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.
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.
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.
Named for a site in the archipelago of New Caledonia, the Lapita culture was a system of kinship-based exchanges among the inhabitants of thousands of islands in the western Pacific. Elements of “Lapita ware,” decorated with stamped patterns, were in high demand, and pots were exchanged among the inhabitants of the islands.
The Qianlong Emperor
In 1793 the Earl of Macartney arrived in Beijing with a retinue of assistants and a baggage train of gifts carefully selected to impress the Qianlong emperor (1735–1795) with the ingenuity, utility, and scientific sophistication of British manufactures. Macartney was on a mission from King George III of Great Britain. His goals were to establish diplomatic relations between the two great sovereign powers for the first time and to negotiate agreements that would allow British traders access to coastal ports other than the established center at Canton, as well as relief from various fees, bribes, and fines that the Celestial Emperor’s officials imposed. The following document shows the emperor’s response. The British delegation was unsuccessful, and diplomatic relations were rebuffed. Half a century would pass before the irritating trade restrictions were repealed at gunpoint in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839–1842).
E. Backhouse and J. O. P. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 322–24, 326, 330–31.
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
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
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.