The British Empire and the Chinese Empire: A Comparative Study

Whether it was a lack of relevant material, language barriers, a lack of interest or worse patronizing representations attributed to a Eurocentric mentality historians writing comparative histories of empires have faced issues when articulating their work. Revised ethno-histories of empires would not really take off until Edward Said, seeking to cull Eurocentric practices in the writing of imperial history, published Orientalism in 1978.[1] In that spirit, this essay is a comparative ethno-history of the British Empire and the Chinese Empire, a study that will attempt to remain distant from Eurocentrism but engage with it if it is logically applicable and that engages the empires on their own terms: drawing comparisons where they are evident and highlighting differences where they are relevant. Seeking to avoid assessing a period where one empire was in ascendency while the other was in decline, the period this essay assesses is 1662-1795, a period just shy of the ‘long eighteenth century’ common among British historians.[2] The reason for designating this period is three-fold. Firstly, in the case of Britain, the period of 1583-1783 has been referred to as the ‘First British Empire’ and as a time when Britain stood unrivalled among the empires of Europe following key victories in the Seven Years War.[3] During this first incarnation of empire Britain expanded its influence beyond its own borders and across the Atlantic. Secondly, in the case of China, the period of 1662-1795 was the zenith of the Qing dynasty. Under the reign of three notable Qing emperors China flourished, doubling its population and land mass in ways the previous Ming dynasty could have envisioned.[4] This essay compares British and Chinese concepts of government, society and especially ethnicity to convey its argument that although the two empires had remarkable similarities they differed in structure, goals and practice. While the British Empire sought continual overseas expansion to exert its influence over its continental rivals China under the Qing dynasty adopted conservative policies to ensure its immediate security.

Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution (1688)

When dealing with the origins of the two empires this study must admit to an omission in its introduction that, although slight in name, is significant in meaning. This omission is that before 1707 the British Empire did not even exist. The British Empire came into being following the Acts of Union which united the Kingdoms of England with Scotland to form Britain. To understand the Acts of Union one must understand the circumstances that led to it, as they provide the first point of comparison for this study. Following the religious and social unrest caused by the reign of James II (1685-1688), of the Stuart line, William III (1689-1702), a Protestant Dutch prince from the house of Nassau-Orange, was invited by the English parliament to remove the incumbent king to prevent a Catholic dynasty from taking hold in a conquest of England known as The Glorious Revolution.[5] After James abdicated William and his queen Mary II (1689-1694) contemplated how to placate the northern Scottish who had seen their king overthrown and replaced by another who was in their eyes a foreign invader. The answer was the Acts of Union which began under William but were finished by Mary’s sister and successor to the throne, Anne (1702-1714). The Glorious Revolution and the subsequent Acts of Union were crucial events in the formation of Britain in that they stabilised the nation and enabled it to look beyond its own borders with relative domestic impunity.[6] Compared to the short-lived reigns of its predecessors, the relative stability of the Hanover line; George I (1714-1727), George II (1727-1760) and George III (1760-1820) helped the new nation of Britain triumph over its imperial rivals in the Seven Years War which ended in 1763 and saw Britain emerge as the dominant European empire.[7] The true masterstroke of the Hanover line in this period however was that it devolved select powers from the crown to the aristocracy in parliament, that way if crisis struck the monarchy Britain would endure.[8] Still, the monarchy remained the legal core of the British Empire. All legislation and policy, domestic and colonial, was ratified and implemented in the name of the incumbent monarch.[9]

Manchu Conquest of China

The Manchu Conquest of China (1618 – 1683)

Comparatively the origin of the Qing dynasty was, and if one would forgive the play on terminology, a glorious coincidence. The Qing dynasty began as a proto-state in what is today known as Manchuria. Those who hailed from Manchuria were known as the Manchus, a multi-racial mixture of tribes and peoples backed by the Mongols who had themselves reigned over China as the Yuan dynasty in the period 1271-1368. Upon seeing the decline and waning influence of the Ming dynasty the Manchu launched a conquest of China. Historians from both continents have debated, as is with the Glorious Revolution, whether the Manchu were foreign invaders or whether they were invited into China in the same manner and for the same reasons that William III was to England.[10] Intention and nature of the Qing conquest aside the Manchu were perceived by various sections of Chinese society, often determined by geography and ethnicity, to be a culturally oppressive force – a comparatively smaller but stronger culture exerting its will over all others. The fourth Qing emperor, Kangxi (1661-1722), was by most accounts a remarkable ruler. Whereas his predecessor, Shunzhi (1643-1661), had wrestled with issues over ethnicity and civil unrest over the same Kangxi adopted a more liberal approach to ease the ethnic tensions among his subjects. Despite being an emperor of the Qing dynasty the Manchu were still essentially a minority ruling a majority, or rather a minority ruling other minorities as well as a majority, and Kangxi recognised this.[11] Kangxi set about on a set of government and societal reforms, one example being the government representation reform (po-hsueh hung-ju) of 1697 which balanced the number of provincial and metropolitan appointments equally between Han Chinese and Manchus.[12] Kangxi’s reforms in particular demonstrate an historical parallel with the Acts of Union. Although both must be understood within the context of their respective settings they were essentially unification, or re-unification in the case of the former, measures to ease ethnic tensions within the empire through inclusion rather than exclusion.

