AP World History Change Over Time essay, March 18, 2008
| Chinese merchants had dominated world trade since ancient times. China would spread its influence through military conquest, trade and missionaries to areas such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Other nations would come to China in search of luxury goods, providing the Chinese with a massive amount of riches. China's contact with other nations not only allowed it to develop culturally but technologically as well. In addition to international trade, China's Grand Canal paved the way for a large amount of local trade. However, all of this would be soon change. Although local trade remained strong, both the Ming and Qing dynasties altered China's foreign trading policy so drastically between 1450 and 1750 that by 1750 China was virtually shut off from the rest of the world.
China in 1450 was very much like it had been in previous years. When the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongols in 1368, China was still a major trading power, with ports all along the Indian Ocean as well as active trade along the Silk Routes. Chinese goods were found as far west as Europe and Africa, and China had an active trading system with most areas of the known world. Chinese government encouraged exploration and overseas trade. This is evidenced largely by the seven voyages of Zheng He to various areas in Southeast Asia, Africa and along the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. China's immense technology helped them to maintain the upper hand above other countries when it came to ocean trade. For example, Zheng He's fleet that he carried with him had over three hundred ships. The Ming Dynasty once again lengthened the Grand Canal in 1411, showing that the government also had an emphasis on local trade.
During the voyages of Zheng He, Confucian scholars managed to seize control of the government. Zheng He's voyages were halted after his seventh in 1433 and all records of his travels were destroyed. This was because of the attempt to limit cultural interaction so as to preserve the Chinese culture that was looked at so highly. In addition, Confucianism had a negative view towards trade, resulting in the limiting of international trade after 1450. The timely arrival of European sailors in 1514, whose culture was viewed as "primitive", further fueled the government's desire to keep Chinese culture intact. The aspects of Confucianism coupled with the arrival of Europeans sent China into a period of isolation where government-authorized international trade and cultural interaction was virtually nonexistent. However, because of the continued high demand for Chinese goods, illegal trading and smuggling continued to take place. With the reduction in international relations, internal trade of agricultural goods and other local products flourished.
In 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell to the invading Manchus, who established the Qing Dynasty. Even though the Manchurians were a foreign group, they kept most of the same Confucian policies set in place by the Ming Dynasty so as not to alienate the Chinese people. The government continued to control overseas trade with the viewpoint that China was superior and required no contact with other nations. However, the increasing pressure from European nations to trade compelled them to open up the southern port of Canton to Dutch traders. This was the first international Chinese trading port opened in years, and as a result, many people flocked to Canton to trade. It was still illegal to travel overseas and build large ships, and so foreign trade remained stagnant. Also, local and regional trade remained strong during this time period. Overall, the arrival of the Manchus and the Qing Dynasty did not change much. Perhaps the biggest difference was simply the increased presence of European traders.
A number of factors, both internal and external, contributed to these drastic changes in Chinese trading patterns between 1450 and 1750. They include the resurgence in Confucianism and the arrival of Europeans in the early 1500s. Most of the changes occurred midway through the Ming Dynasty, when government was shuffled around and the aforementioned factors took place. In contrast, the switch from the Ming to the Qing provided very little adjustments as far as trading patterns go. The Chinese were a dominant society throughout much of history. However, after passing through this period of isolation, they would emerge far behind the Europeans, seemingly stuck in a world several centuries old.