Kong Shangren, as quoted by Jonathan Spence:
White glass from across the Western Seas
Is imported through Macao:
Fashioned into lenses big as coins,
They encompass the eyes in a double frame.
I put them on—-it suddenly becomes clear;
I can see the very tips of things!
And read fine print by the dim-lit window
Just like in my youth!
In 1870 a part of the world was starting to become not-poor, yet not the obvious part. The technological and organizational edge of human civilization in 1870 was the North Atlantic. That was, in historical perspective, distinctly odd.
6.1: The Britons: Too Stupid to Make Good Slaves
Two thousand years before, people would have laughed at the idea. Gaius Julius Caesar classified the Britons as among the most backward people he had ever conquered. Ex-Consul and Senior Senator Marcus Tullius Cicero snarked to his BFF Titus Pomponius Atticus about how Caesar’s invasion of Britain was completely pointless:
not an ounce of silver to be stolen, only slaves and not very good quality slaves--certainly not a single slave with a useful skill like literacy or musicianship!
A thousand years before—-in 800, say—-the technological and civilizational cutting edges of humanity were to be found in the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid’s capital of Baghdad and the Tang Dynasty Emperor Dezong’s Chang’an, rather than London or Bristol of Manchester or New York or Washington or Cleveland. Even three-hundred years earlier--back in 1570—-it would have taken a very sharp-eyed observer indeed to believe that northwest Europe was about to get its act together in a way that the Turko-Islamic Osmanli Dynasty civilization around Constantinople, the Moghul-Islamic Gurkani Dynasty Indian civilization around Delhi, and the Ming Dynasty Chinese civilization around Beijing could not.
By 1870, however, the power and technology gradients across world civilizations were very clear. Travelers from western Europe to Asia in the 1600s and before had been impressed back then not just by the scale of the empires and the luxurious wealth of their rulers but by the rest of the economy as well. The scale of operations, the prosperity and industry of the merchant classes, the good order of the people, and the absence of extraordinary poverty among the masses frequently struck European observers as worthy of comment as striking contrasts with back home. But by the 1800s this was no longer true. Travelers’ reports then focused as much on mass poverty and near-starvation as on high-craft and high-culture luxury. Assessments of the wealth of the court took on a sinister “orientalist” cast—-a cruel corrupt ruling elite that simply did not care about the welfare of the people—-when viewed against the background of the poverty of the masses.
6.2: What Had Happened to China?
The coming of the technology gradient favoring western Europe was indeed remarkably late. Before 1800 or so there was very little that European traders could offer to sell that Chinese consumers would wish to buy. For more than two thousand years China had been one of the leading, if not the leading civilization on the planet. It was not that the average standard of living was higher in China: Malthusian population pressures roughly equalized standards of living around the world. But China had a higher population density because more efficient technologies allowed a given plot of arable land to generate more food, better craftwork in most industries, a larger class of literati interested in high culture, and—-quite probably—-a significantly higher standard of living for the landed and ruling elite.
Before 1800 European trade for Chinese goods was by and large trade of silver for China-made luxuries. And the transfer of technology flowed from east to west: it is still unclear to what degree the European development of items like gunpowder, printing, the compass, and noodles owed to the Chinese example. It is clear that all of these were known in China before they were known in Europe.
6.3: China’s Relative Apogee
In the Tang Dynasty years before and the Sung Dynasty years after the year 1000, China had been the most progressive and innovative civilization in the world: innovative technologically, organizationally, and militarily. Its population—-60 million? 80 million? 100 million?—-was one of the most rapidly growing and best-fed populations in the world, thanks to the development of strains of rice that could be wet-planted, irrigated, and produce three crops a year in the fertile soil of China from the Yangtze basin south. China then led the world in non-agricultural technologies as well. At the start of the seventeenth century the British savant, politician, and bureaucrat Francis Bacon had marvelled at three inventions that he said had utterly transformed Europe: gunpowder, printing, and the compass. China had developed all three, and had developed all three before 1000.
China in the twelfth century at its pre-industrial relative apogee produced more iron and saw a greater share of agricultural production sold on markets than Britain would produce and market in the eighteenth. Zheng He's mid-fifteenth century voyages of exploration sailed four times as far with twenty times as many sailors as Columbus, and could land ten times as many soldiers at Dar es Salaam and Trincomalee as Cortez would land at Vera Cruz. China had long had the capability of launching its own “voyages of discovery.” Its governments had chosen not to, with that one exception. Zheng He’s fleet reached Zanzibar, and touched Africa, bringing back a giraffe. Annoyed at their treatment by a Sri Lankan king, they captured him and brought him back to China to make his apology to the emperor. But the political balance in the Ming court changed, the follow-up expeditions were cancelled, and the exploration program abandoned.
