loyalty to one’s ruler also tended to foster obedience to the barbarian emperors.

Nevertheless, many Han Chinese scholar-elites engaged in a desperate struggle to save Chinese civilization from what they viewed as the corrupting forces of their barbarian rulers. The Mongols’ policies favoring other ethnic groups over the Chinese further aroused Chinese ethnic consciousness and hostility. Yet, while the concept of a Chinese ethnic identity was undoubtedly developed and explored during this time, these explorations were still far from the equivalent of modern nationalism. Loyalty to one’s ruler remained, to many, the higher virtue.

Trade and the Silk Road

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Dunhuang, Gansu Province, once a major stop on the Silk Road

The initial Mongol conquest of China devastated much of the Song economy. Warfare reduced the population and brought disease, including the bubonic plague. Rice production fell significantly and continuous warfare drained the state’s resources. Yet, once the Mongols had finally consolidated control over China, international trade expanded and the economy thrived. The Silk Road, which had been closed to the Southern Song dynasty when they lost northern China to the Jin, was re-opened, despite periodic interruptions due to civil war between the nomadic peoples. Within China, tea, rice and other foodstuffs moved in significant quantities throughout the empire. International trade was dominated by demand for Chinese textiles, tea and porcelain. Trade in the South China Sea continued to thrive. This trade was dominated by Muslims living within China as well as the Han Chinese. Europeans began exchanging goods with China during this time, especially those emanating from the great Italian trading city of Genoa.

Westerners Come to China – Marco Polo

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Marco Polo statue in Hangzhou, China

Western contact with China brought more than just trade. Scientific and technological developments were swapped, as were innovations in medicine. Chinese inventions such as printing, gunpowder, and the compass, also spread abroad during this time and geographical knowledge was also exchanged. The Mongols had created some of the world’s finest maps of the time, including the Guang Yu Tu, “Extended Map of the Earth” which included remarkable detail of East Asia, extensive information on Africa, including its correct shape, and maps of Europe, including many of its most important cities.

Increasingly, Western clerics and important trading families began visiting China. Although the facts of Marco Polo’s visit to China are still hotly debated, there is evidence to suggest that Marco Polo spent 17 years in Kublai’s China from 1275-1292. Whatever the actual extent of Polo’s exposure to China, he later wrote about his (fictional or non-fictional) travels in a book which became very popular in the West. It also served as an important contribution to Western understanding of China for centuries to come.

The Art of the Yuan Dynasty

Vase, Yuan Dynasty

The art of the Yuan Dynasty blended Chinese and other traditions. Porcelain production thrived during this era, with cobalt blue, the official color of the imperial court, dominating porcelain design. This porcelain became widely sought after as far away as Europe. In fact, its trade represented the first international art craze. Another significant cultural development in Mongol times was secular literature. Vernacular drama thrived – being written in the vernacular made it accessible to the illiterate – and some 167 Yuan plays survive today. Vernacular fiction also became increasingly popular, made available to a wide range of people through cheap printed editions. Yuan opera – four or five act dramatic operas – were also developed. They used mime, song, dance, and acrobatics to tell stories of love, war and politics.

Kublai Khan’s Death

Kublai Khan ruled China for 23 years. The 30 years following his death in 1294 marked the high points of Mongol rule in China. During this time, the Mongol government continued to be effective, and the Mongols had few enemies. This situation changed as conflict between members of the Mongol ruling elite, and a series of unimpressive emperors limited the Mongols’ ability to effectively rule. Southern China, always a bastion of Chinese conservatism and the protector of Chinese cultural values, began to engage in passive resistance against the Mongols. Many Han elite refused to serve within the Mongol government, depriving it of much-needed cadres. Stoking the fires of popular resistance was the ubiquitous corruption of all waning dynasties and Mongol favoritism of Tibetan Buddhists, among other ethnic groups. By the 1340s, bandits began to seize Southern Chinese towns and form alliances with local elite to raise private armies, precipitating the end of Mongol rule over China and forming part of the long decline of the great Mongolian empire. By the time of the Qing, the Mongolian heartland itself would be swallowed up into the Chinese empire and, even today, Inner Mongolia remains part of the People’s Republic of China.

Dynastic Themes Present in China Today

Battle between Mongols and Chinese

The centrality of Confucianism to the Song Dynasty helped to sustain its rule in China-proper, but served to leave it vulnerable to attack from the north. The disregard for military training at the expense of book learning may have been considered virtuous but resulted in a weak power leaving itself open to invasion from a smaller, but stronger power. Combined with the Mogolians’ horse riding abilities that gave them a natural advantage over the Chinese, this exposed the flaw in ruling in this way. Though in present day China it can be argued that this is no longer a concern – China’s current relative military position cannot be compared with that of the Song’s – a similar error of judgment did occur during the Qing Dynasty, when it was assumed that the British could not be superior. This misjudgment led to a series of costly military defeats. Yet, despite the failings of Confucianism as a ruling ideology, the success of the Yuan in subjugating the Chinese lay in the acknowledgement of its cultural value. This would also be echoed in the Qing Dynasty when another apparently foreign race, the Manchus, sustained three centuries of rule over China.

Despite the Yuan Dynasty being the result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese. That he was Mongolian is no barrier, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. Furthermore, the shape of the Yuan Dynasty is extremely close to territory of the modern day People’s Republic of China and this is often cited by Chinese scholars and government officials as historical evidence that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. Whether or not this is an acceptable argument depends largely on whether one accepts the Yuan as one in a long line of Chinese dynasties or if, as some argue, it was a foreign occupation.

What Happened Next?

The demise of the Mongol empire in China was confirmed when Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant-born military leader, drove the remnants of the Yuan back into the Mongolian grasslands. An autocratic regime followed. During the Ming Dynasty the Chinese ventured across the seas and discovered far off lands but elected not to engage in the kind of colonization favored by the European powers and, instead, turned in on itself. The story continues in Exploration, Consolidation, Isolation.

Part VI – Exploration, Consolidation, Isolation: Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644


Zhu Yuanzhang founder of the Ming Dynasty

By the mid-1300s, local rebellions had broken out in large parts of Yuan China. Into this increasingly unstable China, the Ming Dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, better known by his temple name Taizu, was born into a poor peasant family, later becoming only the second peasant in all of Chinese history to become emperor. Taizu was familiar with poverty through firsthand experience. His parents regularly moved to look for work or to avoid rent collectors; they were forced to give away several of their children because they could not afford to raise them. When Taizu was sixteen in 1344, the Yellow River flooded, causing famine and disease which took the lives of both his parents. At first, he sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery. When the Buddhist temple was destroyed by the Yuan military, Taizu joined a rebel group which fought against the Yuan rule. Taizu rose rapidly to military commander, and eventually recaptured Shangdu, the Yuan capital, located close to today’s Beijing. He drove the Mongols back into the northern grasslands in 1368, founding the Ming dynasty.

The First Ming Emperor Taizu 1368-1398

Conservative Confucian Revival, Imperial Consolidation and the Ming Code

Ming-era drawing of Confucius and his students

On founding the Ming dynasty, Taizu proclaimed the Mandate of Heaven for himself. Taizu was shrewd, hard-working and ruthless. Influence by Daoist notions of heavenly autocrats, Taizu endeavored to exalt the role of Emperor. He wished to create a dynasty where subjects obeyed their superiors, and where those who committed crimes were promptly punished. He called for a conservative restoration of Confucian order. He denounced the Mongols for their failure to respect Chinese moral standards, both in their familial relations and in their political practices. In particular, he condemned the Mongol marriage institution by which a widow was passed to other members of the husband’s family, and the constant succession struggles that marked Mongol power. He outlawed the many unorthodox cults that had thrived during the end of the Yuan Dynasty, instead encouraging Confucian social hierarchy, particularly filial piety, and undivided loyalty to the emperor.

Taizu was committed to seeing that the people of China should not have to experience the poverty of his family, and worked sympathetically to improve the plight of the poor. He collected villages into self-regulating units of 110 households, and made village elders responsible for tax collection and records, as the first step toward allocating service and tax liabilities more fairly. He cut government expenses where ever he could in order to reduce tax burdens further. The two million strong army, for instance, was made largely self-supporting by allocating land to soldiers’ families to farm. Taizu also established local schools so that the sons of commoners could learn to read and write.

His peasant background made him wary of official scholars. Taizu passed legislation that centralized political control, creating a significant expansion of imperial power at the expense of civil officialdom. He imposed high tax rates on the rich and cultured southeastern area, and forced thousands of wealthy families from the Southeast to settle elsewhere, especially in the capital. In order to repopulate areas devastated by warfare, famine and disease, Taizu ordered great numbers of Chinese people to relocate from the south to the north. He was ruthless to those subordinate officials he distrusted, executing over 100,000 people during his 30 year rule. Unable to have confidence in any Prime Minister, Taizu dealt directly with officials on matters large and small. Like the first Emperor of the Qin, Taizu worked through huge piles of paperwork daily.

Ming-era painting of rice farming

By the early 1400s, some 200,000 military colonists had cleared 350,000 acres in the area. Subsequent settlements of military households during the 15th and 16th centuries brought another half million government-sponsored settlers into the region. In the frontier areas, the Ming government followed a policy of dual administration. Places with large Han populations were governed by nationwide Ming law codes and tax regulations. In places where native tribes were clearly in control, the Ming identified tribal rulers as hereditary chieftains, allowed the chief to maintain order, requiring him to help the Ming if nearby tribes were problematic, and to send tribute in return for which he received liberal gifts in exchange. Despite the mutual benefits of this system to both local chiefs and the Ming government, violent conflict between settlers and indigenous populations was not uncommon.

An enduring Ming achievement was the Great Ming Code known as the Da Ming Lu of 1397. The code had 460 article organized by sections on personnel, revenue, rites, military affairs, penal affairs and public works. The code was conceived to maintain an idealized social hierarchy so the punishments were most severe for those who transgressed their superiors. Wishing to consolidate social stability, it was legislated that the code never be altered. The code underpinned a Ming government that at the time was the largest and most rationally organized administrative system in the world. The government was divided into parallel military and civil hierarchies, where civil officials were recruited through the traditional examination system, and military officials were recruited through a combination of examinations and heredity.

