Was Chinese culture ever "at fault" for their decline and defeats by outside powers?

Mrbsct

Ad Honorem
Jul 2013
2,638
USA
I am fascinated with the growth of Ancient China, how they grew to be a rich power with the most advanced technologies. However by they later were conquered by the Mongols, the Manchus and had numerous defeats to the Colonial powers. Was the way they looked power and geopolitics different from lets say the rest of the world. China historically have not been an expansionary power, and may not have seen immediate threats. China have also a very centeralized view of power, which may be good for effeciency but that breeds corruption and power struggle. China has also been isolated to a spot where they are very population dense and have fights over geoeconomic power.
 
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Feb 2019
345
California
I believe that two of the issues China as a culture has is that it has always been much too self-satisfied and passive--lacking in ambition or self-reflection, thus mired in mediocrity and easy prey for conqueror after conqueror.
 
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YouLoveMeYouKnowIt

Ad Honorem
Oct 2013
4,574
Canada
I believe that two of the issues China as a culture has is that it has always been much too self-satisfied and passive--lacking in ambition or self-reflection, thus mired in mediocrity and easy prey for conqueror after conqueror.
The other way to look at it is that China is essentially another Europe, and as an world in a world it has always been the prize of many different ambitious individuals and groups. The most successful were the Han. We just happen to project a modern nation state upon this vast realm. The "conquerors" all happen to rely on overwhelmingly Chinese talent, technology, and manpower to conqueror China. This seems to suggest that conquering "China" is not due to lack of ambition or being complacent, but because the Chinese view the falling Dynasty as over and throw in their lot with the new Dynasty.
 
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Feb 2019
345
California
The other way to look at it is that China is essentially another Europe, and as an world in a world it has always been the prize of many different ambitious individuals and groups. The most successful were the Han. We just happen to project a modern nation state upon this vast realm. The "conquerors" all happen to rely on overwhelmingly Chinese talent, technology, and manpower to conqueror China. This seems to suggest that conquering "China" is not due to lack of ambition or being complacent, but because the Chinese view the falling Dynasty as over and throw in their lot with the new Dynasty.
Hmmm.

OK, maybe.....
 
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Jan 2016
591
United States, MO
Culture is an odd factor to single out when viewing conquest. For example very few places were able to defeat the mongols. They conquered territory in China, Central Asia, the middle east, and parts of Eastern Europe. I highly doubt that it was cultural factors in China that gave them the victory over the Song after decades of fighting.

The thing about the Manchus is that in the beginning they were actually let in to the Ming dynasty past the great wall at least because those present could tell that things were changing. The Ming court had fallen into a lot of corruption and in-fighting because many ambitious eunuchs and officials wanted more power. The court was a mess and in no position to resist a committed foe which had already received many defectors.

Economics can explain a lot about the colonial powers during the Qing. In the 18th century, China was one of the wealthiest and most powerful states on earth, but their success lead to their downfall. Population growth almost tripled from about 140 million in 1640 to 330 million by 1800. meanwhile agricultural production only doubled with the introduction of new world crops like the potato. This caused massive poverty and rebellions across the empire. Just look at the Taiping rebellion which lasted over a decade and has estimated death tolls in the several millions. Rebellions like this weakened the state greatly and by the time colonial powers set their sights on china, it was too late to put up much resistance.

These three examples are not definitive explanations for these conquests, but they clearly show that a lot more is going on and it is difficult to label culture as the culprit.

There are primarily two problems with pointing to cultural causes as the predominant factor for these conquests.

No. 1 = Each of these historical events was quite different and thus probably has causes more closely related to its own historical context. It is very difficult for broad sweeping historical theories to actually carry any real substantive truth to them, this is not just true for China, but for all of history.

No. 2 = although cultural beliefs can play a role in shaping history, they should come with a few caveats. One can't assume that they are the cause at first glance. All possible factors need to be examined before turning to a single one as an all encompassing explanation. Also, culture is very finicky. Even within a recognized cultural group there will not be a single belief that every single member holds in common. One has to first recognize which specific beliefs are widespread and which ones may have a direct impact for explaining the exact historical process in question.
 
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HackneyedScribe

Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
6,494
Nurhaci was technically a Chinese subject before he rebelled, being given command of the Jianzhou Jurchens by a Ming general. One of his Seven Grievances (used as his excuse to rebel against the Ming) was because the leader of the Ming garrisons for the Jianzhou Jurchens abused his people. However despite being raised by a Chinese general, he didn't seem that attached to Chinese culture. After all instead of adopting the Chinese language as his own national language, he invented his own language based on the Mongolian language.

As for the majority of Nurhaci's army, the majority of them were Han Chinese:
The majority of the Eight Banners actually consisted of Chinese and Mongols who had joined the Manchus before 1644. A secret report by Prince Yi, brother of the Yongzheng emperor, noted that in 1648 Manchus made up only 16 percent of the banner forces; 75 percent were Han Chinese, and 8.3 percent were Mongols. By 1723 the percentage of Mongols remained the same, Han Chinese declined somewhat to 68 percent, and Manchus increased to 23 percent. -Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century, pg 141

As for the OP, it's an oversimplification of Chinese history. Our culture is not the same as that of 50 years ago, and our culture from 50 years ago is not the same as that of 100 years ago. Chinese culture have times in which they were highly militaristic, and times in which they were highly pacifist. There are times in which they were highly powerful (naturally during the beginning of dynasties) and times in which they were very weak (naturally during the end of dynasties). Some of the more common militaristic sayings that survived to present day:

"Tis in foreign lands that a hero must seek renown; how can I let my life pass away as an old bookworm?" - Fu Jiezi
"Even if a man has no other ambitions, he could at least become someone like Fu Jiezi or Zhang Qian who established his merit in a foreign land and achieved the status of marquis. How can I waste my life away in this trade of brush and inkslab!" - Ban Chao
"Throw away the Brush and join the military!" - based on Ban Chao's quote above
"Can't catch a tiger's cubs without going into the tiger's lair" - Ban Chao again, meaning one needs to accept great risks in order to gain great rewards
"To die without glory is not the act of valiant men!" - Ban Chao yet once again, he's all over the place isn't he?

Here's some that needs a little more explaining for non-Chinese readers:
"Wrap one's body in horse leather" - Ma Yuan (Means willing to die in battle, as the bodies of dead soldiers were wrapped in hose leather)
"Smash the Cooking Pots and Sink the Boats" - Xiang Yu (Means to put yourself in a position where you have to fight to the death, like when Xiang Yu put his soldiers in a position in which the only avenue for survival was through victory)
 
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