Chapter 15

As the World Shrinks: South Asia

In This Chapter

• Ming China

• The voyages of Zheng He

• Qing China

• Tokugawa Japan

• The Yi dynasty in Korea

With the Ming dynasty and the reunification of the country, strong central Chinese rule was restored. During this period, Chinese civilizationflourished culturally, agriculturally, and commercially, becoming the largest center of civilization at the time. With the eventual decline of the Ming rulers, the Manchu seized control of China, creating the Qing dynasty during the early seventeenth century. Although starting strong, the Qing dynasty did not deal successfully with European expansion in the region. This lapse in policy led to its decline.

Luckily for the Japanese, they were not tested by European expansion so rigorously. This was due in part to the emergence of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the sixteenth century, which had gained enough control to stop contact with the Europeans. They succeeded in this state of isolation until the nineteenthcentury. In Korea also, the Yi dynasty tried to isolate itself from China, Japan, and the Europeans. But in the seventeenth century it was forced to open its borders through a military invasion by China.

The Ming Dynasty

The Chinese Ming dynasty founded by Ming Hong Wu, or Ming Martial Emperor, filled the political void left by the overthrow of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1368. The Ming dynasty provided strength and stability to China for close to 300 years, lasting until 1644.


China during the Ming dynasty.

Doing Things Right

The Ming dynasty was able to do many things that helped further advance Chinese power in the region and culture. The dynasty invested time and effort into strengtheningthe Great Wall to ensure that northern invaders like the Mongols would be kept out. This allowed them to extend their rule into Mongolia and central Asia. (The conquered had become the conquerors!) To rule the expanded nation, the Ming dynasty used the civil service exam to create a highly efficient bureaucracy. To help find this bureaucracy, the dynasty also created a nationwide school system.

The nationwide school system better educated the Chinese people, which helped the economy of the country. (The theory is, better educated people create and buy better products!) But what really helped the Chinese economy was the completion of the Grand Canal. Shipping of agricultural products from southern to northern China was much faster and cheaper. Commerce and trade received a much-needed boost, and the economy of China continued to grow under the stability of the Ming dynasty.

Zheng He and Chinese Exploration

In some sense the stability and economic prosperity provided by the Ming dynasty allowed for an interesting “almost” turning point in world history. From 1405 to 1433, the Ming dynasty, stable and prosperous, sent ships to explore the Indian Ocean and the East coast of Africa aided by the Chinese invention of the compass. These explorations were led by the admiral and minor court official Zheng He (d. 1433).

The expeditions returned with wonders unknown to the Chinese including giraffes, ostriches, and zebras, as well as information about the world beyond Asia. Still, the Chinese voyages were not well received. Confucian scholars were resistant to it. It put the social order into question. Additionally, the Chinese were not impressed with what they saw of the outside world. When Zheng He died, so ended the explorations, leaving this episode in Chinese history with a big “what if.” What if the Chinese had continued their explorations and discovered America before Columbus? How would world history have been different?

Contact with the West

As the Chinese began to close off from the outside world, the outside world began to find them. In 1514, the Portuguese traders arrived in China, the first direct contactthe Chinese had with Europeans since the time of Marco Polo during the Yuan dynasty. This initial contact had a very limited effect on China, but Christian missionariessoon followed. The European influence started to trickle into China.

The Fall of the Ming

During the late sixteenth century, the Ming dynasty was plagued with weak rulers and corruption. In addition, the Ming rulers levied high taxes on the people, which led to peasant unrest. In the 1630s, this unrest increased after several epidemics and bad harvests. Finally, a peasant revolt led by Li Zicheng gained momentum, and in 1644 a peasant army took the capital city of Beijing. The last Ming emperor hung himself from a tree in the palace gardens rather than face capture.

The Rise of the Qing

The Manchu from Manchuria saw the overthrow of the Ming dynasty as their opportunity to seize power. They moved into China and easily defeated the inexperiencedLi Zicheng and his peasant army, conquering the capital city. The Manchu then declared the new Qing dynasty, which would rule China for almost 300 years, from 1644 to 1911.

The Manchu Problem

The Manchu had a unique position as rulers. Much like the Mongols, they were ethnically and culturally different than the Chinese. To remedy this, the Manchu forced all the Chinese men to adopt the Manchu style of dress and culture. This included shaved foreheads and braided pigtails called queues. Chinese men who refused this new look were executed. But the Qing dynasty did not always replace Chinese elements with Manchu ones. The dynasty adopted the Chinese political system and brought the Chinese into the imperial administration to share power. And eventually, the Qing dynasty was accepted as legitimate rulers of China.