I, Dingy [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb of Emperor Zhu Di

Taizu’s new dynasty faced two major challenges. Its capital on the Yangtze River was far from the northern border where potential rivals essentially had a free hand. The court’s many imperial princes could also prove a threat to the throne as, for some, their hunger for power was greater than their loyalty to the emperor whom they may or may not have respected. Taizu’s solution was to legislate that only the oldest son, the heir apparent, was allowed to stay in the capital, with the rest being sent to frontier regions where they participated in defense and oversaw the military commanders on the emperor’s behalf. Yet, when the heir apparent died before becoming emperor, the ensuing struggle for power led to civil war. Zhu Di, a senior surviving uncle, eventually won the throne and took the reigning name Yongle – meaning Eternal Happiness – taking it from the Jianwen Emperor who ruled from 1398-1402.

Ming Emperor Zhu Di – The Yongle Emperor

Forbidden City, Grand Canal, Zheng He’s Naval Voyages and Consolidation Inward

By calflier001 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Forbidden City, Beijing

Yongle consolidated power quickly under a Confucian hierarchy. He abolished military escorts for imperial princes and moved the capital to Beijing in order to be closer to the restive north. Yongle oversaw the building of the Forbidden City, the home of all Chinese emperors until the end of China’s dynasties in 1911 and still one of China’s most iconic structures. To supply Beijing with grain, the Grand Canal was brought up over western Shandong through a series of fifteen locks, a significant engineering accomplishment. The 15,000 boats and 160,000 soldiers of the transport army-who pulled loaded barges with ropes where needed- became the lifeline of the new capital.

In order to bolster his legitimacy domestically, and to enhance China’s standing internationally by demonstrating China’s wealth and power overseas, Yongle created what was the largest naval fleet in the world at the time. Under a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He, Yongle sent his fleet on seven expeditions between 1405-1433, ranging as far away as Arabia and Africa, and perhaps even as far away as North and South America (exactly how far the fleet went remains a matter of historical debate). The world today may have been a very different place if Yongle used his fleet to conquer and control foreign territory, as the Europeans did 200 years later, instead of using it to create diplomatic engagement and exchange.

Grand Canal

Yongle also personally led five military campaigns into Mongolia where he was eventually killed. After his death, Ming power was never again projected into Mongolia, and the Ming defense policy against the northern “barbarians” shifted instead to a reliance on static walls, fortifications and outposts. For example, the Great Wall was significantly rebuilt and extended during this period and many of the most famous sections that still exist today were constructed during this time.

Yongle’s diplomatic sea voyages were discontinued due to expense, and due to a general closing inward of court policy. Instead, the Ming consolidated its foreign relations were consolidated around the tributary system where vassal states recognized Chinese superiority and where China recognized paternalistic obligations to come to the aid of loyal vassal states. The Ming made good on these paternal obligations, sometimes at considerable cost. In 1407, for instance, the Ming sent military assistance to Vietnam to bolster the collapsing Tran dynasty. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, the Ming tried to annex the territory outright, but was forced to retreat due to widespread armed resistance.

By AlexHe34 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ming-era Commentaries of the Analects of Confucius

This was a crucial period in China’s history, where China chose isolation almost precisely at the point where Europeans were beginning their outward expansion. This isolation was compounded by the fact that the Ming examinations were noteworthy for their narrowness, testing above all knowledge of the four books – Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning- as interpreted by the Song scholar Zhu Xi. After 1487, examination essays were required to be written in a fixed formal eight part style to the “eight leg” essay style. This meant, at a time of rapidly expanding international knowledge and technological development, the leaders of China were educated in a very narrow band of knowledge which poorly prepared them for a rapidly changing world.

Nevertheless, the examinations continued to provide Chinese citizens with real opportunity for advancement. In order to ensure that the richest areas of the country did not monopolize the civil service, provincial quotas were instituted. As importantly, the Ming added a lower tier to the degree system, thus greatly expanding the numbers of degree holders. By the 16th century, there were over 100,000 government students, about one out of every 3-400 adult males. These men dressed in demarcated caps and sashes, were freed from labor service, and were sometimes given incomes. Their titles also provided them with distinction as community leaders, as well as leverage to secure jobs if needs required.

The Ming Dynasty after Yongle

Foreign Trade, Growing Population, European Missionaries, Court Struggles and Financial Stress

After Yongle died, foreign trade slowly continued to grow. China’s population more than doubled during the Ming dynasty, from between 60-80 and million to between 150-200 million. Small market towns emerged all over the country. Regional specialization rose as villages benefited from the availability of cheap water transport to engage in cash cropping. By the 17th century, the Yangtze River Delta area had become the center for cotton and silk production, coastal Fujian specialized in tobacco and sugarcane, and Jiangxi was known for its porcelain manufacturing. This market-driven economic activity occurred despite continued governmental, Confucian-philosophy based suspicion of profit and disregard of economic growth beyond the state’s narrow objectives.

By User:Vmenkov (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Peanuts, first introduced to China during the Ming Dynasty, are still farmed in China today

More land in southwest China also came under cultivation. By the 1500s, new crops from the Americas – tobacco, corn, peanuts, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, potatoes and sweet potatoes – were introduced into China and proved to be well suited to the hilly soil that had not previously been farmed. The lower Yangtze Valley once again became one of the most prosperous areas of China, particularly as Spanish silver from the Americas flooded into the country in exchange for silk, porcelain and tea. From the late 1500s onwards, Chinese merchants migrated throughout South East Asia forming flourishing minority communities.

This international sea trade was, at times, hampered by both Japanese and Chinese piracy. By the mid-1500s, European traders also became more influential in China’s trade system. By 1557, the Portuguese had established a permanent trading post on Macao. The Spanish took possession of the Philippines in the 1570s, and a large Sino-Spanish trade was established in Manila. By 1622, the Dutch had established a base on the island of Taiwan from which they raided the Chinese coast and looted Chinese ships. The English and Japanese also stepped up their own efforts to expand their maritime trade.

Jesuit Missionary in China

The development of European trade and piracy in the region also brought European missionaries intent on converting the Chinese to Christianity. This was particularly true of the Catholic Jesuits. As part of their missionary, the Jesuits engaged in an exchange of knowledge with the Chinese court. The Jesuits sought an understanding of the history, geography, languages and literatures of the East, while seeking to spread the best of European culture, in particular the Christian religion. China, in turn, benefitted from learning about advances in Western science and technology.

By making parallels between the Chinese worship of one Supreme Being which the Chinese called the King of Heaven, Catholic Jesuits argued that the Chinese could continue their own rites and rituals, particularly ancestor worship, while converting to Christianity. Their efforts at conversion might have significantly succeeded if a series of Papal Bulls issued from 1704-1742 did not condemn Chinese Rites and forbid any further accommodation of Chinese tradition. Nevertheless by 1700, there were an estimated 200,000 Christians within China.

By the beginning of the 1600s, the fabric of the Ming dynasty was beginning to fray. Age-old infighting between scholar-officials and eunuchs once again increasingly paralyzed the court. In 1625 for instant, the eunuch Wei Zhongxian gained control of the court, and had thousands of scholar officials jailed, tortured and killed. Greater urbanization, increased literacy, and an expanding publishing industry undermined existing status relationships by creating greater social mobility and by causing a larger tendency to question and undermine existing neo-Confucian orthodoxies. A rapid rise in population also put stress on the social fabric. Perhaps most problematically, the Ming court was locked into the idea of preserving a golden age of agrarian, Confucian simplicity in a world that was beginning to change rapidly around them.

Eunuchs living in the Forbidden City were castrated

Compounding these issues was the fact that the Ming Dynasty was becoming increasingly bankrupt by the turn of the seventeenth century. Ming government expenses increased as its population and as its bureaucracy became less efficient. Additionally, maintaining the imperial clan was increasingly ruinous. In 1619, for example, 23,000 clansmen were given incomes. Military campaigns were also a huge drain. For instance, between 1592-1598, China launched a massive campaign into Korea in order to defend it against a Japanese invasion, eventually costing the treasury 26,000,000 ounces of silver.

These fiscal problems were aggravated by the sudden collapse of silver flows into the country. In 1639, the Japanese refused to let traders from Macau into Nagasaki, eliminating a large source of silver for China. A few months later, Sino-Spanish tensions interrupted the inflow of silver from trade with the Philippines. The interruption of the silver trade caused rapid deflation within the economy, leading to the hording of the silver that remained which in turn led to the stockpiling of grain, creating artificial famines. Tax defaults became extensive, as did peasant riots. In such difficult conditions, the Ming government failed to successfully collect its usual taxes, much less the additional revenue required to put down peasant rebellions and to address famine.

In 1642 a group of rebels cut the dikes of the Yellow River, killing several hundred thousand people through flood, as well as the consequent famine and disease. China’s population dropped by tens of millions during these decades. The rebels’ leader, Li Zicheng, captured Beijing, and the last Ming emperor hanged himself, effectively bringing an end to the Ming Dynasty. Li’s forces routed the regime and took control of the surrounding areas. The Ming military commander Wu Sangui requested the assistance of a formidable army of Manchu troops to help him reclaim Beijing. The Manchus were descended from the Jurchen Jin Dynasty rulers who had captured North China during the Song Dynasty. Instead of retreating with the wealth they had been promised in exchange for helping to restore order to Beijing, the Manchus claimed the Mandate of Heaven for themselves and proclaimed the creation of Qing Dynasty.

Dynastic Themes present in China Today

China’s north remained a continual preoccupation for Chinese leaders of the Ming dynasties. There was a constant need to protect China from Mongol, and other nomadic, incursions. One result of this was the resettlement of the imperial capital to Beijing, where the Forbidden City was constructed. Today, the Forbidden City is a UNESCO heritage site, and one of the most visited attractions in China. It is a powerful symbol of the importance of China’s dynastic past and the entrance gate, Tian’anmen, was the site from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

By kenner116 (IMG_2334) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Prestigious Peking University

Another echo of Ming culture that can be seen in today’s China is the quote system that was introduced to ensure a wide range of candidates from geographically diverse parts of China would compete in the civil service examinations. Today, the top universities in China reserve places for students from each locale (and in many instances from specific schools) in order to promote equality of opportunity. Just as in Ming times, this is a double-edged sword; while it certainly allows students from less developed areas of China the opportunity to win a place at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, in some cases it prevents them from doing so precisely because of the quota system.

