The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the king Wu Ding’s reign, who was mentioned as the twenty-first Shang king by the same. … These Yellow River and Yangtze civilizations arose millennia before the Shang.
500,000 years ago Peking man lives in the caves at Zhoukoudian, about 30 miles (48km) southwest of the modern city of Beijing. This is the farthest north that Homo erectus has been found, and hearths in the caves are probably the earliest evidence of the human use of fire. The same caves are occupied 20,000 years ago by modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens, during the Stone Age. And 3500 years ago a nearby river valley becomes the site of one of the first great civilizations.
The Shang dynasty: 1600 – 1100 BC
The city of An-yang, rediscovered in the 20th century, is an important center of the first Chinese civilization – that of the Shang dynasty, which lasts from about 1600 to 1100 BC. Known to its occupants as the Great City Shang, its buildings are on both banks of the Huan River, to the north of the Yellow River. An-yang is at the heart of a society in which human sacrifice plays a significant role. Archaeology reveals this, as does an extraordinary archive of written records – stored on what the peasants of this area, in modern times, have believed to be dragon bones.
The dragon bones are the records, kept by the priests, of the questions asked of the oracle by the Shang rulers. The answer is found by the method of divination known as scapulimancy.
The priest takes a polished strip of bone, usually from the shoulder blade of an ox, and cuts in it a groove to which he applies a heated bronze point. The answer to the question (in most cases just yes or no) is revealed by the pattern of the cracks which appear in the bone. With the bureaucratic thoroughness of civil servants, the priests then write on the bone the question that was asked, and sometimes the answer that was given, before filing the bone away in an archive
Sacrifice, silk, and bronze: 1600 – 1100 BC
Several of the inscriptions on the oracle bones mention sacrifices, sometimes of prisoners of war, which are to be made to a silkworm goddess. There is even a Shang court official called Nu Cang, meaning Mistress of the Silkworms. Silk, China’s first great contribution to civilization, has been an important product of the region for at least 1000 years before the Shang dynasty and the beginning of recorded history. The earliest silk fragments unearthed by archaeologists date from around 2850 BC.
The writing on the Shang oracle bones is in pictorial characters which evolve, often with only minor modifications, into the characters used in written Chinese today – 3500 years later. There can be no better example of the continuity underpinning Chinese civilization. The excavations at An-yang demonstrate that Shang craftsmen have reached an astonishing level of skill in the casting of bronze. And they reveal a reckless attitude to human life. A building cannot be consecrated at An-yang, or a ruler buried, without extensive human sacrifice
The roots of Chinese culture: 1600 – 1100 BC
The area controlled by the Shang rulers is relatively small, but Shang cultural influence spreads through a large part of central China. In addition to their writing of Chinese characters, the Shang introduce many elements which have remained characteristic of this most ancient surviving culture. Bronze chopsticks, for example, have been found in a Shang tomb.
The Shang use a supremely confident name for their own small territory; it too has stood the test of time. They call An-yang and the surrounding region Chung-kuo, meaning ‘the Central Country’. It is still the Chinese name for China. And the Shang practice another lasting Chinese tradition – the worship of ancestors.
Most of the elaborate bronze vessels made in Shang times are for use in temples or shrines to ancestors. The richly decorated urns are for cooking the meat of the sacrificed animals. The most characteristic design is the li, with its curved base extended into three hollow protuberances – enabling maximum heat to reach the sacrificial stew.
The bronze jugs, often fantastically shaped into weird animals and birds, are for pouring a liquid offering to the ancestor – usually, a hot alcoholic concoction brewed from millet.
In Shang society, ancestor worship is limited to the king and a few noble families. The goodwill of the king’s ancestors is crucial to the whole of society because they are the community’s link with the gods. Over the centuries the king becomes known as the Son of Heaven. The shrine to his ancestors – the Temple of Heaven in Beijing – is the focal point of the national religion.
In subsequent dynasties, and particularly after the time of Confucius, ancestor worship spreads downwards through the Chinese community. It becomes a crucial part of the culture of the Confucian civil servants, the mandarins.
The Zhou dynasty: c.1100 – 256 BC
In about 1050 BC (the date is disputed among scholars by several decades in either direction), a new power is established in China. This is the Zhou dynasty, deriving from a frontier kingdom between civilization and marauding tribes, westward of An-yang, up towards the mountains. After forming a confederation of other neighboring states, the Zhou overwhelm the Shang rulers. The new capital is at Ch’ang-an (now known as Xi’an), close to the Wei river.
From here the Zhou control the entire area of central China, from the Huang Ho to the Yangtze. They do so through a network of numerous subordinate kingdoms, in a system akin to feudalism.
In 771 BC the Zhou is driven east from Xi’an, by a combination of barbarian tribes and some of their own dependent kingdoms. They re-establish themselves at Loyang, where they remain the nominal rulers of China (known as the Eastern Zhou) until 256 BC. During this long period, their status is largely ceremonial and religious. Their main role is to continue the sacrifices to their royal ancestors – from whom the rulers of most of the other rival kingdoms also claim descent. In the 8th century, there are hundreds of small kingdoms in central China. By the end of the 5th, there are only seven. Tension and constant warfare give the period its character.
Confucius and Confucianism: from the 6th century BC
A lasting result of these troubled centuries is the adoption of the ideas of K’ung Fu Tzu, known to the west as Confucius. Like other spiritual leaders of this same period (Zoroaster, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha), Confucius is essentially a teacher. As with them, his ideas are spread by his disciples. But Confucius teaches more worldly principles than his great contemporaries.
The unrest of his times prompts him to define a pattern of correct behavior. The purpose is to achieve a just and peaceful society, but the necessary first step is within each individual. Confucius lays constant emphasis on two forms of harmony. Music is good because it suggests a harmonious state of mind. Ritual is good because it defines a harmonious society.
The Confucian ideals are deeply conservative, based on an unchanging pattern of respect upwards, to those higher in rank (older members of a family, senior members of a community), which brings with it a corresponding obligation downwards. The pattern is extended outside this immediate world, with the highest respect accorded to the dead – in the form of ancestor worship.
This concept of mutual obligation shares something with feudalism, but it gives less honor to military prowess. It is more like a utopian bureaucracy, with responsible Confucians on hand at every level to oil the machinery of the state.
