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China: A History

"Bei, dong, nan and xi are Romanised renderings of the Chinese words for ‘north’, ‘east’, ‘south’ and ‘west’, and shan is ‘mountain’. Shandong (‘Mountain-east’, once spelled ‘Shantung’) is therefore the province with a rugged peninsula below Beijing."

"The five imperial dynasties that lasted longest – each for three to four centuries – constitute the great plateaux of Chinese history and are well worth memorising. Cross-reference to contemporary empires elsewhere may help. They are: HAN (Former and Later), 202 BC–AD 220, coeval with the Roman republic and early empire TANG, 618–907, coeval with the expansion of Arab empire SONG (Northern and Southern), 960–1279, coeval with the Crusades MING, 1368–1644, coeval with the early Ottoman and Mughal empires QING (or Manchu), 1644–1912, coeval with Europe’s global expansion."

"Ironically the one that most nearly approached the Chinese imperial boast of ruling ‘All under Heaven’ was not Chinese at all but Mongol. This was the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), under one of whose emperors the Venetian Marco Polo supposedly found employ."

"because Chinese characters are not made up of individual letters and so are not alphabetical, their rendition into scripts that use letters (alphabetical scripts) has always been fraught."

"A recent authority has calculated that, for an English-speaker, learning to speak Chinese is twenty per cent more difficult than learning to speak French; on the other hand, learning to read and write Chinese is five hundred per cent more difficult than learning to read and write French."

"Though no amount of provocation can excuse the recent oppression of, for instance, Tibet, it is a matter of record that the Chinese people have suffered far more militarily from outsiders, and been obliged to stomach far more culturally and economically from them, than outsiders ever have from China."

"Here a named ‘emperor’ is credited with having separated Heaven and Earth by commanding an end to all unauthorised communication between the two. The link was duly severed by a couple of gods who were in his service. There was to be, as he put it, ‘no more ascending and descending’; and ‘after this was done’, we are told, ‘order was restored and the people returned to virtue’. The ‘emperor’ in question was Zhuan Xu, the second of the mythical ‘Five Emperors’ whom tradition places at the apex of China’s great family tree of legitimate sovereigns."

"Of the five, the first was the revered ‘Yellow Emperor’; Zhuan Xu was second; the third and fourth were the much-cited Yao and Shun; and the last was Yu. Unlike his precursors, each of whom had deferred to a successor who was not his own son, Yu yielded to the principle of hereditary succession, named his son as his heir, and so founded China’s first recognised dynasty, the Xia.5"

"bronze came to occupy much the same position in ancient China as stone in the contemporary civilisation of Egypt or, later, those of Iran (Persia) and Greece. Enormous effort was devoted to producing bronze-ware, highly sophisticated ideas were expressed through it, some of the earliest inscriptions are found on it, and its durability has ensured that plentiful examples have survived."

"The bronze record thus suggests that in the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries BC ‘a state’ in the north’s Central Plain with a highly sophisticated culture expanded its influence over a large part of the region immediately to its south and east."

"Only sparingly were metals used for weapons and scarcely at all for tools or agricultural implements. Bronze-casting was the prestige monopoly of a demanding elite. The bulk of all production went to the manufacture of the vessels required for ritual purposes by this elite; and to judge by their find-sites, many of these vessels were ultimately or specifically destined to accompany deceased members of the elite to their graves."

"Sixteen skeletons were also found in the tomb. They were distributed within, around and above the coffin. The Shang elite did not like its members to leave this world alone; relatives, retainers, guards, servants and pets accompanied them as part of the grave offering. Ritual demanded, and spectacle no doubt encouraged, human sacrifice on a grand scale. In the larger tombs the victims have been counted in their hundreds. Some skeletons are complete, others dismembered or decapitated, the cranium often having been sawn off, perhaps for bone carving. Some of the mutilated victims may have been convicts or captives taken in war."

"Malnutrition has been noted in many skeletons. Leisure must have been rare, insubordination fatal. Cultural excellence came at a price in Bronze Age China; the bright burnish of civilisation was down to the hard rub of despotic power."

"‘The Tarim Mummies’ (Tarim being the name of the river that once drained the now waterless Tarim basin of eastern Xinjiang) are mostly not of Mongoloid race but of now DNA-certified Caucasoid or Europoid descent. Some had brown hair; at least one stood 2 metres (6.5 feet) tall. They are similar to the Cro-Magnon peoples of eastern Europe. So are their clothes and so probably was their language. It is thought to have been ‘proto-Tocharian’, an early branch of the great Indo-European language family that includes the Celtic, Germanic, Greek and Latin tongues as well as Sanskrit and Early Iranian."

"Several hundred mummies have now been discovered, their preservation being the result of the region’s extreme aridity and the high alkaline content of the desert sands. The graves span a long period, from c. 2000 BC to AD 300, but the forebears of their inmates are thought most probably to have migrated from the Altai region to the north, where there flourished around 2000 BC another Europoid culture, that of Afanasevo."

"‘Xinjiang separatists’ – who would prefer to be called ‘Uighur nationalists’ – were reported to have readily adopted Mair’s findings in order to contest Beijing’s claim that their province was historically part of China and so bolster their own claim to autonomy."

"the Shang elite was indeed literate and that the Chinese script of today is unique in being the direct descendant of one used in the second millennium BC."

"The late Shang polity is usually described as ‘a segmentary state’, meaning that those under its direct rule were few while those under its outlying subordinates could be many. Subordinates and allies were usually joined to the Shang lineage by ties of kinship; they were the sons or brothers of kings, or descendants of such. They upheld Shang ritual observance and were in turn upheld by it. They revered the same divine-cum-ancestral host, followed the same mortuary customs and doubtless used the same script and calendar."

"It is remarkable enough that over three thousand years ago the Shang used a script that is recognisably Chinese today;"

"The Zhou, despite – or possibly because of – their tolerance of a ‘feudal’ federalism, were reckoned virtuous; and the Qin, with their aggressive centralism, were not."

"There, in c. 1035 BC after seven years as de facto regent, the wily Duke of Zhou stepped down from his management of affairs, declined to return to the ancestral capital in the west, and handed back the reins of power to the legitimate ruler, King Cheng. This act would be seen as one of magnificent abnegation and is that for which the Duke is most revered. Having steered the Zhou through their greatest crisis, presided over the creation of the kingdom, and largely formulated its heavenly rationale, the Duke could rather easily have usurped the throne. That he did not was convincing proof of superior virtue and would win him a reputation that almost eclipsed that of Kings Wen, Wu and Cheng."

"in The Analects, or ‘Sayings’, of Confucius the ageing philosopher is reported to have sighed: ‘How I have gone downhill! It has been such a long time since I dreamt of the Duke of Zhou.’6"

"the inscribed bronzes were apparently doubling as archival records, like the Shang’s oracle bones, and being collected, displayed and hoarded as prestigious family heirlooms. But since they recorded royal favours, those who cherished them, and who in some cases had actually had them cast, were not their royal donors but their recipients, some of comparatively humble origin. The Zhou, in other words, were broadening their base of support while enhancing their own precedence."

"in 246 BC, there succeeded to the Qin throne a thirteen-year-old boy ‘with arched nose and long eyes, the puffed out chest of a hawk, the voice of a jackal…and the heart of a tiger or a wolf’. At this stage he was known as King Zheng of Qin."

"Li Bing’s Dujiangyan system of weirs and races was extremely ambitious. The labour requirement can only be guessed at, but both deep-cutting and hill-contouring were involved, plus some bridge-building and an elaborate distribution network. ‘The largest, most carefully planned public works project yet seen anywhere on the eastern half of the Eurasian continent’, it reduced the danger of floods, provided a commercial waterway, and in time converted central Sichuan into the great rice-bowl of inland China."

"If China had its own ‘seven wonders of the ancient world’, Li Bing’s waterworks would be one of them."

"Courtesy of what amounted to an interstate food chain, matters had been getting slightly simpler. Wu had been devoured by Yue in the early fifth century BC, and then Yue (including Wu) had been overrun by Chu in the late fourth century BC. Naturally if Chu (now including Yue and Wu) were to succumb to Qin, the entire Yangzi valley, including its far-reaching feeders such as the Han River, would be united. Qin would be practically invincible, two-thirds of ‘core’ China would be under its rule"

"Seizing the moment, in 280–277 BC Qin hit back with a pincer movement involving two amphibious advances, one down the Han valley and the other down the Yangzi. The first struck deep into Hubei province and captured both the Chu capital and the ancestral tombs of its kings. The second ended Chu influence in Ba and secured the Yangzi down to below its famous gorges. Chu never recovered from these twin disasters. The loss of territory was severe, and the subsequent drift of Chu’s domain towards the coast and Shandong should be seen as less in the nature of compensation, more of dissipation. Worse was the loss of prestige and legitimacy."

"Another telling preliminary to the First Emperor’s personal reign was his announcement, immediately after assuming the imperial title, that Qin ‘ruled by the power of water’. This was a reference not to the success of Li Bing’s Sichuan sluices but to the ‘Five Phases’ (or sometimes ‘Five Powers’ or ‘Five Elements’), whose sequential ascendancy supposedly controlled the course of history. While Confucians attributed a dynasty’s power to Heaven’s Mandate, others of a less orthodox (or more Daoist) persuasion attributed it to one of the five elemental Phases/Elements – earth, wood, metal, fire and water."

"did not exactly dispel the idea of a ferocious justice. Under some circumstances the theft of a single coin could result in the amputation of a foot, plus tattooing of the torso (a particularly degrading form of disfigurement) and hard labour. But straight fines or short spells of unpaid corvée service appear to have been the more usual punishments; and whatever the case, justice was anything but arbitrary. The nature of the offence, the degree of intent, any extenuating circumstances, and the bureaucratic procedures to be observed throughout the legal process, were minutely addressed even for misdemeanours of little apparent consequence."

"the emphasis was on ‘efficiency, precision, and fixed routine in administrative procedure…[plus] exact quantification of data, and attention to the improvement of agricultural production and conserving of natural resources’.13 Households were registered for taxation purposes, and the population organised into grouped families for military and civil conscription."

"The First Emperor’s introduction of what came to be known as the ‘Small Seal’ script was designed to counter all such diversity. It involved eradicating obsolete or offensive characters, simplifying and rationalising others, and standardising each and every one. Although destined for an early and more lasting revision by Han scholars, ‘Small Seal’ script established the principle of a written language that was common to the literate elite throughout the empire regardless of spoken dialects, and which was recognised as the medium of both government and scholarship. It was a principle of incalculable significance. Regional distinctions were thereby subsumed, although social distinctions, particularly as between the lettered classes and the unlettered, were engrained. Without this standardisation China’s bureaucrats would today need as many interpreters as the European Union;"

"The merit of the August Emperor lies in diligently fostering basic concerns, exalting agriculture, abolishing lesser occupations, so the black-headed people may be rich."

"For though his reformation of the script was welcomed by the literate, the First Emperor showed nothing but contempt for traditional scholarship. History was there to be made, he seemed to say, not to be repeated. To those who prattled about the grand old Duke of Zhou and Heaven’s Mandate, he extended neither respect nor favour; and when they continued to snipe at the legalist emphasis on law rather than precedent, and on a ruler’s strength rather than his virtue, the literary pogrom of 213 BC was his typically unequivocal response."

"the idea in 213 BC was not to abolish history and literature but to restrict access to them and so, as the Shiji puts it, ‘to make the common people ignorant and to see to it that no one in the empire used the past to criticise the present’.18 Yet the result was exactly the opposite: for in an effort to make good the supposed losses, Han scholars would scrutinise what survived even more intently."

"Walls certainly got a bad name; so did Meng Tian and the First Emperor as those responsible for the most notorious example. But of late, scholarship has been chary of such deductions. It is more inclined to demolish the whole concept of a ‘Great Wall’ and to diminish the scale and significance of Qin’s pioneering effort."

"In 210 BC the First Emperor was still in his forties and apparently fit enough to undertake another tour of his domains. Only days before his collapse he was out shooting sea monsters on the Shandong shore. The suggestion that he was a victim of poisoning therefore seems plausible. But if this was the case, the dose was probably self-administered; for in the potions prepared for him by the experts in immortality the vital ingredient was cinnabar. A mineral rarity, cinnabar came largely from Sichuan and was used as a pigment, most notably to impart a ruddy shade of vermilion to the ink reserved for emperors. As a crystalline form of mercuric sulphide, it is also toxic, and when ingested in quantity, fatal. Gulping down the draughts that promised eternal life, the First Emperor may have been inviting a rather sudden death."

"On regaining the capital, the plotters swung into action. Prince Huhai was proclaimed the emperor’s designated heir and installed as the Qin Second Emperor. The First Emperor’s preferred heir was then charged with treason and, in forged orders from his father, commanded to commit suicide – which, being a truly filial son, he did. Then the Meng brothers were censured for opposing these arrangements and detained until such time as Meng Yi could be executed and Meng Tian obliged to take poison."

"‘Make the laws sterner and the penalties more severe,’ urged Zhao Gao. ‘See that those charged with a crime implicate others and that punishments extend to the families of the criminals. Wipe out the chief ministers and sow dissension among their kin.’ With the scheming eunuch acting as grand inquisitor, twelve princes and ten princesses were dismembered in the Xianyang marketplace. Those implicated with them together with their ‘three degrees of relatives’ – traditionally parents, siblings and offspring – suffered a similar fate but were ‘too numerous even to be counted’. New laws and harsher punishments were promulgated. Taxes and levies were increased, and yet more forced labour was marched off to work and die on still-incomplete projects such as the Opang Palace and the northern frontier’s walls. ‘Each man began to fear for his own safety,’ says Sima Qian, ‘and those who longed to revolt were many.’3"

"Rebellion in fact broke out within six months of the First Emperor’s death."

"The Grand Diviner then confirmed that there had of late been some liturgical shortcomings in the imperial performance of the ancestral rites. The Second Emperor was advised to withdraw from public life to fast and purify himself. While thus secluded, a hostile force invaded his place of retreat. Zhao Gao declared it to be the advance guard of a rebel army (it was of course nothing of the sort, just his own carefully drilled cohorts) and advised the young emperor to pre-empt capture and execution by taking poison. After further prompting and not a little threatening, the emperor obliged. Zhao Gao himself then seized the imperial seals. This, however, was too much for the other officials and much too much for Heaven, which made its feelings felt with three hefty earth tremors. Zhao Gao therefore turned to a grandson of the First Emperor, who, though reluctant to accept the throne, did the next best thing: he had Zhao Gao murdered. By now it was 207 BC, only three years since the First Emperor’s death but long enough for his entire empire to be up in arms."

"To be fair, it is doubtful whether Qin ever really laid claim to such a thing. The First Emperor’s inscriptions scarcely mention Heaven, let alone the Mandate; and if they were drafted by such a rabid legalist as Li Si, this is hardly surprising. But in Confucian terms, legitimacy now lay firmly with the anti-Qin forces and would continue to do so throughout the next seven years of civil war."

"The Han empire that resulted would enshrine features of Chinese culture that would be revered ever after and lend compelling substance to the idea of a continuous civilisation."

"Resistance to Qin rule proved to be not just popular but populist. In his determination to mobilise the manpower of the empire, the First Emperor had established a direct relationship between the centralised government and the localised governed. Wrenched from mass oblivion, the black-haired commoners had been dragooned into participating in the historical process. Millions had been uprooted to fight, labour or colonise on the empire’s behalf. Millions more had been obliged to support this effort through heavy taxation and collective liability backed by ferocious penalties. Their woes were shared and their fears real. While nationalists would later applaud the First Emperor’s efforts at unification, and while Maoists would approve his autocratic efforts in mass mobilisation, orthodox Marxists would be more gratified by the anti-Qin response and its early evidence of peasant revolt and class consciousness."

"A new breed of leader now emerged, the foremost example being Xiang Yu. Another native of Chu but an aristocrat rather than a commoner, descended from a long line of Chu generals, Xiang Yu towered above his contemporaries in both physique and accomplishment. He was foul of temper but fearless in battle, and his men worshipped him. Though historians nurtured in the literary and bureaucratic tradition found nothing remotely romantic in battlefield antics, Xiang Yu would prove an exception. Sima Qian called him arrogant, deceitful and ungrateful, yet could neither disguise his admiration nor resist the sort of detail calculated to enhance a heroic reputation. Xiang Yu strides from the pages of the Shiji like no other warrior; and it is testimony to the Shiji’s influence that he is still sometimes hailed as the most accomplished general in the whole of Chinese history."

"Heaven of its own volition showered the young Liu Bang with auspicious signs and lucky encounters. Dragons – of all animals the most closely associated with power and celestial favour – featured in many of these manifestations. His mother had conceived him by a dragon, another hovered over him when he slept, and his well-whiskered features were sufficiently dragon-like to excite physiognomists (they foretold your future from your face), one of whom, a certain Lü, was so impressed that he gave him his daughter in marriage. Thus does the Grand Historian waste no time in flagging the future founder of the Han dynasty and his influential consort."

"In 207 BC, the year in which the Second Emperor committed suicide and Zhao Gao was murdered, the armies of the now commander-in-chief Xiang Yu inflicted a succession of heavy defeats on the Qin forces, driving them back to the hill passes that guarded the Qin stronghold along the Wei River. ‘The war-cry of Chu shook the heavens, and the men of the other armies all trembled with fear,’ says Sima Qian.8"

"From this 206 BC appointment of Liu Bang of Pei as king of Han, the Han dynasty would date its foundation and take its name; but it would be another four years of strife and appalling bloodshed before the Han king became the Han emperor. For no sooner had Xiang Yu marched east than Liu Bang marched north again, replacing the mountain road and retaking the Qin heartland."

