I just finished Imperial China: 900-1800, by F.W. Mote, which not only comprehensively covers a tasty swath of Chinese history but could stun a small mammal.  One thousand pages to cover a period that a general history of China would cover in a tenth of that.

Not surprisingly, its chief virtue is its inclusiveness.  Mote considers not just the dynasties but covers each emperor in depth, plus sketches of the chief intellectual and economic currents. 

Mote believes that China’s relationship with Inner Asia was key, and accordingly devotes quite a lot of attention to the Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols, and Manchus.  Much of this was new to me, and fascinating.  On the nomads’ side, the problem was how to govern an ancient and obstinate sedentary civilization while retaining steppe cred: the ruler must appear as a proper Son of Heaven in Beijing and as an able riding warrior up north.  Curiously it was the first of these, the Khitans, that managed the balance the best.  The Mongols did about the worst– Khubilai Khan was a competent ruler but his successors were all puppets of various factions, and the dynasty didn’t long survive his death.  The Chinese dilemma was, ideally, how to keep the nomads divided and keep their own military strong but not too strong (both emperors and officials had a justified horror of generals becoming rebels).

A factoid for fantasy writers out there: nomadic peoples are likely to be less sexist, not more so than agriculturalists.  Khitan women were very strong; Yingtian, the widow of the first Khitan emperor Abaoji, led her own forces in war and imposed her choice of heir over Abaoji’s wishes.  Queens were expected to sacrifice themselves when their husbands died; when she was reminded of this she pointed out that her children were too young and the nation was leaderless; still, she insisted that her right hand be cut off to be placed in her husband’s grave.  This silenced her critics, did nothing to reduce her powers– and ended the custom of sacrificing queens.

The Manchus, by the way, turn out to be the Jurchens renamed.  They were able to come out from under the shadow of the Mongols and co-opt them, and indeed co-opted many Chinese leaders as well. 

Mote emphasizes many times that the Chinese empire was the most populous in the world, the most prosperous, and for much of his period the most technologically advanced.  It had no aristocracy; it was an open society in which talent could and did move upward; it had a fairly efficient bureaucracy, and it was little affected by religious zealotry.  During times of crisis it could devolve into bandiry or warlordism, but it’s always had a remarkable ability to regain its unity, and at most times it was stable and safe enough that cities didn’t need to build walls. 

So why did it fall behind the West?  In a sense, it was too blessed.  Though it was conquered several times, there was a certain protocol to this– Chinese civilization was never threatened.  Its focus was always on the nomadic threat, to the point that the central government was uninterested in or actively hostile to maritime trade.  It didn’t have many early encounters with the West, and it didn’t find a single Western product it needed– rather, it exported manufactures (e.g. porcelain) in return for silver.

It’s hard not to look at the examination system and the scholar elite without comparing them favorably to European aristocrats.  Yet their scholarship was always based on the study of ancient literary classics; it didn’t prepare them for modern science nor give them a good framework for political analysis.  The system was constantly degraded by lazy monarchs, corruption, or dictatorial factions.  Both emperors and scholars tended to first appeal to morality or ancient writings, then resort to violence.  Only a few rare figures attempted what we’d call political reform. 

The last imperial dynasty was also hobbled by the fact that it was run by foreigners– the Manchus– who were obsessed with rooting out anti-Manchu sentiment.  (One of their projects was to re-publish all earlier literature with all offensive statements about the nomads removed.)  It led the rulers to a great conservativism that was also ill preparation for encountering the raucous Westerners.

Mote, whose name is after all an anagram for tome, can be dry, and he doesn’t always know how to bring a political movement to life, much less everyday life.  (For a more lively approach, jumping with visual details, try John King Fairbank’s The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985.)  But much of the dryness isn’t his fault, but ours.  Most of us are so ignorant of Asian history that it’s a mass of odd names and unfamiliar figures.  If you want to get well beyond that and tell your Ming from your Qing, this book’s for you.