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"...on one river there were near 200 cities with marble bridges great in length and breadth, and everywhere adorned with columns. This country is worth seeking by the Latins, not only because great wealth may be obtained from it, gold and silver, all sorts of gems, and spices, which never reach us; but also on account of its learned men, philosophers, and expert astrologers, and by what skill and art so powerful and magnificent a province is governed, as well as how their wars are conducted." — Paolo Toscanelli, letter to Christopher Columbus (1474)
Mediaeval China: Middle Kingdom vs Barbarians
While China's influence on its neighbors was great and its inventions and culture inspired others, China has also been attacked by many barbarians throughout its history. From the Huns and other central Asian steppe tribes to the Mongols who first managed to successfully invade China and then again by the Manchurians (a tribe from Northern China) four centuries later. Much of modern China's territory including Mongolia was incorporated under the Manchurians duiring the Qing dynasty. However, time and again China inevitably assimilated its invaders.
Resurgence under the Tang and Song
After almost four centuries of disunity, the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) saw the resurgence of Confucian ideals after centuries of realpolitik and civil war which characterised the period between the Wei and the Sui dynasties, and the introduction of Buddhism into China by way of India. This period is considered the high point in Chinese cultural development when printing spread literature and art to vast numbers of the population.
The success of the Tang can be seen from how far Tang influence spread. China was one of the most globalised areas in the world (apart from Byzantium in the Middle East and Andalus in Europe). There were Tang commanderies in present-day North Korea and Central Asia; Manchuria was brought under the sway of the emperor at Chang'an; Vietnam too was subjugated for a while. It was this time that Chinese culture developed via multicultural cross-pollination. Turkic and Middle Eastern influences would be absorbed into Chinese culture and customs, even as Chinese goods such as the blue porcelain favoured by African and Muslim rulers flowed west and south. However, through steady decline in military power the dynasty ended with fragmentation of the empire for the next half century until the Song dynasty reunited the country in 960. The Song dynasty saw Chinese culture and scholastic schools of thought spread into Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The Chinese empire had reached a new golden era, even if however the Song had to compete with other powers such as the Jin to the north (ancestors to the Manchus) and the Xixia to the west.
The Mongols and the Yuan dynasty
However, by the middle of the 13th century, the Mongols ruled China after their campaigns across Asia and Europe establishing the Yuan dynasty in 1279 under Kublai Khan. Despite having brought many new innovations and cultural innovations (such as the development of secular drama) and opening China further to the outside world, Mongol rule was a traumatic period for China. Over the years of the Mongol conquest of China (which involved taking the many disunited factions of China one by one), it was estimated that almost 21 million Chinese died to either illness, starvation or violence. It was events like these (and the occupation by the Manchu Qing four centuries later) that shaped the animosity and suspicion that many Chinese nationals have concerning the intentions of foreigners who live beyond their borders.
The Ming: The Last Bright Spot of Domestic Monarchic Rule
Foreign rule was ended in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, a Buddhist monk who, previously having stylised himself Prince of Wu, took Khanbaliq (now called Beijing), and established the Ming Dynasty, taking on the title of Emperor Hongwu. The new dynasty would see China create the greatest navy of its day, sailing as far as distant Africa. As a result of the expense of the expeditions as well as from rival factions within the government which saw more importance in defending China from constant harassment from Northern barbarians and foreign influence (in particular, the Portuguese and the Dutch), the voyages however were suddenly stopped, and the fleet disbanded after 1433. This saw China eventually abandoning its naval superiority and turning ever inwards, and into isolationist stasis, until dynastic rule finally collapsed under the weight of its own inertia. When Emperor Yingzong ascended to the throne in 1436, the Ming Dynasty began its decline, mainly due to the monopoly of eunuchs. Corruption was rife, with officials levying heavy taxes on peasants, triggering countless uprisings. At the same time, the Ming Dynasty faced the danger of attacks from external forces. During the reign of Emperor Jiajing (circa 1521), Chancellor Zhang Juzheng was appointed to carry out a comprehensive reform in politics, the economy and military. For some time, things changed for the better but, before long, a eunuch named Wei Zhongxian seized and abused his power, which accelerated the Ming's decline.
End of the Ming
The end came in the 17th century during a flurry of peasant uprisings that reached Beijing, forcing the Shunzi emperor to commit suicide. Meanwhile, unable to restore order and short on manpower, a Ming official opened the gates of the Great Wall to a host of barbarians, the Manchu, to help quell revolts in the empire. By 1644, however, all was lost — the Manchus seized Beijing, and eventually began absorbing the politically disunited parts of China together under their rule.