"To this day, Chinese chessboards often indicate that one end is for ‘Han’ rather than ‘black’ and the other for ‘Chu’ rather than ‘white’.9 The rules of combat, such as they were, were mutually understood; move by move the game must progress until a king was toppled. But the odds were evenly stacked, and though fortunes would fluctuate, the outcome remained uncertain till the bitter end."

"It was Heaven which was destroying him, said Xiang Yu, and ‘no fault of my own in the use of arms’. On the Yangzi – it was just west of Nanjing – a boat was waiting. Safety beckoned. It was from across the river in erstwhile Wu that he had set forth eight years earlier. He still had supporters there; he could yet rule there. But ‘how can I face them again?’ he asked. ‘How could I not feel shame in my heart?’ So saying, he dismounted, and presenting ‘Dapple’ to the kindly boatman, turned back and strode on foot towards the Han host. In the final scuffle Xiang Yu killed ‘several hundred’, according to Sima Qian, while suffering ‘a dozen wounds’. Faint and bleeding, he then recognised an old acquaintance who was now a Han cavalry officer. His last words were spoken soldier to soldier. ‘I have heard that Han has offered a reward of a thousand catties11 of gold and a fief of ten thousand households for my life,’ said Xiang Yu. ‘So I will do you a favour!’ And with that he cut his own throat and died.12"

"History would adopt this title exclusively, commemorating him as Han Gaozu, ‘the Han Great Progenitor’ (or sometimes Han Gaodi, ‘the Han Progenitor-Emperor’). The first commoner to rise to the dizzy heights of emperor, he would be the last for 1,500 years. Founding a dynasty from such obscurity was no small achievement, and the Grand Historian, writing at a time when the strongest of all the Han emperors occupied the throne, acknowledged a remarkable lineage by hailing its imperial progenitor."

"A long reign would have helped, but Han Gaozu lived only seven more years (202–195 BC), most of these being spent suppressing rebellions and fending off incursions. Helpful too would have been a strong successor; instead he was followed by a timid teenager (who was at least his son), then two infants (who were probably not his grandsons). Falling an early prey to the palace intrigues that attended every minority, by 190 BC Han authority was being wielded, and the throne effectively usurped, by the Dowager Empress Lü, Gaozu’s bride from the days when he was a nonentity in Pei. Qin’s imperial phase had lasted a paltry fifteen years; Han’s looked likely to last only slightly longer."

"Sima Qian’s Shiji treats of the Dowager Empress Lü in its section on ‘Rulers’, as if it was she who was Gaozu’s successor, while Huidi (‘Emperor Hui’, the di suffix signifying ‘emperor’) gets no separate treatment, just occasional mentions. From Gaozu’s death in 195 BC until her own death in 180 BC, the dowager empress most emphatically ruled while emperors barely reigned. Huidi’s only achievement was to encourage Shusun Tong, the dynasty’s expert on ceremonial and ritual, in the elaboration of a Han dynastic mystique."

"Gaozu was so contemptuous of formal erudition that he was known to snatch off the cap of the nearest scholar to use as a chamber pot. Yet while informality was all very well in reaction to Qin sobriety, even the emperor was irked when drinking companions burst in on his lovemaking. What was needed, said Shusun Tong, were rules of protocol and court ritual. The emperor somewhat doubtfully agreed. ‘See what you can do, but make it easy to learn…it must be the sort of thing I can manage.’"

"The legalist framework of government – registration and rankings, group responsibility, a tariff of punishments and rewards, universal taxation, corvée and conscription – was retained in toto; and though somewhat relaxed in practice, it would remain fundamental to Chinese empire."

"Gaozu’s efforts concentrated on a change of personnel. Erstwhile generals and other potential challengers were gradually replaced as kings by less bellicose members of his own family. Empress Lü continued the process by installing members of her own family. Wendi, in replacing them, took the opportunity to break up some kingdoms and reclaim others. The 154 BC revolt suppressed by Jingdi provided a further opportunity for undermining the kingdoms. All of this forestalled a relapse into the chaos of the ‘Warring States’ era, although so long as kingdoms rejoicing in illustrious names like Qi, Zhao, Yan and even Chu survived, the integrity of the empire remained compromised."

"This was Zhao Tuo, otherwise King Wu of Nanyue. For ten years he was left in peace, Han Gaozu ‘having enough to do to take care of internal troubles’, according to Sima Qian. But in 196 BC the Han emperor sent a trusty troubleshooter, the Confucian ideologue Lu Jia, to talk King Wu into acknowledging Han supremacy. The king obliged in return for recognition of his assumed title, then reneged over a trade dispute. A Han embargo on iron sales, a strategic commodity since it was used for weapons, brought protests, followed by recrimination: King Wu declared himself an emperor, and troops sent south in 183 BC by the Dowager Empress Lü failed to quash this presumption. On the contrary, Nanyue’s troops began overrunning neighbouring territories. Their sovereign now rode in a carriage with a yellow canopy and issued his own ‘edicts’, both of these being imperial prerogatives."

"The Han empire, which had just opened a grand salient into central Asia, was being humbled by ‘barbarians’ at its back door. Han Wudi could no longer trifle with the situation, and suasion having failed, only force remained. In 112 BC no less than four expeditions converged on Panyu by river and sea. The ‘General of the Towered Ships’ at the head of 20,000–30,000 men got there first. Joined by the ‘General Who Calms the Waves’, he stormed Panyu at night and, come dawn, the city surrendered. ‘Thus five generations, or ninety-three years after Zhao Tuo first became king of Southern Yue, the state was destroyed.’18 Sima Qian, then at work on his Shiji, felt nothing but satisfaction. There would be no more kings of Southern Yue, nor of Eastern Yue (in Fujian), which suffered a similar fate the following year. By the end of 111 BC all of mainland southern China plus the island of Hainan and the Red River valley of northern Vietnam were finally incorporated into the empire."

"Wudi succeeded Han Jingdi in 141 BC. Fifteen at the time, he was still on the throne when he died at the age of sixty-eight. One of the longest and most eventful reigns on record (141–87 BC) benefited greatly from continuity, then fell victim to it. Opinion of Wudi’s rule has always been divided. He was either ‘an outright autocrat’ who subverted the authority of his ministers to ‘direct the government in person’, and so become ‘perhaps the most famous of all Chinese emperors’; or he was a palace cipher, scarcely able to control his own household, who ‘took no part in the military campaigns for which his reign is famous’ and was so oblivious of their cost that his tenure was in fact ‘a calamity for China’.1"

"The sage ruler ‘does nothing (wuwei)’, says Laozi, ‘and there is nothing that is not brought to order’.2 This was possible because in an ideal world the moral example set by the emperor was thought to create an attractional effect, like a magnet. By it, society as a whole was automatically orientated on the path of righteousness, so eliminating the need for laws and punishments,"

"Han Wudi increased the frequency of these recruitment drives, while standardising the selection process by the introduction of a question-and-answer element. Qualification by examination, a cardinal feature of the later imperial bureaucracy, would follow. Even a questionnaire required a syllabus and a panel to mark the submissions. The panel was set up as an academy of scholars, of whom there were fifty in 136 BC, though the number soon increased; and the syllabus entailed these academicians selecting and interpreting a canon of suitable texts, initially five, all of them either favoured by Confucius"

"Han resentment grew proportionately. It had peaked in 192 BC when a communication from Shanyu Maodun to the Dowager Empress Lü mischievously suggested that, since both had been widowed and were of a certain age, they might find agreeable consolation in one another’s company. This was too much for the dowager empress, who was all for calling out the army. Cooler counsels prevailed, however; indeed, the final response from one of a normally vain and vindictive disposition plumbs the depths of abasement: My age is advanced and my vitality is diminished [wrote the dowager empress]. Both my hair and teeth are falling out, and I cannot even walk steadily. The shanyu must have heard exaggerated reports [of me]. I am not worthy of his lowering himself. But my country has done nothing wrong, and I hope that he will spare it."

"For the Han policy of making the Xiongnu reliant on Chinese produce was paying off. In subsequent negotiations, access to the markets that had sprung up along the frontier is mentioned among the Xiongnu demands as often as tribute, and its refusal would become highly provocative."

"This prompted a suggestion, credited to the teenage Wudi, for a Han envoy-explorer to try to make contact with the Yuezhi and sound them out about an anti-Xiongnu alliance. A palace official called Zhang Qian volunteered for the task and in c. 138 BC, accompanied by a servant who was good at bringing down game, plus a small military escort, this explorer Zhang disappeared into the desert sunset. He was soon intercepted and taken captive by the shanyu’s troops. How would the emperor feel, asked the shanyu, if the Xiongnu sent emissaries traipsing across China to open diplomatic relations with Nanyue? The mission was an affront to Xiongnu sovereignty and Zhang was to be detained by them indefinitely. He would in fact escape, but not until ten years later. Resuming his journey, explorer Zhang then vanished into the unknown a second time. He had probably been completely forgotten when in 126 BC, thirteen years older, geographically wiser than any contemporary and lately escaped from yet another spell in Xiongnu captivity, he and his huntsman-companion came trotting back into Chang’an. By then Han–Xiongnu relations had plummeted into all-out war. Nothing would be more timely than central Asian intelligence from an intrepid traveller who deserves recognition as both the pioneer of the ‘Silk Road’ and the first to play the ‘Great Game’."

"For according to explorer Zhang, Han China was not alone in the world: out there, there were other ‘great states’, as he called them. Their people lived in cities; and they too ‘kept records by writing’, an extraordinary revelation. They ‘made their living in much the same way as the Chinese’; and shockingly, they were quite unaware that zhongguo, now taken to mean ‘the Middle Kingdom’, was anywhere near the middle."

"the kingdom of ‘Shendu’ was of more interest. While exploring the Bactrian bazaars, Zhang had noticed ‘cloth from Shu [Sichuan] and bamboo canes from Qiong [also in Sichuan]’, both of which were said to have been imported via ‘Shendu’. Although some of explorer Zhang’s place-names are hard to identify, there is no question that ‘Shendu’ was India; its inhabitants ‘rode elephants into battle’ and even the Romans knew the country as ‘Sindu’ (after the Sind, or Indus, River). Since it was said to be several thousand kilometres east of Bactria, Zhang reasoned that it must ‘not be very far away from Shu’. Silk cloth and bamboo canes must therefore be reaching India direct from China’s extreme south-west."

"All the last three administrative units were manned by salaried officials who had been chosen on merit and posted from outside to avoid any local conflict of interest. Their functions were not simply extractive. Besides being responsible for registration and judicial duties, they organised relief and public works (roads, bridges, dams, granaries), regulated local markets and manufactories, and oversaw public order and security. Of the revenue they collected through taxation, whether in coin or kind, only part was remitted annually to the central government, the rest being retained for local expenditure."

"retrenchment was the order of the day. Han troops would never again tramp across the high Pamirs into central Asia, nor take for granted Vietnam, whose first of many ‘wars of independence’ was about to erupt. In Chang’an the great public spectacles of Han Wudi’s reign – military parades, tribute receptions and athletic meetings like those of Qin – had been either scaled down or abolished. Imperial hunting grounds were being neglected; stables stood empty as the emperor’s equestrian establishment was halved. Hundreds of musicians and dancers had been dismissed as surplus to ritual requirement. The textile workshops in Shandong that had supplied the court with robes and furnishings had been shut down completely."

"The august Octavian, who was making administrative reform his own priority, would have despaired had he had any inkling of the intricate checks and balances of the Han bureaucratic apparatus."

"‘fires, comets, eclipses, fogs, flies, droughts, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, murders, meteors, and thunders dot the pages of the [Hanshu’s] chapter [on Chengdi], few years being without several such visitations’.1 Not even the reviled Qin First and Second Emperors had been quite so afflicted with ill omens. Dynastic change was in the stars, on the breeze and underfoot."

"it was that, after a decent interval full of encouraging memorials, on 10 January AD 9 at the tomb-temple of Han Gaozu, and with the blessing of the now eighty-something Grand Dowager Empress Wang, Wang Mang formally ‘accepted the resignation’ of the Han and was entrusted with the imperial seals. Little Ruzi was returned to the nursery none the worse for his two years as heir apparent,"

"It is fixed that the title [of my dynasty] in possessing the empire shall be Xin.2"

"Practically everything that is known of Wang Mang’s reign comes from the Hanshu. None of it is favourable, and nor could it be; for Wang Mang had to be discredited in the historical record. His overthrow in AD 23, the restoration of the Han in AD 25 and the two more centuries of Han rule that would follow meant that he could be portrayed only as a usurping impostor."

"On page after page he is caricatured as an unctuous and manipulative hypocrite whose vanity and indecision were as disastrous for the empire as they were for himself. Parsimonious or extravagant, indulgent or vindictive, aggressive or conciliatory, his every action is seen purely in personal terms and condemned as a failure of character. The Ban family, who compiled the Hanshu, had good reasons of their own for bad-mouthing Wang Mang: he had dismissed one of them from office, and they were writing under the restored Han, to whom the Bans were indebted and Wang Mang was anathema."

"In a flurry of directives, slavery (though never that common) was abolished, the sale of land was forbidden, orders were issued for the break-up and redistribution of large estates, and there was a move towards the restoration of the Zhou’s idealised ‘well-field’ system of peasant landholdings (whereby eight families each held an equal area of land within a ditched grid, somewhat like a boxed ‘noughts-and-crosses’ graph, the spare square in the middle being held in common). These were brave initiatives aimed at redressing inequality"

"his economic policies were potentially catastrophic. His four reformations of the coinage (including the reintroduction of archaic currencies such as ‘spade-money’ and cowrie shells), his ‘Five Equalisations’ (designed to stabilise prices and provide rural credit) and his ‘Six Monopolies’ (forest produce was added to the usual list of iron, salt, liquor, etc.) may have been well intentioned. Although state monopolies had been a Confucian target in the Discourses on Salt and Iron, all these measures could be seen as discouraging speculative enterprise in favour of honest small-scale farming, the bedrock of Confucian economics. But in practice they caused chaos and distress. Most were swiftly adjusted or rescinded, though not before corrupt officials, hoarders and counterfeiters had had a field day."

"First there was a plague of locusts along the Yellow River. It was nothing unusual. A bounty was offered to locust hunters, so many cash (the basic copper coin) per pound being paid out for squashed insects just as, in the no less lowering times of Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, a few fen per dead sparrow would be offered to conserve grain stocks and stave off famine. Seemingly there is nothing quite like impending catastrophe to bring out the esteem in which autocrats hold the death-defying capabilities of the masses. Then came the flood."

"An alternative reading of the frantic experimentation that characterised the last days of the Xin might suggest that Wang Mang was at his wits’ end. He took to a diet of ale and shellfish, ‘read only military books’, and slept at his writing stool. By the time Chang’an fell to the first peasant army, he was too weak to walk."

"A litany of new titles, such as ‘The General-Causing-Great-Waters-to-Run-So-Extinguishing-Any-Fire-that-has-Arisen’, proved ineffective. So did a written appeal ‘in more than a thousand words’ that Wang Mang addressed personally to Heaven and accompanied with heart-rending lamentations."

"The Chinese language has no personalised noun corresponding to the English word ‘Confucianism’. Ru, the character which is so translated, means something much more general like ‘learned gentility’ or simply ‘dilettante-(ism)’. Lacking the specifics of either a political philosophy, a personal ideology or an organised religion (except insofar as Confucius himself became a cult figure), ‘Confucianism’ is best seen as the text-hallowed brand of learning elaborated by Master Kong and his followers to advance a unique ‘moral perspective’."

"Destitution being the most compelling of dictators, probably no emperor could have controlled the situation. A form of government devised for a settled agrarian population was in deep trouble the moment villagers turned vagrants and farmers took to brigandage. With the fields obliterated and the registered householders no longer at home, the revenue failed and the corvée collapsed. Central authority was itself undermined. It was this dislocation which encouraged a host of contenders for the Mandate in the AD 20s, sustained numerous other rebellions of a more peripheral nature, and encouraged landed clans in the core provinces to exploit the situation by augmenting the size of both their holdings and their followings."

"watershed in more ways than one, Wang Mang’s chaotic reign had divided the Han era in two. Just like the Zhou kings of old, the restored Han of the first century AD would seek to put recent reverses behind them by choosing a new setting for their imperial capital."

"In general, the Later Han would prove less adventurous than the Former Han and far more prone to crises. The official histories award them a generous two centuries (AD 25–220); but their first eight decades were characterised by laborious reconstruction, the next eight brought a painful unravelling, and the last four saw them reduced to a pitiful irrelevance. When later writers sang of the glories of Han, they almost invariably had in mind the Former or Western Han, not the Later or Eastern Han."

"In defeating his many rivals, Han Guang Wudi displayed an aptitude for military command that was rare among emperors, plus a confidence in his subordinate generals that was almost unprecedented."

"Ma marched into Vietnam with overwhelming force, his supplies followed by sea from Guangdong, and the revolt was all over by the end of AD 43. But the written character for ‘Yue’ being read as ‘Viet’ in Vietnamese, and leadership of the Yue having fallen to two wildly courageous sisters (called Zheng in Chinese, Trung in Vietnamese), it was inevitable that later Vietnamese patriots would hail the revolt as the first ‘national uprising’ of an all too often oppressed people."

"Though by no means the end of the Xiongnu people as a frontier presence, the ructions over the shanyu’s succession in AD 46–49 sounded the death-knell of the Xiongnu state. Repeating events of exactly a hundred years earlier, in AD 51 one shanyu claimant finally turned to Luoyang for support and tendered his allegiance, plus a modest tribute."

