The Ming government reached its lowest point early in the 17th century when the onset of one of the intervals of the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling in the northern hemisphere, brought low temperatures and droughts in many parts of the country, leading to famine in some areas. Floods devastated other regions. Farmers whose crops had failed or who had inherited plots of land too small to support their families were unable to pay their taxes or their rents. Even those who could pay had difficulty finding the silver with which the law said taxes must be paid.

The government needed silver more than ever. The cost of supporting the imperial family had grown astronomically; over the years, court officials had used their positions to amass great wealth, often through corruption, and the war in Korea had been tremendously costly. With silver in short supply, the emperor sent court officials to the provinces, supposedly to inspect mines. In reality, the job of the officials was to confiscate silver held by merchants. When a group of Chinese officials arrived in Manila in 1603 to take silver from Chinese merchants there, the Spanish, believing China was planning to attack the city, killed twenty thousand Chinese residents and were no longer willing to trade with China. With the imperial government lacking sufficient funds to pay the army, Chinese soldiers were laid off. In 1627–1628, hungry, impoverished, and angry soldiers and peasants rose up in revolt in northern China.

After 1627 there were waves of peasant revolts following crop failures in the northwest. By 1636 almost all of central, northern, and northwestern China was in rebellion. Rebel leader Li Zicheng from Honan and adjacent areas invaded Beijing in 1644 in spite of its wide, guarded walls. Realizing that his time of leadership had come to an end, the last Ming emperor committed suicide. Li Zicheng, as the conqueror of Beijing, declared himself the ruler of China and the founder of a new dynasty. He did not rule long enough to establish his dynasty, however. The next rulers of China were the Manchus.

The Manchus were members of an ethnic group that lived northeast of the Great Wall in southern Manchuria.  In the late sixteenth century, the Manchu leader Nurhaci formed the Manchu tribes into a state that paid tribute to the Ming emperor. In 1616, as the Ming dynasty began to collapse, the Manchus attacked Chinese settlements on the Liaodong Peninsula. They forced artisans to provide weapons for their army and farmers to provide food. Officials and army officers who were willing to submit to them were given positions in the Manchu administration. Those who rebelled were massacred.

Following Nurhaci’s death in 1626, his son Hong Taiji proclaimed himself the leader of the Qing (“pure,” “clear”) dynasty. As he expanded Manchu control over Chinese territory, he adopted Chinese forms of administration and incorporated greater numbers of Chinese officials in his government. Chinese bureaucrats and army officers, disgusted with the corruption of the Ming government and its inability to respond to the country’s problems, began to defect to the Manchus in large numbers. Fearing ongoing chaos following Li Zicheng’s capture of Beijing, Ming general Wu Sangui, who was charged with guarding the eastern end of the Great Wall, allowed the Manchu armies through. On May 27, 1644, Wu Sangui’s troops and Manchu forces defeated Li Zicheng’s army and took control of Beijing. The Manchu armies swept south, but Ming resistance there was fierce, and it was not until 1683 that all of China was brought under Manchu control.

Despite what many Chinese had feared, the early Qing emperors proved good rulers. They strove to preserve their identity as Manchus, but they also embraced Chinese culture. The Manchu were careful to maintain their superior positions, however, and demanded loyalty from the Chinese. For example, local positions in government were usually given to Han Chinese bureaucrats, but supervisory positions were given to Manchus. All males were also required to demonstrate their acceptance of Manchu rule by wearing the distinctive Manchu hairstyle; the front part of the head was shaved, and the hair in the back was grown long and braided into a single queue. After 1645, men who did not wear their hair in this fashion were subject to execution.

The first Qing emperor, Kangxi, toured China to acquaint himself with his new domain. He adopted the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus and ordered that each of the government’s six major ministries be led by Manchu and Han Chinese co-administrators. Kangxi governed according to Confucian principles and maintained the system of imperial examinations for government jobs.  Although initially adverse to cultural intermingling with their Chinese subject peoples, the Manchu conquerors became culturally “Chinese.” They justified their rule by presenting themselves as restorers of good Confucian rule and worked together with local elites to form the Qing Dynasty. From the beginning, they appointed ethnic Chinese, often former Ming officials, to important positions in the government. Confucian exams were continued, with the very best Chinese scholars selected as officials, but under the Manchus, Chinese officials had to share access to office with Manchu Confucianists to keep Manchu control over Chinese Confucianism. The same dual control approach was used in the military, with Manchu banner forces intended to hold ultimate power over Chinese forces. Kangxi gave China the most prosperous, peaceful, and enlightened reign in the nation’s history. His realm, which included Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, Indochina, Annam, Tibet, and Turkestan, was the largest, richest, and most populous empire of its time.


