Chapter 12a: Asia from 1500 to 1800
I - The Gunpowder Empires
Part one of this chapter deals three separate but inter-connected Islamic empires: the Ottoman Empire,
which rose on the bedrock of the Old Byzantine Empire; the Safavid Empire in Persia, which had its origins
in Sufi mysticism; and the Mughal Empire in Northern India, which was built on what was left of the
Sultanate of Delhi, after the desvatation of Timur. All three began as small warrior states in frontier areas and
grew into complex empires, which presided over prosperous societies. They are also known by the name,
Gunpowder Empires, because they used emerging gunpowder technology to build their empires.
The Ottoman Empire
After the Saljuq (Seljuk) Turks took control of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid 11th century, large numbers
of nomadic Turks migrated from Central Asia to Southwest Asia. After Manzikert in 1071 many Turks
seized much of central Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire. Among the leaders of these groups was a Turk
named Osman who in the late 1200s and early 1300s carved out a small state in Northwestern Anatolia – at
Byzantine expense. His goal was to become a Ghazi, or Muslim religious warrior. After every successful
campaign he attracted more followers, who came to be known as Osmanlis or Ottomans.
In 1326 came the first great Ottoman success with the capture of Bursa, which became the capital of the
Ottoman State in Anatolia. During the 1350s, the Ottomans gained a foothold across the Dardanelles on the
Balkan Peninsula. Because of political fragmentation, exploitation of the peasants and ineffective
government, the Byzantines lost strength and by the 1380s the Ottoman Turks were the most powerful nation
in both the Balkans and Anatolia. They soon made Edirne (the old Greco/Roman city of Adrianople, in modern
Bulgaria) their second capital. But what they really wanted was the big prize: Constantinople!
The Ottomans created a formidable military machine. Ghazi recruits were originally divided into light
cavalry and volunteer infantry. As the Ottoman state grew, professional cavalry equipped with heavy armor
was also added. But their strongest military force came from an unusual source. In conquered territories,
especially in Europe, the Turks created the Devshirme, which required Christians to contribute young boys
to become slaves of the sultan. The boys received special training, learned Turkish and were converted to
fanatical Islam. The brighter ones entered Ottoman civil administration, but most became famous as
Janissaries (Turkish yeni cheri or new troops). The Janissaries quickly became the elite warrior troops of
the Ottoman armies, noted for their esprit de corps (inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty to the group), loyalty to
the sultan, and their ability to employ new military technologies (especially gunpowder weapons) with
devastating military effectiveness. Like their leaders, their goal, their focus was Constantinople.
By 1400, the Ottomans were closing on Constantinople, but were blunted in 1402 when Tamerlane
clobbered the Ottomans and set their efforts back for a generation. But by the 1440s the Ottomans had
recovered and began again to press what was left of Byzantium and encircle capital at Constantinople. In
1451 the new sultan, Mehmed II or Mehmed the Conqueror, came to power and immediately attacked the
city, which fell in 1453. Mehmed appreciated the city’s location and history and made it his capital, naming
it Istanbul. (The Byzantines never called Constantinople by that name, but referred to it as the Polis. When they
wanted to say to the city, they said, εις την πολιν (is tin polin) from which the Turks derived Istanbul)
Mehmed worked furiously to restore the city to its former glory and make it a new center of trade. He went
on to conquer Serbia, Greece, Albania and the last Byzantine outpost in Anatolia, Trebizond on the Black
Sea. He captured the Genoese ports on the Crimea, fought a naval war with Venice and (toward the end of
his reign) planned to invade Italy and capture the pope.
After his death in 1481, Mehmed’s successors continued to expand the empire. His son Bayezid II (the Just)
(1481 – 1512) attacked the last Venetian outposts in Greece, was patron of both western and eastern culture and
worked hard to ensure a smooth running of domestic politics. His son, Selim the Grim (1512 – 1520) (Grim in
the sense of Brave), defeated the Safavid Persians in 1514 at Chaldrin, and then captured Syria, Mamluke
Egypt, Mecca, Medina and Yemen. The Ottomans reached their high point under Suleyman the
Magnificent (1520-1566). In 1521, he attacked Austria-Hungary and captured Belgrade. In 1526, he defeated
and killed the king of Hungary at the battle of Mohács. In 1529, he (aided by Francis I of France) laid siege to
Vienna, but failed to take it. In 1534, he turned east and captured Baghdad.
The Ottomans built an effective Navy and added the Mamluke fleet to their own. A Turkish corsair (pirate),
Khayr al-Din Barbarossa Pasha, joined forces with Suleiman and became Suleiyman’s leading admiral
challenging Christian vessels throughout the entire Mediterranean. Ottoman naval forces seized the island of
Rhodes in 1522, besieged and almost took Malta in 1565, captured Aden and even tried to attack a
Portuguese fleet at Diu in India.
The head of the Ottoman State was the Sultan (ruler) who ruled with the help of Wazirs (viziers), provincial
governors called Beys and local administrators called Pashas. Up to the time of Suleyman, the Sultans
energetically centralized their empire and personally controlled the affairs of state, but after Suleyman,
sultans became more and more interested in personal pleasure and the harem than in matters of state.
The situation became so bad that, by the mid-1700s, the Ottoman Empire had become known as the “Sick
Man of Europe.” The causes were many, convoluted and complicated. But four explanations summarize the
impending which would befall the Ottomans:
1. First, the Sultan and his bureaucracy became lazy, incompetent and corrupt.
2. Revenues declined due to inflation (remember that Spanish New World Silver) and the
Europeans were bypassing the old Silk Road trading routes with their ocean trading routes.
3. Beys and Pashas began to carve out their own fiefdoms, withholding income and inciting
peasants to numerous, destructive rebellions.
4. The Janissaries became strong and influential while the regular military forces – free
peasants – were frozen out of the army, thus creating an almost mercenary army, which cost
more and became more and more inefficient.
Even with mounting problems the Ottomans made one last major offensive against Europe. In 1683 they
besieged Vienna, which was saved at the last desperate minute by allied forces, especially those of King Jon
Sobieski of Poland. This failure marked a turning point in world history because now the Austrians
and Russians began to take more and more European territory back from Ottoman control.
The Safavid Empire
The origins of the Safavid Empire in Persia are clouded in mystery and controversy. The roots of the empire
go back to Safi al-Din (1252-1334), who was a Sufi religious leader in northwestern Persia. Although some
scholars think that he was Sunni, most feel that that he was a Twelver-Shiite. Twelver-Shiism held that there
had been twelve infallible imams (religious holy men) after Muhammad, beginning with the prophet’s cousin
Ali. The twelfth or “hidden” imam had gone into hiding around 874 to escape persecution, but the Twelver
Shiites believed that he was still alive over three hundred years later and would one day return to take power
and spread his true religion. Regardless of his origins and his teachings, Safi al-Din was an important figure
in the Il-Khan Empire of the Mongols and his tomb was shrine and a headquarters for his religious
movement, a movement that was determined to gain power in Persia for his descendents.
