While the late Ming emperors were reinforcing their Great Wall to protect themselves from the outsiders they so feared, disaster was brewing on their own side of it, as the populace grew angrier and angrier at the exorbitant taxes that were needed to pay for the wall and other extravagances. In January of 1644, a former sheepherder and postman named Li Zicheng declared that the current emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that it had passed to him. To claim his destiny, he marched on Beijing with an army from his base of power in the ancient capital of Chang’an.
Despair gripped Beijing, which had no defense whatsoever on hand; those generals of his own that the emperor attempted to call up ignored him because neither they nor their soldiers had been paid in months. On the evening of April 24, with the rebel army just a few hours away, the last Ming emperor cut a bloody swath through his harem, killing with his ritual dagger any of the girls who refused to obey his order to commit suicide. Then he hanged himself. The Ming dynasty was finished.
To this point, it had been a fairly typical story of dynastic transition in China — one of late-dynasty decadence and discontent leading to internal rebellion and finally to the current dynasty’s downfall. But now, when one would expect the leader of the rebellion to institute his own dynasty, the story grew more complicated, thanks to the very same barbarians outside the Great Wall whom the Ming emperors had bankrupted their kingdom for fear of. The most prominent among the groups of outsiders that were currently menacing Inner China were arguably not really outsiders at all. In earlier centuries, they had been called the Jurchen; they were, in other words, the people who had ruled all of Northern Inner China for almost a century and a half as the Jin dynasty, after pushing the Song emperors over the Qinling Mountains. Now, centuries later, having shaken off the Mongol yoke, they ruled over a realm that corresponded roughly with the modern-day region of Manchuria, and they were commonly called the Manchus. The chaos on the other side of the Great Wall seemed to them to be the perfect opportunity to revive their own imperial traditions in Inner China.
The former Ming generals, who still had considerable forces at their disposal, had to choose whom to support. They may have abandoned the former emperor to his fate at the hands of Li Zicheng, but they had little love for the latter, an uncouth man with a reputation for savagery; as soon as he had taken Beijing, he had set about bolstering that reputation by giving his soldiers permission to rape and pillage to their hearts’ content inside the sacred walls of the Forbidden City itself. Appalled at this and other abuses, most of the generals in Northern Inner China elected to cast their lot with the Manchus.
Li Zicheng had no chance of holding Beijing against the forces now arrayed against him. On June 4, 1644, he set fire to what he could of the Forbidden City as a final act of petulance and rode off into the setting sun, never to be heard of again. The Manchus crossed the now-deserted Great Wall unopposed and entered Beijing the next day, to inaugurate the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history. One of its emperors would later writes these lines to his Ming predecessors on the subject of their Great Wall that had proved to be no defense at all:
You built it for 5000 miles [8000 kilometers],
stretching down to the sea,
But all your expenditures were in vain.
You exhausted the strength of your people,
But when did the empire ever belong to you?
The Manchus named their latest dynasty in China the Qing, which means “bright” or “clear.” They were determined to succeed where their Jin predecessors had failed and seize control of all of Inner China. Some recalcitrant Ming royalty, bureaucrats, and generals were attempting to reconstitute that dynasty in the South, just as their Song predecessors had once succeeded in doing. But this time around, the Manchus were having none of it. They assaulted the province of Jiangxi, the hotbed of resistance to their rule, with a heedless fury. A Qing army took the Jiangxi city of Yangzhou, a major trading center on the Yangtze River, and subjected its citizens to an inhuman reign of terror that lasted a week. One husband and father who survived the ordeal wrote down his experiences afterward with unflinching honesty.
With the danger so great, we decided not to try to escape. But I worried all night; our old hiding place was no longer safe, and my wife had already had to plead pregnancy to survive. Finally, we decided I would hide in the dense weeds by the pond and my wife and [my son] Penger would lie on top. Though the soldiers repeatedly forced them to come out of hiding, they were able to induce them to go away by offering money.
