During both the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1556-1046 BCE; 1046-256 BCE) families, both noble and common, worshipped and sacrificed to their ancestors. These sacrifices were of the utmost importance and any neglect would bring about misfortune and calamity, since ancestors had the power to aid or punish their descendants.
The selections that follow are from the Books of Songs (the Shih Jing) the oldest collection of Chinese poems, dating to the 11th century BCE. The Book of Songs was one of the five definitive Confucian classics that formed the backbone of Chinese culture and education for centuries.
From The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: Allen/Unwin, 1937).
Ibn Wahab was an Arab merchant from Basra (Iraq) who sailed to China via the Indian Ocean around 872 CE. His travel account includes a description of his interview with the Chinese emperor. Wahab's visit at the height of the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE), with its flourishing trade and efficient civil service, provides a first-hand account of China when its influence extended throughout all of Eurasia.
Fitzgerald, C.P. China: A Short Cultural History (London: Cresse Press, 1930), pp. 339-340.
A new wave of antiforeign sentiment in China, triggered by a “race for concessions” among the Western powers in the late 1890s, was increasingly centered on a group called the Society of the Harmonious Fists. The foreign community referred to this organization, due to their ritual exercises and resistance to both Qing and foreign control, as the Boxers. By late 1899, the Boxers were regularly provoking the foreign and Christian communities throughout China, and the assassination of the German ambassador in 1900 launched a brutal civil war. Western countries united to oppose the Boxers, now allied with Empress Dowager Cixi, and the foreign diplomatic quarter in Beijing was besieged between June and August 1900. Nevertheless, the groups most frequently targeted by the Boxers were Western missionaries and Chinese people who had converted to Christianity. Among those killed was the entire family of G. B. Farthing, an English Baptist missionary in Shanxi province, whose are shown in the photograph below.
When European Christian missionaries first came to Ming China, they made very little progress in converting the Chinese, in large part due to their limited training in Chinese language and culture. When he arrived in China in 1583, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) encouraged his followers to immerse themselves in the language and to become conversant with the rich traditions of Chinese literature. He also came to be respected by, and especially helpful to, the emperor, as he offered his expertise in the sciences and mathematics to the imperial court. With a European Jesuit (Adam Schall von Bell) as the official court astronomer to Kangxi, there were reports that the Emperor himself considered converting to Catholicism. Nevertheless, not every encounter between Chinese and Europeans went so smoothly, as the following anecdote from Ricci’s diary reveals.
Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Louis Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 161–– 165.
When Buddhism reached China it encountered an already established civilization with deeply rooted literary and intellectual traditions. In addition, the scholarly elite of China was somewhat hostile to “foreign” influence. On the other hand, in the troubled times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, Buddhism’s promise of a better hereafter proved a powerful draw among common people, while some rulers of the regional dynasties that replaced the Han saw in Buddhism a way to buttress their authority. Finally, Chinese intellectuals looked to it as a new source for magical elixirs of longevity or immortality (a path down which Taoism had already traveled by this time) and of metaphysical speculation. Major translation projects were undertaken in the period 200–500 CE, and knowledge of Buddhism spread through these texts and through the building of temples and the founding of Buddhist communities of monks. By the 400s Buddhism had become established widely enough to cause concern among traditionalist Chinese, especially among the Confucian scholarly elite, and to provoke counterattacks in the form of government persecution in the north and of tracts attacking the faith in the south.
The following text, whose author and exact date of composition are unknown, takes the form of a Buddhist answer to some of the common lines of attack contained in such tracts. From that internal evidence, and knowing something about the reaction against Buddhism in China, we can safely assert that it comes from southern China during the fifth century CE. In order to win the Chinese over to Buddhism, the followers of the new faith had to address, among other things, significant aspects of existing Chinese culture—for example, the importance of ancestor worship and of the five relationships of Confucianism. The author pursues one of the logical lines to take when recommending something new to a culture: He argues that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with traditional Chinese values and that the ideas in Buddhist texts are similar to those in the Chinese classics. Buddhism, he asserts, complements and extends Chinese cultural practices rather than contradicting them.
