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The Ming and Qing dynasties were the last Imperial dynasties and demonstrated the zenith of many Chinese cultural achievements, from art to literature to architecture. However, the greatest achievement in the mind of the Chinese was food.

Chinese Culture

The Ming and Qing dynasties are true high points of Chinese culture. The art produced, from finely detailed silk paintings to porcelain vases, still attracts massive amounts of money at auctions. Likewise, the decadent literature of this period is still actively read in a China that has, as recently as a generation ago, attempted to remove all vestiges of the past from its culture, while the buildings that survive offer insight into the Chinese aesthetic and technical expertise.

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But to the Chinese who lived through the periods, all of that was of only secondary importance. Instead, what separated the Chinese from the barbarians around them in their own minds was the ability to grow food.

Growing Population, Growing Culture

For the Chinese who lived during the Ming and Qing dynasties, nothing said that a particular dynasty was exceptionally cultured than the ability to produce enough food to support a massive population. In this respect, both cultures were exceptionally gifted.

At the beginning of the Ming period, 35 million people lived in China. Three hundred years later, that number has increased by five times to over 170 million. In another three hundred years, at the end of the Qing period, more than 500 million people would live in China. Now feeding all these people was not easy – after all, all that food had to be grown, and the farms did not have advanced fertilizer like we do today. Instead, increased abilities in administration, as well as new crops from the Americas, made that possible.In turn, with the immediate needs of the people met, administrators and elites could turn their attention to creating the sort of works of culture that we consider vastly important.

However, to the Chinese, all of this was possible only because the people had been adequately fed first. It was the ability of a culture to feed itself and grow that made it truly cultured, as everything else was icing on the cake.

Confucian Values at Home and at Court

Of course, the administrative successes that created such surpluses would have been impossible without the unifying philosophy of Confucianism. Confucianism had existed for hundreds of years, but now, in the wake of the Mongolian invaders, many people were more inclined to take Confucian teachings more seriously. After all, by ensuring that relationships between the governed and governing members of society were fair, China had been able to increase crop yields dramatically through better land management and had kept the northern barbarians largely at bay.

However, opportunities did not only exist for those interested in agricultural administration. For those who truly excelled at Confucian thought, the opportunity to serve as an official was based solely on knowledge of Confucian belief.The Imperial Examination system was very much alive, and with pass rates of only 1% for the first exam, competition was fierce. These exams were based solely off of knowledge of Confucian philosophy, as it was this philosophy that provided guidance to the state. Both the Ming and the Qing heavily relied on Confucian exams.

In fact, a weak point for both groups came when they stopped innovating and followed the equivalent of cheat sheets for exams, leading to a thinking class of rote memorization rather than critical thinkers.

Literature, Architecture, and Art

While the Ming and the Qing may have both wavered at times with their devotion to the Confucian system, neither philosophy lost its love of art and literature. In fact, some of our most enduring images of China come from these two dynasties.One of the most imposing architectural relics from the Ming Period is the massive Forbidden City. Built as a giant Imperial Palace, the complex evolved and expanded to take on many of the duties of the central government.

Walls were used to restrict parts of the complex to only those who had legitimate business there, keeping the Emperor separated from all those considered unworthy of his time. Yet it wasn’t just in Beijing that the Ming made a statement with walls.They rebuilt much of the Great Wall of China, adding much of the decorative flourish of battlements that we now associate with the Wall. The Qing were no less active, with their greatest masterpiece being the Temple of Heaven, built entirely of wood with no nails or screws. The graceful form of the building is, for many, one of the most impressive feats of Chinese architecture.Yet monuments to Ming and Qing rule could be found on paper, as well. The Ming were especially voracious writers, with one emperor commissioning an encyclopedia of all known knowledge.

It took some 3,000 scholars working full-time for more than 5 years to be able to produce the final document, which upon its publication in the 14th century was centuries ahead of its European counterparts.The Qing followed with their own edition that filled in the spaces of new knowledge gained in the interceding period. For both dynasties, more popular forms of writing were also common. The Ming produced ‘The Golden Lotus’, which included images we would consider to be almost pornographic to tell a story of corruption and decadence. Additionally, the Qing produced ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ about a self-absorbed family, that was unbeknownst to them, being destroyed by their own inaction.The material works of the Ming and Qing were no less impressive.

Artists, such as Lu Ji and Chen Xun perfected their nature scenes, but the real achievement of the time was the pottery. The Ming perfected Chinese porcelain, adding the blue and white glaze that is so stereotypical of the style. Upon rising to power, one of the first things that the Qing did was restart the old imperial pottery workshops, ensuring that the Qing porcelain would be exported around the world.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we took a look at the cultural development of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties. Just as they would have preferred, we started with the importance of population expansion as a highlight of the achievements of their cultures.

However, we also looked at the role that Confucianism played in making sure that this was a stable society that could handle such rapid growth. Further, we saw how Chinese architecture reached its zenith with buildings like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Finally, we saw the impact of literature and decorative arts, especially porcelain, as artistic masterpieces of this period.

Learning Outcomes

Understanding of the above topics can enable you to:

  • Describe life during the Ming and Qing Dynasties
  • Consider the effects of Confucian values on the Ming and Qing Dynasties
  • Acknowledge the importance of literature, art and architecture to these cultures

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