This brings this study to another point of comparison. As previously detailed, the government structure of the First British Empire was that the monarch was sovereign above all. Indeed, centralised power would be gradually devolved to aristocrats in parliament but this was something only made possible if not made self-evidently necessary after the chaos of the South Sea Company saga in 1720, which saw the creation of the office of Prime Minister when Robert Walpole saved the monarchy figuratively and literally from being discredited, nearly brought the monarchy to ruin through a lack of government oversight in administration.[13] While the First British Empire nearly met a premature end when the South Sea Company collapsed and almost took George I down with it the government structure of the Qing dynasty was resilient and has been likened to ‘a body that would continue to function even if its head was cut off’.[14] Qing China operated on a level of local government and self-regulation through provincial officials who were to assist the emperor in the bureaucracy of the empire. Since the Qing had such a stalwart system of delegation in place the empire could simply keep operating on a local level even if upheavals in the imperial court took place – events that would have decapitated many European empires. In terms of government there were indeed contrasts of organisation and scale between Britain and China. Both empires mixed bureaucracy, aristocracy and plutocracy, but in different orders for different reasons. To the British aristocracy was primary, at the heart-and-soul of their system, as the aristocracy practically defeated the state with the Glorious Revolution and the post-Stuart line government structure reflected this. At the centre of power was the House of Commons with its front-bench politicians and its back-bench aristocrats. It was supported by the House of Lords, essentially an even higher form of aristocracy who served as a secondary check against unruly politicians as peers of the realm. Both chambers of parliament were designed to support a monarch who began as the word of the law but as the crowns powers were devolved throughout the Hanover reign became akin to an advisory chief executive. Plutocracy in the form of the wealthy politicians and landed interests were part-and-parcel of the aristocracy while bureaucracy was minimised for three reasons. Firstly, Britain had an extremely rigid class structure that limited social mobility, therefore micromanagement of the metropole’s population was seldom required save for times of crisis. Secondly, Britain’s relatively smaller land mass and population meant that it could manage domestic affairs with little need for extensive administration. Thirdly, colonial governance in this period was handled by local elites in the colonies, so parliament again seldom felt the need to directly involve itself by employing masses of administrators to travel overseas and govern the empire’s overseas holdings.

In China on the other hand these priorities were completely reversed.[15] Social hierarchy in China was as rigid as Britain’s if not more-so but reforms passed by Kangxi’s successor Yongzheng (1722-1735) in 1723 attempted to dissolve barriers to social mobility by giving equal legal status to those outside the machinery of government.[16] Despite being a benevolent gesture from the Qing rulers these reforms were just that, a gesture; as social discrimination between fine people (liangmin) and mean people (jianmin) persisted into the twentieth century.[17] Given the sheer size and population of China, let alone the territorial and population expansions the Qing dynasty brought about, bureaucracy was paramount in China and the establishment of the Grand Council (Junjichu) by Yongzheng underlined this.[18] At the centre of the administration was the imperial court where the emperor handled state affairs aided by the Junjichu. The officials of the Junjichu were selected from the best of the bureaucrats from provincial administrators, all of whom had come through academies (shuyuan). Finally, the relationships the Qing emperors had with their aristocracy varied wildly and were occasionally heated. While the Manchu had arguably been welcomed into China by the ethnic groups in the north they were distrusted by local elites in the south and south-west provinces.[19] There were tensions that threatened the stability of provinces, Guizhou especially, between the elites of Han provinces and the Manchu. Qing, or rather Manchu, officials demanding Han elites quell peasant rebellions against the authority of the Manchu, an ethnic minority themselves, understandably never sat well with the Han.[20] Ultimately, the reforms of Kangxi could not quite overcome the fundamental cultural dichotomy of the conqueror and the conquered.[21]

