Notes on East Asia in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries


Edo castle, Japan; photo credit: Dimitrio Lewis

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The Manchu conquest of China had been unexpected by the Chinese, despite the ever-constant preoccupation of the Han Chinese with the fear of invasion. After all, the reason why the Great Wall was originally built was to keep out invaders from the north, and yet here was an invasion from the north that conquered China!

Nurhaci (1559, reigned 1616-1626) was able to unite the Manchu tribes into eight armies and then gain the aid and support of the Mongols. In 1644 a local Chinese official invited some Manchu forces across the Great Wall to help put down a local rebellion. That proved to be a big, big mistake for the Chinese. The Manchus quickly captured Beijing, the Ming dynasty capital, and then in a series of lengthy military campaigns slowly occupied the rest of China (by 1681). The Manchus were able to take advantage of internal disagreements and a lack of Ming support for the military. The Manchu conquerors, being a very tiny minority in China, tried to keep in place the existing Ming governmental structure and make use of the scholar-gentry class as administrators. Under Manchu rule, China reached an unprecedented level of imperial size and prosperity with a population of one hundred million by 1662 (415 million by 1850).

So, you might ask, if it was a rebellion of Manchus, from Manchuria, that dethroned the Ming Dynasty and now controlled "China," why is this period of Chinese history called that of the "Qing" dynasty (and not the Manchu dynasty)? It is important to remember that the Manchu were not traditionally considered Chinese; they were outsiders, and they worked hard to control China proper. It's pretty complicated to piece together the origins of the use of "Qing" by the Manchus. Wikipedia provides a bit of explanation about the name in an entry titled "The Names of the Qing Dynasty." And, note also that "Qing" in the Wade-Giles romanization of the Chinese characters turns into "Ch’ing," which is where the name "China" originates.

While China was in tumult because of the Manchu invasion, Japan also experienced unrest, but an unrest that was directed towards ensuring political and social stability. The Tokugawa Shogunate (Let's say 1600-1868.) aka the Edo period was started by Tokugawa Ieyasu, aka Matsudaira Takechiyo aka Matsudaira Motoyasu (1543-1616). The Japanese shoguns (military dictators basically) worked to preserve a stable social structure with no mobility, reminding one of the class system of feudal Europe. The shoguns also aimed to isolate Japan from any western influence. The shoguns were particularly diligent in preventing any Christian missionary activity in Japan as it was assumed that the missionaries paved the way for the Portuguese and Spanish empires to expand control. The Japanese had seen what had happened in the Philippines which came under brutal Spanish control in the sixteenth century.

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