Power, Conflict, and Subjugation: The Rise of 3 Asian Empires in the Early Modern Era

Power, Conflict, and Subjugation: The Rise of 3 Asian Empires in the Early Modern Era

Donna Patricia Ward - April 7, 2017

Three Asian Empires emerged during the Early-Modern Era (1450-1750). While the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch constructed colonies all over the Western Hemisphere, the Qing Dynasty created a Chinese empire; the Moghul created a somewhat unified Subcontinent Empire; and the Ottoman Empire unified Christians and divided Muslims under Turkish control. As these empires developed, they had to find ways to subjugate populations.

Empire building requires conquering people and their cultures. How the conquering happens and to whom has been different for each empire. Sometimes force is used and other times complacency is the mode to which citizens subjugate themselves. For people that have survived in the same manner for thousands of years, when a new power overtakes it, the old society simply vanishes. Many times the cultures of the conquered mix with the cultures of the conquering, creating a new and much more diverse culture. The Qing, Moghul, and Ottoman empires were significant cross-cultural encounters during the early modern age.

Power, Conflict, and Subjugation: The Rise of 3 Asian Empires in the Early Modern Era
Map of Qing Dynasty China in 1765. Public Domain

The Qing Dynasty 1644-1913

The Qing dynasty made China an empire. Emperor Yongle launched a massive fleet in 1405, called Starfleet, consisted of more than 300 ships with 27,000 crew. Included were physicians, government officials, astrologers, high-ranking eunuchs, carpenters, tailors, accountants, merchants, translators, cooks, and thousands of soldiers and sailors. Over the next 28 years, seven more fleets would launch and travel to ports in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, captained the fleet.

The goal of the fleet was to expand China’s trade and tribute system. Several rulers returned to China with the fleet bringing with them items of tribute. Exotic items such as ostriches, zebras, and giraffes went to the Emperor as tribute. The expeditions of Zheng He expanded China’s trade and established it as a power in the Indian Ocean. Unlike European powers, the Chinese did not conquer new territories or establish new settlements. Instead, they intervened in local disputes but maintained their objective of expanding trade. In 1433, the voyages came to an abrupt end, concluding China’s dominance in maritime trade.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China turned its focus to building an overland empire on its northern and western frontiers. The Qing, or Manchu, Dynasty (1644-1912) undertook this enormous expansion. Originating from Manchuria, north of the Great Wall, the Qing Dynasty was of a foreign and nomadic origin. The continuing eastward expansion of Russia and the revived effort by the western Mongols made the Qing Dynasty nervous. To add a buffer, the Qing required more land to halt another Mongolian invasion and to ward off the Russians.

For centuries, the nomadic people of Mongolia, Xingjian, and Tibet had traded, presented tribute, and went to war with each other. These people were well known to one another and had an understanding of their significant cultural differences. In 1680, the Qing Dynasty began an eighty-year military effort to bring these diverse regions under their control. Clearly, residents of Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet did not subject themselves easily to central rule. The use of weaponry, war tactics, and the need for warriors over an eighty-year period does little to fully grasp the carnage that must have ensued.

Finally, the Qing dynasty completed its unification in 1760. Mongolia was added in 1697, Tibet in 1720, and Xingjian added in the 1750s. China was now a Central Asia empire. The new areas were ruled separately from China through a court of Colonial Affairs. In ways vastly similar to the Europeans in the Americas, local officials became agents of the dynasty in the colonial government. Mongol aristocrats, Muslim officials, and Buddhist leaders were granted power as agents for the Qing dynasty.

As with other colonial regimes, local leaders were often corrupt. Some required people to pay extra taxes or demanded extra labor, outraging local populations. Some colonial officials adorned themselves with peacock feathers, decorated their hats with gold buttons, and wore the Manchu hairstyle as a way to imitate the Chinese ways, enraging the local people who did not want to be under Chinese control.