From Mou Tzu in The Disposition of Error by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition, 274–80. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
The reign of Qianlong (r. 1736–1795) marked both the high point and the beginning of the decline of the Qing dynasty. Several European nations, driven by their desire to corner the market on the lucrative Chinese trade, sent representatives to Qianlong’s court. In 1793, Great Britain dispatched Lord Macartney, its first envoy to China, to obtain safe and favorable trade relations for his country. In response, Qianlong composed a letter to King George III (r. 1760–1820) detailing his objections and conditions, which Macartney conveyed back to Britain. The terms of this letter underscore Qianlong’s subtle understanding of global economic conditions and the maintenance of a balance between the interests of various nations.
E. Backhouse and J. O. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 322–331.
One of the most interesting figures of Meiji Japan was Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901). Trained in western languages, Fukuzawa served as interpreter on missions taken by Meiji leaders to study the wider world, especially the United States and Europe. Fukuzawa concentrated on the study of western societies and became the leader in introducing the Japanese people to western ways in a wide range of books he wrote, through a newspaper he published, and via the academy he established, which became the first private university in Japan. Characterized by a broad curiosity, great energy, and a rare independence of mind, Fukuzawa was the leading intellectual of Meiji Japan.
David Lu, ed., Japan: A Documentary History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe (1997): 351–53.
Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a member of a clan of Venetian merchants, who had been active in trade in the Middle East for some decades. Polo claims to have accompanied his father and uncle on an extensive trade and diplomatic excursion to China in 1271, and in this account he describes the voyage as well as the people and places he has seen. He further claims to have lived 17 years in China and to have met with, and even served as an official for, Kublai Khan (1215–1294), Genghis Khan’s grandson. While some historians have suggested that the account may not be reliable, it demonstrates, at the very least, Western curiosity about Asia and the catalyst of trade in driving some Europeans into hitherto unknown parts of the world.
Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Ronald Latham (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1958), 115–118.
Like nearly all the arts in late nineteenth-century Japan, the novel was also heavily influenced by Western examples. The culmination of this trend, in Meiji society generally, was Kokoro, published by Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) in 1914. Soseki, a lecturer in English literature at the Imperial University in Tokyo, depicts the wrenching changes in Meiji Japan and their effect on traditional and generational values, leading ultimately to the tragic end of the central character in the novel. Kokoro (the word means, roughly, “the heart of things”) was Soseki’s best-known novel, and appeared two years after the death of Emperor Meiji. The excerpts below also touch on the real-life suicide of General Nogi, a hero of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) who killed himself immediately after the death of the Meiji in 1912. The sense of honor that accompanied Nogi to his grave is thus at the heart of the novel, and Soseki’s main theme may have been the ongoing interaction between Western-style reforms and traditional Japanese culture.
Natsume Soseki, Kokoro, trans. Edwin McClellan (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1957), 108–110, 117–118, 120–122.
Many foundation myths around the world link a dynasty or nation’s founder to the divine or magical. The foundation myth of Korea is no exception. Korean mythology dates Tangun to the year 2333 B.C.E., when it is said he became the first ruler of Korea, known then as Choson. Chronologically, this was before the peninsula was divided into the “Three Kingdoms” and thus refers to a unified Korean kingdom. Records from Zhou China refer to this state, although Chinese records enable us to date it to only 1000 B.C.E. Because there was at that time (c. 1000 B.C.E.) no written Korean language, historians have to rely on either Korean myths such as this one or on records from neighboring states, particularly China. However, the Chinese sources have inherent problems, as the relationship between China and Korea has often been fraught with tension. The version here is from the thirteenth century.