"Yet for the best part of a century substantial missions had been scrambling back and forth, often annually, to pledge fealty on behalf of the Kashmiris and to confer titles on behalf of the emperor. In both directions they also carried merchandise – woollens, embroidery and Indian produce from Kashmir, large consignments of silk from China. Secure in their Himalayan fastness, the Kashmiris brooked no interference in their internal affairs and massacred one Han mission that tried. But apologies had followed, the protestations of loyalty continued, and the exchanges had resumed. Inveterate traders to this day, the Kashmiris were clearly using the Han tributary system and the protection that it afforded to conduct purely commercial activities."

"The Standard Histories nevertheless tell of emperors so distracted and besotted by their womenfolk that they habitually neglected the call of duty and ignored the plight of the empire. Consorts and dowagers are portrayed as inherently devious and spiteful, devoid of any sense of duty, and largely responsible for the endless intrigues and purges. This was explained in cosmic terms as yin, the passive female principle, being in disastrous ascendancy over yang, its active male opposite or complement. All of which not only reeks of gender prejudice – we know of only one female Han historian – but is open to serious doubt on other grounds."

"Inevitably it was known as Shu. And thus as Shu, Wu and Wei, the intrepid adversaries of the Red Cliffs, and then their descendants, would continue their three-sided vendetta for control of China for another half-century."

"In China no doctrine, revelation or mode of conduct was credited with a monopoly of truth, nor was any accounted complete in itself, for the simple reason that none was that clearly defined. Confucians (ru) had always dabbled in Daoist practices; indeed, in the post-Han period Confucian studies became heavily influenced by both Daoist and Buddhist texts. Daoists in turn usually subscribed to the core Confucian values, while Daoist communities became deeply indebted to Buddhism for such organisational features as a clergy and institutionalised monasticism."

"Other ideas, such as monastic celibacy and reincarnation, were simply offensive to a society in which procreation was seen as a moral duty and ancestors were cherished as spirits immune from the hazard of rebirth. While Confucianism harped on the individual’s duty to family and state, Buddhism signposted a path to salvation that neatly bypassed both."

"In India merchants had derived encouragement from the Buddhist disregard of caste strictures on the freedom of movement; in China the Confucian contempt for traders and commerce in general disposed the mercantile classes towards Buddhism as a respectable alternative. In both countries, the merchant community reciprocated, proving generous benefactors as well as extending hospitality and protection to missionaries."

"More certainly the remarkable fourth-century cave paintings at Kizil (near Kuqa in Xinjiang) mimic those of Ajanta (in Maharashtra on the road to India’s west coast) and include a telling scene of the Buddha lighting the way for a one-man caravan. Produced by the same quasi-fresco technique and probably contemporary, the narrative scenes and interlocking designs at Kizil and Ajanta, though half a continent apart, are thought to be the work of artists who were either from the same school or in possession of a common crib."

"Mahayanists deified not only the Buddha himself but a host of other Enlightened Ones, known as Bodhisattva (in Chinese busa), who included Amitabha (‘the Buddha of the Western Paradise’ to the Chinese), Avaloketiswara (who changed sex to become the female ‘Guanyin’ in China) and Maitreya (the Chinese ‘Miluo’, or ‘Future Buddha’)."

"Everywhere the quality of translations had greatly improved. This was thanks in large part to the labours of Dharmaraksha (c. 230–307). The son of a Yuezhi merchant domiciled in Dunhuang (Gansu), Dharmaraksha had received a Chinese education and, proving a consummate linguist, had undertaken the translation of over 150 Buddhist texts; according to his biographer, ‘he contributed more than anyone else to the conversion of China to Buddhism’.19 Chinese scholars were now alert to a literary and speculative tradition that for its richness and prolixity rivalled their own."

"With the flight of the Jin court and the destruction of Luoyang by the Xiongnu, 500 years of Chinese empire had come to an end. It was one of history’s more emphatic breaks."

"But he died before his mainly Xiongnu forces could take Luoyang. The honours fell to his successor, Liu Cong, ‘the Chinese Attila’. Ten thousand defenders are said to have been slaughtered in the final assault, a modest figure by Chinese standards which may reflect earlier desertions. If the descriptions of a city already choked with dead bodies are to be believed, Liu Cong’s incendiarists may even have done it a favour."

"To such monsters a doctrine enjoining non-violence and respect for life in all its forms should have been cause for ridicule, tending to rage. Yet it was under the patronage of precisely these Xiongnu tyrants that Buddhism in the north made its most dramatic strides."

"‘Buddha, being a foreign [or outsiders’] god, is the very one we [as outsiders] should worship,’ he declared in the course of an edict urging Buddhist devotion;28 on similar grounds, Buddhism would be encouraged by later incomers such as the Mongols and Manchus. Additionally, its universalist message, extending the chance of release from suffering to all peoples regardless of race, gender or education, was in marked contrast to the narrow social remit of Confucianism."

"In effect Buddhism offered to semi-literate herdsmen a source of identity and legitimacy denied them by the lofty standards of Confucian scholarship; and by sidelining the precedent-bound rituals of the ru, it brought these alien rulers into direct touch with the less educated mass of their subjects, Chinese and non-Chinese, among whom northern Buddhism now found its greatest following."

"As under previous regimes, Buddhism served as a source of legitimisation and as a bridge over the ethnic divide between non-Chinese and Chinese. But it was also harnessed more directly to the interests of the state. A branch of the bureaucracy took over the regulation of Buddhist affairs; and the difficulty of Buddhist clergy owing obedience to their monastic superiors rather than to the imperial authorities was overcome by elevating the emperor above the clergy as a titular Bodhisattva."

"The new Luoyang covered an area of over 18 square kilometres (7 square miles) and accommodated more than half a million people and 1,300 monasteries. It witnessed scenes of magnificence barely rivalled by its predecessors, it hosted further developments in Buddhist scholarship, it minted the first new coinage for a couple of centuries – and it lasted for all of a generation. Not wilfully destroyed this time, merely evacuated, by 535 Luoyang was again a ghost town."

"Some dynasties lasted long; others barely survived a few turbulent decades – it was as if they had been inserted to fill a hiatus or give a new direction. The Former Han had been preceded by the intrusion that was the First Emperor’s Qin dynasty, and the Later Han by the ‘blip’ that was Wang Mang’s Xin dynasty. A pattern was apparent; and since the succession of dynasties was supposed to mimic the cycles of the planets, some Chinese historians embraced the possibility of ‘intercalary’ dynasties. Thus Qin and Xin could be seen as necessary, if traumatic, correctional preludes that had brought Former Han and Later Han into propitious harmony with the cosmic forces."

"before the Tang dynasty could embark on its long and glorious career, another short and dramatic intercalary prelude would serve to bring the country back into what dynastic historians regarded as its natural trajectory. This was as a unitary empire; and the dynasty responsible was the Sui."

"Weapons were supposedly collected, their private manufacture banned and, setting a precedent that would have long-term consequences, all boats of more than 10 metres (33 feet) were confiscated. As well as outlawing local navies, this had the effect of containing mercantile enterprise and ensuring that water transport served the interests of the state."

"Nearly four thousand temples, pagodas, nunneries and monasteries were founded during Sui Wendi’s reign, many of them in his rebuilt Chang’an, where one pagoda reportedly measured 100 metres (109 yards) in height and 120 metres (131 yards) in girth. The number of new Buddha images erected ran to over a hundred thousand, while those repaired following the Northern Zhou’s iconoclasm exceeded 1.5 million.8 In China there was no nobler exemplar of the Buddhist sovereign as maha-danapati (supreme donor) than Sui Wendi."

"But the Standard History of the Sui was written under the direction of their nemesis, the Tang; and while Sui Wendi, as the reunifier, could scarcely be denied his share of praise, Sui Yangdi, as the last of his line, could conveniently be credited with more than his share of opprobrium. Sui Yangdi brought the empire to the brink of ruin; therefore rumours of his having murdered his father (the most heinous crime in an ultra-filial society) and having ravaged his father’s consorts (which was deemed incest) must be true V. C. Xiong, his recent biographer, observes that even the name by which he is remembered, Yang (plus the imperial signifier ‘ –di’), was in fact a posthumous pejorative reserved exclusively for those who ‘lust after beautiful women…abandon ritual…defy Heaven and abuse the people’."

"Yet Yangdi’s achievements were far from mean and his crimes not dramatically worse than his father’s – or than those of his immediate Tang successors. As commander-in-chief of his father’s southern invasion and then a sympathetic governor of the south, he had played a leading role in his father’s reunification; and when the apprentice became the autocrat, he pursued almost identical policies with equal, if eventually disastrous, zest."

"Suffice it to say that in opting for Han precedent in matters of ritual, administration and justice, the Sui launched China’s ‘Second Empire’ as a fair approximation to the highly regulated, bureaucratised and draconian despotism that had characterised its First – and which would remain until its last."

"south, the east and along the northern frontiers. The Sui solution to expanding the base of civil service recruitment was to set up a Board of Civil Office to centralise all appointments and scrutinise the selection process."

"The almost stone-free nature of most Chinese architecture goes a long way towards explaining the rapidity with which city after city rose and fell. Completed in 606, Sui Yangdi’s Luoyang had taken little over a year."

"This was a canal – or rather it was the many canals and hydraulic features that, connecting numerous rivers, lakes and pre-existing conduits over a total distance of nearly 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles), came to be known as the Grand Canal. Excavated between 605 and 611, the Grand Canal ran north-west from Hangzhou (south of the Yangzi delta) to the Yellow River near Luoyang, with a long extension from there north-east to where Beijing now stands. In effect it linked north and south, east and centre. It was an axial artery for a reunited empire. It was also ‘without doubt, the grandest navigation system ever undertaken by a single sovereign in pre-modern history’.14"

"The Grand Canal, linking the Yangzi region with its rice surplus to the heavily populated and famine-prone northern plains, thus had a similar effect to the first transcontinental railroads in North America. It made China’s economic integration feasible."

"But the cost was colossal and the human suffering incalculable as corvée demands took their toll of agriculture. Millions, or rather ‘tens of hundreds of thousands’, are said to have dug the channels and distributed the spoil of Sui Yangdi’s waterways, though whether such figures refer to the total labour force involved or the total number of corvée periods worked is unclear. They used spades and picks, plus wicker baskets balanced at either end of a pole to maximise carrying capacity and absorb jolts. Wheeled transport was provided more by barrows than ox-carts."

"The canal system could distribute only what the farmer could produce. But serious flooding of the Yellow River in 610/11 had reduced yields, while military requirements drained the labour pool and emptied the granaries. As the demand for manpower for both the army and public works raced ahead of supply, truancy increased and soon turned to popular revolt. Critics at court were ruthlessly silenced: powerful challengers began to mobilise within the provinces and the army. The final straw came when the last of three disastrous expeditions against Koguryo, a reluctant tributary state occupying much of Manchuria and northern Korea, was in 614 recalled in the face of minimal gains and escalating mutinies. Leaving the north in turmoil, in 616 Yangdi retired to the south. It had earlier been his adoptive homeland; now it became his last refuge. With Yangdi isolated from events as much by his tremulous courtiers as by distance, his megalomania subsided into melancholia. In 618, at his southern capital in what is now Yangzhou, he was murdered. The assassin was the son of one of his generals and a member of the once-purged Yuwen clan; but it could have been anyone."

"The empire seemed to be relapsing into the anarchy of 400 years earlier, when the knights-errant of the emerging ‘Three Kingdoms’ had confronted the likes of ‘Poison Yu’ and ‘Yang of the Eighty-foot Moustache’. Between 614 and 624 some two hundred mutinies and rebellions reportedly affected practically every province and army unit."

"Only in 617, when the emperor had practically retired and his empire was being torn apart by others, did Li Yuan endorse the Peach-plum prophecy about a Li succession, summon forces and supporters, enter the fray, and march on Chang’an. The city fell after a stout resistance. Li Yuan then went through the motions of installing one of Yangdi’s sons as emperor, all the while resisting appeals that he assume the Mandate himself. Heaven, of course, was not to be denied. Heeding the portents and prognostications cited by his supporters, within a year Li Yuan had had himself installed as emperor and had named his dynasty after his dukedom of Tang. During the short reign that followed (618–26), most of which was devoted to quelling opposition, the first of the Tang reinstated all but the most recalcitrant of Sui generals and officials. He and his successor would then adopt, with only minor adjustments, the entire Sui fiscal, military, administrative and legal framework."

"The Tang would last, at a generous estimate, for nearly three centuries."

"In the standard history of the Sui, the Turks are described as their own worst enemies, ‘preferring to destroy one another rather than live side by side’. Certainly a succession dispute in the 580s divided the Turk qaghanate into western and eastern branches. The former’s authority extended beyond the Tian Shan into what is now Kazakhstan and the latter’s throughout Mongolia and into western Manchuria. One contender for the qaghanate sought support, and then refuge, from Sui Wendi, who by dexterous intrigue promoted and exploited the divisions among the Turkic clans. But it would be left to Tang Taizong to perfect this policy and reap the dividends."

"In 838, a Japanese mission would fare better on the high seas and would yield the first account of life and travel in China to be penned by a foreigner. But the mission would also prove to be ‘the last to be dispatched abroad by the Imperial court of Japan until the nineteenth century’.19 Though cultural, commercial and piratical contacts flourished, authority in Japan fell a prey to feudalism and its diplomacy slipped into a millennium-long hibernation."

"Born in 599, the great Tang Taizong, constructor if not architect of the Tang empire, belonged to a generation of Asian empire-builders. From the Tsangpo basin of southern Tibet, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po, his exact contemporary, was masterminding the first unification of the scattered peoples of Asia’s high plateau to lay the foundations of a formidable Tibetan empire. Across the Himalayas in the Gangetic plain, Harsha-vardhana of Kanauj was performing a similar feat in establishing his imperial sway over the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of north India. Simultaneously the Sassanid ruler Chosroes (Khosrau) II was overrunning the Levant and Asia Minor to recreate a Persian empire that stretched from Xinjiang to Egypt. And in the far south-west, along the caravan routes of Arabia, another contemporary took rejection in Mecca as cause for flight (hegira or hijra) to Medina, where, acknowledged as the Prophet, he found a following and launched a crescentade that in less than a century would obliterate the Sassanids and buffet the frontiers of both India and China."

"In all he covered a distance of perhaps 15,000 kilometres (9,320 miles), half of it during extensive wanderings in the Indian sub-continent that took him as far south as Tamil Nadu. He learnt new languages, explored new doctrines, won countless debates, went everywhere, met everyone, and kept a detailed record of it all. The qaghan of the Western Turks took a liking to him, the king of Samarkand let him conduct an ordination, and Emperor Harsha-vardhana became one of his keenest supporters. Indeed, most of what is known of Harsha and his empire, and of India in the seventh century, derives from Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions."

"the Tibetans had renewed their solicitations to Chang’an, and in 641, with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.21"

"The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted a heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’ Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as a prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame – but as a trophy and an emblem’.22 Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s."

"Repeatedly she outwitted opponents, stymied rebellion, defended and extended the frontiers, and launched grand dynastic initiatives. Gaozong, the emperor, while he lasted, ‘sat with folded hands’, says Sima Guang; it was she who exercised supreme power; ‘promotion or demotion, life or death, were settled by her word’.11"

"As noted, the histories gloss over Wu Zetian’s personal role in directing the wider business of the empire. Yet, on their own admission, and despite Tang Gaozong’s delaying his death until 683, it would seem that as of 655 ‘government proceeded from her alone’ and as of 664 ‘all the great powers of the empire devolved on the empress’.14 With or without her ailing and possibly epileptic husband, therefore, and despite the historians’ reticence, the empress must be held ultimately responsible for all transactions during her five decades of ascendancy."

"Inflation became a feature of the period. Grain prices on the open market reportedly rose by a hundredfold from ‘the three or four cash per peck’ of Tang Taizong’s halcyon days."

"Though expansive and often downright aggressive, at few moments in history could the Chinese empire be characterised as militaristic. Military matters were traditionally treated as a subordinate function of the bureaucracy; under no circumstances should the bureaucracy become a subordinate function of the military. Theoretically, standing armies were anathema, professional soldiers parasites. Troops, whether conscripts or fubing (territorial militias), should be farmers-on-horseback and peasants-with-crossbows; generals should be, and usually were, bureaucrats-in-uniform. They were commissioned for a single campaign and, unless reappointed, reverted to civilian life after it."

"through Xinjiang in 645, the harvest was substantial. All inner Asia was opened to Chinese penetration, and the so-called ‘Western Regions’ – an elastic term at the best of times – were stretched to their utmost. Under Tang Gaozong and Wu Zetian new protectorates were established over these frontier regions whose dependent territories sprawled in a great arc from Manchurian Andong on the Yellow Sea through what are now Outer Mongolia and eastern Kazakhstan to the deserts of Khorasan in north-eastern Persia/Iran. China’s empire would never again be so vast. On paper – itself a commodity symbolising both the novelty and fragility of the new imperium – Tang China was indeed ‘the greatest power in Asia at this time’.19"

"Chinese ambivalence in military matters, and the ad hoc forces available for deployment, were woefully inadequate for maintaining an imperial colossus when challenged by other empire-builders."

"The first of these challengers was Tibet. The amicable relations reached between Srong-brtsan-sgam-po and Tang Taizong had broken down around 660, the bone of contention being again the status of the Tuyuhun people in the treeless and boggy no man’s land that was Qinghai. By now, after various missions and a long stand-off over a Chinese envoy’s refusal to kowtow to the Tibetan king, the Tang should have realised that the Tibetans were not a mere confederation of nomadic tribes. An ambitious kingdom and would-be empire, Tibet had developed an integrated military, an effective administration and a literate culture based on its own grammar and script (an alphabetic one derived from a form of Sanskrit). The adoption of a distinctive and largely indigenous form of Buddhism (Vajrayana) was under way, metallurgical skills were highly developed, and Tibet’s mixed economy included artisans and traders as well as farmers and pastoralists."