Unlike their European counterparts, the Chinese or Qing officials did not seek to assimilate the native populations. A reason for this may have been that the Qing dynasty came from Manchuria and were nomadic. As a nomadic people, they would have also participated in a cycle of tribute, trade, and war, thus providing the Qing with a respect and understanding for cultural differences. In fact, the Qing placed restrictions on Chinese merchants and immigrants from entering into Mongolian areas for fear of softening the fighting Mongol spirit, something that the Chinese may have needed in the future.

The present-day boundaries of China are much as they were when the Qing unified with Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Many of these people have retained their culture and religious identities with some advocating for autonomy or gaining independence.

Prior to the Qing dynasty expansion, Central Asia was a crossroads of trade along the Silk Roads, welcoming all of the world’s major religions and ideologies. Once the Qing dynasty added Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang oceanic trade took a backseat to overland trade. In the process, the nomadic pastoralists, who provided an alternative to settled farming and had been around since the second millennium BCE, were eradicated permanently.

Power, Conflict, and Subjugation: The Rise of 3 Asian Empires in the Early Modern Era
Mughal Emperor Akbar holds a religious assembly in the House of Worship (Ibadat Khana) in Fatehpur Sikri,circa 1605. Public Domain

The Mughal Empire 1526-1707

The subcontinent has a long history of diverse groups of people. For centuries, India had been divided into a dizzying array of small states, principalities, tribes, castes, sects, and ethnolinguistic groups. The commonality among these individual groups was Hindu. After Central Asian warriors, who claimed they were descendants of Chinnggis Khan and Timur with a Turkic culture, led brutal conquests into the subcontinent, Mughal emperors were able to create political unity from1526-1707 out of the fractious states. But division remained.

The Mughal dynasty was comprised of 20 percent Muslims with the remaining 80 percent practicing some form of Hinduism. A major question for the ruling dynasty was how to rule the majority of the people who did not share the same religion or cultural trappings. Emperor Akbar, perhaps the most famous Mughal ruler, reigned from 1556 through 1605. Akbar understood that to rule the Hindu majority he must act deliberately to ensure their obedience. Instead of forcing Hindus to convert to Islam, he embraced them.

Akbar relaxed some of the restrictions placed upon Hindu women. He persuaded merchants to establish special market days for women only so that they would not remain in seclusion in the family compound. He encouraged widowed women to remarry instead of remaining in mourning and isolation for the remainder of their lives as Hindu demanded. The marrying of children was discouraged and women were discouraged from committing sati, an act where women threw themselves upon their husband’s funeral pyre to burn to death.

In attempts to prevent open hostilities between Muslims and Hindus, Akbar demanded a policy of tolerance by restraining some of the militant Islam scholars, ulama, and abolishing a tax on non-Muslims. He encouraged intellectual discussion among many religons by constructing a House of Worship where Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Jain, and Zoroastrian representatives could meet. The culture of acceptance created a blended Mughal empire.

As the empire became an amalgamation of religions and cultures, opposition flourished. To many individuals the integration between Hindus and Muslims created an impure version of Islam. Supporting religious festivals, worshiping saints, and sacrificing animals represented impure Islam and had to be rooted out. Many believed that women were the problem since Akbar had relaxed many of the religious laws that had applied to them. The Muslim philosopher Shayk Abmad Sirhindi stated that “because of their utter stupidity women pray to stones and idols and ask for their help” when small pox and other diseases strike. As such, it was the duty of Muslim leaders to impose Islamic law, sharia, upon women and to force non-Muslims from high office within the empire.

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb began his reign in 1658 and was a champion of Muslim thinking. He overturned Akbar’s policies of acceptance and tolerance and began to impose Islamic supremacy. Instead of discouraging Hindu women from sati, he outright banned it. He suppressed gambling, drinking, dancing, prostitution, and narcotics such as opium which was very popular. To further enforce Islamic law, numerous Hindu temples were destroyed. For Hindus, they could retain their religious practices in private, but they could not avoid the high taxes that Aurangzeb placed upon non-Muslims to pay for his wars of expansion.

