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Expansion and Isolation in Asia: China From Ming to Qing Rule1500–1800

Between 1500 and 1800, Asia saw a transformation caused by outsiders and domestic processes. The Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644, succeeding the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty. The Ming was China’s last Han-dominated imperial dynasty. A rebellion led by Li Zicheng destroyed Beijing in 1644, although other rump Ming administrations ruled by remnants of the Ming royal family continued to exist until 1662. The Manchus ruled China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The empire began in 1636 in Manchuria (modern-day Northeast China and Outer Manchuria), relocated to Beijing in 1644, and then ruled all of China before expanding into Inner Asia in 1656. The dynasty ruled until 1912. The Qing dynasty lasted three centuries and set the foundation for contemporary China’s territorial base. In 1790, it was the most powerful dynasty in Chinese history and the fourth-largest empire in world history. It had 432 million inhabitants in 1912, making it the world’s most populous country. It is possible to gain an in-depth understanding of the Ming through the Qing Rule that shaped contemporary China by studying the primary sources under consideration.

By 1500, China had nearly twice as many people as Europe, thanks to centuries of intensive agriculture and massive public works projects. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was also self-sufficient. Conscripted peasant laborers had created a sophisticated system of canals, roadways, and fortified stations for years (Bonnie et al., 2018). After 1550, the Ming emperors shifted China’s economy from copper to silver currency. An economy based on hard currency necessitated commercialization. A plentiful supply of silk made exporting feasible and profitable. Tea would be followed by fine porcelain and lacquered goods at high exchange rates. Around 1600, Christian missionaries brought Western ideas and technologies to China. For a period, Chinese society was able to define its parameters of connection and exchange with the outside world.

The Ming rulers preserved China’s historic feudal-like connections with foreign peoples, although the Chinese themselves were highly bureaucratic and centralized (Ni & Van, 2006). The indigenous tribes of the south and southwest China were included, who often rebelled but were gradually integrated. Non-Chinese regions, tribes, and states were viewed as feudatories of the Chinese emperor by the Chinese. In return for their fealty and tribute of local goods, foreign monarchs were obliged to honor and obey the Ming ritual calendar. Local and regional governments welcomed tributary envoys from their continental neighbors. Three major ports on China’s southeast and southwest coasts were visited by special marine trade supervisors (shibosi): Zhejiang, Ningbo, for Japanese connections; Fujian, Quanzhou, for Taiwan and Ryukyu contacts; and Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong, for Southeast Asian contacts (Ni & Van, 2006). Foreign embassies were sent to the capital city, where the Ministry of Rites took care of them and set up meetings with the emperor. All the envoys were given gifts as a thank you for their service. Besides, they could buy and sell private trade items at markets in the capital and the ports and borders. This led to a trade in copper coins, silks, and porcelain and a trade in pepper, other spices, and other rare items. Most of the people who worked there sold tea from China and horses from the steppes to other people.

Foreigners gained so much from the joint tribute and commercial activity that the Chinese instituted early size and cargo limits on foreign missions and mandated extensive intermissions between trips (Mosca, 2017). The major goal of Ming foreign policy was to keep China safe from the Mongols. As a result, he deployed army after army to the north and northwest to attack and prevent any consolidation of Mongol authority. When the Yongle emperor decided to move Beijing from Nanjing to Nanjing in 1421, he was even more zealous after a lot of planning (Mosca, 2017). His successors, albeit less enthusiastic than he, saw the restoration and expansion of the Great Wall. Except for raids by Esen Taiji and Altan Khan, China’s frontier defense soldiers kept Mongol invaders at bay.

The Ming dynasty stopped the late Song and Yuan neo-feudal land-tenure developments. Private slavery was outlawed, and the government repossessed large landholdings (Elman, 2013). Consequently, peasant landowners dominated Chinese agriculture in the 15th century. But the Ming emperors couldn’t solve China’s recurrent land-tenure issues. Despite numerous tax exemptions and other efforts to help the farming people, fresh problems arose in the 1420s. Large-scale landlordism returned when powerful families encroached on poor neighbors’ lands. During the late Song dynasty, sharecropping tenancy was popular for millions of peasants, particularly in southeast China and the central region. A new gulf had emerged between the exploitative affluent and the depressed poor. The later Ming government lamented the hardship of the ordinary man but did nothing to improve land tenure circumstances.

The “laissez-faire” agriculture policy of the Ming had a budgetary component. Rural family heads of the Ming dynasty were authorized to collect the state’s primary source of revenue, land taxes. There were 10,000 tax captains assigned to collect taxes on 10,000 piculs of grain, around three bushels or 109 liters of grain (Elman, 2013). This oversaw the collecting and distribution of tax grains, some of which were stored in local storage vaults overseen by the district magistrate, while others were sent to military forces that transported more than three million piculs north each year via the Grand Canal. Tax captains of the early Ming Dynasty made a lot of money by taking advantage of the poor. To make up for the shortfall, tax captains were forced to dip into their savings to meet their quotas, increasing the number of tax evasion cases.

