The Marvels of Chinese Civilization
While Western Civilization was still in the Dark Ages, China was thriving in the East. More than any other people, the Chinese had a long continuous history unbroken by major cultural revolutions. At almost the same era as classical Greece, philosophy and learning flourished in China and would continue to define Chinese society 2000 years later. The most important development in their culture was the emergence of the many schools of thought under the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 BC). Earnest souls arose to save China from the strife and the exploitation of the weak by the strong which characterized the age of the Warring States. The greatest of these thinkers was Confucius, whose doctrine of filial piety gave order and structure to everyday social interactions. His teachings were so effective that society went relatively unchanged for over two millennia.
Another great philosopher who impacted the Chinese way of life was Mo Zi. He believed the universe to be governed by a Being who loves mankind. Since this Being loves all men, men ought to love one another. He opposed aggressive war and insisted that consumption and production be regulated to what he deemed to be the necessities. Although war and rebellions continued in China, social order was never significantly threatened. For more on how the teachings of Confucius, legalism, Taoism, and Mo Zi preserved social order I recommend reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In these historical accounts, even sworn enemies on the battlefield would treat each other with the upmost respect. Men sacrificed their lives before losing their honor. It was truly one of the greatest achievements of civilized society in world history.
The Chinese were also creative innovators. Centuries before their western counterparts, the Chinese discovered gunpowder, invented the clock and magnetic compass, developed astrology and advanced shipbuilding, and may have discovered the Americas prior to Christopher Columbus. For evidence of Chinese colonies in the Americas and elsewhere, Gavin Menzies, in his book 1421, lists such evidence as DNA tests of Native Americans in Sacramento and a tribe in Peru that spoke fluent Chinese to support his premise. There are even pre-Columbus maps that have survived showing the west coast of North America and east coast of South America. The Chinese also displayed marked skill in industry. The factory system of labor-saving machinery such as the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries in Europe’s Industrial Revolution had long existed in bamboo contraptions powered by flowing rivers in China around the eleventh century AD. In comparison to China, during the Medieval Ages European societies were living in backwardness, their economic situation was in ruin, and Europeans understood little to nothing about astrology.
One of the ways Chinese society was able to preserve itself over the millennia was the development of the examination system. The test was required for all government officials to qualify them for holding public office, regardless of socio-economic status. The examination was extremely difficult and required perfect knowledge of classical literature and expert penmanship. This gateway into administrative positions ensured the continuation of Confucian practices in government. Thanks to this system, Medieval China had a bureaucracy so advanced and complex that it was only matched elsewhere in the west by the 1920s, in terms of the number of bureaucratic offices and positions.
To the Chinese, there could be only one legitimate ruler for all civilized mankind and all others were rightly subordinate to him. All foreign kingdoms recognized China as the center of civilization and paid tribute to the Emperor. Calling themselves “Zhong Guo,” or “Middle Kingdom” the Chinese recognized their Emperor as Heaven’s representative on Earth. Given China’s advanced society, this title was universally recognized by Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and even the Mongols. In the rare events when China was conquered by foreigners, such as the Mongols, the foreign occupiers would simply mimic Chinese customs and leave the bureaucratic system untouched. The Mongol Dynasty under Kublai Khan would become Chinese in every sense. After their great sea explorations under Emperor Zhu Di in the 1420s, the Chinese held enough pride in their society to confidently isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Sure that the barbaric outsiders had little to teach or offer the Middle Kingdom, the fourth emperor of the Ming Dynasty issued an edict to burn all the Chinese junk ships and limit foreign trade. China was more isolated than ever with the firm belief that its Emperor sat on the throne of the center of the world under heaven.
A Historic New Threat From Without
While China remained closed off, the West had a Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution. A global shift in trade had begun at the beginning of the 18th century. It was the birth of the capitalist free market ideology in the West—a revolution that China was completely oblivious to. Both the increased economic capacity of the West and changing ideology began to conflict with the Chinese way of life. It was through Great Britain that the accentuated threat from the West came first. When they arrived, the Chinese regulated their foreign trade through the Canton System, which limited trade to one location in Canton (or Guangzhou). In addition, this trade had to exist through middlemen known as the Hong Merchants. Trade would occur between the British and Chinese for sometime. Rare silks, porcelain, and other desired rarities were purchased by England’s East India Company in exchange for silver. Though satisfactory to the Chinese, this controlled system could never be enough for an Industrialized Capitalist society that requires growth, not sustainability. The British had a sense that there was still an enormous untapped potential for wealth in China waiting to be exploited if only there was way to sell the Chinese something that they desired that Britain had to offer. Eventually it was discovered that Opium from Britain’s colony, India, could be introduced to the Chinese. The negative and addictive effects of the drug were well known to the British and they began to market this drug to Canton. After the Chinese population was hooked, the British were finally able to reverse the flow of silver leaving their economy into China. Seeing the disastrous effects opium addiction had on their society, it did not take long for the Qing government to abolish it. In 1834 the monopoly, which the East India Company had enjoyed in British trade with China, was terminated. Fueled by their free trade ideology, the British saw this as an act of barbarism. Hostile relations between the East and West were inevitable.
