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New Perspectives on China’s Late Imperial Period

Why China Slept

Patrick Leung

The book offers new perspectives on the history of China’s late imperial period and presents a much-needed novel explanation for China’s stagnation and decline in recent centuries. It begins by questioning all the conventional wisdom on the factors behind China’s relative lack of progress and subsequent decline since the 15th century and follows with a fresh interpretation of China’s past. The new vantage points provide insights into China’s resurgence in recent decades and its significance for other nations. The book also makes projections on the general direction that China’s future evolution is likely to take with respect to its market economy, rule of law and representative institutions.

The author aims to deepen international understanding of China’s past and present which will hopefully facilitate the development of more productive relationships between China and other nations. The book is written so that it appeals to students, academics as well as the general public and whoever is interested in gaining a better understanding of China’s rapid rise today. The book is relevant to third and fourth year undergraduate courses in history, economics, international relations, law and political science. It can be used as a text book for upper class core or elective courses in history and economics and as a reference book for upper class courses in international relations, law and political science. It can also serve as a reference book for graduate students in the above disciplines.

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Chapter Thirteen China’s Long Sleep: Imperial Overstretch and Its Consequences


China’s Long Sleep: Imperial Overstretch and Its Consequences

Napoleon famously said “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” But that raises the question of what had made China fall asleep in the first place? In the previous chapters we have gone over most of the commonly held explanations for China’s long slumber and argued that none of them is persuasive upon close scrutiny. We will briefly recap the main points of our arguments below.

Late imperial China did not pursue a closed door policy. All states have multiple considerations—short and long term economic needs, customs revenues, geopolitical and national security concerns, etc.—when they determine their foreign trade policies. Ming-Qing China simply chose a trade strategy that has much in common with the strategies used by the majority of the world’s great powers in the past and present which have huge domestic markets and do not depend heavily on foreign trade—it gave more weight to geopolitical and national security considerations than to economic and fiscal considerations. Moreover, there was no shortage of interest in Western knowledge and products among the Chinese elite and populace, and both Ming and Qing China had attempted to expand the territory under its control, hence demonstrating that late imperial China was not an inward looking state. Finally, it is doubtful if China could have done any better if it had opened up its markets some more to foreign trade...

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