The Safavid Empire itself began with the accession of a young descendent of Safi al-Din named Ismail in
1501. When Ismail was a year old his father, Haydar, was killed and Ismail was taken for refuge to the
Swamps of Gilan near the Caspian Sea. After years of struggle and deprivation, Ismail raised an army,
defeated his enemies and became the Shah (king). Before the end of his reign he added all the Iranian Plateau
to his kingdom. It is important to understand that in his conquests, Ismail was supported by the Qizilbash,
Turkish warriors who were scattered throughout Persia. Qizilbash meant "red-heads" in Turkish, because
Haydar had instructed them to wear twelve-sided red hats to represent their Twelver-Shiite beliefs. With their
support, Ismail proclaimed Twelver-Shiism to be the official religion of Persia, and proceeded to impose it,
often by force, on a formerly Sunni population. Safavid propaganda also suggested that Ismail himself was
the 12th imam. Most Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, found this blasphemous, but the Qizilbash believed that
Ismail would make them invincible in battle and followed him fanatically.
Ismail blended Turkish militancy and the Twelver variation of Shiite belief to give his regime a unique
identity and (in the process) some powerful enemies. The Ottomans who were Sunni detested the Safavids
and feared the spread of their ideas among nomadic Turks. In 1514, under Selim the Grim, the Ottomans
with their superior gunpowder weapons won a tremendous victory at Chaldiran and gave the Safavids a
terrible setback. The Ottomans occupied the capital at Tabriz, but were unable to destroy the Safavid power
base and so - for two centuries - the Ottomans and Safavids fought intermittent skirmishes.
Later Safavid rulers backed away from Ismail’s radical Shiism and adopted a less controversial TwelverShiism which was based more on bloodline succession than radical theology. The greatest of the Safavids
was Shah Abbas the Great (1588 - 1629) who revitalized a declining Safavid state. He centralized political
authority, moved the capital to a more central location at Isfahan, encouraged trade with other lands and
reformed the military, especially in the acquisition of gunpowder weapons. He and his successors relied
heavily on the effective, centuries-old Persian bureaucracy, improved technology and sought European
assistance to fight the Ottomans. He defeated the Uzbeks in central Asia, expelled the Portuguese from
Hormuz and effectively harassed the Ottomans for the last 20 years of his reign. He also conquered much of
Northwest India, Mesopotamia and the Caucasus. And it was Shah Abbas who brought substantial numbers
of Armenians to settle and work in Isfahan.
Like the Ottomans, the Safavids began to decline in the late 17th century. As the tax revenues from the Silk
Road began to decline, the economy also declined. Then, in 1722 Afghan raiders killed the shah and the
empire collapsed. After a period of civil war, Nadir Shah restored order from 1736 to 1747. Nadir Shah
successfully fought the Ottomans and invaded India, but was assassinated in 1747, when Karim Khan
founded the Zand dynasty. Karim Khan was a compassionate and able ruler who governed wisely till is
death in 1779. His successors, however, were incompetent and the last one was murdered in 1794. Shortly
before, in 1781 Agha Muhammad Khan founded the Qajar dynasty which lasted till 1925, during which
Persia gradually fell under the domination of Russia from the north and Great Britain in the south.
The Mughal Empire
Zahir al-Din Muhammad, known as Babur (the Tiger) was Chagatai Turk who claimed descent from
both Chinggis Khan (mother) and Tamerlane (father). In 1494 at the age of 11 and after the assassination his
father, he became king of a small principality in Central Asia called Farghana. In a decade long power
struggle with the Uzbeks and his own relatives he was deprived of his throne and had to wander with a
handful of supporters, often desperate and homeless. But in 1504 he was able to conquer Kabul on the
Northwest border of India. He tried repeatedly to conquer Farghana and its capital Samarkand, his old
homeland but failed. However, with the aid of gunpowder weapons, he invaded India in 1523 and took Delhi
in 1526. Many of his followers wanted to leave India, but he stayed.
Unlike the Ottomans who sought to be Ghazis, or the Safavids, who acted as champions of Shiism, Babur
made little pretense to be anything more than a soldier of fortune. He probably hoped to use India’s wealth to
build a vast central Asian empire like his grandfather Tamerlane. Well, that didn’t happen, but by the time of
his death in 1530, Babur had built a loosely knit empire that stretched from Kabul all the way across
Northern India. His dynasty was called Mughal from the Persian word for Mongol.
The real creator of the Mughal Empire, however, was Babur’s grandson Akbar who reigned from 15561605. Akbar ascended to the throne at the age of thirteen and was surrounded by ambitious nobles. At
nineteen, he had an argument with Adham Khan, a powerful noble and commander of the army; Akbar had
Adham Khan thrown out a window, then had him dragged him back from the palace courtyard and tossed
him out again (head down) to make sure he was dead. Akbar then took personal command of the government
and army and became an absolute dictator of a strongly centralized regime. He became a strong-willed,
brilliant and charismatic ruler.
Akbar’s military feats became legendary. He destroyed the rival Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, which laid
the foundation for later Mughal expansion into Southern India. Although ruthless and jealous of his
authority, Akbar could also be thoughtful, reflective and deeply interested in religion and philosophy. He
pursued a policy of religious toleration and tried to reduce tensions between Muslims and Hindus and
encouraged a syncretic religion called “Divine Faith” that focused attention on the emperor as a ruler
common to all religious, ethnic and social groups in India.
Akbar was succeeded by his son Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) who continued his father’s tolerant policies,
increased the size of the empire and fostered the arts. He was succeeded by his son Shah Jahan who is most
famous for his building of the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was a sophisticated man who patronized the arts and
was himself a painter famous for his romantic paintings. When he became ill in 1657, his son Aurangzeb led
a rebellion. Aurangzeb publically executed his brother and when Shah Jahan recovered, Aurangzeb had him
declared incompetent and put him under house arrest until his death in 1666.
Under Aurangzeb who ruled forty eight years from 1659 to 1707, the Mughal Empire reached its height, but
also began its fatal decline. Aurangzeb waged a relentless campaign to push Mughal authority deep into
southern India. By the early 18th century, he ruled all of India except the very tip. But his rule was troubled
by rebellions and religious tensions. He was a devout but inflexible Muslim and he broke with Akbar’s
policy of religious toleration. To promote Islam he destroyed many Hindu temples and imposed the Jizya on
Hindus causing deep hostilities among the Hindu population.
