Factors behind China’s Historical Dominance

From the Lecture Series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

From the onset of the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman empire to the first blossoming European enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries, the West slumbered while China flourished. What factors led to the rise of this nation? How could it sustain growth from 600 to 1700 C.E?

An illustration of Chinese trade activities.
China boasted of a well-established economy and a proper public governing system from 600 to 1700 C.E. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

The Chinese imperial rule thrived from 600 to 1700 C.E. Many factors led to its rise while the Western societies lay dormant. China, at that time, boasted of effective irrigation techniques, a taxable farm surplus, a vast network of trade routes, and even a specialized class of urban artisans. But were they enough to sustain such a prolonged growth period?

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

World’s First Civil Service System

A well-functioning empire required a substantial number of competent, honest and loyal court officials, magistrates, and tax collectors. And this is where China’s uniqueness first came into play. 

Beginning in the 7th century C.E., Tang dynasty officials introduced the world’s first civil service system. Designed to recruit the best and brightest young men through a system of standardized, merit-based examinations, China’s imperial civil service was, for its time, remarkably progressive, egalitarian, and democratic.

A painting depicting the selection of Chinese civil servants during the rule of Ming dynasty.
China introduced the world’s first system of civil examination to choose a set of court officials, magistrates, and tax collectors. (Image: Ming Dynasty Painting/Public domain)

Twice-yearly examinations were open to all males, regardless of birth or wealth. There were also regulations to check the tendency toward nepotism and corruption that were engendered when local economic elites cultivated long-term personal relationships with local magistrates.

Although the civil service system was nominally open and democratic, there were a few hidden catches. For one thing, only males could sit for the examinations. For another, one had to be thoroughly literate to pass the exam.

And that was no trivial matter since Chinese was an ancient, idiographic language that lacked a written phonetic alphabet. Indeed, a would-be exam taker would have to spend long years memorizing thousands of individual characters and tens of thousands of their combinations.

The Eight-legged Essay

As for the exam itself, it was a highly stylized exercise in the rote memorization and manipulation of certain classical philosophical texts and had to be composed in a famously rigid and constrained style of writing known as the “eight-legged essay.”

The eight-legged essay was constructed in the following manner: First came a two-sentence opening statement, precisely two sentences, followed by a five-sentence elaboration, precisely so, followed by a preliminary exposition and an initial argument (which had to be constructed in a discrete number of precisely paired sentences using precise parallel language).

Then came the central argument, followed by the latter argument, the final argument, and the conclusion. And this all had to be done within a prescribed number of words.

China’s Civil Service: The Domain of the Elite

The aspiring imperial civil servant in China had to master both the Confucian classics and the rigid format of the eight-legged essay. Therefore, he had to seek help from private tutors for many years—something that only well-to-do families could normally afford.

Peasant boys, by contrast, had to work in the fields; there was simply no leisure time for taking private tutorials. Thus, it is not surprising that most successful examination candidates came from the affluent landlord-gentry class.

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Confucianism in Exams

Image of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.
Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher. He was considered the most popular of Chinese sages. (Image: Wu Daozi/Public domain)

The subject matter of the civil service examinations consisted largely of ancient philosophical texts, written in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. by  the scholar-sage Confucius and a small group of his loyal disciples.

Rooted in traditional ethical principles such as benevolence, propriety, natural harmony, reverence for one’s ancestors, and faithful observance of ceremonial rites and rituals, Confucianism prescribed a highly disciplined training regimen for would-be imperial officials.

In the Confucian scheme of things, good governance was rooted in the proper conduct of imperial officials, including the emperor himself. The moral code of Confucianism required conscientious observance of certain well-defined hierarchies of reciprocal, status-based rights, and responsibilities.

Traits of a Confucian society

Given this well-defined system of reciprocal obligations and responsibilities, a smooth-running Confucian society ultimately depended upon each member of an extended family, and of the broader community that encompassed many such extended families, knowing their proper place in relation to all other community members.

There was no concept of universal social equality, and no notion that individual freedom could take precedence over the obligation to enhance the collective welfare of the family.

For such a family-centred, morally integrated community to function smoothly, its members had to share a common awareness of their mutual obligations and responsibilities. This was fine within small, tight-knit village communities, where people were generally connected to one another by kinship or by habitual neighborly interaction.

But what of the non-Confucian others who inhabited imperial China’s outer regions and border spaces? These outer tribes and nationalities included Mongolians, Tibetans, Muslims, Manchus, and more than 50 other ethnic grouping that did not share the moral traditions and principles of Confucianism.

For these people the emperor’s moral authority, and the ethical canons of Confucianism, were insufficient guarantees of interpersonal harmony and social order. Something more was needed. That something was bureaucratic coercion.

The Yin and Yang of the Chinese Rule

To ensure that people from different parts of the sprawling Chinese empire would act in conformity with Chinese norms and practices, punishment for aberrant behavior had to be swift and sure. Criminal conduct had to be well-defined and effectively deterred.

It was the genius of China’s early emperors and court officials that they recognized the need for both a morally integrated community of values governing ordinary interactions, and a well-defined set of criminal laws and administrative sanctions to deter and punish aberrant behavior.

Indeed the unique longevity and durability of China’s dynastic system owes much to the long-term co-existence of these two very different, but ultimately complementary governing traditions, known in Chinese as Lizhi and Fazhi, respectively Confucian moralism and coercive legalism, which have sometimes been referred to as the Yin and the Yang of effective imperial rule.

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China’s Policies Toward Its Neighbors

China’s dynastic longevity and prosperity also benefited from the fact that for most of its 2000-year imperial history, China was bounded by a collection of smaller, weaker states along its southern, western and northern peripheries.

Toward these lesser states, China’s imperial court generally observed a policy of hegemonic tolerance, granting their local rulers substantial autonomy in exchange for ritualized military deference and political obeisance. This Pax Sinica was cemented by the regular gift of valuable national treasures—or tribute—from barbarian kings to the Chinese “Son of Heaven.”

Early in the Common Era, a number of overland trade routes were opened linking Western China with the people and cultures of Central Asia and beyond. Collectively known as the Silk Road, these trade routes reached their zenith during the Tang and Song dynasties, from the 7th to the 12th centuries C.E.

The Silk Road

It was via the Silk Road that Buddhism (from India) and Islam (from Karakorum) first found their way to China. And it was also via the Silk Road that the Venetian explorer Marco Polo first sampled the exotic silks, spices, and porcelains of imperial China.

With the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the last half of the 14th century, however, control over the Silk Road trade routes became fragmented among contending regional states. As disorder grew at the periphery of China’s empire, commerce diminished, and the importance of the Silk Road as a major trade network sharply declined.

These and more factors marked the beginning of the disintegration of the mighty power that was once China.

Common Questions about the Historical Dominance of China’s Imperial Rule

Q: Who introduced the world’s first civil service system?

Beginning in the 7th century, the officials of Tang dynasty in China introduced the world’s first civil service system.

Q: What was the “eight-legged essay”?

The “eight-legged essay” was a rigid and constrained style of writing the civil service exams in China.

Q: What were China’s policies toward its neighbors?

China generally observed a policy of hegemonic tolerance toward its neighbors, granting the local rulers substantial autonomy in exchange for ritualized military deference and political obeisance.

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