“Tangun: Founder of Choson,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 4
In March 1839, the Daoguang emperor sent Lin Zexu (1785–1850), a widely respected official with a reputation for courage and honesty, to Canton as an imperial commissioner, charged with the task of cutting off the opium trade—a trade which had proved extremely lucrative to British traders in the region. Lin confiscated vast opium stocks, ordered them burned, and made merchants sign an agreement that they would no longer sell the drug, on pain of death. British merchants appealed to their government for compensation—and for military action against Lin’s agents. This effort culminated in the First Opium War (1839–1842). In the midst of his anti-opium efforts, however, Lin also attempted to shame Queen Victoria (whom he believed was at the center of governmental policy in Great Britain) into cutting off the opium trade that was causing so much damage to the Chinese people, even though it generated profits for the British.
Chinese Repository, Vol. 8 (February 1840), pp. 497–503; reprinted in William H. McNeil and Mitsuko Iriye, eds., Modern Asia and Africa, Readings in World History Vol. 9, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 111–118
The Tokugawa were forced to capitulate to the samurai of two southern domains by the end of 1867, and the new regime moved to the Tokugawa capital of Edo, renaming it Tokyo (Eastern Capital). The new emperor, 15-year-old Mutsuhito, took the name Meiji (Enlightened Rule) and quickly moved to make good on that name. The throne issued a charter oath in April 1868 and promulgated edicts that spelled out how the new government would be set up. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Japan experienced a flourishing of government-managed social experimentation. The proclaimed goals of using “Western science and Eastern ethics” in the service of “civilization and enlightenment” were designed to put Japan on an equal footing with Western powers. The constitution itself, composed after a painstaking study of the constitutional governments of many Western countries, reflects this drive to “Westernize.” Nonetheless, the document also contained various escape clauses, in case the power of the emperor was questioned too openly.
Hirobumi Ito, Commentaries on the Constitution of the Empire of Japan, trans. Miyoji Ito (Tokyo: Igirisu-horitsu gakko, 1889), available online at the Hanover Historical Texts Project, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/1889con.html.
Tokugawa Nariaki (1800–1860) was one of the leading Japanese political and military leaders of the nineteenth century. As possessor of the Mito territories, he was one of the most powerful and influential daimyo, or feudal lords, and a member of a collateral branch of the Tokugawa family. Nariaki was a very forceful and polarizing personality. Although a confirmed believer in the superiority of the Japanese way of life and of the imperial tradition, he was not an unreflective or “knee-jerk” conservative. Already in 1841 he had established an academy in his feudal domain for the study of useful Western knowledge, and it was there that the phrase “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” was first used publicly. He was an adviser on maritime defense, and, when Commodore Perry and the Americans demanded change, he penned an aggressive and sharply defined response, which urged resistance.
G. Beasley, trans. and ed., Select Documents on Japanese Foreign Policy, 1853–1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 102–06.
Between 1405 and 1433, a series of naval expeditions were sent out by Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, under the command of the remarkable Zheng He (1371–1435). The largest of Zheng’s ships were over 400 feet long and were thus more than four times the length of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria. His voyages took Zheng to the coasts of southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. In 2010, marine archaeologists attempted to find remains of one of Zheng’s ships off the coast of Kenya, near Malindi, a site Zheng visited in 1418. This photograph shows a model of one of Zheng’s ships, compared with a model of the Santa Maria. The model is displayed in a shopping mall in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Tang Taizong (d. 649), a founder of the Tang dynasty, was determined to create an empire that expanded upon the consolidation achieved under the Sui dynasty. The result was a large empire of people diverse in language, religion, and culture; it was also economically diverse: the south was more productive and more prosperous than the north. Taizong recognized that these were all challenges to his dynasty, and that the Sui had faced similar problems and failed. Determined to be more effective, Taizong identifies what he sees as the weaknesses of the Sui and how he planned to prevent those some weaknesses from hampering his dynasty.
Translated by J. Dun Li, 1925
The author of this personal essay was Yi Kyu-bo (1168 – 1241), a poet, essayist, and critic in the Koryo kingdom of Korea. He was also a high-ranking civil servant, who passed the civil-service examination required for government service. The life of Yi Kyu-bo reflects the extent to which Koryo modeled itself on Tang / Song China. Yi Kyu-bo studied and wrote in Chinese, worked in a state organized along Confucian principles, and created literary works that were infused with both Confucian and Daoist principles.