"China’s two decades of domination in Qinghai and southern Xinjiang gave way to what has been called the first Tibetan empire."

"As the seventh century drew to a close, succession disputes within the Tibetan leadership led to a lull in hostilities. It ended in 700 with resounding Chinese victories and a peace settlement that was thrashed out in the dying days of Wu Zetian’s reign. Sealed with a Chinese bride in 707, the terms of the settlement were vague but again implied an equality of status that future emperors would find intolerable."

"No dynasty was graced by so many poets, or such famous ones, as the Tang."

"Li Bo, ‘a Mozart of words’ and ‘the Chinese Byron’, was the more versatile."

"Tang Xuanzong, whose forty-five-year reign (712–57) witnessed the greatest flowering of Tang poetry, was not therefore unusual in being himself a noted poet. He was also a musician, an actor and a connoisseur of most other arts. His patronage was lavish, poet Li Bo being among the many who benefited from it. ‘High Tang’, a phrase synonymous with Xuanzong’s reign, was as much a ‘golden age’ because of its artistic and cosmopolitan flamboyance as because of the empire’s comparative tranquillity and vast extent."

"As of 736, therefore, the court ceased its Luoyang shuttling and stayed put in Chang’an. The city duly became the undisputed Tang capital. Its grand dimensions as laid out under Sui Wendi had promised the most extensive city in the world; now, as its inhabitants surged towards 2 million, it became much the most populous city in the world."

"Port cities such as Guangzhou in the deep south and Yangzhou in the Yangzi delta hosted large merchant and seafaring communities from Arabia, Persia, India and south-east Asia. But for exoticism nothing could match the great markets and court spectacles of Chang’an."

"Indian mathematics and ayurvedic medicine were closely studied; and the Indian game of chess proved such a success that it was included in the curriculum of the Hanlin academy. Chinese artists delighted in depicting Indian deities and did so in a style that was itself decidedly hybrid."

"Foreigners were closely monitored. They required a licence to trade and were separately domiciled."

"By 750 all but one of the major commands were held by foreigners. Most of these men were Turks or part-Turk, though it was under a Korean general that the Tang forces were defeated by the Arabs at the Talas River in 751."

"in 745 the sixty-year-old Tang Xuanzong had allowed his attention to stray from contemplation of the Daoist ineffable to admire the porcelain perfection and fashionably fulsome figure of one whose beauty was rivalled only by her vivacity. This was the famous Yang Guifei, and the emperor was instantly smitten. She had previously been the consort of one of his sons, so was probably no more than half his age, and through her influence over the emperor, she soon came to dominate the court. Under her patronage, a distant cousin, Yang Guozhong, emerged as Li Linfu’s main rival, and on the latter’s death in 752 as his ministerial successor. The Yangs were now all-powerful."

"probably just another attempt to smear his memory. But as between the general and the other Yang – chief minister Yang Guozhong – relations plummeted. Each saw the other as the only serious threat to his supremacy and intrigued against him."

"Yet his sudden metamorphosis from palace pet to avenging pariah remains hard to explain. His actions of 755 can be construed either as careful preparation for revolt or as desperate responses to the increasingly ominous reports coming from Chang’an. Spies from the capital sent to investigate him were stalled or bribed, requests for his attendance at court rebuffed or ignored. When in late 755 he declined even to perform obeisance before an imperial envoy, it was tantamount to a declaration of war."

"Claiming that he had been ordered to rid the empire of the far-from-popular Yang Guozhong, he marched forth at the head of his formidable army."

"Chang’an and the Wei valley behind their screening mountains remained under imperial control. In fact they were reinforced by the recall of the frontier armies in Gansu, Xinjiang and Sichuan. Turks, Tibetans, Arabs and others would take advantage of this retraction to dismantle the empire’s entire western extension."

"An Lushan’s challenge to the authority of the central government had set a precedent. It betrayed the weakness of the dynasty, condemned it to invoking the support of military contingents as dangerous as the rebels, and hastened the devolution of power from the capital to the provinces."

"in mid-756 the emperor and the impatient Yang Guozhong overruled their commanders to launch a massive counter-attack. It was ambushed and routed. Defeat left the capital undefended. As An Lushan advanced to claim the prize, all who could vacated the great city."

"the emperor, the lovely Yang Guifei and the dictatorial Yang Guozhong, accompanied by attendants and a cavalry escort, fled towards Sichuan. The Yangs originated from there; the mountain trail through the Qinling, a successor of ‘Stone Cattle Road’, would discourage pursuit; and preparations had already been made for receiving the imperial entourage in Chengdu. Two weeks out, at a place called Mawei, they ran into a party of Tibetan envoys. The Tibetans wanted food, but Yang Guozhong’s dealings with them roused the suspicions of the imperial escort. Accused of treachery, Yang Guozhong was manhandled and murdered on the spot along with members of his family."

"The emperor was unharmed in the fracas, as was Yang Guifei. But presumably to eradicate all hated Yangs, the troops now demanded that the emperor have her executed too. Powerless to protect his beloved, the emperor, it is said, concurred. Yang Guifei herself requested only that, instead of execution, she be strangled with a length of silk, whereupon the emperor’s trusted eunuch performed the deed. Thus did Yang Guifei pass to the spirit world with her beauty intact, there to be eventually reunited, in countless verses, plays, paintings, songs and novellas, with the emperor who so loved her. Romance transcends history. To ask why she had to die, or why the emperor, however old and powerless, failed the basic test of a hero in not dying with her, not even defending her, is beside the point. The emperor’s loss and his lover’s devotion were tragedy enough."

"Broken-hearted, the great Tang Xuanzong continued on to Chengdu, to exile and to imminent abdication. He lived another five years, so outlasting An Lushan and witnessing the Tang restoration. In neither is he said to have taken the remotest interest."

"SEEN IN THE ESSENTIALLY DYNASTIC TERMS preferred by the traditional histories, little was changed by the An Lushan rebellion of late 755. An Lushan himself was murdered by his son in early 757. Later in the same year, with Uighur help, Chang’an was recaptured by Tang Suzong, Xuanzong’s designated heir (r. 756–62)."

"Assorted Turks and even an Arab contingent had joined the Tang forces against the rebels. But it was the Uighurs whose expert cavalry enabled the Tang to stem the tide of defeat, and Uighurs did not come cheap. A painful equality of status as well as massive subventions in cash and trade goods, plus an imperial bride, had to be extended to their qaghan,"

"the 843–48 crackdown on the Buddhist establishment may have occasioned as much misery as the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of monasteries are said to have been destroyed and as many as 250,000 monks and nuns defrocked, some being injured or killed in the process. Ennin portrays Tang Wuzong as a Daoist fanatic and notes that the Buddhists were not the only ones to suffer; Manichaeans, Nestorian Christians and Zoroastrians were also subject to censure. But as he admits, the motivation was as much economic as ideological. The dissolution of the monasteries brought the confiscation of their buildings, the repossession of their extensive landed estates, the return of their inmates and dependants to the tax and labour pool and, most important of all, the melting down of their vast accumulations of gold, silver and copper statuary to underpin the fragile currency."

"in 780 a ‘two-tax system’ was introduced. ‘Generally considered one of the major events in Chinese economic history’, its ‘two-tax’ dimension was in fact incidental; it simply meant that, to spread receipts, it was levied in some areas at one time of the year, in others at another, and in most at both, in effect splitting the levy between late spring and harvest time."

"Since grain prices plummeted in the early ninth century, all who were assessed in cash but paid in grain found their liability soaring by the year; unable to meet the demand, peasants either deserted, leaving their peers to make good their contributions, or gravitated into paid labour;"

"Tang Xianzong attempted to redress this situation, breaking up existing provinces and negotiating quotas direct with the smaller prefectures. But the cost of his military adventures was never covered, and any reduction in the military establishment by his successors invited mutiny."

"It began in the 870s among bandit gangs on the western borders of Shandong. Joined by its eventual leader, a minor official from Shandong called Huang Chao, the revolt spread west to threaten Luoyang and then south to the middle Yangzi."

"provincial capitals were sacked; the administration collapsed throughout much of central China. A major Tang victory in 878 only spurred Huang Chao into one of the most outrageous peregrinations in history. Back in Shandong at the time, he led his men south to the Yangzi delta, crossed Zhejiang into the mountains of Fujian, and then trekked through some of the most difficult terrain in the country to Fuzhou and Guangzhou (Canton), both of which port cities he sacked. It was said that 120,000 were massacred in Guangzhou, over half the city’s population."

"Emulating his great ancestor Tang Xuanzong, he and they fled into Sichuan. In early 881 Huang Chao entered the city in triumph and at first put on a brave display of founding his own dynasty. But his troops proved uncontrollable. Not for the first time the world’s greatest city was sacked and its palaces torched. Citoyens joined in the carnage, streets ran with blood. ‘The Lament of Lady Chin’, a long poem by Wei Zhuang, who himself fell foul of the rebels but later rose to prominence in Sichuan, paints a Goya-esque scene of devastation, rape, butchery and cannibalism. Suppressed by the poet himself, the poem in question was thought lost until no less then fourteen copies of it were found among Aurel Stein’s treasure trove from Dunhuang in the early twentieth century. Evidently it had struck a chord at the time."

"The last Tang emperors, their names in Pinyin sounding an alphabetic cadenza (Yizong, Xizong, Zhaozong, Zhaoxuan), were paraded as puppets and died as pawns in the war games of their would-be successors."

"The Tang theoretically staggered on until 907, from which date the Standard Histories grudgingly recognise a Later Liang dynasty."

"the resulting sequence of ‘Five Dynasties’ (Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han, Later Zhou) gives its name to the whole period."

"Traditionally dated 907–60, the ‘Five Dynasties’ period ended when the last of the five gave way to a sixth, the long-lasting Song. The Song would reunite most of the empire, and their accession is usually taken to mark the beginning of a dazzling new age."

"This makes it difficult to answer some fundamental questions. How long has China been united? For how much of its history has it been ruled by Chinese? How continuous is its record of political integration? It all depends on how one defines the Chinese and where one starts the history. A timeline of empire based on the traditional dates of each all-China dynasty suggests that ‘the political coherence of [the] Chinese population…has been maintained for almost three-quarters of the time that has elapsed since the First Emperor of Qin’.12 So says the excellent Cultural Atlas of China, though The Cambridge History of China suggests ‘around half’ rather than ‘almost three-quarters’. Both assume that the Chinese population is synonymous with those considered ethnically and culturally Han, so excluding all those non-Han peoples prominent in the country’s history plus all those Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities whom the government of today regards as Chinese. Moreover, both estimates raise the question of why earlier periods, like that of the pre-imperial Zhou and the ‘Warring States’ – periods more seminal to Chinese civilisation than the Greek and Roman republics to Mediterranean civilisation – should be left out of the equation. Include them, and the three-quarters-to-a-half of recorded history during which China has been ‘politically coherent’ shrinks to no more than a quarter."

"The tendency has already been noted for official histories to exaggerate – or elasticate – the duration of favoured dynasties and credit them with exercising a universal authority that was not actually effective for anything like as long."

"For instance, the empire of the Tang, though traditionally coterminous with the dynasty (618–907), can hardly be described as politically coherent after Huang Chao’s capture of Chang’an in 881; it had in fact been in turmoil throughout the three decades previous to that, and had been seriously compromised ever since An Lushan’s rebellion in 755."

"As in the case of the ‘Great Wall’ or the ‘Grand Canal’, episodic segments of monumental achievement have been exaggerated and conflated to convey a misleading impression of near-continuity."

"This is not to deny a remarkable continuity of political culture. The Mandate, the supremacy of Heaven’s Son, the concept of zhongguo (whether as ‘the central states’ or ‘the Middle Kingdom’), reverence for a political hierarchy grounded in Confucian morality, and the superiority of this shared culture over the uncultured ‘barbarism’ of non-Han peoples – these were universally acknowledged."

"The development of printing, seven centuries before Gutenberg, and eleven before any of India’s scripts was printed, was undoubtedly the most momentous of all Chinese inventions; as a result, Europe and India still have dozens of languages and literatures but China only one. And this ‘infotech’ revolution substantially took place during the extended Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms period."

"In general, Tang literary and artistic traditions fared better under the Ten Kingdoms than under the war-torn Five Dynasties in the north. In Hangzhou (the Wu-Yue, and nowadays Zhejiang, capital) and Nanjing (the capital of a ‘Southern Tang’ state), the poems of the great Tang masters appeared in print for the first time."

"At around the same time, and also in progressive Sichuan, printing facilitated the first-known appearance of paper money when merchants began issuing promissory notes in lieu of the often scarce and always burdensome strings of iron or copper cash. Officially certified and standardised under the Song, the practice gave birth to the banknote. Marco Polo’s description, three centuries later, of money ‘made out of the bark of trees’, while not entirely accurate, well conveys a foreigner’s utter incredulity at this momentous development: in converting arboreal pulp into a universally accepted medium of exchange with a value far in excess of its intrinsic worth, ‘you might say that the Great [Khubilai] Khan…has mastered the art of alchemy’, notes Polo. ‘He has such a quantity made that with it he could buy all the treasure of the world.’"

"Helped by such innovations, much of the world’s treasure had been circulating more freely in China than anywhere else. As of the tenth century what has been called ‘a commercial revolution’ was under way."

"In the mid-eighth century, the total population is thought to have been around 60 million, of whom 60 per cent were living in the Yellow River basin. By the end of the tenth century, it was nearing 100 million, of whom less than 40 per cent resided in the Yellow River basin; over 60 per cent now lived in the Yangzi basin and the south. Accelerated by territorial losses in the north, the long-drawn-out shift to the more productive south had finally tipped the demographic scales. As of the Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms period, more Chinese grew rice than millet and wheat; their winters were warmer and their summers wetter; their acquaintance with the Inner Asian steppes was slight; and they lived not under the turbulent Five Dynasties but among the opulent but historically neglected Ten Kingdoms."

"The Later Zhou’s one great misfortune was the premature death of this Shizong, aged thirty-eight, in 959. His seven-year-old son succeeded him, but within months the dynasty was challenged by its most trusted general. A certain Zhao Kuangyin, fearless in battle and consummate in statecraft, this was the man who, as the next dynastic founder, would be posthumously known as Song Taizu (r. 960–76). At the time he appeared just another usurper. His background was identical to other contenders’. His prospects seemed no better than those of the five ephemeral dynasties to which he was about to add a sixth. Sure enough, move for move, his usurpation mirrored that of the Later Zhou. Other potential contenders were won over, while in public he proclaimed himself utterly unworthy of the throne; but his troops and their commanders clamoured for his elevation; the portents were adamant; and the matter was settled when, acknowledging his superior merit, the mother of the last of the Later Zhou insisted on her son abdicating in his favour."

"Song rule was revealed as more formal and much more restrained than that of the Tang. Executions and floggings would be comparatively rare, vendettas and purges comparatively few. Though the founding brothers campaigned vigorously, and though the forces under their direct control were massively augmented to nearly a million men, both they and their successors emphasised civilian rule."

"Fresh to the throne, in 979 Song Taizong overran a part of Shanxi to which the Later Han (fourth of the Five Dynasties) had retired, and in the process inflicted a heavy defeat on a Khitan Liao army sent to assist this time-warped enclave. Success then encouraged Song Taizong to defy all advice to the contrary and invade Liao itself. His exhausted troops reached the Liao capital at what is now Beijing ill prepared and short of supplies. They were routed. Vast quantities of booty and weaponry were lost. Taizong himself was reduced to fleeing the field of battle in a cart, ever the most ignominious of imperial fates."

"Two years later the Liao emperor died in a hunting accident and was succeeded by the eleven-year-old Liao Shenzong (r. 982–1031). Sensing an opportunity for revenge, Song Taizong resumed the offensive. But he reckoned without the military skills and formidable resolve of a Khitan dowager empress. In 986 Dowager Empress Chengtian took the field in person at the head of the Khitan forces and thrice defeated the Song armies."

"In essence the Shanyuan treaty of 1005 amounted to a damaging acknowledgement that empire was divisible and that non-Han rulers like the Khitan might also enjoy some pedigree of legitimacy – a Mandate, as it were, for ‘All-not-under-Heaven’."

"It may, then, be helpful to think of China’s history post-950 as following a two-track narrative. The tracks diverge and converge with much interchange between them. China’s historians traditionally present the crossover as essentially one sided, with the non-Han northern rulers gradually adopting the superior cultural norms of the indigenous Han southerners. But evidence that Khitan, Jurchen, Mongol and Manchu were fully alert to what they saw as the dangers of creeping sinification might suggest otherwise. Certainly, non-Han regimes whose subjects were overwhelmingly Han had perforce to compromise, even conform. But so too, if careers were to prosper, did their Han adjutants and subordinates."

"Eventually the compromise evident in the bilingualism of the Liangzhou stele emerged. To the Song, the Xia ruler remained a subject, in kinship terms ‘a son’ not ‘a brother’, but he was also accepted as a quasi-emperor whose use of imperial regalia and protocol within his own domain would not be contested. Like Liao, Xia became the recipient of an annual subsidy from the Song; it included several tonnes of brick tea as well as copious quantities of silver and silk. And the all-important border markets were reopened, so giving the Song access to Tangut bloodstock and the Tangut somewhere to spend their tribute."

"The tripartite arrangement proved workable and, however distasteful to Song Confucianists and later historians, may be seen as an example of a sustainable multi-state system."

"And both identified Buddhism as the latter-day source of all corruption. It was ‘an opiate of the people’ even, and all the more so now that it was central to the pretensions of both Tangut Xia and Khitan Liao. ‘Trumpeting abroad its grand, fantastic doctrines’, as Ouyang Xiu put it, this evil could best be defeated by a return to Confucian ‘rites and rightness,…the fundamental things whereby Buddhism may be defeated’.8"

"Reform would repeatedly falter because, on losing the emperor’s favour, it must languish for want of concerted support; Ouyang Xiu’s plea for the recognition of parties had merely elicited their proscription; and as F. W. Mote puts it in his Imperial China, ‘China still struggles with the heritage of this eleventh-century political failure’.10"

"Wang Anshi was about to introduce what amounted to the most ambitious scheme of reorganisation ever attempted during the two millennia between the reign of the First Emperor and the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party."

