China: 3000 Years of History, 50 Years of Revolution. Robert Louzon 1998

Chapter VII: From the Coming of the Manchus to the Opium War (1644-1840)

For the first time in this book, the history of a dynasty will not be confined to a single chapter. This is because during the Manchu domination an event was to happen, the like of which we have not previously come across in our account, and which was to change the whole course of Chinese history; an encounter with a new civilisation.

Chinese civilisation, a civilisation of irrigation which had progressively acquired a commercial adjunct, suddenly found itself in contact with quite another civilisation, born under other skies and of a radically different character: industrial civilisation. It is thus at the time of this supreme event that we have to close our present chapter.

The policy of the Manchu emperors during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was marked by two efforts that were to a large extent crowned with success. Each of these was concerned with one of the two great problems that make up the history of China; the imperial problem, and the agrarian problem.

The Two Manchu Successes

The Chinese empire was reconstituted by reducing the nomad populations of the borderlands to a state of vassalage.

Ever since the seventeenth century, the whole of Mongolia, both Inner and Outer, has recognised the emperor of China as its suzerain; at the same time Tibet was converted into a protectorate. In the eighteenth century, Dzungaria and the Tarim basin were added to the empire. [1] However, in contrast with what happened under the Han and Tang, the Pamirs were never crossed, for Islam was in the way.

On the other hand, the Russians, who for the first time make their appearance in the history of China, for they were now in the process of conquering Siberia, were held in check. They could not penetrate the basin of the Amur, and they had to agree not to cross the Argoun, one of the two rivers that form the Amur after they flow into it.

But all this was clearly the work of Manchus, and not of Chinese. Not only did the Manchus make up the backbone of the army, but it was as Khan of the Manchus that the Mongol tribes recognised the emperor of China as their suzerain. The situation was thus very much like that which prevailed under Kublai Khan, not as emperor of China, but as master of Mongolia, as grandson of Genghis Khan. It is therefore no longer possible to speak of the Chinese empire in this era, but rather of a Manchu empire holding China in its bosom, just as formerly a Mongol empire likewise held China in its bosom.

The other success of the Manchus was in the domain of internal policy. In contrast to nearly all their predecessors, the Qing emperors succeeded in maintaining a regime of small-scale property ownership.

Hardly more than 20 years after the Manchu entry into Beijing, Kang Xi, the dynasty’s second emperor, [2] ordered the restitution to the Chinese of all lands appropriated by the Manchus. As regards the great Chinese estates that had been formed under the Ming, a certain number of them were shared out amongst the peasants, whilst tenant farmers on the others were given the unrestricted right to renew their leases, and were thus placed in the position of being virtual owners, something like what went on in Catalonia with the rabassaires.

The prevalence of this system of small property ownership in China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was due primarily to two causes. It was due in the first place to a very moderate fiscal policy, taxes under the Manchus being the lowest that China had ever known; and in the second place, it was due to the fact that for the first time in their history the Chinese were exempt from military service, this being reserved for the Manchus only. The tiller of the soil was accordingly able to meet his taxation liabilities without getting into debt, and he was not deprived of the labour of his sons at a time when they were at their most productive. Between them, these two reasons enabled him to survive.

Coupled with this improvement in the peasant’s position, there was a noticeable reduction in the desire of people to buy land. This reduction was due to a new phenomenon: emigration.


As a result of putting into force measures with the object of making the cultivator the owner of his land, the surplus value, which formerly went to maintain the landlord in luxury, from now on remained in the hands of the cultivator himself. Now the latter was in no way disposed to spend it on luxurious living, but quite simply to bring up a more numerous family. From this it followed that emigration soon became an urgent necessity.

This emigration could no longer be made by cultivating new territories, because all the irrigable land, not only in China, but in the neighbouring countries as well, had by then already been cultivated. Continuing therefore the evolution that for centuries had impelled them towards the sea, the Chinese at last crossed it and in great numbers expatriated themselves to places abroad. They installed themselves along the entire periphery of the western Pacific – on the coasts of Indo-China and the archipelagos of Indonesia, and they did so, not to cultivate the soil, but to engage in trade and commerce. It was the beginning of a great venture that was to make the Chinese the great trader of the entire Far East, the one who was to be everywhere the indispensable intermediary.

