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Ottoman Society


The Ottomans: From Frontier Warriors To Empire Builders
Author: Robert Guisepi
Date: 1992

Part Two
Ottoman Empire, Islamic Heartlands, And Qing China

Civilizations In Crisis

Conditions in those parts of Asia that were not outright European
colonies differed in many ways from those in Latin America during the century
and a half after 1750. Problems of political decline and reactions of highly
successful traditional cultures to new challenges predominated, particularly
in the great empires of China and the Middle East. The threat of Western
imperialism was more menacing, though larger problems of dealing with the
West's industrial lead and the intensified world economy overlapped with
issues in Latin America.

By the early decades of the 18th century, it appeared that two of the
civilizations - Middle Eastern Islamic and Chinese - still capable of
contesting the European drive for global dominance were headed in very
different directions. Under the Manchu rulers, whose seizure of the Chinese
throne in the mid-17th century was noted in Chapter 28, China was enjoying yet
another early dynastic period of growth and general prosperity. The territory
controlled by the Manchus was greater than that claimed by any Chinese dynasty
since the Tang in the 7th century. China's population was growing steadily,
and its trade and agricultural production were keeping pace. China's border
defenses were strong; its huge armies, led by the elite "banner" units made up
of ethnic Manchu soldiers, appeared capable of defending the empire against
any outside threat. Like other "barbarian" peoples, the Europeans were closely
controlled by the functionaries of the ruling Qing dynasty. European traders
were confined to the ports of Macao and Canton on China's south coast. In the
early 18th century, the Qing emperor had severely curtailed missionary
activities in China without fear of foreign reprisals. Thus, despite signs of
growing poverty and social unrest in some districts, the Manchus appeared not
only to have restored good government and the well-being of the general
populace but to have carried China to a new level of political and cultural
dominance in East Asia.

At the other end of Asia, the fate of the Ottomans appeared to be exactly
the reverse. After centuries of able rule and expansion at the expense of
their Christian and Muslim neighbors (see Chapter 26), the Ottomans were in
full retreat by the first decades of the 18th century. From the west the
Austrian Habsburgs chipped away at the Ottomans' European possessions, while a
revived Russia closed in from the north. Muslim kingdoms in North Africa broke
away from the empire, and imperial governors and local notables throughout the
Arab portions of the Middle East grew more and more independent of the ruling
Sultan in Istanbul. Political decline was accompanied by rising economic and
social disruption. Inflation was rampant throughout much of the empire, and
European imports were rapidly destroying what was left of the already battered
Ottoman handicraft industries. The empire was racked by social tensions,
crime, and rebellion in some areas. The divided Ottoman elite could not agree
on a strategy to reinvigorate state and society or to drive back the Christian
infidels whose advance was undoing centuries of hard-won conquests. With its
Ottoman defenders reduced, the very heartlands of the Islamic world were
increasingly at risk.

In a little over a century, the very different paths these two
civilizations appeared to be following suddenly converged, and then the
Ottomans gained strength as China fell apart. A combination of internal
weaknesses and growing pressure from the industrializing European powers threw
China into a period of prolonged crisis in the early 19th century. If
anything, Chinese civilization was revealed as even more exposed and
vulnerable than the Islamic world the Ottomans sought to defend in the face of
internal decay and European inroads. While the Ottomans began to find new
sources of leadership and to introduce reforms on the basis of Western
precedents, the Manchus were paralyzed by the shock of devastating defeats at
the hands of the European "barbarians." Overpopulation, drug addiction -
particularly that which afflicted members of the scholar-gentry elite - and
massive rebellions sapped China's strength from within, while European
gunboats and armies broke down its outer defenses. By the end of the 19th
century, internal disruptions and external pressures had literally demolished
the foundations of Chinese civilization, a civilization whose development we
have traced over nearly four millennia.

As old China died, its leaders struggled to find a new and viable system
to put in its place. That struggle would be carried on throughout a half
century (roughly from 1898 to 1949) of foreign invasion, revolution, and
social and economic breakdown that produced suffering on a scale unmatched in
all human history. In sharp contrast, by the end of the 19th century new
leaders had emerged in the Ottoman Empire who were able to overthrow the
sultanate with a minimum of bloodshed and to begin the process of nation
making in the Turkish portions of the empire (largely the present-day nation
of Turkey). Unfortunately, Ottoman weaknesses in earlier decades left the rest
of the Middle East exposed to European inroads, and a larger Islamic crisis
proved impervious to Turkish solutions.

The early sections of this chapter will focus on attempts to revive the
declining Ottoman Empire and the emergence of groups within the Ottoman elite
dedicated to the overthrow of the sultanate and the establishment of a new
state on the basis of Turkish nationalism. In dealing with these patterns we
will also look at developments in the central Islamic lands, from the great
changes set in motion by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, to the
differing responses of Islamic thinkers and political leaders, to the growing
threat of industrial Europe. The second half of the chapter will concentrate
on the forces that led to the collapse of Chinese civilization in the last
half of the 19th century. We will also look at some of the early Chinese
responses to the profound crisis engendered by this collapse and examine the
legacy of the fall of the Qing, China's last imperial dynasty, in the first
years of the 20th century.


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