A portrait of the Emperor Kangxi in Court Dress by an anonymous court painter. (Source: Wikimedia)

Like other Chinese rulers, Kangxi supported Buddhism. He tolerated other religions, including Christianity, as long as they continued to venerate their ancestors and respect those in authority.  Kangxi and his successors Yongzheng and Qianlong, placed China on secure financial footing.  Fearing that the Ming had succumbed to lax moral standards brought on by wealth and luxury, Qing scholars emphasized the importance of traditional Chinese morality. Great emphasis was placed on traditional Confucian values.

Most Chinese were farmers, but China also had highly skilled artisans. The cotton works of Songjiang, south of Shanghai, employed 200,000 workers, not including tailoring and dressmaking. By the end of the 17th century, the population had again risen to 130 million. As the population grew, peasants faced increased competition for land and resources. In this way, the lives of peasants continued to be difficult, as the increased wealth brought about by trade enriched the lives of the merchant and elites classes of society. The medium of economic exchange in 17th century China was silver, not gold. In fact, the Chinese did not assign great value to gold and would exchange it for silver at exceptionally low rates. Historians believe that between one-third and one-half of the silver mined in America between 1527 and 1821 found its way to China.  During the Qing dynasty, China continued to rely on foreign trade income, and European demand for Chinese products did not cease. The Qing remained wary of Europeans, however, and wished to minimize contact with foreigners as the Japanese had done.

Qing China, in contrast to the Ming but in ways similar to much earlier empires, greatly expanded its borders, gaining authority over a lot of non-ethnic Chinese. Non-Chinese areas included not only the Manchu homelands to the northeast, but also other large areas to the north and west. Perhaps, even more importantly, the expansion of the Qing transformed Central Asia. For centuries, Central Asia had been the “lifeblood” of trade in Eurasia as merchants traversed the Silk Road. However, under Chinese (and subsequent Russian) rule, Central Asia’s importance was diminished.


As the 17th century began, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rival generals and became the new shogun in 1603. To consolidate power, Ieyasu established a kind of stable, centralized feudalism in which subdued regional warriors kept top status but were now subordinate to overall Tokugawa dominance. Thus, the leader (daimyo) of each regional realm (han) was expected to spend significant time in attendance to the Tokugawa shoguns at Edo, and when back in their hans, to leave wives and heirs in Edo as hostages. Although in theory Japan’s ancient imperial family was the source of ultimate authority, in reality the shoguns (which, roughly translated, means hereditary military dictators) of the Tokugawa family held dominant ruling power until 1868, when they were overthrown in the Meiji Restoration. Their rule was characterized by peace, but also by the development of rigid class distinctions and isolation from outsiders.


A 17th portrait of Tokuwaga Ieyasu (Source: Wikimedia)

The Tokugawa Shogunate continued the rigid class rules established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Those of warrior rank were confirmed as holding dominant, permanent birth-based elite status. The traditional Confucian four classes (warriors, merchants, artisans, and peasants) were legally frozen in place, with no change in social class allowed. According to this system, the daimyo were the highest social category, followed by the caste of samurai, or warriors. Daimyo and samurai comprised about one percent of the Japanese population; nearly everyone else was in the lower classes. Peace and greatly increased requirements for travel by many dozens of shoguns helped growing merchant prosperity, although their 2nd tier social status continued.

The peace and unity that Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rule brought to Japan ushered in a period of prosperity and cultural blossoming. The daimyos took control of the lands that had belonged to their samurai, and the samurai moved to the cities in which their lords’ castles were located. The daimyos established schools where the sons of their vassals studied Chinese characters, learned the Confucian classics, and were instructed in military skills. Temple schools taught the children of artisans and merchants. Tokugawa Japan boasted a high level of literacy, which supported a thriving publishing industry. In Edo alone, there were hundreds of shops in which people could buy or rent novels and other types of books. People visited restaurants and theaters in their leisure time, and those who could afford to do so traveled to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, often at festival time.