The Opium Wars and Loss of Sovereignty
The Chinese government was very unhappy over the situation, partly because of the effects of the drug upon the population, and partly because the traffic was draining the Empire of its silver. In Canton a special commissioner with the assignment of ending the opium trade compelled the foreign merchants to cease importing the commodity. He achieved this result by the virtual imprisonment of the entire foreign community. When Great Britain decided to respond militarily, they did so under the guise of “protecting free trade” and not as an aggressive drug cartel—which they were. Clashes between the British and Chinese armed forces followed. The Qing government was oblivious to the strength and capabilities of the British navy. Since the Chinese had almost no experience or technical expertise in fighting naval battles, the once proud Chinese military was embarrassingly swept aside by the far superior British forces. In spite of this, the Chinese did not consent to negotiations until the English had captured Zhenjiang and threatened to attack Nanjing. When the Qing finally capitulated, the British treaty that followed abolished all restrictions on trade and restored opium sales. It was followed by treaties with several other Western powers, most notably the United States in 1844. However, this still was not enough to satisfy the British. After 1852 the English pressed for a review of their treaty with the granting of added privileges to foreigners. When the Qing government refused to renegotiate, hostilities broke out again in 1856. Soon the French joined the English and captured Canton and then Tianjin, thus threatening the capital, Peking. Suddenly old European adversaries became united in their efforts to exploit China’s vulnerability. Shortly after, treaties were negotiated in 1858 between Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States. In 1859, when the Western powers arrived off the coast for the purpose of ratifying the treaty, they found that Chinese authorities, intent upon preserving the fiction of the superiority of the Empire over Western states, were insisting that the route be followed which was customarily that of the tribute-bearing embassies from subordinate princes in the Far East. To this the British and French envoys would not accede and the war was renewed with Peking being taken. The later treaties virtually made the Chinese second-class citizens in their own country with a complete loss in self-determination. From 1860 to 1920, this point forward in Chinese history is known as the Great Humiliation when China fell victim to imperialist Europeans ready to carve up their share of China. The Chinese felt themselves to be branded as barbarians and inferiors—a status peculiarly galling to a people who long esteemed themselves the most civilized of mankind.
Disaster Strikes Chinese Society
Never before had the Chinese dealt with such a powerful foe who threatened their way of life. Every phase of Chinese life (political, economic, intellectual, social, moral, and religious) was strikingly affected. For magnitude, this period was unequaled by any other people in all human history. The Qing Court was completely unprepared and perhaps incompetent to deal with the crisis. Peasant rebellions against both the Europeans and Qing government were rampant. Opium continued to flood China’s domestic economy. Millions of Chinese became addicted to opium, which became a tremendous social problem. People became less productive members of their society. All the types of crime and anti-social behavior that we associate with modern drug addictions manifested throughout Southern China. An added economic effect was the demand by the British to receive payment in silver for opium. As silver began to flow out of China at a rapid rate, this caused several adverse ripple effects to the economy. By the mid 1800s, there was a shortage of capital for investment and the money supply was destabilized. The Qing government had difficulty dealing with these challenges due to policy debates among the leadership. As the Chinese economy continued to decline, the wealth gap began to widen sending countless numbers into poverty. The non-responsiveness of the government led to sporadic peasant uprisings against the Qing. The most catastrophic of these uprisings was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64). It gained momentum after the rebels, led by Hong Xiu Quan, captured Nanjing. The Taiping rebels demanded reform and an end to the feudalist system. In what was now a civil war the Western powers, interestingly enough, backed the Qing government. Their assistance helped them finally crush the rebellion after 14 long years of bloody conflict. The warfare exacerbated poverty and famine, and worsened overall life in China. The best estimates allege 20 million civilians and soldiers died. That is more deaths than in World War I. As the status quo continued, the Chinese were never able to make significant gains in industrial production or a modern military force until the 20th century. Dissent and civil strife continued afterwards. Where there was once a peaceful countryside, much of the empire was now honeycombed with secret revolutionary societies. Civil strife and banditry threw still more below the poverty line and further swelled the ranks of those who took to fighting or robbery in preference to starvation.