Aurangzeb’s intolerance marked the beginning of the end for Mughal rule. He persecuted the Sikhs, a
monotheistic, religious group of Northern India. In the late 1670s Aurangzeb killed the Sikh leader and they
rebelled and established their own independent state of Punjab. Other rebellions followed and more areas
broke away and became independent kingdoms under their own rajas. In 1739 Iranian marauders (led by
Karim Khan) sacked Delhi and carried away the famous Peacock Throne. But even more ominous was the
arrival of the Europeans. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, French and English who all set up
trading posts and began to encroach upon the local principalities.
The English established textile mills at Fort William near Calcutta and other mills at Madras and Bombay.
The Dutch build trading posts at Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Portuguese dominated Calcutta
on the East Coast and Diu on the west. The French created a garrison and trading post at Pondicherry. As
the Europeans competed among each other, the Portuguese were first driven out; followed by the Dutch, but
the French and English encroached more and more on Indian Territory. And as we saw in Chapter 10, at the
end of the Seven-Year’s War, the English had basically expelled their European rivals and were poised to
absorb the Mughal State and become the masters of India.
The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires had much in common because of their Steppe Roots. All three
empires were all created by military conquest and the rulers regarded the land as their personal possession by
right of conquest. These rulers had absolute power over the army and government bureaucrats and passed on
their power by hereditary right. In theory the ruler owned all land and let the peasants use it in return for tax
revenue, which supported the military and administrative officials.
The prestige and authority of these dynasties derived from the personal piety, military ability, charismas and,
to some degree, the ancestry (pedigree) the ruler. All were devoted to Islam and sought to spread Islam
wherever their influence or power reached – even under the tolerant Mughal rulers.
It is important to understand that these rulers steeped in steppe traditions were autocratic (exercising power or
authority without interference by others) and often did as they pleased, even if they violated accepted religious
and social norms. Ottoman sultans unilaterally issued edicts, or laws called kanun. In fact, Suleyman the
Magnificent was known as Suleyman Kanuni, or the Lawgiver. Ottoman rulers acted in this manner only in
legal areas, but Safavid and Mughal rulers did not hesitate to claim authority in religious matters; the best
example being the Safavid habit of forcing Shiite Islam on Sunni Muslims.
Another tradition of the Steppes was succession of the strongest. In steppe empires the ruler’s relatives often
competed fiercely for power. The resulting intrigue and fratricide often brought great instability to all three
empires. The Ottomans were particularly adept at killing rivals and possible rivals, such as when a new
sultan would order his brothers to be strangled with a silken bowstring so as not to shed blood. Later rulers
protected their sons by placing them in harems and forbidding them ever to leave, save to become ruler.
A third steppe tradition was allowing women to have significant influence in government affairs. This was
horror to Muslim theorists, but in all three empires women played important roles. For example, Hurren
Sultana also known as Roxelana was a concubine of Ukrainian origin in the harem of Suleyman the
Magnificent. Suleyman became infatuated with her, raised her to the status of legal wife, consulted her on
state policies, and even deferred to her judgment to the point of executing his oldest son for treason because
Sultana wanted to secure the succession of her own son. Nur Jahan, the wife of the Mughal emperor
Jahangir also ran the government and even Aurangzeb listened to his daughter’s advice. In addition, there
was the quintessential romance; Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Agriculture and Trade
All three empires relied on the traditional crops of wheat and rice. The Columbian exchange introduced
American food crops, but without dramatic effect. European merchants did however introduce potatoes and
tomatoes, which today are considered staples of Middle Eastern diets. Maize was also introduced, but was
used mostly for animal feed, as in Europe.
The Colombian exchange also encouraged the use two other items that are today synonymous with the
Middle East: coffee and tobacco. Coffee was not a new commodity. Coffee had been originally imported
from the highlands of Ethiopia and later grown in Arabia and Yemen for centuries, but in the 17th century it
became immensely popular along with tobacco, newly introduced from the New World. The popularity of
both led to the establishment of coffee houses. In spite of obvious health issues and the objection of religious
leaders to both tobacco and coffee, the coffee house became a prominent social institution in the Islamic
world. It is interesting to note that one of the first introductions of coffee to Europe came in 1683 when, after
lifting the siege of Vienna, the Viennese opened their own coffee houses with the enormous quantities of
coffee they found abandoned by the retreating Turks.
Demographically, because the Gunpowder Empires made less use of American food crops (and that equaled
less in food supply) the population did not grow as robustly as in other parts of the world, except in India, but
that was due to more effective agricultural techniques for traditional food crops.
Mughal and Hindu India
The Ottoman Empire
190 million: strong growth
8 million: moderate growth
24 million: varied growth
9 million: slowest growth
In trade, the Ottoman and Safavid empires participated actively in global trading networks, but the Mughal
Empire was not interested in foreign trade, even though much income was derived from such trade. Bursa
and later Istanbul were a terminus points on the Silk Road. Aleppo in Syria became an emporium for
foreign merchants. Isfahan was a lively trading center for European merchants seeking Safavid raw silk,
carpets, ceramics and high quality craft items. The English East India Company and the Dutch VOC both
actively traded with the Safavids. To curry favor with the Safavids the English supplied weapons and a navy
to help them retake Hormuz from the Portuguese. Indian merchants were quite active in spite of Mughal
disinterest and the Mughals did allow the creation of trading stations by all major European powers.
Religion in the Three Empires
Religious diversity in the Three Empires created serious challenges for all three governments. The Ottoman
Empire included large numbers of Christians and Jews in the Balkans, Armenia, Lebanon and Egypt. The
Safavid Empire had sizeable Zoroastrian and Jewish communities with many Christian communities in the
Caucasus Mountains. Most Mughal subjects were Hindus, but large numbers of Muslims (still roughly 25%
of the total population) lived alongside smaller communities of Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsees), Christians
and syncretic faiths such as Sikhism.
Sikhism is an Indian monotheistic religion founded in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak. Most of its
18 million members, called Sikhs, live in the Punjab, the site of their holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.
Sikh theology (a syncretic blend of Hinduism and Islam) is based on a supreme God who governs with
justice and grace. Human beings, irrespective of caste and gender distinctions, have the opportunity to
become one with God. The basic human flaw of self-centeredness can be overcome through proper
reverence for God, commitment to hard work, service to humanity, and sharing the fruits of one's labor.
They accept the Hindu ideas of samsara and karma, and they view themselves as the Khalsa, a chosen
race of soldier-saints committed to a Spartan code of conduct and a crusade for righteousness.
Portuguese Goa was the center for Christian missionaries. The Jesuits there tried to convert Akbar, but,
although he welcomed them into the intellectual community, they failed to convert him and (as we have
seen) he turned to the Sikh religion and his syncretic version, Divine Faith.
In the Safavid and Ottoman empires, conquered peoples or Dhimmi, were usually protected and could
maintain their religious autonomy in special communities. So long as the dhimmi gave loyalty and paid the
Jizya to the sultan, they retained their personal freedom, kept their property, and were able to practice their
own religion and handle their own legal affairs. In the Ottoman Empire this was called the Millet System.