Confucius runs a school in his later years, proclaiming it open to talent regardless of wealth. His young graduates, more intellectually agile than their contemporaries, are much in demand as advisers in the competing kingdoms of China. So the master’s ideas are spread at a practical level, and his disciples begin as they will continue – as civil servants. Known in China as scholar-officials, they acquire the name ‘mandarin’ in western languages from a Portuguese corruption of a Sanskrit word.
The idea of a career open to talent becomes a basic characteristic of Chinese society. By the 2nd century, BC China’s famous examination system has been adopted, launching the world’s first meritocracy
Daoism: from the 4th century BC
Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism. Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China’s alternative religion.
Daodejingmeans ‘The Way and its Power’. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejingsuggests that the Way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.
In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the ‘alternative’ quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history, it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism. Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism.
The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of Yin and Yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.
Legalism: from the 4th century BC
Although the Zhou dynasty is the cradle of the two most lasting schools of Chinese thought, Confucianism and Daoism, it is brought to an end by a more brutal philosophy usually described as Legalism. Expressed in a work of the 4th century BC, the Book of Lord Shang, it responds to the lawlessness of the age by demanding more teeth for the law. A strict system of rewards and punishments is to be imposed upon society. But the ratio is to be one reward for every nine punishments.
Punishment produces force, force produces strength, strength produces awe, awe produces virtue. Virtue has its origin in punishments’, proclaims the Book of Lord Shang. It is read with attention by the ruler of the Qin.
The Qin dynasty: 221 – 206 BC
By the 4th century BC, the numerous Zhou kingdoms have been reduced, by warfare and conquest, to just seven. The most vigorous of these is the Qin kingdom, occupying the Wei valley. This region, as when the Zhou were here centuries earlier, is a buffer state between the civilized China of the plains and the barbaric tribal regions in the mountains.
The Qin have learned from their tribal neighbors how to fight from the saddle, instead of in the cumbersome war chariots used by the Zhou kingdoms. And Legalism gives them a healthy disregard for the Confucian pretensions of the more sophisticated kingdoms. In particular, they are unimpressed by the claims to the preeminence of the feeble state of Zhou.
In 256 the Qin overrun Zhou, bringing to an abrupt end a dynasty which has lasted on paper more than 800 years. In the following decades, they conquer and annex each of the other five kingdoms. The last is subdued in 221 BC.
The whole of central China is now for the first time under single unified control, in effect creating a Chinese empire. The Qin ruler who has achieved it gives himself an appropriate new title, Shi Huangdi, the ‘first sovereign emperor’. His Qin kingdom (pronounced ‘chin’) provides the name which most of the world has used ever since for this whole region of the earth – China. Shi Huangdi rapidly sets in place a dictatorship of uniformity, based on terror. Much use is made of a scale of five standard punishments – branding on the forehead, cutting off the nose, cutting off the feet, castration, and death.
The only approved commodities in this empire are items of practical use. These do not include books or Confucians. In 213 BC it is ordered that all books (except those on medicine, agriculture, and divination) are to be burnt (see Bamboo books). A year later it is reported that 460 Confucian scholars have been executed.
The collapse of the first empire: 210-206 BC
Like other megalomaniacs, Shi Huangdi predicts that his empire will last almost to eternity. 11,000 generations are his claim. In the event, it lasts less than one generation – from 221 to 206 BC. When the emperor dies, in 210, the arrangement of his tomb reflects both his paranoia and his power. In his determination that no thief shall discover and desecrate his resting place, the workmen who construct it are buried with him – or so Chinese tradition has always maintained, adding that the tomb has crossbows permanently cocked to impale any intruder. When the tomb is eventually discovered, in 1975, it reveals an even more amazing secret – the famous Terracotta army of Xi’an.
The turmoil follows the death of the Qin emperor. During it, his chief minister, Li Ssu, receives his own dose of Legalist medicine. His downfall is engineered by a palace eunuch, who arranges for him to suffer each of the first four punishments in turn and then, without nose, feet or genitals, to be flogged and cut in two at the waist.
A series of peasant rebellions, resulting from the brutality of the regime, accompanies the rapid collapse of the Qin dynasty. From the chaos, there emerges the first undeniably great Chinese dynasty, the Han.
But the centralizing effort of the Qin ruler does bequeath some lasting benefits to China. The Chinese will never again forget a political ideal deriving from this time – that the natural condition of their great and isolated land mass is to be a single entity. A practical token of this ideal is left by the Qin emperor in the form of the Great Wall of China – a boundary which securely defines the nation on the only side where nature does not already do so by mountain, jungle or sea.
The Han dynasty: 206 BC-AD 220
The Han is the first of the five great Chinese dynasties, each of them controlling the entire area of China for a span of several centuries. The others are the T’ang (7th-10th centuries), Song (10th-13th), Ming (14th-17th) and Qing (17th-20th). The Han is a great deal earlier than any of these, and it lasts – with one minor interruption – longer than any other. At its peak, the imperial power stretches from the Pamir Mountains in the west to Korea in the east and to Vietnam in the south. With justification, the Han dynasty comes to seem a golden age, and the Chinese have often described themselves as the ‘sons of Han’.
The Han kingdom was one of the five states engulfed between 230 and 221 BC by the Qin emperor. During the rebellions which followed his death, the Han throne is seized in 206 by a man of peasant origin. After four years of warfare, he is strong enough to claim the Qin empire. As a founder of a great dynasty, he is later given the title Kaozi – ‘exalted ancestor’.
As befits his origins, Kaozi is a rough character, with little respect for the Chinese official classes. The first great Chinese historian, Sima Qian, writing a century later, gives a vivid but improbable glimpse of the man. ‘Whenever a visitor wearing a Confucian hat comes to see the emperor, he immediately snatches the hat from the visitor’s head and pisses in it’.
Confronted by the practical problems of running the empire, Kaozi overcomes his aversion to the Confucians. He even commissions a Confucian work on the principles of good government. And his successors make the Confucians the scholar-officials of the state. Under the most powerful of the Han emperors, Wudi (the ‘martial emperor’), scholars of other disciplines are banned from court. The Confucian examination system is made a cornerstone of the administrative system. And an imperial academy is set up to study the supposed works of the master (most of them, in reality, written or compiled by his disciples).
The Chinese architectural tradition: from the 1st c. BC
No architecture survives in China from the early dynasties (with the spectacular exception of the Great Wall) because the Chinese have always built in wood, which decays. On the other hand, wood is easily repaired.