The Great Kangxi

The Emperor Kangxi was one of the greatest emperors of the Qing dynasty and in Chinese history. During his rule from 1661 to 1722, he stabilized the frontiers of China. Kangxi was also a patron of the arts and scholars, which created a high-watermark in Chinese culture. He was tolerant of the new Christian missionaries; in fact, over 300,000 Chinese converted to Catholicism under his rule. After his death, that policy changed into suppression, pushing the Chinese Christian population underground.

Notable Quotable

"On this account men of all ranks and dignities whatsoever, even nearest to him in blood, stand in his presence with the deepest awe, and recognize him as sole ruler.”

—Ferdinand Verbiest, European missionary, on Emperor Kangxi

Those Sneaky Europeans

During the rule of Emperor Qianlong from 1736 to 1795, European powers were able to finally make a significant impact on Chinese policy. Also during this time, older Chinese ways fell into decline. The governmentwas filled with corrupt officials, and the taxes levied on the Chinese people had become too burdensome. Additionally, China had a population surge that caused economic hardship on the whole society.

What in the World

The most famous Jesuit missionaryto China was Matteo Ricci. He and his fellow Jesuits were respected by the Chinese because of their ability to use the Chinese language and respect for Confucianism.

A group of unhappy peasants tried to overthrow the dynasty in the White Lotus Rebellion. It was suppressed, but it weakened the dynasty considerably, and the European powers saw an opportunity to push for more trade privileges with China. The Qing dynasty needed funds and sold limited trading privileges to the European powers, but confined them to an island outside of Guangzhou. The British weren’t satisfied and asked for more in 1793. Emperor Qianlong responded by writing George III stating that the Chinese had no need for British manufactured goods (probably being quite truthful). Of course, the British backed off; but the European powers had opened the door to China and there would be little that could shut it again.

Economic Changes

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, China experienced several economic changes. China remained an agricultural society—more than 80 percent of the population were small farmers—but new agricultural techniques increased food production,and the population increased to more than 300 million, which created a land shortage. The Qing government responded by placing limitations on the amount of land wealthy landowners could hold. This policy did not remedy the situation but did help to control it.

The Chinese also experienced a growth in the trade of silk, porcelain, and cotton goods in part because of new markets in Europe. The Qing saw this growth as an opportunity and took control of those industries to gain its revenue, and placed high taxes on traded goods.

Chinese Society and Culture

Based on Confucian principles, Chinese society remained much the same as it had for centuries. The society was organized around the family, with the individual desires given up for the good of the family. With an emphasis on the respect for the elderly, several generations of one family lived under the same roof. These extended families also connected with dozens of other families to form clans. The clan worked to benefitall of the member families, with wealthier families helping poorer families.

What in the World

To this day in China the family is more important than the individual. An example of this comes from the way food is ordered. In America, everyone orders individually, but in China, one order is placed for the whole family.

Women in China

Sadly, the status of women did not change in Chinese society much over time. They were still regarded as inferior to men. Only men could obtain a formal education and have a career. Additionally, Chinese women could not divorce their husbands or inherit property. Plus, the tradition of binding women’s feet—seen as a status symbol—continued through the Qing period. So women were still at the bottom of Chinese society.

The Arts and Literature

Under the Qing dynasty, Chinese arts and literature flourished. This period witnessedthe evolution of the modern novel with The Golden Lotus, the first realistic social novel, and also The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuegin published in 1791. Advances in art and architecture matched those in Chinese literature, with the beauty of the Imperial City in Beijing being created at this time. So despite some economic and political issues, Chinese culture continued to be vibrant and creative. As Chinese civilization experienced growing pains in reaction to outsiders, Japan tried to avoid outsiders entirely and focused inward on itself.

Japan and the Great Unifiers

After the collapse of shogunate power during the early fifteenth century, the island of Japan experienced a century of chaos as daimyo fought constantly for political power and control of lands. But by the mid-sixteenth century, new movement toward unificationwas led by three men.

Three Men

A daimyo named Oda Nobunga (1534-1582) and his army of samurai, using muskets supplied by the Portuguese, seized control of Kyoto and placed the shogun under his control. He then consolidated his rule in the central plains of Japan, forcing other daimyo to submit to his rule. To help control violence, Oda and his forces used “sword hunts” to gather arms from surrounding areas so they could not be used against the shogun. Apparently one of his own followers took exception to his policies and assassinatedOda.