While the second Ming emperor, Yongle, involved China in international expeditions, both in Mongolia and through extensive naval expeditions, subsequent emperors retreated within China’s borders, focusing instead on the propagation of the traditions of their ancestors. This point in China’s history proved to be pivotal as the Chinese lost a valuable opportunity to learn about the wider world and its threats. When the Chinese finally came face-to-face with global powers, they eventually succumbed to the greater firepower of the Europeans. That the Chinese had invented gunpowder centuries before the Europeans began to use it provides a stark illustration of their failure to use their early advances to prepare themselves for the world ahead.

The Ming Court focused on preserving the past

However, there is another side to this story of apparent missed opportunity. The rise of China today has caused much concern in a rapidly changing economic and political world. Much debate has been given to China’s ultimate intentions. While it is true that China is interested in expanding economically, China does not harbor expansionist territorial ambitions, Taiwan and the Islands in the East and South China Seas notwithstanding. In Africa, for example, China enjoys much credibility with former Western colonies, by emphasizing that, although it reached Africa with the largest naval force in the world of the 1400s, it never tried to conquer African land or enslave its people.

As it was during the Ming dynasty, China’s engagement in the world today will be largely driven by economic concerns. It wishes to acquire resources and technology from abroad and to find markets for its products. Otherwise, one of its most important foreign policy principles – that no country should engage in the internal affairs of another country – reflects China’s overwhelming desire that its domestic affairs remain the preserve of Beijing alone; this in turn acts as a restraint on China’s ability to interfere with the sovereignty of other nations.

What Happened Next?

The success of the Manchus in crushing the remnants of the Ming Dynasty led to the establishment of China’s second non-Han Chinese led dynasty, the Qing. Though it survived over two and a half centuries, it proved to be the last in China’s long dynastic history. A series of military defeats to foreign powers and concomitant internal rebellions precipitated the 1911 revolution that brought about China’s first republic.

Part VII – China’s Last Dynasty: Qing Dynasty 1644 – 1911


British flax-mill factory industrail revolution Leeds c 1800 - wiki

The Industrial Revolution caused Europeans to seek out raw materials and new markets

As China entered into the Qing Dynasty, the last of its long dynastic line, it became increasingly challenged by a desire to reaffirm traditional Confucian values in order to preserve its historic agrarian, hierarchical, patriarchal society in the face of the pressures of a rapidly changing world. As the Manchus consolidated their minority rule over the country, they reaffirmed Chinese tradition in order to gain acceptance from the wider Han population. Moreover, the Han Chinese themselves veered toward greater conservatism, feeling that a lapse in Confucian values had been a key cause of the large-scale peasant revolt at the end of the Ming, and of the Han Chinese loss once again of the Mandate of Heaven to foreign occupants. Yet, as China tried to stay still, the world around them was quickly changing.

Driving this change was the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which resulted in European powers becoming more assertive in their quest for increased international trade. From China, these powers desired porcelain, lacquer ware, silk and tea. While China was willing to engage in limited one-way trade, there was nothing from Europe that China wanted. Eventually, Europeans became impatient with the Qing’s imposed trade restrictions and with their growing trade deficit with China. Taking advantage of their military and technological superiority, the West increasingly forced China to engage in international trade on its terms, much to the significant harm of the country. This Western pressure, along with the challenges of managing significant population growth between the 1700s and the 1900s, eventually brought down the Qing Dynasty, and ended dynastic history in China.

The first two Qing Emperors – Kangxi and Yongzheng

The Manchus, Chinese Traditions to rule the Chinese People, Tibet and Contact with Western Barbarians

17th Century painting of Manchu people hunting

Unlike other tribes living outside the Great Wall, the Manchus were not nomadic people, which meant that they had well-established military and administrative machinery that was efficiently spread throughout the country. Where the Chinese people capitulated, Chinese life and culture continued in peace and prosperity. Where the Chinese resisted Manchu rule, their population was looted, raped, and killed. After years of rebel peasant riots, many scholar-officials welcomed the stability of the Manchus. The one act of subservience required of the Chinese by the Manchus was to adopt the ‘queue’, the Manchu hairstyle in which the front part of the male head was shaved and the remaining hair was worn in a long braid in the back, something which did cause resentment, albeit rarely expressed. It took until 1681 before the last remnants of Ming loyalist resistance to Manchu rule were eradicated.

Qing-era silk production image shows workers with Manchu queue hair style

Having taken control of the government in 1669, the Kangxi Emperor of the Manchus, who held the throne for 60 years, was considered to be one of the most effective emperors to ever rule China. As the Manchus made up less than 2% of China’s entire population, the trick for Kangxi was to consolidate his rule in a way that won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. To this effect, Kangxi recruited committed Chinese officials to the bureaucracy and continued the traditional examination system. Hard-working, and a good judge of character, Kangxi valued and rewarded honesty. Chinese officials who refused to serve the Qing were honored as long as they did not engage in active resistance to his rule. In order to show his respect for Chinese culture, he commissioned the history of the Ming Dynasty, giving those reluctant to serve the Qing directly a way of being involved at court. Similarly, he patronized Chinese art, philosophy and poetry, and commissioned everything from the Kangxi Dictionary of Chinese to the Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty. He also instigated effective tax reform in 1712, replenishing the state treasury and creating a more egalitarian tax system.

Kangxi was a conqueror and an effective military leader. As such he successfully extended the Chinese empire northward and westward, creating borders with Korea and Russia which remain largely in place today. He occupied Tibet and led successful campaigns against the Mongols in Central Asia. Armed with cannons and other modern weapons, which provided them with military superiority over the Mongolian nomads who had only bows and arrows, Kangxi was able to dominate the steppe, effectually ending 2000 years of defense problems from the nomadic tribes.

Painting of the Kangxi Emperor

As a ruler of a now multi-ethnic empire, Kangxi favored Tibetan Buddhism at home, while forming marriage alliances with Mongol princes and ensuring that his court demonstrated moral leadership in terms of Confucian values. Thus, through his political skill sensitivity to his empire’s diverse cultures, and his genuine dedication to Confucian values, Kangxi was able to bend resentment toward the Manchus into acceptance, which eventually developed into loyalty. Areas such as Tibet and the largely Muslim areas of central Asia were ruled lightly. The local population was permitted to maintain their own religious leaders, to keep their own dietary rules, and to not wear the queue.

The Kangxi Emperor was also open to Western learning brought by the Christian Jesuits, who were welcomed at the Qing court. In particular, he was intrigued by their theories of astronomy, calendar calculations, mathematics, geography and military technology. Initially, Kangxi, had a relaxed attitude toward Christianity, and permitted churches to be built in the capital and provinces. The Jesuits were successful in converting many Chinese to Christianity by drawing parallels between Chinese and Christian traditions. However, when Pope Clement I ruled that Chinese folk religion and Confucian rites were in conflict with Christian teaching, Kangxi banned Christian missions in China, although he kept the Jesuits at court, largely in secular functions.

St. Sophia Church, Qingdao China

Kangxi was succeeded by Yongzheng in 1736, followed by his son Qianlong. During the 13 years of his reign, Yongzheng undertook a comprehensive reform of the state tax system, changing Qing fiscal policy to deliver a reliable revenue stream at the local and national levels. The historical system concentrated entirely on providing adequate funds for the central state, leaving the administration of regional government expenses entirely up to regional officials, which created much opportunity for corruption. The new system gave local officials an understanding of the funds available to them so that they did not have to personally extract revenue from their populace in order to maintain roads, for example, or to carry out granary construction. Additionally, Yongzheng ruthlessly tried to rid his empire of widespread government corruption. Without Yongzheng’s tax reforms and his improvements to the bureaucracy, the prosperity of Qianlong’s reign would not have been possible.

Emperor Qianlong

Painting of Emperor Qianlong riding

Qianlong was emperor for 60 years, fulfilling a promise to abdicate one year short of his grandfather’s record 61-year reign in a gesture of filial piety, though he continued to retain effective rule until his death four years later. Qianlong consolidated Qing rule in Tibet, extended Qing control further west into Mongol regions of Chinese Turkestan – today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region – effectively creating the borders of today’s China. Like his grandfather before him, Qianlong presented different images to the varied ethnic groups within his empire. To the Tibetans, for example, he established himself as the reincarnation of Manjusri, one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Han Chinese, he was a scholar and patron of Chinese learning and art. For instance, Qianlong created an enormous art collection of jade, ancient bronzes, seals, paintings, calligraphy, and ceramics, making him a great preserver of Chinese cultural heritage. Additionally, two of China’s greatest novels were written during the 1700s: Unofficial History of the Scholars and The Dream of the Red Chamber. More importantly, Qianlong commissioned the Complete Works of the Four Treasures which was to contain a copy of every significant work ever published in Chinese, and which was the largest single publishing project in Chinese history.

Begun in 1772, the Four Treasures took 20 years to finish. The four treasuries covered the major categories of traditional Chinese knowledge: classics, history, philosophy, and literature. A total of 13,254 books were collected throughout the empire, and thousands of scholars were engaged in the endeavor. Over four million pages were recorded by thousands of copyists. Even to this day, the Four Treasures remains a valuable resource for academics. Just as importantly, from the Manchu perspective, the Four Treasures enabled the Emperor to carry out a countrywide campaign of censorship that lasted from 1772-1788. All books gathered were examined. Any that held sensitive or offensive anti-Manchu sentiments were delivered to the court. Even books chosen for inclusion in the Four Treasures went through censorship, sometimes having parts rewritten or passages deleted. Problematic scholar-officials could be charged with sedition or other crimes by using, as proof, poems or articles selected from the body of work they had provided to the Emperor from their own libraries.

More Assertive Foreign Powers

Largely ignorant of European expansion and the accompanying slave trade throughout the 15thto 18th centuries, the Chinese came under increasing pressure from the British at the beginning of the 19th century, as their demand for tea, silk, and porcelain caused the British to seek more open trade relations with the Chinese.

Macao during Qing Dynasty

The Portuguese were the first to establish a permanent trading post with China in 1557, in Macao. In 1684, Kangxi allowed four cities, including Canton (Guangzhou), to do business with foreign traders. By 1757, the emperor had scaled those four cities back to just Canton. Additionally, he limited trading to the winter months. He also insisted European traders reside in special quarters along the banks of the Pearl River, outside Canton’s city walls. These quarters were known as the thirteen factories, with factory being used to mean a trading house. The thirteen factories remained the principal center for Western trade until the First Opium War in 1839.