When timbers of a wooden structure are replaced and repainted, the building is as good as new – or as good as old. The conservative tendency in Chinese culture means that styles, even in entirely new buildings, seem to have changed little in the 2000 years since the Han dynasty.
Documents of the time suggest that Han imperial architecture is already of a kind familiar today in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the vast palace built in the 15th century for the Ming emperors. Carved and painted wooden columns and beams support roofs with elaborately ornamented eaves.
The painting of buildings provides ample opportunity for the Chinese love of rank and hierarchy. The Li Chi, a Confucian book of ritual complied in the Han dynasty, declares that the pillars of the emperor’s buildings are red, those of princes are black, those of high officials blue-green, and those of other members of the gentry yellow.
Minor improvements are introduced with the advance of technology. The colorful ceramic roof tiles of Chinese pavilions are an innovation in the Song dynasty in the 11th century. But in broad terms, the civic buildings of China retain their appearance through the ages.
A good example is the magnificent Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Its colors, frequently restored, are so fresh that the building looks new. But the structure dates from the early 15th century, in the Ming dynasty, and its appearance on its marble platform is almost identical to Marco Polo’s description of its predecessor in the 13th century.
The reign of the emperor Wudi: 142 – 87 BC
At the peak of the Han dynasty, under the emperor Wudi, the Chinese empire stretches to its greatest expanse and seems to need for nothing. Even the valuable commodities which previously have been acquired from beyond the empire’s northern boundary – horses and jade – are now regarded as home produce. They come from the steppes to the north of the Himalayas, where the nomadic Xiongnu are now increasingly brought under Chinese control.
Sima Qian, writing during Wudi’s reign, depicts the empire as Proudly self-sufficient, in his list of what is available and in which regions. Wudi employs military force more effectively than his predecessors against the Xiongnu, who are constantly pressing from the north. Searching for allies against these ferocious neighbors, he is intrigued by reports that there are other nomadic tribes, the Yueqi, enemies of the Xiongnu, living to the west of them.
In 138 Wudi sends an envoy on a dangerous mission to make contact with these potential allies. The 13-year adventure of the envoy, Zhang Qian, is one of the great early travel stories (see the Journey of Zhang Qian). It is also the first fully documented contact between China and the west, and a significant step towards the opening of the Silk Road.
The contribution of the Han
Several important technical advances are made in China during the Han dynasty. In warfare, the Chinese skill in working bronze is applied to the invention of the crossbow.
In the story of communication, there are two major turning points. Paper is invented, with a traditional date of AD 105. And although true printing must wait a few more centuries, an initiative of AD 175 proves an important stepping stone towards the first printed texts in Chinese.
Engraved texts: 2nd – 8th century AD
The emperor of China commands, in AD 175, that the six main classics of Confucianism be carved in stone. His purpose is to preserve them for posterity in what is held to be an authentic version of the text. But his enterprise has an unexpected result.
Confucian scholars are eager to own these important texts. Now, instead of having them expensively written out, they can make their own copies. Simply by laying sheets of paper on the engraved slabs and rubbing all over with charcoal or graphite, they can take away a text in white letters on a black ground – a technique more familiar in recent centuries in the form of brass-rubbing.
Subsequent emperors engrave other texts until quite an extensive white-on-black library can be acquired. It is a natural next step to carve the letters in a raised form (and in mirror writing) and then to apply ink to the surface of the letters. When this ink is transferred to paper, the letters appear in black (or in a color) against the white of the paper – much more pleasant to the eye than white on black.
This process is printing. But it is the Buddhists, rather than the Confucians, who make the breakthrough.
Western and Eastern Han: 206 BC-AD 221
For the first 200 years of the dynasty, the Han capital is in the Wei valley – at Xi’an (the same site as Ch’ang-An, the first capital of the Zhou dynasty). During a brief interlude, the throne is seized by a usurper, who forms the Hsin or ‘new’ dynasty (AD 8-23). The imperial family then recovers the throne and moves the capital further east into the plains. The emperors re-establish themselves at Loyang – again the very place to which the Zhou dynasty moved from Xi’an, nearly eight centuries earlier.
At Loyang, the Han survive for another 200 years, until eventually toppled in 221 after several decades of peasant uprisings – a pattern of events which has been common at the end of Chinese dynasties.
Period of Disunion: 3rd – 6th century AD
The centuries after the collapse of the Han dynasty are a time of chaos. The Chinese Standard Historiesidentify no fewer than ten dynasties and nineteen separate kingdoms during this period. It is often known now as the Six Dynasties (from six in succession which had their capital at Nanjing), or more accurately as the Period of Disunion. As in many chaotic times, much is achieved. One such achievement is the flourishing of Chinese Buddhism.
The Daoists see the Buddhists as kindred souls, and with good reason. Both religions have priests, monasteries and some form of a religious hierarchy. Both belief in a withdrawal from the everyday business of life. Both differ profoundly from the Chinese alternative to Daoism – the practical, commonsense, worldly philosophy of Confucianism.
Soon the two religions become so closely linked that a new Daoist theory evolves. The Buddha is actually Lao-Tzu, who was given this other name when he made a secret journey to bring the truth to India.
Centuries later, when Buddhism is favored above Daoism by Chinese rulers and when the great wealth of Buddhist monasteries provokes jealousy, the Daoist legend becomes neatly reversed. If the Buddhists are Daoists under another name, why should they enjoy any special treatment and such spectacular success? Such arguments underlie the eventual persecution of Buddhists, in the 9th century.
Meanwhile, their success is indeed astonishing. Buddhist carving in China stands as visible proof of their wealth and energy.
In sheer quantity, if in nothing else, Buddhist carving in China would be a phenomenon in the history of sculpture. One site near the ancient capital of Loyang, at the eastern end of the Silk Road, makes the point very effectively. Any visitor to Long-men will be struck by the profusion of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Arhats and their guardians. But exactly how many statues are there?
In 1916 a local magistrate attempts to count them. He arrives at a total of 97,306 separate figures. A more recent study suggests that 142,289 may be nearer the mark.
The Sui dynasty: 589-618
The man who reunites China in 589, forming the Sui dynasty, is an enthusiastic patron of Buddhism. He takes as his title Wen Ti, meaning the Cultured Emperor, and devotes much effort to building Buddhist stupas throughout the land. The local version of a stupa develops into a specifically Chinese form, that of the pagoda.