Like Hideyoshi, Ieyasu also feared that Christians posed a threat to Japan, a belief Dutch and English merchants seeking trade advantages encouraged. Ieyasu was aware of hostile Portuguese and Spanish actions in India and the Philippines and did not intend to surrender control of Japan. He also feared that by adopting the foreign faith, he would give disloyal daimyos opportunities to conspire against him. He was encouraged in this belief when a Christian samurai forged a document to help another Christian samurai claim land he desired and a scandal erupted. The forger, caught, also claimed that a plan existed to kill an official of the shogun’s government.  In 1614, Ieyasu outlawed the practice of Christianity and ordered missionaries to leave the country. Japanese Christians were warned that if they did not renounce their faith, they would be killed. It was clear to Ieyasu that the best way to keep Christian influence—and other dangerous forces—out of the country was to ban the entry of foreigners and forbid Japanese to leave. Preventing Japanese from leaving the country would also keep daimyos from conspiring against him in foreign lands.

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In 1833, a Japanese artist published a woodblock series depicting his journey from Edo to Kyoto. You can view the amazing prints at this website.


The vast majority of Japanese were peasants, but over the Edo period cities grew more populous, which meant that an increasing proportion of the population was in the artisanal and merchant classes. Entertainers, prostitutes, and those whose professions involved dealing with death, a taboo subject, comprised a sort of underclass. The position of women dwindled under the restrictive regime, and officially women lost the right to own property and to initiate divorce. Increased emphasis on Confucianism meant women’s status was reduced somewhat. In earlier times, women of warrior families were important in running estates while the warriors were away, now they were increasingly portrayed as weak and needing to be controlled.

For centuries, many observers of early modern Europe have thought that because both the Tokugawa Shogunate and the European absolute monarchies were political systems in which power was centralized at the top, there was a fundamental similarity between Japanese and European societies. This simple observation, however, obscures the fact that fundamental differences also existed between European absolute monarchies and the Tokugawa Shogunate. While the Shogunate did concentrate power at the top, the daimyo still had some autonomy and sometimes their own armies, unlike, for instance, the nobility of absolutist France. Moreover, while European absolute monarchs encouraged the growth of the commercial class to offset the power of the nobility and the church, the Japanese commercial class did not develop until late in the Tokugawa Shogunate, and then not as an offset to daimyo or samurai power.

Although warrior ideals were continued in the abstract, all war was banned and civilian-based Confucianism was increasingly emphasized as the basic, justifying philosophy of Tokugawa central rule. To reduce disruptive outside influences, almost all contact with outside non-Asian powers was banned, as was Christianity. The sole exception to seaborne Western visitors allowed the arrival of two Dutch ships a year, under very tightly controlled regulations. This was part of a broader isolationist policy: Japanese were forbidden, on penalty of death, from leaving the island, and the only country with which Japan maintained diplomatic relations during the Tokugawa Shogunate was Korea. Japan conducted little trade with outsiders.


Excerpts from Will Adams’ letter

Will Adams was the first Englishman to make his home in Japan. His knowledge of shipbuilding made him so useful to the emperor that, although he was treated with honors and liberality, he was not allowed to leave the country. The Japanese of the street in Yedo which was named for him still hold an annual celebration in his memory. The letter from which the following extracts are taken was written in 1611. In this section, Adams explains how he was pressed into making a ship for the Emperor but was not allowed to leave:

So in process of four or five years the emperor called me, as divers times he had done before. So one time above the rest he would have me to make him a small ship. I answered that I was no carpenter and had no knowledge thereof. “Well, do your endeavor,” said he; “if it be not good, it is no matter.” Wherefore at his command I built him a ship of the burden of eighty tons or thereabout; which ship being made in all respects as our manner is, he coming aboard to see it, liked it very well; by which means I came in favor with him, so that I came often in his presence, who from time to time gave me presents, and at length a yearly stipend to live upon, much about seventy ducats by the year with two pounds of rice a day daily. …

In the end of five years I made supplication to the king to go out of this land, desiring to see my poor wife and children according to conscience and nature. With the which request the emperor was not well pleased, and would not let me go any more for my country, but to bide in his land. … I made supplication again, and boldly spoke myself with him, at which he gave me no answer. I told him if he would permit me to depart, I would be a means that both the English and Hollanders should come and traffic there. But by no means he would let me go.

Read a longer excerpt of the letter (from which these examples were taken).

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Learn more about the Dutch trade in Japan and the life of Will Adams by reading this article.



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