Now we have seen that the main factor in the concentration of landed property consisted in the necessity for people who had grown rich in the cities through commerce, industry and supplying the state, etc., to ‘invest’ their capital. Whenever it became too abundant to be usefully employed in the businesses where it had arisen, it was immobilised by the purchase of land. But now, thanks to the foothold the Chinese had secured in countries overseas, they could employ it in almost unlimited quantities in international commerce. They no longer needed to buy land, and this was doubtless the reason why the measures taken by the Manchu state to preserve small-scale ownership of estates turned out to be effective.

A great emigration movement is not at its outset a factor making for vitality in the country where it occurs; it is rather a factor that makes for enfeeblement, because it deprives a country of its most intelligent, most resolute, and most enterprising men. Thus it happened in the Greece of the third century BC, when vast numbers of its inhabitants emigrated to the eastern lands opened up to them by the conquests of Alexander – a national bloodletting from which the country never recovered. [3]

But it also happens that, by a kind of return stroke, at the end of a certain time this emigration provides the motherland with the means of rebirth. Here again, we find an example in Greece, for it was the Greek colonies established along the coasts of the Black and Ionian Seas in the eighth and seventh centuries BC that made possible the Athens of the fifth century BC. [4]

So it would seem to have been for the Chinese emigration. At the moment it occurred, it was not at all a factor for the strengthening of China, for the China of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not reveal any features of greatness: there was no rebirth, and nothing came to fruition there. In the twentieth century, on the other hand, there was to be a China ‘abroad’, those Chinese colonies in the Pacific that had grown numerous, active and prosperous that were to form the mainstay for the ‘modernisation’ of continental China. It was they who were to finance and assure the success of the Guomindang.

Emigration, however, did not deter the cultivator from trying to keep as many as possible of his children at home, and for that reason to gain as much as possible from the soil. The productivity of Chinese land reached its maximum at this time; less and less of its surface was required for a man to live. In spite of the emigration, the population considerably increased. According to Chinese historians, it more than trebled in two centuries.

Social Struggles

Thus it happened that, in spite of the lack of concentration of landed property, in spite of emigration, and in spite of the more and more intensive cultivation of the soil, the shortage of available land made itself no less felt under the Manchus than it had done under their predecessors. Soon there were as many, or perhaps even more, peasants without land than there had been in periods of land concentration, for small property does not avoid poverty. Because of the security it provides, because of the comparative ease and well-being it ensures to begin with, it leads to such an increase in population that in spite of emigration and the intensity of cultivation those who remain must content themselves with a portion too small to enable them to live a decent life.

So the Manchu period also produced great popular movements. Secret societies were now continually on the increase, reforming themselves as soon as they were dissolved, and insurrection became endemic.

We have seen that it was now the south that was the part of China most aglow with life, and it was in the south, throughout the entire region of the Chinese hills, from the Blue River to the Canton River that nearly all the centres of insurrection were to be found during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, the old centre of revolution in the mountainous region of Shandong had not lost its glorious tradition. It was in this northern province that on two occasions, in 1774 and 1777, took place the insurrection of the White Lotus, the most important to precede the great insurrections of the following century. [5] So far as we can judge, all these movements had both a political and a social character. On the one hand, they had the aim of overthrowing the alien Manchu Dynasty, and, on the other, of overcoming destitution by the redistribution of land. These movements were to reach their climax after the date with which we end this chapter, to begin with in the revolution of the Taiping, which succeeded in ruling the lands of the Blue River from 1853 to 1864, and afterwards with the revolution of 1912, the work of the Guomindang, the National People’s Party, the last but one embodiment, after so many transformations, of the Red Eyebrows of the Han era, the final one being the ‘Red Army’ of Mao Zedong.

Unity and Diversity of China

Before closing this summary of the history of old China, it may be pertinent to ask what is its most salient feature.