His son, Yang Ti (the Emblazoned Emperor), undertakes an even more ambitious project, requiring so much forced labor that it contributes to the rapid end of this brief dynasty. But it has economic value and is a stupendous achievement. Yang Ti constructs the Grand Canal, linking the Yangtze to the Yellow River and thus to the twin capitals of Loyang and Xi’an.
The T’ang dynasty: 618-907
Rebellion breaks out against the second Sui emperor in 613, partly provoked by the burden of constructing his Grand Canal. In 616, fleeing from his capital at Xi’an, he and his court are towed down the canal to temporary safety in his specially designed barges. Two years later he is assassinated by his own troops.
Meanwhile one of the emperor’s high officials has seized power in Xi’an. By 618 he is in a position to declare himself the founder of a new dynasty, the T’ang. China enters its most dynamic era, a period rivaled only by the first two centuries of the Han dynasty.
Chinese culture under the T’ang reaches new heights in ceramics and literature. The Chinese style influences Korea and Japan, and the two younger civilizations also give an increasingly warm welcome to Chinese Buddhism. Imperial control now extends once again from desert oases along the Silk Road in the northwest to parts of Manchuria in the northeast and to Vietnam in the south.
Beyond China’s borders to the west, the might of the emperor reaches further than at any previous time. Princes as far away as Bukhara and Samarkand recognize his sovereignty.
Imperial science and a great map of China: 721-801
The extent of the imperial Chinese bureaucracy under the T’ang dynasty makes possible an unusually thorough scientific project (echoing, for a different purpose, the brave amateur experiment of Eratosthenes1000 years earlier). In 721 the emperor sets up nine research stations, across a span of more than 2000 miles, from Hue in the south to the Great Wall in the north.
For four years each station measures the sun’s shadow at noon on the summer and winter solstice. It is an elegant experiment in that no difficult synchronization is required. The shortest and longest shadows at each place are the correct answers, providing invaluable information for cartographers.
A famous map of 801 – a landmark in cartography – no doubt makes use of the nine points of latitude scientifically established in the experiment of 721-5. It is a map of the Chinese world, produced for the T’ang emperor by Chia Tan.
Chia Tan’s map is on an ambitious scale, measuring about 10 by 11 yards. It charts the entire T’ang empire and extends its range into the barbarian world beyond China’s borders, showing the seven main trade routes with other parts of Asia.
T’ang pottery: 7th – 9th century
T’ang is the first dynasty from which sufficient pottery survives for a Chinese style to become widely known in modern times. The surviving pieces are almost exclusively ceramic figures found in tombs. They represent the animals (particularly horses, but also camels) and the servants and attendants needed by the dead man in the next life.
The eclectic nature of Chinese religion is well suggested in the range of attendants considered helpful. A general by the name of Liu Tingxun, buried at Loyang in 728, is accompanied by two Confucian officials, two Buddhist guardians and two ferocious-looking earth spirits of a more Daoist disposition.
Vigorously realistic in style, with bright and often dappled glazes, T’ang horses and tomb figures are among the most delightful and recognizable of styles of pottery.
But the T’ang potters make another contribution of much greater significance in ceramic history. They discover the technique of the thin white translucent ware known as porcelain. There is much argument about the date of the first porcelain, for there is no precise agreement on how to define it (it is most commonly described as white china so thin that it is translucent and makes a ringing sound when struck). Other definitions involve the relative proportions of ingredients such as kaolin and porcelain stone.
Wares produced in north China during the T’ang dynasty, from as early as the 7th century, have the characteristics of porcelain. From the start, they are widely appreciated. In a summer palace of the 9th century, far away on the Tigris at Samarra, broken fragments of T’ang porcelain have been found. The earliest known example of a foreigner marveling at this delicate Chinese ware derives from the same century and region.
In 851 a merchant by the name of Suleiman is recorded in Basra, at the mouth of the Tigris, as saying that the Chinese have ‘pottery of excellent quality, of which bowls are made as fine as glass drinking cups; the sparkle of water can be seen through it, although it is pottery.
T’ang poetry: 7th – 9th century
Chinese poetry achieves its golden age during the T’ang dynasty. The ability to turn an elegant verse is so much part of civilized life that almost 50,000 poems (by some 2300 poets) survive from the period.
Poetry is a social activity. Friends write stanzas for each other to commemorate an occasion, and competitive improvisation is a favorite game at a party or on a picnic. Early in the dynasty news of a child prodigy, a girl of seven reaches the court. She is brought before the empress and is asked to improvise on the theme of bidding farewell to her brothers. The Resulting poem, delivered in this alarming context, is brilliant – though no doubt polished in the telling.
Chinese scholar-officials, pleasantly torn between Confucianism and Daoism, write poetry when they are in their Daoist vein. Verses are composed when the official is on a journey with friends, or on holiday, or in temporary retirement in a thatched cottage in some delightful landscape.
Most of the leading poets, though their inspiration lies among friends in the countryside, are also on the fringes of imperial court life. In this balance, they echo to some extent the experience of Horace in imperial Rome. Like his short odes, the favorite T’ang form known as lü-shih (‘regulated verse’) is distinguished by its finely honed elegance.
Wang Wei, Li Po, and Tu Fu: 8th century
The three greatest T’ang poets are exact contemporaries in the early 8th century. One of them, Wang Wei, begins his career with a brilliant success in the official examinations but he rarely holds the high positions which this would normally imply. More important to him is his villa in the mountains south of the capital city, at Wang-ch’uan.
The beauty of the landscape inspires Wang Wei both as painter and poet. None of his paintings survive, but later Chinese landscapes reveal the closely related influence of the countryside in both art forms. A poet of the next dynasty writes of Wang Wei that there are pictures in his poems and poems in his pictures.
The other two leading T’ang poets, Li Po, and Tu Fu, are unsuccessful in the examinations. Instead, they regularly present poems to the imperial court in the hope of finding preferment. Occasionally they are successful. But both men, for much of their lives, lead a nomadic existence – supporting themselves on small farms, or lodging in Daoist monasteries.
Nevertheless, they are able to acquire great fame in their lifetime as poets, thanks to the extensive network of educated Chinese officialdom. In 744 (when Li is 43 and Tu 32) their paths cross for the first time, and the two poets become firm friends. Friendship and Chinese poetry are closely linked.
