China, too, resisted the West. China also saw its armed forces beaten whenever they came into formal military conflict with European or European-trained armies or fleets. It, too, was forced to make many concessions to Europeans—to grant treaty ports, and above all, extraterritoriality, that is, the right of Europeans to be tried in their own national courts for offenses committed on Chinese soil. Yet China, unlike India, was never annexed by a European power and never lost its sovereignty.
Like the other civilizations bordering the great nomadic Eurasian heartland, this ancient civilization was subject to periodic incursions by nomadic tribes; it was against such incursions that the Great Wall was built in the third century B.C. On the whole, the Chinese protected their institutions against the victorious nomads, whom they absorbed after a few generations.
Early in the seventeenth century Mongolian tribes established a state of their own in eastern Manchuria, to the north of China proper. In 1644 they seized the Chinese capital of Peking and established a dynasty that lasted until 1911. But the Manchus, like other outsiders before them, left Chinese institutions almost untouched.
Chinese history is filled with the dynamic rise and fall of dynasties; with periods of effective governmental centralization and periods of “feudal” disintegration; with wars, plagues, and famines; and with the gradual spread of Chinese culture to Canton, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Within this flux were many elements of continuity. At the base of Chinese social life was a communal village organization held together by very strong family ties, a cult of ancestor worship, and a tradition of hard work on farms. At the top of this society was an emperor, the Son of Heaven.
The business of running this vast empire was entrusted to the mandarins, a bureaucracy of intellectuals, or at least of those who could pass examinations in literary and philosophical classics. The mandarin class had served the state for thousands of years, and its existence was one of the reasons for the extraordinary stability of Chinese society. Although in theory this class was open to talent, the necessary education was too expensive and too difficult for any but a few gifted, lucky, and persistent poor boys.
In China the upper class took little interest in mysticism and otherworldliness. They accepted the world and were concerned with human relations, with politeness and decorum; their conventional Confucianism was a code of manners and morals, not a sacramental religion.
Confucius (551-479 B.C.), a sage who flourished in the fifth century B.C., was a moralist who taught an ethical system of temperance, courtesy, and obedience to those who were wise and good. This lack of commitment to an otherworldly religion may have made the Chinese little concerned with Western ideas.