The Last Century of Imperial China 1760 CE

In 1760, the Chinese empire is at the height of its power. The giant country has experienced almost 80 years of internal tranquility and external expansion under three of the greatest emperors in the country’s long ...

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What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1760CE

In 1760, the Chinese empire is at the height of its power. The giant country has experienced almost 80 years of internal tranquility and external expansion under three of the greatest emperors in the country’s long history. The Qianlong emperor (reigns 1735-95) currently occupies the throne. He rules from the magnificent Forbidden City in Beijing, where the enormous imperial court is located.

Non-Chinese rulers

These rulers belong to the Qing dynasty. Their ancestors were the leaders of the Manchu people, close relatives of the Mongols of central Asia.

The Manchu conquered China more than a century before. They are determined to maintain their separate identity from the bulk of the Chinese population. Marriage between Manchus and Chinese is prohibited, the Manchu homeland is kept free from Chinese settlement (in theory at any rate), and Chinese men are obliged to wear queues (pigtails at back of the head) to emphasise their ethnic identity. Also, care is taken to ensure that the most senior government posts (ministers, governors-general, governors) are shared out equally between Manchus and Chinese officials.

On the other hand, the Qing emperors are committed to upholding the traditional Chinese ideology of Confucianism. This traces its beginnings to the great philosopher Confucius in the 5th century BCE, and its teachings on social harmony have shaped Chinese state and society from ancient times. The dynasty has thus won the support of the great majority of Chinese officials. These are mostly recruited by means of the ferociously competitive public exams, which test them in their grasp of Confucian doctrine and government matters.

The Civil Service and the Gentry

The examination system is millennia old, and has a central place in the Chinese state. It ensures that all civil servants are of high intelligence and are steeped in the same Confucian beliefs; and that government office is not the preserve of a few hereditary aristocrats. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in Chinese history of men rising from lowly origins to the highest offices in the empire.

The officials of the civil service administer the Chinese empire through an elaborate organisation of provinces, prefectures and counties; beneath them, the local gentry run local affairs. The gentry class is made up of educated people who have passed the lower exams but not the higher exams (with their 1% or 2% pass rates), which secure entry to an official government career. They make up the local elites in the small towns and villages of China, settling minor disputes, supervising irrigation projects, running the local schools and so on.

An expanding population

The population of China is growing strongly (it would approximately double during 18th century, from 150 million to 300 million). At this time, expansion of food production is more than keeping pace: new crops such as maize, potatoes, peanuts have arrived from America, new strains of rice are being developed, and a steady stream of innovations such as improved irrigation techniques, double-cropping, better fertilizers, is making more and more intensive farming possible.

Also, there is internal migration from densely-populated areas (for example the lower Yangtze valley, Yangtze delta and south coast of China) to under-populated areas (in the mountainous region between Yellow River and Yangtze valleys, the southwest of China, western China and the newly-conquered regions of the northwest). On the back of this agricultural expansion come rising standards of living for all classes, thriving commerce and increasing urbanization.

Qing China and the wider world

The Tributary system

The countries surrounding China – Korea, Annam (Vietnam), Laos, Burma and Thailand – are in a tributary relationship with their powerful neighbor.  They send regular tribute missions to the Chinese court in Beijing, to confirm their subservience to the emperor of China. These missions also provide opportunities for trade between these countries and China.

Japan, for all its cultural debt to China, is the one major country in East Asia which stands aloof from the Chinese tributary system.

Central Asia

In its dealings with the peoples of central Asia, the Chinese government has been obliged to use military force on a large scale. It is from this harsh region that China’s conquerors have traditionally come, and the Chinese army is used to keep these turbulent nomads in check.

A recent factor is the spread of Russia to the Pacific, and treaties (in 1689 and 1727) have fixed the borders between the two outsized states and regulated trade between them.

Foreign trade

The maritime trade with South East Asia, India and beyond, is restricted to the port of Guangzhou (Canton), where it can be conducted under the watchful eye of Chinese officials. The Portuguese have their own enclave in nearby Macao, but that is the only (legal) exception to this rule. Europeans – not only Portuguese, but later Dutch and English – have been arriving since the 16th century. They are regarded with particular suspicion by officials for their outlandish looks and unrefined behaviour.

There is a strong and growing demand for tea in Europe, but little demand for European goods in China; as a result European merchants pay for their cargoes with silver, most of which comes from Spanish America, either via the Philippines (which is under Spanish rule), or via British traders. Silver is flooding into China, underpinning its sophisticated banking system and oiling the wheels of its flourishing economy.

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