At length, however, there came a soldier of the “Wolf Men” tribe, a vicious-looking man with a head like a mouse and eyes like a hawk. He attempted to abduct my wife. She was obliged to creep forward on all fours, pleading as she had with the others, but to no avail. When he insisted that she stand up, she rolled on the ground and refused. He then beat her so savagely with the flat of his sword that the blood flowed out in streams, totally soaking her clothes. Because my wife had once admonished me, “If I am unlucky, I will die no matter what; do not plead for me as a husband or you will get killed too,” I acted as if I did not know she was being beaten and hid far away in the grass, convinced she was about to die. Yet the depraved soldier did not stop there; he grabbed her by the hair, cursed her, struck her cruelly, and then dragged her away by the leg. There was a small path about an arrow’s shot in length winding out from the field to the main street. The soldier dragged my wife along this and every few steps would hit her again. Just then they ran into a body of mounted soldiers. One of them said a few words to the soldier in Manchu. At this he dropped my wife and departed with them. Barely able to crawl back, she let out a loud sob, every part of her body injured.
Suddenly the whole city was ablaze. The thatched huts surrounding [the] graveyard were quickly reduced to ashes. Only one or two houses, a little separated from the others, were fortunate enough to escape. Those hidden in the houses were forced out by the fire, and 99 in 100 were killed as they showed themselves. Those who stayed inside, sometimes up to 100 people in a single house, were cremated; their number now will never be known.
At this point it was no longer possible to hide. If caught, whether we offered money or not, we would be killed. The only recourse left was to go to the roadside and lie among the corpses so that no one could distinguish us from the dead. My son, my wife, and I went and lay among the graves, so dirty and muddy from head to foot we did not look at all human.
As time passed the fire raged fiercer. The lofty trees around the graves caught fire; it glowed like lightning and roared like a landslide. The violence of the wind made the fire burn so brilliantly that the sun seemed to turn pale. To us it looked as though countless demons were driving hundreds of thousands of people into hell. Many times we fainted with fright, hardly sure whether we were still among the living.
Alas, scenes such as this one had been seen frequently in Chinese history before, and would be seen frequently again. And of course it always seemed to be the women, who had no part in starting wars, who suffered most grievously under them.
Within three years of taking Beijing, the Manchus had subdued most of Southern Inner China as well, although pockets of resistance would persist for almost twenty years more. Well before then, outright brutality like that described above gave way to a subtler form of despotism not that far removed from the kind practiced by the Ming. The social life of China as a whole became a careful blending of Han Chinese and Manchu influences. It helped that the Manchus were not the illiterate nomads that the Mongols had been. They had been absorbing Chinese customs for centuries; the works of Confucius, translated into the Manchu language, had been a staple of their ruling classes since at least the time of the Jin dynasty. Thus the Confucian examination system was continued and, indeed, given even more emphasis, and the new dynasty accepted back into the fold any former officials or generals of the old who hadn’t fought too conspicuously against it during its formative period. “It’s just like the old times,” said the Chinese elites to one another, with only a hint of wishful thinking.
Still, the new dynasty did demand that all of its officials — and in some places all of its male citizens, period — adopt the traditional Manchu hairstyle, in which the forehead was shaved and the hair on the back of the head grown long and braided. Doing so was considered a sign of submission to the new order. Some men were executed for refusing the coiffure, but most complied in the end, however grudgingly.
Between Manchuria and Inner China, the Qing emperors ensconced in the Forbidden City had a lot of territory under their control already. But, possessing none of the latter-day Ming instinct to hunker down behind walls, they soon set about expanding their empire yet more. One by one the Mongol tribes to the north, reduced in these latter days to little more than the hardscrabble nomads they had been before the birth of Genghis Khan, were conquered by the people they had once tormented. These gains brought China into direct contact for the first time with the similarly sprawling empire of the Russians. A tense standoff was resolved in 1689 via the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which established a fixed border between the two empires.
With further northward expansion thus blocked, the Qing emperors turned their eyes westward. They conquered a huge chunk of the Central Asian steppe in that direction, more than any previous Chinese dynasty had managed. They even cracked the tough nut that was Tibet, that land of daunting mountain landscapes and bitter, blizzard-filled winters, the source of the Yellow River and the Yangtze and the other life-giving waters of Inner China. All told, Qing China grew over the first 120 years of its existence to encompass all of the territory of the present-day nation of China and then some. It became an empire of awesome size and scope, relegating the Ming Great Wall to the status of a quaintly useless relic, passing as it did through territory that was now Chinese for hundreds or thousands of miles on both of its sides. China stood as whole and strong and sure of its place in the world as it had ever been. Those budding nation-states around it that had not been swallowed up by it paid the one and only superpower of the East obsequious, kowtowing tribute in the hope of avoiding that fate.