The first printed book: 868
The earliest known printed book is Chinese, from the end of the T’ang dynasty. Discovered in a cave at Dunhuang in 1899, it is a precisely dated document which brings the circumstances of its creation vividly to life.
It is a scroll, 16 feet long and a foot high, formed of sheets of paper glued together at their edges. The text is that of the Diamond Sutra, and the first sheet in the scroll has an added distinction. It is the world’s first printed illustration, depicting an enthroned Buddha surrounded by holy attendants. In a tradition later familiar in religious art of the west, a small figure kneels and prays in the foreground. He is presumably the donor who has paid for this holy book.
The name of the donor, Wang Chieh, is revealed in another device which later becomes traditional in early printed books in the west. The details of publication are given in a colophon (Greek for ‘finishing stroke’) at the end of the text. This reveals that the scroll is a work of Buddhist piety, combined with the filial obligations of good Confucian ideals: ‘Printed on 11 May 868 by Wang Chieh, for free general distribution, in order in deep reverence to perpetuate the memory of his parents.’
The printing of Wang Chieh’s scroll is of a high standard, so it must have had many predecessors. But the lucky accident of the cave at Dunhuang has given his parents a memorial more lasting than he could have imagined possible.
The T’ang in decline: 751-906
With the exception of printing, the great T’ang achievements take place in the first half of the dynasty. This is a repetitive pattern of Chinese history, for the vigor of the founding emperor of a dynasty – a self-made man – can rarely be matched by descendants who grow up in a palace environment, pampered by eunuchs and shielded from practical experience.
The T’ang is also unfortunate in their neighbors. For the first time since communication with the west is established, during the Han dynasty, there is an expansionist new power beyond the Himalayas. The Arabs, with their Muslim faith, have the vitality traditionally considered in China to be characteristic of a new dynasty.
The Arabs and the Chinese: 751-758
By the mid-8th century, with the Arabs firmly in control of central Asia and the Chinese pressing further west than ever before, a clash is sooner or later inevitable. It comes, in 751, at the Talas river. The result is a shattering defeat for the Chinese. For the Arabs, an interesting fringe benefit of victory is the valuable secret of how to make paper.
Seven years later the Arabs again demonstrate their strength with an impertinent gesture at the opposite extreme of the Chinese empire. Arriving in 758 along the trade route of the south China coast, they loot and burn Canton.
The rebellion of An Lu-shan: 755
Between the two Arab incursions, the T’ang administration is gravely weakened by the rebellion of an army commander serving on the northwest frontier. In 755 An Lu-shan marches east and captures both the western and eastern capitals, at Xi’an and Loyang. The emperor flees ignominiously.
Two years later An Lu-shan is murdered by his own son. But the weakened condition of the empire is soon demonstrated again. In 763 the emperor is unable to prevent an invading Tibetan force from briefly capturing Xi’an.
Eunuchs and warlords, Daoists and Buddhists
The T’ang dynasty never again recovers its former strength. The next century and a half is characterized by violent struggles between powerful groups. One such clash is between the eunuchs who run the imperial palace, and who are now increasingly given command over the palace armies, and the regional governors controlling troops in the provinces.
Another clash is between Daoists and Buddhists. In recent centuries the Buddhists have been the more favored of the Daoists, an older indigenous sect by now jealous of the foreign upstarts, seek to influence the emperors against their rivals.
In 845 the Daoist campaign is finally and decisively successful. The emperor initiates a purge in which 4000 Buddhist monasteries are destroyed, together with many more shrines and temples. A quarter of a million monks and nuns are forced back into secular life.
Soon lawless provincial armies and popular unrest combine to make the country ungovernable. Rebellious peasants occupy Xi’an in 881. In 903 a surviving leader of that peasant uprising captures the emperor and kills him with all his eunuchs. Three years later he sets up a dynasty of his own with his capital at Kaifeng. A succession of similar warlords follows his example in a chaotic 50-year span known as the Five Dynasties.
The Song empire: 960-1279
The rapid succession of the Five Dynasties is brought to an end by a warlord who wins power in960. He establishes the sixth in the sequence on a more firm footing, as the Song dynasty. He does so by reducing the power of regional commanders (keeping the best regiments under his own command at the center) and by giving greater authority to the civilian administration.
As a result, this is the heyday of the Confucians. Ever since the Han dynasty, scholar-officials have supposedly been selected by merit in the civil-service exams. But heredity and corruption have often frustrated this intention, reserving the jade insignia of office for the families of the powerful rather than the talented.
Now, under the Song emperors, the search for talent becomes rigorous. As an early Song ruler puts it, ‘bosoms clothed in coarse fabrics may carry qualities of jade’, and he is determined that such bosoms shall not ‘remain unknown’.
The result is a China weaker in military terms than its predecessors but of greater sophistication. The territory controlled by the Song emperors is gradually reduced under pressure from less civilized intruders, particularly from the north. But enough remains to be the basis of a strong economy and a rich urban culture.
For the first half of the dynasty, known as Northern Song, the capital is at Kaifeng – an important center where the Grand Canal joins the Yellow River. The city includes 16 square miles within its walls and has an estimated population of more than a million people. It is not the only one of its kind. By the end of the dynasty Soozhou, Hangzhou and Canton (already the port for foreign merchants) are all of this size.
In these great cities, the Chinese enjoy the fruits of trade (now carried in exceptionally large merchant ships, and often negotiated in paper money), the benefits of technology (such as printing) and the aesthetic delights of pottery, painting, and poetry.
These pleasures are interrupted from time to time by the demands of the Khitan, a tribe from eastern Mongolia who has settled in north China and have established their own version of a Chinese dynasty (the Liao, 907-1125). The Khitan is the first to make a capital city in what is now Beijing. They are such troublesome neighbors that the Song regularly make large payments to them (of silk, grain, copper, and silver) in return for peace.
A more drastic interruption occurs when another aggressive group from the northern steppes, the Jurchen, overwhelm the Liao dynasty in 1125. Two years later they capture the Song capital, Kaifeng, and carry off the Song emperor and 3000 of his court. But even this disaster proves only a dislocation.
Southern Song: 1127-1279
A prince of the imperial family, avoiding capture at Kaifeng, establishes a new administration at the other end of the Grand Canal, at Hangzhou. Here the Southern Song continue for another 150 years, in territory reduced to a mere fraction of the China of the T’ang empire.
