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setting sail with silks, porcelain, and spices for trade, traveling across India, the Arabian Sea, then Aden and then Malindi in East Africa. After 1550, however, the Chinese government gradually shut down its international trade.

Even at the height of its international commerce, China did not often maintain an equal relationship with its trade partners, rendering them into tributary states---states that paid tributes and relied on Chinese military protection and political patronage. A tributary state was one that claimed it respected the Chinese civilization and would rely on Chinese military protection. It would send tributes to China annually to reconfirm its tributary status to China. In return, the Chinese emperor would also generously return gifts to the tributary states. Friendly tributary states historically included Annam (Vietnam), Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, and others. By the 1700s, China was very used to treating most states in contact with it (mostly its Asian neighbors) as tributary states.

Even states and peoples who fought China---barbaric neighbors that conquered China militarily---were often conquered by the Chinese culture to various extents later. They included the Huns, Mongols, Manchus, etc. The Mongols were not able to maintain their rule in China for long because they refused to be much assimilated into the Chinese culture. The Manchus were very successful in assimilating into the Chinese culture, therefore maintaining their rule from 1644 into the 20th century and perhaps could perpetuate their rule longer had the Westerners not come to China.

View Chinese History Time Line

4. The Qing Dynasty

Imperial dynasties ruled over a unified China from around 220 B.C. up to 1911. Periodically, the unification would disintegrate for various reasons, but it would invariably be restored. The last dynasty to rule over a unified China was called the Qing (Pure) Dynasty (1644-1911). It was established by the Manchus, a nomadic people who inhabited the northeastern borders of China (called Manchuria) and served as frontier guards in the Chinese army.  The word Qing, meaning pure, sounds eerily Muslim, suggesting their connections with the Central Asian Muslim tribes, but like most previous foreign rulers in China, they quickly Sinicized, converting into Confucianism in China and becoming exemplary Confucian rulers, although succumbing from time to time to Buddhist influences.  The Manchu emperors also inherited the Sino-centric view of the world, perhaps even more so than their Han (the largest ethnic group in China) counterparts because they felt they needed to act truly Chinese in order to consolidate their rule over the Chinese.  In the 18th century, Manchu emperors encountered what later would turn out to be a more formidable foe than rebels or the Han (the majority of Chinese whom they ruled over)---the Europeans who were beginning to undergo the Industrial Revolution and were looking for overseas markets for their machine manufactured goods. Initially, Manchu emperors tried to ignore these European envoys for trade. 

5. China Encounters the Europeans

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