"‘The Major Reforms’ or ‘New Policies’ of Wang Anshi included economic and social provisions of which any responsible government could be proud. A system of designedly low-interest loans to tide the cultivator over until harvest time was introduced; and the principle of state granaries buying at above-market rates when prices were depressed, and selling below when they were buoyant, was reactivated."

"Ad hoc enactment, piecemeal implementation and a mixed reception seem to have characterised the whole programme. Moreover the dramatic increase in tax receipts that resulted, though notable and needful, can hardly have eased the taxpayer’s burden."

"by all accounts, the period of the Song was ‘China’s greatest age’.15 Revolts broke out in Shandong and Zhejiang during the dynasty’s dying days in the early 1120s, but for the most part it had been an era of internal tranquillity, booming trade, technological innovation and cultural sophistication. Around 5 per cent of the population lived in cities, not a spectacularly high proportion but still about 6 million people, a figure ‘probably equal to the urban population of the rest of the world at that time’.16 Kaifeng, the capital and much the largest conurbation, was smaller than Chang’an under the Tang yet accounted for about a million, ‘which is not far short of the total population of England under William the Conqueror, the exact contemporary of [Song] Shenzong’.17 There were thirty cities with populations of 40,000–100,000; Europe had perhaps six. As centres of commerce and overseas trade Yangzhou (in Jiangsu), Hangzhou (in Zhejiang), Fuzhou and Quanzhou (in Fujian) and Guangzhou (Canton, in Guangdong) all rivalled Venice."

"To the medieval European visitor, China afforded a glimpse of a futuristic utopia in which industry and abundance were complemented by just and effective government."

"To printed books and paper money might be added a host of contemporary developments in medicine, mechanics, mathematics, chemistry and metallurgy. Of the three inventions credited by Francis Bacon with having changed his sixteenth-century European world – printing, the magnetic compass and gunpowder – all had been anticipated by the Chinese and all had entered everyday use under the Song, so distinguishing that age of innovation from the Tang age of importation."

"Surveying and map-making achieved a high degree of accuracy; so did astronomy, ever a strong suit in the Celestial Empire. A calculation of the world’s circumference proved accurate to within a matter of metres; the fall of the Grand Canal over a 420-kilometre (260-mile) section was measured to within millimetres."

"‘In the rogues’ gallery of Chinese history, Hailing Wang occupies a place of honour,’ writes a sarcastic Herbert Franke in The Cambridge History of China; ‘he even became an anti-hero in popular pornography, where his exploits are embellished with gusto.’25 Both emperors had no compunction in murdering enemies, executing supposed opponents and abusing their womenfolk in defiance of custom. They were violent and dangerous autocrats. Yet they were by no means tribal ruffians, and their victims were more often Jurchen chiefs than Han subjects. Both spoke Chinese and had received an upbringing in the Confucian classics. Hailing reputedly composed elegant verse. His intelligence was formidable, and if he inspired universal fear, he did so in the conviction that terror had its place in the authoritarian tradition of Han-type emperorship."

"Undeterred by Earth having sustained long-lasting dynasties like the Han and Tang, the Song hastened to invade. In 1208 their forces pushed north across the Huai River. They met unexpectedly stiff resistance and found surprisingly few defectors. Instead Sichuan, part of their own empire, chose to revolt. Like the Jin attack of 1161, the campaign achieved next to nothing beyond discrediting the belligerent party. Lu You lived to see its failure and die a disappointed man."

"That was in 1210. A year later, the Mongols ceased their sporadic raiding of Jin territory to launch a full-scale invasion. Chinggis Khan in person led one of the two armies, each of about 50,000 well-mounted archers, that began systematically plundering the Jin empire."

"AFTER THE SONG THERE WOULD BE just three more imperial dynasties: the Mongol Yuan (1279–1368), the Ming (1368–1644) and the Manchu Qing (1644–1911)."

"That left the Song at the apex of the dynastic trajectory. The Song, and more especially the sunset blaze of the Southern Song (1127–1279), would come to be seen as a halcyon age of imperial China."

"Yunnan and then in Mongolia, Khubilai’s success had owed much to the manpower, revenue and advice available from his Chinese subjects. His fellow Mongols despised such indulgence of a conquered people, decried his adoption of a settled lifestyle and ridiculed him for preferring Chinese forms of sovereignty over the cut-and-thrust charisma of traditional steppe dominion. Indeed, the war of succession between the Mongol princes had been seen as a conflict between opposing styles of rulership as much as contending personalities. But whether willing convert or wily statesman, Khubilai seemed enthralled by his Chinese dominion at the expense of his Mongol heritage."

"In 1272, while the Southern Song yet reigned in the south, Khubilai clearly signified acceptance of the Mandate. He did so in a formal announcement declaring that his dynasty was to be known by the unusual title of (Da) Yuan, ‘(Great) Originator’. Historians ought to be eternally grateful. The tiresomely confusing habit of recycling old dynastic names had finally been broken. As he proudly explained, ‘Yuan’ derived neither from his state of origin, like Qin and Han, nor from some feudal dukedom, like Sui and Tang. ‘In all these cases, they [the dynasties] fell prey to the ingrained habits of common people…[and] adopted momentary measures of expediency for the sake of control,’ he declared.18 Clearly they were doomed. Khubilai, successor to the ‘sage-like’ Chinggis Khan and now ruler of the largest empire Heaven had ever seen, was above such parochialism. On the best possible advice, he had sourced his dynastic title in the ‘Book of Changes’ (Yi-jing, I-Ching), perhaps the most venerable of all the ancient classics."

"The story of the Yuan dynasty reads as one of protracted decline, and since Khubilai occupied the throne for another fifteen years – longer than any of his nine dynastic successors bar the last – he must bear much of the responsibility. He failed to override the chaotic system of succession that threw up all these quickfire emperors. His administrative arrangements, far from centralising authority, seem to have dispersed it. His attempts to improve agricultural production did little to improve revenue receipts and nothing to reverse the decline in population, itself the result of plague and famine as well as incessant war. And his foreign adventures brought still less in the way of returns and were seldom short of catastrophic. All these failures could be attributed to advancing years and declining health."

"By the time of his own death aged nearly eighty in 1294, he was crippled with gout, often insensate from alcohol and quite grotesquely obese."

"When in 1313–15 the examination system was reintroduced by the scholarship-loving Ayurbarwada or Yuan Renzong (r. 1311–20), it was effectively ‘dumbed down’ to give the less-educated Mongols and their ‘coloured-eyed’ henchmen a better chance. Literary composition was excluded altogether; Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian ‘Four Books’ distillation became the basic syllabus; degrees were awarded in accordance with preset ethnic quotas; and lest Han scholars still outshine their non-Han competitors, the latter were encouraged with simplified papers and lower pass marks."

"In adopting Nanjing, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming founder, would be the first to rule all China from a southern city."

"As Zhu Yuanzhang’s 1367 proclamation put it, the Yuan, though initially legitimate, had ‘deserted the norms of conduct’ and ‘the time had come when Heaven despised them and no longer sustained their rule’.28 In January 1368 Zhu followed this up with a formal declaration of his own dynasty. It was to be called ‘the Great Ming’, ‘Ming’ meaning ‘brilliant’ or ‘effulgent’."

"Nine months later Ming forces entered Dadu (Beijing) almost unopposed. Yuan Shundi had fled north into Inner Mongolia. For the first time in centuries China had a Chinese emperor, and for only the second time ever, he was a man of the people."

"The credentials of the Ming dynasty (r. 1368–1644) were so impressive that later nationalists would hail Zhu Yuanzhang’s achievement as a triumphant reassertion of Han Chinese identity after centuries of ‘alien rule’."

"Following their triumphs in the north, in the 1370s Ming armies struck deep into Mongolia, but with dwindling success. Mongol cavalry still enjoyed supremacy on the steppe. The Yuan and their adherents soon reclaimed what is now Inner Mongolia and would show themselves more than capable of striking back into northern China. The Mongol threat would dangle over the Ming for another two centuries, to be nullified only when the Jurchen, reincarnated as the Manchu, replaced it with a still greater menace."

"Though piously claiming to be restoring the institutions and rituals of the Tang and the Song, in practice Zhu Yuanzhang seemed bent on reconstituting the empire he had just toppled. Khubilai’s division of the country into provinces was retained,"

"Compared to the Song, the Mongol Yuan emperors had seemed beyond Confucian remonstrance, autocratic in their exercise of power and arbitrary in their judgements. But compared to the Mongol Yuan, Zhu Yuanzhang was even worse. Courtiers and ministers were beaten in his presence, sometimes to death, and as of the great purge of 1380 that accounted for those 30,000–40,000 lives, scarcely a day passed without mass executions. No reign of terror in Chinese history can compare with it."

"The Yongle emperor, then (r. 1403–24), third son of the rags-to-ruler-ship Hongwu emperor, was the former prince of Yan who successfully challenged the young Jianwen emperor (r. 1399–1402), captured Nanjing and eventually moved the capital back north to the site of the Mongols’ Dadu. There, having renamed it Beijing, the Yongle emperor began constructing a spacious new metropolis. It took most of his reign, and its innermost ‘Forbidden City’ is substantially that which remains to this day."

"China looked poised to command the seas and engross that trade on which, within a century, European states would construct empires and claim world dominion. But in China’s case nothing of the sort happened. Rather did the Yongle initiative discredit the whole idea of overseas enterprise. The great ships were allowed to rot; the construction of replacements was specifically forbidden; and so, for over a century, were all but coastal sailings. Subsequent mention of the voyages is so rare that some scholars would come to doubt whether they ever took place; others, going to the opposite extreme, have exploited the paucity of records to postulate preposterous theories of polar endeavour and world circumnavigation; nearly all have wondered why so ambitious a scheme was suddenly adopted and then, just as suddenly, abandoned."

"Thus the main reason for scouring the Indian Ocean as given in Zheng He’s biography in the Ming dynastic history was to track down the Jianwen emperor, the nephew whom the Yongle emperor had overthrown. This was partly a red herring, partly a convenient fabrication, the intent being to rally support for the voyages from a Confucian bureaucracy that disliked their expense, resented eunuchs commanding them and yet could ill afford to appear other than zealous in eliminating any threat to the Yongle emperor’s legitimacy."

"In 1404/05 Timur actually set off for China leading an army of 200,000. But he died within a matter of weeks, whereupon the campaign was aborted amid the usual Mongol succession struggle. Timur’s troops never reached the limits of Ming rule in Gansu; the Yongle emperor seems not to have taken the danger very seriously;"

"The contribution of Zheng He’s voyages to this diplomatic traffic is especially notable. During the twenty-two years of the Yongle period some ninety-five missions from the states of south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean reached the Ming court, many of them aboard Zheng He’s ships. The emperor ‘wanted to display his soldiers in strange lands in order to make manifest the wealth and power of the Middle Kingdom’, explains the Ming dynastic history. Zheng He was commissioned, says a stele erected by him at the port of Changle (near Fuzhou), ‘to go to the [foreigners’] countries and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power while treating distant peoples with kindness’."

"Instead he sent an army of 215,000 to invade. Worse still, in 1407, after a comprehensive victory, he annexed Annam, renaming it the Ming province of Jiaozhi. This is what it had been called under the Han, and now as then the Annamese proved anything but agreeable. Drawing on cherished memories of the Trung sisters, those indomitable Boadiceas who had defied the armies of the Later Han, they found inspirational leadership in members of the Tran and Le clans, plus a spirit of unquenchable resistance that freedom fighters of a later age would recognise as pristine nationalism."

"The hostilities that followed lasted twenty years. Thrice the country was thought pacified and thrice revolt broke out anew. The Ming forces seldom lost a battle; the Vietnamese never gave up the fight. By land and sea, more and more troops and supplies went south, but it made no difference. Terrain and climate weakened the invader and favoured the guerrilla tactics of the invaded. By the mid-1420s the Vietnamese resistance enjoyed almost universal support under the great Le Loi, a patriot who would one day inspire the young Nguyen Ai Quoc, otherwise Ho Chi Minh. (But the twentieth-century parallels are too numerous for mention.)"

"After centuries of slow encroachment, examination candidates were at last coming into their own as office-holders. Indeed, ‘at no time in China’s premodern history was government in all its aspects more dominated by civil servants recruited and promoted on the basis of merit than in Ming times’.13"

"By the late sixteenth century, ‘there were between one million and ten million men who had been educated to [the basic examinations] level’, a remarkable figure for a time when elsewhere even basic literacy barely registered. It represented 10–20 per cent of the adult male population, with 1 per cent proceeding to exam-certificated status and 0.01 per cent to jinshi rank."

"If the Tumu Incident had disgraced the dynasty in the eyes of the empire, the Great Rites Controversy disgraced it in the eyes of its own officials."

"with no incentive to save on manpower, mechanisation had limited appeal and industrialisation was delayed; mass production came to mean production by the masses rather than the production of a mass of standardised items using minimal labour."

"The ‘Great Wall’ was unquestionably a Ming creation, both in terms of its construction and of its later repute. But plaques recording different stages of its construction are rare and only a few bricks bear an incised indication of their provenance. Moreover, archaeologists, faced with a site 6,000–7,000 kilometres (3,700–4,350 miles) long, remain more concerned about conserving what can be seen than exhuming what cannot."

"Some time after midnight on 25 April 1644, accompanied only by an old eunuch, the Ming Chongzhen emperor, grandson of the Wanli emperor, ascended Coal Hill, an eminence within the Forbidden City, surveyed Beijing’s unmanned walls and the fires that raged in the still-dark suburbs beyond, and then, retiring into a nearby pavilion – it was the headquarters of the Imperial Hat and Girdle Department – hanged himself from a cross-beam. On 5 June Manchu forces entered the city, quickly occupied the palace and, declaring the Mandate forfeit, arrogated it to their own pre-declared Qing dynasty. The deer had been loose, as the saying had it, for just six weeks."

"The Ming’s nearly twenty-seven decades were up, the Qing’s nearly twenty-eight just beginning; a tired and now ineffectual regime looked to have succumbed to a fresh and still-dynamic one."

"By the late eighteenth century, thanks to the Qing, China would have acquired the subcontinental girth that it rejoices in to this day. On the other hand the price for neglecting its seaboard and underestimating the foreigners who increasingly frequented it would be national humiliation, and not just by trading companies, upstart empires and ‘great powers’ but by domestic revolutionaries, opportunistic neighbours and itinerant ideologues."

"the year 1644 – or less explicitly, the first half of the seventeenth century – is taken to mark an important milestone in China’s historical marathon. Hereabouts period-conscious histories flag the end of one era, or ‘world cycle’, and the beginning of another, though whether ‘late feudal’ is superseded by ‘proto-capitalist’, ‘late imperial’ by ‘post-imperial’ or ‘pre-modern’ by ‘early modern’ is a matter of mouth-watering debate."

"generalising about the empire is shown to be a dangerous exercise. Not only taxation but crops, productivity, patterns of landownership, standards of law and order, and levels of social well-being varied enormously from province to province, prefecture to prefecture, and county to county."

"Paper money had first run into problems under the Yuan dynasty. Insufficiently backed by silver, copper or even silk, new issues of notes had been declared non-convertible by the Mongol regime. As a result they rapidly lost their face value and were generally shunned; those who could preferred to hoard metals. The Hongwu emperor, founder of the Ming, had persisted with paper and shut down mining operations to cut off the supply of metals. But this merely boosted their value, especially that of silver. By 1400 the purchasing power of silver was higher in China than anywhere else in the world, and would remain so. The country ‘had entered a new monetary age in which unminted silver traded by weight, and copper coins both legal and counterfeit, were the dominant forms of currency’."

"Though all Chinese dynasties might reasonably be described as conquest dynasties, none had conquered less of China before gaining the throne than the Manchus."

"Hong Taiji also began employing Han bureaucrats, selected by examination, to staff an administrative service. An external affairs bureau was set up, too; initially concerned with Jurchen–Mongol relations, the bureau was soon reorganised and renamed to handle all ‘colonial’ relations, including the close ties lately established between the Mongols and the Tibetan religious establishment, especially its Dalai Lama (of whom more later)."

"A newer, more inclusive orientation was needed: the Bannermen, and by extension the regime, were henceforth to be known as ‘Manchu’, and the dynasty as ‘Qing’."

"‘Manchu’ is more problematic. Freely used, and by foreigners often confused with Tatar/Tartar and Mongol, the word was soon applied to the dynasty as well as the people and then to the north-eastern region from which both originated: hence the word manchuguo/manchu-kuo/ ‘Manchuria’, a term that the Chinese have since found objectionable, partly because the Japanese adopted it as the name for their twentieth-century puppet state in that region and partly because it implies a distinct status for somewhere that the Chinese now consider as just north-east China and no more distinct than, say, south-east China."

"By then the ‘great enterprise’ had been substantially realised and resistance to Qing rule lingered on only in out-of-the-way places such as Yunnan and Taiwan."

"Undermined by Nanjing’s dithering and more desertions, Yangzhou soon fell to the Manchus. Shi Kefa died in the carnage, the most elegant of port cities was comprehensively sacked, and the entire populace massacred or enslaved. Three weeks later, without a fight, Nanjing itself surrendered, and the first of the four ‘Southern Ming’ regimes promptly collapsed. From a Manchu point of view, Yangzhou’s salutary fate had served its purpose of deterring opposition. On the other hand, the ten-day slaughter, ‘one of the most infamous massacres in Chinese history’, and especially the fate of Yangzhou’s womenfolk, all of which was chronicled in explicit detail, would top every subsequent indictment of Manchu excesses; and in the heroic figure of Shi Kefa, the Ming resistance – not to mention a patriotic posterity transfixed by the fate of China’s last indigenous dynasty – would recognise its first great martyr."

