Chinese rulers faced less sustained external threats. Ultimately this too was a function of size: When China was unified, the isolation that accompanied subcontinental dominion conferred a relative freedom from military pressure. That is to say, for long periods the Chinese state, unlike its Southeast Asian and European contemporaries, did not participate in a multistate system, composed of units of comparable size and strength, in which extinction was a live possibility and in which success could be purchased only by continuous imitative improvements in fiscal and military organization.
Admittedly, as much recent scholarship insists, China’s exemption from military pressures was hardly absolute. The Age of Division saw rivalries between more or less coherent states eager to buttress themselves through ambitious military and tax reforms. Thus the Sinoforeign Northern Wei Dynasty asserted its power to assign land and expand cultivation by initiating the aforementioned “equal-field” system, while the Northern Zhou created fubing militias to encourage professionalism while holding down military costs. Both institutions flourished into the early Tang. Competition among regional successor states also characterized the period between the fall of the Tang and the founding of the Song, while the Song Dynasty repeatedly found itself on the defensive against northern polities, first the Xi Xia and Liao, then the Jin – with whom Song diplomats signed a humiliating 1141 treaty referring to their own as “an insignificant state” and to the Jin as a “superior state” – and finally the Mongols. Not unlike the interstate system of early modern Europe, that of the Song era was replete with treaties, formal borders, alliances, military preparation, and an incessant search for military revenues. To support an army of 1,250,000 soldiers, whose iron weapons were forged in large-scale government arsenals and who in 1065 consumed 83 percent of state cash income, the Northern Song initiated commercial monopolies, encouraged maritime trade, and succeeded, as noted, in garnering some 13 percent of national income. The bitter debate between those supporting and opposing Wang Anshi’s New Policies, a debate that dominated the last half-century of the Northern Song, focused on the most practical way to mobilize Chinese resources so as to reconquer northern areas lost to the Xi Xia and Liao.
The main point, however, is that these sort of existential threats and military imperatives were not typical of other, rather longer phases of imperial history. During the middle Han period Xiongnu incursions contributed to the eclipse of universal conscript infantries in favor of increasingly professional standing frontier armies. But by 100 c.e. the latter had helped to collapse Xiongnu power, after which threats by Inner Asian military confederacies became marginal to Later Han history and to final Han disintegration. In some ways Tang military history recapitulated that of the Han. From the late 600s external pressures, by Tibetans, Eastern Turks, and Khitans, obliged the Tang to downgrade militias in favor of more full-time professional armies on the frontiers, which created conditions for An Lushan’s revolt. But although to the mid-800s Tibetans and Uighurs continued to capitalize on Tang difficulties, the first to seize western lands, the second to demand heavy subsidies, neither group contributed directly to Tang collapse, whose dynamics were primarily domestic.
If military pressures from beyond China proper had limited import for Han and Tang, they were yet less relevant to the political economy of the Yuan, which dominated Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet, and which lost China proper, because Mongol ties to local society were excessively shallow.
What is true of military pressures under the Yuan applies substantially to the Qing as well. To be sure, as Perdue has shown, from their initial campaigns of conquest, through their 1690–1759 victories in Zungharia and Muslim Xinjiang, to later police actions around the imperial periphery, Qing military mobilization had broad impact: the fiscal system, the bureaucracy, state granaries, commercial networks, and agrarian societies in the northwest all were affected. Manchu leaders, in particular the Qianlong emperor, never tired of flooding China with memorials to their military exploits, which he hoped would “stiffen the sinews” of flaccid Chinese culture.
Yet Qing military patterns differed from those in Russia and France, our European exemplars, and in mainland Southeast Asia in critical respects: a) As Perdue observed, Qing military mobilization effectively ended in the mid-1700s, by which time no credible Inner Asian authority remained beyond imperial control. By contrast, European and Southeast Asian warfare intensified to 1815 and 1847, respectively. b) After the main stage of their conquest of China was complete in 1650, the Qing, notwithstanding Russian skirmishes along the Amur, never faced a sustained enemy remotely comparable to themselves in resources or organization. The Zunghars, whose leaders aspired to unite the Mongols and who humiliated a Qing army, remained a threat for a relatively brief period from the late 1670s to the early 1730s. By and large they were a serious, but not deadly rival, protected chiefly by their inaccessibility, and thus distinct from the threats that the Hapsburgs and Britain posed to France for generations, Burma posed to Siam for 250 years, and Siam presented to Vietnam. If, as fellow conquerors of Inner Asia, Romanov Russia and Qing China resembled one another, their overall strategic situations would have been truly comparable only had Russia lacked a western military frontier. From 1478 to 1945, Russian history was shaped by pressures not from the steppe, but Europe. By contrast, until the Opium War of 1840–1842, China knew no sustained European threat. c) Because Qing China faced no major competitor, war exerted only limited pressure on the political economy. Between 1736 and 1784, a period of relatively heavy military activity, an initial Qing treasury surplus of 24,000,000 taels actually tripled, permitting the government to sustain a tax policy whose utter insouciance could not be more different from the grim determination of wartime Southeast Asian, Russian, and French leaders to capture every ounce of silver and every recruit. As Rowe concludes, “Eighteenth-century China faced few of the war-related fiscal pressures of contemporary Europe, and the prevailing political situation, Confucian ideology, and economic theory all combined to dictate that state financial comfort be translated as fully as possible into a policy of low taxation.” Of the realms under review, China’s relaxed strategic and fiscal posture 1650– 1840 resembled most closely that of Japan, where effective Tokugawa rates also declined.