J. K. Fairbank, Trditional China at Its Peak

J. K. Fairbank, Trditional China at Its Peak - Traditional...

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Traditional China at Its Peak: Achievements and Problems John K . Fairbank This selection from John K. Fairbanks' magistral survey, The Great Chinese Revolution, assesses the traditional system under the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty as it had developed by the early nineteenth century. It describes a China that still impressed contemporary European observers. The commercialization and domestic trade that had begun to grow under the Song (Sung) and Ming had reached far higher levels. In 1800, and perhaps as late as 1850, China was still, all in all, probably more prosperous than Europe; average welfare levels were probably higher. But China by then was rapidly falling behind technologically as Europe forged ahead with its industrial revolution. The system had begun to run out of steam, with no new technology boosting production to support a still growing population that had more than doubled since the seventeenth century. In other respects too, the traditional system proved incapable of adjusting adequately to the mounting population pressures. The imperial administration, always a thin layer, was stretched beyond its ability to deal with both local and national problems. Official and private corruption became a growing problem, and there were the beginnings of widespread dissatisfaction, demoralization, and even revolt. Fairbank here adroitly summarizes recent scholarship on this period and gives us a vivid picture of the Great Tradition as it approached its steep decline after about 1850. WHEN WE LOOK at China in 1800 the first thing that strikes the eye is a remarkable paradox: the institutional structure of the society, especially the government, was showing little capacity for change, but the people and therefore the economy were undergoing rapid and tremendous growth. Until recently this paradox remained largely unnoticed. It may well be called a contradiction between substructure and superstructure. China's modern history began with the Opium War of 1840 both in the thinking of the Western powers that invaded China in the nineteenth century and also in the thinking of the Marxist revolutionaries who have represented the latest phase of that invasion. Early foreign observers noticed that the structure of government from Ming to Ch'ing had hardly altered, the tribute system for handling foreign relations remained active at least in the ritual forms of the Ch'ing court, and the government had not noticeably expanded or developed in comparison with what the Jesuits had reported three hundred years earlier. The result was a European impression of an "unchanging" China. Recent research has made it plain that this was a very superficial judgment that applied only and mainly to institutional structures like the bureaucratic state and perhaps the family system. The facts of Chinese life were far otherwise. As of 1800 the Chinese people had just completed a
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This note was uploaded on 06/17/2008 for the course HIST 122 taught by Professor Iforgot during the Spring '08 term at Philadelphia.

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J. K. Fairbank, Trditional China at Its Peak - Traditional...

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