Legend has it that Emperor Napoleon once said of China, “There lies a sleeping giant. Let it sleep, for when it wakes it will shake the world.” Apocryphal, perhaps, but in recent decades this long-slumbering Chinese colossus has begun to stir. Its immense size and weight have begun to command the attention of its neighbors, near and far.
For some, this awakening giant is a symbol of rebirth and regeneration, inspiring hope and confidence. For others, it’s an object of trepidation, its rising strength and growing self-confidence is a threat to the very foundations of Western civilization.
What are we to make of this awakening Leviathan, this Gulliver among Lilliputians? How should we understand—and deal with—a rising China? Will it be a friend or a foe? A partner or a competitor? On the answers to these questions will hinge, in no small measure, the final epitaph of our present century, which many observers have already begun to call “the Chinese Century.”
Napoleon’s grim warning of a restless, destructive China may prove prescient, or it may be grossly exaggerated.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Chinese notion of a Middle Kingdom
It is hard for the Western imagination to wrap itself around the idea that as recently as 200 years ago, the Emperor of China firmly believed that his worldly domain extended to the four corners of the Earth. China was then—as it had been for well over a thousand years— “the Middle Kingdom” (Zhongguo), the notional center of the universe. The emperor was the “Son of Heaven” (Tianzi). His earthly domain was coterminous with “All under heaven” (Tianxia).
It may seem grandiose but such imperial hubris was hardly unwarranted. From the founding of the Tang dynasty in the 7th century of the Common Era until the middle years of the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty in the 18th century, Chinese civilization and culture thrived.
There were only occasional disruptions, the most conspicuous being two foreign dynastic conquests by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century and later by the Manchus in the mid-17th century.
The Foreign Dynasties in China
Even the imposition of two foreign dynasties could not substantially alter Chinese society and culture. So strong and deeply ingrained were the institutions and values of Chinese civilization that the conquerors were gradually absorbed and assimilated by the conquered.
By the time the Manchu dynasty fell in the early 20th century, the only visible remaining symbol of Manchu supremacy was the mandatory male queue, or pigtail. In virtually every other respect, the Manchus had become thoroughly Sinified.
Learn more about Malthus and Manchu hubris, 1730-1800.
Factors behind China’s Majestic Rise
In stark contrast to the longevity and majesty of the Chinese empire, throughout most of this same 1100-year period, from roughly 600–1700 C.E., Western civilization lay relatively dormant.
A constellation of factors (institutional, technological, ecological, and cultural) help to explain China’s early rise as well as its extraordinary imperial longevity. Some of these factors, such as the philosophical traditions of Confucianism, were unique to China. While others, including mastery of the techniques of wet-rice cultivation and irrigation, were shared with other ancient civilizations.
But it was a unique combination of these characteristics that enabled the Middle Kingdom to survive and prosper while other early empires rose, peaked, decayed, and disappeared, one after the other.
The Natural Ecosystem of China
To endure for a millennium or even longer, a major civilization requires, first of all, a sustainable natural ecosystem. In China, two great East-West waterways, The Yellow River and the Yangzi River, provided the water needed to nourish and sustain a large-scale agrarian economy.
But China’s continental monsoon climate, with periods of intense seasonal rainfall interspersed with prolonged dry spells, meant that farmlands in China were subject to frequent, oscillating cycles of flood and draught. It was not for nothing that the Yellow River, birthplace of Chinese civilization, has for centuries been known as “China’s Sorrow.”
Under these circumstances, only a sophisticated, well-coordinated system of hydraulic engineering could create the controlled flow of water necessary to support stable, densely populated agricultural communities.
Learn more about the self-strengthening movement, 1860-1890.
Additional Factors of Growth
All successful ancient civilizations, including those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, and the Indus Valley, had this trait in common: They all had relatively advanced water management systems that included large- scale, centrally administered networks of irrigation canals, dams, dikes, reservoirs, and sluiceways. China was no exception to this rule.
But it was not sufficient merely to grow enough food to support a large population. To build and sustain an empire, ruling elites had to be able to siphon off substantial amounts of agricultural surplus from rural producers, in the form of taxes, generally paid either in kind or in mandatory corvée labor or both.
These extracted resources were used, in turn, to support the ruler and his retinue of court officials, as well as to maintain a standing army (including periodic military campaigns). These resources were also used to finance the construction of great urban centers and monumental structures, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Incan temples at Machu Pichu, and the Great Wall of China.
The Imperial Splendor
And let us not forget the tendency for empire builders in all great civilizations to indulge in the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods—including decorative bronze vessels, ornamental porcelains, gold jewelry, and the like.
Such luxury items were produced by urban artisans whose livelihood depended, in the first instance, on the existence of long-distance trade networks, through whose commercialized arteries flowed the resources and the raw materials that were the building blocks of imperial splendor.
Common Questions about the Historical Splendor of China
The Yellow River is referred to as “China’s sorrow”.
The Emperor of China firmly believed that his worldly domain extended to the four corners of the Earth. China was then—as it had been for well over a thousand years— “the Middle Kingdom” (Zhongguo), the notional center of the universe.
Successful ancient civilizations, including those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, and the Indus Valley, had this trait in common with China: They all had advanced water management systems that included large-scale, centrally administered networks of irrigation canals, dams, dikes, reservoirs, and sluiceways.