The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History

By R. Keith Schoppa | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Decline of the Traditional State,
1780–1901

CHINA IN 1780

The Standard View of the State of the State

First, a freeze-frame as a baseline to understand the context of modern Chinese history. The date 1780 is a somewhat arbitrary choice, selected to represent in general the last years of the eighteenth century. From the beginning, it should be understood that the meaning of a nation's past is relative—relative to, among other things, the present, the perspective of those trying to understand it, and the arena of the past that is in particular focus. The standard view of China's late eighteenth century, relative to state and society as a whole, is that traditional China reached its apogee of wealth and power during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736–95). Indeed, there is much to recommend and support that view. In the middle of the century, triumphant military campaigns extended Chinese control into the central Asian Tarim Basin, bringing six million square miles of new territory into the empire. Three interventions in Tibet from the 1720s to the 1750s made that state a Chinese protectorate. With peace and prosperity the order of the day within China, peripheral states in South, Southeast, and East Asia sent missions bearing tribute in what is generally known as the tributary system. This act, which dated back many centuries, the Chinese understood as a younger brother's recognition, as it were, of China's superior, elder-brother status. Underscoring their subordinate status was the central ritual performed before the emperor by mission leaders on reaching Beijing—the kowtow (ketou), three prostrations, with three pressings of the forehead to the ground with each prostration, a ritual traditionally performed by children before their parents on New Year's Day.

Efficient and effective government in the reigns of the Qianlong emperor's father and grandfather (the Yongzheng emperor and the Kangxi emperor) had created a situation in which economic prosperity could flourish. In 1736, the state treasury had a surplus of twenty-four million taels of silver; fifty years

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