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History of International Relations: A Non-European Perspective
More info and resources at: https://doi.org/10.11647/obp.0074

Map of Asia from Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antverpiae: Apud Aegid. Coppenium Diesth, 1570), p. 31, https://archive.org/details/theatrumorbister00orte

2. China and East Asia

© 2019 Erik Ringmar, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0074.02

For much of its history, China was the dominant country in East Asia and international relations in this part of the world were, more than anything, organized by the Chinese and on Chinese terms. China itself was an empire but the international system of which China was the center concerned the external relations of the empire — its relations with the rest of East Asia. In order to describe these relations the metaphor of a “solar system” is sometimes used. Here, China is the sun around which other and far smaller political entities, located at increasing distances from the center, are circulating in their respective orbits. Some historians use the term “suzerainty,” referring to a relationship in which “a dominant state has control over the international affairs of a subservient state, while the latter retains domestic autonomy.”

At the same time, there was a great difference in the way the Chinese dealt with neighbors to the north and the west of the country and neighbors to the south and the east. The former relations were organized according to what we will call the “overland system,” and the latter relations according to the “tribute system.” The people to the north and the west constituted permanent threats. They were nomads who grazed their animals on the enormous steppes of inner Asia. Despite their economic and technological backwardness, they had access to the most advanced military technology of the day — fast horses — and in addition they were highly skilled archers. Since the terrain was flat and since there were few natural obstacles in their way, it was easy for the nomads to raid Chinese farming communities. Occasionally they made it all the way to the capital itself. The imperial authorities always struggled with how best to respond to these threats, mixing defensive and offensive strategies, without ever finding a satisfactory solution. As a result, China was periodically invaded and two major dynasties were founded by tribes from the steppes — the Yuan, 1271–1368, which was of Mongol origin, and the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, 1644–1911, which was Manchu.

As far as China’s relations with countries to the east and the south were concerned, they were far easier to manage. Since the Himalayas effectively blocked any invasion from the south, there were no military threats from this direction and, instead, communications took place across the ocean. From Korea, Japan and states throughout Southeast Asia the Chinese emperors demanded tributes. The foreigners were required to make the journey to the Chinese capital at regular intervals and present gifts to the emperor. In this way the Chinese were confirmed in their view of themselves. They really were the country at the center of the world — the “Middle Kingdom” — to which all human beings paid tribute.

The Warring States period

Chinese people are fond of saying that their land has the longest continuous history of any existing country, yet the subject of this history — “China,” “the Middle Kingdom” — has itself varied considerably over time. What we mean by “the Chinese people” is also less than clear. People who historically have lived in what today is the People’s Republic of China represent many hundreds of different ethnic groups. Even within the largest of these — the Han people — a number of mutually incomprehensible languages have been spoken. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that it became possible to talk about a Chinese “nation,” understood as a community of people which encompassed most of the country.

What made a person Chinese, and what brought a sense of unity to the Chinese people, was not state power but more than anything a shared set of rituals and seasonal celebrations. These rituals go way back in time. The first rulers — the Shang dynasty, 1600–1046 BCE — engaged in human sacrifice and ancestor worship. They were also the first to use characters — divinations inscribed on so-called “oracle bones” — as a means of writing. While human sacrifice soon ceased, ancestor worship and the unique Chinese form of writing have survived to this day. During the following dynasty, the Zhou, 1050–777 BCE, the kings became more powerful and the territory they controlled increased dramatically. The Zhou kings regarded themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who had been given a “Mandate of Heaven” to rule the country. This mandate could be revoked, however, by any rebels who could demonstrate that they were powerful enough to take over the state. A successful uprising was proof that Heaven had withdrawn its favors and instead bestowed them on the rebels.

Towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, political power began to fragment as regional leaders who had been given land by the kings asserted their independence. Eventually, seven separate states emerged, and they were constantly at war with each other. This era has been referred to as the “Warring States period,” during 475–221 BCE. During the Warring States period, China was not a country as much as an international system in its own right. The seven independent states engaged in traditional forms of power politics: they forged alliances, made treaties and fought battles, and they took turns in the position as the most powerful state in the system. The armies were enormous, counting up to perhaps one million men, and it was said that some hundreds of thousands of soldiers might die in a single battle. Not surprisingly, the Warring States period is a favorite of twenty-first century costume dramas on Chinese TV. Eventually one of the states, Qin, emerged on top. The question for the smaller states was how to react to Qin’s ascendancy. The topic was much discussed by the philosophers and military strategists of the day.

Sunzi and modern management techniques
The Art of War is a manual of military strategy and tactics ascribed to Sunzi, 544–496 BCE, a general active during the Warring States period. Although there indeed was a general by that name, it is not entirely clear that he was the author of the work in question, although in China the book is known as Sunzi bingfa, or “Master Sun’s Rules for Soldiers.” Sunzi emphasized the importance of intelligence gathering, of subterfuge and dissimulation, but he also discussed the role of diplomacy, and how best to deploy troops.
In Japan, The Art of War was used as a textbook in military academies at the end of the nineteenth century. Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who destroyed the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, was reputed to have been an avid Sunzi reader. The Japanese victory in the war with Russia was the first time since the Mongols that an “eastern people” had defeated a “western people.” In the wake of this triumph, The Art of War came to be read as a manual, embodying a uniquely “eastern” way of making war. This, at any rate, was how the book was understood by students from various East Asian countries who studied in Japan in the first decades of the twentieth century. Taking The Art of War home with them, they used it as a manual for how to liberate themselves from European colonialism. Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Vietnamese independence movement, translated portions of the book and it was read by Võ Nguyên Giáp, the general who defeated the French army at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
This was when Americans started reading Sunzi. Much as in Japan, the book was used at military academies and it was suggested reading for American officers dispatched to Vietnam. From the American military academies, Sunzi’s fame spread to the American business community, thanks to writers who claimed that his nuggets of wisdom had a direct application to matters of business strategy. It was only by learning from Sunzi, these authors claimed, that European and American companies could take back market shares captured by their East Asian competitors. This is how a Chinese military manual from the fifth century BCE became readily available in bookshops the world over.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/79fbc3b3

This was a bleak time of insecurity and war, but the Warring States period was also a time of great economic progress. Military competition, it seems, helped spur innovation. The imperative for all seven states, as the popular dictum put it, was to “enrich the nation and to strengthen the army.” This was first of all the case as far as military hardware was concerned, with new forms of swords, crossbows and chariots being invented. In addition, each state became far better organized and administrated. Taxes were collected more efficiently, the independent power of the nobility was suppressed, and a new class of bureaucrats took over the running of state affairs and organized their work according to formal procedures. A powerful state required a powerful economy, and, to this end, farming techniques were developed, and major irrigation projects undertaken. The amount of cast iron produced by China already in the fifth century BCE would not be rivaled by the rest of the world until the middle of the eighteenth century — over two thousand years later. Economic markets developed as well, with coins being used to pay for goods coming from all over China but also from distant lands far beyond, including Manchuria, Korea, and even India.

The intellectual developments of the period were just as impressive. The Warring States period was known as the age of the “Hundred Schools.” This was the time when all major Chinese systems of thought first came to be established. Eventually nine of these schools dominated over the others, a group which included Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, and Mohism. These teachings were propagated by scholars who wandered from one court to the other, looking for a ruler who would be interested in their ideas. Those who were successful found themselves jobs as advisers and courtiers. Since there were many states, and multiple centers of competing power, even unorthodox ideas could be given a sympathetic hearing somewhere.

Kongzi, 551–479 BCE — better known outside of China as Confucius — is the most famous of these wandering scholars. Born in the state of Lu in what today is the Shandong province — the peninsula which juts out in the direction of Korea — Kongzi rose from lowly jobs as a cow-herder and clerk to become an adviser to the king of Lu himself. Yet, eventually, political intrigues forced him to leave the court; this was when his life as a peripatetic teacher began. Kongzi’s philosophy emphasized the importance of personal conduct and he insisted that the virtue of the rulers was more important than the formal rules by which the state was governed. Moral conduct, as Kongzi saw it, is above all a matter of maintaining the obligations implied by our social relationships. Society in the end consists of nothing but hierarchical pairs — relations between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, ruler and subject, and between friends. The inferior party in each pair should submit to the power and will of the superior, but the superior has the duty to care for the inferior, to look after his or her welfare. A well-ordered society is a society in which these duties are faithfully carried out.