Europeans, especially the British, developed a taste for tea. As tea imports rose, the British became frustrated with Sino-British trade for two reasons. Firstly, the British began running a significant trade deficit with China. Secondly, the East India Company increasingly balked at the trade limitations imposed by the Canton system. The East India Company thus petitioned the British government to send a diplomatic mission to China to negotiate better terms of trade. This mission was dispatched in 1793 and led by Lord Macartney. From the British perspective, this mission was unsuccessful. All requests from the British regarding the development of trade, the dispatching of an ambassador to Peking, and many other matters were refused. Distracted by revolution in continental Europe, Britain did not respond to China’s rebuff until the French threat had been resolved.

Caricature of Lord McCartney before the Chinese emperor

The Chinese had no desire to engage in active international trade. Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, China still believed itself to be the world’s dominant power. With the exception of the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which determined the border between the Russian and Chinese empires, China had never engaged in equal diplomatic relations with any foreign country, and saw no need to begin with Britain.

To some extent, the poor results of the diplomatic effort were also caused by cultural misunderstanding. Lord Macartney refused to kowtow to the Emperor as was the tributary’s custom, upsetting court protocol. Additionally, the carefully chosen presents by the British that were to be given to the Emperor on the occasion of his birthday, which represented the latest in European scientific achievements and craftsmanship, and which were to provide a basis for trading relations in the future, also offended both the emperor and the court. The emperor, while secretly treasuring the gifts, dismissed them as worthless baubles. Tributary states were to present the Emperor with token gifts. In turn, the Emperor was to present the tributary states with more valuable presents.

Evidence of Dynastic Decline by the End of the 1700s

By the end of the 18th century, signs of dynastic decline were evident. A surge in population put enormous pressure on food production. China became increasingly dependent on sweet potato and maize crops that could grow on drier, less fertile, soil. Multiple harvesting, particularly in the rice-growing south, became more commonplace. Yet more effective use of land and new crops alone were not sufficient to cope with the rising population. The government thus supported migration within the country, moving people to more remote areas such as Xinjiang.

Han migration into Xinjiang led to deforestation and increased desertification

Having Han Chinese peasants emigrate to basically non-agricultural land altered the nature of the local economy and the local way of life. Deforestation and over-cultivation of grasslands for agriculture significantly damaged the already fragile environment, increased the process of the desertification in Northwest China, and deepened the problem of water scarcity. Han relocation also had serious political and social consequences, as local populations were forced to compete with Han Chinese for land and other resources. Furthermore, tax revenues did not keep pace with the surge in population.

Compounding the insufficient tax harvest was a spectacular case of embezzlement. One of Qianlong’s favorite bodyguards, Heshen, embezzled millions of ounces of silver from the treasury. Heshen was arrested the day after Qianlong died; his stolen wealth was said to have equaled half the value of the entire treasury. This theft and the inadequate tax collection, coupled with continuous military expeditions, financially crippled the Dynasty by the beginning of the 19th century. Additionally, by the end of the 1700s, China was again plagued by peasant revolt, under the same White Lotus banner that had harassed the Mings.

The Qing in the 19th Century – the First Opium War

Opium den during the Qing Dynasty

As soon as the British had overcome the Napoleonic threat, it once again turned its attention to its growing trade deficit with China caused by its large imports of tea as well as of silk, porcelain and lacquer ware. The East India Company petitioned King George III to dispatch a second delegation to China to negotiate improved trade terms, but China again resisted British exigencies. Britain’s solution to this impasse was to export to China opium grown on its plantations in India. When smoked, opium proved highly addictive, relieving boredom along with physical and mental pain. By the mid-1820s, the success of the British strategy was apparent as its trade deficit turned to surplus. By the 1830s, approximately nine million taels (a tael equals 38 grams) of silver were flowing out of China annually and it was importing up to 13,000 chests of opium, enough to sustain the addiction of about 2 million Chinese. The British skirted Chinese laws forbidding opium trade by exporting the drug into China through smuggling networks.

In 1839, the trade commissioner Lin Zexu determined to suppress the opium trade. Lin arrested 350 Western traders and confined them into their warehouses until all their opium inventory was given to his officials. Ultimately, Lin destroyed more than 20,000 chests. The British retaliated by sending an armada of warships to fight the Chinese. Outclassed by Western military technology, the Chinese were soundly defeated.

The Unequal Treaties and Extraterritoriality

Having no choice but to surrender, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing which forced China to pay an accumulated $21 million dollars of war reparations, to cede control of the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity, to open four new coastal cities to British trade, and to treat Britain as an equal country in diplomatic negotiations, in contrast to the way all Chinese dynasties had operated previously. In a supplementary treaty, China was made to fix its tariff rates on its trade with Western countries at 5%, to exclude Westerners from prosecution under Chinese law under (what was to be termed extraterritoriality), and to allow Britain to also have any new privilege gained from China by other foreign powers under a Most Favored Nation clause. The opium trade continued unhindered.

The Signing of the Treaty of Nanjing

In Chinese eyes, Britain’s actions were a case of the morally repugnant imposing its will on those in China trying to do the right thing. This moral dimension to the war made it more politically and psychologically difficult for the Chinese to adopt any aspects of Western civilization, even when it became increasingly obvious that without western technology, China would never regain control of its country.

Second Opium War or the Arrow War

Between 1858 and 1860, a Second Opium War broke out when Chinese officials boarded the Hong Kong-registered boat The Arrow, and arrested twelve Chinese suspected of smuggling. The British demanded their release as the Chinese vessel was registered in Hong Kong and, thus, protected under the Treaty of Nanjing. The Qing government insisted the Chinese sailors were pirate smugglers and refused to release them. In retaliation, the British, requesting the help of the French, Russians and Americans, readied for war. While the United States and Russia supported Britain, they did not go as far as sending military aid, but the French did join forces with the British.

Chinese officers tear down the British flag on the Arrow

The British and French launched the Second Opium War by capturing Canton, modern day Guangzhou, and maintained control of the city for four years. They subsequently invaded Beijing, burning the Emperor’s Summer Palace and imposing further so-called “unequal treaties” on the Qing. The 1860 Treaty of Tianjin stipulated the opening of a total of fourteen treaty ports to Western trade, ceding further land in Kowloon to the British, indemnities of eight million taels of silver to France and Britain, the right of Western diplomats to reside permanently in Beijing, and the freedom of religious institutions to be established in China. After 1860, Westerners assumed control of the complete administration of China’s taxes on trade and commerce, making the Qing Empire in effect a semi-colony of the West. At the same time, Russia forced China to revise the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which gave Russia the right to establish a port on the Pacific coast, where it founded the city of Vladivostok in 1860. The Russians also insisted that the Qing sign the Supplementary Convention of Peking in which Russia gained a further 4000 square miles of land from China.

The Nian, Panthay, Muslim and Taiping Rebellion

Compounding Qing dynastic troubles were further internal rebellions. Taxes were paid by peasants in copper, which had a fixed exchange rate with silver. As China began exporting growing quantities of silver to pay for its opium imports, the exchange rate between the copper of the peasants and the silver of the tax collector rose, making it increasingly difficult for the peasants to pay their taxes. This rising tax burden, coupled with famine, population pressure, scarcity of resources, and government corruption sparked a series of rebellions throughout China.

The Nian Rebellion (1853-1868) was caused initially by the bursting of the Yellow River’s banks in 1853 and 1855, causing widespread flooding and loss of life. Because of its reduced finances, the Qing court was unable to respond to the disaster with sufficient financial and human aid, causing wide spread revolt. The Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) began in Yunnan province as a result of fighting between Han Chinese migrants and the native Hui (Chinese Muslims) over access to mining resources. The Muslim Rebellion (1862 -1877) erupted in the Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces over continued minority resistance to Han Chinese territorial infringement.

Taiping Rebels chased by Manchus

The largest rebellion during this time, however, was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). In 1850, a failed examination candidate from the Hakka minority group in South China, Hong Xiuquan, had visions during a nervous breakdown which convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong advocated surprisingly modern policies including the abolition of private property, the promotion of a classless society, the advancement of equality between men and women, the suppression of foot binding, and the eradication of opium use. He quickly amassed a dedicated army of peasant followers who, by 1854, had occupied Nanjing, which they proclaimed to be the capital of their new Heavenly Kingdom. By 1855, Hong was within 20 miles of Beijing. At first, Western missionaries were elated at the thought of a Chinese Christian uprising. Yet Hong’s unorthodox Christianity and his opposition to opium were eventually determined to be a threat to Western interests.

The Qing rallied the government Banner Forces (so named because of the particular flags under which they operated) to put down the rebellion, but by this point the Banner Forces were so ill-trained that they proved ineffective. The Qing Court then had no choice but to disperse power to regional Chinese officials who recruited their own armies from their own home districts. Allowing the amassing of regional armies had historically proved very dangerous to a dynasty’s longevity, and that the Qing court was forced into this strategy was good evidence of its weakness. An estimated 20-30 million died during the rebellion.


Westerners share technology with China to improve access to its markets

By the end of the 19th century, in the face of constant foreign incursions into its territory and infringements of its sovereignty, the Qing Dynasty began a program of self-strengthening. In many ways, the basic idea of this program was a modified version of the traditional yiyi zhiyi (“use barbarians to control barbarians“), although in this case it was more of an instance of using barbarian technology to defeat barbarians. Reformists argued that China should employ Western technology such as railroads, modern weaponry, steamships, and telegraph lines in order to modernize China, while learning Western languages in order to gain access to Western technologies. Conservatives at the court argued that such policies would lead to the abandonment of traditional culture for modern barbarism. Reformists countered that China would maintain fundamentally Confucian and Chinese in culture, only using the Western technologies to arrest Western incursion into Chinese territory and Chinese sovereignty.

Yet despite reformists’ enthusiasm for change, few understood the rapidity with which Western science was developing improved technology, or that up-to-date weapons alone would not be enough to defend China without modernized training and leadership. What was true was that knowledge of the West was gradually improving. Modern newspapers, with up-to-date coverage of world affairs, began to appear in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Information was also acquired through visits abroad. By 1880, China had embassies in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Washington, Tokyo and St. Petersburg.

