China’s Role In The World In The Antiquity And The Middle Ages

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China’s role in the world experienced some transformations from ancient to modern times. Some significant changes in roles act by China mainly appeared in the economic and political aspects throughout the three long periods in history mentioned in the course, which were the Antiquity in Eurasia, the Global Middle Ages and the modern era.

During the first historical period, which is the Antiquity, China experienced its first change in role. At the beginning of the Antiquity, China developed itself independently, because China was surrounded by a number of “natural barriers”(Bulliet et al., 2019, pp. 82). According to the lecture slides (2019), China had its own language, religious and political ideas, and way of living. Towns and cities flourished and then there were economic and political activities. However, it was difficult for China to interact with other parts of Asia until the Qin, Han period. Starting from Qin, Han Dynasties, China began to take up roles in the world. The economic role of China in the Antiquity seemed to be the trading hub in Eurasia. One of the most significant economic contribution of China in the ancient period may happen around the Han Dynasty, which is the development of the “Silk Road”, which according to the historical document “Sea Routes and Silk Roads”, connected China and the Mediterranean, India and the Southeast Asia, and formed a business chain (para 3). In addition, there was also a sea route that joint China and the Middle East together. As “Sea Routes and Silk Roads” mentioned, the Chinese at that time traded goods, such as “ceramics, lacquered boxes” (para 2) and so on. One of the main products that Chinese trade with others was silk, which was said to be originated from the Neolithic period. At that time, ancient Chinese manufactured silk threads by nurturing silkworms (Bulliet et al., 2019, pp. 82). Through doing business with businessmen from the Middle East or other places, China’s products, culture and maybe also knowledge were able to be spread to and exchange with other parts of the world. China was no longer an isolated nation. It started to take up an influential role in the world. In the political aspect, China was acting as one of the huge empires in Eurasia in the Antiquity. Qin and Han were considered to be empires by their act of conquering. According to the lecture slides (2019), Qin unified other warring states, while in the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han actively expanded Han’s territory, especially stretched to Central Asia area. For example, as the historical document “Huan Kuan, Debate on Salt and Iron”(para 2) mentioned, Emperor Wu of Han defeated Xiongnu and Hexi Corridor was under Han’s control. In order to further strengthen the nation, especially supporting the military actions, the government led by Emperor Wu of Han dominated the trade of salt, iron, and wine (“Huan Kuan, Debate on Salt and Iron”, para 3). With adequate capital, Han was able to expand and develop into a great empire, just like the Roman Empire.

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During the second historical period, which was the Global Middle Ages, the economic and political roles of China act in the world were mostly the same, but with more in-depth participation in the world economy. In the economic aspect, China at that period was still the joining point of the commercial web in Eurasia. According to the lecture slides (2019), the expansion of the territory of Mongolians led to a more in-depth exchange of products and ideologies in Eurasia. China imported religious beliefs, art, medicine and other goods from foreign countries while exporting products such as silk, as well as porcelain to various parts in Eurasia. Moreover, according to the lecture slides (2019), more Chinese in the Yuan Dynasty choose to become businessmen as there were very few political opportunities given to them. Thus, there was a rapid growth in financial activities in the cities. Unfortunately, the empire of the Mongolians shattered after the outbreak of the Black Death and its rule was overtook by the Ming monarchy. As in the Ming Dynasty, according to the lecture slides (2019), there was still a constant flow of high-ended products, such as silk and porcelain from China to different places in Eurasia by Silk Road and other paths. Moreover, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle sent a eunuch called Zheng He to explore the marine to find new economic opportunities (Bulliet et al., 2019, pp. 335, para 5). Zheng He went on expeditions for 7 times. It was said that he might have arrived at “the Strait of Madagascar” (Bulliet et al., 2019, pp. 335, para 6). Therefore, through these marine explorations, the Ming empire developed new commercial and political relationships with other countries. After the Ming Dynasty, there was the Qing Dynasty ruled by the Manchurians. According to the lecture slides (2019), during the Qing monarchy, business paths from Korea to Central Asia was reconstructed due to the Qing Empire’s huge domain, which proved that China was able to sustain its role as a commercial spot in Eurasia. The economic influence of China in the Middle Ages also appeared in a popular idea in the 18th century called “Chinoiserie”, which according to the lecture slides (2019), means “the imitation or evocation of Chinese motifs and techniques in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century”. As for the political aspect, the role of China in the Global Middle Ages seems to continue to be the huge, imperial nation in Eurasia. According to the lecture slides (2019), the Mongols expanded their empire’s region to the location where Turkey exists nowadays, while in the early Qing Dynasty, the territory of the empire even was double that of the Ming monarchy, while its population was double that of Europe, which made the Qing monarchy the biggest empire around the world at that time.

Moving on to the third historical period, which was the modern era, China’s role changed a lot. Economically, its role as a business center in Eurasia started to weaken, while politically, starting from the Middle of the Qing Dynasty, its role as a strong empire changed intensely. In the economic aspect, although in the early period in the Qing Dynasty, China was still the business center, the Qing government showed signs to restrict foreign trades. For example, according to the lecture slides (2019), from 1757-1842, it was said that businessmen from Europe were only permitted to do business in Guangzhou. The most significant event that showed China’s role as an international commercial hub declined was the opium trade incident that later led to the Opium War (1839-1842). According to the lecture slides (2019), starting from 1750 onward, Europe underwent a number of revolutions, which one of them was the Industrial Revolution that facilitated the reordering of the international economy. Through the Industrial Revolution, Europeans eventually able to export mass-produced products to other countries. Businessmen from East India Company brought opium that was made in India to China. The demand for opium was high in China, therefore for the first time, silver, which was heavily traded in China, flew out of China. The Nanjing Treaty signed after China’s defeat in the Opium War included a number of economic compensation, which made China’s commercial relationship with countries in Europe more disadvantaged. This also symbolized that China was no longer the commercial center in Eurasia. In the political aspect, the defeat of the Opium War indicated China had lost its superior status as a huge empire in Eurasia. However, the Chinese reformed the political system by setting up a new government. Although the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) happened, the success in defeating Japan after 8 years implied that China was recovering its image as a great nation. Moreover, after the Communist Party of China established the People’s Republic of China, China started to adopt a new political system to go on the road of becoming a great country once again.

All in all, China played the role of a dominant economic and political force in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, its role differed at the beginning of the modern era and its international status was lowered. Despite this, China was still able to retrieve its status by reforming politically and economically.  


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