"A more intriguing feature of the fighting was the widespread use of firearms. The war, in fact, was the first on Chinese soil in which guns look to have played a decisive part."

"who’d been on the wall’.11 Though Yangzhou’s walls were clearly not designed for it, artillery was no novelty. Joseph Needham dates the first Chinese ordnance to around 1250, and there is a cannon of sorts in Beijing’s National History Museum with a date equivalent to 1332."

"according to the Standard History of the Ming, the first serviceable guns were acquired in 1410 in the course of the Ming Yongle emperor’s long and otherwise unrewarding vendetta against the Vietnamese;"

"The Qing dynasty’s famous ‘Three Emperors’ – those of the Kangxi (1661–1722), Yongzhen (1723–35) and Qianlong (1723–95) reign periods – monopolised the throne until the dawn of the nineteenth century. Capable, generally conscientious and occasionally capricious, they gave the empire unprecedented continuity and comparative stability."

"During the same period, monarchies elsewhere fared indifferently: thirteen Mughal emperors came and went as India succumbed to foreign conquest; seven British sovereigns, three being Georges, fretted over the constraints of constitutional monarchy; and five French kings, all called Louis, eked out their ancien régime until overwhelmed by the revolution. Qing China, like Romanov Russia, bucked the trend."

"Voltaire, likewise, exulted over a society that, innocent of church or clergy, yet cherished moral values. China’s ‘constitution’ he ranked ‘the best in the world’; and he wrote poems in honour of the Qianlong emperor."

"Taiwan, or Formosa, as the Portuguese had called it, was not at the time a province of China. Sparsely populated by a non-Han and implacably hostile people, and with a climate of equally evil repute, the island had tendered tribute to the Ming but had attracted no more settlement than the neighbouring Ryukyu Islands. This, however, was changing. The enterprising Zheng family of Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian – part privateers, part Mandarin traders, latterly Ming officials and increasingly coastal overlords – had used the island as an occasional naval base and had encouraged the Dutch settlement there."

"was this measure, plus an overland approach by Qing forces, which in 1661 triggered the first great wave of mainland migration to Taiwan. It also determined Zheng Chenggong himself to relocate there. Only the Dutch in their fort on Taiwan stood in the way."

"To Zheng Chenggong’s considerable reputation as the most daring of sea-dogs and the most loyal of Ming supporters was added the accolade, later upgraded to semi-divine status, of being the first patriot to inflict defeat on a European intruder and expel its representatives from what he proudly claimed as Chinese territory."

"Zheng Chenggong’s son succeeded to the Taiwanese patrimony and, more merchant prince than Ming loyalist, let alone Chinese patriot, would befriend early traders of England’s East India Company. When in 1683 his navy was finally sunk by a Qing armada, the latter was commanded by one of his father’s old comrades-in-arms. The defeat of the Zheng meant that Taiwan could at last be incorporated into the empire. With its Han population augmented by further waves of migration following a revolt in 1721, it remained a prefecture attached to Fujian province for a couple of centuries. By the time it was wrested from the Qing in 1898 by the Japanese, temples to Zheng Chenggong abounded there; in fact even the Qing had eventually recognised Zheng as ‘a Paragon of Loyalty’. The Japanese had no problem with this. Zheng, after all, had been born near Nagasaki of a Japanese mother; they too revered his memory."

"the Kangxi emperor further strengthened his position among his conquered subjects by reversing some of the blatantly pro-Manchu measures taken by his regent predecessors."

"If, as sometimes contended, the Treaty of Nerchinsk should be regarded as the first of imperial China’s ‘unequal treaties’, that was not how the signatories read it, nor were the Chinese disadvantaged by it."

"For China the treaty was nevertheless an important first. Since it implicitly acknowledged the existence of another sovereign state – so contradicting the traditional concept of the universal Mandate that underlay all those peace-through-kinship and trade-as-tribute agreements – the act of signature certainly constituted ‘the most significant Qing concession’."

"The Russians relinquished claims to the Amur in return for commercial access to the Qing empire; the Qing got a secure frontier and a neutral neighbour."

"more is known about the character of the Kangxi emperor than any previous ruler of China. He is revealed as a sympathetic figure who would surely have enjoyed a favourable press without the later official eulogies to his all-conquering exploits. Spirited, decisive, insatiably inquisitive and devoted to his growing family, he was also genuinely concerned for the welfare of his troops. He took a lively interest in practically everything that came to his attention. He was especially passionate about hunting, some letters reading more like entries in a game-book. Indeed, Galdan is identified as his personal prey, his prize quarry; he would track him, it seemed, to the ends of the earth. Hunting him and his successors became an obsession, pursued regardless of cost, sometimes of reason, and to the detriment of regional stability. Like Han Wudi or Tang Taizong, the Kangxi emperor knew not when to stop; and since he was mostly successful, he set standards of intervention in Inner Asia that his Qing successors would feel obliged to follow."

"From 1690 to 1760 the ‘Three Emperors’ conducted against the Zunghar Mongols a devastatingly long, if intermittent, war of attrition. It was a conflict of many phases and highly complex relationships involving not only numerous Mongol confederations but most of Inner Asia’s other peoples. The size of Qing territory would be doubled as a result, and something approximating the configuration of China today would emerge."

"‘Exterminate’ was the constant Qing refrain, at first in respect of the Zunghar leaders, then of the entire people when in the 1750s the Qianlong emperor sought what one authority does not hesitate to call ‘the final solution’."

"Of the 600,000 Zunghars, it was reported that 40 per cent had died of smallpox, 30 per cent had been killed by the Qing armies and 20 per cent had fled across the Russian, Kazakh and Kyrghyz frontiers. ‘Zungharia was left as a blank social space, to be filled by a state-sponsored settlement movement of millions of Han Chinese peasants, Manchu Bannermen, Turkestani oasis settlers, Hui [Chinese Muslims] and others.’25"

"Southern Xinjiang’s conquest came last and was a direct result of the Qing victory in Zungharia. In fact it was conducted by the same Qing general fresh from his Zungharian triumphs. The Zunghar Mongols had depended on Xinjiang’s oasis-cities, by now with a substantial Muslim Uighur population, for supplies and taxes, and had exercised a loose supervision over them. The Qing elimination of the Zunghars left a power vacuum that members of a formerly prominent and still greatly revered Muslim family sought to fill. These were the Khojas of the Naqshbandi sect of Sufis, whose authority in the region spread even to Kashmir and Afghanistan and had occasionally been endorsed by the Zunghars."

"Despite latter-day opinion, as yet ‘there was no unified “Uighur” nationality either fighting against the Qing state or yearning to be incorporated within it’.26 The region was indeed incorporated within the empire, but not as a regular province. ‘Xinjiang’s overall administration [under the Qing] was in essence nothing more than a huge garrison under the command of the military governor.’ Officials there ‘neither respected nor learned much about the languages and customs of the people whom they ruled’. They learned even less about the nominally jimi (‘loose rein’) lands beyond, including Tashkent, Bukhara, Afghanistan and Hunza in what is now northern Pakistan, over all of which the Qing inherited a vague suzerainty.27"

"Tibet’s involvement in the Qing–Zunghar conflict was very different. It preceded that of Xinjiang and was much more influential, though the outcome was less conclusive. Like Taiwan, and despite vague claims by the Yuan dynasty, Tibet had never been administratively part of any Chinese empire. But the Mongols had become intimately involved in Tibet’s religious politics, mostly as champions of the Yellow-hatted order of monks (Gelugpa), whose spiritual leader was the Dalai Lama of Lhasa."

"Matters were vastly complicated by two further factors: the first was the rival claims of other senior lamas, both Mongol and Tibetan, whether Yellow-hatted (like the Panchen Lamas of Tashilunpo) or not (like those of other orders); and the second was the dilemmas arising from a firm belief in the principle, and much latitude in the practice, of reincarnate succession. As a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara, the Dalai Lama did not die; but when relinquishing one incarnation, he left it to others to determine the next, so creating great potential for controversy and uninvited interference."

"To avoid this, the Great Fifth’s ‘non-death’ in 1682 was kept secret from the Kangxi emperor for sixteen years. The emperor blamed Galdan and his Zunghars for contributing to the deception and endorsed intervention by a loyal (to the Qing) Mongol confederation from Qinghai. These Qinghai Mongols, keen to unseat the Zunghar-backed administration in Tibet and its Sixth Dalai Lama, reached Lhasa, but were in turn evicted by their Zunghar brethren."

"Imperial troops were then sent to the rescue, and in 1720, for the first time, entered Lhasa. The Zunghars evacuated the city ahead of their arrival, the Qing Banners occupied it, and a Seventh Dalai Lama was installed. A precedent for Qing protection in central Tibet had finally been established; civil power was now entrusted to a council of ministers who would be advised by two Beijing-appointed ambans (‘commissioners’ from the Qing Colonial Office, they ‘were basically political informants’) and a few troops were left to support them."

"Qing intervention in Tibet in the eighteenth century was designed to uphold the religious establishment and the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama, not to undermine them. The Manchu emperors were as sincere in their regard for the reincarnate lamas as were the Mongol khans, and just as jealous of Tibetan endorsement. Arguably Tibetan Buddhism gained more from imperial patronage than did the Qing from political intervention."

"Other Qing interventions in Burma, Vietnam and Nepal during the Qianlong period would prove unproductive, even disastrous."

"Non-Chinese historians are more inclined to equate Qing expansion into the steppe and the desert with other contemporary colonialisations in Siberia and the Americas. China does not like to be considered a colonial power; but in Beijing’s prompt efforts to demarcate, map and regulate these new regions, to settle their existing populations, to encourage or condone inward migration, and to realise their resources, the criteria of colonialism are discernible."

"In keeping with the scale of the thing, Macartney’s diplomatic wish-list was also ambitious. China and Britain were to establish amicable and reciprocal relations. He was to persuade the emperor to agree to his staying on as a permanent British ambassador in Beijing and to encourage the dispatch of a complementary Chinese embassy to London."

"In a parting edict addressed by the emperor to George III and entrusted to the mission for delivery, the British king was congratulated on his ‘sincere humility and obedience’. Any permanent embassy, however, was contrary to ritual practice ‘and definitely cannot be done’. Trade required no such level of representation; there were already channels for redress in the event of disputes; as for island ‘magazines’ and additional ports, they were not so much as mentioned. Knick-knacks such as guns and instruments the emperor did not value, ‘nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures’. In effect, reciprocity with the Celestial Empire remained an impertinent notion as well as a contradiction in terms: ‘You, O King, should simply act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country may share the blessings of peace.’"

"Even the emperor’s edict, though unbending in its assumption of imperial supremacy and sino-centric ascendancy, has been called ‘the most important single Chinese document for the study of Sino-Western relations between 1700 and 1860’ – no mean claim for a period during which China’s international reputation would plummet as the Western powers presumed to extract concessions and the empire itself started to unravel."

"Of the three major themes of the Qing period – the successful expansion into Inner Asia, a mixed record in managing the empire and its vastly increased population, and the disastrous handling of the insistent Western demand for commercial penetration – it is the last which has usually received the greatest attention."

"Macartney noted the shortage of flintlocks and the antiquated nature of China’s ordnance; he foresaw that ‘half a dozen broadsides’ would level the forts that protected Guangzhou, that ‘a few frigates’ could destroy the coastal shipping of the entire country, and that Indo-British forces ‘might vulnerate them [the Chinese] as sensibly in other quarters’, such as along Tibet’s Himalayan frontier."

"‘Our present interests, our reason, and our humanity equally forbid the thoughts of any offensive action,’ he concluded."

"The ship’s commanders whom Macartney so admired were the ‘Three Emperors’ of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. But in September 1793, when Macartney met him at Jehol, the last of these was just three days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. He looked younger and was still healthy; but he had already declared his intention of abdicating so that his reign would not outlast and so, in most unfilial fashion, eclipse that of his Kangxi grandfather."

"Under the Qing, encouraging wealth creation was acknowledged as a function of the state, and the Confucian disparagement of merchants and credit agencies became largely rhetorical."

"the population went on growing. The statistics remain controversial. A figure of around 300 million by the year 1800, about twice that of all Europe at the time, is generally accepted, though what rate of growth this represents is uncertain."

"Theoretically, and to a wide extent in practice, all subjects of the empire were still enrolled in a system of ‘mutual security’ that was actually more about shared liability and mutual surveillance. Known under its Song dynasty variant of baojia, it grouped households into decimal units of a thousand (bao-) and a hundred (-jia), the latter being composed of ten groupings of ten households, and each unit having its own headman. Chosen by rotation, the headman was responsible for the good order and prompt compliance of his unit, rarely for the expression of its grievances; it was not a desirable post. The penal code made the headman and his unit liable not only for the conduct of its constituents but also for any crimes committed by them. Ideally the baojia grouping cut across the bonds of kinship, clan or professional association, and instilled a sense of equal and responsible participation in the machinery of government. But while in practice it might cement existing bonds, it did little to stem the exodus of the landless, and it often atrophied for want of support. Admirable as had been the attempts of the ‘Three Emperors’ to address the needs of their realm and placate their various constituents – Manchu, Mongol and Chinese – neither they nor their subjects had any concept of popular legitimacy. Government still relied on the penal code and the force of arms; Heaven’s judgement was the ultimate sanction, and the dynastic cycle the only guarantee of change."

"All dynasties were doomed; the Qing would have fallen without foreign intervention; indeed, it lingered as long as it did only because of foreign intervention. But not perhaps the empire. While indigenous causes would topple the dynasty, it was extraneous forces which would cripple the empire."

"A mere sideline in 1700, China soon proved a bonanza for the company. By 1770 the Guangzhou trade was the most important and lucrative in its considerable portfolio."

"By the 1830s tea was contributing nearly 10 per cent of the British government’s entire revenue receipts."

"The balance of trade throughout the eighteenth century was thus overwhelmingly in China’s favour. The Celestial Empire came to rely on this abundant source of silver, while British manufacturers and economists deplored the disregard of the national interest and what they called the ‘drain of specie’."

"In China home-grown opium, mainly for medicinal use, had been consumed, as it had in Europe, for at least a thousand years. But smoking it – rather than infusing or eating it – for the greater ‘hit’ nowadays classed as ‘recreational’ seems to have originated in Taiwan in the seventeenth century."

"The habit spread to the mainland, where the Qing Yongzheng emperor made opium dens and opium dealing illegal but did not actually proscribe the drug."

"in 1773 the East India Company assumed monopoly control over poppy-growing and opium production in Bengal, about a thousand chests (60,000 kilograms, 60 tons) a year were reaching China. This figure had quadrupled by 1796, the year of the Qianlong emperor’s abdication and from which date, on orders from the Guangzhou authorities, the company stopped exporting its opium to China; ignoring the Chinese ban would have meant risking an embargo of its tea purchases, which was unthinkable."

"Instead the company’s Indian opium crop was auctioned in Calcutta, purchased by private syndicates organised as ‘agency houses’, and then shipped by them to Guangzhou in still greater quantities."

"The Jiaqing emperor (successor of the Qianlong emperor; r. 1796–1821) introduced heftier penalties for smokers. He also banned opium imports altogether, which meant that it was now the turn of Guangzhou’s Co-hong merchants to forgo any overt involvement in the trade."

"Singapore, acquired by the British in 1819 and developed as a free port, had attracted Chinese émigrés and a vast concourse of shipping; the opium trade there found the perfect entrepôt."

"Echoing the exponential growth in Britain’s tea imports, China’s imports of Indian opium topped 13,000 chests in 1828 and had doubled again by 1836. By then, ‘total imports came to $18 million, making it the world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century’."

"The syndicates and agency houses that handled the shipments – mainly British but also American – looked to the company’s influence at Guangzhou for protection and made the proceeds of their trade available to the company for its tea purchases; it was the ideal way to convert – or launder – opium profits (and other perks of Eastern empire) into London stocks, country estates and parliamentary seats."

"As of the late 1820s, therefore, foreign tea purchases no longer required an outlay of bullion; opium credits more than sufficed. Silver no longer flowed into China; it flowed out. By the 1830s it was flowing out at the rate of 9 million taels a year. The balance of trade had reversed. It was now imperial officials in Beijing who worried about the national interest and complained of ‘the drain of specie’. Within China, and especially in the south, the demand for silver pushed up its value against copper cash, causing the same distress as in Ming times among the cash-earning but silver-taxed classes. ‘Reduced growth, unemployment and urban unrest (another of the clusters of problems associated with dynastic decline) are directly attributable…to the sudden impact of this dramatic and disastrous shift in the balance of payments.’"

"Many officials argued for legalisation, for a state monopoly and licensed dealers. As they saw it, prohibition had failed; penal deterrents were hard to enforce, and enforcers were too readily corrupted; both consumption and corruption could be better contained by punitive tariffs; these would also bring in substantial revenues; and state control would make the foreign traders more amenable to regulation."

"measures to suppress both the trade and the habit. Lin Zexu, an able scholar and experienced administrator, stressed the moral aspect: opium addiction undermined the social relationships so essential to Confucian society. He accepted that addicts could not simply be executed. They must be encouraged to reform; treatment as well as penalties must be offered."

