Professor Yuanchong Wang
December 11th, 2017
Spreading Sinocism: Cultural Development in China from the Song to Qing Dynasties
Contemporary China is an ethnically diverse and dynamic nation expanding its influence economically, politically, and military. China’s dense history is defined by this cultural diversity and exchange, becoming a unique mosaic of Asiatic conquest, exchange, and exploration. This paper will examine how domestic and foreign factors culminated into the creation of modern China’s multiethnic and multicultural population from the Song to Qing Dynasties through analysis of historical conflicts, trade, and policy.
Military conflict has always brought significant cultural change regardless of location or belligerents throughout recorded history. The victors typically impose their customs, language, and politics on the subjugated, creating an environment of cultural exchange. Although this exchange may not be voluntary, it is nonetheless incredibly important for both the winning and losing parties. China’s history is rife with both military victory and defeat, leading it to be a good place to begin the explanation of the Song to Qing Dynasties and their growing distinctiveness.
The Song empire existed in Central China from 960 to 1276 CE (136). They introduced civil service exam reform and de-emphasized the military. This weakened national defense and gave the Liao people, the nation north of the Song’s territory, an opportunity to exert military force on their weakened state. This subjugation was harsh. In 1004 the Song paid the Liao 100,000 taels of silver and 200,000 pieces of silk every year as tribute. This was further exacerbated by the Tangut regime in Xixia defeating the Song two years later in 1006. The Tangut’s increased the strain on Song coffers by demanding 10,000 taels of silver, 10,000 units of silk, and 1,000 kilos of tea as tribute. Furthermore, the Song were defeated in 1038 by the Great Xia under Li Yuahao.
The combination of this subjugation and warfare is cultural diffusion. The Liao, Tanguts, and Great Xia all had diverse and unique cultures which organically spread into the Song Dynasty through trade, communications, personal interactions, and politics. The combination of these lead to a Chinese identity crisis. What is China and who is Chinese? How does this affect our long history, and where do we go forward from here?
Sima Guang argued that the Song, and only the Song, were the true heirs to China’s previous history and ethnic culture. In over 294 volumes he wrote the “Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government” which recorded 1362 years of history from the late Zhou period to the founding of the Song. His diligence in recording this vast history in such detail highlights the importance of cultural identity and national unity in China. This importance is reinforced by his personal advocacy of not changing ancestral conventions during the Song Dynasty.
Civilizations are defined by their collective history and culture. This makes preserving that culture invaluable for social cohesion. Other intellectuals raised questions about Chinese identity similar to Sima Guang. Intellectual Sun Fu argued that all barbarians must be expelled from China and intellectual Ouyang Xiu wrote about the orthodox legitimacy of the emperor and his right to rule. Questioning the Orthodox legitimacy of the emperor and the mandate of heaven was a direct result of these repeated military loses.
In 1115, The Jin and Song allied to defeat the Liao, a herding and hunting people from Manchuria. This alliance was short lived and by 1126 the Jin sacked the Song capital of Kaifeng. Tributary payments were given to the Jin and a puppet government, the Qi, was placed in power between the two states to create a buffer zone to slow any possible Song retaliation. Despite this, the Song eventually beat the Jin because of the ineffectiveness of the Qi. This military exchange between the Song, Jin, and Liao elaborates the previous point on how cultural diffusion occurs through warfare. Each nation was ethnically different and had to communicate using different languages, wore different garments, ate different foods, and exchanged goods and services.
The Mongols would take this concept to the extreme under the leadership of Genghis and Ogodei Khan. From 1218 to 1259, the Mongols conquered or subordinated the Western Liao, Khwarezima, Xixia, the Jin, Tubo, the Dali, The Song, and lastly Koryo. This rapid expansion would create the largest contiguous land empire in history, stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. The unification of these far and distant lands under one leader would create a time known as “Pax Mongolica” translated as Mongol peace. The dissemination of technology, language and culture of this time period from this enormous empire would be brought back to China by the Mongols. Following this, The Mongols would establish political legitimacy in China by emulating the Song and adopting their practices like Confucianism. This exchange would evolve into the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. Confucianism would be re-emphasized by Yuan leadership to destroy any concept of Mongolian barbarianism. The adoption of this native political and philosophical system would blur the lines of identity in China even more. An example of the Yuan creating this orthodox political legitimacy is exemplified by Confucius being awarded the rank of king posthumously and the Yuan compiling a history of the Liao, Jin, and Song in 1343. This would be the climax of cultural exchange through military conquest for China.
These aforementioned foreign factors greatly changed the shape of the Chinese identity, but where the Yuan expanded control with conquest, the Ming receded with new domestic laws limiting trade. The Ming ruled from 1368 to 1644 and initiated a multitude of reforms concerning trade. For example, the superintendency for trade in Quanzhou, Mingzhou, and Guangzhou were abolished in 1374. This reform was enacted under Emporer Hongwu, following the adage that “Even a single piece of wood is not allowed to enter the sea”. This reform was intended to control overseas private trade but did the exact opposite, it encouraged the decline of trade. This decline in trade slowed the rate of cultural diffusion that had previously been experienced in the Yuan Dynasty.