Kongzi and his institutes
Kongzi, or Confucius, has experienced a roller-coaster-like career during the past half-century — quite an achievement for a philosopher who has been dead for over 2,500 years. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966–76, he was reviled as an “enemy of the people.” Read more: Chairman Mao and the Legalists at p. 19. Yet in the 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore, turned to Confucianism as an ideology which could help unify his multi-ethnic city-state. Confucianism, Lee decided, was an expression of time-honored “Asian values,” a series of moral precepts, which included respect for one’s elders, the importance of the family, and deference to political authority.
Since the 1990s, the Communist government has radically changed its view of Kongzi. At a time when philosophers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels no longer find many adherents, the Chinese authorities have begun to worry about the lack of moral direction in Chinese society. The obvious person to turn to for guidance is Kongzi. For the Chinese authorities, his teachings have the added attraction that they, as Lee Kuan Yew argued, can help promote political obedience.
Since 2004, the Chinese government has established over 300 educational institutions around the world, named after the old philosopher. Modeled on the German Goethe Institute, the Confucius Institutes offer courses in Chinese language, organize seminars and cultural events, and sponsor research on China. However, in contrast to the cultural institutes of other countries, the Confucius Institutes have located themselves on university campuses, integrating themselves with the teaching and research conducted there. This tight connection has been questioned by critics, who point out that there are far too many topics the Communist government prefers not to discuss.
There are indications that the Chinese leadership is not entirely united in its Confucian convictions. In early 2011, a ten-meter-tall bronze statue of Kongzi was unveiled with much fanfare near Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Yet four months later, the statue suddenly vanished overnight. A descendant of the philosopher blamed “leftists” within the government. Meanwhile, a contributor to a Maoist discussion forum insisted: “The witch doctor who has been poisoning people for thousands of years has finally been kicked off Tiananmen Square!”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/6a067ab6

Daoism is a philosophy associated with Laozi (born 601 BCE), a contemporary of Kongzi’s. Laozi is the author of the Daodejing, a text of aphorisms and assorted teachings. Yet there is little historical evidence for the actual existence of a person by that name. Hence the teachings are best regarded as a compilation of texts produced by others. Dao, “the way,” does not only provide you with religious wisdom but also hands-on advice for how to live a successful life. Daoist monks emphasized the spiritual dimensions of human existence and sought to communicate with the spirits of nature. In addition, Daoism has had an impact on politics. Its spiritualism and disdain for formal rules have been an inspiration for several political movements which have risen up against the political authorities.

However, it was the Legalists who were to have the most direct impact on practical politics. Legalism is the school of political philosophy which the Chinese know as fajia. The law was indeed important to them but only as a tool of statecraft. The Legalists assumed that all people act only in their self-interest and that they follow only moral codes which benefit themselves. It is consequently only the law and its enforcement which can keep people in line and guarantee peace and order in society. The law must therefore be clear enough for everyone to understand it, and the punishments which it requires must be harsh enough to ensure that everyone obeys. In the end, it was only the state and its survival that mattered to the Legalists. The ruler was free to act in whichever way he chose as long as it benefited the state. This applied not least to matters of foreign policy. Alliances could be made but also broken; ostensibly friendly countries could be attacked without warning; peace negotiations could serve as a pretext for starting another war, and so on.

Qin Shi Huang, often referred to as “the First Emperor,” 220–210 BCE, came to power on the back of advice such as this. He suppressed the rivaling states and united the country. He standardized weights and measures, the Chinese language, and even the width of roads and of the axles of carts. In an attempt to restart Chinese history, and to do it on his own terms, he ordered all classical texts to be burned and had Confucian scholars buried alive.

The necropolis of the First Emperor
In 1974, peasants digging a well on the outskirts of Xi’an, the capital of the Qin dynasty, came across an unexpected find — a life-size statue, made in terracotta, of an ancient Chinese warrior. The warrior, it turned out, was not alone. Digging further, archaeologists soon unearthed another 2,000 soldiers. The excavations have not yet been completed and there are an estimated 8,000 terracotta soldiers buried in the ground. What farmers and archaeologists had come across were the troops guarding the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China. Or, perhaps, necropolis, “city of the dead,” is a more appropriate term for this complex of underground palaces and courtyards which house his remains.
The historian Sima Qian, writing one hundred years after the death of the First Emperor, tells us that 700,000 men helped build this site. “Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure.” The necropolis was protected by crossbows and arrows which were set to shoot at anyone who entered, and it was surrounded by rivers of poisonous mercury. The concubines who had not produced male heirs were buried with the emperor. The craftsmen who had constructed the tomb were all trapped inside their creation, in order not to give them an opportunity to divulge any of the secrets it contained.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb itself has yet to be excavated, and the Chinese authorities have been reluctant to start the work. The reason, it seems, is that archaeologists are still busy unearthing terracotta warriors. In addition, there are concerns regarding how best to protect whatever treasures they will come across. A particularly exciting prospect would be the discovery of a library. As Sima Qian tells us, the First Emperor ordered all books in China to be burned, but it could just possibly be that he preserved a copy of each one of them in his personal library. If this library is buried with the emperor, and if it has not been destroyed by over 2,000 years of natural decay, it is likely to give us an entirely new understanding of ancient Chinese history.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/f706c02d

Despite the Legalists’ ruthless advice, or perhaps because of it, the Qin dynasty only lasted fifteen years. After Qin Shi Huang’s death, the country soon descended into another round of wars. Yet the many philosophical schools of the period — Confucianism and Legalism in particular — would continue to play an important role throughout Chinese history.

Chairman Mao and the Legalists
Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, relied heavily on advice from the so-called “Legalist” school of political philosophy. Their suggestions emphasized ruthless policies and underhanded tactics. Yet, the Qin dynasty lasted only fifteen years. When it was replaced by the Han dynasty, the new line of emperors decided that Confucians should replace the Legalists as advisers. The teachings of Confucius were very different. He emphasized the role of virtue, both in the rulers and in his subjects, and the importance of fulfilling one’s social obligations. Yet, as many Chinese people have been quick to point out, the ruthless power politics of the Legalists did not disappear. In fact, references to Confucianism have often been seen as a pretense, and Legalism as the enduring reality of politics in China.
To reformist Chinese intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, Confucianism came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the country. Emphasizing literary studies at the expense of science and technology, Confucianism had allegedly blocked economic development, and it was said to stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. To these conclusions, the Chinese Communist Party added that Confucianism was a feudal doctrine, which gave ideological support to an exploitative landowning class. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1976, Mao Zedong, China’s leader, relied on gangs of Red Guards, militant militia groups, to intimidate his enemies. During the last stage of these campaigns, 1973–1976, Confucius became an official enemy of the state. In gigantic posters and in constantly repeated speeches, Chinese people were encouraged to “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” — “Lin” referring to Lin Biao, one of Mao’s contemporary enemies. Read more: Kongzi and his institutes at p. 16.
In contrast to all previous Chinese leaders, Mao was not afraid to declare his admiration for the methods employed by the Legalists. In fact, he quite explicitly modeled himself on Qin Shi Huang. Mao only criticized him for not being ruthless enough. The First Emperor, said Mao, buried 460 scholars alive, but “we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive … We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.”

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/039af23f

The development of the Chinese state

During the subsequent two thousand years, the leaders of the Chinese state would all be referred to as “emperors” and the country itself referred to as an “empire.” Yet since one dynasty was constantly replaced by another, there is little continuity in Chinese history, and the struggles for political power resulted in both revolutions and prolonged periods of wars. Moreover, several of the dynasties were not Chinese at all, but established by foreign invaders. Despite this political diversity, there is a striking continuity when it comes to cultural values. Most emperors embraced Confucian ideals and were active participants in the various rituals which Chinese culture prescribed — including ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven at various times of the day, month and year. The emperors saw themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who ruled by virtue of the mandate that Heaven had given them. In addition, a large and rule-bound bureaucracy helped to provide a sense of continuity from one dynasty to the next. For our purposes, there is no reason to discuss every dynasty, but we should briefly mention the most important ones — the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing — with a focus on China’s relations to the rest of East Asia.

The rulers of the Han dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE, were far more successful than the Qin when it came to maintaining their power. The Han dynasty lasted for well over four hundred years. While the First Emperor may have established many of the imperial institutions, it was during Han that those same institutions were consolidated and developed. The Han state organized a proper bureaucracy run by a professional class of administrators whose salaries were paid by taxing key commodities, such as salt. In a sharp break with the cynical doctrines of the Qin, the Han emperors made Confucianism into the official philosophy of the state. All administrators were supposed to read the Confucian classics and to serve the people with virtue and benevolence. The emperor was placed at the head of the administrative system, but in practice his power was constrained by court conferences where his advisers made decisions by consensus. The Han state took charge of society and organized economic activities, including the building of roads and canals. Large state monopolies were established for the production and sale of salt, iron and liquor. The coins minted during the Han dynasty helped expand trade, and they made it possible to pay taxes in cash rather than in kind. Han-era coins, with their distinctive square holes at the center, were to remain the standard means of payment until the Tang dynasty, three hundred years later. Not surprisingly, the Chinese to this day refer to themselves as hanren, “Han people.”