Clash of Cultures
As a culture, the Chinese had always held as axiomatic the conviction that all men should be subordinate to their Emperor. They were disposed to hold a group, such as a family or a village, responsible for the deeds of each its members and to consider an accused person guilty until he could prove his innocence. In the years leading to the hostilities, the English were outraged by Chinese behavior towards their merchants. The English felt that guilt for a particular offense was lodged legally and solely in the individual and that the burden of proof in establishing guilt must be placed upon the accusers. The refusal of the Chinese to enter into diplomatic relations and the insistence of the Chinese that methods of trial and punishment be applied to foreign offenders under Chinese law—all became increasingly annoying to the English who in time would deem these actions intolerable.
A Failure to Adapt
For the first time, this 2000 year-old culture had to make radical decisions about how to change their way of life to save their society from further enslavement by their Western imperial masters. Unlike the Aztecs, Aborigines, or other indigenous peoples before them who fell victim to white men, Chinese society did not fall ill to plague or lack a serious capability to resist. The Qing state leadership lacked creativity in their capacity to deal with these new challenges. Their response was always frustrated by their bureaucratic way of doing everything the way it was always done. Confucian doctrine made it difficult to propose new ideas that were not based on well established precedence. Several efforts were made by the Chinese to throw off their foreign shackles; however, superior weapons and wealth thwarted each attempt. Many began to realize that if the Chinese ever wanted to regain their independence, radical changes were needed in their economy and government. Some looked to Japan’s Meiji Government as a successful example. The Japanese were sending their students to schools all over the world to develop the necessary technical skills to modernize their economy. When China attempted to do the same, they were met with greater resistance from their own culture. As Japan modernized, they became an equal threat to China. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) revealed the true weakness of the realm. After suffering a humiliating defeat to a former tributary state, it now seemed clear that China was helpless. This only emboldened Western antagonism as each felt that if it did not obtain a slice of the Chinese melon its rivals would crowd it out entirely. Numbers of far seeing Chinese were keenly aware that the West could not be held at a distance. If China were to maintain her political independence she must take over some features of Western civilization. On the other hand were those who would expel the foreigner and resume the isolation which had been the imperial policy before the pressure had become so acute. The reformers first had their way, but the reactionaries then took charge.
By 1911 remarkable progress was finally attained in eliminating the domestic growth and importation of opium. In 1902, the intermarriage of Chinese ethnic backgrounds was permitted. The most far reaching of the reforms were those in education. Steps were taken to develop government schools in which Western as well as Chinese subjects were taught. A ministry of education was created in 1905 and the existing civil service examinations based upon the Chinese classics were abolished. A commission was sent to the United States, Europe, and Japan to study the political institutions there. A constitution was promised. Provincial assemblies were inaugurated in 1909 and a national assembly was convened. A Republic was eventually formed though those chosen for actual administration were of the imperial government. Short cuts under autocratic direction, whether of an individual or a group, were doomed to fail. Here lay much of the reason for the internal disorder of the ensuing decades. Eventually rival military leaders arose and multiplied contending for power. Had precedent been followed, one of them would eventually have eliminated the others and founded a new ruling line. Disunion continued after the fall of the Republic but the most persistent division was not between monarchists and republicans, but between differing degrees of radicalism in the adoption and adaptation of social and political theories from the West. In 1912 Yuan Shi Kai became the new President after deposing his rivals. Once the numerous revolts against his usurpation were ruthlessly suppressed, he dismissed his political opponents from Parliament of which he seemed to have dictatorial control. In 1915, Yuan went a step further and reestablished the monarchy with himself as Emperor. Later that year, rebellions from the south would become too great to quell and Yuan would die before his enemies could force him from office. To make matters worse, foreign affairs were heating up. Extensive loans were made to China from Japan and the Western powers. While much of Europe had its hands tied with WWI, Japan seized its opportunity to make advances on China by imposing a number of secret treaties that gave them significant control over strategic sea ports and railroad lines. By the 1920s communist elements were able to gain appeal by denouncing foreign imperialism and all forms of capitalism. A prolonged civil war was waged between nationalists under Jiang Jeshi and communists under Mao Zedong from the early 30s until after World War II. Although China made several gains in industry and law, little had improved Chinese standard of living in the past hundred years since England first threatened the Chinese way of life.
Why They Failed
China’s problems were partially rooted in their perception of the outside world. Their arrogant view of outsiders made it impossible to learn from them and thus perceive incoming threats. Furthermore, Chinese Emperors made decisions based on superstitions and astrological signs. If natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, occurred during an emperor’s reign, it would throw his mandate to rule into question. When, Zhu Di probably had Chinese colonies in America, China’s potential world dominance was suspended due to the fact a lightning bolt struck the Forbidden City, burning the palace to the ground. Zhu Di, as well as the rest of China, interpreted this occurrence as a sign from heaven that the advanced exploration ships around the world had to be halted. All written accounts from the explorers, the Junk ships, and blueprints for engineering them were burned or destroyed as society reverted back to traditional Confucian customs to appease heaven. Throughout the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty failed to produce any charismatic leaders. Instead, most of the state power rested in the hands of aristocratic scholars, or literati. The elites, whether they were the traditional elites of the literati or the new elites of the merchants, were conservative and concerned with protecting their wealth and economic interests. In the later imperial era of China, the literati had resisted efforts by the state to rationalize fiscal administration for extracting greater revenues from private sources. This elite class, as well as all who benefited from the old system, stood in the way of change. Unlike Japan, China’s scholar-official class was recruited through an educational system which stifled original thought and which bred adherence to the status quo.
