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10.1: Regional configurations of historical territories

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    During the latter half of the 1800s, Asia underwent a series of significant transformations that left an indelible impact on the region. While some countries experienced economic growth and political consolidation, others struggled with conflicts stemming from shifting boundaries established centuries prior. The impact of global trade was pivotal in these changes, as the Silk Road - once a vital trade route for both land and sea - expanded to accommodate an influx of goods from across the world. However, the colonization of Asian territories by European powers brought with it significant upheaval and instability, as local economies and political systems were disrupted, and ancient cultural traditions were eroded.

    Map of Europe and Asia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Asia 1890 (public domain)


    The Manchus from northeast Asia founded the Qing Dynasty in 1644. They had a different background and culture from the weakened Chinese population they conquered. The Manchus did not destroy the Chinese way of life; instead, they integrated their traditions into Chinese traditions to create a multiethnic empire. By the eighteenth century, the Qing Empire was the fourth-largest empire in world history by 1790. "The total population grew from well over 100 million in the late seventeenth century to 430 million by the mid-nineteenth century."[1] "The Qing dynasty, especially in the eighteenth century when the Qing empire was the largest and most prosperous in the world, saw prolific cultural and artistic achievements. Three Qing emperors were responsible for the notable stability and prosperity of the period. They were Kangxi (reigned 1661–1722), Yongzheng (reigned 1722–1735), and Qianlong (reigned 1735–1796)."[2]

    The dynasty's territory reached from Mongolia and Tibet across the area to the ocean. Trade with Europeans brought new foods like potatoes and peanuts, which added to the stability of the population's food sources. Tea became a significant cash crop for the Chinese to export. "It was a time of prosperity, and farmers, artisans, craftspeople, and merchants participated in a lively trade network domestically and abroad."[3]Although domestic trade was smooth, foreign trade was one-sided, and China could export more than it imported. Trade with Westerners was heavily regulated.

    During the 19th century, China faced a multitude of challenges that greatly impacted the country's political and economic landscape. One of the most significant obstacles was the opium trade introduced by European powers in the early 1800s. This illicit trade created an addiction crisis among the Chinese population, resulting in unfavorable treaties that heavily favored the European powers following two devastating opium wars. The impact of these treaties was profound. The Chinese economy suffered greatly, resulting in widespread poverty and social unrest. This culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, a violent uprising against foreign influence in China that ultimately forced the Qing court to evacuate Beijing. In the aftermath of this tumultuous period, the country underwent a significant transformation. In 1912, the last emperor of China abdicated his throne, marking the end of the Qing dynasty and the beginning of a brief period of republican rule in China. This period was marked by significant political and social changes that continue to shape China's modern history.

    Southeast Asia

    As China's population and economic prosperity grew, many Chinese individuals started to explore business opportunities in Southeast Asia. However, the various states within Southeast Asia were experiencing political instability, with some having centralized governments and others being city-based. Despite this, China's established trade and manufacturing expertise made the people of Southeast Asia a valuable source of labor. Consequently, China's influence in the region grew stronger, with the establishment of trade ports and an influx of migrants and merchants further consolidating their control. This pattern of dominance continued for centuries, with China playing a significant role in shaping the economic and political landscape of Southeast Asia.


    India had long been in the middle of the trade routes between Asia and Europe, although it had maintained its governmental structures and controls. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire collapsed, leaving multiple weak Indian states headed by individual leaders. As control of the trade in the region among the European powers grew, the desire and ability to dominate led to military intervention and eventual control by the British. England used India as a trading post in the 1600s. By the beginning of the 18th century, under the power of the British East India Company, they established forts, manufacturing sites, shipping ports, and settlements in Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay), and Chennai (Madras). While trading in cotton and silk materials, they also started to compete with the Dutch control of the spice trade. Throughout the 1700s, England increasingly expanded control as a ruling power of India and Burma, along with the lucrative ports of Singapore and Hong Kong. At the end of the 1700s, they ruled most of the southern part of India.

    By the mid-1760s, the East India Company used private armies. It became the principal ruler in India until the English government took control, exploiting and taxing the people and controlling them with military force. Trading documents recorded sales of textiles from India, accounting for sixty percent of the East India Company, a company that grew rich on the backs of the low-paid workers.

    "The company purchased many fine Indian textiles, including muslins, painted or printed chintz and palampores, plain white baftas, diapers and dungarees, striped allejaes, mixed cotton, and silk ginghams, and embroidered quilts. Indian craftsmen were masters of colour-fast dyeing techniques, and many fabrics showed wonderful designs and colour combinations produced by hand-painting and wood-blocking.[3]

    Under the imperialism of Britain, artists came from multiple European countries not to embrace or study the art they found in India; native art was generally not considered proper art. Artists who came started a new genre of art, watercolor painting, illustrating scenes of life in India of ordinary people working in the fields to activities of the court. The market for this genre was outstanding in Europe, and some artists successfully painted the local culture and sold their work in Europe.


     In the 1700s, Japan continued the Edo period under the control of the military Tokugawa shogunate feudal government. The government continued the isolation policy while growing the country's economy. Strict codes of law were enacted, defining all types of conduct, from how marriages were performed to the appropriate dress, how many castles could be constructed, and the weapons style. Trade was restricted to specific ports, and European Christian religions were banned. The societal structure was established on rigid and stylized inherited positions with the emperor, court nobles, and the powerful shogun considered the elite and ruling class. The formidable samurai, the country's military might, held the second level. Below them were peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. Each group understood and lived within the rules governing their position. Buddhism and Shinto were the prevailing religions; however, during this period, neo-Confucianism re-emerged, influencing the laws.

    The role of women was also defined; married women managed the home, and love was not part of the requirement. The shoguns were surrounded by wives and concubines, daughters and mothers, and female servants, all part of the household. Other men generally found sexual or romantic friendships with courtesans who lived in specified areas outside the home. During the 18th century, the pleasure centers became entertainment arenas, and the new, specialized geisha profession began. Initially, the geisha were males who entertained the men waiting for a courtesan; then, the word geisha was adopted by females. The geisha were skilled in singing and dancing, working as entertainers instead of just prostitutes, and wearing specified fashionable clothing. 

    The arts and entertainment became an essential part of the Japanese lifestyle. Along with the geisha, kabuki theater, puppet theaters, and literature, painting, and woodblock prints were a significant form of art. Ukiyo-e was the genre of printmaking responsible for the immeasurable diversity of images from this period in Japan, illustrating all aspects of life: landscapes, ordinary people, folklore, military scenes, or nature itself. Ukiyo originally was based on the early Buddhist meaning – "world of sorrow"; however, by the Edo period, the word represented "the floating world" and a more hedonistic attitude, perhaps both have applied to the feeling of a need to escape. In the book Tales of the Floating World, Asai Ryoi wrote:

    "living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.[4]

    Edo Japan

    Let's take a tour of Edo, Japan's capital (now Tokyo) during the Tokugawa Period.



    [1] Demography of Qing China

    [2] Qing dynasty, 1644–1911

    [3] Qing Dynasty