Yi Kyu-bo. “On Demolishing the Earthen Chamber,” from Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee. (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1981), 61-62.
Kangxi was the second Manchu emperor of China. Whereas his father had had to oversee the elimination of the last Ming claimants to the throne and their supporters, Kangxi had to devote his early energies to consolidating his power. Much power and autonomy had been retained by three noble generals, who had led the conquest of southern China. As part of consolidating his rule, Kangxi mastered and then devoted himself with great discipline to the required observances of the “son of Heaven,” which were deemed necessary for China to enjoy harmony and prosperity. His extraordinarily long and active reign (1661–1722) gave him time to grow and mature as a ruler and a man, but it also placed a heavy obligation on him. By the end of his life, suffering from ill health and deeply saddened by the betrayal of his favorite son, Kangxi was subject to fits of melancholy and fatigue.
Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-His. Alfred A. Knopf (1974): 30–59, 143–51. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc
Boxers United in Righteousness
The nineteenth century saw an accumulation of disasters for China. In two Opium Wars in the 1840s and 1850s, British invasion forced the trade concessions demanded earlier. These conflicts helped to prompt the immensely destructive Tai-ping Rebellion (1850–1864). Various official reform movements encountered too many internal obstacles to effect much change. China lost a war to Japan in 1894 and was forced to accept a series of “unequal treaties” and agreements that granted “spheres of influence” to European powers. In 1899 internal disorder escalated. This time a portion of the imperial court headed by the Empress Dowager backed the opponents of western domination. The Boxers, drawing recruits from throughout the north China plain, killed western and Chinese Christians and besieged the embassies of foreign powers in Beijing itself. In July 1900 an unprecedented multinational army of British, German, American, Russian, French, Japanese, Austrian, and Italian troops entered Beijing to restore order and rescue the hostages. The International Expeditionary Force smashed the native army, looted Beijing, and, under the watchful eye of the international press, engaged in “punitive picnics” to exterminate opposition in the countryside.
China had a long tradition of secret societies and popular support for “social banditry” to help the poor. The Boxers United in Righteousness, who arose in Shandong province during the famines described earlier, followed ancient forms of aid and famine relief for their recruits. But the Boxers combined their appeals for social justice with calls to “Support the Qing, destroy the Foreign.” Like resistance movements in other parts of the world, they saw their country’s disasters as caused by its toleration of foreigners, especially the Christian missionaries whose numbers were increasing as western control of China became more pronounced. Recruits to the Boxers undoubtedly believed the terrible rumors of bizarre western religious practices requiring mutilation of women and children. They used magical charms and physical exercise rituals to invite the gods to inhabit their bodies, making them invulnerable to the guns and explosives of western armies. As with other resisters, this faith proved illusory. The Boxers were easily dispatched by the soldiers of the West, as were countless Chinese peasants who were innocent of any role in this conflict between cultures.
Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. University of California Press (1987): 299–300.
Faxien (circa 334-415 CE) was a Chinese monk who, with several companions, traveled the Silk Road to India and returned via the Indian Ocean trade route between 399 and 413 CE. Their successful quest to obtain Buddhist scriptures helped to disseminate the religion throughout East Asia. Faxien also recorded his travels, which provide a comprehensive geography of central and south Asia of the time.
Faxien, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms: Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Faxien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, trans. by James Legge, 1886.
Drawing on the conclusions of his “Western” education, Japanese economist Honda Toshiaki (1749–1821) advocated a three-pronged plan of action to level the playing field between the Tokugawa Shogunate and European powers. Having studied mathematics as a young man, Honda learned the Dutch language and studied Dutch medicine, astronomy, and military science. The choice of Dutch was fortuitous, since these were the only Europeans permitted to remain in Japan after 1639. Nevertheless, it was the prowess of these particular Europeans in shipping and trade, dependent on a scientific and mathematical knowledge of navigation, that most interested Honda. This section of his “Secret Plan” addresses the need for the emperor to control ships and shipping in order to ensure Japanese prosperity.
Ryusaku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), vol. 2, 51–53.