At the heart of the Chinese challenge was the fact that no Qing Emperor of the 19th century was very capable, although even an extremely able emperor would have struggled to meet the twin challenges of internal rebellion and external aggression. The lack of effectiveness of these emperors was compounded by the rise of Empress Dowager Cixi, who entered the Qing court as a low ranking concubine. From 1860 to her death in 1908, she held more power and influence in Chinese politics than had any woman since the Tang Empress Wu. Modern Chinese historians have often blamed the Empress Dowager for promoting her own interests at the expense of the Chinese people. What is true is that she resisted all early self-strengthening reforms which risked undermining the power of the palace.

The Qing Dynasty population boom led to poverty as China struggled to employ and fed its 400 million people

Also at the essence of Qing’s challenge was China’s huge population surge. In 1800, China had about 300 million people, compared with Russia’s 40 million, Japan’s 30 million, and Britain’s 11 million. From 1800 to 1850, China’s population increased to 400 million. The population explosion had repercussions for every aspect of Chinese life. Villages and towns grew closer, farms grew smaller, deforestation accelerated, and labor was in surplus, suppressing wages and escalating the competitiveness of everyday life. Until the end of the 18th century, these processes were, to a large extent, beneficial, as they fostered regional development and commercialization. Yet, by the dawn of the 19th century the negative consequences of China’s population explosion were becoming more pronounced. Chinese surplus labor would work at industries now industrialized in Europe at such low rates that urban factories could not compete, which in turn impeded China’s industrialization. Additionally, the rise in population exacerbated social tensions, as conflicts over water and other resources surged with population growth, and disputes between ethnic groups, lineages, or villages became common. Hard times also led to the rise of female infanticide, leading invariably to a shortage of marriageable women, which in turn reduced the incentive for young men to stay near home and do what their elders told them. Those who left often joined roving gangs or immigrated to the cities to search for work as boatmen, porters, sedan chair carriers, and rickshaw pullers.

Millions of Chinese chose to emigrate from China completely, heading primarily to Southeast Asia, but also to the US and Europe. In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Vietnam, the Chinese often assimilated, intermarrying with the local population and adopting their language and customs, while in Muslim countries and in the US, Chinese immigrants often chose to live independently from native populations. Those that did not assimilate often organized themselves into voluntary associations such as Triads, as local authorities preferred to let the Chinese govern themselves.

1885 War with France, the 1894-1895 War with Japan

Negotiating the Shimonoseki Treaty after the first Sino-Japanese War

The first sign that China’s reforms had not strengthened China sufficiently to repulse foreign aggression occurred when it was defeated in 1885 in war with France over Vietnam, a traditional tributary state. More humiliating, however, was its defeat to Japan in a battle for influence in Korea, another traditional Chinese tributary state. This defeat shocked both China and the West, as China had always viewed Japan as its inferior, and as Japan was a fraction of China’s size. The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan to Japan, to pay Japan 200 million taels of silver, and to recognize the independence of Korea.

Fearing China’s imminent collapse, Western nations began pressuring China to grant them special trading, taxation, and other privileges in their own spheres of influence, while jockeying with other Western powers in order to extend their territorial reach. The US, preoccupied elsewhere, did not at first join the dash for concessions. In 1889, however, John Hay, America’s secretary of state, fearing the fragmentation of China, issued a series of Open Door Notes to Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan, calling on all foreign powers operating in China to allow free trade in all spheres of influence. Eventually, the European powers backed off, not because of Hay’s influence, but because they too feared the break-up of the country. Every country except Russia agreed to the Open Door Policy, although most had no intention of enforcing it.

100 Days of Reforms

Guangxu Emperor

The terms of the humiliating Treaty with Japan were made public when thousands of provincial graduates were in Beijing for the metropolitan examination. In December 1898, Kang Youwei, a Confucian scholar, gained an audience with the young Guangxu Emperor. Spurred by the scholar’s suggestions, in the space of 100 days, the Emperor issued a multitude of edicts designed to thoroughly modernize the country, including introducing Western subjects in Chinese education, eliminating thousands of sinecure positions, attacking government corruption, and embarking on a rapid and intensive program of industrialization and Westernization. Sensing a threat to the conservative dominance at court, the Empress Dowager crushed the reform movement, and effectively imprisoned the Emperor within the Summer Palace. Kang Youwei fled to Japan, and six of his followers were executed. The court sank again into wider inaction, having preserved its own powerful interests.

The Boxer Rebellion

Execution of Boxers at the end of the Rebellion

Yet inaction would not remain an option for long. Formed initially in Shandong and adjacent areas in Henan and Hebei, a secret society of peasants and illiterate day laborers emerged. They called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (known as the Boxers in the West), and eventually amassed thousands of followers. The Boxers practiced martial arts and chanted magic spells that they claimed made them impervious to physical pain and bullets. The Boxers believed that their hardship was caused in large part by foreign aggression. Spurred by the severe drought of the summer of 1898 their growing anger and frustration became directed at “foreign devils” who they determined to expel from China.

An obvious target was the Christian missionaries who had moved into many parts of the Chinese countryside by the end of the 19th century. While many missionaries provided the Chinese with social and medical services which brought real benefits to the population, the Boxers nevertheless linked Christianity with the arrival of the same foreigners who spread opium in Chinese society. Aggravating their sense of injustice was the fact that these missionaries lived in walled compounds, were protected by extraterritoriality, and enjoyed higher standards of living than the people to whom they preached.

Return of the Emperess Dowager in 1902

Initially, the Qing court felt obliged to crush the Boxer Rebellion. But by the summer of 1900, the court tried to use the Boxers, whose numbers had swollen to close to a half million, to drive foreigners out of China. An eight-nation invasion force made up of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the US, and Japan, rapidly captured Beijing. In 1901 China sued for peace, agreeing to pay 400 million ounces of silver in damages to the Western invasion force. By the time the rebellion was finally put down in September of that year, more than 70,000 Chinese people, including Chinese Catholics, Protestant missionaries, Chinese Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and other ordinary Chinese were dead.

During the fighting, the Empress Dowager fled Beijing disguised as a nun. On her flight into the countryside, she was confronted for the first time with the reality of China’s poverty. After peace had been secured, she finally began to promote the same modernization for which she had imprisoned the Emperor. Specifically, an effort was made to create a Western-style army, armed with Western weapons and trained in Western methods. Another was to continue efforts to build a modern railway system. However, these endeavors were too little, and came too late.

Sun Yat-sen and the overthrow of Qing Dynasty

Sun Yat-sen

Ensnared in an international economic order stacked against latecomers, an order whose rules China had no ability to shape, many Chinese increasingly felt that the Qing Dynasty specifically, and dynastic rule generally, lacked the agility and versatility to successfully negotiate the changing world in which it found itself. In the Qing’s defense, the centralized bureaucratic monarchy, the patriarchal family, and the scholar-official elite, all of whom focused on creating stability through the replication of the agrarian past, were so deeply entrenched in Chinese culture that it took a century of bad news to weaken people’s belief that they represented the best organizational structure for Chinese society.

For the first time, many Chinese began to study abroad, primarily in Japan, but also in Western Europe and the United States. Many of these returned to campaign for the deposition of Qing rule. One of these was Sun Yat-sen (generally known in China as Sun Zhongshan, his name in Mandarin Chinese). A Christian, and trained as a medical doctor, Sun Yat-sen became an increasingly called toward politics as China floundered at the beginning of the 20th century. In all, Sun Yat-sen led ten attempts to overthrow the government, each of which failed. However, his tireless efforts to promote revolutionary fervor within China were a catalyst which led to strengthening revolutionary sentiment throughout the country, including that among the officers and troops of the New Army.

When the Qing dynasty eventually fell, the end came serendipitously, and as a result of a relatively rapid series of events. In 1905, when the examination system was abolished as part of the stipulations imposed upon the Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion, a whole segment of society lost their reason for engaging with the government. In 1908 the Empress dowager died, leaving a three-year-old Imperial Prince on the throne, meaning China yet again had no effective emperor. Additionally, the newly constructed railways had been built using foreign funds and were in the hands of foreign companies. Public opinion advocated that these railways should be in Chinese hands. The Qing court attempted to nationalize the railways, alienating many small Chinese investors, while Western powers insisted that they would continue to build railways within their spheres of influence regardless of Chinese national policy. To many, the railroad management issues were just another example that the Qing dynasty lacked the means to deal with China’s worsening domestic and international situation.

Republic of China presidential election, 1911

Revolutionary discontent continued to build. In 1911, in the Chinese city of Wuchang, a group of revolutionaries loosely affiliated with Sun Yat-sen were secretly stockpiling ammunitions for a revolt, when one of the bombs exploded. Realizing that the police were certain to investigate, they declared war on the Qing state and quickly took control of the city. Word of this revolt spread quickly, and many newly trained troops joined the rebels as opposed to fighting for the infant Emperor. Sun Yat-sen read about the rebellion in Denver, Colorado where he had been trying to raise money from overseas Chinese. The Qing Dynasty looked to the top military official in the Empire, Yuan Shikai, to suppress the rebellion. Instead, he effectively negotiated the end of the Qing dynasty.

Much to the relief of the revolutionaries, the Qing Dynasty was disposed without China breaking into civil war, and without the Western powers and Japan slicing up the country. For his role in overthrowing the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen agreed that Yuan Shikai could become the first president of the new Republic, which was proclaimed on February 12th, 1912. While the revolutionaries were united in their desire to dispose the Dynasty, they remained at conflict on how the country should be ruled going forward. Sun Yat-sen and his followers organized a new party, the Guomindang (the Nationalist Party, frequently referred to as the Kuomintang or KMT) which they viewed to be a loyal opposition party designed to compete in electoral politics with the followers of Yuan Shikai. Other parties were formed as well, and Assembly elections were held in December 1912. Approximately 40 million men were eligible to vote – those who owned property, paid taxes, and had an elementary school education – about 10% of the population. The Nationalists won approximately 43% of the vote, in an election that succeeded without major incident. Sun Yat-sen, head of the railroad development, was pleased with the outcome.