When the Ottomans were strong, the Millet System was an easy way to loosely administer conquered
peoples, but when they began to decline, the Millet System meant that the ethnic Christians already had the
beginnings of a governmental system. In the 19th century and the rise of Nationalism, each millet became
increasingly independent and began to establish their own schools, churches, hospitals and other facilities
which effectively undermined Ottoman authority.
In the Mughal Empire, the Millet System was impractical because the Muslims were not the majority and
needed Hindu assistance in administration. We saw how Akbar sought to foster communication and
understanding between Muslims and Hindus and even abolished the jizya, tolerated all faiths and sponsored
discussions to bring understanding. During his reign, Hindus and Muslims lived well together, but many
Muslims could not accept Akbar’s tolerance. When Aurangzeb came to the Mughal throne in 1659, he tried
to please the militant Muslims and reinstated the jizya, and unsuccessfully tried to force Islam on the nonIslamic population. The bitterness he caused lasted long after the fall of the Mughal dynasty.
The Magnificence of the Islamic Empires
The Islamic Empires controlled great wealth and resources and their rulers tried to enhance their prestige by
enormous public works and patronage of scholarship, literature, art and architecture
1. Istanbul: Although the Ottomans highly regarded the old capitals of Bursa and Edirne, Istanbul
was given the most attention and became a thriving city of a million inhabitants. The Topkapi Palace
which housed the government and the sultan’s residence was an enormous complex of government
offices, the sultan’s palace with its harem and pleasure gardens and repositories for the most sacred
possessions of the empire, especially the mantle of the Prophet Mohammed.
Suleiman the Magnificent used the architectural genius of Sinan Pasha to create impressive
monuments, mosques and public buildings. Sinan Pasha drew upon the Byzantine architectural style
of Hagia Sophia and its pendative architecture to create the Suleymaniye, as mosque as magnificent
as Hagia Sophia. Because the great dome of the Hagia Sophia was considered to be a great feat from
Christian times, Sinan designed the dome of the Suleymaniye to send the message that not only were
Muslims just as capable but, with an even larger and higher dome, that they were superior.
2. Isfahan: was made by Shah Abbas into the Queen of Persian cities, which to this day its inhabitants
make the boast “Isfahan is half the world!” Unlike the Ottoman and Mughal palaces the Safavid
palaces in Isfahan were relatively small and emphasized natural settings with gardens and pools. The
royal palace of 'Ali Qapu dominates the southeastern side of the central square in Isfahan. Its name
means "The High Gate" and its impressive entrance way was no doubt intended to symbolize the
strength and authority of the Safavid monarchs.
3. Fatehpur Sikri: was a colossal city planned and constructed by Akbar that served as a ceremonial
capital from 1569 to 1585. Fatehpur Sikri is unique in terms of its layout as well as its architecture,
which are generally considered to express the personality of Akbar. Influences from Hindu and Jain
architecture are seen hand in hand with Central Asian and Islamic elements. The building material
predominantly used is red sandstone, quarried from the same rocky outcrop on which it is situated.
Fatehpur Sikri took many years to build, but was abandoned only a few years after occupation
because of lack of fresh water.
4. The Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal is the name of a monument located in Agra, India. It was
commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his Persian wife, Mumtaz
Mahal (meaning "elect of the palace"). It took 20,000 workers eighteen YEARS to complete. As part of
the struggle for succession, Shah Jahan was put under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb, and legend
has it that he spent the remainder of his days there gazing from a window at the Taj. He was buried
by Aurangzeb in the Taj Mahal, next to his wife, the only disruption of the otherwise perfect
symmetry in the architecture.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries the Three Islamic Empires declined markedly. As we have
seen, the Safavids disappeared in 1722 when a band of Afghan tribesman marched to Isfahan, besieged the
city and forced the shah to abdicate, executing thousands. Nadir Shah restored order but the Persia power
had been broken. After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, Mughal India experienced provincial rebellions,
decentralization and European incursions. By the mid-1700s, the subcontinent was rapidly falling under
British imperial rule. By the early 1700s, the Sick Man of Europe was on the defensive, as the sultans lost
control of more remote provinces (Egypt and Lebanon), the Balkan dhimmi and European states brought
increasing pressure to bear on a shrinking Ottoman Empire.
Among the many causes, five stand out it particular:
1. Strong leadership had disappeared in all three empires due to negligent rulers, quarreling factions and
government corruption. In the Ottoman Empire princes were confined to the palace and came to power
with no experience. Many were simply evil, such as Selim the Sot and Ibrahim the Crazy, who taxed and
spent to such excess that he was finally murdered. Several sultans and talented ministers tried to reverse
the slide, but army mutinies, provincial revolts, government corruption and inefficiency could not reverse
2. Political troubles were exacerbated by religious tensions when Muslim conservatives abandoned policies
of religious tolerance. Religious conservatives could not deal with the Steppe policies and complained
bitterly at non-Islamic practices. In the Ottoman Empire angry religious students joined with janissaries
in frequent revolts. The Wahabi movement in Arabia was particularly dangerous, because it denounced
the Ottomans as Islamic frauds and religious innovators. Conservatives also opposed technology such as
an observatory in Istanbul and the printing press. The Safavids, under pressure from Shiite Conservatives,
persecuted Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims and even Sufis. In India the tolerant Akbar was openly
challenged by the conservative religious leader, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564 – 1624), who bravely
demanded that non Muslims pay the Jizya and Hindu Temples be destroyed. Tragically for India,
Aurangzeb would later draw on Sirhindi’s ideas and resume the Jizya and destroy Hindu Temples.
3. A third reason was economic stagnation that occurred when the empires were no longer growing,
government corruption caused waste and inefficiency, taxes were raised and European merchants began
to get the upper hand in the trading market. To make matters worse the governments viewed foreign trade
not with entrepreneurial goals, but simply as a way to raise revenue. They were content to let the trade
come to them, and so they lost the initiative to the Europeans who did organize their own trading
companies and reach overseas for economic opportunities.
4. A fourth reason was that the three empires turned their back on military science, technology and industry
and consequently experienced serious military decline. They simply ceased to improve their military
technologies. In 1453, the Ottomans led Europe in gunpowder technology, but very soon they were
content to buy European weapons and gunpowder. They did not develop their own armament industry
and fell far behind Europe. By the late 1700s they stopped building their own warships and began
ordering from European shipyards.
5. The last reason was Cultural Insularity. Like the Qing Dynasty and Tokugawa Japan, the Muslim
intellegensia were convinced of their religious and cultural superiority. And so they both neglected to
keep up with what the rest of the world was doing and at the same time froze their societies and
preferred, like China and Japan, political and social stability to cultural innovation. And so they remained
oblivious to European cultural and technological developments and did not bother to investigate
European advances in science, technology and even philosophy.