Speaking of trade, it was during the Han dynasty that the caravan routes first were developed which connected China with Central Asia, India, and the world beyond.

Sogdian letters
Sogdia was a Central Asian kingdom that flourished between the fourth and the ninth centuries CE. The Sogdians are famous above all for their business acumen. They bought paper, copper, and silk in China and traded in Persian grapes and silverware, glass, alfalfa, corals, Buddhist images, Roman wool and amber from the Baltic. They operated as financial intermediaries too, setting up business deals, organizing caravans, arranging for money to be transferred and invested. While most other merchants only traveled short distances, Sogdian communities could be found along the entire network of Asian trade routes. There were Sogdians in Constantinople as well as in Xi’an in China. The Sogdian language was the universal language of commerce across the Eurasian landmass. In this way, they created a commercial empire which was far bigger than their own, rather small, Central Asian kingdom.
In 1907, the British archaeologist Aurel Stein discovered a pouch of papers in the ruins of an old watch-tower in the Chinese city of Dunhuang, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The letters turned out to be far older than anyone could have imagined — dating from early in the fourth century. Unusually, the letters were not written by officials but by ordinary people. One of them, a wealthy Sogdian merchant, writes to his home office to give an account of a recent attack by Xiongnu forces; another merchant complains about the trustworthiness of his business partners Read more: The Xiongnu confederation below. The most touching letter, however, is from a woman, Mewnai, to her mother. She complains that her husband has deserted her and her young daughter and that they are not allowed to leave Dunhuang on their own. “I live wretchedly; without clothing, without money; I ask for a loan, but no-one consents to give me one, so I depend on charity from the priest.” Perhaps her husband perished somewhere along the perilous trade routes. Yet the letter was never delivered. For one reason or another, it was left in the watch-tower for over fifteen hundred years.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/9295e291

Although the Roman Empire and Han China had no direct connections with each other, the goods traded along these routes did. It was then that Chinese silk became a fashionable item among Roman elites and Roman glassware ended up in China. This trading network is often referred to as the “Silk Road” (although that term is a nineteenth-century invention by a German scholar). Besides, many more items than silk were traded and there was never just one road. The caravan routes brought foreign people and ideas to China too, such as Buddhism, which has its origin in India. Central Asia was not only a site of trade, but also of military engagements. The Han state was continuously harassed by a confederation of nomadic peoples known as the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu confederation
The Xiongnu were a pastoral people who formed a state, or rather a loose confederation of tribes, on the steppes to the north and west of China, two thousand years ago. The Xiongnu were the original Chinese example of an unsettled, uncivilized, nomadic people. The name itself means “fierce slave” in Chinese. The very first Chinese rulers made war on the Xiongnu. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, drove them away from the plains of the Yellow River and forced them to retreat to Mongolia. However, the Xiongnu continued to cause trouble. In 200 BCE, Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han dynasty, personally led a military campaign against them, but was ambushed and only barely escaped with his life.
Instead, the Han emperors sought to pacify the Xiongnu by means of lavish gifts of silk, liquor, and rice, and they sent princesses to their leaders as brides. Official treaties were brokered too — the first one signed in 195 BCE — and, unusually for the Chinese, they were concluded on a basis of equality. However, each time the treaty was to be renewed, the Xiongnu asked for higher payments and in the end, the Chinese were effectively transformed into tribute bearers to Xiongnu, rather than the other way around. Dealing with people like this was humiliating, ineffective, and expensive. Furthermore, despite the various agreements, Xiongnu raids on Chinese settlements continued. Eventually, however, the power of the Xiongnu declined. The Chinese exploited divisions within the confederacy, whose leaders never found an orderly way to settle matters of succession. In the end, a southern group of Xiongnu tribes defected to the imperial side.
The ethnic background of the Xiongnu is disputed — they may have been Turks, Mongols, Huns, or even Iranians. Recently, several Xiongnu burial sites have been excavated in Mongolia where archaeologists have found works of art, including small statues of tigers carrying dead prey and golden stags with the heads of eagles.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/d14850b6

Nomadic peoples would continue to make trouble for Chinese farmers and for the Chinese state for much of the subsequent two thousand years.

The Tang dynasty, 618–907 CE, is perhaps best remembered today for its cultural achievements. It was during Tang that arts like calligraphy and landscape painting were first developed, and when writers like Li Bai and Du Fu composed the poems which all subsequent generations of Chinese schoolchildren have been made to recite. Economically the country was thriving. China-wide markets in land, labor, and natural resources were developed, and many technical innovations took place, including paper-making, and woodblock printing. There was extensive mining and manufacturing of cast iron and even steel, and trade was brisk along the caravan routes. Well-fed and prosperous, China’s population grew quickly, numbering some fifty million people. It was during Tang that the system of entrance examinations was conclusively established. In order to get a job as a government official, you were required to pass a demanding test on Confucian philosophy and on the classics of Chinese literature. Since the imperial bureaucracy was the main road to social and economic success, the country’s elite effectively came to be selected through these examinations. It was no longer enough to come from an aristocratic family or to have money.

Tang dynasty China exercised a strong cultural influence over all countries with which it came into contact. This was, for example, the time when Japan, Korea, and Vietnam adopted a Chinese-style writing system and when Confucian philosophy and Chinese arts spread far and wide. During the Tang period it was very fashionable to be Chinese. At the same time, the Tang dynasty was wide open to the rest of the world, with foreign goods, fashions, and ideas entering China along the caravan routes.

Journey to the West
Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk from Chang’an, today’s Xi’an, who, in the year 629 of the Common Era, traveled all the way to India. Buddhism was a relatively recent arrival in China at the time and Chinese Buddhists often had to make do with poor translations of Buddhist scriptures. The purpose of Xuanzang’s journey was to look for original texts in the Buddha’s homeland from which more faithful translations could be made. He traveled westward into Central Asia and then southward, through Afghanistan. Once Xuanzang reached his destination he spent the next thirteen years visiting various pilgrimage sites, studying with renowned teachers, and looking for manuscripts. When he eventually returned home in 646, he received a warm welcome. Xuanzang obtained the emperor’s support in building a pagoda where the manuscripts could be stored and an institute was founded where the arduous task of translation began.
Journey to the West is an immensely popular Chinese novel from the sixteenth century which gives an account of Xuanzang’s story, told as a comic adventure that mixes fantasy and folktales. In Journey to the West, Xuanzang is given four traveling companions — a monkey, a pig, an ogre, and a white steed, who actually turns out to be a dragon prince. The story, which has been filmed several times and exists both in gongfu and children’s versions, soon becomes the vehicle for a series of amazing events, miraculous transformations, and extended fighting sequences. Much of the book is set in the wildlands which separate China and India, where the deep gorges and tall mountains turn out to be populated with demons and animal spirits. Eventually, the traveling companions return home and are amply rewarded for their troubles. Xuanzang attains Buddhahood and Jubadie, the pig, gets to eat all the excess offerings that worshipers bring to the altars of Buddhist temples. Journey to the West is a comic adventure, but also — for those who prefer to read it that way — an allegory of a group of pilgrims who travel together towards enlightenment, where the success of one of them depends on the success of the others.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/afa6eefb

Through renewed contacts with India, Buddhism was further established and indigenous Chinese sects such as Chan — what the Japanese were later to call “Zen” — were established. Chinese people dressed in foreign clothing and Chinese men married women from Central Asia. The Tang dynasty was a cosmopolitan empire where people from all over the world would mingle — Persian and Jewish traders, Arabic scholars and travelers, conjurers from Syria and acrobats from Bactria.

The Song dynasty, 960–1279, was another period of economic prosperity and cultural flourishing. A number of important technological inventions were made at this time, including gunpowder and the compass. Making creative use of the invention of paper-making technology, the Song were the first to issue bank notes. Paper money helped spur trade, although it also caused inflation. This was when large manufacturing industries were established which produced consumer items for a market that included the whole of the country. The economic changes provided ordinary people with new opportunities. Poor people could rise in the world and rich people could become richer still. Often, members of the newly affluent middle class would establish themselves as patrons of the arts. Scholars and connoisseurs of culture would gather in gardens and private retreats to view works of art or to recite poetry and drink tea, and there were lively, if more plebeian, entertainment quarters in all major cities. During the Song dynasty, literacy increased, books became readily available, and the study of the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy made great strides.