Yuan Shikai at center with army officers

Yuan Shikai was not. He disliked Nationalist criticisms of his policies and felt that their electoral success threatened his efforts to create a strong central government. In 1913, Song Jiaoren, the Nationalist campaign manager and a Prime Minister-hopeful, was assassinated, probably on the direction of Yuan Shikai. The Nationalist party responded to the murder by calling for Yuan Shikai’s resignation, and soon revolted. Yuan Shikai crushed the revolt, and Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan, once again in exile. Yuan Shikai supported a strong, modern, industrialized state, but he envisioned that this state would be ruled in dynastic fashion, with himself as Emperor. Yuan Shikai eventually died in 1916 of kidney failure, leaving both a power vacuum and no national consensus about how China should move forward politically. Yuan’s generals began to vie with each other for regional control and power. This began a period of warlordism in China, during which the country was once again fragmented.

Dynastic Themes Present in China Today

Themes of Qing history can be seen in evidence in China today. The first is a sense of Chinese culturalism and self-sufficiency. Until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China had always felt that its rich cultural history was a sufficient source of inspiration from which to develop its foreign policies to deal with barbarians, to provide governmental and societal structure, to manage its economy, and to stimulate its artistic achievement. While always convinced of its moral, economic, and technological superiority – which it indeed maintained for thousands of years – China never felt the need to impose its systems on countries outside its immediate sphere of influence.

Confucius Center opening at Khazar University, Azerbaijan

Today, China engages in the world primarily as a means to promote its own economic development. It no longer makes any effort to promote communist revolution abroad (though it did at various stages of the Mao era) or any other value-based revolution arising from its hybrid capitalist-authoritarian society. While it is true that China is building, worldwide, an ever growing number of Confucian Centers designed to promote the learning of Mandarin and the understanding of Chinese culture, these centers are intended to serve China’s economic interests by creating a better understanding of China, as opposed to exposing a Chinese cultural perspective which it hopes will be adopted by local populations in the way that the US, for example, promotes democracy internationally.

The Chinese government today still considers the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1839-1949) as an inflection point in the way that China engages in the international arena. Indeed, even today, many Chinese and Taiwanese history books still divide Chinese history into the pre- and post-Opium war worlds. From 1939 onwards, China was thrust into a world whose rules it did not understand and could not control. Consequently, during the 1839-1949 period, China was riven by peasant uprisings which were frequently fuelled by or were partly in consequence to the growing Western presence in China, and by what was viewed as Qing acquiescence to foreign demands. Additionally, the Century of Humiliation led to the ultimate collapse of its millennia-old dynastic system and China’s loss of sovereignty over almost a third of its territory.

Animal personifications of Russia, England, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Japan fighting over China – the dying dragon – while the US as eagle looks on

The Century of Humiliation today remains essential to the way that China interacts with the world. Both scholars and government officials in China still frequently characterize the international system as one dominated by a West determined where the west using the current international framework to block China’s rise. Under this view China needs to be wary of Western intent at all times so that it is never again out-maneuvered and subjugated. Others Chinese scholars feel that China’s progress within the Western built international framework has been so overwhelming that, far from being a tool to benefit exclusively the West and its allies, the current international system is reasonably fair, and has very much played to China’s advantages. Within this framework, China has returned to a position of significant influence and power. Consequently, China should continue to operate within, and to support the current international framework as it has been designed. Other Chinese thinkers feel that China should use its growing economic and political status to bend the international system so it reflects more of China’s values.

The Century of Humiliation is also essential to China as it is a fundamental aspect of the nationalism that the Chinese Communist Party has cultivated since it has switched from a command to market economy. The Century of Humiliation is the narrative of China’s subjugation which was exorcised by the Communist Party. From its earliest formation, the Communists gained the support of the Chinese people by creating an image of themselves as willing to fight the Japanese after they invaded in 1931. The Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek were often painted as being more focused on defeating the Communists than they were on fighting the Japanese. This narrative helps legitimize Communist Party rule as it reminds the Chinese people that it was the Communists who pulled China from its lowest point, restoring the country once again to its natural place of preeminence. Moreover, the Century of Humiliation is also a discourse used by the Communist Party to deflect foreign criticism of its policies. This discourse in effect argues that the West and Japan have always been full of schemes to harm China, and therefore their arguments and actions today still cannot be trusted.

Women in China


Modern older women workers (shutterstock_108277505)

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, promoting greater equality between men and women has been a stated goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao Zedong famously proclaimed “in China, women hold up half the sky.” By this Mao appears to have meant that, if women were treated equally to men, China could better achieve its potential by taking advantage of the full complement of its population and workforce. The CCP thus supported the promotion of equal rights in all aspects of a woman’s life, at least at a rhetorical level.

Yet, even from its earliest days pre-dating the founding of the PRC, the support of Chinese women’s rights has been less about a woman’s potential to realize herself as an individual, and more about ways to use women’s emancipation as a tool to achieve national objectives. Before the revolution, the mainly male voices which advocated changing the traditionally subservient role of Chinese women did so in the belief that educated, more capable Chinese women would better be able to raise intelligent, morally sound sons. These sons could then build a strong China that could defend itself from foreign imperialism.

Similarly, the CCP believed that engaging women in productive labor outside the home would help advance the creation a true Communist state built on a robust and growing economy. Yet, time and again, the CCP sacrificed the secondary goal of women’s emancipation when its policies primary policies faltered; its commitment to follow through on gender equality promises such as the right to divorce and the right to work ebbed and flowed depending on how these policies facilitated the CCP’s other, higher-ranked objectives.

Despite CCP proclamations, a long historical tradition of male dominance and patriarchal authority has been deeply embedded in China’s culture since dynastic times. The CCP’s rise to power brought radical changes to Chinese society; but this traditional male dominance in both the work and social spheres has proven difficult to overturn, despite the real progress that Chinese women have made in obtaining the right to be educated, to work, to choose whom they marry, to divorce, to own and inherit property and to participate in political affairs. On the one hand, the profound changes that economic reform has brought to China have brought unprecedented opportunities to Chinese women; for instance, China has more self-made female billionaires than any other country. On the other hand, the government’s commitment to fight women’s inequality has taken a backseat to its desire to promote economic growth. As a result, in many ways, there has been a return to traditional gender expectations which have hampered the progress of Chinese women’s emancipation.

Women Under China’s Dynasties – Confucianism and Women

China’s deep roots of discrimination against women lie within its ancient Confucian traditions. The Confucian system, whose origins lie in the 551-479 BC period, encompassed the notion of “filial piety” – that women should obey men, citizens should obey their ruler, and the young should obey the elderly. For a woman, this meant that she was expected to be absolutely dutiful to her father, husband and sons.

Confucian tenets reinforced the moral justification of this strict regulation of gender. Confucians writers believed that the base elements of universe, yin and yang, were comparable to the state of marriage between woman and man. Woman was the yielding, passive, enduring, submissive feminine yin opposite the hard, aggressive, active masculine yang. By conceptualizing the differences between man and woman as yin and yang, Chinese intellectuals cast the differences, and the social hierarchy that resulted from them, as part of the universe’s natural order; in this way, men’s dominance of women was perceived to be not a social convention, but a natural law. Confucians intellectuals believed that, while yin and yang were complementary forces, they were not strictly equal. Just as the yang force dominated the yin, Confucian scholars believed that it was right for Chinese society to be patriarchal, and that a woman’s place was naturally in the home acting in support of her husband. This was expressed in Confucianism as “Threefold Obedience” – an unmarried women must obey her father; a wife must obey her husband; a widow must obey her adult sons.

Even those women who gained influence, such as the Confucian scholar Ban Zhao (45-116 AD) who worked as a royal advisor to the Empress and as a literary scholar, helped to uphold the status quo. In her influential Lessons for Women Ban Zhao encouraged women to modestly yield to others and to put others first. Ban Zhao said that a woman had seven virtues to master:- humility, resignation, subservience, self-abasement, obedience, cleanliness and industry.

Marriage in Dynastic Times

Traditionally in China, a woman was betrothed at a young age. Her husband was selected by her parents, aided by a matchmaker and by senior female relatives in the family. The goal was to find a husband that would benefit the daughter’s family either socially or economically. A woman often did not meet her husband until her wedding day. Once married, a woman was sent to live with her husband’s family. Traditionally, living with her husband meant that she gave up the protection and care of her natal family. This caused a profound sense of loss – not only the loss of the relationships that had previously been her whole world, but also the loss of her previous identity and status. Effectively, she became a possession of her husband and his family. From the time of her marriage onward, she would see her own family infrequently, if at all. Once in the husband’s house, she was to submit entirely first to her husband and his male relatives, then to her mother-in-law. She worshiped her husband’s family ancestors, rather than her own. The daughter’s contribution thus primarily benefited her husband’s family and not the family of her mother and father.

A husband was allowed to take multiple wives. These wives were arranged into a hierarchy, its order determined by factors such as order of the marriages, the birth of male sons, a woman’s beauty and how much the husband liked her. Men could divorce on grounds such as barrenness, jealousy, and talkativeness, but could only do so if there was a family to which the wife could return. There were no grounds on which a woman could divorce her husband. Men could also sell women as if they were property.

A Woman’s Life in Imperial China

Both as children and adults, women were restricted almost entirely to the domestic sphere, and were mainly uneducated. In books such as the Confucian classic, Book of Rites, the importance of physically separating the world of men and women was stressed to ensure that yin did not dominate yang. Even houses were to be divided into an inner and an outer section, with the women staying in the inner part. To the extent that women were educated, their learning was for the sole purpose of helping them better educate their sons.

Women were completely dependent on men due to their lack of property and inheritance rights, and to their inability to earn an income. This dependence on men created an environment where wife-beating and female infanticide was often overlooked and where a woman who bore daughters was not valued, as only men stayed in the natal family. This preference for boys was reinforced by Confucius’ teachings. Confucius’ follower Menicus said that the worst of the unfilial acts was to fail to have boys to continue the line of one’s ancestors.

That said, a woman in pre-modern China did have some influence, although that influence was not hers by right but delegated to them by men and circumstance. For example, besides domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, a woman might contribute to household income by working at jobs such as spinning cloth, shucking oysters and processing tea which created real earnings that could gain her favor within the family. Moreover, her role in arranging marriages was important in building alliances that could strengthen the family fortunes. As she bore sons, a woman’s position within the family rose. She became even more powerful when she had a daughter-in-law under her control. She became most powerful in old age, particularly if she had both sons and daughter-in-laws as she was then respected both as a producer of men and as an elder. At the imperial court, when a young emperor inherited the throne, his mother, as Empress Dowager, could exert power on his behalf until he came of age or behind the scenes until he grew old enough to rebuff her influence. Chinese men nevertheless regarded a woman in power as unnatural and associated her with intrigue, manipulation and selfishness.

