- part 2 -

Click to expand: Map1, Map2
This is the second part of our introduction to China as context to the letters from Shanghai written by my grand uncle around 1901. I have freely borrowed and adapted from many Internet sources (listed at the end). More elaborate site with a similar purpose include:

Return to Part 1.

Index of the Dynasties

... - 1000
1000 - 0
0 - 1000
1000 - 2000
(2100-1600 BCE)
(1600-1000 BCE)
Chou (1000-256 BCE)

Qin , 50 years
Han (206 BCE-...)

Han (...-220)
Three Kingdoms
Sui - 30 years
Tang (618 - 907)
Song (960 - 1270)
Mongols (1270 - 1370)
Ming (1370 - 1640)
Manchu (1640 - 1911)

Dynasty Guide (Minneapolis Institue of Arts)

Timeline of Chinese history

The Ming dynasty: 1368 - 1644

The Ming (Brilliant) dynasty was founded by a peasant and former Buddhist monk who became a general and led a revolt against the Mongols. He took the name Hong Wu (Vast Military) and set up his capital in Nanjing - a later Ming emperor would move it back to Beijing. Hongwu reorganized all aspects of government and society - mainly to prevent others from usurping power. He eliminated the prime minister's office and took direct control of the bureaucracy. He wrote a new code of laws, and, to prevent social mobility (that enabled a peasant to become emperor), he made all occupations hereditary with three large classes: peasants, craftspeople, and soldiers.

Ming armies reconquered Annam (north Vietnam) and extended the Great Wall to 4,000 miles to keep back the Mongols. The watch towers were redesigned and cannons were added. At its peak, the Ming Wall was guarded by more than one million men. Under the Ming dynasty, China experienced incredible expansion in all areas of economic life: agriculture, industry, commerce, and - new to China - naval exploration.

At this time, Chinese naval technology was far ahead of the rest of the world. They had invented the rudder and watertight compartments and had established sea routes for trade with Japan and south Asia. Starting in 1405 A.D., the emperor sent Zheng He (or Cheng Ho), a Moslem eunuch slave who became Admiral, on a series of seven naval expeditions that went as far as the east coast of Africa returning with foreign ambassadors and tribute to the Ming court. Zheng He's first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships - some over 100m long with 9 masts and manned by 500 men. In total, he traveled more than 50,000 km and visited over 37 countries. The picture above compares one of ZhengHe's ships with a Colombus Caravelle.

The Ming maritime expeditions stopped rather suddenly after the last voyage. They were expensive and the conservative Neo-Confucian bureaucracy decided that China was so far ahead of the rest of the world that nothing useful was to be gained from outside contacts. This would allow European countries to gain control of the Asian seas.

European exploration

The Europeans were aware of the fabulous kingdoms in the East from the goods like spices and silk, that came over the land routes. But Italian cities like Venice and Genoa monopolised the trade and Moslem middlemen got most of the profits. Other nations dreamed of finding alternative sea routes that would bypass the established channels and give them direct access to the wealth of the East. Finding these routes required knowledge, time and money and exploration could only start when feudal lands merged into large unified countries.

More on European exploration of Asia

More on Sailing Ships


Chinese history


WWW Links


1. Schirokauer, C., Brown, M., Lurie, D. and Gay, S. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilization. International Thomson Publishers, 2005.

1860 Taiping rebels fail to take Shanghai, repelled by a force led by an Englishman, Frederick Townsend Ward.

1861 China's Manchu emperor, Xianfeng, has been weakened by debauchery and drugs and dies at the age of thirty. The son of his consort succeeds him. The former consort, Cixi, becomes the boy's regent and acquires the title Dowager Empress.

1864 In China, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, Hong Xiuchuan, proclaims that God will defend his city, Tianjin (southeast of Beijing). When government forces approach he swallows poison and dies. The monarchy re-establishes control over most areas of China. The Taiping rebellion is all but defeated.

1871 The Meiji government sends a few men to Europe and to the U.S., hoping to secure abolition of the Unequal Treaties and to examine Western technology, banking and agricultural techniques - the Iwakura Mission.

1887 The Yellow River bursts its banks, and the flooding kills 900,000 Chinese.

1894 Korea's king calls for help from China to suppress riots. Opposed to China's influence in Korea, Japan sends troops and takes control of Korea. Japan's military moves north from Korea into Manchuria, and they move eastward to Port Arthur.

1894 An antiquated military force from Manchu China is overwhelmed by Japan's more modern force.

1895 China signs the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding to Japan control over the Liaodong peninsula to Port Arthur, ceding to Japan Taiwan and permitting Japanese to live in and trade with Chinese.

1897 German forces occupy and start to build a naval base at Tsingtao (Qingdao) following the murder of two German missionaries. This provokes a European and American rush for concessions in China.

1898 Britain obtains a 99-year lease of Hong Kong from the Chinese.

1898 In China and India the bubonic plague begins to kill what will eventually be three million people.

1899 The McKinley administration hopes to build prosperity at home through trade with China. It calls for equal trading rights among all powers in all parts of China and for China's territorial integrity - a so-called Open Door policy. It is ignored except that Russia and Japan voice displeasure.

1899 In China angry men take up terrorism. They are known as Boxers. More than terrorists, they are nationalists. In the streets that display slogans such as "protect the country and destroy the foreigner." At least half of them are youths, and they have religious fervor. They fear magic created by the Christians. They attack and kill Christian missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. Rather than rebels, they have government approval.

1900 The U.S., Japan, and European nations send military forces to China to rescue people and to put down what the West calls the Boxer Rebellion. Filled with vengeful wrath, troops move through Beijing, attacking those they believe are Boxers. They injure and pillage the property of innocent Chinese.