In military terms, the Song emperors were far less successful. Like all Chinese dynasties they were menaced by tribes attacking them from the north, in this case by the Jurchen, a people from whom the Manchus would later claim their descent. In 1127, the Jurchen captured the Song capital of Kaifeng and forced the emperor to retire. In an audacious move, the Song elite relocated their court to the southern city of Hangzhou, just west of present-day Shanghai. Although they had lost much of their territory, and the move was a source of great embarrassment, the economy continued to develop. China’s population doubled in size during Song, above all since farming expanded and since new species of rice came to be used. The Song strengthened their navy and built ships that could travel to Southeast Asia and trade with the islands of present-day Indonesia. They strengthened their army too, and began using gunpowder as a weapon. Yet the military setbacks continued. The Song dynasty came to a final end in 1279 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan overran Hangzhou, deposed the emperor and established a new dynasty, the Yuan, 1271–1368. Read more: The Mongol khanates at p. 101.

Despite their spectacular success as conquerors, the Yuan dynasty lasted less than one hundred years and, in 1368, the Mongols were replaced by the Ming, a dynasty once again led by Chinese people. The Ming dynasty lasted until 1644. The Ming dynasty too enjoyed economic success. There was now a China-wide market for consumer goods such as fabrics and foodstuffs, as well as for prestige items like porcelain and furniture. Since many of these items were produced in large number, many objects from the Ming period, such as vases and tea cups, are still with us today, fetching high prices at auctions around the world. During the Ming period, gardens became a fashionable setting for social and cultural life. In Hangzhou and in the neighboring city of Suzhou, rich merchants competed ferociously with each other in establishing and extending their gardens. Meanwhile, the Chinese state returned to its Confucian roots after the Mongolian interruption. Administrators were once again selected according to their knowledge of the Confucian classics.

During the Ming dynasty, relations with the rest of the world were rather more complicated than during the Yuan. The Ming rulers had little knowledge of the steppe and little appreciation for trade. Or rather, the Ming dynasty was a time when the issue of foreign trade was hotly contested between various court factions. The group most strongly in favor of trade were the eunuchs, the emasculated courtiers who made up the staff of the imperial palace. The most successful trader among them was Zheng He, 1371–1433. He brought thousands of vessels with him on no fewer than seven far-flung journeys of exploration and trade which took his fleet to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even to the east coast of Africa (see map on p. 8).

A giraffe in Beijing
The Chinese emperors were avid collectors of exotic animals. In their zoos, they had Asian species like elephants, tigers, and camels, and African species like zebras and gazelles. In 1414 the imperial collection received its most exotic creature yet when a giraffe arrived in Beijing, all the way from East Africa. Considering how difficult it is to transport such a large animal such a long distance, we may well wonder how it got there. It was Saifuddin Hamza Shah, the ruler of Bengal, who had decided to impress the emperor by giving him this gift which he, in turn, had received as a tribute from the ruler of Melinda in today’s Kenya. The animal was picked up by a ship sent from the fleet that Zheng He commanded in the Indian Ocean, and subsequently transported to Beijing.
When it arrived the giraffe caused general amazement. Checking their encyclopedias, Confucian scholars decided that it must be a unicorn, a mythological creature that traditionally was said to have “the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse,” and to be of such a gentle disposition that “it only ate grass and never hurt a living being.” When they learned that the animal in the Somali language was known as girin, that settled the matter. To Chinese ears, girin sounded very much like qilin, the Chinese name of the unicorn. Presenting it as a gift was a way for the officials to ingratiate themselves with the court. The appearance of a qilin was regarded as proof of the virtue of the reigning emperor.
Despite the excitement caused by the giraffe, all foreign trade and travel were outlawed by imperial decree only a decade later. New decrees in 1449 and 1452 restricted foreign commerce even further, and each new law had increasingly severe penalties attached to it. The ban was eventually extended to all coastal shipping so that “there was not an inch of planking on the seas.” In the end, the anti-commercial attitude of the Confucian scholars defeated the entrepreneurial curiosity of eunuchs like Zheng He. Restricting international trade was a way for the Confucians to impose their outlook on the country, but it was also a way to enhance their power at the expense of their opponents at court.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/e1f1ffa9

Yet, soon after Zheng He returned from these journeys, foreign travel was banned and all ocean-going ships destroyed. The Confucians at court, in their wisdom, decided that foreign contacts on this scale were too disruptive of the Chinese way of life. Although the policy on foreign trade would continue to fluctuate in response to various power struggles, China increasingly closed itself off from the rest of the world. Not coincidentally perhaps, extensive work on the structures known as the “Great Wall of China” took place at this time.

The Great Wall of China does not exist
When Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, returned to earth on October 16, 2003, he reported to a disappointed Chinese public that the Great Wall was not in fact (as folk wisdom had it) visible from outer space. Yet, from the ground, the wall certainly has a very tangible presence. At Badaling, its most photographed section, conveniently located some 80 kilometers northwest of Beijing, there are millions of visitors every year. The wall, tourist guides tell us, is all together 21,196 kilometers long and thereby the largest man-made structure in the world, although, alas, several sections of it are in a sad state of disrepair. It was Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who began work on the wall in the third century BCE, we are informed. It was then greatly extended in the late Ming dynasty.
And yet we can, on good authority, reject these observations as incorrect. It is not just that the wall is invisible from outer space; the Great Wall of China itself does not exist! Or rather, while walls of various kinds have been constructed in northern China at least since the sixth century BCE, they were never thought of as one coherent structure built with one purpose in mind. There are many walls, but no Great Wall. The ramparts that the First Emperor built quickly fell to ruin, and during the Tang and Song dynasties no similar fortifications were constructed. This is why there are many gaps between the structures and why walls in several places run parallel to each other. This is also why it is quite impossible to say how long the wall actually is. GPS technology does not help us here, since we first have to decide what to measure.
The Great Wall of China was constructed not in China, but in Europe. It was built, beginning in the seventeenth century, in the minds of European readers of the letters which Jesuit missionaries in China began sending back. The Jesuits were appealing to the long-established European fascination with things “Oriental” in order to generate support for their missionary project. In China, the most wondrous thing of all, they explained, is “the Great Wall.” Naturally, subsequent European visitors insisted on being shown the attraction. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they adopted the European idea of the Great Wall as a national emblem, and a symbol of China’s independence and self-reliance.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/9b9ffaf7

The Qing dynasty, 1644–1912, which replaced the Ming, was the last imperial dynasty. It was established by the Manchu tribes which overran Beijing in 1644, and who, in subsequent decades, proceeded to conquer the rest of the country. In contrast to the Mongols, the Qing emperors adopted many institutions from their predecessors such as the bureaucracy and the entrance examinations, and also many customs, such as the elaborate rituals which the emperors were required to perform. Yet the Qing were, at the same time, intensely proud of their Manchu heritage. Manchu princes were taught how to ride a horse and shoot arrows; at the imperial court in Beijing, visitors were often treated to displays of equestrian arts or, in winter, to skating competitions. The Qing rulers were Confucians in the ceremonial sense of all emperors, but they were at the same time great patrons of Buddhist temples, especially of the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.

Two of the Qing emperors had particularly long and successful reigns. Emperor Kangxi ruled for sixty-one years, between 1661 and 1722, and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong, ruled for almost as long, from 1735 to 1796. These hundred-plus years were a time of great military expansion. This was when Taiwan was incorporated into the empire, together with vast areas to the north and the west, including much of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

Chinese pirates in Taiwan
Koxinga, 1624–1662, known in China as Zheng Chenggong, was a scholar, a pirate, and a Ming loyalist. He was born in Japan, the son of a Chinese father and a Japanese mother. At the age of seven, he moved to China where he successfully sat for the imperial exams. When Manchu tribes began their takeover of the country in 1644 and eventually established their own Qing dynasty, Koxinga continued to fight for the Ming cause. In 1656, partly helped by a big storm, he managed to destroy the Qing navy and continued on to the island of Taiwan. In the eyes of the new regime, he was an outlaw and a pirate.
In the early part of the seventeenth century, Taiwan was controlled by the Dutch East India Company. Read more: De Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie at p. 34. Undaunted by the power of the Europeans, Koxinga laid siege to their major fortification, Fort Zeelandia, in the city of Tainan, eventually defeating them in 1661. Yet only a year later, when conducting raids in the Philippines, he contracted malaria and died, aged only thirty-seven. In 1683 the Qing army defeated Koxinga’s descendants, claiming Taiwan as a part of the Chinese empire.
In today’s Taiwan, there are temples dedicated to Koxinga, and he is remembered as a hero and as something of a saint. After 1949, when Guomindang, the Chinese nationalists, were defeated by Mao’s Communists, they took refuge in Taiwan, just as Koxinga once did. And just like him, they regarded the island as a staging-post for a reconquest of the mainland. Yet Koxinga has been remembered in other ways as well. Taiwanese people who want to remain independent from China, emphasize that Koxinga effectively turned the island into a self-governing territory. To them, he is an independence fighter. The only Taiwanese who refuse to acknowledge Koxinga’s memory are the original inhabitants, the aborigines, which make up about 2 percent of the island’s population. As a result of Koxinga’s occupation, they were pushed off the best agricultural land and their lucrative trade with the Dutch came to a halt.
When Chinese leaders in Beijing today insist that “Taiwan is an eternal part of the motherland,” they are wrong. First, there were only aborigines on the island; then came the Portuguese, the Spaniards, and the Dutch. Only after that came the Chinese — and Koxinga, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, was the first Chinese ruler of the island.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/6a9acc1b

The Chinese waged war, if less successfully, in Vietnam and Burma as well, and stopped the Russians from advancing southward from Siberia.