China is geographically one, whilst being geographically diverse. It is one because, from the north to the south, it is a land of great rivers, a land of irrigation and floods; yet, just as the floods of the Yellow River are brutal and devastating, so the Blue River is one of comparative calm, whose waters are easy to control and navigate.

The climate passes from one extreme to the other. Old China, the China of Han and Wei, is a cold country; the China of Canton is tropical; but China as a whole is subject to the variations of the monsoon, a meteorological phenomenon of great importance.

Against the vast plain of the north are set the plateaux of the north-west and the hills of the south-east, but these plateaux and hills are just as bare and treeless as the plain.

The human geography, as much as the physical, shows this unity in diversity. All Chinese belong to what is called the Mongoloid race, but whilst the Chinese of the north are tall and brachycephalic, [6] those of the south are smaller, and brachycephalism is rare there.

All Chinese have cereal as their basic food, but whilst in the north this cereal is corn, in the south it is rice.

As for the language, the contrast between its unity and its diversity is revealed in a form that is specific to it; it results from the separation of the spoken language from the written language. Thus, as we have seen, the spoken language represents its diversity, a diversity so extreme that two Chinese living no more than a few score kilometres apart sometimes cannot understand each other’s speech; by contrast, the written language represents its unity, for it is a rigorously unified language fixed once and for all over a territory as extensive as almost half of Europe and peopled by more than 300 million, and perhaps by 500 million inhabitants. Thus, thanks to the unity and permanence of the written language there exists a single framework for thought, whilst thanks to the multiplicity and easy changes of the spoken language, the different groupings that make up the Chinese nation are able to express themselves in a way that best suits the peculiarities of their vocal chords or those of their sensibility and of their time.

The same remarks apply to history. Looked upon as a whole, the course of Chinese evolution down to the nineteenth century was comparatively simple. From its origins down to the ninth century, that is, to the end of the Tang, it was on the ascendant, bringing technical and economic progress, establishing communities at home and expanding abroad; from the tenth to the nineteenth century, on the other hand, it was in decline, or, more exactly, it represented an immense dead level, during which nothing new originated and nothing developed. Each of these two phases, moreover, was punctuated by barbarian invasions that resulted in China being dominated for more or less prolonged periods by aliens, who in turn added fresh vigour to the course of the country’s evolutionary progress.

In the course of this evolution, we are confronted with the spectacle of a country where the technical and economic framework, like the political and social framework, has remained almost unchanged for thousands of years.

The fixed framework of the economy was imposed by the fixed framework of nature. In the course of 4000 or 5000 years, no important invention came to revolutionise China’s principal means of production – the cultivation of cereals by irrigation. And if to this fundamental branch of Chinese industry some other special industries were early on added, these were also closely bound up with the soil. Porcelain, for example, depends on the remarkable purity of the kaolins of Jiangxi; lacquer can only be obtained from the gum of the indigenous vegetable rhus vernificera; China paper is made from bamboo, from silkworm cocoons, or from the bark of the mulberry tree – all more or less specifically Chinese products; finally, silk is dependent on the perfect adaptation of the mulberry tree to climatic conditions, as a result of which it provides at least two harvests of leaves per year, and in certain places, as at Canton, five or six harvests annually.

Over this set framework of work and production was moulded a likewise invariable political framework, which might be called an administrative democracy. The mandarinate dates from the Han Dynasty, and was merely the development and systematisation of the government of the ‘literati’ which had long preceded it. It essentially consisted of placing the administration of the state in the hands of men whose title thereto was due neither to birth, wealth, popular choice nor the sovereign’s favour, but to their own ‘merit’ – that is, their intellectual merit as it was recognised according to certain canons, and following certain rules.

Then finally, there was the social framework based upon the family, where brothers, sisters and children were closely linked together around their eldest member. This social framework had its permanence assured by a religious bond – ancestor-worship.