China led the world in political organization as well. No other ruler's writ ran a third as far or has even a third as large a chance of being obeyed as that of China's emperor. Tang Dynasty cavalry skirmished with Persians on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Sung Dynasty river navy was the only military force to even temporarily stymie Chingis Khan's Mongols, before his descendants took to fighting each other rather than expanding the empire. No pre-industrial central government anywhere ever managed to match the reach, extent, and power of the landlord-scholar-bureaucracy mode of domination invented under the Tang and developed under the Sung. The Sung Dynasty capital, Hangzhou, was before the Mongol conquest the largest city in the world—-larger than Baghdad or Constantinople or Cordova or Delhi—-with perhaps half a million inhabitants: the closest thing to an economic, cultural, and political capital the twelfth-century world had.
After 1800 British merchants did discover one commodity besides silver that Indian producers could supply and that Chinese consumers were eager to buy: opium. By the end of the 1830s the Chinese government was beginning to worry about the consequences of opium addiction on the country, and the exchange of European silver for Chinese goods had turned around: the bulk of the China trade was the exchange of Chinese silver for Indian-grown opium. The Chinese government attempted to suppress the opium trade and opium smuggling. The result was the 1839-1842 "Opium War," in which the British fleet intervened on the side of free trade, the sale of opium, and drug addiction. The British Empire acquired the then nearly barren island of Hong Kong as a base, European influence was established in a substantial number of "treaty ports" along the Chinese coast, and the division of China not into European colonies but into regions in the "spheres of influence" of different European powers began.
6.4: China’s Post-Sung Relative Stagnation
By the second half of the nineteenth century China’s relative apogee was three-quarters of a millennium past, and the government and the people were in crisis. The people were in crisis because they were more than three times as numerous as their predecessors at the pre-industrial apogee, because they were ruled by a rapacious landed aristocracy, and because progress in agriculture and industry to counterbalance rising population had been nearly absent for most of the second millennium. In 1100 the Chinese people were rich, or at least as rich as pre-industrial peasant societies get. At the start of the second millennium development of new types of crops and new strains of rice had greatly boosted agricultural productivity and triggered the centuries-long spread of China’s heartland from the Yellow River to the Yangtze and further south, to Hunan and Guangzhou. But by the second half of the nineteenth century Malthus was having his revenge. China had filled up, with more than 300 million people, which left average farm size less than third of what they had been three quarters of a millennium before, the bulk of peasant families were close to the edge. It is virtually certain that the average Chinese peasant family in the second half of the nineteenth century had less food than its predecessors in the twelfth: think of 1300 calories per person per day as a rough guess.
The technological dynamism and organizational relative edge that China had possessed in the twelfth century was gone as well. Chinese producers still had substantial technological edges in limited industrial segments: high end silk textiles, high-end porcelain, tea. But there had been little internally-driven technological progress in any industry for more than half a millennium. And the bureaucracy that in 1150 had looked efficient and powerful compared to a Europe—a place where no king would even think of asking an Earl of Pembroke to explain anything—by 1870 looked corrupt and incapable.
Why this 750 year relative stagnation is a great mystery. There are many potential suspects to take the blame as the root cause of China's long, long relative stagnation.
Perhaps the root problem was that emperors, grand secretaries, and landlords feared their own generals more than they feared their neighbors' soldiers. European kings, ministers, and landlords sought a strong military to protect them and theirs against the next William the Conqueror or Friedrich II or Francois I or Napoleon I from across the border. In China there was little to fear from outside the empire (as long as the Mongols were kept divided), but a great deal to be feared inside the empire from your own generals—-men like the ninth-century An Lushan or the seventeenth-century Three Feudatories. Thus the military-industrial-metallurgy-innovation complex that drove so much of pre-industrial and early-industrial European technological progress was absent.