Treaties with the Russians
To the Chinese, the Russians were not Europeans as much as yet another Asian tribe that made trouble for them on their northern frontier. This was particularly the case from the 1640s onward when Russia’s imperial expansion through Siberia took them all the way to the Amur river basin, an area just north of the Manchu heartlands. Once they had conquered all of China in the 1680s, the Manchus decided to deal with this threat. It was clearly impossible for Russia to defend a territory this far away from Moscow, and in 1685 the Chinese forced them to back off. The two countries concluded a treaty, signed at Nerchinsk in 1689, which established a common border between them. In exchange for territorial concessions, the Russians obtained access to Chinese markets and the right to establish a Russian church in Beijing.
The official version of the Treaty of Nerchinsk was written in Latin, with Russian and Manchu translations. Interestingly, there was no official Chinese text, and there were no Confucian scholars present at the negotiations. Throughout the talks, the Chinese treated the Russians with a surprising amount of respect. The tents of the two delegations were, for example, placed next to each other to symbolize their equal status, and the treaty itself made no reference to the Russians as tribute bearers. These concessions may be one reason why the treaty was never translated into Chinese. The Manchu rulers wanted peace on their northern borders, but they were not prepared to publicly renounce their belief in China’s pre-eminence.
A further treaty between China and Russia was signed at Kyakhta in 1727. Here, the earlier border was confirmed and new borders were drawn up which separated Mongolia — now under Chinese control — from Russia. The treaty led to a revival of the caravan trade — the Russians buying Chinese tea in exchange for furs. This was the first time the new European science of cartography was used in this part of the world.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/2989c0dd

Even if the state treasury suffered as a result of these extensive campaigns, the economy of the country as a whole was thriving. Both Kangxi and Qianlong were patrons of scholarship and the arts. Kangxi’s name is associated with a great character dictionary which helped to standardize the Chinese language. And on Qianlong’s orders a great anthology of all Chinese books was compiled — containing some 3,450 works in 36,000 volumes.

Yuanmingyuan — a Disneyland for one person
The Forbidden Palace, in the center of Beijing, was not actually where the Chinese emperors lived. Rather, for most of the Qing dynasty, the emperors spent most of their time at Yuanmingyuan, an enclosed palace compound northwest of the capital. Yuanmingyuan consisted of a wealth of separate buildings — palaces, temples, pagodas, pavilions, libraries, and tea-houses — set in a series of gardens that were connected through meandering paths and waterways. More than anything, Yuanmingyuan resembled a theme park, not too different from today’s Disneyland. At Yuanmingyuan too, there were environments designed to transport the visitor to various exotic locations. There were rural scenes with rice paddies depicting the lives of Chinese peasants, gardens copied from Suzhou and Hangzhou, replicas of temples from Tibet, street scenes from Beijing, and even a set of European-style palaces. Instead of Disneyland’s annual 15 million-plus visitors, however, Yuanmingyuan was intended for the amusement of only one person and his family — the emperor of China, his women, children, and the eunuch courtiers who attended to their needs.
Yuanmingyuan, much like Disneyland, was an idealized environment that expressed a particular view of the world. Walking through or rowing around his gardens, the emperor could experience times past and times future, exotic animals, flora and fauna, high mountains, oceans, the countryside, and the city, but also the world of learning and culture. Moreover, the emperor was the undisputed ruler of the whole thing! Everyone obeyed his will and everything was easy for him to manipulate. This was not least the case since the architects, much as the architects at Disneyland, made frequent use of models and miniaturization. Many of the buildings were built in slightly smaller versions than the originals, and even many of the trees, using bonsai techniques, were smaller than the real thing. Just like Disneyland, Yuanmingyuan was filled with mechanical devices. There were mechanical birds that flapped their wings and fountains that sprayed water at designated hours. In addition, the emperor had a vast collection of astronomical instruments, music boxes, and toys such as violin-playing monkeys, pecking hens, and waltzing rope-dancers. Yuanmingyuan was a play-house world. Read more: The European destruction of Yuanmingyuan at p. 192.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/4addcea9

Yet the Qing policies on foreign trade closely mirrored those of the Ming. During the Qing period too there were prohibitions and controls on such activity.

George Macartney at Qianlong’s court
The Chinese tribute system did not only include Asian countries but a few European countries as well. There was so much for the Europeans to buy in China, and so many people to sell Europe-made goods to, yet the Chinese were very reluctant to grant them access. The official Confucian view was that only farmers, not merchants, contributed to the wealth of a nation. Besides, they worried about the social and cultural consequences of a foreign presence in the country. Eventually, trade was only allowed with one city, Guangzhou in the south, known as “Canton” to the foreigners. However, the British in particular regarded this as an unacceptable affront, and they dispatched a series of embassies to Beijing to try to convince the emperor to open up the country to their merchants. The most famous such embassy was led by George Macartney in 1792. Macartney made the six-month journey loaded with samples of British-made goods and with presents for the emperor. The idea was to set up an exhibit at the imperial court where Chinese officials could learn about British achievements. It would even be possible to order more British merchandise from a catalog that Macartney planned to hand out.
Once they arrived in Beijing, however, the British were required to go through the same ceremony as all tribute bearers. This included the ketou, the “three prostrations, and knockings of the head,” which was the traditional way in which visitors showed their submission to the imperial throne. Macartney, however, refused to go through with the ritual. To him, the ketou reeked of religious worship, and he found it degrading to his country and himself. This, to the Chinese officials, made no sense. They could never understand why the British had made the long journey, and brought along all those presents, only to refuse to go through with the last set of formalities. The British were told in no uncertain terms that if they refused to ketou they might as well go home. They never got a trade deal with China.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/8a8ba62a

The overland system

The Chinese government, as we mentioned above, organized foreign relations in two distinct ways, depending on the degree of threat posed by the foreigners they confronted. Political entities to the south and the east of China never posed serious challenges since the land borders in these areas were well protected. Political entities to the north and the west were an entirely different matter. Here, land was only sparsely populated, the borders diffuse and impossible to secure with certainty. The result was an international system which took two quite distinct forms. Perhaps we could talk about the “overland” and the “tribute” systems respectively. Although there was a considerable overlap between the two — in particular, many of the overland states were also tribute bearers — the systems were nevertheless governed by quite different institutions, rules and norms.

It is easy to explain the attraction which China held for the peoples on the steppes. They were predominantly pastoralists who followed their herds — of goats, sheep and horses — to where they could find pasture. Nomads are always potentially on the move, and since they never stay long enough in one place, they cannot accumulate many resources. The Chinese, by contrast, were overwhelmingly farmers and some were city-dwellers, meaning that they lived sedentary lives and stayed in one place. Every Chinese family had a home, be it ever so humble, where they gathered possessions which they were prepared to defend with their lives. And, of course, some Chinese families were very wealthy indeed. To the nomads this constituted an obvious temptation. The nomads were interested in all kinds of resources as long as they were portable — gold and silver, animals, and women and children who could be turned into slaves.