The isolation a woman could feel in her husband’s home was offset in some regions by the practice of taking “sworn sisters”. In Hunan, for example, women were allowed to organize themselves into groups of seven friends -– sworn sisters -– who would then provide friendship and comfort to each other throughout their lives. The sworn sisters often developed a secret language and system of writing which enabled them to communicate safely, even when expressing discontent with their circumstances.

Foot Binding

Girl with bound feet c19th century (girlboundfeetc19th) important symbol of a woman’s subservience was the practice of foot-binding which endured for over a thousand years. Foot-binding began in the tenth century when an emperor decreed small feet to be a most desirable aesthetic of female beauty. The custom began first with the Chinese gentry and then spread to the general population as families jockeyed to ensure that their daughters married into a family of higher class. In foot-binding, at the age of five or six, a girl would have her toes forcibly bent under the soles of her feet and bound their permanently by tight cloth. Eventually the arch of the foot would break and the tight cloth stopped the feet from growing. The ideal was to create a foot approximately 3 to 4 inches (around 8 to 10 centimeters) long by the time the girl became a woman. The deformed feet caused a woman to walk in a tentative, painful gait that Chinese men found alluring; the deformed feet were also considered to be very erotic. The impaired movement of the bound feet helped restrict a woman to her home which in turn increased her dependence on her husband.

Lisa See, in her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, imagines poignantly what it must have been like emotionally for women trying to make their life in such a circumscribed and difficult environment:

“We women are expected to love our children as soon as they leave our bodies, but who among us has not felt disappointment at the sight of a daughter or felt the dark gloom that settles upon the mind even when holding her precious son, if he does nothing but cry and make our mother-in-law look at you as though your milk were sour? We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be a part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, but we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we entered those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder above the servant. We are ordered to love and honor our husband’s ancestors, so we perform the proper duties, even if our hearts quietly call out gratitude to our natal ancestors. We love our parents because they take care of us, but we are considered worthless branches of the family tree. We drain the family resources. We are raised by one family for another. As happy as we are in our natal families, we all know that parting is inevitable. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All these types of love come out of duty, respect and gratitude. Most of them, as women in my country know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality.”

Encounters with the West Expose 19th Century China to New Ideas on Women

Female rural workers, 1920s (femaleworkers1920s) the West began to encroach on China in the nineteenth century Chinese leaders – Dynastic and subsequently Republican and Communists leaders -– began to search for ways to modernize and strengthen China so that it could free itself from encroachment by foreign powers. A woman’s role in society was increasingly scrutinized by intellectuals, especially those who had been exposed to western ideas. Some of these new ideas came from Western missionaries working in China. The Christian missionaries taught that the way a society treated its women was indicative of its level of civilized development. Following on from this idea, Chinese reformers began to think of the status of Chinese women as symbolic of all that was wrong with the country. They began to argue that improving the lot of women would be one road towards modernizing China. Educated and capable women could better run households and could better raise intelligent, morally-sound sons. These sons could then undertake the task of building a new China. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding began to be opposed as an example of China’s backward thinking and it was banned by the Republican government in 1912, although it was not fully wiped out until the 1949 Communists Revolution. It was also banned in Taiwan by the Japanese occupying administration in 1915. The majority of intellectuals supporting women’s emancipation at this time were men, although there were some exceptions. In 1904, for instance, women’s advocate Qiu Jin escaped from her marriage to a wealthy husband and took flight to Japan where she called on Chinese women to fight against their subservient status. Qiu Jin believed that Chinese women led a life tantamount to slavery and believed that women should be given a chance to work outside the home. With their own money, women could break free from their dependence on men and their families.

May 4th Feminist Thinkers

Re-evaluating a woman’s role in society took on renewed momentum during the May 4th Movement of 1919 in which student protests led to a larger examination of China’s society and its government. Known as the May Fourth Feminism Movement, its discourse continued to be driven by male Chinese nationalism. The movement was less about a woman’s potential to realize herself as an individual, and more about ways to change China’s society so as to save China from Western and Japanese Imperialism. That said, during the May 4th Movement, some urban women marched with men in organized political demonstrations and, to a limited extent, engaged in public affairs.
Engagement with Western scientific discourse persuaded many Chinese male intellectuals to believe in a biological determinist approach of the understanding of gender. While not necessarily a re-play of the theories of yin and yang, biological determinism stated that gender roles were the result of biological differences between men and women. Gender hierarchy was thus natural: since women bore children, they should have the predominant responsibility for housework and the care of family members. This biological determinist understanding was reflected in attitudes and policies adopted both in the Mao and post-Mao eras.

The 1949 Communist Revolution and Marxist Theory on Women

At first, the nascent women’s movement and its effects were restricted to the cities. There began to be a growing discrepancy between how women lived in urban and in rural environments where traditional practices still held sway. It took the 1949 Communist Revolution to begin to change the lives of China’s hundreds of millions of rural women. Communism came to China with the promise of equality, not only between rich and poor, noble and common, but also between men and women. By promoting policies such as marriage reform, the CCP hoped to gain support from rural women still trapped in traditional lifestyles. The CCP allowed women to join the Party, and by 1925, it had 100 registered women members. Some women even started serving in the People’s Liberation Army.

The emancipation of women was supported by Marxist theory. To Marxists, women were one of the classes exploited by capitalist societies. The Marxists believed that social relations and social structures were determined to a significant degree by the economic institutions that produced– farms, factories, etc. To achieve equality for women, Marxists thus argued that society must first assume ownership of the means of production by establishing a command economy with nationalized industry. The Marxists therefore took a collectivist approach to women’s emancipation where women’s liberation depended upon liberation for all. The first priority for men and women was thus to work together to achieve revolution. In 1949 when Mao Zedong took power, he reconfirmed the CCP’s commitment to women’s equality by his now famous quote, “in China, women hold up half the sky.” As women made up half of China’s population, building a great socialist society would be facilitated if women were liberated to engage in productive activity.

The 1950 Marriage Law

Once in power, the CCP passed the Marriage Reform Law in 1950. Prostitution, arranged marriage, child marriage, polygamy and the use of concubines were outlawed. Chinese were allowed to marry because they loved each other, not because they were obligated out of deference to their families. It became easier to divorce. Indeed, between 1950 and 1953, divorce rates spiked as women took advantage of the law to dissolve loveless “feudal marriages”. Contemporaneously, a huge effort was made to move women into the workforce. Many women were relocated from the countryside into the cities where they worked as textile laborers. Female literacy was promoted and 16 million women learned to read between 1950 and 1957.

By 1953, however, the Marriage Law began to experience growing and widespread opposition from men. Between 1953 and 1958, the CCP began to backtrack on its promotion of women’s equality. Instead, collective stability was prioritized. Propaganda campaigns were launched to promote the concepts of the socialist housewife and the model mother. These campaigns re-enforced the importance of domestic duties. It became more difficult to divorce and the CCP stepped up its efforts to keep couples together.

Collectivization, The Great Leap Forward and the All-China Women’s Federation

In 1958, Mao launched agricultural collectivization in preparation for the industrial push known as the Great Leap Forward in which it was Mao’s goal to catch-up with the West in agricultural and steel production in five years. Agricultural collectivization grouped peasants in large communes where they lived and worked together. Collectivization changed women’s lives radically. Housework was socialized and communal dining halls fed families; childcare became a collective effort, as did washing and sewing. This freed women to move into the fields while men worked on large-scale irrigation works, industrial projects, steel making and mining.

Established in 1949, the All-China Women’s Federation (“ACWF”) was a mass organization whose main functions were to help implement CCP policy through the mobilization of women and to promote gender equality. For many in the ACWF, the Great Leap Forward represented an unprecedented opportunity to increase women’s liberation as it provided women with real work outside the home. Mao believed that China’s ability to leap forward in steel and agricultural production was dependent on its ability to move women into the fields so that men could be freed up to engage in other work.

However, the reality of CCP policies for women during the Great Leap Forward differed from the vision of women’s liberation that the CCP promised women if they were willing to enter the workforce. Despite socialized housework, women continued to be responsible for all remaining domestic work, regardless of how many hours they worked outside the home. For instance, women in the 1950s and 1960s made their family’s clothes by hand, including spinning yarn and weaving cloth. After a long day in the fields, women often spent many hours at night making clothes and doing other work on behalf of their families. This additional contribution to the family household was not valued through the allocation of work points, continuing the persistent undervaluing of women by men.

Additionally, mostly men did not like seeing women trained in what they considered male skills or receiving a higher level of pay and thus put pressure on the CCP to preserve their dominant status. As a result, not only were men given the jobs which paid the highest work points, but even when men and women performed the same work, men mostly received more work points than women. Moreover, work done by all members of the family was usually tallied as a whole. Its value was then distributed to the male head of the household at the end of each work period. Rural women thus were not able to exercise any direct control over the income they earned.

In the cities, men were overwhelmingly assigned to technical jobs and women to non-technical, auxiliary and service jobs regardless of their educational levels. This gendered employment practice helped to re-establish women’s subordinate position despite the fact that she was now allowed to work. The difference in work opportunities was often justified by citing the differences in men and women’s biology; a woman’s weak physique was better suited to light, female-oriented work. Women were also less likely to be given work in large state-run enterprises where health, pension and housing benefits were provided. Rather, they were given jobs in the lower paying community- and neighborhood-run industries that offered few benefits. Unlike rural communes, however, urban women were able to collect their own wages which did give her voice in the family’s decision-making.

Inside the urban family, the traditional patriarchal patterns still persisted. Men could more easily secure housing accommodation from their work units. Single men slept in dormitories while women remained with their families until they were married. These housing policies continued the practice of men providing housing in marriage, reinforcing the idea of female dependency, and making marriage materially necessary for women. It also made women vulnerable if marital problems arose. Additionally, regardless of the hours worked outside the home, like their rural counterparts, urban women were still responsible for the majority of domestic work and family care.

