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Empire and Imperialism - Asia - Imperialism And Market, Impact On China, Varieties Of Imperialism In The Twentieth Century, Imperialism Reconsidered

chinese empires system peoples

Asia has its own long history of large and enduring empires that have rivaled those in the West. The Chinese ideal of a universal empire to be ruled by one "son of heaven" was first actualized by the first Qin emperor in 221 B.C.E., and even though the succeeding centuries saw significant periods of disintegration and divided dynasties, that ideal, though somewhat modified during the last century to encompass only territories inhabited by all Chinese people, has never wavered. Under that system, the emperor ruled the "middle kingdom" directly through a bureaucratic structure of appointed officials and set up a "tributary system" to treat all bordering regions not formally incorporated as well as neighboring countries. Then, by ranking their rulers hierarchically below him in fictive kinship terms, the emperor recognized a Chinese world order with himself as paterfamilias. He expected and welcomed these rulers to send tribute-bearing missions to his capital, and in return, he presented them with gifts of equal or greater value. In practice, these exchanges became a part of delicate diplomatic calibrations reflecting the true relationships between China and its neighbors at any one time, and a channel for international trade. Overall, until the early nineteenth century, such an imperial system worked fairly well in East Asia most of the time because of China's relative geographical isolation and dominant economy and culture in the region. Indeed, from the early seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, a succession of powerful Manchu rulers not only conquered the declining Ming Chinese empire, but also went on to more than double China's traditional boundaries by incorporating large regions of northeastern and central Asia that historically belonged to the Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur, and other peoples into the new and vigorous Qing Chinese empire.

While this was going on, the rest of the Asian landmass to the Urals and the Caucasus was dominated by four other powerful and expanding empires: Mughal India in the south, Safavid Iran in the southwest, Ottoman Turkey and the Middle East in the west, and Romanov Russia in the central region and the north. The last was led by Russian-speaking Slavs from northeastern Europe, but the other three shared a common origin with the Manchus—as nomadic or seminomadic peoples from the steppes of Asia. Their ascendancy followed a pattern of ebb and flow in the continual struggle between farmers and herdsmen. Rising at somewhat different times but all occurring in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, they made use of superior military organization and swift mobility to defeat the wealthier settled societies with their slower reacting standing armies. As for their having to rely on their relatively small numbers to control a large variety of peoples and languages, that was accomplished by their use of tribal solidarity, shared religion, or similar way of life to absorb other tribal groups while preserving their own ethnic identity. Once successfully established in this manner, they would exploit the accumulated resources of their conquered farmland to enhance their strategic strike capabilities, and to further expand their territories. However, inasmuch as these empires settled down and ruled by the same sociopolitical institutions and farm-based economy that they inherited from those they had vanquished, over time they, too, became subject to the same disintegrating dynamics of that traditional order.

In both India and China, social unrest set in as the result of economic and demographic pressures as well as weakening leadership at the top that led to the growth of official malfeasance and general misrule: India by the early eighteenth century, China toward the end of that same century. Similar internal problems emerged to weaken the others. But in each case, instead of a return to the old pattern of ebb and flow of traditional empires, new external forces came in to disrupt that cycle and to bring forth fundamental changes to all these Asian empires.

Empire and Imperialism - Europe - Causes, Impact Of Imperialism On Europe, Relationship Between Metropole And Colonies, Changing Attitudes To Empire [next] [back] Empire and Imperialism - Americas

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