Perhaps the root problem was that with triple-cropping rice strains the wet-rice fields were too fertile, the governmental bureaucracy too effective, and the avenues of establishment-oriented upward mobility to the striving and aggressive too open. After making a little money the logical next step was to buy some land. Because the land was rich, because labor was plentiful and cheap, and because the empire was (most of the time) strong internally, one could live well after turning one's wealth into land. One could also easily make the important social contacts to pave the way for one's children to advance further. And one's children could do the most important thing needed for upward mobility: study the Confucian classics and do well on the examinations: first the local shengyan, then the regional juren, and then the national jinshi. Those who had successfully written their eight-legged essays and made proper allusions to and use of the Confucian classics would then join the landlord-scholar-bureaucrat aristocracy that ruled China and profited from the empire. In the process of preparing for the examinations and mastering the material needed to do well on them, they would acquire the habits of thought and values of a Confucian aristocrat landlord-scholar-bureaucrat. Entrepreneurial drive and talent was thus molded into an orthodox Confucian-aristocratic pattern and harnessed to the service of the regime and of the landlord class: good for the rents of the landlords, good for the stability of the government, but possibly very bad indeed for the long-run development of technology and organization. Carlson (1957) quotes an imperial edict of 1724 condemning mining as a potential source of disorder and treason, for "[M]iners are easy to recruit but hard to disband. If mining is left to the initiative of merchants there wil be danger of crowds assembling and harboring treachery…"
Perhaps the root problem was the absence of a new world rich in resources to exploit and helpless because of technological backwardness.
Perhaps the root problem was the lesser weight attached to instrumental rationality as a mode of thought
Perhaps the root problem was the absence of dissenting hidey-holes for ideological unconformity.
Perhaps the root problem was the fact that the merchants and hand-manufacturers of China's cities were governed by landlords appointed by the central government rather than governing themselves.
Perhaps the root problem was that large-muscled animals like oxen and horses turned out to be powerful productive multipliers for temperate rain-irrigated wheat-based agricultural but not for sub-tropical paddy-irrigated rice-based agriculture
Perhaps the root problem was some combination of these.
Perhaps the root problem was one or a combination of any of a host of other possibilities over which historians will struggle inconclusively (but thoughtfully and fruitfully) for the rest of time.
6.5: China as of Mid-Nineteenth Century
Whatever the cause, the result was China's extraordinary relative stagnation through much of the second millennium. The country and region that had been the world's leader—-culturally, economically, organizationally—-in 1200 was poor, economically backward, and organizationally decrepit by 1870.
The poverty struck eighteenth-century British moral philosopher Adam Smith hard, for in his view China had been for a long time "the richest... most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous" country in which even landless peasants were relatively rich: “the wages of labour had ever been more than sufficient to... enable him to bring up a family.” Smith had a theory as to why the China he saw in his day—the late eighteenth century—had become poor. Because China would not trade with outsiders and so learn and adapt their ideas, it was bound to stagnate: “a country which neglects or despises foreign commerce... cannot transact the... business which it might do with different laws and institutions.” A stagnant economy, Smith thought, was headed for desperate poverty through a Malthusian population crisis. Population would continue to grow while the economy did not. Without technological progress and with increasing population “competition... would soon reduce [wages] to this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity.” At that lowest rate of wages, children would be so malnourished as to be easy prey to disease and women's body fat levels would be so low that ovulation was hit-or-miss.
By 1870 it looked like that Malthusian crisis had arrived. The more than 300 million people of late nineteenth-century China had no mechanized farm machinery and no industry-produced nitrogen fertilizers. They were crowded into the wet, arable eastern slice of what is “China” on today's maps, with the median family of 6 farming perhaps 4 acres at a time when the Radical Republicans were still hoping to somehow find 40 acres plus a mule for each family of American ex-slaves. Average adult height was, we think, significantly under five feet.
Thus the first iron-hulled ocean-going steamships called on a country where the government and the economy were in crisis for three reasons:
(1) China's government in the late nineteenth century was the ethnically-Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and the Qing Dynasty was weak because it had always been weak. It had seized power in the mid-seventeenth century. An ethnic clan of non-proper-Chinese military adventurers from beyond the Great Wall, from Manchuria, struck at the moment when the previous Ming Dynasty was paralyzed by peasant revolts and hamstrung by a run of bad emperors and more-than-usually-corrupt bureaucrats. The Manchu were unified because they were not Han Chinese: what Manchu prince or mercenary could expect to long survive a victory by any alternative faction? The Manchu were weak because they were not Han Chinese: how many of the 300 million Chinese would give how much loyalty to a ruling dynasty in which the top places were reserved for others?