As the hours that women worked in and outside of the house sharply increased, the health of women – particularly rural women – began to suffer due to overwork and malnutrition, especially as the ill-conceived Great Leap Forward policies pushed much of the country into famine conditions. There was enormous pressure on women to overcome the physical limitations of their bodies through the sheer force of their wills. Women became liberated not by being valued in their own right, but by emanating men and by denying the realities of their own physicality. Miscarriages and prolapsed uteruses became common as women were encouraged to carry out strenuous and difficult work regardless of pregnancy or recent birth. Despite these hardships, however, many women have looked back on the Great Leap years as ones in which they were freed from the isolation of the home and they could laugh and communicate all day in a shared work space.

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the CCP retrenched on all fronts. As steel making efforts subsided with the failure of the backyard furnaces and as new irrigation works were completed or abandoned, women were forced back into domestic roles in order to make room for the men in the fields. Women’s new-found emancipation was to be once again sacrificed for the good of the country.

The Cultural Revolution

The 1966-1976 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement launched by Mao Zedong whose objective was to deepen the Chinese Communist Revolution by removing what he believed were the bourgeois elements that were subverting the government and Chinese society with the goal of restoring capitalism. Mao argued that these revisionist elements needed to be removed through violent struggle and called on China’s youth to form Red Guard troops to stop the return of capitalist tendencies. In the violence that followed, millions were persecuted, suffering public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment and the seizure of their property. Millennia old historical relics and artifacts were destroyed and education was largely suspended.

For women, the Cultural Revolution brought them once again out of their homes to engage in production and politics. Women were told to prioritize their responsibilities to the collective over their responsibilities to the family. In 1970s, an anti-Lin Biao, anti-Confucius Campaign attacked the traditional family structure and purported to explore the causes of women’s subordination. During the Cultural Revolution, women engaged in violence so as to shed the traditional view of them as submissive and gentle, qualities that Mao said were bourgeois. It was not uncommon for women to interrogate and then physically beat up “bad elements”. Women were also encouraged to enter politics, and by 1975, 24% of the National People’s Congress members were women.

Yet, as it had been in the past, the CCP’s support of women’s emancipation during the Cultural Revolution was used primarily for the purpose of advancing Communist Revolution as opposed to rectifying inequality itself. Cultural Revolution slogans such as “Now the times have changed. Men and women are the same” were cried out, yet any references to the special problems of women were denounced as bourgeois. Once again, women dressed like boys, cut their hair short and scrubbed their faces of makeup. Women were attacked if they looked too feminine, as femininity was deemed a backward element. The art, literature, films, operas and ballets produced during the Cultural Revolution featured androgynous women proletariat heroes – farmers, workers, militant fighters and political activists all committed to the collective cause. After having been discouraged from divorcing since 1953, women again initiated divorces in record numbers as they, and at times their husbands, tried to distance themselves from their spouses when they got into political trouble.

However, despite all the rhetoric, the chaos of Cultural Revolution prevented the implementation of any meaningful women’s liberation policies. For instance, women sent down to the country still usually only received half the work points of men. As China began to recover from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution which formally ended after the death of Mao, women once again were encouraged to take up traditional roles. The numbers of women participating in politics gradually began to drop and divorce was again frowned upon. That women have repeatedly been asked to give up new found freedoms for the good of the nation has served to devalue women’s emancipation as a real goal.

The One Child Policy

In the early years of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao considered a large population to be a positive asset, both as an aid in economic development and a resource in national security. As a result, the majority of China’s population continued the tradition of seeking to have as many sons as possible and China’s population almost doubled in less than thirty years, from just over 550 million in 1950, to just over 1 billion in 1982. In 1970, concerns regarding China’s exploding population caused Beijing to implement a voluntary birth control system supported by campaigns promoting later marriages, longer birth intervals, and fewer children and contraceptive was made more widely available. As a result, China’s total fertility rate plummeted from 5.8 births per woman in 1970 to 2.7 in 1978. In September 1980, in order to reduce the birth rate further, the so-called “one-child policy” was introduced, which in most cases limited couples to having only one child.

Female rural workers, 1920s (femaleworkers1920s) women, the one child policy removed the traditional pressure that they felt to keep having children in order to produce sufficient sons. As a result, the policy helped reduce the burden of housework that many children generated, thus enabling women a greater bandwidth to seek work outside the home. The one-child policy has also meant that China’s tradition of equating sex with procreation shifted. While promoting family planning, the government also began distributing literature about the pleasurable aspects of marital intercourse.

That said, the one-child policy demonstrated in stark relief the continued Chinese preference for boys. Incidents of female infanticide and the abortion of female fetuses rose significantly after the implementation of the policy. The 2010 census suggested that there are about 118 males births for every 100 female births in China. By 2020, there will be 24 million more young Chinese men than women according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. One ironic consequence of the policy might be the increased value of Chinese women in that their scarcity means that men will have to compete more aggressively in order to obtain a wife. Indeed, the government is beginning to acknowledge the imbalance between the sexes as a real social problem and have launched campaigns to encourage parents to value and raise daughters. These campaigns reflect the government’s fear that a future surplus of unmarried males could result in social unrest. In some areas, trafficking of women from less developed parts of Asia such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia, has started to fill some of the demand for brides.

Women and Market Opening

In December 1978, the CCP led by Deng Xiaoping began a series of economic reforms that introduced capitalist market principles into the Chinese command-driven economy. The first stage included the decollectivization of agriculture, the gradual shift away from communal living, the freedom of Chinese households to start up small-scale businesses and to buy and sell goods on their own behalf, and the opening up of the country to foreign investment. The second stage of reform, which took place during the late 1980s and 1990s, saw the privatization of many state-owned industries, the lifting of price controls, and the reduction of protectionist policies and regulations.

Market opening has, in some respects, had a negative effect on the fight for women’s equality in China. The government’s commitment to fight women’s inequality has taken a backseat to its desire to promote economic growth. This retreat from its promotion of women’s emancipation has helped encourage a return to more traditional gender expectations. The androgyny of the Cultural Revolution gave rise once again to images of women who were sweet, beautiful and feminine. There was a return to themes such as that of women as a gentle companion awaiting the guidance and protection of her successful husband. The Chinese male was to create China’s economic success and woman’s primary job was to support him. Yet as market opening has progressed, there has begun to be a growing number of ideals competing to define the perfect woman. Contemporary China now sees traditional culture, the legacy of Maoist socialism and global capitalism contending with each other to influence the new norms of Chinese society.

In rural areas, the de-collectivization of agriculture and the dismantling of communes initially returned women to the house where she once again too up traditional roles within the household. Women in urban areas have also been displaced from the work sphere. From the 1980s onwards, the returned youth from the countryside and privatization of state-owned industry has meant that there has been tremendous pressure on women to return home so as to free up work for their male counterparts. As the privatization of state owned enterprises gained increasing speed throughout the 1990s, women were the hardest hit with the job losses; indeed, 62.8% of the people laid off were women. The non-technical, auxiliary and service departments in which women overwhelmingly worked were some of first to be dismantled when state owned enterprises were privatized. Women over 40 were made to retire while their male counterparts were allowed to continue to work until 50. Once China’s economy began to take-off after reforms were in place, men were re-hired in significant larger numbers compared with women.
Part of the reason that men fared better during the privatization of urban businesses was that they had better business connections or guanxi. One reason for this was that women were hampered by their domestic responsibilities. The extra demands that managing the household required meant that women had less time to develop the business network needed to help secure their employment. Those women who did try to develop their networks were often condemned as being “loose” or as being women who had slept their way to the top. Indeed, men in senior positions often used their status to sexually harass women, and, as a consequence, women frequently avoided men to evade being placed in compromised positions. Additionally, as women had the worst jobs, it meant that those connections they did succeed in making were often less powerful than those of their male counterparts. This created a self- perpetuating cycle where low-skilled work led to less powerful connections which meant they had less chance to receive promotion.

Moreover, as the implementation of a market reform progressed, Chinese companies began having an increasing need for skilled and well educated workers. Women were again disadvantaged as they had poorer access to schooling, especially at the university level. When assessment tests began to be used in the 1980s to qualify workers for jobs and promotion, women were again in a less favorable position as their significant domestic responsibilities meant that they had less time to revise for examinations.

Party officials also preferred to lay off women because when they lost their jobs, they went home quietly where men sometimes took to the streets in protest. Party officials were heavily invested in preventing social unrest in the cities. Once women lost their jobs, they had no recourse other than to go back to relying on their families for survival.

Market reforms initially unleashed a massive exodus of rural male migrants who went to the cities in search of work, again opening a place for women to move into the fields. A 2000 census showed that 69% of all women work in farming compared with 61% of men. That said, eventually some young unmarried women joined the migrant stream, although in lesser numbers and with greater risk to their reputations and their safety. While often trapped in the lowest paying jobs with few protections, market opening has allowed women an opportunity to earn their own wages.


Empress Dowager Cixi (empressd) women have made great strides since Dynastic Times. Specifically, life for women in China today has vastly improved since the Communists took power in 1949. Above all, Chinese women are better educated, have more work and political opportunities, and by and large, are free to marry and divorce as they choose.  In addition, China’s rapid economic growth has meant that washing machines, rice cookers and microwaves and other time-savings conveniences have transformed Chinese domestic life, and are even widely available now in China’s less-developed provinces. The One Child Policy has also freed women from the need to have endless children in an effort to produce sons for the husband’s family. This trend toward greater personal and economic autonomy for women will continue in the coming decades. Indeed, China’s economic reform has brought unprecedented opportunities to Chinese women; China today, for instance, has more self-made female billionaires than any other country.

As a counter trend, Chinese women continue to face real limitations and inequalities. A long tradition of patriarchal authority has been deeply embedded in China’s culture since dynastic times. This male dominance continues to influence Chinese society today. A 1990’s All-China Women’s Federation survey found, for instance, that a third of both male and female Chinese respondents considered men more inherently “able” than women; and more than half agreed that a woman’s place is at home caring for her family.  Most Chinese women continue to take full responsibility for the home, children and family elders, regardless of the hours that they work or the income they earn.

This traditional patriarchal influence has been flourished given the recent absence of CCP leadership on gender inequality. Since market opening, the government’s fight for women has taken a backseat to its efforts to promote economic growth. Today, women’s emancipation remains a secondary priority.

As a result, women struggle to take advantage of modern developments in employment, education and politics, while trying to balance continuing traditional expectations about their appropriate and proper role in family and society. This continued battle with traditionalism has created a situation in which women from all walks of life can find themselves limited in what they can achieve, despite a rise in college degrees, incomes and political influence.