The ancient Chinese originally believed that the world was divided into Chinese (hua xia) and barbarians (man yi). In the Zhou Dynasty, the royal family and its fiefdoms were hua xia, and all other tribes were barbarians. The monarch ruled the country by using advanced civilization to convince other groups to join his side, and only when the barbarians attacked did he order the army to fight back. The unified Qin Empire established a new order of dealing with the barbarians around China.
China was open during the Qin and Han dynasties. Qin Shi Huang went to attack the Xiongnu (the great nomadic empire to the north of China in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, which extended to Iranian-speaking Central Asia and perhaps gave rise to the Huns of the Central Asian Iranian sources) and tour the frontiers in an attempt to find the borders of the world. China at that time profoundly influenced the civilization of the Korean Peninsula. Among the more than 100 states in the Japanese archipelago, over 30 small states had close ties with the Han Dynasty by sending messengers to each other. Rice, iron, and silk were introduced to Japan, and some of the tools and utensils found in Japan were made similarly to those of the Han Dynasty. The relationship between Vietnam and ancient China was even closer, as the Qin army conquered the Yue tribes in the south in 214 BC and established three prefectures, among which the Xiangjun prefecture was in northern Vietnam. During the Han Dynasty, iron tools, farming techniques, and water conservation technology were also introduced to the Vietnamese Peninsula.
During the Qin and Han dynasties, the most important foreign exchanges were Zhang Qian’s two diplomatic missions to the West and the foundation of the Silk Road. In 139 BC, Zhang Qian led more than 100 people on his first expedition to the West, with the original intention of establishing an alliance with the country of Tokhara against the Xiongnu. Though he did not accomplish this goal, he opened up the Silk Road from the Han Dynasty to the West. Zhang Qian also explained the geography and humanities of the Onion Ridge (Pamirs), Central Asia, West Asia, Parthia (an ancient country on the Iranian Plateau), and India to Emperor Wu, broadening the horizons of the ruler. In 119 BC, Zhang Qian was sent to the West once more with more than 300 people, carrying gold, silk, cattle, and other belongings. He visited Central Asian countries such as Ferghana, Sogdiana, Tokhara, Daxia, and Bactria, bringing technologies such as silk, porcelain, and iron manufacturing to the West Regions. When Zhang Qian and his men came back, they brought the plants of the Western countries such as grapes, pomegranates, flax, and alfalfa back to China. Since then, these countries often sent envoys to each other, and the bilateral trades had developed, thus making the Silk Road prosperous with posts and merchants.
Zhang Qian connected the Western Regions with China, and Buddhism from India gained access to China. The rulers of the Han Dynasty did not reject foreign cultures, and some of them were, in fact, curious about them. Emperor Ming of Han sent envoys to Tianzhu (now India)for Buddhist scriptures. When they arrived, they met two eminent Indian monks. Later they loaded Buddhist scriptures and a portrait of the Buddha onto a white horse and returned to Luoyang with two Indian monks. The emperor gave a grand reception and ordered the White Horse Temple (bai ma si) as a monastery for sutra translation, where the first Chinese translation of Buddhist text was created.
The Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern dynasties were a period of long-standing disunion and hostility, but land and sea transportation was greatly improved, and foreign exchanges were more prosperous. In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, a 65-year-old Chinese monk named Fa Xian (334-420)set out from Chang’an on a pilgrimage for Buddhist scriptures in Tianzhu via the Western region and returned home 14 years later. He also wrote A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms, which was the first detailed description of the trade of wind and sailing, thus enriching the experience of maritime trade between the Eastern Han Dynasty and India, Persia, and other countries.
When Buddhism spread to China as an exotic culture, the emperors were mostly tolerant, and some of them even supported it, exempting monasteries from taxes and corvée, and even adopting it as an official faith. However, the Buddhist Persecutions led by Emperor Taiwu (408-452) of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), Emperor Wu (543-578) of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581), Emperor Wuzong (814-846) of the Tang Dynasty, and Emperor Shizong (921-959) of the Later Zhou Dynasty (951-960) reinforced the political principle that Buddhism must respect imperial power.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, foreign exchanges were active. Emperor Taizong of Tang declared that “we are the world,” which eliminated the traditional prejudice towards foreigners, so he was honored as Heavenly Khan. In 627, Monk Xuanzang (602-664) left China through Jade Gate Pass for India to the Nalanda Temple, the great ancient university of India, to study sutras. Seventeen years later, he returned home and was received by Emperor Taizong in a grand manner. In Xuanzang’s 12 volumes of The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, it described the customs of 110 countries he personally experienced and 28 countries he heard about, which promoted the cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries. In 742, Monk Jianzhen (688-763)was invited to Japan by native monks. Although it took him six attempts, he finally succeeded in reaching Japan in 754, bringing many books and cultural relics to Japan and contributing to the cultural exchange between China and Japan.