It was always difficult for the Chinese to defend themselves against these threats. The steppes were easily crossed by the nomads on their swift horses, but they were far more difficult for the Chinese armies to cross on foot. Deserts like the Gobi and the Taklamakan constituted obstacles for both parties, but they were far more likely to keep the Chinese in than the nomads out. The borders which separated China and the peoples of the steppes were difficult not only to defend, but even to define. Moreover, the peoples of the steppes were ferocious warriors. Although they, initially at least, had little by means of military technology and few inventions of their own, they had access to the best horses in the world. On the back of a horse, they could cover large distances very quickly and attack an enemy at full speed, wielding their spears and firing off arrows with high precision. The perennial question for the Chinese was how best to deal with enemies such as these. The most obvious option was to pursue a defensive strategy, and this is what the Chinese did for much of their history. One way to do this was to build walls. Read more: The Great Wall of China does not exist at p. 26.

Impressive as these physical structures no doubt were, a defensive strategy never worked all that well. The Mongols soon learned how to besiege a city using catapults and various ingenious siege engines. For that reason, it was better for the Chinese to go on the offense, and this is what the emperors did on numerous occasions. The first Han emperor undertook large military campaigns which were continued by his successors. The Chinese built fortified towns on the steppe, moved convicts there and encouraged ordinary people to migrate to the frontier. Yet these settlements provided yet another target which the nomads could attack. And the nomads were infuriatingly difficult to defeat. They simply retreated across the steppe and would outrun, or ambush, any Chinese soldiers that came in pursuit of them. If the Chinese managed to hold on to territory they laid claim to, the nomads could indeed be pushed further and further away, yet this only meant that they would return on some other occasion to raid and pillage.

If defense was impossible and offense difficult, the question was what to do. The option which the imperial court eventually arrived at was to engage the peoples of the steppes in various ad hoc arrangements designed to give them a stake in the system. By establishing common institutions there was a chance that the nomads would gradually come to see things China’s way. The most obvious option was to conclude a treaty. This was a strategy which the Chinese tried in relation to the Russians. Read more: Treaties with the Russians at p. 28.

Another strategy, used in relation to Tibetans and Mongols in particular, was to incorporate elements of the foreign culture into the practices of the Chinese state. Thus Tibetan-style Buddhism was a common point of reference during the Qing dynasty and Mongolian influences could be found everywhere. For example, the Qing emperors constructed an exact replica of the Potala palace in Lhasa at their summer retreat, and they established Tibetan temples in Beijing to which high-ranking Buddhist monks were invited. Whenever such cultural measures were unlikely to work, the Chinese government tried more hands-on tactics. They would, for example, give away imperial princesses as wives or consorts to the rulers on the steppes in order to bring their respective families closer together; or they would engage in elaborate gift exchanges in order to establish relationships of mutual dependence; or, in cases where the emperors were particularly desperate, they would even place themselves in the subordinate position of tribute bearers to the foreigners.

Khotan to the Khotanese!
Xinjiang is the westernmost province of China, a so-called “autonomous region,” which borders Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Its population is 43 percent Uyghur, who speak a Turkic language and practice Islam, but Han Chinese are almost as many — 41 percent — and the remainder are Kazakhs and other ethnic groups. Less than 5 percent of Xinjiang is suitable for human habitation; the rest consists of deserts and mountain ranges. Although various Chinese dynasties, including the Han, conducted military campaigns here, it was conquered only in 1759, and it is only since 1884 that Xinjiang came to constitute a Chinese province. Xinjiang literally means “new province” in Chinese. The Uyghurs themselves call their country “East Turkestan” or “Uyghuristan.”
Two thousand years ago, a Buddhist kingdom, Khotan, was established here. The caravan trade made Khotan prosperous, and thanks to rivers running from the Himalayas straight into the desert, it was possible to grow fruit and cereal. The people of Khotan cultivated silk and carved jade; they were devout Buddhists, loved literature and, according to visitors, they spent a lot of their time singing and dancing. Some spoke Chinese, others Tibetan and Indian languages. In 1006, the Khotan Kingdom fell to Muslim invaders.
Reacting to attempts to make the region increasingly Chinese, Uyghur nationalists have recently made demands for independence. In July 2009, thousands of Uyghurs clashed with Han Chinese and some 200 people died, although Uyghur nationalists argue that the real death toll was considerably higher. Rioting has repeatedly taken place since and Xinjiang nationalists have been blamed for terrorist attacks throughout China. There have been reports that fighters from Xinjiang have joined Al-Qaeda, and in 2006, the U.S. army captured twenty-two Uyghurs in Afghanistan and sent them to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
In 2018, the Chinese authorities admitted to imprisoning Muslims in internment camps, which they referred to as “re-education centers.” The aim of the camps is to replace Islam with Chinese values. Altogether, up to one million people have been detained. Recently, shops in Xinjiang have been forced to sell alcohol and tobacco; university students have been forbidden to fast during Ramadan; women wearing veils have been barred from public transportation or have had their clothes forcibly removed.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/14fb6e88

The tribute system

In addition to these rather cynical methods, the imperial authorities relied on rituals to pacify the foreigners. These rituals applied to all foreigners, but they became particularly important in relation to foreigners to the south and the east of the country. Despite the official Confucian doctrine which said that China was self-sufficient in all things, many Southeast Asian merchants discovered the Chinese to be interested not only in spices and hardwoods but also in speciality items such as rhinoceros horns and ivory. And there was, of course, no end to the things which the foreigners might buy from the Chinese. During the Ming dynasty, much of this commerce was rather informally organized, but during Qing the city of Guangzhou, known as “Canton,” in the south, became the one port through which all trade had to take place.

Since there was no way for foreigners to enter China except as tribute bearers, tribute bearers were what all foreigners who arrived in China became. This included foreign merchants. Trade was considered a lowly occupation in China and merchants were, officially at least, regarded as an inferior social class. Confucian scholars pointed out that, whilst farmers toiled in the fields, merchants got rich without breaking a sweat. Lacking an economic rationale for the activity, the imperial authorities instead interpreted foreign trade in cultural terms. China, they argued, was the most sophisticated country in the world and, by comparison, everyone else was a “barbarian.” Barbarians, however, were not to be feared as much as pitied, and the fact that they had showed up on China’s doorstep proved that they were willing to learn from the Chinese. As such they were to be treated benevolently. By coming to China, and by submitting themselves to the rules prescribed by the tribute system, the foreigners assumed their designated place in the Chinese order of things.

A detailed protocol regulated these visits. Each mission was not to exceed one hundred men, of whom only twenty were allowed to proceed to the capital while the rest remained at the border. On their way to Beijing, each delegation was fed, housed and transported at the emperor’s expense; and once they arrived they stayed in the official “Residence for Tributary Envoys,” where they were given a statutory amount of silver, rice, and other foodstuffs. Both coming and going, they were accompanied by imperial troops who both protected them and controlled their movements. The foreign visitors were debriefed by court officials who inquired about the conditions obtaining in their respective countries. The gifts which they brought along, the rules stipulated, were to consist of “products native to each land.” Often, these were quite humble items — the representatives of a monastic community in Tibet, for example, might only give a few bottles of yak milk. In each case the emperor spent far more on the gifts he gave the foreigners in return. This was one of the ways in which the emperor showed his benevolence.

The highlight of the mission was the audience with the emperor. On the chosen day, the visitors were woken up as early as 3 a.m. and taken to the imperial palace where they spent hours waiting, sipping tea and eating sweetmeats. At long last, they were accompanied into a large hall where many other delegations had already assembled. There were other foreign envoys too, but also delegations from all over China, and state officials of various ranks. Then the emperor appeared and all the visiting delegations were required to perform a ketone — a “kowtow” — to symbolize their respect and their submission. Read more: George Macartney at Qianlong’s court at p. 29.

The emperor graciously accepted their tributes, spoke kindly to them, and gave gifts in return. Then the delegations exited the hall one by one, again while kowtowing. The audience was thereby concluded. During the following days, the delegations were given more gifts and repeatedly wined and dined, even if the emperor himself no longer made an appearance. Then the foreigners were quite unceremoniously told that it was time for them to leave. They were accompanied back to the port where they had entered the country and reminded that they should come back again in the stipulated number of years.

During the Ming dynasty there were altogether 123 states which participated in these ceremonies, although many of the entities in question showed up only once and some of the more obscure names on the list may indeed have been fictional. During the Qing period, the records became more accurate, with a core group of states regularly undertaking missions. These included Korea, Siam, the Ryukyu Islands, Annam, Sulu, Burma, Laos, Turfan, but also the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. The Europeans were represented by their respective trading companies.

De Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie
Trading with Asia was a lucrative business, but also a risky one. It was a long journey to India and back, and any number of things could happen on the way. In order to pool the risks, merchants would at first only invest in a portion of a ship. Their portions came to be known as “shares.” Later they invested not in individual ships, but in the businesses which organized the shipping. This is how the first “joint-stock companies” came to be established. These are the origins of the first business corporations.
Another way to deal with risk was to ask for a monopoly on the trade with a particular part of the world. European kings were happy to sell such monopolies as a way to raise revenue. This is how “East India companies” came to be established in one country after another. The English East India Company, 1600, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC, 1602, were the most famous ones, and it was the VOC that ruled the waves. The company bought tea and porcelain in China, established trading posts all over Asia, and founded a fully-fledged colony in today’s Indonesia. At the Beurs, the stock exchange in Amsterdam, not only VOC shares could be bought, but all kinds of other shares too. The Amsterdam Beurs was a veritable one-stop-shop for financial services. You could buy maritime insurance, organize bank transfers, cash checks, and trade currencies. “Dutch finance” is the origin of today’s financial service industry.
Dutch traders are also the ones who came up with many of the place names we find today on a world map. Zeeland is a Dutch province and that is why two islands east of Australia came to be known as “New Zealand.” Australia itself was for a long time known as “New Holland,” and New York was called “New Amsterdam.” In fact, Harlem is a Dutch city and not only a part of Manhattan — although the Dutch spell it “Haarlem.” In the nineteenth century, Chinese laborers came to work in “the Dutch West Indies.” That is why there are, to this day, people in the Caribbean who speak both Chinese and Dutch.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/6f48caee

In general, the closer the country was located in relation to China, the more often it had to present itself at the imperial court. The Koreans were put on a three-year cycle and they were thereby the most frequent visitors. Since they had to travel so far, the Europeans were supposed to make an appearance only every seventh year, but these regulations were, in practice, never followed. All in all, the Portuguese only made four visits to the imperial court, the Dutch also four, and the British three. The Russians showed up as well, altogether some twelve times, but since they were a part of the overland system — they came from the north after all — particular rules applied to them.

One may wonder why the foreigners agreed to submit themselves to these exacting requirements. The answer is that they wanted to trade with the Chinese. Playing along with the imperial rituals, the envoys who went to Beijing would sometimes find ways to buy and sell things on the sly, but more importantly, their compatriots who remained at the border would set up temporary markets where trade would be brisk for a few weeks. The profits earned in this fashion were more than sufficient to justify the trouble of the journey. Once they had appeared in Beijing, moreover, their countrymen who regularly traded in the city of Guangzhou in the south would be free to pursue their activities as before. In addition, there were political gains to be made. Whenever a new king ascended the throne of a state that was a member of the tribute system, he would send an envoy to China. If the envoy was granted an audience, the authority of the ruler who sent him was impossible to dispute. He was, after all, recognized by the emperor of China himself. Returning home, the diplomat would bring the emperor’s official seal with him as a sign of this new status.

The tribute system was unquestionably hierarchical. It was China that dictated the terms, and no one else was in a position to influence the logic that constituted the system. The rituals all emphasized submission to the imperial throne, yet the relationship entailed obligations on both sides. Just like a dutiful son, the foreign visitor should be obedient and respectful, and just as a virtuous father, the emperor should care about those who enjoyed his benevolence. Politically speaking, the imperial center controlled the periphery only in the loosest possible sense. Most obviously, the imperial authorities made no attempts to interfere with the independence of states that came to visit them. Read more: Chinese pirates in Taiwan at p. 27.

Moreover, if a state decided not to show up, there was not all that much that the Chinese authorities could do. As long as the foreigners were not making trouble, the imperial authorities much preferred to leave them alone. The units of the system were hierarchically ordered but, at the same time, quite free to govern themselves.

A Japanese international system?

Once the first contacts were established with China in the fifth century CE, the inhabitants of the islands of Japan maintained a close relationship to the Asian mainland. It is unclear how the Japanese first came into contact with China, but it is easy to imagine that Japanese fishermen were washed up somewhere on the shores of the Asian mainland after a storm. When they eventually made it back to Japan, they had amazing stories to tell about all the wonders they had seen. Hearing such tales, the local rulers dispatched better-organized delegations, and soon the Japanese embarked on regular study-visits. Eventually, the Japanese imported an entire culture from China, including arts and technology, religion, a writing system, political and social thought, and associated political and social institutions. The Japanese often changed these imports to fit their own needs, and many of the changes were radical enough, but Japanese society was nevertheless profoundly altered as a result of the interaction. Yet Japan was a tribute-bearing state, and an official member of the Chinese-run international system, only for a few hundred years. Once the Mongols tried, and failed, to invade the country at the end of the thirteenth century, relations could not continue as before. Read more: Kamikaze at p. 115.

The Japanese did not want anything to do with an aggressive and expansionist China. Although informal commercial contacts continued and thrived, no more official delegations were dispatched to the Chinese court. The imported Chinese culture continued to evolve, but in a distinctly Japanese fashion.

Among the institutions borrowed from China was that of an emperor, yet the emperor of Japan was nowhere near as powerful as his Chinese counterpart. Instead, real power in the country was in the hands of various local and regional leaders, who had a strong and largely independent position in relation to each other. Japan was decentralized, with many different centers vying for political power. There was, for example, a fundamental tension between the leaders who controlled the Kanto region, where today’s Tokyo is situated, and the leaders who controlled the Kansai region, the area around today’s Osaka and Kyoto. During the Kamakura period, 1185–1333, power was taken over by military leaders, the shoguns, for whom Kanto was their center. The emperor, residing in Kansai, was a figurehead, a symbolic leader, and for most of the country’s history he was more or less ignored. An emperor in the sixteenth century even had to sell his own calligraphy in order to pay his household expenses. Yet the power of the shogun was quite limited as well. This was particularly the case during the Sengoku period, 1467–1573, which was Japan’s own version of China’s Warring States period. The Sengoku period was a time of lawlessness, heroism, and political intrigue with vast armies of samurai pitted against each other.

The samurai in fact and fiction
The samurai, or what the Japanese refer to as bushi, first rose to prominence during the Kamakura period, 1185–1333. They were soldiers who helped enforce the peace and secured people’s property, but the samurai were also known to practice and to support the arts. Many art forms which today we think of as quintessentially Japanese were first developed among them — including Nō theater, tea ceremony, haiku poetry, and, of course, martial arts such as archery and swordsmanship. Many samurai were Zen Buddhists, a version of the Buddhist teaching which emphasized meditation and stoicism in the face of death.
During the Sengoku period, 1467–1573, the samurai made up the foot soldiers of the vast armies that were pitted against each other. Once the wars were over, some of them became bureaucrats in the new Tokugawa regime, while others came to work for various regional rulers, or daimyos. A few of them became ronin — masterless samurai — who roamed the roads of Japan looking for work and for adventure. During the Tokugawa period, the samurai class made up perhaps 10 percent of Japan’s population. The samurai were abolished in 1873 when Japan established a conscripted army. Their titles and privileges were exchanged for government bonds.
According to the code of the samurai, loyalty is the supreme value, and a good samurai should unquestioningly follow the wishes of his master, even if it implies certain death. Seppuku — what some non-Japanese refer to as “harakiri” — is the inevitable fate of a samurai who fails to live up to his obligations. Yet bushido, understood as a distinct chivalric code, was only developed at the end of the nineteenth century. The Bushido ideals provided a means of instilling loyalty in a by now largely urbanized, and increasingly unruly, Japanese population.
Since 1945, the world of the samurai has been a staple of Japanese films and TV dramas. The most artistically significant examples of this output are the films directed by Akita Kurosawa. His leading actor, Toshihiro Mifune, with his physical style of acting, has come to personify the way the samurai talked and carried themselves. Kurosawa has both influenced and been influenced by cowboy movies. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) was made into The Magnificent Seven in 1960, and his Yojimbo (1961) was made into A Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood. In both cases, entire scenes were lifted from Kurosawa’s work.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/6f7c08f4

The Sengoku period ended in the year 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara when one of the military leaders, Tokugawa Ieyasu, decisively defeated the others. This inaugurated the Tokugawa period, 1600–1868 — also known as the “Edo period” — which brought peace to the country but also economic development and great social and cultural change. In the 1630s, the Tokugawa rulers banned foreign trade, and limited contacts with the rest of the world. Foreign missionaries were expelled, Japanese people were banned from building ocean-going ships, and Japanese people abroad were not allowed to return home. Japan was a sakoku, a “closed country,” and trade was limited to a few ships per year which entered at the only accessible port, Nagasaki in the far south. According to the official rhetoric, Japan was self-sufficient and its people should not waste their precious silver on luxury items from abroad. Yet, unofficial contacts of various kinds continued, not least silk trade with merchants in Korea and the Ryukyu Islands.