The telescope and printing press are good examples of Ottoman Cultural Insularity bordering on
xenophobia. An attempt to introduce telescopes failed in 1703, when Muslim clerics banned them. Jewish
refugees introduced printing presses in Anatolia, but the Ottomans would allow not printing in Turkish or
Arabic. The ban was lifted in 1729, but reactionary conservatives forced the closure of the presses in 1742.
II – Tradition and Change in East Asia
During the 13 and 14 centuries, China experienced foreign domination by the Mongols of the Yuan
dynasty (1279-1368). We saw how the Mongols ignored Chinese political and cultural institutions and replaced
Chinese scholar-bureaucrats with Turkish, Persian and other foreigners, like Marco Polo. We saw how the
Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) drove out the Mongols and established the Ming (brilliant) Dynasty and how he
built a tightly centralized state making extensive use of Mandarins, who traveled who traveled throughout
China to oversee imperial policy, and Eunuchs, who could not have families and thus could not build
personal power bases to challenge the emperor. VITU: When the emperors became weak, however,
eunuchs dominated the government and mandarins tried to build their own power bases.
We further saw how Hongwu’s son, Yongle (yawng-leh) (1403-1424) extended Chinese influence into the
Indian Ocean Basin with a series of naval expeditions led by his eunuch admiral, Zheng He, and how
Yongle’s successors dismantled his navy and withdrew from the Indian Ocean, only 70 years before the
coming of the Portuguese. Like his father, Yongle maintained a tightly centralized state; he moved his capital
from Nanjing to Beijing to keep closer watch on the Mongols whom he kept the Mongols at bay, but his
successors did not. The Chinese suffered a series of defeats by Mongol armies during the 1440s and so the
later Ming emperors sought to protect China by building new fortifications, most notably the Great Wall.
Remember that parts of the Great Wall dated back to the 4th century, when Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor;
but The Great Wall, as we know it today, was a Ming-dynasty project employing hundreds of thousands of
workers who labored from the late 1400s through the next century to build this formidable barrier, stretching
1,550 miles, and 30 to 50 feet high with watch towers, signal towers and accommodations for troops.
The Ming emperors were also determined to erase any Mongol or other foreign influences and to create a
state in the image of the Chinese past. Respect for Chinese traditions flourished and people were encouraged
to abandon Mongol names and dress. The emperors brought back the Confucian educational and bureaucratic
institutions, including the civil service examinations.
In the early sixteenth century, however, the Ming Dynasty began to decline due to a series of interconnected
internal and external problems. Internally, the government rotted as lazy emperors lived extravagantly in the
Forbidden City, a vast imperial mini-city in Beijing. Under the corrupting influence of the self-serving
Eunuchs they lost touch with real government and responsibility. The emperor Wanli (1572-1620), for
example, lived a long life of dissipation and amusement and refused to even meet with his government. As a
result, pirates and smugglers operated almost at will along the coast of China and the weakened Ming navy
was not up to solving the problem. Cities were looted and the coastline was in chaos.
Externally, Spanish silver from the Americas flowed into the country and created inflation which led to an
economic meltdown. Then, in the early seventeenth century, a series of famines, probably due to the effects
of the Little Ice Age, reduced agricultural output and the government was unable to respond effectively.
Then, Manchu invaders from Manchuria poured across the borders and looted northern China. The result
was that peasants rebelled and created chaos throughout the countryside. Finally, in 1644, with Manchu
soldiers entering the Forbidden City and looting the imperial palace, the last Ming emperor committed
The Qing Dynasty (Chihing)
The Manchu invaders immediately proclaimed a new dynasty, the Qing (pure), which ruled China from 1644
to 1911. The Manchus were pastoral nomads in origin, but from 1616 to1626, an ambitious chieftain,
Nurhaci, unified the Manchu tribes. During the 1620s, he expelled Ming garrisons in Manchuria, captured
Korea, and by 1680s, his successors controlled all Manchuria, Mongolia, Korea and China
The Manchu received much help from within China. Many Chinese generals deserted the Ming dynasty
because of its corruption and inefficiency. Confucian scholar-bureaucrats despised the eunuchs who
dominated the imperial court and so they too supported the Manchus. Moreover, the Manchu ruling elite also
quickly learned the Chinese language and mastered Confucian thought and philosophy. But it is important to
remember that the Manchu were careful to preserve their own ethnic and cultural identity. They outlawed
intermarriage with the Chinese and forbade Chinese to travel to Manchuria. They also forced Chinese men to
shave the front of their heads and grow a Manchu-style queue as a sing of submission to the dynasty. Finally,
the intelligent and fair-minded Manchu leadership prevented tensions from festering between themselves and
their Chinese subjects.
The greatest of the Manchu rulers was the emperor Kangxi (K’ang-hsi), who reigned from 1661 to 1722. He
was both a Confucian scholar and an enlightened ruler. He was a voracious reader, a mathematician, and a
poet. He took seriously the Confucian ideal of caring for his people and surrounded himself with learned men
for his mandarins, scholar-bureaucrats and calligraphers (masters of Chinese script) for his secretaries. He
organized flood control and irrigation projects and patronized Confucian schools. He was also a warrior; he
conquered Taiwan and expanded China’s borders into Mongolia, Central Asia and Tibet.
Kangxi’s grandson Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung = chyen’loong) was the second greatest emperor of the Manchu
Dynasty and reigned from 1736-1795. He continued Kangxi’s military conquests, conquering Sinjiang
(Sinkiang) and forcing Vietnam, Nepal and Burma to accept vassal status. He restricted Western merchants to
Guangzhou (Canton) and rejected British overtures for expanded trade relations. Like his grandfather,
Qianlong was a sophisticated and learned man, a discriminating connoisseur of painting and calligraphy and
prolific poet. During his reign, the treasury was so well off that taxes were cancelled four times. But on the
other hand, his long, peaceful reign was not only the high mark of the Qing dynasty but the beginning of its
decline. Toward the end of his reign he paid less attention to imperial affairs and left them to his favorite
eunuchs and the old pattern of corruption and incompetence began to emerge. Qianlong’s successors
continued these lazy practices, devoting themselves to hunting and the harem, and by the 19th century, the
Qing dynasty faced serious problems
The brilliance of Qing empire building and its early economic success deeply impressed the Enlightenment
Philosophes of Europe. In the late 1770s, poems attributed to the emperor Qianlong were translated and
circulated among the European intelligentsia. Many felt the Qing were benevolent despots who struggled
against ignorance, superstition and bureaucratic corruption. Voltaire asserted that the Chinese emperors
were model philosopher-kings who ought to be imitated.