It was the classic problem of colonial rule. The Manchus tried to solve it by (a) presenting themselves as ideal Confucian sage-kings (presenting themselves as more righteous Confucian rulers than even Kongzi himself); (b) giving the landlords through which they ruled free rein throughout central and southern China (curbing rapacious landlords in the interest of protecting the Old Hundred names of China was not on the Qing Dynasty agenda, ever); and (c) opposing all change, for change threatened to cause instability and the Qing Dynasty knew that it was unstable enough already.
This worked as a political strategy: the Qing Dynasty had a run of 250 years, and the last Qing emperor still sat a throne—-albeit as a puppet of the Japanese army—-in 1945. But it meant that the kind of national and nationalist appeals that those who in Japan spoke for the Emperor Meiji or that Mongkut and Chulalongkorn used to preserve the independence of Thailand were impossible for China's late nineteenth-century government. You cannot rally a people against foreign colonialists with the slogan “revere the emperor and expel the barbarians!” when for more than 200 years the emperor has defined himself as non-Han—-as a barbarian.
Even in the days of its peak strength, the Qing Dynasty found it wise to tolerate dominant currents of thought that viewed its coming to power as a tragedy and its rule as profoundly illegitimate. Jonathan Spence's In Search of Modern China notes the performances at the court of the Kangxi emperor, the first strong and long-lived Qing dynasty emperor, of "The Peach-Blossom Fan" by Kong Shangren—-an author still loyal to the previous Ming Dynasty, and hostile to the idea that a scholar-official could win honor by helping the Manchu conquerors rule China:
[A]t the play's end, with the Ming resistance in ruins, the lovers agree to take monastic vows... the surviving virtuous officials retreat deep into the mountains to escape a summons from the Qing that they take up office.
(2) China in the late nineteenth century was that Confucian landlord-bureaucrat-scholar aristocracy through which the Qing Dynasty ruled was not only potentially disloyal but trained to be incapable. As long as the Mongols were kept divided through bribes and the ruling dynasty uncorrupt, no Chinese emperor faced any outside existential military threat. Internal disorder was the main worry. So the central government had discouraged military skill among its bureaucrats and notables since the Tang dynasty rebellion of An Lushan, and discouraged any liking for change—-a potential cause of disorder—-since the first Ming dynasty emperor had expelled the Mongol descendants of Chinghis Khan in the fourteenth century.
Seventeenth-century China was well aware of growing European technological developments. It was “Peach-Blossom Fan” author land and lord-scholar-bureaucratic notable Kong Shangren who wrote:
White glass from across the Western Seas Is imported through Macao: Fashioned into lenses big as coins, They encompass the eyes in a double frame. I put them on—it suddenly becomes clear; I can see the very tips of things! And read fine print by the dim-lit window Just like in my youth.
Yet neither Kong Shangren nor any of his relatives and descendants ever thought that the optical glass business was worth studying or researching or entering or even financing. It was simply not the kind of thing that a Confucian gentleman would do. One consequence of this lamentable uncuriosity was extraordinary ignorance about the outside world. During the first Opium War of 1840 the staff of High Commissioner Lin, the Qing plenipotentiary on the spot in Canton, appears to have debated whether an embargo of rhubarb exports might be enough all on its own to win the war for China.
(3) China's government was in crisis was that the people were in crisis. As I noted above, China's population was on the downswing of a Malthusian population cycle. Compared to the aftermath of the great wave of agricultural technological development nearly a millennium before, the threefold growth in population meant that yields per person low, farms small, and peasants poor—hence malnourished, and with relatively little energy. Population growth also meant larger clans of landlords to be fed off the rents. Combined with an alien ruling dynasty that feels weak and threatened by its own upper class and tells its bureaucrats that it is justice when the landlords win, this means that the peasants have very little to lose. Thus peasant revolts—like those that everyone remembered had brought down dynasties before—burned through China in the mid-nineteenth century.
The greatest was the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 that ravaged central China for fifteen years, aided by the fact that the imperial court feared successful generals (as potential usurpers) at least as much as it feared the rebels. There were enough landless and other desperate peasants that perhaps ten million joined Hong Xiuquan, who had hoped to become a bureaucrat-scholar-landlord but failed the shengyan examinations several times. He then visions that convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Manchu banner-armies proved useless when Hong proclaimed the “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace,” and promised his followers not only the Kingdom of Heaven in the hereafter (where he would reign alongside his elder brother Jesus Christ) but that land would be equally divided after all the landlords were killed down here—-meaning a roughly fifty percent increase in median peasant standards of living. And Hong Xiuquan supplemented his brand of theocratic landlord-free authoritarian communism with anti-Manchu nationalism: "Ever since the Manchus poisoned China... the poison of corruption has defiled the emperor's throne...” 2600 calories per day versus 1800 plus God on your side plus revenge against the oppressive landlords plus the expulsion of the barbarian Manchus made for a convincing argument.