Ethnicity was an exceptionally sensitive subject for both the British Empire and the Chinese Empire and both nations, long after the twilight of their imperial experiences, continue to struggle with the ramifications of historic ethnic policy. The main question that needs to be addressed in this subject is what the nature of each empire was, domestically and overseas. The First British Empire, of the eighteenth-century, was a maritime empire built on the principles of trade and global cultural enlightenment.[22] With regards to overseas colonies the British Empire was, besides ventures in India, based in the Atlantic, peopled by colonists of British origin held together by economic and cultural ties to Britain. Many of the emigrants from Britain to the American colonies had been made to emigrate on a Malthusian basis but still felt affinity for the homeland across the ocean.[23] This affinity would of course be shattered by the American Revolution, an event which saw Britain, in the aftermath of the upheaval, move even further towards a system of indirect rule and prioritisation of commerce over direct rule.[24] Britain applied ethnic policy in two forms, domestic policy in the British Isles and colonial policy in its overseas holdings but the development of colonial policy began with regional experiments close to home.[25]

Williamite War

The Williamite War (1689 – 1691)

Although the Acts of Union demonstrate government legislation uniting different ethnic groups into one collective identity: of Englishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen into Britons the Irish remained a major ethnic thorn in Britain’s side. The Irish relations with England had always been strained. The Cromwellian Conquest and the subsequent colonisation of Ireland left the country in a state of limbo between being a kingdom with its own distinct ethnic identity and a New World colony.[26] Although the English were largely content for James II to be overthrown in the Glorious Revolution they could not hope to extend the same gesture of unity to the Irish that they did to the Scottish, the result of this was a short but significant war between England and Ireland known as the Williamite War. The Williamite War, fought in the period 1689-1691, was at its core a war over ethnic identity.[27] The conquest and religious repression of the Catholic Irish was a sign of things to come for the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the least of which being the fact that Irishmen were not recognised as British subjects until 1829 despite being occupied since 1659. England’s peripheral regions, Scotland and especially Ireland, became the laboratories of its maritime empire where England experimented with methods of rule and ethnic amalgamation before applying their findings to their overseas colonies, turning what was once an English imperial experience into a distinctly British one.[28]

The issue one encounters when assessing the nature of the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty is that terms used to define and describe empires tend to originate in European scholarship and as such their application to China can be difficult. Although terminology such as ‘informal empire’ and ‘formal empire’ can be haphazardly applied to China they simply do not fit as well as they do to European empires.[29] Whether the Qing dynasty was itself a colonial empire, an empire within an empire, is fiercely debated. Some argue that although China did not hold overseas territory through expansion the fact remained that it was ruled by an ethnic minority that sought to rule over a wider majority within its own, and ever-changing, borders.[30] When European empires expanded overseas they encountered people markedly different from themselves with the British experience in India being an example. This same issue can be seen throughout the Qing dynasty as, although the Qing emperors had some threads of commonality to work with when dealing with ethnicity being regional kin to the Han and others, they encountered similar ethnicity issues to those of the maritime European empires. One of the ethnic unification measures the Kangxi emperor undertook was that he went out of his way to embrace Confucian ideals and wider Chinese culture.[31] What this demonstrates is an interesting reversal of cultural influence typical of an informal empire in that the disproportionally smaller ruling Manchu culture was assimilated into the larger Chinese culture. This was a measure taken by the Manchu to survive as a dynasty supported by a minority ran two opposing risks: either it retained its foreign character and relied solely on its traditional Manchu followers, something that would have certainly incurred a repeat of the fate of the Mongols before them and cause a massive Chinese uprising. Alternatively, it could accommodate itself to the traditions of the Chinese majority: appoint and rely on the expertise of Chinese officials, adhere to Chinese customs and patronize Chinese learning as a means of becoming a ‘simultaneous empire’ which expressed its will in two languages and in two forms of expression.[32] The Manchu emperors all the way to Qianlong (1735-1796) made skilful compromises between these two options with the balancing of ethnic representation in the bureaucracy being such an example. However, one must look beyond the relations between the Manchu and the Han to see a larger picture of ethnic struggle. In the manner that Britain’s approach to Ireland was assessed an historic parallel for the Qing presents itself in the Guizhou province. Guizhou was, and still is, made up of several ethnic groups: the Maio and the Zhongjia to name only two.[33] In Guizhou, following the latest in a series of rebellions against the Han immigrants to the province, the Qing discarded their indirect ruling approach and became directly involved in ethnic engineering to try bring these groups into the wider fold.[34] Here the Qing built walled towns around the Maio settlements to force them to concede to imperial authority but all they accomplished was a violent rebellion from the Maio in 1735 which was met with an extremely brutal crackdown.[35] The historical parallels here are evident. The Irish refused to be incorporated into the new British Empire and were subsequently repressed until they yielded while the Guizhou ethnic groups resisted the expanding Qing dynasty and met a similar fate.

