Historians often use the mid-15th century as a significant historical turning point—the end of the medieval period and the start of the early modern era. During these centuries, new empires rose across the globe. Two empires—the Chinese Qing and Russian–reshaped northern and central Asia through conquest.
The Qing dynasty expanded China to the west and north to defend against an expanding Russia and the growing power of nomadic groups in Central Asia.
The Ming dynasty (1388-1644), which had previously defeated the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China, collapsed in 1644 following widespread famine. Li Zicheng, a minor government official, initially led the revolution against the Ming government. Despite his forces capturing the Chinese capital of Beijing in April 1644, Zicheng could not create a stable government. Sensing China was weak, Manchu people from China’s northeast invaded and took control of northern China. They established the Qing dynasty (1636-1912) and spent the next 40 years subduing China under their leadership.
Manchu culture forced on the Chinese:
Chinese culture adopted by the Manchu:
Under the Qing, China expanded to the north and west. The people who inhabited these regions were well-known to the Chinese. Past Chinese dynasties had interacted with the nomadic inhabitants in these areas for centuries. There were also periods when China controlled some of the regions. By the mid-18th century, China had transitioned from being purely an Asian Pacific power to a transcontinental Asian power. China was once again a dominant force in Central Asia. Many of these conquered areas and people remain a part of the modern Chinese state.
When and where China expanded
Why China expanded
The Qing viewed expansion as necessary for the defense of China against
How China governed conquered areas
Conquered peoples that accepted Chinese rule were left alone to live as they had before the Chinese conquest. The Chinese military violently crushed any resistance.
The Dzungar genocide: The Qing military brutalized areas that resisted Chinese authority. When the Dzungars Mongols rebelled against the Chinese in 1755, the Qing Qianlong Emperor ordered, “Show no mercy at all to these rebels.” Between 1755 and 1758, hundreds of thousands of Dzungars died from warfare, disease, and forced relocation.
No forced cultural assimilation until the 21st century: Initially, the Qing did not interfere with local culture and religious customs. There was no active effort to convert most people to Chinese culture. Qing authorities limited migration into conquered territories to prevent the dilution of native cultures. However, in modern China, these policies have reversed. China now actively promotes the movement of native Chinese from Eastern to Western China. The culture of groups such as the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang is under assault by the Chinese state. Hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned in “re-education camps.” Uyghur activists and international human rights groups accuse China of using these camps to exterminate Uyghur culture in China.
Russia expanded west into Eastern Europe, south into central Asia, and East across Siberia. Russia expanded for defensive and economic reasons.
The kingdom of Muscovy emerged from Eastern Europe’s period of Mongol control as the most powerful state in the region
Russian imperial expansion lasted over 400 years, from the 1460s-1890s. While the east was the primary direction of conquest, Russia also expanded to the south and west of Moscow. This expansion enlarged Muscovy from a few hundred miles to 5600 miles from eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean.
Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1584), also known as Ivan the Terrible, became the leader of Russia in 1547. Quickly his armies began conquering eastward into territories once held by the Golden Horde Mongols—the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir. Ivan then turned his attention south, where he conquered the area around the Volga River. Russia now had direct access to warm water ports on the Caspian sea from which they could trade directly with the Persians and Ottomans.
Eastward expansion after Ivan: Expanding commerce, especially the fur trade, pushed later Russian tsars further east past the Ural Mountains and into Siberia. By 1639, the Russian empire had crossed Siberia and reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Westward expansion toward Europe under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great: Under Peter the Great (1672-1725), Russia defeated several European powers and expanded west into the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine. Increasing contact with Europe exposed Russia’s lack of development. In response, Peter the Great (1672-1725) began a process of westernizing Russia to make it more developed like other European states. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) continued westernizing Russia under her leadership. Westernization under Peter the Great resulted in the following:
When and where Russia expanded
Why Russia expanded
Russia expanded for the following defensive and economic reasons:
How Russia governed conquered areas
Russian rule reshaped the lives and cultures of conquered territories.
Large settlements of Russians in native lands: As Russians moved east, Russians began to outnumber natives. By the early 18th century, ethnic Russians amounted to 70% of the population in Siberia.
Russification: Russian officials forced conquered peoples to adopt Russian culture, like the Russian language. This Russification of natives discouraged traditional ways of life, such as pastoralism.
There were also additional pressures to convert to Christianity. While Russian authorities did not force conversion, tax breaks, free land, and cash payments incentivized conversion to survive. Muslim communities endured more hardship, including forced relocations and the destruction of mosques.
Forced labor: The Russian state required the payment of tribute called yasak by Siberian natives, usually in furs. The Mongols first introduced yasak in the territories they controlled east of Russia in the former Golden Horde. When Russia conquered the area, they adopted the practice and expanded it eastward into Siberia.
Deadly epidemics: Epidemics of smallpox and measles accompanied Russian expansion. With little immunity to these diseases, native populations died in massive numbers as these diseases swept through their communities.