But civilized Chinese life thrives in the exceptionally beautiful city of Hangzhou, at the heart of China’s richest agricultural region – the rice fields of the south. It will continue to thrive until the arrival of another intruder, of a different caliber from all previous northern barbarians. Though not Chinese, he becomes emperor of China. He is perhaps the only emperor in Chinese history whose name is widely known – Kublai Khan.
Paper money in China: 10th – 15th century
Paper money is first experimented with in China in about910, during the Five Dynasties period. It is a familiar currency by the end of the century under the Song dynasty. Another three centuries later it is one of the things about China which most astonishes Marco Polo.
He describes in great detail how the notes are authenticated, and then unwittingly touches on the danger lurking within the delightful freedom to print money. He says that the emperor of China makes so many notes each year that he could buy the whole treasure of the world, ‘though it costs him nothing’. By the early 15th century inflation has become such a problem that paper currency is abolished in the Ming empire.
Chinese publishing: 10th – 11th century
Printing from wood blocks, as in the Diamond Sutra, is a laborious process. Yet the Chinese printers work wonders. In the 10th and 11th centuries, all the Confucian classics are published for the use of scholar-officials, together with huge numbers of Buddhist and Daoist works (amounting to around 5000 scrolls of each) and the complete Standard Histories since the time of Sima Qian.
The carving of so many characters in reverse on wood blocks is an enormous investment of labor, but the task is unavoidable until the introduction of movable type. This innovation, once again, seems to have been pioneered in China but achieved in Korea.
Chinese arts: in the Song dynasty
In the heyday of classical Chinese culture, a civilized gentleman – meaning a Confucian official – should be adept in three different artistic fields. When he settles down before a fresh sheet of paper and dips his brush in the ink (ground from a block of pigment by a servant), no one can be certain whether he is about to pen an impromptu poem, paint a quick impression of a romantic landscape or fashion some traditional phrase in exquisite Chinese characters.
The three skills, all expressed in the beauty of brush strokes, are closely linked. A ‘soundless poem’ is a conventional Chinese term for a picture. And a typical poem by the Song master Ou-yang Hsiu Sounds like a painting.
Poetry and painting in Song China (960-1279) are largely social activities, both in the creation and in the appreciation of the work. On a convivial occasion, with wine flowing, Confucians will compete with each other in writing or painting. In a more sober vein, among connoisseurs, a collector will bring the scrolls from their boxes and will unroll them to be admired and discussed.
China’s past is also now a theme for connoisseurs, in a fashion pioneered by Ou-yang Hsiu (and echoed centuries later in Italy during the Renaissance). Ou-yang Hsiu clambers ‘on precarious cliffs and inaccessible gorges, in wild forests and abandoned tombs’ to make rubbings which he publishes, in about 1000 portfolios, as his Collection of Ancient Inscriptions’.
Inevitably much of the painting done by enthusiastic amateurs is dull and conventional. This is particularly true during the reign of the Emperor Hui Tsung. Himself a talented painter, of a carefully exact kind, he sets up an official academy of painting.
Those who want to get on at court are unlikely to disagree with the emperor on matters of artistic style. Others, opting out of the system, come under the influence of Chan or Zen Buddhism with its emphasis on freedom of expression. The Chan painters of the Song dynasty, using a few quick brushstrokes to capture a fleeting visual moment, provide one of the most brilliant interludes in the story of Chinese art.
Pottery of the Song dynasty: 10th – 13th century
Of the many arts which thrive in China at this time, Song ceramics are outstanding. The simple shapes of the pottery and porcelain of this dynasty and the elegance of the glazes (usually monochrome) have set standards of refinement admired in subsequent centuries throughout the world.
Among the best known of these wares are the celadons, with their thick transparent green glazes, which are made at Longquan, near the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou. Also influential are the black wares known as temmoku, popular with Buddhist monks for the tea ceremony and exported in large quantities for this purpose to Japan.
A tower clock in China: 1094
After six years’ work, a Buddhist monk by the name of Su Song completes a great tower, some thirty feet high, which is designed to reveal the movement of the stars and the hours of the day. Figures pop out of doors and strike bells to signify the hours.
The power comes from a water wheel occupying the lower part of the tower. Su Song has designed a device which stops the water wheel except for a brief spell, once every quarter of an hour when the weight of the water (accumulated in vessels on the rim) is sufficient to trip a mechanism. The wheel, lurching forward, drives the machinery of the tower to the next stationary point in a continuing cycle.
This device (which in Su Sung’s tower must feel like a minor earthquake every time it slams the machinery into action) is an early example of an escapement – a concept essential to mechanical clockwork. In any form of clock based on machinery, power must be delivered to the mechanism in intermittent bursts which can be precisely regulated. The rationing of power is the function of the escapement. The real birth of mechanical clockwork awaits a reliable version, developed in Europe in the 13th century.
Meanwhile, Su Sung’s tower clock, ready for inspection by the emperor in 1094, is destroyed shortly afterward by marauding barbarians from the north.
The Chinese junk: 12th century – 15th century
The design of the Chinese junk (a western word from the Malayan djong, meaning ‘boat’) is perfected during the later part of the Song dynasty when the loss of the northern empire increases the importance of overseas trade. A merchant fleet and a navy to defend it become essential. The resulting junk is an ideal craft for the South China seas.
The region suffers violent typhoons, so a strong hull is essential. The Chinese achieve this by means of the bulkhead – a partition across the interior of the hull, and sometimes along its length as well. Bulkheads make the hull rigid and also provide watertight compartments – invaluable when a leak at sea needs repair.
The Chinese junk has other pioneering features later copied elsewhere. Traditionally built without a keel (allowing access to shallow waters), the junk is ill-equipped to sail a straight course until an important innovation of the Song period – the addition of the sternpost rudder. This is a large heavy board which can be lowered on a sternpost when the junk moves into deep water. Coming below the bottom of the boat, and capable of hinging on its post, it fulfills the function both of keel and rudder.
Until this time, throughout the world, the conventional method of steering a boat has been by means of a long oar projecting from the stern.
Another important innovation on the Chinese junk is multiple masts. Marco Polo describes sea-going junks as having four masts, with a further two which can be raised when required. Each mast has square-rigged sails. They concertina on themselves, when reefed, in the manner of a Venetian blind.
