Thayer Watkins


The Formation of the Chinese Empire

The Warring States Period 475-221 BCE

During the Early 15th Century

Notes on: When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433 by Louise Levathes 1994

Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese Empire seven times sent great fleets into the Indian Ocean as far as Africa. The largest of the ships in these fleets were nine-masted junks extending 400 feet in length (see illustration). These large ships filled with trade goods were accompanied by numerous supply ships and patrol boats. The crews on these armadas numbered close to 30 thousand. Then, due to internal problems, China destroyed its fleet and settled into isolation.

The explanation for this strange action lies in the internal politics of the Empire. The Mandarin bureaucrats generally ran the Empire, but within the Imperial Court the court eunuchs had control. The admiral of the Treasure Fleets was Zheng He (jung huh). Zheng He was a Moslem Chinese who was captured by the army in southwestern China as a boy. His captors castrated him and sold him as a servant for harems. He ended up in the Imperial Court. The eunuchs of the Imperial Court functioned as a separate bureaucracy and the Mandarins were fearful of their power. When the Treasure fleet expeditions to the Indian Ocean turned out to be successes the Mandarins were so afraid that the power of the eunuchs would be enhanced to the point where they would rival the Mandarins in power that they set to stop the Treasure fleet expeditions. The Mandarins convinced the Emperor that the Treasure Fleet threaten to contaminate the Empire and must be destroyed.

Less than a century after the distruction of Treasure Fleets the Portuguese appeared in the Indian Ocean in their relative small caravels. Soon the Portuguese gained control over the Indian Ocean and traveled on to China, where they acquired Macau, and Japan. How much different world history would have been if the Chinese Treasure Fleets had continued around Africa and one day appeared in the harbors of Western Europe.

The Taiping Rebellion in China 1851-1864

Note: There are two system for writing Mandarin words in Latin letters. The Wade-Giles system, the older method, is misleading. The newer method, Pinyin, was developed by the mainland government of China. It is far simpler to understand. However the Wade-Giles system is still used in Taiwan and elsewhere outside of mainland China. Pinyin spellings are used wherever possible in the following with the Wade-Giles version given in parentheses.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the province of Guangdong (Kwangtung in the Wade-Giles romanization and known as Canton by Westerners) in South China was beset by social turmoil from factional and ethnic disputes as well as from the impact of Western contact. The government could not cope with the problems. The ethnic conflict was between the indigenous people and the Hakkas (guest settlers) who had emigrated into the area from north central China several centuries previously but maintain a separate identity. The Hakkas tended to be more adventuresome than the local population. They entered new occupations, engaged in trade, and migrated to new lands to a greater extent than other Chinese. A significant share of the Taiwanese and other overseas Chinese are Hakka. Two important Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping of the People's Republic and Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore are of Hakka background.

About 1850 Hong Xiu-quan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan) had visions that led him to found a new religion. This religion had overtones of Christianity involving the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit but with the new element that he, Hong Xiu-quan (Hung Hsiu-ch'uan), was the younger son of God. An early convert, Feng Yun-shan, became the organizer for the movement and made many converts among mineworkers, charcoal burners, and poor peasants many of whom were Hakka. One convert, an illiterate orphaned charcoal maker, Yang Xiuquan, became a brilliant military tactician. A member of a wealthy clan, Shi Dakai, joined the movement and persuaded many of his family to join also.

In January of 1851 a new state was declared called the Celestial Kingdom of Great Peace Taiping Tianguo (Tai-p'ing T'ien-kuo) in Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province. Later that year the Taiping army was beseiged by the Imperial Army but it broke the siege and moved into Hunan. Later the Taiping army moved into the capital of Hubei province, Wuhan, and then in March of 1853 captured the southern capital of China, Nanjing.

The Taiping movement was a religious movement combined with an anti-Manchu Chinese nationalism. In addition, there was a spirit of communism. Followers gave all their property to the movement and shared in the property possessed by the theocratic state. Village administrators were appointed by the Taiping state. Taiping leaders intended to distribute the farmland under their control to the peasants. This was not accomplished because the land redistribution ended up being administered by former landlords who had become administrators.

The Taiping army attempted to conquer North China but failed. The Empire counterattacked using mercenaries equipped with modern weapons. The major battles took place in the Yangtze River basin area controlled by the Taiping. Finally in July of 1864 Nanjing, the capital of the Taiping state, fell and the Taiping movement disappeared.

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