Was China ever in the top 3 most powerful countries/empires of the world?

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,982
#11
I don’t think it was challenged for #1 until it lost the opium wars and was shown to be technologically behind Europe in the arms race
The Opium Wars were in the 19th century. China was not #1 well before that.

I would agree it was #1 for most of that time. The Chinese called the Roman Empire "other China", and the Roman Empire was conparable.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,982
#12
In the Chinese view, China was #1 from 2000 BC until the Opium Wars. That is when Chinese realized it wasn't #1.

In the 18th century, China was a major power, but not #1. There was diplomatic correspondence with Russia under Catherine the Great, where Russia was complaining about being treated as some weak lesser state when it controlled a huge empire. Then there was the famous incident in 1797 when the British ambassador offended the Chinese by refusing to kow tow before the emperor. In Europe, the concept was simply to kneel, and kow towing seemed to imply that Britain was an inferior power.
 
Feb 2019
196
Thrace
#13
Neither the Assyrian, Babylonian, Achaemenid, nor Macedonian empires existed at the same time as a united China, so a comparison there is meaningless. The position of China vis-a-vis imperial Rome is much argued over, but far from conclusively on the side of the Romans at all points. The Huns were an ephemeral steppe empire which can't really be compared to any centralized state, but regardless they had an infinitely smaller population and military. The Byzantines were never stronger than a united China, although for a time in the 5th/6th and arguably 10th and 12th centuries they were stronger than any one of the Chinese states, and the HRE, as a decentralized underdeveloped Germanic kingdom with 1/8th of the population, was a joke in comparison (and the Carolingian Empire, if you're counting that, only slightly less so at perhaps 1/5th). The first few Caliphates were huge, but their rise and fall coincided with that of arguably the most powerful dynasty in Chinese history, the Tang, and no Caliphate would have had a population more than 2/3rds as large as the Tang's; the Tang also had a more professional military, and more centralized and efficient governmental apparatus. That being said, a case for the Caliphate could certainly be made in the early-mid 9th century, from what I've seen, but I'm not quite familiar enough with either to give an opinion one way or another. The Mongols were certainly stronger in the 13th century (although again we're back to steppe empires), and founded their own dynasty of China, but the Ottoman Empire never had a population or military more than one third the size of the Ming or Qing (although I'm not familiar enough with the latter to say when or if it was really "Chinese"). I would say a Chinese dynasty (not including the Mongols) was the most powerful state on earth for about 750 years of the period between 400 and 1650, give or take 50 years, or a little under 2/3rds, which could be most of the time or a little under that depending on which side of the Roman-Chinese debate you take (and which I'm not touching).
I need a bit of education on the whole "unified China" subject. It appears to me that the Shang and Zhou dynasty was very much like a veritable Chinese Empire. Why wouldn't they qualify as comparable with the Assyrian and Babylonian empires?
 
Mar 2012
4,324
#14
More powerful than the Achaemenid, Macedonian and Roman empires in their heyday? I doubt that.
Probably not the Achaemenids (although a coalition under the hegemony of states like the Jin or Wei might constitute a behemoth that can rival it militarily). The Macedonian empire is probably weaker from a pure military perspective compared to even disunified Chinese states such as the Qin because the later had universal conscription and can mobilize larger armies (although the Macedonian empire is much greater in extent and had 5-6 times the population). Yet large states which are more decentralized, with a less militarized population often lose to more militarized centralized polities. The French losing to the English in the initial phase of the 100 years war, Seleucid losing to Rome, Russia losing to Sweden or Napoleonic France in the beginning, and the Xi Xia stalemating the Song are all examples. The Roman Empire is outclassed in territorial extent, bureaucratization, military mobilization, budget, metallurgy, weaponry, cavalry, and probably population as well to the contemporary Han Empire; I would say the Western Han is the most militarily powerful state in Chinese history because of a centralized universal conscription system over 60 million subjects, coupled with a lead in military technology in iron and missiles (crossbows and trebuchets) over its Inner Asian neighbors which posterior Chinese regimes never gained.

The Huns were an ephemeral steppe empire which can't really be compared to any centralized state, but regardless they had an infinitely smaller population and military.
Only a Eurocentric narrative of history would even toy with the idea of the Huns being the most powerful empire in the world. They were a fleeing remnant group from more powerful Xianbei/Rouran empires of the east. Statistically speaking, the Northern Wei was the most powerful state in the world in the 5th century, with a population of near 30 million (rivaled only by the Gupta, but the later is much less centralized) followed by the Rouran and the Southern dynasties. Given that East Asia was already using stirrups and heavy full armored cataphracts widely; I would even say Koguryo was at least comparable, if not a more powerful state than the Huns in the 5th century. By the mid 5th century, the Hephthalite were also expanding, although they were still small at the time, but by the end of the century, they were certainly more powerful than the western Huns.