Although the Qing dynasty did not see any major revival of the spirit of technological invention that had marked the Song dynasty, the literary vibrancy of the Ming era continued apace; the last two of the Six Classic Novels stem from the eighteenth century. One of them is The Scholars by Wu Jingzi, a rambling comedy of manners that gently sends up the pretensions of all layers of Chinese society with a writerly touch as deft as that of Jane Austen. Here an earnest but somewhat obtuse rural schoolteacher named Zhou Jin, who has been trying for 40 years to pass the imperial examination that would allow him to join the book’s titular class, is being welcomed to his latest posting by the local worthies.
After they had drunk their tea, two tables were laid, and Zhou Jin was invited to take the seat of honor. Then the others sat down in order of seniority, and wine was poured. Zhou Jin, cup in hand, thanked the villagers and drained his cup. On each table were eight or nine dishes — pig’s head, chicken, carp, tripe, liver, and other dishes. At the signal to begin, they fell to with their chopsticks, like a whirlwind scattering wisps of cloud. And half the food had gone before they noticed that Zhou Jin had not eaten a bite.
“Why aren’t you eating anything?” asked Shen. “Surely we haven’t offended you the very first day?” He selected some choice morsels and put them on the teacher’s plate.
But Zhou Jin stopped him and said, “I must explain — I am having a long fast.”
“How thoughtless we have been!” exclaimed his hosts. “May we ask why you are fasting?”
“On account of a vow I made before the shrine of Buddha when my mother was ill,” said Zhou Jin. “I have been abstaining from meat now for more than ten years.”
“Your fasting reminds me of a joke I heard the other day from Mr. Gu in the country town,” said Mei Jiu. “It is a one-word-to-seven-word verse about a teacher.” The villagers put down their chopsticks to listen while he recited:
Fasted so long,
Whiskers covered his cheeks;
Neglecting to study the classics,
He left pen and paper aside.
He’ll come without being invited next year.
After this recitation, he said, “A learned man like Mr. Zhou here is certainly not foolish.” Then, putting his hand over his mouth to hide a smile, he added, “But he should become a scholar soon, and the description of the fasting and the whiskers is true to life.” He gave a loud guffaw and everybody laughed with him, while Zhou Jin did not know which way to look.
Shen Xiangfu hastily filled a cup with wine and said, “Mr. Mei should drink a cup of wine. Mr. Zhou was the teacher in Mr. Gu’s house.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Mei Jiu. “I should certainly drink a cup to apologize. But this joke was not against Mr. Zhou. It was about a scholar. However, this fasting is a good thing. I have an uncle who never ate meat either. But after he passed the prefectural examination his patron sent him some sacrificial meat, and my grandmother said, ‘If you don’t eat this, Confucius will be angry, and some terrible calamity may happen. At the very least, he will make you fall sick.’ So my uncle stopped fasting. Now, Mr. Zhou, you are bound to pass the examination this autumn. Then you will be offered sacrificial meat, and I’m sure you will stop fasting.”
They all said this was a lucky omen and drank a toast to congratulate Zhou Jin in advance, until the poor man’s face turned a mottled red and white and he could barely stammer out his thanks as he took his cup. Soup was carried in from the kitchen with a big dish of dumplings and a plate of fried cakes. They assured Zhou Jin that there was no animal fat in the cakes, and pressed him to eat some. But he was afraid the soup was unclean and asked for tea instead…
The last of the Six Classic Novels is something else completely. The story of a wealthy family in slow decline, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin centers on a love triangle involving a sensitive adolescent boy, the similarly sensitive and sickly cousin whom he truly loves, and the beautiful and outgoing cousin whom he is expected to marry. But it is more than just a Chinese Buddenbrooks; it draws a universe of human experience out of a single household, nesting tales inside tales, all of them compelling. For the first time in Chinese literature, the author is as interested in describing what his characters think and feel as what they do. And in another first, his female characters are if anything even more fully realized than his male ones. Justly regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written by the international literary community, it is in some ways even more beloved by the Chinese themselves today than is their more masculine national epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Dream of the Red Chamber “has no counterpart in Western fiction,” says the literary scholar Dene J. Levy. “To appreciate its position in Chinese culture you must imagine a work with the critical cachet of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the popular appeal of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind — and twice as long as the two combined.” Lin Yutang concurs: “The Chinese, men and women, have most of them read the novel seven or eight times over.” The masses have it right here. If you read only one Chinese novel, it should be this one. While Romance of the Three Kingdoms will entertain you and teach you much about Chinese history and the Chinese worldview, The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of those rare, wise books with timeless insights to offer on the life of humanity in the abstract.