On the other hand, however, it is very important to understand that for all the brilliance and economic
success of the early Qing Dynasty, the Chinese suffered from cultural insularity (like the Gunpowder
Empires) and were beginning to rapidly fall behind the West technologically and philosophically. The Qing
continued to follow the Confucian ideals set forth by Hongwu and, although they had extensive trading
contacts (such as with Manila and Spanish trade with the New World), China did move beyond an agricultural
economy. In the Seventeenth Century Europe was transformed by the Enlightenment which promoted the
notions of progress, scientific curiosity, philosophies that broke with centuries old traditions and – most
importantly – a free market system and capitalism. None of this occurred in China.
State, Culture and Economy
The Emperor of China was titled the Son of Heaven. If not quite a god, he was certainly considered
more than a mere mortal to whom it was entrusted by heaven the power to maintain order here on earth. The
emperors led a privileged life in the Forbidden City. Hundreds of concubines; thousands of eunuchs were at
their command. Their daily activities were carefully arranged performances (not unlike the Byzantine
emperors of old) of inspections, audiences, banquets and other official duties. Like the Byzantines everything
around the emperor and about him, in the court and in the Forbidden City was designed to impress and give a
sense of awe and wonderment: his wardrobe, the kowtow, and strict court ceremonial.
The Scholar Bureaucrats: When emperors were strong and paid attention to government, the day-today governance of the empire fell to the scholar bureaucrats, who worked with and were appointed by the
emperor. The scholar-bureaucrats came mostly from the ranks of the well educated, both the upper middle
class and the nobility. But - whatever their background - they were rigorously trained, having excelled in the
civil service examinations. They dominated China’s political and social life. They were (in a sense) China.
Preparations for the dreaded civil service examinations began at an early age. Wealthy families engaged
tutors so train their sons (and sometimes daughters) to pass the exams. By the age of 11 or 12, boys had
memorized the thousands of characters that were necessary to deal with the Confucian curriculum, which
emphasized the Analects of Confucius, calligraphy, poetry, essay composition, history and literary works.
The aim was to mold a candidate’s personal values to the Confucian ideal. The exams were dreadful and
horrible to pass. They were administered in small compounds with tiny rooms which the candidates could not
leave for three days and two nights. The stress was unimaginable by our standards and many young men
committed suicide. The toughest exams were the Eight-legged Essays, literary compositions with eight parts.
Candidates who ONLY passed local or district exams had little opportunity for higher posts in the
government, and usually became local gentry serving as family tutors to prepare the next generation of
candidates. Candidates who passed the provincial or metropolitan exams, however, could look forward to
governmental positions, but only about one in 300 candidates made it this far. Interestingly, the system did
have the advantage of opening the door for limited upward-social-mobility, because poor but bright boys
were often able to advance based on merit; but nevertheless, the rich still had advantages over the poor.
Family Life: Filial piety and the patriarchal family were the unquestioned standards for Chinese society in
this early modern period; and were the basis of children’s duties to their fathers as well as a subject’s duties
to the emperor. As the father was the head of the household, so was the emperor the head of the extended
family or household called China. Children had a duty to make their fathers and mothers happy and to
support them in their old age. The clan was an extension of the family and clan members came from all
social classes. It is important to remember that clans assumed responsibility for maintaining local order,
running local economies and caring for the poor. The clan supported education and gave poor but promising
boys a chance to take the civil service exams. The principal motive was not kindness but corporate selfinterest, because a clan member, who was appointed to a high government post, brought honor to the clan.
Gender relations: females were not highly valued and parents preferred boys to girls. Girls were often
considered a liability and many newborn girls were eliminated. Marriage existed to preserve the male line.
Widows were discouraged from remarriage and urged to honor their husbands even to the point of
committing suicide to join them. Foot binding continued to be for male enjoyment (like a perfect figure on a
girl in western culture). Logically, it was most widespread among the wealthy. Women married into their
husband’s family, could not divorce him and if no offspring were forthcoming, they could be abandoned.
Population: China had to feed a huge population. By the mid 1600s, Chinese peasants – even with laborintensive farming – had reached the limit of what they could produce from the traditional crops of rice and
millet. The arrival of American food crops did the same thing for China as for Africa. Maize, sweet potatoes,
and peanuts expanded the food supply and the population. In 1500, there were 100 million Chinese; by 1600
the number had risen to 160 million. Then came the century of famine and revolution (partly from the Little Ice
Age and partly from the fall the Mings), so that by 1700 the population was still at 160 million. Then, with the
advent of American food crops, the population shot up to 225 million in just 50 years (1750). By 1800,
American food crops could not help produce enough food for the exploding population.
Foreign trade grew strongly in the early modern period, due to a large labor force and an influx of
Japanese and New World silver. Global trade brought tremendous prosperity to China, as Chinese workers
produced vast quantities of silk, porcelain, laquerware, cloisonné, jade and ivory jewelry and – in growing
popularity - tea for consumers in the Indian Ocean Basin, Central Asia and Europe. It is important to note
that 17th and 18th centuries Europeans wanted these Chinese products and perhaps the best example for
demand of Chinese products was wall paper, as Europeans readily adopted the Chinese custom of covering
their walls with highly decorated water color paintings printed on paper. Chinese imports, on the other hand,
were few: spices from Southeast Asia, exotics from tropical countries (birds) and some woolen goods from
Europe. The result was a favorable balance of trade, which meant that the Chinese exported more goods
than they imported thus acquiring more gold bullion.
Qing rulers were eager to expand China’s economic influence, but were determined to keep control by strict
regulations. China had no free market as in European economies and the imperial court was determined to
reap tax profits from foreign trade. The emperors did not revive Yongle’s interest in a strong navy and
merchant marine; rather, they let trade come to them. Foreign traders were restricted to a few ports, such as
Guangzhou (Canton) and there were few Chinese traders. This was called the Canton System. Although
trade restrictions were gradually eased, China nevertheless missed a great opportunity by retreating from the
sea – and by the mid 1800s would pay dearly for that mistake.
Technology: Unlike the Tang and Song, the Ming and Qing no longer encouraged technological research
and invention. Partly due to their fear of the Mongols and other foreigners and partly due to their
concept of the Middle Kingdom, the government began to fear change and preferred stability to
technological innovation. Even in agriculture there was little innovation or improvement. As with its retreat
from the sea, China’s technological stagnation would cost China dearly in the nineteenth century.
The Class System: After the emperor and his family, the privileged classes were the Scholar-bureaucrats
and the gentry. They provided leadership of Chinese society; they considered themselves China. They wore
distinctive clothing – black gowns with blue borders adorned with various symbols of rank – and were
addressed in honorific terms. They enjoyed immunity from corporal punishment, taxes and labor service.
Most of the gentry owned land, which is a major source of income in an agricultural society. Sometimes they
operated pawn ships or were silent partners with merchants or other entrepreneurs. But their principal source
of income came from government service. Unlike the elite in many other cultures, Chinese gentry lived in the
towns and cities where they dominated social, political and economic affairs.