In the 1870s one hundred and twenty youths were dispatched to America to be educated at the expense of their government. Conservative alarm at the rapidity of their Americanization terminated the educational mission before more than a few had completed their preparation. On their return to China, the boys were looked at askance for their Western equipment in spite of their achievements in helping their native land acquire Western appliances. Railway construction and telegraph lines were achieved in the north; yet, until 1894 life went on much as it had before the first Opium war with the West. The structure of government and the educational and examination system, which supported it, were unaltered.
It was only an occasional far-sighted Chinese who perceived that whether they liked it or not, their fellow countrymen must learn from the west if they were to preserve their independence and the position of their Empire as a great power. Since most officials had a stake in the old order, they clung to it and viewed with alarm proposals for modifications, for these might break their power. Reformers included many individuals too numerous to single out for mention. They had no one recognized leader nor were they organized. They were moreover a small minority with the weight of tradition against them. Reform was not going to come from the leadership of China either. The last Emperors of China, though some were intelligent, had no direct knowledge of the world outside their palace walls. Empress Dowager (1835-1908) was blind to the significance of the forces in the Western world which were impinging upon China. She despised Westerners and all things foreign. The empress annulled most of the reform edicts and she even had some of the reformers executed. Many reformers took refuge abroad. Another extreme reaction to compromise with the West was the Boxer Rebellion. The movement was anti-foreign and was an attempt to purge the realm of Westerners and Western influence. Rather than learn from the Europeans and beat them at their own game, the Chinese only emboldened their conservatism and looked to their ancestors for guidance.
What We Can Learn
Similar to us today, China’s fate was not sealed after the first arrival of danger. The first encounter with the British demonstrated that the Chinese needed to adopt radical changes to prevent further threats to their society. There were obvious signs that they lagged far behind their Western counterparts and needed to adopt radical changes. Had there been wiser and stronger leadership at the top, China might conceivably have been transformed by peaceful processes into a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately for the Chinese, they looked to old ideas and solutions within their existing Confucian system for how to save themselves. The blame does not rest entirely with the Qing authority, but on their society as a whole. Even after the monarchy abdicated, the precedent of civil war at the fall of a dynasty was confirmed with rival aspirants for power fighting one another. Although our current global society differs greatly from the Qing Dynasty, we share similar roadblocks to needed change and reform. In particular, America’s capitalist dogma of endless consumption can never be seriously questioned in a presidential campaign or major news forum. Although the world’s consumer culture is unsustainable, our current capitalist system prevents the very changes necessary for reform to take place. Within a shockingly short length of time, the 14 years since the beginning of our century have witnessed senseless wars, preventable environmental catastrophes, and the indisputable arrival of climate change. The problems lie much deeper than simple government regulations. They are systemic. For corporations to exist, they must externalize cost and risk to the general public. Many cut corners and fail environmental safety regulations (during those times when they are properly regulated). The results have been the Fukashima disaster in the Pacific and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, just to name a few, and yet none of these disasters are enough to spark serious change—change necessary for the billions to survive the future. Much like the elite members of Qing’s society, the powerful 1% today have the most stake in our current system. A simple way of putting it is our corporate oligarchy today profits from disaster, scarcity of resources (whether real or artificial), and war; and will do all they can to prevent meaningful democracy and green technology from challenging their system. Solutions and efficiency in technology, such as the electric car, have been deliberately destroyed by the very companies they threaten. A good documentary on this subject is Who Killed the Electric Car? Additionally, much like the Chinese, we often look to our own current system for solutions where none will exist. We try electing new Presidents who promise change and yet they inevitably behave like Yuan Shi Kai as soon as they take the reigns of power.
As I have shown, we are on a collision course with certain disaster. It took the Chinese over a hundred years and millions dead for their society to finally be reborn from the chaos, only to face the same challenges we all must face together. Unless serious changes occur to our current political, economic, and cultural structure all the signs show we are headed for certain doom. We cannot hope to change our leadership unless we change ourselves. If we are to survive on this planet for another hundred years, our approach needs to be revolutionary, not apathetic; creative, not dogmatic; scientific, not superstitious; and sustainable, not exploitive. This will only take place when we learn from our history.