Hindus within the Mughal Empire had become impoverished. As non-Muslims within the empire attempted to break free of the strangling Islamic laws, the Mughal Empire became a highly contentious place. After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the subcontinent was in a state of chaos. The unity that Akbar had deliberately put in place had vanished under Aurangzeb. With the subcontinent fractured, it was easy for Great Britain to take over the subcontinent in the mid-eighteenth century.

Power, Conflict, and Subjugation: The Rise of 3 Asian Empires in the Early Modern Era
Sultan Mehmed II’s entry into Constantinople, painting by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929). Public Domain

The Ottoman Empire 1299-1922

The Islamic world’s most significant empire was the Ottoman Empire. Created by Turkic warrior groups that aggressively raided agricultural civilizations over three centuries, the Ottoman Empire stretched from northwestern Anatolia, over much of the Middle East, and down into North Africa. For Central Asian pastoral peoples, their relative independence, an open association between men and women, and political influence all rapidly faded under the Empire’s enforcement of Islamic law. The spread of Islam was contentious on three fronts.

The interaction between the Islamic world and Christendom has a long-running narrative. Perhaps the most significant confrontations between Christianity and Islam resulted in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The mostly Christian population of Anatolia had been under control of the Byzantine state and Constantinople was the heir apparent to Rome. It housed numerous artifacts and paintings associated with Christendom. As Ottoman Turks waged war against the Christian population, they settled into the area. When Constantinople fell, it was renamed Istanbul which became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. By 1500, nearly 90 percent of Anatolia’s population had converted to Islam and became Turkic speakers. The Byzantium guardian of Orthodox Christianity was gone and now was a thriving Islamic Imperial capital.

The Ottoman Empire moved into southeastern Europe. In the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire encountered a large number of Christians with far fewer Turkish settlers. In stark contrast to Anatolia, Christians in the Balkans encouraged the overthrow of their Christian rulers. Under their domain, the Balkan people had been taxed heavily. When the Ottoman Empire entered the region, they were almost welcomed.

Perhaps due to the comparative ease with which the Ottoman Empire took control, the Christian Eastern Orthodox and Armenian churches were granted a considerable amount of autonomy. They were permitted to regulate internally their social, religious and educational needs. Christian merchants, landlords, government officials, and clergy became a part of the Ottoman elite without having to convert to Islam. The Jewish sects that had recently been forced out of Spain as part of the Reconquest fled to the Balkans for better opportunities and became prominent bankers and traders in the Ottoman Empire.

To state that the implementation of Turkish control over the Balkans was without adversity would be an understatement. Christians were forced to hand over their young boys to Turkish authorities. The young boys would be converted to Islam and be prepared for life as a civil administrator or military service. For the Balkan people, the removal of young boys from their society meant that the Ottoman Empire had deliberately prevented the expansion of a purely Christian society. The next generation of Balkans would be limited in their ability to raise a Christian army to rebel against Turkish and Islamic rule.

The Ottoman Empire represented a real threat to the spread of Christianity. When Constantinople fell in 1453, it marked the end of the Roman Empire. In 1529, Vienna was sieged for the first time, followed by a second Ottoman siege in 1683. Again, there was grave concern that Islam would once again take over much of Europe. The “terror of the Turk” was a contributing factor for European expansion into the New World Territories. The Spanish conquest of the New World, for example, required that conquistadors read a papal bull proclaiming all who inhabited the land were now seen as Christians and as such, were required to act within the laws of Christianity.

As the Ottoman Empire took over Christian lands, it also incorporated a large number of Arabs. The Persian Safvid Empire, from where Islam originated and practiced the Shia form of Islam, had been the long-standing protector of the Islamic Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Now the prestige fell to the Ottoman Empire that practiced the Sunni form of Islam. For over 100 years, 1534- 1639, the two factions of Islam, Sunni and Shia, fought over who would have control.

Yet, despite the divisions within Islam, the influence of Persian culture upon the Ottoman Empire was bountiful. Traditions of Persian splendor were reflected in paintings, poetry, and literature. The Ottoman elite welcomed the influence and held the Persian culture in high regard as they became patrons and displayed paintings in their homes.