Emporer Hongwu also mandated that all states that wished to trade with China must enter a tributary system on the pre-condition that they must identify China as superior and at the center of the world. Although this system decreased trade, his successor, Emporer Yongle, endorsed seven trade missions from 1405 to 1433 under the supervision of Eunuch Zheng He. These missions were extremely successful and went as far as the horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, southern India, and Indonesia. Oddly enough, the purpose of these journeys were not for military conquest. This was an impressive feat, used 62 deep sea capable junks to complete the journeys. This was approximately 10 times the size of any similar fleet in Europe at that time.
Zheng He’s Journey’s from 1405 to 1433
The Ming Dynasty also brought about important political maneuvers for foreign policy. In 1392, The Ming established the Choson Dynasty by removing the incumbent Koryo Dynasty which had been in power since 918 CE. The Choson became the ideal tributary state, adopting classical Chinese as its language, the Chinese calendar, and neo-confucianism as its social structure. The Ming retained political control of the country by selecting its King. This exchange is extremely significant. Not only did China project its culture onto Korea, but Korea also began viewing Japan as barbarous as it developed China’s likeness.
The Ming’s colonial policy to modern day Vietnam is also similar, though not exactly the same. From 1400 to 1407, the Ming defeated Vietnam and began to integrate its territory into their own. The territory was renamed to Jiaozhi and attempted to be provincialized. This rule ended in 1427 when the Ming were defeated and forced to withdrawal. This did not end the relationship between the two nations however. In 1431 Vietnam accepted the terms of a tributary relationship with the Ming.
Another example of cultural diffusion would be the journey of Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci who lived from 1552 to 1610. Jesuits were members of the Catholic church who traveled internationally to evangelize. He lived in Macau and Beijing and wore Chinese clothing to assimilate into the culture. As a foreigner fluent in Chinese, he was able to convey the bible into a pseudo-confucian message to make Christianity relevant to the Chinese. He was also a cartographer and was able to further Christian-Chinese relations by providing the Ming emperor with a map of the world. This map placed China at the center of the world which thoroughly impressed him, being that it was one of the non-negotiable concepts for other states to accept to enter the tributary system. Furthermore, Ricci and other Europeans revolutionized Chinese agriculture by introducing sweet potatoes, corn, and peanuts which could be grown on sandy or hilly soil.
Matteo Ricci’s work in China was nothing short of extraordinary. He introduced Catholicism to the Chinese and adopted their own practices and language. This is an outstanding example of how China developed into an ethnically diverse modern state because it improved cross-cultural understanding and brought Chinese philosophy back to the West. This type of religious diffusion can also be seen in the Jewish settlement of China and Islam in western China. A common trend can be observed from this. Ethnic traits and habits were both exported and imported from military conflicts, domestic and foreign policy, and trade.
This leads to the Qing Dynasty, the last Dynasty before the creation of the Republic of China and Peoples Republic of China. The Qing Dynasty, known as the Great Qing, maintained power from 1636 until 1912. This Dynasty was founded by the Manchu, near modern day Harbin, who continued the Ming’s trajectory of isolation. Like the Ming, The Qing continued the tributary system with its neighbors, trading only on its borders. Europeans at this time were only allowed to trade in Guangzhou, however this was not enough to satisfy European trading demands. In combination with this, Emperor Yongzheng banned Christianity in 1724 opening a slew of questions. One such question was where does Christianity move on from here? Europeans saw the denial of their religion and trade as enough of a provocation to put military pressure on the Qing using gun boat diplomacy. This forced European culture onto the Chinese and initiated the “100 years of humiliation” beginning with the first of the unequal treaties.
This time period lasted from the First Opium War, 1839 to 1842, until the communist revolution in 1949, lead by Mao Zedong, and is defined by the Treaty-Port system which ceded four ports to the British and consular jurisdiction exempting British citizens from Chinese law. These two acts alone humiliated the Chinese and their vast history, but in this process, the British also started a horrific opium epidemic that caused social disorder and death. To add injury upon this, other European powers “carved China up like a melon” to exert their influence on Chinese policy and trade.
This is obviously negative, but it undoubtedly made China more ethnically diverse. For example, British control of Hong Kong changed the city’s cultural landscape. The English language became the de-facto lingua franca for political and economic administration. Trading with China and bringing back Chinese goods also introduced more Chinese culture to Europeans, albeit exploitative. This early example of globalization has only increased in recent decades with superior telecommunications and faster travel.
The following passage from the book The History of Chinese Civilization summarizes the growth of China’s multi-ethnic state exceptionally well:
Turks, Mongols, and assorted others had both conquered and governed all or part of the dominant ethnic group – the majority known as “Han Chinese”. Foreigners not only conquered the Han, but also took on many of their attributes, including (sometimes) their language. Thus, what we know as China today has had a respectable place among world empires (including regimes known as the “Holy Roman Empire,” “British Empire,” and “Ottoman Empire,” just to cite entities from the past.)
This quote is exceptional because it summarizes the cyclic nature of history. China was not only conquered, but a conqueror. Its power, size, and influence expanded far outside its borders, disseminating its culture and accepting the culture of other civilizations. Contemporary is both multiethnic and multicultural, standing poised to expand its influence on the international stage.
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