As a result of its policy of “esteeming literacy and despising martiality (zhong wen qing wu),” the Song Dynasty was highly prosperous in culture. At that time, the powerful Liao and Jin regimes in the north constantly invaded the border. The Song Dynasty adopted flexible diplomacy of peace, war, and defense and made the largest number of peace treaties since ancient times. It standardized diplomatic etiquette, exchanged envoys, and opened marketplaces on the border for foreign trading, maintaining an open economy and culture.
The foreign cultural exchange of the Yuan Dynasty entered a new phase. The Mongolian Empire spanned Europe and Asia, which made many foreign merchants and intellectuals travel frequently. Among them, the Italian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) was the most prominent one. In his book The Travels of Marco Polo, he described what he saw and heard in China, which aroused Europeans’ desire to explore the East, greatly impacting the great geographical discoveries.
The Ming Dynasty pursued a peaceful foreign policy of non-aggression and was basically open to the outside world. Zheng He led a fleet of ships on seven goodwill voyages, reaching as far as the east coast of Africa, which on the one hand demonstrated the strength of the country and enhanced the prestige and status of the Ming Empire, and on the other hand promoted the harmony between nations and the cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries. Zheng He’s seven voyages to the Indian Ocean brought Chinese silk, porcelain, tea, and other things to the Western countries, while Western elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, lions, precious stones, coral, pepper, and spices also came to China with the fleet.
China’s self-seclusion originated from the Japanese pirates’ invasion. Japanese pirates are a general term for the Japanese pirate groups that invaded Korea, coastal areas of China, and Southeast Asia around the 13th to 16th centuries. During the late Yuan and early Ming dynasties, Japanese pirates came to China’s coastal areas to engage in armed smuggling and plundering, so China adopted a policy to ban all maritime shipping. To prevent rebellious coastal forces from colluding with Japanese pirates, Emperor Hongwu of Ming issued the Bans of Marine Trade (jin hai ling).
After the Qing government was established, the policy of maritime trade bans continued. In 1661, the court further issued the Great Clearance (qian hai ling), which forced the islanders and coastal residents to move 10 to 15 miles inland and set boundaries that could not be crossed to ensure the implementation of the prohibition policy. In 1683, the Zheng regime of Ming in Taiwan surrendered to the Qing government. In the following year, Emperor Kangxi abolished the ban on maritime trade, thus leading to a resurgence of the maritime trade between China, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries.
From Emperor Shunzhi (1638 -1661) to the early Kangxi period, European countries such as the Netherlands, Britain, France, and Portugal established special trade relations, gong shi (the trade conducted by foreign merchants accompanying the tribute envoy to the designated place) with the Qing government one after another. However, the Qing government was worried that foreign trade would endanger coastal security, so Emperor Qianlong again imposed strict restrictions on foreign exchange. In 1757, he ordered the closure of all ports to foreign trade except for Canton. As a result, all trade affairs were handled through commercial firms called “the Thirteen Hongs of Canton (shi san yang hang)” authorized by the court as sole agents of external trade to engage in import and export trade with foreigners and negotiate with foreign merchants on behalf of the Qing government. In 1759, the Qing Court issued an edict, Vigilance Towards Foreign Barbarian Regulations, also known as the Five Counter-measures, making the closed-door policy a national system.
As a dynasty founded by nomads, the Qing Dynasty was confronted with both Han and Western cultures. As the ruling strengthened, the Qing emperors believed that Confucianism was the orthodoxy while Western technology was the technical means, revering the orthodoxy and belittling the technology. Emperor Qianlong made full use of traditional Chinese culture to bring the “Kangxi-Qianlong Golden Age” to its zenith, and his confidence in the superiority of traditional Chinese culture was also at its extreme. In his view, the Qing Dynasty was the center of the world, while all foreign countries were barbarians, and science and technology were showy skills unworthy of learning. However, the narrow and closed-minded view of the Qing government predetermined that a clash with the West was inevitable, resulting in the failure of the Opium War. Since then, China’s tragic history of being subjugated by Western capitalists began.