Although frontier studies enjoy a long and robust history in China, a disproportionate amount of attention has focused on North China and its relations with Central and Northeast Asia, while only a handful of historians have paid much attention to the history of South and Southwest China. Those that do invariably offer a narrative that presents Southwest China (the current provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and the southwestern portion of Sichuan) as unequivocal parts of greater China since at least the end of the 3rd century bce. They accomplish this by selectively including only the events that reinforce inflated notions of Han superiority, while at the same time expunging from the historical records events and episodes that challenge the internal cohesion of this metanarrative and disparage the Han. Throughout China’s long history, they argue, Han from the Central Plain (zhongyuan) region of North China have continuously migrated south in search of land and opportunity, and over time Han cultural practices, centralized and hierarchical political institutions, a sophisticated written language, and a socially differentiated society that generates surplus revenue, have transformed nearly all of the “barbarian” non-Han into civilized Han. What the Chinese metanarrative fails to offer, however, is perspective, for it not only deprives the southwest of its own history, such as a thoughtful examination of the vibrant kingdoms that existed in the southwest, like the Cuan (338–747), Muege (c. 300–1283), Nanzhao (738–937), and Dali (937–1253) kingdoms, to name just a few, but also it refuses to offer a critical examination of how the Chinese empire colonized this territory.
Over the first three decades of the 15th century, Ming China dispatched a succession of naval fleets through the Southeast Asian seas and across the Indian Ocean, reaching South Asia, the Middle East, and even the east coast of Africa. These were the largest and best-armed naval fleets in the world at that time, comprising more than 100 ships and tens of thousands of troops. Like similar overland military missions sent to Đại Việt and Yunnan in the same period; these missions were initially intended to awe foreign powers and create legitimacy for the usurping emperor, Yongle. The maritime missions were generally led by eunuch officials, the most famous of whom was Zheng He. In the 21st century the Chinese state depicts these missions as “voyages of peace and friendship” and utilizes this trope in its contemporary diplomacy. However, the Ming sources reveal that military violence was an integral aspect of the successive voyages, whilst the fact that many rulers from Southeast Asian polities were taken to China by the eunuch-led missions also suggests that some degree of coercion was employed. The missions were ended by the court in the mid-1430s over concerns about the costs and the need for such missions.
Navigation played a major role in the integration of East Asian polities and economies prior to and during the arrival of European traders in the 16th and 17th centuries. That arrival stimulated an increase in the volume of intra-regional trade in East Asia as Chinese merchants organized exports on a large scale to meet European demand, yet the history of the production of nautical charts in China has been little studied, due in no small part to the poor survival of sea charts and other documentation. The most important new addition to maritime charting in the past decade is the rediscovery of the Selden Map in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This map of navigation routes throughout East Asia is unprecedented, and may be seen as marking the beginning of the transformation of Chinese cartography under the influence of European mapping techniques.
Matthew W. Mosca
China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.
Up until the final four decades of the Qing Dynasty, fiscal extraction in imperial China was primarily a matter of taxing agricultural production, generally in the form of an annual property tax assessed on the basis of landholding, and collected in either grain or cash. All major dynasties prior to the Qing wielded this fiscal instrument somewhat flexibly, with large-scale reforms, usually leading to significantly higher taxes, occurring around mid-dynasty, but the Qing broke this trend: the absolute volume of agricultural taxes remained locked in place for the great majority of its 278-year life span, despite a near tripling of both the population and the economy. This eventually rendered the Qing fiscal state an extreme outlier in both horizontal and vertical comparisons: relative to the economy it governed, not only was it much smaller than its major early modern competitors, ranging from Japan to Western European states to other central Asian empires, but it was also probably the smallest post-Qin dynastic state by far. Preexisting scholarship has largely failed to identify, let alone explain, this sudden and dramatic shift in fiscal policy towards the end of China’s imperial history. There are a number of possible explanations for it, some of which have appeared in the extant literature, but the most promising one—which has not appeared—seems to be that the extraordinary circumstances of the Ming–Qing transition served as the catalyst for a decisive conservative turn in Chinese fiscal thought, pushing the Qing state into a fundamentally different political and institutional equilibrium than its predecessors.
David A. Bello
Agriculture—especially grain cultivation—informed the primary environmental ground of imperial China (221 to 1912 ce) and was ideally intended to produce human habitat from state-supervised environmental change. The consequent political and socioeconomic development of the empire and its constituent dynasties was conditioned within larger global ecological contexts that can be abbreviated as two major climate shifts, the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 1000–1300 ce) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, c. 1400–1900 ce). Before 1000 ce, China likely experienced a number of less prolonged alternations of cold and warm climate, such as the Sui-Tang Warm Period (650–700 ce). Chinese empire’s adaptations in response were rooted in agriculture, augmented by agro-pastoral and pastoral measures mainly concentrated along and above north China’s steppe ecotone. Critical inputs for the sustainability of environmental relations were maintained throughout the imperial period and came from domestic and foreign sources—most critically including the fertile eroded silt of the north China Loess Plateau, the water resources of the Yellow and Yangzi river basins, a high-yield crop suite of both dryland and wet rice varieties, south China fast-growth tree species, and New World silver and highland crops. Ongoing development and exploitation of these resources across the succession of seven major—and over a dozen more localized—dynasties over two millennia allowed China’s population to expand at globally unprecedented rates, numbering from tens of millions around the year 0 ce to hundreds of millions during the 18th century. In the process, biodiversity—especially that of wild growth forest habitats—was steadily reduced from north to south, successively. The empire’s main resource base and population centers correspondingly relocated south of the Yangzi around the watershed Song (960–1279 ce) period, with the Grand Canal tapping both of China’s major rivers to deliver southern abundance as far north as Beijing by the Yuan (1279–1368 ce). Inner and Southeast Asian peripheries came under comparable agro-commercial developmental pressure only during the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912 ce). With the onset of the 19th century, however, destabilizing environmental pressures emerged across the empire, many of them paradoxically driven by once-effective adaptations.
Emperors were the symbolic and administrative pivot of the Chinese empire ever since its establishment in 221 bce. They were arguably the most powerful human beings on earth. Their nominal authority was limitless, and it encompassed the administrative, military, economic, social, religious, and intellectual spheres to mention only a few. Moreover, the emperors’ semi-sacral status added superhuman dimensions to the imperial position. And yet, only very few emperors were able to impose their will in full. The combination of limitless institutional authority and limited personal power is the major paradox of China’s emperorship. The contradiction between the emperor’s nominal omnipotence and his limited ability to impose his personal will on his subjects was imbued into the imperial institution from its very inception. Chinese thinkers of pre-imperial age (pre-221 bce) sought peace and stability in their realm and came to the conclusion that these are attainable only under the omnipotent universal sovereign. Yet being aware of the dangers of the ruler’s potential mediocrity, these thinkers tried to create a system in which the ruler reigns but not rules, and the effective power rests with the ministers of proven intellectual and moral abilities. Although the system they envisioned never worked perfectly and allowed periodic recurrences of the emperors’ abuse of power, overall their goal was achieved. The imperial literati were more often than not able to moderate the emperor’s whims and create a viable mode of rule in which the hereditary monarchy at the top was maintained by the meritocratic bureaucracy below. Despite persistent tensions, the system was flexible enough to ensure the empire’s exceptional political durability.