Confucian tradition put three broad classes of commoners below the gentry: peasants, artisans or workers
and merchants. In theory the peasants were an honored class because they produced the food that fed
society. In reality, the artists and merchants, despite their supposedly lower status, generally enjoyed higher
income and greater comforts than the peasants. Merchants ranged from street peddlers to men of tremendous
wealth and influence. Confucian moralists, however, looked upon the merchants as unscrupulous social
parasites and so they often enjoyed little legal or governmental protection. But they were necessary for
China’s economy and often became successful and quite wealthy.
As time went by, the gentry blurred class distinction by joining more and more in merchant’s business
ventures such as warehousing, money lending, and pawn broking. Class distinctions continued to blur as
merchants educated their sons who in turn became scholar bureaucrats or when gentry married their
daughters into merchant families. At the bottom of society were the Mean Classes or slaves, indentured
servants, entertainers, prostitutes and other marginal people such as beggars and boat people. Finally, it
should be noted, Confucian moralists despised the army but considered it a necessary evil and – like Song
emperors - placed civilian leaders over the military even when it meant corruption or military weakness.
Philosophy: The Ming and Qing emperors looked to Chinese traditions for guidance in framing their
cultural as well as their political and social policies. They supported the Neo-Confucianism of the twelfth
century scholar Zhu Xi, who combined the moral, ethical and political values of Confucius with the logical
rigor and speculative power of Buddhist philosophy. Thus, the traditional Confucian values of self-discipline,
filial piety, and obedience to established rules were supported by Ming and Qing emperors. The emperors
funded the Hanlin Academy, which was a research institute (or Think Tank) for Confucian scholars in
Beijing. They also maintained provincial schools throughout China to support promising students in their
studies for the civil service examinations. Ming and Qing emperors also funded cultural projects such the
Yongle Encyclopedia, or Kangxi’s Collection of Books, which was similar but more influential. Qianlong
worked on The Complete Library of the Four Treasuries, which was too enormous to publish.
Popular Literature: Although the imperial courts promoted Neo-Confucianism, we now begin to see a
lively popular culture began to take shape especially in Chinese cities. Cities were filling with residents who
wanted entertainment, not philosophy and so, with the growth of printing, the Chinese popular novel was
born with its tales of conflict, horror, wonder, love and excitement. This popular literature was not much in
literary value; it was sometimes crude and vulgar, but popular literature was established. Some popular
novels did reflect on Chinese values and among them were The Golden Lotus, a story about a wicked
landowner who mistreats the people around him, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, an historical novel
of political intrigue following the collapse of the Han dynasty, The Dream of The Red Chamber, a Romeo
and Juliet story that reflected much popular attitudes in Chinese society and Journey to the West, which
dealt with the famous monk Xuanzong’s journey to India.
Relations with Christians: Both Nestorian and Roman Catholic Christianity all but disappeared from
China in the 14th Century because of the Bubonic Plague and the violence during the fall of the Yuan
dynasty. In the 16th century, Roman Catholic missionaries returned and had to start all over. Most were the
Jesuits who had the ambitious goal of converting all of China. They worked hard and learned Chinese both
written and spoken. They respected Chinese customs and genuinely respected their potential converts. They
used European mechanical devices, like prisms, harpsichords and clocks. The Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, tried to
impress the emperor Wanli with some of these devices and even wrote The True meaning of the Lord in
Heaven, in which he argued that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and Confucius were very similar, if not
identical. He even speculated that Neo-Confucianism had distorted real Confucianism and that conversion to
Christianity (Catholic, of course) would bring the Chinese back to a more pure and authentic form of
The Chinese were not impressed; they could not understand the exclusivity of Christianity. For centuries,
they had honored Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, so how could Christianity claim to be the only true
religion. In desperation, the Jesuits made even deeper compromises with Christian belief and allowed
Ancestor Veneration and conducted services in Chinese not Latin. Other religious orders complained to the
pope who ordered the Jesuits to stop. Finally, the emperor Kangxi ordered an end to Christian missionary
efforts and by 1750 the Jesuits had mostly failed. Nevertheless, the Jesuits did teach the Chinese much about
European science and technology and stirred up much European interest in China and its culture.
From the 12 to the 16 centuries, Japan was a thoroughly feudalized land. In theory, a Shogun (or military
governor) ruled as a temporary “stand-in” for the emperor, who was in theory the ultimate source of political
authority. In fact, however, the emperor was nothing more than a figurehead and the Shogun “ruled” a Japan
which was divided into numerous small states headed by nobles called Daimyo. This long feudal period was
divided into the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333) and Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1573).
Japanese feudalism was characterized by constant turmoil and civil war. Japanese historians have called this
period Sengoku (the country at war). The worst of these civil wars was the Onin War (1467-1477). Towards
the end of the 16th century however, more powerful states began to emerge and three strong leaders brought
about the unification of Japan. Around 1560, Oda Nobunaga began to use gunpowder weapons and brought
much of eastern and central Japan under his control. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 and succeeded by
Toyotomi Hideoyoshi who, by 1590, had united most of Japan. But he died in 1598, and civil war broke out
again. Finally in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the civil war and unified Japan. He quickly established an
effective military government called the Tokugawa Bakufu (or tent government), since it was theoretically
only a temporary replacement for the emperor’s rule.
The principal aim of the Tokugawa Shoguns was to stabilize Japan and prevent civil war. Their biggest
problem, however, was the daimyo, who, like the medieval European elites, were absolute rulers in their own
domains, maintaining their own governments, laws, schools and currency. Ieyasu broke their power and
created a military dictatorship so powerful that his descendents ruled from his death in 1616 until 1863. It is
important to understand that the price of this stability was absolute dictatorship. Thus, civil war was
ended and the power of the Daimyo broken. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to own weapons and rigid
social stratification (which it was impossible for a person to move from one class or profession to another) became
the norm. Lastly, the shoguns jealously maintained a monopoly on gunpowder technology.
The Tokugawa shoguns governed from the castle town of Edo (Modern Tokyo). In order to maintain their
dominance over the daimyo, the Tokugawa shoguns instituted the policy of Alternate Attendance which
required the daimyo to maintain their families at Edo (in expensive homes) and spend every other year at the
Tokugawa court. This enabled the shoguns to keep an eye on the daimyo and force them to spend their
money on lavish residences rather than subversive activities. (It was policy comparable to that of Louis XIV
and how he kept the nobles occupied at Versailles).
To prevent European interference the Shoguns controlled all contact – social and economic - between Japan
and the outside world. They especially feared the Spanish. Ultimately the shoguns expelled all foreigners
from Japan and prohibited foreign merchants from trading at Japanese ports. They even forbade the
importation of foreign books. The only port open to foreign was Nagasaki where only a small number
Chinese and Dutch merchants were allowed. It is important to understand that the shoguns meant business!
