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9.1: Regional configurations of historical territories

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    By the beginning of the 1500s, Asia (9.1.1) was divided into large empires and kingdoms. It was the age of imperial power, with the Ottomans, Persians, Mughals, and Chinese initially dominating trade. The silk and maritime roads created well-established trade processes between Asian and European nations. By the middle of the 16th century, trade routes crossed all the inhabited continents and promoted the exchange of culture, the arts, diplomacy, and religions. 

    Map of Mongolia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 1636 Asia (lvonudinium, CC BY-SA 4.0)

    China experienced a tremendous growth period. When China conquered Tibet and Central Asia, the population increased to 450 million. The country spread over a territory three times the previous dynasty with millions of non-Chinese minorities. The Qing Dynasty started when the Manchu invaded and controlled the government and formed the last imperial dynasties, reigning for almost 300 years. China was an economic powerhouse, supported large populations, established prosperous manufacturing centers, and significant acreage of agricultural lands. The Chinese supported the economy with outstanding irrigation systems and constructed canals to transport goods. They produced exquisite silks and porcelains as they changed from an agrarian economy to a well-developed, competitive commercial economy and a thriving trade system. They also developed a landlord class who regularly took peasants’ land, forcing them to become tenants. However, China did little to invest in sea power or trade over the oceans, leaving the government unguarded when the European ships came to the coastal Chinese cities.    

    The robust Chinese economy deterred the emperors from importing European goods or developing a maritime trade. China already controlled the world markets of spice, tea, porcelain, silk, and cotton. However, in the late 1500s, China moved to silver for their monetary base, a metal they had to import. The Europeans started extensive trade routes with Mesoamerica and developed a better trade position with the Chinese because they had the silver to use as a trade equalizer. The Portuguese, Spanish, and English became competitive, establishing lucrative trade routes, developing their economies, and ensuring continued access to Asia.

    Art was important in China, and the emperors even defined how the porcelains should be painted, the colors, the designs, and even the thickness of the finished products. Porcelains were a significant export and a substantial financial resource. Painters worked as part of the court system, were self-employed, or supported by wealthy patrons. The printing press was invented in China well before Europe, and the Chinese printed and distributed books. The design, embellishment, and calligraphy of books were also fashionable. 


    The Mughals ruled India after consolidating smaller regions. The empire was based on the government of previous Mongol rulers, who created a culture based on Persian and Asian ideals. It was a Muslim-ruled country inhabited by a Hindu majority. The Mughals were militarily proficient and still created an environment of religious tolerance and support for human rights. Although the first ruler in the 16th century allowed the construction of Hindu temples, successive rulers maintained Islam as the official religion and still allowed Hindu beliefs to thrive. The Rajput emerged from a loose association of clans and settlements and developed a highly structured group based on inherited positions. Under the Mughal rule, they were accepted as feudatories and developed a governmental and social structure based on kinship and genealogical links.  

    In 1600, the East India Company came from England to India to receive the right to trade. Portugal initially controlled the routes. The Mughal court even gave England the right to trade and construct factories. The Mughal government wanted silver for payment, and the East India Company had to allow the French, Dutch, and Portuguese to trade. These factions conflicted with each other, the Mughals and the Hindus, leading to the English's eventual expansion and control of India in the early 1800s. 

    Art in the Mughal period became a part of how rulers identified themselves and adoration of the arts and their artistic qualities, as well as visual significance. The elegance of the architecture and colorful paintings were supported by importing Persian masters to help propagate esthetic and design principles. The artists came because the emperors held astonishing wealth and influence, not necessarily good taste. Illustrated books and albums displaying portraits, animals, paintings, and calligraphy elaborately bordered with gold and leather became one of the primary art forms of the period. The Rajput painting was focused on their ruling courts, which had distinct styles depending on the location of the court. 


    Korea was a small country located by large contentious countries, including Russia, China, and Japan, forcing Korea into diplomatic solutions to maintain its culture and independence. The Korean proverb, "When whales fight, the shrimp's back is broken," grew from their tenuous position; however, they were able to preserve their kingdoms and independence. Early kings in the Joseon dynasty fostered the growth of scholars, developed an alphabet, and built a government administration. The Koreans had to overcome invasions by the Japanese and Manchus. They established diplomatic missions with China and a few ceremonial events with Japan, allowing very few foreigners to enter the country, obtaining the nickname 'Hermit Kingdom.' They were able to live in isolation and peace for over 250 years. They focused on scholarly Confucian ideals during this period and shunned military activities. Even though Confucianism was the dominant religious belief, Buddhism and Daoism were accepted and frequently interwoven into all cultural ideas.

    Contact with Europeans occurred when a Dutch ship became shipwrecked on one of the Korean islands; the Koreans rescued three crew members. The three taught the Koreans about weapons and military standards in Europe. Contacts with China also educated them about Europeans and their culture. However, the Koreans maintained their isolation, a slowly growing economy, with excessive tax and government control based on Confucian values.

    The king supported art, and court artists produced exquisite work from gold, silk, and other materials. The symbols of longevity were frequently an essential part of the artwork: ceramics, paintings, or furniture. The symbols were based on natural concepts: trees, deer, clouds, the sun, turtle, water, cranes, mushrooms, bamboo, and mountains, each with specific, defined meanings for the symbols. The concept of folk art, the painting of ordinary people's interpretations of longevity, grew across the country, bringing art into homes.

    Southeast Asia

    In Southeast Asia, the Silk Road and maritime trade routes helped develop an unusual prosperity in the early 15th century. A substantial part of the population depended on international trade for their income. All the countries were bordered by rivers and seas and had large fleets of all types of watercraft. By the middle of the 17th century, European dominance of trade and warfare reversed the prosperity. The Dutch East India Company became a giant trade and control organization, moving the participation of Southeast Asian countries out of the trade market and international economy. European settlements inhabited local cities, and Indigenous people had to move to subsistence agriculture. The once powerful kingdoms were fragmented. “In virtually every case, institutions of central control built during the ‘time of absolutism’ failed to survive the loss of commercial income, as shown by severe political crises in the late 17th and 18th centuries.”[1]



    [1] Incorporating Southeast Asia into the World History Curriculum