These ships are huge. Marco Polo claims that sixty private cabins for merchants can be built on the deck, and archaeological evidence suggests that by the 15th century a large merchant junk is about 450 feet from the bow to the high poop in the stern – six times the length of the contemporary Portuguese caravel. In 1973 the discovery of a junk of the 13th-century confirms much of what Marco Polo reports from the time of Kublai Khan.
Kublai Khan and the Yüan dynasty of China: 1252-79
From 1252 Kublai presses south through the mountainous western regions of China, into Szechwan and Yünnan. His attention is distracted by the death of his brother, the great Khan Mangu, in 1259. Kublai is elected khan in his place by the Mongol nobles campaigning with him in China. But the same position is claimed by a younger brother, Ariq Böge, at the Karakorum.
Kublai defeats his brother in 1264. Like Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol empire, he is now free to give his full attention to China. In 1267 he reveals the seriousness of his ambitions when he moves the imperial capital south from the Karakorum to Beijing – a town severely damaged by his grandfather, Genghis Khan, in 1215.
Kublai Khan builds himself a magnificent city in Beijing. Its walls are 24 miles in circumference and some 50 feet high. The Mongols call it Khanbaliq, the ‘city of the Khan’; and under a version of this name, as Cambaluc, it becomes famous even in Europe.
From this base in the north, he sets about overwhelming the Song dynasty. As early as 1271 he makes it plain that he sees himself not as an invading barbarian but as the Chinese emperor of a new dynasty. In that year he announces a Chinese name for his dynasty – Ta Yüan, meaning ‘Great Origin’. Ancestors are vital in China, so his grandfather Genghis Khan is given a posthumous Chinese title: T’ai Tsu, ‘Grand Progenitor’.
Kublai soon makes good these Chinese pretensions. In 1276 Hangzhou, the capital of the surviving Song dynasty falls to his armies. The young emperor and his mother are brought to Kublai’s court and are treated with civility. By 1279 there is no further Song resistance. The Chinese chronicler’s record, from that year, the start of a new dynasty – the Yüan, the first in the empire’s history to be ruled by an outsider.
But Kublai Khan is determined not to be an outsider. He even adopts the administrative system of the Chinese bureaucracy. The only difference is that he employs more foreigners than a Chinese emperor would. One of them, Marco Polo, has left a vivid (if one-sided) glimpse of Mongol China.
Kublai Khan is sovereign over regions more extensive than any previous Chinese empire. Even allowing for the fact that his authority in the Mongol territories in the west is only nominal (as the great khan), he has under his direct control Mongolia, Tibet, Manchuria, Korea and the whole of China down to the South China Sea.
Marco Polo in China: 1275-1292
Marco spends seventeen years in China, fulfilling a wide variety of tasks in Kublai Khan’s administration. He is in effect a member of an occupying force, speaking Mongolian but not Chinese, so his understanding of the people is limited. But he travels a great deal, often trading on his own account as well as serving the emperor, and he describes many cities.
Hangzhou is his favorite. He pretends not to be certain which is more impressive – the number of its bridges or the number of its prostitutes. His interests seem more with the latter. Those who sample these women, he says (as if speaking of someone else), ‘are so much taken with their sweetness and charms that they can never forget them’.
Marco has often been criticized for failing to mention one peculiarity of China – the drinking of tea, which is already by this time a Chinese addiction. The two oddities which strike him most forcibly are a marvelous black stone, useless for building with, which the Chinese dig up and burn (one of the earliest references to coal); and their use of bank notes.
Paper money is not a Mongol innovation, being in use already in the Song dynasty, but Marco gives a fascinating description of government officials stamping the notes with a cinnabar seal.
The Ming dynasty: 1368-1644
Kublai Khan‘s grandson and successor, Timur, contrives to keep order in the empire for a few years after the great khan’s death in 1294. But a series of disasters in the early 14th century unsettles the dynasty. A civil war between rival Mongol princes breaks out in 1328. There is widespread famine. Disastrous floods cause armies of peasants to be press-ganged into heavy work on the river defenses. Rebel bands begin to wreak havoc, demanding the ejection of the foreigners and the restoration of a Chinese dynasty.
The leader of one such band is a Buddhist monk, of peasant origin, by the name of Zhu Yuanzhang. In 1356 Zhu succeeds in capturing a town which he renames Nanjing, ‘southern capital’.
In 1368 Zhu marches to seize the northern capital, Beijing. The Mongols flee north to the steppes, and Zhu announces the start of a new dynasty with himself as emperor. Like the Mongols, with their choice of Ta Yüan, he gives his dynasty a glorious name – Ming, meaning ‘brilliant’.
Zhu inaugurates a custom of a similar kind which survives to the end of the Chinese empire. He chooses a congenial name for his reign – in this case, Hung Wu, ‘vast military power’. Chinese emperors from this time onwards are known by the title of their reign. Zhu, the founder of the new dynasty, becomes the Hung Wu emperor – though the phrase is often now used as though Hung Wu were his own name.
The new emperor turns out to be a strict disciplinarian. His officials must invariably run when in his presence, and misdemeanors are punished with public canings. Officials in Ming China are treated like prefects at an old-fashioned boarding school; the button on a mandarin‘s cap changes through nine different colors as he rises in the strict hierarchy of the civil service. It makes for a well-behaved but unenterprising society.
One exception to the otherwise undynamic nature of the Ming dynasty is an expansion of China’s maritime trade.
The History of China – Chinese sea trade: 15th century
The greatest extent of Chinese trade is achieved in the early 15th century when Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, sails far and wide with a fleet of large junks. At various times between 1405 and 1433 he reaches the Persian Gulf, the coast of Africa (returning with a giraffe on board) and possibly even Australia.
Typical Chinese exports are now porcelain, lacquer, silks, items of gold and silver, and medicinal preparations. The junks return with herbs, spices, ivory, rhinoceros horn, rare varieties of wood, jewels, cotton and ingredients for making dyes.
The Jesuits in China: from1583
The China which first becomes known to the west, in full and accurate detail, is that of the Ming empire. In 1421 the third Ming emperor moves the capital north from Nanjing to Beijing, laying out the great palace and administrative complex known now as the Forbidden City. Here one of his successors is visited by the first European to make a systematic study of China and the Chinese.