"Commissioner Lin wasted no time. As well as propagandising, rounding up dealers and confiscating all opium pipes, he boldly targeted the foreign importers. Ordered to surrender all existing stocks of opium with no offer of compensation, they refused. A contemptuous 1,000 chests were offered, whereupon Commissioner Lin demanded that Lancelot Dent, a leading offender and head of one of the agency houses, must stand trial. If he was not handed over, Lin threatened to execute two Chinese merchants in his stead. Down at Macao Captain Charles Elliot, the new British superintendent, took this as ‘the immediate and inevitable’ prelude to war. Just like Napier, he called for reinforcements, sailed hastily up to Guangzhou, and was there blockaded. Meanwhile Dent had not been surrendered and Lin had therefore embargoed all trade. The commissioner still hoped to avoid war; but to the British it was seeming more desirable by the day."

"He kept the emperor apprised of his triumphs; and more famously, employing a mix of reasoned argument, paternal exhortation, provocative bombast and bureaucratic rectitude, he wrote to Queen Victoria."

"There were two letters; one was never sent, the other never arrived; but their tone and content were similar. ‘The Way of Heaven holds good for you as for us,’ Lin told the queen; all peoples are aware of what is good for them and what not; the Celestial Empire shares with others only its good things, such as rhubarb, tea and silk; but ‘a poisonous article is manufactured by certain devilish persons subject to your rule’ who ‘tempt the people of China to buy it’; Your Majesty, though surely in ignorance of your subjects’ involvement, must be aware of the drug’s harmful effects."

"Our Heavenly Court’s resounding might…could at any moment control their [the opium traders’] fate; but in its compassion and generosity it gives due warning before it strikes."

"For Waley, whose knowledge of written Chinese was unrivalled, translated the Chinese character rendered by the Pinyin word yi as ‘foreigner’, not as the pejorative ‘barbarian’. The equation of yi with ‘barbarian’ seems to have originated with a Pomeranian missionary who was serving the British as a translator at the time; it is not evident in earlier works, such as Macartney’s or Ricci’s journals. A small mistake perhaps, it surfaced in the run-up to the Opium War and gained a wide and notorious currency. The Chinese insisted that yi had always signified merely those non-Chinese peoples who were ‘easterners’ (the British frequented the east coast) – just as man did those who were ‘southerners’, rong ‘northerners’ and di ‘westerners’."

"More even than opium, this tiny monosyllable poisoned diplomatic exchanges, and would require an article of its own – number 51 – in the 1858 Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Tianjin."

"A British equivalent would be substituting ‘wog’ for every mention of ‘foreign’ or ‘foreigners’ in the archives of the Public Record Office."

"‘Never has a lone word among the myriad languages of humanity made so much history as the Chinese character yi,’"

"the British, of all people, should not have been surprised by another nation’s presumption of moral superiority and international centrality."

"In Lin’s first letter to Queen Victoria, it was hinted that the opium issue might be resolved by an offer to replace the drug with British or Indian imports of a less pernicious nature. As for protocol, the problem had already been resolved in respect of the Russians; equal status had been conceded in the treaties of Nerchinsk and Kiakhta, and trading arrangements, including regular Russian commercial missions to Beijing, had since been established."

"To obtain the treaty, the khan’s representatives had accepted China’s idiosyncratic attitude to foreign relations and conformed to tributary tradition. For the British, this was impossible – as impossible as it was for Commissioner Lin to disavow 2,000 years of managing neighbours, most of them predatory nomads, on the understanding that dialogue signified submission and that trade counted as tribute."

"In Guangzhou, Commissioner Lin followed up his success in extracting opium from the foreigners by demanding that they sign bonds never again to carry the drug. On Elliot’s advice the British, as usual, refused. Lin then pressured the Portuguese into expelling them from Macao. Now baseless, Elliot and his countrymen sailed across the Pearl River estuary to a high and largely uninhabited island composed of uncultivable rock but with a sheltered anchorage. Its name they understood as ‘Hong Kong’."

"The fleet carried a letter from Palmerston to the Qing court that ‘demand[ed] from the Emperor satisfaction and redress for injuries inflicted by Chinese Authorities upon British subjects…and for insults offered by those same authorities to the British Crown’."

"Opium was mentioned in the letter; Palmerston conceded that Beijing had every right to ban it; but he contended that, since the ban was not rigorously enforced by Chinese officials, who were often complicit in breaking it, it was unfair to expect foreign suppliers to respect it – a logic from which smugglers the world over may have taken comfort."

"But ten days later the fleet reappeared, this time off Zhoushan in Zhejiang. The city was heavily bombarded, forced to surrender and occupied. The fleet then continued north, round the Shandong peninsula and towards the mouth of the Beihe, the river on which Beijing lies."

"Commissioner Lin, who had totally misrepresented the strength of the enemy and had now exposed the capital to attack, was disgraced and sacked pending disposal."

"The new Qing envoy and plenipotentiary, a provincial governor general called Qishan, talked the British into sailing back to Guangzhou on the understanding that he would there address their grievances in full. This he did to the extent that, with Guangzhou now at the mercy of Britain’s naval gunnery, an agreement was reached in January 1841: British superintendents at Guangzhou were to have access to Qing officials, Hong Kong was to be handed over, a $6 million indemnity paid, and trade to be reopened. In return the British were to leave Zhoushan."

"But though the terms were immediately effective, the agreement was swiftly repudiated. The emperor was so horrified by the severity of the concessions, especially the cession of Hong Kong, that he now sacked Qishan, while Palmerston was so appalled by their leniency (no reimbursement for the destroyed opium, no new ports, only ‘a barren island’) that he too suspended his plenipotentiary."

"In guns as in ships, the technological gap was not that great; Chinese yards and foundries would soon be turning out serviceable copies of anything the British could deploy. But the gulf between what pre-industrial China and post-industrial Europe made of the technology, and the confidence with which it was handled, was painful to contemplate. The only Qing seaborne counter-attack was a disaster; in a matter of days, seventy-one junks were destroyed and Guangzhou’s waterfront razed."

"After wintering and receiving more reinforcements, in 1842 the fleet proceeded up the Yangzi. Manchu Bannermen offered fierce resistance, the British bombardments were often indiscriminate, and there was much looting by both sides. But Shanghai was found undefended; Zhenjiang’s fall meant that the Grand Canal was severed; and Nanjing was saved only by a last-minute offer of negotiations."

"The Nanjing Treaty of 1842, while it left much for further discussion and recrimination, met the British demands and was ratified by both parties. The indemnity, now raised to $21 million and payable (plus interest) in instalments, would be a crippling burden on the empire’s shattered finances. Five ports, including Guangzhou and Shanghai (where a large ‘concession’ area was rapidly developed by, and exclusively for, the foreigners), were to be opened to both British trade and residency under the supervision of British consuls; Hong Kong stayed British; derogatory language as detected by Britain’s interpreters was outlawed; and opium was nowhere mentioned. In that the Chinese ban had been acknowledged by the British, the drug remained contraband; but in that the British had not forsworn the trade, the smuggling continued; indeed, it prospered greatly under the paternal gaze of the British navy."

"With the mistaken idea that only by winning the support of competing nations could China hold the British in check, the Qing government signed treaties with the Americans and the French (and later other nations). Both these treaties included provision for missionary activity in China – Protestant Evangelical in the case of the Americans, Roman Catholic in the case of the French."

"was the American provision for treaty ‘modification’ after twelve years which would be invoked by the British in 1854 to ratchet up their requirements, including access to the Chinese interior and an ambassador in Beijing. Another war would back up these demands, and the inevitable concessions would follow. The so-called ‘Treaty System’ was thus a collaborative and progressive exercise in the diminution of China’s sovereignty through the appropriation of large sectors of its economy, its foreign relations, its society (in ‘the Treaty ports’ and concession areas) and its territory (in Hong Kong and later Manchuria and Xinjiang). Nanjing was just stage one."

"Exposed by the outsiders, in less than a decade the empire faced rebellions within on a quite staggering scale."

"Nearly all of China was affected by the rebellions. ‘Red Turban’ armies fighting for a Ming restoration (Ming pretenders were never in short supply) terrorised Guangdong in the mid-1850s. Muslim separatists took over Yunnan from 1855; other Muslim revolts plagued Shaanxi and Gansu from 1862."

"But all these outbreaks were localised and little coordinated. They paled into insignificance beside the Taiping upheaval, ‘one of the great pivotal events of Chinese history’, or, as contemporary writers in both The Times and the North American Review had it, ‘the greatest revolution the world has yet seen’."

"Suffice it to say that, if the figures are even remotely accurate, more of the human race perished in the Taiping convulsion than in the First World War."

"But like countless other aspiring examinees, he found this weight of expectation insupportable when failure greeted his attempts to pass the district examinations. He tried four times, and on one of them, when entering the Guangzhou examination compound, he was handed a loosely bound collection of tracts containing translated extracts from the Bible, a production of the London Missionary Society’s Singapore branch. Hong took it and put it aside for later reference. Unlike the Jesuits in the seventeenth century – those polymath padres who had directed their talents and their proselytising towards the court and officialdom – the Protestant missions operated at a lower social level. Rather than pursuing a doctrinal accommodation with Confucian tradition and pinning their hopes on the top-down conversion of an empire, they looked to the saving of individual souls and the refutation of heresy. The Word of God, carefully translated, widely disseminated and selflessly advertised by their own example, was deemed sufficient unto the task;"

"Openly proclaiming his task, and proving an inspirational preacher, Hong converted Hakka friends and family in rural Guangdong and began destroying local shrines dedicated to Buddhist or Confucian worship."

"But the Taipings opposed the Qing as the last in a long line of heretical alien dynasties; the clock should go back to AD 221."

"What began as a migration turned into a crusade. The Taipings’ ‘Long March’ lasted over two years (1851–53) and took them from the obscurity of Guiping to centre stage in Nanjing. Sometimes compared to Moses’ Exodus or the Prophet’s hegira (hijra), in its military aspect the advance more obviously resembled the Arabs’ post-hegira jihad."

"March 1853 the ‘Heavenly King’ entered Nanjing in style, borne aloft in a golden palanquin and wearing the dragon robe of a Chinese emperor plus the tinsel crown of a Christian king."

"In the case of the British, this was more like holding the Qing to ransom; for they had just tabled a demand for the revision of the 1842 treaty confident that the Taiping menace would find the Qing court at its most amenable."

"Revision of the treaty meant rewriting it. Backed by the French and Americans, the British were now demanding more treaty ports, commercial access to the interior of China, a permanent ambassador in Beijing, the legalisation of the opium trade, the suppression of piracy and the lifting of internal transit dues. That was the first list; but as with the earlier treaty, cause was soon found to extend it. The interplay of negotiation and bombardment that ensued also closely resembled that which preceded the first treaty. Talks got under way but were suspended when in late 1856 a Chinese-owned but Hong Kong-based lorcha (small freighter) was suspected of piracy and seized by the Guangzhou authorities. The ship was called the Arrow and its legal status was highly debatable. But the incident was enough to ruffle British feathers and precipitate the ‘Arrow War’ (1856–60)."

"Despite the demands of other wars in the Crimea and then India (the Great Rebellion or Mutiny), sufficient shipping was found for an Anglo-French task force. It stormed Guangzhou, captured and deported its governor, took over the city and then sailed north. In April/May 1858 the Anglo-French force took the Dagu forts at the mouth of the Beihe and reached Tianjin. Beijing was again at the foreigners’ mercy; and again the Qing capitulated."

"The result was the punitive Treaty of Tianjin. With more insults to redress and more expenses to recoup, the British and French now imposed terms so heavy that one of their own negotiators considered them unreasonable. ‘We asked or rather dictated what…the Chinese could neither safely promise nor be fairly expected to perform.’26 Expanding and adding to the earlier list, the British and French demanded the opening of six new treaty ports, four in the hitherto closely guarded areas of Taiwan, Shandong and Manchuria. The Yangzi, and with it the richest provinces of the empire, was also to be opened to foreign trade as soon as the Taiping occupation permitted; and there were to be four treaty ports on the river, including Nanjing and Hankou. Travel in and around the treaty ports was to be unrestricted, and passports afforded to those who wished to go farther afield. Christian preachers were to be protected (it was attacks on Catholic missionaries which had provoked the French into participating in the task force); the new British ambassador in Beijing was to be accompanied by family and retainers and suitably accommodated; the noxious word yi was never again to be used of foreigners; and the import of opium, though its use was still banned, was legalised subject to a not unreasonable rate of duty."

"Skilfully interposing themselves as intermediaries while promising secret support to the Qing, and taking every advantage of Qing weakness, the Russian delegates secured a treaty ‘that opened the entire northern frontier of the Qing empire, from Manchuria to Xinjiang, to Russia’s political and commercial influence’; moreover the subsequent demarcation of the Manchurian frontier awarded them all the territory north of the Heilongjiang and east of the Wusuli border.27 There, in due course, would be constructed Vladivostok, Russia’s only year-round Pacific port."

"In Nanjing today, a Ming garden complex houses the little ‘Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Historical Museum’. Integration being the modern message, the exhibits and photographs tell less about the Taipings and more about those who suppressed them. Prominence goes to the dashing exploits of the Ever-Victorious and Unvanquished armies."

"who soon would be, were sent to Tokyo to sue for peace. In the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, the most humiliating in modern Chinese history, they had to accept an indemnity about five times that exacted by the Western allies in 1860, concede to Japan the whole of Taiwan, the Pescadores and Liaodong (the last later commuted for a further indemnity), open four new treaty ports, including Chongqing above the Yangzi gorges in Sichuan, and of course recognise Korea’s ‘full and complete’ independence – ‘which, under the circumstances, effectively made Korea a Japanese protectorate’.9 Li Hongzhang’s reputation never entirely recovered."

"By 1898, such was the competition between the foreign powers, and such internally the centrifugal drift of authority to the provinces, that there was a real danger of China sharing Africa’s fate and being scrambled over and partitioned."

"They also leased more of the Kowloon peninsula – Hong Kong’s so-called New Territories – to supply and secure that colony; and as of Lord Curzon’s 1899 appointment as Viceroy of India, they opened a new front by asserting commercial interests in Tibet and demanding a frontier demarcation there;"

"While Cixi was enjoying a summer retreat in one of her new palaces, the emperor held long consultations with Kang Youwei, a renowned scholar who had been behind the students’ 1895 memorial, and then dramatically issued a whole string of modernising edicts. Known as the ‘Hundred Days’ reforms’, they were comprehensive enough. A vast range of educational, military, administrative and economic innovations were announced, designed to overhaul the entire state apparatus and turn Confucian bureaucrats into Confucian technocrats. But constitutional reform was notably absent; representation was not mentioned, nor was any limitation of the imperial prerogatives. Whether such initiatives would have followed is uncertain, for three months later Cixi staged a comeback. A hundred days having been just long enough for a bureaucratic reaction to set in and military indifference to be evident, she drew up an edict in the emperor’s name that requested the dowager empress to resume her duties immediately. This she then dutifully did, having the emperor cast into palace detention and having six of his leading advisers executed. The reforms died with them, though Kang Youwei escaped to Japan from where Sun Yat-sen was now extending his web of intrigue to mainland China. As so often in the coming years, the great breakthrough had proved deceptive. Instead of advancing the cause of the reform, it had retarded it, provoking the removal of its leadership and cowing moderate opinion."

"In late 1899 what history calls the Boxer Rebellion broke out in Shandong. The trouble rapidly spread through Hebei, Shanxi and part of Henan, where many foreigners, mostly missionaries, were massacred. In the summer of 1900, it engulfed Tianjin and Beijing, and resulted in their expatriate communities (including women and children), along with several thousand mainly Christian Chinese, being besieged, often under heavy fire, in their legations and in the grounds of one of Beijing’s Catholic cathedrals. Highly coloured reports that the Beijing contingent had all been massacred provoked an international outcry; and though the reports proved to be incorrect, the besieged did suffer about seventy fatalities, some deprivation and much trauma. The Beijing siege lasted fifty-five days. It was lifted when a 20,000-strong multinational force retook Tianjin and fought its way up to the capital; both cities were then comprehensively pillaged by the foreigners. Among the besieged in the Beijing legations had been the American sinologist Dr W. A. P. Martin and Sir (as he now was) Robert Hart of the Imperial Customs."

"Cixi and her reactionary advisers bided their time. The Boxers posed no threat to the dynasty. Reform was not on their agenda; rather would they ‘Support the Qing, Destroy the Foreigner’. Their entry into Beijing therefore went unopposed and their assaults on foreigners unpunished. When, however, Beijing’s foreign diplomats refused an imperial request that, for their own safety, they evacuate the city and withdraw to the coast, Cixi began to view the Boxers as potential liberators from the alien presence. And when a precautionary allied capture of the Dagu forts protecting Tianjin provoked a Qing declaration of war, there could be no question that the Boxers had imperial backing."

"Thus it was that under the terms of the Boxer Protocol, in return for the largest of all indemnities (payable over forty years from increased maritime customs), for the execution of ten officials deemed guilty of crimes and for various measures to secure the foreign legations in the future, Cixi and the court were permitted to reoccupy the capital and resume the government."

"The Japanese model of modernisation also had much to recommend it. There the monarchy continued to be revered but had been reduced to constitutional status by the introduction of a parliamentary structure. Land tenure had been reformed, education redirected and heavy industries developed. ‘Rich Country, Strong Army’ being the slogan, a centralised government had forged national solidarity by giving the highest priority to the economy and the military. It had paid off in the Sino-Japanese war over Korea in 1894, and it was vindicated again when in 1904–5 a Russo-Japanese war broke out over concessions in both Korea and Manchuria. The Japanese navy destroyed the Russian fleet much as it had the Chinese ten years earlier; an Asian country thus notched up its first victory over a European empire; and Japan won recognition as one of the great powers."

"Tibet was now effectively independent. Though this independence was never recognised by any Chinese government, in 1913 President Yuan Shikai did acknowledge Tibetan autonomy in return for British recognition of the Chinese republic."