It was not the plot’s productivity that determined the land tax rate but rather the form of ownership the property held, which might be freehold or various government-rented options. The land tax, based on land value, was calculated using people’s labor costs, known as “corvée” (Elman, 2013). Corvée’s responsibilities varied widely and were often rewarded in cash or silver rather than service. It was a complicated tally of multiple tax factors for a farmer’s tax bill. “A single whip” (yitiaobian) was adopted in 1581 by local officials concerned about simplifying land-tax procedures in the 16th century. Land tax and corvée taxes may be combined into a single silver or grain invoice with this system. Simply a bookkeeping change, this change did not reach all organizations. Assessments rose significantly and regularly in 1618 while tax inequities persisted.

The Ming dynasty utilized copper coinage. The government issued paper money for different payments and grants, but it was never convertible and rapidly lost value (Ni & Van, 2006). It would have been worthless if it weren’t for its use in paying certain taxes. Taels (ounces) of silver became the standard unit of measurement for official accounts starting in the mid-16th century. Mexican silver coinage was introduced to the country’s south coast by Spanish seamen from the Philippines. Some modern scholars consider the Ming dynasty’s last century to be a period of “incipient capitalism” due to the development of a genuine money economy and the development of large mercantile and industrial enterprises under both private and state ownership (especially in the great textile centers of the southeast). State-sanctioned businesses only blossomed in the Ming era, and they were constantly at risk of state persecution and confiscation. Even in the Ming dynasty, China’s economic and social structure was heavily influenced by the country’s central government.

Ming The state-dominated China’s intellectual and artistic life. Large-scale patronage or commandeering of artists and craftsmen and the honoring of Ming society’s stable and rich elites established Neo-Confucianism as the official doctrine of Ming times, which proved to be irrepressibly innovative and iconoclastic (Isett, 2007). However, although the masses were willing to produce mediocre copies of Tang and Song masterworks across various fields, a small group of creatives and authors were forging new roads. An intellectual and artistic revolution equal to previous formative eras occurred during the last century of Ming.

Droughts, royal intrigues, and brutal Manchu incursions from the north plagued China in the closing years of Ming rule. Factors outside of China also contributed to the Ming rule’s downfall. The Yangtze River delta and the southeast coast of China underwent a severe economic crisis in the 1630s and 1640s due to a sudden drop in silver imports from Acapulco (Mexico), Japan, and Malacca (Bonnie et al., 2018). Crop failures due to extremely poor weather in 1626–40 aggravated the downturn. Awakened by the crisis, bandits from the northwest strengthened their troops and invaded north and southwest China. In 1644, one of these bandits, Li Zicheng, marched unchallenged into Beijing, and the emperor committed suicide. Wu Sangi sought support from the Manchus in his battle against Li Zicheng. In Beijing, he overthrew Li and declared the Manchu monarchy. China was conquered militarily by the Manchus over the course of decades. In 1673, the conquerors faced a significant insurrection led by three former Ming adherents (including Wu Sangui) who controlled huge portions of southern and southwest China. This insurrection, sparked by Manchu attempts to limit the generals’ autonomy, was put down in 1681. The Qing finally exterminated Ming loyalists in Taiwan in 1683.

The transition to the Qing dynasty was extremely easy, and most Chinese subject areas were likewise affected. Imperial power swiftly rebounded under the Qing rulers, who appeared to improve Chinese administration patterns (Isset, 2007). Many territories in China were conquered during the Qing dynasty, and by the time Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661–1722) ended, China had become an expansionist empire thanks to gunpowder technology. Most mainland Southeast Asia, including Mongolia, Tibet, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, paid tribute to the Qing emperor in exchange for political autonomy. However, the long-lived Emperor Qianlong appeared to be reaching the limits of his military might by the 1750s, and revolts broke out both on the edges and over the entire realm. When commerce and people grew, so did the frequency of flooding, which was made worse by the loss of forests for cultivation, fuel, and construction materials (Zelin, 2013).

Between 1500 and 1800, Asia changed because of outside and inside factors. The Ming dynasty came after the Yuan dynasty, run by the Mongols. Trade boomed between 1540 and 1644, and living standards rose when the Ming dynasty was in power. During this time, the Manchus were also brought back to the north. And, even though there was a lot of money, there was no absolute protection against the famines and diseases that happened in the past because of China’s high population and poor medical care. While bureaucratic processes were efficient by modern world standards, they were not enough to do the job of helping a lot of people. Peasant families can only dream of working together with their neighbors in hard times. Most Chinese subjects were also affected by the transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty. The Qing rulers quickly regained control of the imperial power. They seemed to improve the way China ran its government. Many parts of China were taken over during the Qing dynasty. By the time Emperor Kangxi’s reign (1661–1722) ended, China had become an expanding empire thanks to gunpowder technology.


Bonnie G. Smith, Marc Van De Mieroop, Richard von Glahn, Kris Lane. World in the Making: A Global History, Volume Two: Since 1300. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Elman, B. A. (2013). Global Capitalism and Local Artistic Taste in Late Imperial/Early Modern China, 1600-1800. Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences6(4), 74-104.

Fong, G. S., & Widmer, E. (2010). The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming through Qing. Brill.

Isett, C. M. (2007). State, peasant, and merchant in Qing Manchuria, 1644-1862. Stanford University Press.

Mosca, M. W. (2017). China and the Asian World, 1500–1900. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History.

Mungello, D. E. (2012). The great encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ni, S., & Van, P. H. (2006). High corruption income in Ming and Qing China. Journal of Development Economics81(2), 316-336.

Zelin, M. (2013). Chinese business practice in the late imperial period. Enterprise & Society14(4), 769-793.


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