He is Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary. He arrives in China in 1583 from the Portuguese trading post on Macao. It is his intention to seek an interview with the emperor, for whom he has brought presents from Europe. It takes eighteen years before Ricci succeeds in reaching the emperor. But during that time he has become a fascinated student of China.
- Ricci learns the Chinese language, studies the Chinese classics and translates them into Latin. He even writes Chinese books himself so as to bring Christian truth to these very civilized infidels.Of all the pagans in history, Ricci soon concludes, these are the wisest. He particularly admires the ancient philosopher K’ung Fu Tzu, and it is through Ricci that Europe first hears of the Chinese sage (under the name by which the Jesuit transliterates him into Latin, Confucius). Ricci, settling into the environment, wears the robes of a mandarin. He even attends a ritual in honor of Confucius in the Temple of Heaven in Nanjing, convincing himself that the occasion is one of reverence rather than worship.Ricci’s example establishes a strong and sympathetic Jesuit presence in China which lasts into the Qing dynasty, in the early 18th century. Reports of Jesuit flexibility, in the Ricci tradition, are ill-received in Rome – provoking the so-called rites controversy. But the Jesuits have provided the first reliable reports of this ancient civilization. Europe is greatly impressed.
- Chinese rationalism chimes perfectly with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Chinese style is imitated in the chinoiserie which becomes the fashion in European furniture and interior decoration. And the Chinese secret of porcelain is desperately sought by European potters, in a race won in 1709 in Meissen
The History of China – The Qing dynasty: 1644-1912
Manchuria, the region north of Korea, has never been included within China. Its inhabitants, barbarians to the Chinese, are racially closer to their western neighbors, the Mongols. Nevertheless, the Manchus themselves imitate and adopt many of the more sophisticated Chinese ways. So their eventual intervention in China brings no very abrupt change.
By the mid-17th century the Ming empire, nearly three centuries old, is enfeebled and decadent. Pampered emperors, rarely seen in public, leave practical matters in the hands of much-hated palace eunuchs. Peasant uprisings, characteristic of the end of Chinese dynasties, become frequent.
In 1644 a rebel band captures Beijing. The Ming emperor hangs himself in a pavilion on a private hill overlooking his great palace, the Forbidden City. The Ming commander in the north invites the neighboring barbarians, the Manchus, to help him in recovering the imperial city. They do so, and then keep it for themselves.
The Manchu hereditary chieftain is a boy of six. His people now establish him as the Son of Heaven(the official title of a Chinese emperor). But it is evident that this is a development planned during his father’s reign. The Manchus, already the conquerors of Korea, have declared the start of a new Chinese-style dynasty in 1636. They have chosen the name Qing, meaning ‘pure’.
The Qing conquest of the whole of China is complete by 1683. The conquerors insist on one change emphasizing the dominance of a new group. All Chinese men are now required to shave part of the head, leaving a long pigtail (known as a queue) hanging down behind.
The first century of the Qing dynasty is a time of prosperity and expansion. Chinese rule extends north of the Great Wall from Turkestan in the west to Manchuria in the east. Tibet is brought under Chinese protection. Taiwan is colonized. This great empire, in its wealth and sophistication, is now of great interest to Europe. But it is the west which eventually causes the downfall of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty.
The History of China – Western barbarians: 18th-19th century
In Chinese tradition people from outside the empire are classed together as one group – barbarians. If they are allowed into China, it is only for the single purpose of bringing tribute to the emperor.
By complying with local tradition the Jesuits, during the 17th century, disarm the Chinese in their distrust of foreign ways. They also impress them with western technology (Ricci particularly delights the emperor with a striking clock). But the Jesuits are followed by other Europeans, including unruly merchants. In 1703 the Qing emperor Kangxi, on a tour of the southern provinces, is alarmed to discover how many westerners are ‘Wandering at will over China‘.
Kangxi, foreseeing trouble, imposes restrictions on Europeans entering the empire. But the 18th century is a period when the sea-going nations of the west are in an expansive mood. Prosperous and self-confident Europeans, masters of the oceans and eager to trade, are perplexed to find their advances rejected by the Chinese.
An intriguing glimpse of the frustration of the Europeans, in their baffling inability to make any headway in China, can be seen in the experience of the British and Dutch embassies which are briefly received, in 1793 and 1794, at the court of Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong emperor.
The History of China – The kowtow and a taste for tea: 1793-1794
In July 1793 two British ships reach the China coast. The first carries Lord Macartney and his retinue, sent by George III as an embassy to the Chinese emperor Qianlong. Macartney has a specific task – to win trading concessions and, if possible, a British offshore base similar to Portugal’s Macao.
The second ship carries presents for the emperor, of the kind which have proved most popular in the past. There are scientific instruments, clocks and watches, a planetarium and even (the latest western marvel) a hot-air balloon. The embassy and the presents are loaded into splendid barges and are dragged up the Grand Canal towards Beijing.
A pretty banner flutters at the masthead of the leading barge. Its Chinese characters, when translated, are discovered to say ‘The English Ambassador bringing tribute to the Emperor of China’. This is not the relationship which Lord Macartney has in mind. Much time is now spent negotiating with mandarin officials who try to insist on the ambassador kowtowing (touching his forehead three times to the ground) when coming into the imperial presence. He refuses to do so, agreeing merely to kneel on one knee and bow his head. This, according to the English account, is accepted. The audience and the accompanying banquet go well, but the emperor refuses to discuss practical matters of trade.
Three weeks later a letter for George III is brought with much solemnity to the ambassador. It explains that there is no need for any trading agreement since the nations of the world have always brought precious commodities as a tribute to China. ‘Consequently, there is nothing we lack, as your principal envoy has himself observed. We have never set many stores on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.’ Some in Europe blame Macartney’s failure on his refusal to kowtow, so in 1794 Holland tries the opposite tack. The Dutch ambassador is calculated to have kowtowed thirty times (once to some dried grapes sent as a present by the emperor). He too returns home without a trading agreement.
The truth is that the need for reciprocal trade is all on the European side because the west, and especially Britain, has developed a passion for one particular Chinese product – tea. The Chinese are happy to sell their tea to British merchants, but they want only hard currency in exchange. Precious silver is draining away to the east, just as gold flowed from Rome along the Silk Road. Eventually the British solve their trade balance by encouraging a Chinese addiction greater even than the English thirst for tea. The East India Company grows opium in India for the Chinese market. And the British will go to any length to ensure that the Chinese enjoy it.