In conclusion, undertaking a comparative ethno-history draws too many parallels between the Qing dynasty and the First British Empire to possibly reach any conclusion other than both empires being expansionist imperial powers, albeit with different intentions and circumstances. Despite contextual differences in origin, where the British Empire was established while the Chinese Empire was re-invented under the Qing with more efficient management, both empires exerted their will over ethnic minorities.[36] The reason different modes of empire were employed was a result of geographical difference between the two empires. Britain, for practicality’s sake, employed a system of indirect rule for overseas colonies such as North America but was forced to employ direct rule when the security of its empire was threatened. It was content to be a commercial empire, an informal empire, built on economic influence it thought would in turn result in cultural influence.[37] The Qing dynasty on the other hand was evidently both an expansionist imperial power and a formal empire, evidenced by the sheer expansion of territory during its reign and the subjugation of Guizhou ethnicities among others. China itself however, met neither of these criteria. That China did not embark on conquests far flung from its capital suggests that, at its core, the Qing dynasty was concerned with consolidation, the conservative preservation of Manchu culture and immediate security against aggressive forces in the region.[38] The result was an odd divide between pro-isolation policy evidenced by the abandonment of indirect rule and the expansion of centralised control by expanding the bureaucratic machinery of the state, characteristics of a formal empire; and pro-integration policies evidenced by the emancipation of social classes and the government reforms aimed at ethnic amalgamation, characteristics of an informal empire.[39] This suggests that the underlying issue, ultimately, is one of terminology. Colonial systems, informal and formal, are associated with territorial expansion, settlement, political dominance and ethnic suppression. They, and comparative histories of empires, are associated with periods corresponding with European colonial expansion, as this study has been. Although the use of Eurocentric methodology highlights similarities between the methods and ideologies that the Qing dynasty employed in its consolidation and expansion, and those used by the First British Empire, it cannot account for deviations from its paradigm. Ultimately, when addressing the nature of empires, especially in a comparative history, the difference between informal empires and formal empires is not one of nature but rather one of degree. [40]

Bibliography

Adhsead, Samuel Adrian M., China in World History (Christchurch, 1988).

Armitage, David, Ideas in Context: The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Baker, Ernest, The Ideas and Ideals of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1944).

Canny, Nicholas, The Origins of Empire, The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume I (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G., British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914 (London, 1993).

Coward, Barry, The Stuart Age: A History of England, 1603-1714 (London, 1980).

Childs, John, The Williamite Wars (Bodmin, 2007).

Clyde, Alasdair, The Heart of the Dragon (Glasgow, 1984).

Crossley, Pamela K., A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (Berkeley, 2001).

Dikotter, Frank, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London, 1992).

Elliot, Mark C., The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China (Stanford University Press, 2001).

Fay, Charles Ryle, Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1940).

Franke, Wolfgang, China and the West (Oxford, 1967).

Fitzgerald, Charles Patrick, A Concise History of East Asia (London, 1966).

Gallagher, Louis, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Rici, 1583-1610 (Toronto, 1953).

Gallagher, John Andrew, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Hansson, Anders, Chinese Outcasts: Discrimination and Emancipation in late Imperial China (Leiden, 1996).

Hostetler, Laura, Qing Colonial Enterprise, Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Jenkins, Robert Darrah, Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The “Maio” Rebellion, 1854-1873 (University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

Marshall, Peter James, The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Malthus, Thomas, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798).

McMahon, Daniel, Rethinking the Decline of China’s Qing Dynasty: Imperial Activism and Management at the turn of the Nineteenth Century (London, 2014).

O’Neill, Daniel, Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire (University of California Press, 2016).

Paul, Helen J., The South Sea Bubble: An Economic History of its Origins and Consequences (Oxford, 2011).

Perdue, Peter C., ‘Comparing Empires: Manchu Colonialism’, International History Review, Vol.20, No.2 (June, 1998).

Pines, Yuri, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Pike, Royston, Britain’s Prime Ministers: From Walpole to Wilson (Watford, 1968).