"suzerainty in return for China accepting Tibet’s autonomy. This satisfied neither party and would have been difficult to implement. But the formula was maintained until 1949, when independent India’s Jawaharlal Nehru indicated that he was not inclined to ‘a legalistic view’ of the matter. Mao Zedong took the hint and thereupon made the ‘liberation’ of Tibet a priority for the People’s Liberation Army. It was invaded within the year and secured as an integral, if autonomous, region of the People’s Republic. The XIVth Dalai Lama tolerated this situation until 1959. In that year the Tibetans rose against the Chinese presence, the army returned to suppress the revolt and His Holiness fled to India, this time indefinitely."

"Sun Yat-sen’s Revolutionary Alliance, now renamed the Guomindang (National People’s Party) and with its strongest support in the south, had won China’s first election in 1913. (About 40 million had the vote, although women were still not among them.) Yuan Shikai, his prior election as president doubtful after this Nationalist victory and his strongest support being in the north, then moved against the Guomindang and attacked provincial governors who supported it. Heavier fighting than usual followed, and the northern forces stormed and ransacked Nanjing. The parliament was dissolved, Sun fled back into exile and Yuan Shikai ruled as dictator, even attempting to set himself up as emperor, until his death in 1916."

"Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and by Chinese students who had taken up Marxism-Leninism while on work-study programmes in Paris, the CCP had been formed in Shanghai in 1921. Mao Zedong attended this first convention as Hunan’s representative, while Chen Duxiu, editor of the leftist journal New Youth and founder of several Marxist study groups, was chosen as secretary-general. Links with Lenin’s Comintern (Communist International) had already been established, and they were cemented when the Russian leadership indicated a willingness to restore to a legitimate Chinese government all Russian concessions in China. Here clearly was a highly desirable ally in the struggle to liberate the country from the foreign imperialists."

"The strikers, and the CCP, then became the victims of a flagrant and never-to-be forgotten betrayal. Chiang needed the recognition of the foreign powers, the forbearance of their navies and the loans and exactions available from Shanghai’s banks and corporations. He did not need ardent supporters bent on ousting the foreign imperialists and reclaiming their concessions while using organised labour to smash the power of the corporate bourgeoisie. In short, the CCP was now an embarrassment."

"Chiang Kai-shek launched an all-out assault on the labour unions. Hundreds of union leaders were gunned down, thousands arrested. Similar acts of repression followed in Wuhan and Guangzhou. The CCP’s hopes of a Marxist revolution based on the seizure of the means of production by the industrial proletariat had always been a long shot in an overwhelmingly agrarian economy. Now those hopes were dashed."

"Since priority was being given to eradicating the CCP, extending Nationalist control into the warlord-ruled countryside and milking Shanghai for funds, ‘there was little need for Chiang to worry about the trappings of democracy’.21 A strongly centralist and bureaucratic form of administration was adopted by China’s first Nationalist government, and an austere Confucianist ideology developed to underpin it."

"When in the 1930s Chiang conceived an admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, it acquired fascist undertones. The now Generalissimo became the centre of a personal cult and launched his own morality police, the ‘Blueshirts’."

"With a legitimate and reasonably stable government in place, ‘the first British surrender of crown territory since the American War of Independence’ took place in October 1930. The ceremonial procedure adopted for the occasion – handshakes, flag-lowering, salutes, bagpipes, sombre seaward departure, ecstatic landward celebrations – would be repeated in outposts of Britain’s empire at the rate of about one every two years over the next half-century."

"Since its betrayal by the Guomindang in 1928, the CCP had gone back to the countryside. In several scattered enclaves, the party slowly reformed, usually following an accommodation with local warlords, and then began establishing autonomous local soviets, still with Comintern guidance and support. Troops were recruited and trained; and the leadership was viciously contested. Chen Duxiu and Qu Qiubai had been made scapegoats for the failure of the united front with the Guomindang, despite their reservations about it in the first place."

"Other figures now contended for high party office. They included: Zhou Enlai, a dedicated ideologue who had studied in Paris, then headed the political department of the Guangdong military academy, and now coordinated party activities; Lin Biao, one of the Guangdong Academy’s cadets who had distinguished himself as a brilliant commander during the first phase of the Northern Expedition; and Mao Zedong, a tall, slightly effete-looking maverick with little military experience, an unreliable record, a ruthless reputation and an unshakeable conviction that he alone understood the requirements of the situation."

"The largest ‘Red’ enclave was located in the hills of Jiangxi near the provincial border with Hunan. When, in 1934, this Jiangxi soviet was faced with imminent extinction, the decision was taken to evacuate it. About 28,000, including the wounded and nearly all the women, were left behind to the none-too-tender mercies of the Nationalists; equal status did not include equal opportunity of survival. The rest, about 80,000, of whom perhaps half were combat troops, broke out of the blockade under cover of darkness, heading west, on 16 October 1934. This was the start of the ‘Ten-thousand Li [about 5,000 kilometres, 3,000 miles] March’, otherwise the Long March."

"‘The most enduring myth in modern Chinese history, and one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century’, the Long March has since been controversially exposed as just that, a myth."

"According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao was very nearly left behind; he repeatedly led the marchers astray; and like the rest of the leadership, he seldom actually marched, being carried most of the way in a sedan chair."

"Chiang’s son was at the time in Russia and supposedly being detained there as surety for his father’s collaboration. Were Chiang’s forces to annihilate the marchers, it would be as good as a death sentence for one on whom his father doted. Additionally Chiang could not afford to antagonise Moscow at a time when Tokyo posed the direr threat."

"The Comintern wanted the Jiangxi ‘Reds’ to relocate in the north-west, where they could supply and control them. Chiang’s task, therefore, was to shepherd them there. Instead of decimating the communists, he was to deliver them."

"The battles of the march were invention, its year-long duration was due to quite unnecessary diversions, and the hardships encountered were the result of Mao’s miscalculations and his power-thirsty manoeuvrings."

"Removing from southern Jiangxi to northern Shaanxi, while saving the CCP from possible extinction and proving a strategic masterstroke, lent the party national credibility and set an example of improbable, even heaven-blest, survival."

"In China, from the Han founder Liu Bang’s repeated withdrawals before the fiery Xiang Yu to the long northward march of the Taipings, precedents aplenty demonstrated the genius of tactical relocation. And while to the average Chinese the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism may have seemed excessively abstract and alien, the march gave them a human dimension and a national relevance."

"Worse by far, though, was the madness that had overtaken the Japanese when they entered Nanjing. That city, as fair as any with its graceful Ming palaces and massive walls beneath the wooded slopes of Mount Zijin, had known massacres before. Nothing, though, could compare with the butchery, rapes and other atrocities perpetrated over a seven-week reign of terror in the winter of 1937/38. As Japanese troops took their revenge on the capital, at least 50,000 Chinese – and possibly half a million – most of them civilians, were gratuitously slaughtered in one of the worst war crimes on record."

"The communists, joined by local partisans and some Koreans, were allowed to help themselves to the stockpiled Japanese weaponry and establish themselves in the far north. It was thus in Harbin, the first city run by the CCP, that Lin Biao reorganised his forces as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and in late 1946 began to push south."

"‘The greatest obstacle to peace has been the complete, almost overwhelming suspicion with which the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang regard each other,’ began General George Marshall’s report on the failure of his mediating mission. ‘They each sought only to take counsel of their fears.’"

"The communists no longer disguised their revolutionary intent. Lands were confiscated and redistributed, landowners held to account, informants encouraged, and mass indoctrination campaigns organised. The Nationalists, on the other hand, betrayed their old preference for corporate croneyism, indifference to popular sentiment and economic incompetence. A collapse in morale as a result of rampant inflation (500 per cent a month in 1948), famines, rural unrest and student protests undermined the Nationalist regime more fatally than the communist victories."

"By 1948 the PLA had inflicted a series of disastrous defeats on the Nationalists in Manchuria, leading to mass desertions. All over northern China the CCP’s peasant guerrillas were simultaneously making the countryside a no-go area."

"He certainly considered standing firm south of the Yangzi, while he investigated the alternative possibility of again withdrawing to Sichuan and Yunnan. But in the end he opted for the greater safety of Taiwan, which had been restored to the republic after the defeat of Japan. Art treasures and texts from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the nearest thing to regalia that he could lay his hands on, were removed there in 1948; and in early 1949, as the PLA overran the south in a series of lightning advances, Chiang himself fled across the Taiwan Strait with about a million of his troops. Other Nationalists were driven into Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many emigrated overseas."

"As president of his rump ‘Republic of China’, Chiang ruled on in Taiwan until his death in 1975. In good dynastic tradition he was then succeeded by his son until Taiwan adopted a parliamentary form of government in the late 1980s."

"In 1976 it acquired a positively insidious dimension when on 4–5 April a display of Qingming floral wreaths and poster poems brought crowds of mourners to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. They were protesting against official indifference to the recent death of Premier Zhou Enlai, which they saw as disparagement of a revered and long-serving revolutionary by the hard left leadership of the Cultural Revolution. Cars were overturned and a police post torched. But the main casualty was Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping; accused of orchestrating the affair, he was dismissed from all his Party offices. Sometimes known as the Tiananmen incident, this 1976 protest is now more commonly called the Qingming Incident, so avoiding confusion with the more prolonged Tiananmen confrontation of 1989."

"Reviled as late as the 1970s, in the 1990s Confucius had been rehabilitated. Confucian injunctions were now eclipsing the slogans of both Marxism-Leninism and ‘Mao Zedong thought’ in official discourse."

"Pride in those 3000–6000 years of continuous civilisation, rather than the recent achievements of the proletariat, had been chosen as the theme of the Beijing Olympics."

"China has transformed itself – and is still doing so – more dramatically than any other region in the world. In fact the rate of change is so fast that it wrong-foots all but the most agile China-watchers."

"Because so many Maoist achievements were quickly discredited, there then arose a tendency to gloss over all those initiatives that had loomed largest at the time – Soviet collaboration, agricultural collectivisation, industrialisation, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution – in favour of a narrative buoyed by the incidence of liberalising interludes."

"It supposes a progressive ‘opening up’ that was not self-evident at the time, and it foreshadows an ultimate liberalisation – including multiparty politics, electoral accountability, freedom of expression, and legal redress – that is far from assured."

"When on 1 October 1949 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was officially announced by Mao in Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army had much liberating still to do. Guangdong had yet to be reached (it fell two weeks later); Tibet and Xinjiang, comprising nearly half of the erstwhile empire’s landmass, aspired to qualified independence; the British were back in Hong Kong; and from Taiwan, alienated by the relocation there of Chiang Kai-shek’s still internationally recognised Republic of China, a reinvasion of the mainland remained a distinct possibility."

"Regardless of such fine distinctions, China and the USA were effectively at war in Korea from 1950 until 1953."

"In December 1949, on his first ever trip outside China, Mao took the train to Moscow. There Stalin, basking in the cult of his own personality while tyrannising both people and Party, encouraged Mao’s autocratic tendencies without overindulging his revolution."

"In return for international solidarity, secret recognition of Moscow’s strategic interests in Xinjiang and Manchuria, and various raw materials, Mao secured a promise of support in the event of war, a $300 million loan (half to be used for military purchases), and the know-how and personnel to set up fifty state-owned heavy industrial complexes."

"This Soviet support did nothing to advance Beijing’s claims to Taiwan or Hong Kong; but it did facilitate the reintegration of regions once contested by Russia,"

"Thanks to Soviet links with India, it also silenced some of the international disquiet over the reclamation of Tibet."

"Trained Party activists descended on village after village, identified and classified all households, incited the denunciation of those designated ‘rich landlords’, and, having dispossessed and disposed of these ‘enemies of the people’, redistributed their property among the landless. A million or more landowners and counter-revolutionaries may have been executed in this first phase of retributive justice; Mao himself would put the death toll at 700,000. But several hundred million peasants found themselves beneficiaries of the redistribution as, for the first time, they tilled their own fields and reaped the fruits of their labour."

"In 1955, rid of the Korean War and still on good terms with the Soviets, Mao addressed this problem personally by calling for an immediate acceleration in the pace of agrarian revolution. Cooperatives were now to be amalgamated into larger collectives. Land and implements would be collectively owned, the peasant’s only input being labour and only reward a share of the collective’s produce based on a complicated calculation of the ‘work points’ earned by each individual."

"With Party encouragement, by 1957 some districts were taking the process a stage farther. Just as cooperatives had been merged into the larger collectives, so now collectives were being merged into the still larger communes. Mao endorsed the move with an exhortation for all production to be ‘larger, faster, better, cheaper’. Any privately owned plots that had survived collectivisation were now incorporated in the communised land area. With a work force of 20,000–100,000, a commune required an administrative infrastructure that, besides doling out work points and drumming in slogans, offered services likely to keep the existing workforce in good shape and augment it by freeing up women otherwise detained at home. Organised"

"The 1950s would later be remembered as Maoist China’s ‘golden age’ – a comparative verdict, obviously – with the early phase of communisation being especially cherished as the ‘eat it up’ period."

"Mao had conjured up visions of a socialist paradise with peace and plenty for all; sure enough, for a few months in early 1957, this ‘great harmony’ (da tong – he used the Confucian term) seemed imminent."

"Even the barriers to freedom of expression were being lowered as dissidents and scholars were encouraged to speak their minds. This was another of Mao’s ideas. In policy-making as in dialectics, he was fascinated by contradiction, by how friction sparked innovation, conflict generated endeavour, revolution validated authority. Order arose from chaos; but without more chaos, it would atrophy."

"Both meadow and field were hastily ploughed under. Springtime’s ‘great harmony’ lasted only weeks. ‘The hundred flowers’ bloomed in unacceptable shades of opinion and ‘the hundred schools’ contended much too contentiously; they even debated the defiance that had just been silenced in Hungary by Soviet tanks. By summer 1957 all those who had been rash enough to speak out were rounded up. Mao pretended that exposing and then purging these ‘rightist’ elements had been the plan all along. Whether true or not, it now seemed that nothing could be taken at its face value when viewed through the looking-glass of Maoism. A new unease permeated the Party and extended down through the ranks of the administration; to deluded ambitions born of extravagant idealism were added servile compliance and duplicity born of the terror of disapproval."

"Mobilising the masses to torment sparrows, mice and other grain-eating vermin had supposedly boosted the harvest; just so, mobilising the masses to turn pig iron into steel would boost industry."

"Fantastic production targets were set, and, if the quality was ignored and the returns believed, were nearly met. Thanks to a traditional technology – the blast furnace had probably been pioneered in Henan in the third century BC – China would become a world-class economy in one ‘great leap forward’."

"Instead of grinding through the geared stages of growth laid down in the Marxist-Leninist manual – heavy industry first, then mechanisation, collectivisation, and eventually state ownership of all the means of production – Mao revved the engine and let fly the clutch."

"But already there were rumours of famine; the reports were suppressed, the observers silenced. Instead of an investigation, the communes were favoured with a new wave of young urban ideologues intent on teaching the peasants how to grow corn, albeit ‘larger, faster, better, cheaper’. Their innovations and naivety contributed to the impending disaster. Procurement quotas for 1959 had been set at hopelessly unrealistic levels; even without the drought of that year, the cold and rains of the next, and the inevitable Yellow River flood, the state’s requisitions could be met only at the expense of the communal kitchens. There meals became fewer, weeds replaced vegetables, and muddy water was passed off as soup. The severity of the famine varied – from serious in the cities to acute in some provinces, absolute in others. Talk of cannibalism and of graziers eating their own grass was dismissed as mischievous; the bountiful reports still emanating from the local cadres belied it."

"So wheat continued to be exported while those who grew it grazed on grass."

"And so, in an age when roads and railways should have made relief a formality, nothing was done. Alleviating conditions meant admitting the disaster; but since the leadership and its policies were beyond criticism, those responsible must be incompetent or reactionary elements within the communes. In effect, whistle-blowers merely denounced themselves. Prudence dictated signing off on the fictitious production figures and keeping quiet."

"How many victims were claimed by the famine of 1958–61 will never be known. It was certainly the twentieth century’s worst. From the pattern of population growth for the period, statisticians have extrapolated a catch-all figure of 20–30 million. Half may have actually starved to death; the rest were circumstantial victims. Minor diseases proved fatal to the enfeebled; the old died younger and the young failed to replace them. Aborted, stillborn and short-lived babies were probably exceeded by the millions who were simply never conceived, abstinence and infertility being concomitants of malnutrition. Communes turned into death camps."

"The Great Leap Forward occasioned a catastrophic lurch backward."

"Thus, failing to adapt, or ‘not changing with the times’, was a flaw common to many dynastic founders. Mao was exceptional in just two respects: he lasted longer than most, so multiplying his potential for mischief, and he discovered a rationale for prolonging the mischief that masked his mere love of power. This lay in his belief that constant turmoil and class struggle were essential to the integrity of the revolution, which would otherwise be undermined by inertia, corruption and ideological backsliding. It did not occur to him that the revolution might also be undermined by histrionic efforts to perpetuate it."

"When the enormity of the Great Leap tragedy could no longer be concealed, Mao invoked a less hands-on imperial tradition, that of the wuwei (aloof or ‘inactive’) ruler. He withdrew from public view, surrendered the chairmanship of the PRC (though not of the Party), and secluded himself in various favoured retreats. ‘The great helmsman’ was thus below decks when the ship hit the rocks, although he surfaced for Party gatherings and would later accept that mistakes had been made during the Great Leap."

"Liu Shaoqi, a fine-looking and capable bureaucrat whom Mao had installed as head of state and his preferred successor (dynastic preference trumped egalitarian principle in such matters), conducted a Socialist Education Campaign that found corruption and impropriety to be endemic in the Party, the provincial administrations and the state industries. The resultant arrests ran into the hundreds of thousands."