In 1640 a Portuguese ship came to trade in defiance of the ban. The Japanese beheaded forty one of the crew
and allowed the remaining ten to return home to warn their countrymen.
Japanese Economic, Social and Religious patterns
The Tokugawa Peace set the stage for dramatic agricultural and economic growth. But there was an irony.
Unlike Africa and China the root of that economic growth did not lay in the introduction of American food
crops, but with the introduction of to new crop strains, new methods of irrigation and the use of fertilizer. As
a result rice production increased dramatically, along with cotton, silk, indigo and sake production. Between
1600 and 1700, agricultural output doubled.
Increased agricultural production meant more population. From 1600 to 1700, the population grew from 22
million to 29 million. Between 1700 and 1850 the population grew more modestly to 32 million. Most of this
soft growth was due to population control: infanticide, contraception, late marriage and abortion. Infanticide
was given the euphemistic label thinning out the rice shoots.
During Tokugawa times, Japan’s cities mushroomed and her internal economy expanded. The Shoguns also
paid attention to the infrastructure, building elaborate road and canal systems. Cities became production
centers for laquerware, steel, pottery and weapons. Socially, this increasing urbanization and industrialization
caused the development a new and powerful class, the merchant class which grew in wealth and influence
despite the rigid social stratification of the period.
The Plight of the Samurai: Peace, increased prosperity and growing urbanization, however,
undermined the samurai. The problem was that their principal income came from rice, which they collected
from peasants and then converted into money. However, when increased food production caused rice prices
to fall, the samurai lost income and many fell into a genteel poverty. Many fought back by finding other
work, mostly by becoming administrators and sometimes educators and scholars.
Japanese social hierarchy closely modeled the Chinese, because of the Confucian cultural influence.
At the top were the nobility, including the Emperor, Shogun and the Daimyo, followed by the Samurai. Then
followed the peasants, artisans and merchants, and finally the mean classes at the bottom .The difference
between China and Japan, however, was the military. In China the military was tolerated as a necessary
evil, but in Japan the military were held in highest esteem.
Gender Relations: The position of women also reflected strict social stratification. Women, especially
those of the samurai class, came under increasing social restrictions because of Confucian principles. Wives
had to obey husbands under pain of death and had little control of property. Males went to school; females
studied at home. Upper class women, however, were highly literate and often expressed that literacy through
creative pursuits and display of social graces reflecting their husband’s status and rank. In the lower classes,
male-female relations were pragmatically more egalitarian as husbands and wives depended upon each other
for economic survival. As in China, female children were undervalued and, if they survived the “thinning out
the rice shoots”, were sometimes sold into prostitution.
Neo-Confucianism and Floating Worlds
Japan had learned much from China using the Chinese language, embracing Buddhism and copying
Confucian philosophy. When the Ming and Qing emperors embraced the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi, the
Tokugawa shoguns followed suit. Neo-Confucianism provided a respectable ideological underpinning for the
bakufu and thus dominated the educational curriculum and became the official ideology of the Tokugawa
Bakufu. Yet many in Japan sought to establish a Japanese identity that did not depend on Chinese culture. In
the 18th and 19th centuries many scholars scorned neo-Confucianism and turned to native traditions (called
Native Learning) along with the native Shinto religion for Japanese identity. Many became xenophobic and
wanted a return to the Japan before the foreign Chinese influence.
This debate about culture had little effect, however, on the emerging merchant class and its vibrant, urban
middle class culture. Thus, the Tokugawa Shogunate saw the development of “Floating Worlds” or Ukiyo,
which were entertainment and pleasure centers where teahouses, theaters, brothels and public baths offered
escape from hard work, social responsibilities and rigid rules of conduct. This rising middle class and
secular culture can be clearly seen in prose writing, theater and art.
Ihara Saikaku was a poet by training but helped to create a new kind of literature, called Books of the
Floating World, whose principal subject matter was centered on love. In The Life of a Man who lived for
Love, Ihara tells the story of man and his search of love with an erotic quality that appealed to literate, hardworking, city dwellers that were bored by neo-Confucian treatises.
Beginning in the early seventeenth century, two new forms are drama appeared: Kabuki and Bunraku.
Kabuki Theater was a genre that usually consisted of plays incorporating humorously indecent skits, stylized
acting, lyric singing, dancing and spectacular staging. A critical component of kabuki was improvisation. In
Bunraku chanters accompanied by music told a story acted out by puppets. Both forms of theater were
designed to entertain by taking people’s minds off their everyday problems and responsibilities.
Japanese art, especially Block Printing and sculpture, fell more and more under the influence of the outside
world. Neo-Confucianism turned Chinese art inward, but Japanese potters imitated Korean designs and
Japanese painters began to experiment along western lines using oil paints, drawing with perspective and
using Baroque styles of interplay of light and dark.
Christianity, Dutch Learning and Isolationism
Christian missionaries came to Japan during this period and the most famous was the Jesuit Francis Xavier
who traveled to Japan in 1549 and opened a mission. Many Japanese including many powerful daimyo
adopted Christianity and ordered their subjects to do so as well. By 1615 there were about a half million
Japanese Christians. But their success caused a backlash because many government officials feared the loss
of Japanese native religious and cultural traditions. And they feared European ways could cause
destabilization of Japanese society.
After 1639, the government ordered Christian missions to be closed and Japanese Christians to give up their
new religion. European missionaries were tortured and killed when they refused to leave and many Japanese
Christians were crucified or burned at the stake. By the late 1600s Christianity had been driven underground
and was practiced secretly only in a few rural regions of southern Japan. For all practical purposes, Japan had
shut itself off from the rest of the world. (Amazingly, some of these Japanese Christians survived underground
until the twentieth century when they could again practice their religion)
After 1639 only Dutch merchants were allowed to trade at the port of Nagasaki. A small number of Japanese
learned Dutch into order to communicate and learn about the outside world. After 1720, the Tokugawa
authorities lifted the ban on foreign books and Dutch Learning began to play a significant role in Japanese
intellectual life. The Japanese were interested in European anatomical studies and botany as well as scientific
and medical treatises. European astronomy was also popular and by the mid 18th century schools of European
medicine and Dutch studies flourished in several Japanese cities.
In spite of Dutch Leaning however, the Tokugawa shoguns sealed Japan off from the rest of the world. The
Tokugawa shoguns remained strong until the mid-eighteenth century, when inflexibility began to wear down
the state. Gradual decentralization set in with increasing political and social tensions. This policy was called
Sakoku (meaning locked country) meant that no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the
country on penalty of death. This policy lasted from 1633 and remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival
of American Commodore Matthew Perry and the opening of Japan.