While Qing China was thriving militarily, economically, and culturally, many of the European nations were building larger and larger empires of their own, albeit of the nautical rather than the contiguous land-based stripe. They found the early Qing emperors to be more receptive to their trading overtures than the Ming had been. In September of 1656, a delegation from the Dutch East India Company became the first group of Europeans to be allowed to meet personally with a Chinese emperor since the time of Marco Polo. Not fully understanding what they were doing or what it implied, the Dutch kowtowed to the emperor in exactly the way that George Macartney would later refuse to do. Satisfied that the barbarians had acknowledged their nation’s fundamental inferiority to the Middle Kingdom, the emperor gave them permission to send a fleet of merchantmen laden with silver to Guangzhou every other year, to return to Amsterdam carrying all the porcelain and silk they could pay for.
The Qing emperors soon learned that trade with the Europeans was darn good business. The enormous quantities of silver their visitors brought with them, to buy Chinese products at a high markup, allowed the government to keep taxes reasonable and to escape the sort of economic pressures that had doomed the Ming dynasty, even as the Qing emperors spent almost equally lavishly. In 1684, the government did away with the last of the restrictions on trade with the Europeans, allowing the barbarians from across the sea to visit China more or less wherever and whenever they wished, in whatever numbers they wished. The explosion in commerce that followed transformed the very face of Guangzhou especially; by the middle of the eighteenth century, some 200 different porcelain factories would exist in that city alone, all of them catering to the European export market. Much of the silver which the Europeans used to pay for it all came from the New World; by one estimate, three fourths of all the silver mined in Europe’s North and South American colonies between 1500 and 1800 wound up in China rather than in the home countries of the colonizers. “Silver wanders throughout the world in its peregrinations before flocking to China, where it remains, as if at its natural center,” said one Portuguese trader.
Tea was a relative latecomer to the China trade, as was the nation of Great Britain with which the beverage has become so indelibly identified. By all indications, the people of Southern Inner China have grown and drunk tea since well before the beginning of recorded history. Although he never mentioned it, Marco Polo must surely have drunk it when he was in China, for it was very popular with the imperial court by that time. Likewise, it was to be found in the holds of Zheng He’s treasure fleet along with other exotic luxuries meant to ignite the curiosity of the benighted peoples he visited. Small quantities of tea reached Europe as early as the mid-seventeenth century, to be sold as an expensive medicinal draught with semi-magical properties. But it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that traders from Britain began to reach China in significant numbers and, finding the markets for porcelain and silk already all but sewn up by other European powers, decided to take a chance on tea. The gamble paid off beyond their wildest dreams. In a remarkably short span of time, tea became an entire nation’s irreplaceable comfort drink, and entire fleets of ships came to exist simply to feed that country’s ravenous appetite for the innocuous-looking dried brown leaves.
China, being so self-evidently mighty, rich, and orderly, became the one great exception to the doctrine of European exceptionalism, if you will, in the eyes of the West. No less a worthy than the French philosopher Voltaire penned a fulsome if historically confused paean to China’s governmental genius:
The constitution of [the Chinese] empire is in fact the best in the world, the only one founded entirely on paternal power; the only one in which the governor of a province is punished when he fails to win the acclamation of the people upon leaving office; the only one that has instituted prizes for virtue, while everywhere else the laws are restricted to punishing crime; the only one that has made its conquerors adopt its law. Four thousand years ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today.
Voltaire was also one of the first Westerners to sing the praises of the Great Wall of China. It was he who inaugurated the longstanding tradition of comparing the Ming Great Wall — which he thought was 2000 years more ancient than it actually was — with the Pyramids of Giza. His lack of personal experience with either wonder didn’t prevent him from declaring the pyramids “childish and useless heaps” in contrast to the Great Wall. His homages were, however, buried deep inside a dense “philosophical dictionary.” It would be several decades yet before admiration of the Great Wall would become a staple of the West’s cultural diet, and when it did the wall would be treated, just like the pyramids in Egypt, as a tumbledown symbol of faded glory in the midst of China’s debauched present rather than as a sign of a vibrant ongoing society.