Oda was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who began life as a farmer’s son but became a renowned military leader. By the late sixteenth century, Toyotomi’s military prowess had convinced most of the daimyo to accept his rule. He was succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the daimyo of Edo. In 1603, Tokugawa became the premier politicalpower in Japan and took the title shogun. His successors remained in power until 1868 and, because of the stability the Tokugawa brought to Japan, it was called the period of “Great Peace.”

The Rule of the Tokugawa

The followers of Tokugawa wanted to transform the Japanese feudal system, so they separated Japan into 250 territories called hans, or domains. Each han was ruled by the traditional aristocratic daimyo. Knowing that the daimyo were needed but also a threat politically, the Tokugawa created a hostage system to control them. In this system, the daimyo were required to have two residences —one in their own lands and one in the capital of Edo. When the daimyo were away from the capital, their family had to stay at the residence in Edo under the watchful eye of the Tokugawa shogunate. In all, this new system transformed the daimyo into a manager of lands, which heralded the decline of the samurai warrior class as conflict ceased.

Social Changes

The Tokugawa period not only witnessed political changes but also social changes. Trade and industry flourished during the period of stability. The development of banking and paper money also helped. With economic prosperity, the Japanese class system solidified. The emperor and the imperial court were still on top. The warrior class made up of shogun, daimyo, samurai, and ronin came next. Peasants and farmers were the next class, followed by the artisan class. A new class of merchants emerged just below the artisans as the economy continued to evolve toward trade and industry. Finally at the very bottom were the eta, social outcasts that were strictly regulated by the Tokugawa government.


A ronin was a samurai who lost his lord and was forced to roam the countryside, often becoming a bandit.

Tokugawa Culture

The peace and prosperity of the Tokugawa shogunate allowed Japanese culture to thrive. New urban fictional novels, lighthearted in nature, were being written at a rapid pace. Of course, it was not all fun and games. Ihara Saikaku wrote one of the most famous novels of this period, Five Women Who Loved Love, which was a tragic novel. Poetry was also being written at almost the same pace as the fictional novels; Matsuo Basho, who lived during the seventeenthcentury, was one of the most renowned of the Japanese poets.

Notable Quotable

The ancient pond A frog leaps in The sound of water. On the withered branch A crow has alighted— The end of autumn.

—Matsuo Basho, Japanese poet, 1644-1694

Kabuki theater also grew in popularity with its action, music, and dramatic gestures about life in teahouses and dancehalls. Finally, art and architectureprospered as daimyo competed to create the most beautiful and elaborate residences in Edo.

Contact with Europeans

In 1543, during the early Tokugawa period, Portuguese traders landed in Japan. At first, the Japanese welcomed the Europeans; the daimyo were especially interested in buying European muskets. In 1549, Jesuit missionaries arrived, led by Francis Xavier, and by the end of the sixteenth century, thousands of Japanese had converted to Catholicism. The new converts were not tolerant of other religious traditions and subsequently destroyed some Buddhist shrines.

By 1587, Hideyoshi had enough of this destructive activity and issued an edict prohibiting Christian activities. Later, Tokugawa Ieyasu expelled all Jesuit missionariesfrom the island and persecuted Japanese Christians. Finally, all European merchants were expelled from Japan with the exception of a small Dutch community that remained in Nagasaki. The Japanese had enough of the problems associated with those hairy and smelly Europeans; but it was not the end of the European problem.

What in the World

The Portuguese introduced playing cards to Japan duringthe late 1500s. Playing cards spread like wildfire with the populace of Japan. Eventually, to protect the honor of the samurai, the daimyo created an amendmentto the warrior code that forbade gambling with cards.

The Hermit Kingdom

As in the past, Korea continued to remain isolated from even China and Japan, so it has been referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom.” The Yi dynasty, founded at the end of the fourteenth century, ruled over the Korea and patterned their society after the Chinese. During the late sixteenth century, a Japanese army led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to invade and conquer Korea. Korean forces were able to defeat the Japanese but were substantially weakened as a result. The Chinese saw this as an opportunity and in the 1630s invaded Korea from the North making the Yi dynasty subject to China.

The Least You Need to Know

• After the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty, the Ming dynasty emerged to take political control of China from the late fourteenth century until 1644.

• The voyages of Zheng He during the early fifteenth century were an unsuccessfulattempt by China to look beyond its borders.

• The Manchu from Manchuria seized control of the failing Ming dynasty to create the Qing dynasty, which ruled China until 1911.

• Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu worked to unite a politically chaotic and divided Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate.

• The Yi dynasty of Korea continued to isolate itself until it was forced into submissionby China during the early seventeenth century.

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