Said, Edward, Orientalism (London, 1978).

Twitchett, Denis and Fairbank, John, The Cambridge History of China, Volume IX (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Yap, Yong and Cotterell, Arthur, Chinese Civilization: From the Ming Revival to Chairman Mao (London, 1977).

Zhu, Weizheng, Coming Out of the Middle Ages: Comparative Reflections on China and the West (New York, 1990).


References

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), p.12.

[2] Peter James Marshall, The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1998), p.1.

[3] Nicholas Canny, The Origins of Empire, The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume I (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.34.

[4] Yong Yap and Arthur Cotterell, Chinese Civilization: From the Ming Revival to Chairman Mao (London, 1977), pp.88-89.

[5] Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: A History of England, 1603-1714 (London, 1980), p.298.

[6] P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914 (London, 1993), p.30.

[7] Canny, The Origins of Empire, p.70.

[8] The first de facto prime minister of Britain was Sir Robert Walpole. He was selected by George I but he and his party, the Whigs, held considerably greater power than any English aristocrats previously had. See: Royston Pike, Britain’s Prime Ministers: From Walpole to Wilson (Watford, 1968), p.23.

[9] Marshall, The Oxford History of the British Empire, p.105.

[10] Charles Patrick Fitzgerald, A Concise History of East Asia (London, 1966), p.84.

[11] Denis Twitchett and John Fairbank, The Cambridge History of China, Volume IX (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.179.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Helen J. Paul, The South Sea Bubble: An Economic History of its Origins and Consequences (Oxford, 2011), p.51.

[14] Alasdair Clyde, The Heart of the Dragon (Glasgow, 1984), p.18.

[15] Samuel Adrian M. Adshead, China in World History (Christchurch, 1988), p.245.

[16] Anders Hansson, Chinese Outcasts: Discrimination and Emancipation in late Imperial China (Leiden, 1996), p.2

[17] Frank Dikotter, The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London, 1992), p.80.

[18] Wolfgang Franke, China and the West (Oxford, 1967), p.49.

[19] Yuri Pines, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and its Imperial Legacy (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.125.

[20] Weizheng Zhu, Coming Out of the Middle Ages: Comparative Reflections on China and the West (New York, 1990), p.31.

[21] Mark C. Elliot, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China (Stanford University Press, 2001), p.210.

[22] Ernest Baker, The Ideas and Ideals of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1944), p.50.

[23] ‘The Malthusian Trap’ is a term coined by the English scholar Thomas Malthus in 1798. The trap occurs when population growth accelerates beyond the agricultural capability of a nation to continue providing subsistence. It results in mass emigration of displaced rural populations to colonies of empires to seek a better way of life. Mass emigration or agricultural revolutions break the trap. See: Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798), p.11.

[24] Marshall, The Oxford History of the British Empire, p.26.

[25] David Armitage, Ideas in Context: The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.8.

[26] Daniel O’Neill, Edmund Burke and the Conservative Logic of Empire (University of California Press, 2016), p.128.

[27] The Irish had supported James II partially because of his Catholic leanings but more-so because the after the Stuart restoration Charles II returned land Cromwell had seized to the Irish. See: John Childs, The Williamite Wars (Bodmin, 2007), pp.1-5.

[28] Canny, The Origins of Empire, p.146.

[29] An informal empire, as the British historian Charles Fay described it, depicts an empire that is passive in nature which exerts influence through passive means like cultural influence while a formal empire is one that utilises subjugation to reach the same end. See: Charles Ryle Fay, Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1940), pp.399-400.

[30] Peter Perdue, ‘Comparing Empires: Manchu Colonialism’, International History Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), p.255.

[31] Yap and Cotterell, Chinese Civilization, p.76.

[32] Pamela K. Crossley, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (Berkeley, 2001), p.11.

[33] Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise, Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp.106-112.

[34] Yap and Cotterell, Chinese Civilization, p.84.

[35] Robert Darrah Jenkins, Insurgency and Social Disorder in Guizhou: The “Maio” Rebellion, 1854-1873 (University of Hawaii Press, 1994), pp.66-67.

[36] Adshead, China in World History, p.253.

[37] Armitage, Ideas in Context, p.9.

[38] Louis Gallagher, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Rici, 1583-1610 (Toronto, 1953), p.299.

[39] Daniel McMahon, Rethinking the Decline of China’s Qing Dynasty: Imperial Activism and Management at the turn of the Nineteenth Century (London, 2014), p.88.

[40] John Andrew Gallagher, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.8.

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