In the here and now, though, Voltaire’s effusions must hardly have seemed excessive to those Europeans who did happen to stumble across them. If China was no longer as far out in front of Europe as it had been a millennium earlier, it had as yet no need to shrink unduly from comparisons either. In 1750, China was still home to a plurality of the world’s manufacturing — an impressive one-third of the global total. Its population’s average life expectancy was comparable with that of the average European, as was the average household wealth; this made China by dint of its sheer quantity of citizens still the richest nation in the world in absolute terms. And in some areas, such as textile production and irrigation, it still retained a pronounced technological edge over Europe; an agricultural-improvement society was founded in Wales in 1753 with the goal of making that land “as flourishing as China.”
Nevertheless, tensions slowly came to threaten the golden age of free trade between East and West and all the benefits it brought to both sides. Their earliest wellspring was another commodity the Europeans brought with them alongside their silver: their religion of Christianity.
Christianity wasn’t precisely new in China; Christian churches had been seen there from time to time and in place to place since the Tang dynasty if not before, without ever gaining much traction with the mainstream of the culture. The first European missionaries of the era of maritime empire-building had reached China as early as 1580, and their numbers had been ticking steadily upward ever since. Some of them made an effort to learn the local language and integrate their teachings into the local customs, while others did not. Some attempted to share with their hosts the fruits of Western science and technology, while others confined themselves to preaching. At first, the Qing emperors, like those of the dynasties before them, saw Christianity as a quaint, rather half-baked curiosity in comparison to their land’s three venerable belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. One emperor asked a missionary, reasonably enough on the face of it, “why God had not forgiven his son without making him die — but though he tried to answer, I did not understand him.”
In time, however, as more and more missionaries poured into the land and began to make at least some headway thanks to their sheer numbers and persistence, the Qing emperors and the scholar officials under them came to see Christianity as a dangerous threat to Confucian orthodoxy. They responded with the force of law; by 1749, it was illegal for a Westerner to proselytize to a Chinese person.
Some of the backlash was prompted by the missionaries themselves, who pushed too hard too soon, inflamed as they were by the dream of Christianizing the most populous nation on the planet. But another cause was bound up with the age-old life cycle of Chinese dynasties. As it passed the century mark, the Qing dynasty was leaving its period of youthful dynamism behind and embracing the conservatism of middle age. This included a deepening suspicion of the foreigners who were swarming around China’s ports. Between 1757 and 1760, the imperial government instituted a series of draconian rules that restricted the European traders once again to Guangzhou and Macau. Even within Guangzhou, they were to be confined to the docklands, kept out of the walled city proper for fear of their corrupting influence on the native Chinese who lived and worked within. It became known to and loathed by the Europeans as the “Canton system.” (“Canton” was their name for Guangzhou; its origins are obscure, but probably began with an attempted transliteration of the Chinese name, modified over time to be more congenial to European tongues.) Understandably, Westerners were not please to be treated like an infectious disease that was to be held steadfastly outside a new, metaphorical Great Wall, that was to be tolerated at all only thanks to the silver it brought with it.
Meanwhile that silver itself was becoming another festering sore spot in East-West relations. With many of the most productive New World mines now drying up, the stuff was getting harder to come by. Europeans felt it was high time for a more equitable balance of trade with China, in which they would deliver the things their countries were good at making — clocks, instruments, glassware, soon all manner of steam-powered vehicles and mechanisms — in return for the things they had once paid for outright with silver. But the Chinese were unentranced by the prospect; they stated bluntly that nothing any European could make could possibly interest them. They would accept only silver in exchange for their porcelain, silk, and tea.
This crisis of trade, as the Europeans came to see it, finally led them to the place where we began our own journey into China’s history: the visit of the British diplomat George Macartney to Beijing in 1793, in the hope of forging a more equitable and mutually respectful trading relationship. Rather than achieving that goal, Macartney’s delegation marked the beginning of one of the most calamitous eras in all of China’s history — an era that would end with the downfall not just of the current Chinese dynasty but of the whole imperial conception that had guided the life of the land for more than 2000 years.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)