The Ryukyu Islands as the center of the world
The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of islands that extends from the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, all the way to Taiwan. From the fifteenth until the nineteenth century the islands constituted an independent kingdom which played a central role in the trading networks of East Asia. From their capital on Okinawa, the largest island in the group, the Ryukyu kings dispatched tribute-bearing missions not only to China, but also to Korea and Japan where their colorful clothes and exotic gifts met with much amazement. Read more: Processions through Japan at p. 39. During the Ming era, Ryukyu merchants also traded in Chinese ports, and they traveled to Southeast Asia where they exchanged Chinese products for spices, rhinoceros horn, ivory, and frankincense.
During the Ming dynasty, 1368–1644, many Chinese people settled on the islands, some working as officials for the Ryukyu government. The importance of the islands increased dramatically once the Chinese authorities decided to limit trade with the rest of the world and to ban ocean-going ships. Since Ryukyu merchants were exempt from these rules, they could increase their share of the now even more lucrative Chinese market. In 1609, the islands were invaded by soldiers from Satsuma in southern Japan. Although they maintained their independence even after this date, the islanders were forced to start paying taxes to the Japanese. During the sakoku period, when Japan also banned foreign trade, merchants from Satsuma continued to transport their wares to China via the Ryukyus. The Ryukyu Islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1879. The last Ryukyu king, Shō Tai, died in Tokyo in 1901.
During World War II an intense battle, the Battle of Okinawa, was fought there in which some 75,000 Japanese and 15,000 American soldiers died. The ferocity of the fighting contributed to the American decision to use the atomic bomb in order to speed up Japan’s surrender. Although America’s occupation of Japan ended in 1952, it took until 1972 before Okinawa was returned to Japan. The United States still maintains a number of military installations there. The American military presence has been a source of considerable controversy, not least as a result of several highly publicized rape cases involving American soldiers.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/e1bf34d6

Although Japan was now pacified — historians often talk about a Pax Tokugawa, the “Tokugawa peace” — the country was not a unified whole. Instead, various regional rulers, known as the daimyo, continued to affirm their independence, each one ruling a region, or han, of their own. The number of han varied over time, but for most of the Tokugawa period there were at least 250 of them. The Tokugawa family controlled the largest of these regions and also the largest cities, but over something like three quarters of the han, they had no direct influence. The daimyo raised their own taxes, had their own armies, police forces, legal and educational systems, and they pursued independent social and economic policies. In fact, each han even had its own currency, and at the end of the Tokugawa period there were hundreds of separate forms of exchange in circulation. While the shoguns in Edo reserved the right to put down peasant rebellions wherever they occurred, their military power was restricted by the fact that they could not tax people outside of their own lands.

The question of how best to characterize Japan during this period is a difficult one. The most obvious answer is to see Japan as an ordinary state, yet this description is surely incomplete. The Tokugawa government was not fully sovereign since it did not have full control over the country’s territory and it had no foreign policy. Perhaps Japan is better described as an international system — a mini-system — in its own right. If we see Japan as an international system we need to explain why it was so peaceful. One reason was a small set of regulations which applied equally to the country as a whole, involving, for example, restrictions on military installations. Yet the most spectacular feature of the Tokugawa system was the institution of sankin-kōtai, “alternate attendance,” according to which the daimyo were required to spend every second year in Edo, where the shogun was able to keep a close watch on them. Moreover, during the year they spent at home, taking care of the business of their respective hans, they were required to leave their wives and children in Edo, where they effectively would serve as the shogun’s hostages. If a daimyo in some way misbehaved, it was easy for the shogun to seek retribution against his family.

Processions through Japan
One of the institutions that kept Japan unified during the Tokugawa period was the system of “alternate attendance,” sankin kotai. According to the rules of the system, the 250-plus daimyos had to move once a year, either from their own capital to Edo, or from Edo to their own capital. These movements took the shape of long processions which, in the case of the larger han, could include up to 2,500 people, and which for distant regions might take up to fifty days to complete. Aware of the attention they attracted, the daimyo and their retainers did their best to put on a good show. The lance-bearers were particularly admired and the tallest and most handsome men were usually picked for this job. In fact, much of what we today think of as paraphernalia belonging to the samurai class — helmets, swords, and equipment for horses — was originally produced not for use in battles, but for these ceremonial occasions. Worried about a build-up of military forces in Edo, and concerned about the costs involved, the shoguns periodically sought to restrict the number of soldiers a daimyo could assemble, but the restrictions had little effect. For the han, it was a matter of prestige to send as many men as possible. Sometimes they would hire temporary laborers to swell the ranks of the procession just as it entered a large city.
During the sakoku period, when Japan was closed off from the outside world, there was still a trickle of foreign merchants who had official permission to visit the country. Showing up in Nagasaki in the south, they made the long journey on foot to Edo. Much as the processions which took the daimyos back and forth to the capital, the processions of these foreigners attracted much attention. There were delegations of merchants from Korea and the Ryukyu islands, but also from the Dutch East India Company. Read more: The Ryukyu islands as the center of the world at p. 38.

Read more online: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12434/2a7a1229

Further reading

Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to AD 1757. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.

Crossley, Pamela. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Elliott, Mark C. Emperor Qianlong: Son of Heaven, Man of the World. London: Longman, 2009.

Huang, Ray. 1587, A Year of no Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002.

Johnston, Alastair Iain. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.

Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Waldron, Arthur A. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


475–221 BCE

The Warring States period. Warfare between seven separate states. Many schools of Chinese philosophy established.

221 BCE

Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, establishes the Qin dynasty. Lasts only 15 years.

206 BCE–220 CE

The Han dynasty, established by Liu Bang.


The Tang dynasty, with Xi’an as its capital.


The monk Xuanzang starts his journey to India.


The Song dynasty is established.


The Song move their court to Hangzhou.


The Mongols overrun the Song and establish the Yuan dynasty.


The Ming dynasty is established.


Zheng He embarks on his first voyage to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.


A giraffe arrives in Beijing from Melinda on the coast of East Africa.


The Battle of Sekigahara. The Tokugawa shogunate is established.


First legislation which restricts Japanese interactions with the rest of the world.


The Qing dynasty, established by Manchu armies which invade China.


The Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa shogunate falls and the Japanese emperor is restored.

Short dictionary

bushi, Japanese

Collective term for Japanese martial arts and the ethical code of the samurai.

daimyo, Japanese

Literally, “big name.” Title given to the rulers of Japan’s semi-autonomous provinces during the Tokugawa period.

dao, Chinese

Literally, “the way.” Collected wisdom regarding morality, longevity and prosperity associated with Daoism.

fajia, Chinese

“Legalism,” one of the main schools of Chinese political philosophy, developed during the Warring States period. The Legalists advocated ruthless and authoritarian policies.

han, Japanese

Semi-autonomous province during the Tokugawa period. Ruled by a daimyo.

hanren, Chinese

Name for the Chinese people. Named after the Han dynasty.

ketone, Mandarin Chinese, from the Cantonese kautau

“Kowtow.” Ceremonial Chinese greeting. “Three prostrations and nine knockings of the head.”

Pax Tokugawa, Latin

“The Tokugawa peace.” Term used by historians for the pacification of Japan which took place during the Tokugawa period.

ronin, Japanese

“Masterless samurai,” a samurai working for himself or for any master ready to employ him. Ronin are commonly featured in samurai movies.

sakoku, Japanese

Literally, “closed country.” The severe restrictions on interactions with foreign countries imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns, 1633–1853.

sankin-kōtai, Japanese

“System of alternate attendance.” The system whereby daimyos were required to spend every second year in Edo, the Tokugawa capital.

shogun, Japanese

Military leader and de facto ruler of Japan during the Tokugawa period.

Think about

The warring states period

  • How should we describe the earliest Chinese states?
  • Why was the Warring States Period such a culturally dynamic period in Chinese history?
  • How did the First Emperor come to power?

The development of the Chinese state

  • What is “the Mandate of Heaven”? How is this mandate gained and lost?
  • In what ways are the different dynasties similar to each other? In what ways are they different?
  • How should we best describe the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire?

The overland system

  • Which political entities were included in the overland system?
  • Why did the Chinese empire have such problems dealing with the societies of the Central Asian steppes?
  • Which solutions did the Chinese empire come up with? How efficient were they?

The tribute system

  • Which states were included in the tribute system?
  • Give a brief description of how the tribute system worked.
  • Why did political entities from so far away agree to come to China? In what ways did the system benefit China?

A Japanese international system?

  • Can Tokugawa Japan be described as an “international system”?
  • Describe relations between the shogun, the emperor and the daimyos.
  • What were the features of the so-called sankin kotai system?