The Byzantines were never stronger than a united China, although for a time in the 5th/6th and arguably 10th and 12th centuries they were stronger than any one of the Chinese states, and the HRE, as a decentralized underdeveloped Germanic kingdom with 1/8th of the population, was a joke in comparison (and the Carolingian Empire, if you're counting that, only slightly less so at perhaps 1/5th).
The Byzantine in the 5th and 6th centuries only had 16-20 million people and only a quarter of a million imperial raised stallions (Adshead). The Northern Wei at its height had around 33 million subjects and 2 million imperial raised stallions (in Hexi and Inner Mongolia), southern Chinese dynasties had around 20 million people, and both "Chinese states" were ahead of their time in military tactics with full adoption of double metal stirrups and fully armored cataphracts (the northern Wei had them in the tens of thousands; they were heavier than the contemporary Byzantine Clibanarii, which had no horse armor, and only numbered around 5,000 in size). The Khitan/Liao state and the Five dynasties (divided or not) were all much larger than the Byzantine state (the five dynasties all ruled the majority of Northern China, with at least over 30 million people, whereas contemporary Byzantine usually had no more than 10 million), and in the 12th century, the Jin is unquestionably the most powerful empire on earth, as they defeated the Liao, where a fleeing remnant annihilated the core Seljulk army (which already annihilated the Byzantines at Manzikert, leading the later to call for the Crusades for help) at Qatwan in 1141. The Jin at its height had around 55 million people, controlling the entire Mongolian steppe; with its nomad and horse resources, and it was also from the Jin, that the later Mongols gained their independence and established their state.
 
Last edited:
Mar 2012
4,324
#15
Afterwards the Assyrian and latter Babylonian empires were also stronger.
Debatable. The early Assyrians were much smaller in extent compared to the Western Zhou (11th century - 771 BC). The Neo Assyrian Empire was probably larger than the Eastern Zhou coalition headed by Qi Huangong in the 7th century BC, and the former also started using cavalry, so I would place it as the greater power. We have very little data to conclude whether the Neo-Babylonian Empire was more powerful than "Chinese" states such as the Jin or Chu. They seem to be roughly comparable in extent (and probably population; although this is pure speculation as there are no census, but a backward projection would give the Chu state a rough population of 2-4 million in the 6th century BC). However, the Jin under Duke Wen and his descendants such as Duke Dao was able to attain hegemony over a coalition of states with a territory that pretty much encompassed the entire Zhou world outside of the Qin, Chu, Wu and a few small neighbor states of Chu that would have a population of around 10-20 million; so politically, it probably outclassed the Neo-Byzantine Empire in population and military size.

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We should keep in mind that the "Chinese world", like Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, or India should be viewed as a world order rather than a single nation state; its just that unification of this world empire is often more of a reality than an ideology compared to the others.
 
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Dec 2018
75
Cheyenne
#16
The Yuan were definitely the most powerful state in the world at the time of the Mongol consolidation of China. Most of its troops, engineers, commanders and civil administrators were either Manchu or Han.

Population however does not make a state powerful the mongols proved that as well.
 
Feb 2019
196
Thrace
#17
I'm nowhere near as educated on the subject as some people here so I might be wrong. I've dug more into it in the last 2 hours and I found this histomap.




It's obviously wrong about quite a few dates, but whatever its validity, it says that China was never the World's leading super power.
 
Likes: Spartakus X
Mar 2012
4,324
#18
Unless you have any work that meticulously cross compare population, budget, military establishment, government control, treat them as something fun to glance over, but lets leave it at that and not confuse it with quality academic sources.
Power is based on the above attributes, considering ancient polities based in China typically had 1/5-1/3 of the world's population and the most centralized bureaucracy, it should naturally be rated around there in share of power, if not higher.
This is a very crude estimate of such, but its good for a beginner's reading: Expansion and Contraction Patterns of Large Polities: Context for Russia
 
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Feb 2011
6,346
#20
Such all-encompassing charts tend to lack serious historical basis, a lot of it being based on the author's 'gut feeling' from what little they know. Digging deep gives you a better picture than digging shallow. The downside being that the deeper you dig, you more you realize just how shallow a lot of historical research is, and the most well-researched texts tend to be the ones not found on the bookshelves with a few exceptions.
 

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