The ancestor cult impels the Chinese to beget a very numerous progeny, so that he might be assured that this cult will always be fittingly practised in regard to himself after his death. This cult, the only true religion of China, as has been said, found its origin and justification in the vastness of the territories that lay open to clearance and cultivation by the primitive people who were confined to the valleys of the Fen and the Wei. It was the rapid breeding of children based on the family cult that ensured the development first of all of the Great Plain, then of the Blue River lands of the south, and finally, but lately, of the great territory of Manchuria.

On the other hand, within these frameworks so remarkable for their rigidity and permanence, how amazing and continual were the changes!

Politically, China was by turns an empire, a single national state, two states, one northern and one southern, and a multitude of states. It was sometimes to be a state or a number of states that were purely Chinese, and sometimes a state or a number of states ruled by the barbarians.

Socially, China was to experience all the property forms; feudal, capitalist and peasant. A complete system of individual property was to be found there, as well as that of simple right of use, with all the forms of ownership in between.

At times, China practised the fullest free trade, whilst at other times it was to experience the most rigid control over its economy.

China had periods of monetary stability when it even sought to protect precious metals from variations in their value, [7] and it practised inflation to the very limit, so that the value of its money reached zero.

Finally, this China, so solidly built on the main beams of the family and the emperor regarded as the father of the people, was the classic country also of secret societies – societies half-mystical, half-political, where the individual found satisfaction for his personal aspirations, and the classic country of immense popular insurrections that swept aside everything in their path.

For the fixed framework of nature and the permanence of the mode of production which imposed a certain political, social and moral permanence did not in any way prevent the evolution of these societies by the very fact of the permanent conditions under which they lived, an evolution that led them to react differently according to the period. [8]

We must, on the other hand, take account of an inevitable psychological reaction. The rigidity of the framework in which men live and work by reaction induces in them a powerful desire for change, an irrepressible urge to get away from what is too well known and too constant. It is because China is the country where the conditions of life have been most immutably fixed by nature that it is also the country where the greatest number of experiments have been tried – one might even say all experiments, because, if not in the political domain, at least in the social order, neither the history nor the proposals of any innovators offer anything that has not already been attempted in China. The more China found itself prevented from escaping the grasp of the Yellow River and the irrigation channels, the more it looked for ways of changing them.

Such is the contrast that the history of China presents to us, and which seems to us to be its most striking feature.


1. In 1758, an army sent by the Emperor Qian Long to pacify the area south of the Tianshan Mountains set up administrative offices in Kashgar.

2. Aisin-Gioro Xuan Ye (Emperor Kang Xi, 1661-1722) was the second ruler of the Qing Dynasty.

3. Alexander the Great (336-323BC) conquered the Persian Empire, and penetrated as far as India. To hold down his empire, he founded several cities to which mainland Greeks were encouraged to emigrate in order to set up city state institutions on the classical pattern. Thereafter the city states of old Greece declined in power, until they were incorporated into the Roman Empire.

4. The first Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast were Sinope, Trapezus and Amisus, founded from Miletus. The prosperity of Athens during the fifth century BC depended upon grain imports from the Ukraine, and when this lifeline was cut by the Spartan navarch Lysander in 404BC, Athens was obliged to surrender.

5. The White Lotus sect began the revolt of 1774 in western Shandong under the leadership of Wang Lunin. There were further outbreaks along the Han River in 1795, and in Henan, Shaanxi and Sichuan in 1796.

6. That is, round-headed.

7. According to Ular (L'empire russo-chinois), the tael was not, as is generally thought, a monetary unit, but a simple unit of weight. The real monetary unit was the unit of work itself, which corresponded to a number of taels of silver, which varied according to the work required to produce the silver at the time in question. If you had borrowed a certain number of taels, you could not pay off your debt with the same number of taels if the value of silver in labour units had varied in the meantime. [Author’s note] English edition, A Russo-Chinese Empire, London, 1904, pp56-7. [Editor’s note]

8. Let us suppose that a certain structure of life would produce a certain effect within society. If the structure does not change, but the moment after a new effect is added to the preceding one, and so on until quantity is transformed into quality, this effect would then acquire sufficient strength to lead to a qualitative change in society, its evolution, in other words. [Author’s note]