The fifteen-year march of the Taiping through south-central China and reign from Nanjing had echoes not just of previous peasant rebellions (like the one that had given the Manchus their opening in the 1640s at the end of the Ming dynasty) but of what Mao Zedong and company would do from 1925 to 1945:
- Move into a village,
- Get the peasants' hands dirty by having them kill a couple of landlords,
- Divide up the land so all the small peasants are much richer,
- Point out that if the landlord-backed authorities return with the cousins of those they executed then they will all be in big trouble, and
- Ask for volunteers to join the army and come along to the next village.
The Taiping prohibited opium, foot-binding, prostitution, and female servitude. They instituted equal shares for all, vaccination, low taxes, and encouraged tea and silk exports. Hugh Deane quotes American missionary E.C. Bridgeman's report that the Taiping "appear[ed] like a new race of warriors... well-clad, well-fed, and well-provided for... content and in high spirits, as if sure of success," and asserts that twentieth century Communist leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhu Te, and Peng Dehaui drew inspiration from the stories of the Taiping heroes that they had grown up with in Hunan, Sichuan, and Nanjing.
Outside observers like Karl Marx were impressed enough that they thought that the World Revolution was starting in the late 1850s in China, and that the last moments of the Chinese empire had come. What would have happened had the Taiping won is not something that I can calculate.
But they did not win.
Competent local landlords organized pickup militias, some of which grew into competent—but non-Manchu—battalions and brigades. The merchants and bankers of Shanghai and other ports in contact with and profiting from European trade were desperate for help and knew how to draw on European military-technological competence. The thirty year-old Frederick Ward Townsend—-with, Deane reports, two years' experience as a military cadet in Norwich, Vermont followed by service as a Texas Ranger, a Mexican army drill instructor, and in the Crimean War—-organized an army on the British Indian sepoy model: officers from Europe and America, rifles and carbines and cannon supplied by the British government, high pay, and river mobility through steampower. The Qing court heard such good things about his army from Li Hongzhang, their commander on the spot, that they named Ward's army “The Undefeatables.” Ward was killed at Ningbo in 1862, but his successor the British General Charles “Chinese” Gordon proved equally capable.
Perhaps 10 million people, 3% of China's population, died in the war. The Taiping were crushed in 1864. China's political revolution was postponed for half a century, and the Qing Dynasty continued to rule until 1911.
6.6: Li Hongzhang
The Qing Dynasty was not devoid of loyal servants—-skilled scholars, administrators, and military politicians who saw it as their duty to do for China what those who restored the Emperor Meiji were doing in Japan and what the servants of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn were doing in the Kingdom of Siam—-now Thailand. One such was the Qing Dynasty’s man-on-the-spot during the Taiping Rebellion, Li Hongzhang.
Li Hongzhang was born in 1823 in Qunzhi, Modian, ten miles northeast of the Anhui Province capital of Hefei. With the leisure to study—and the focus because only by studying hard could he rise and secure the future fortunes of his family—he flourished. In 1847 he obtained the highest examination degree, the jinshi, and two years later saw him admitted to China’s Harvard or perhaps its Ecole Normal Superieur, the Hanlin Academy. But rather than rising through the Beijing-based bureaucracy, a few years later sees him back in his home Yangzi Valley: the Taiping Rebellion had led him to return home and, outside the Imperial administrative system, raise a unit of local militia to defend their homes and their property from the rebels.
The governor trying to contain the rebellion, Zeng Guofan, noticed him—-and took Li Hongzhang on as one of his protégés. He rose, becoming an ace troubleshooter. Soon after the 1864 final suppression of the Taiping, he was sent to Shandong to deal with the Nien Rebellion. 1870 sees him promoted to Viceroy of Zhili, at the age of 47 one of the very highest-ranking administrators in China. And from that perch he was to spend the rest of his life trying to salvage the situation for the dynasty he served.
But he and his colleagues were to fail. China was thus hors de combat. The high civilizations of India and Islam were in no better shape with respect to their peoples’ and their rulers’ abilities to shape the destinies of the twentieth century world.
The world—-the world that in 1870 the submarine telegraph cable and the iron-hulled ocean-going screw-propeller steamship were about to make a very small world after all indeed—-would become a North Atlantic-dominated world, and would remain so for quite a while.