Land Empires Expand: Russia and China

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Learning Objective 3A

Historical Development 2

The Russian empire expanded to the east, south, and west.



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.

Russia expanded west into Eastern Europe, south into central Asia, and East across Siberia. Russia expanded for defensive and economic reasons.

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 Empire in China

Main idea

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. 

The Qing government

  • Like previous Chinese dynasties, the Qing government was an absolute monarchy under the emperor.
  • Qing leaders claimed the traditional Chinese Mandate of Heaven to legitimize their rule.
  • Manchus held the highest governing positions nearest the emperor.
  • The Confucian scholar-official class remained influential and continued to run much of the Chinese bureaucracy.
  • The Qing continued to use the Chinese bureaucracy that existed before their takeover.
  • The government continued to use the Confucian imperial exam to screen applicants for government jobs.

The Qing economy

  • China’s economy under the Qing continued to flourish from foreign demand for Chinese goods like silks, porcelains, and tea.
  • The government continued to require those wanting to trade in China to follow tribute rituals showing respect for the emperor.
  • Qing emperors increasingly worried about foreign influence in China and began limiting when and where foreigners could trade in China.

Qing society

Manchu culture forced on the Chinese: 

  • Manchus had privileged positions in government and the military.
  • Rules forbid marriages between Manchus and native Chinese. As time went on, the government relaxed and then eliminated these restrictions.
  • Laws forced Chinese men to adopt Manchu clothing styles and wear their hair in the traditional Manchu style of braided ponytails (queue). The Manchus punished those who refused. Punishments went as far as potential execution.

Chinese culture adopted by the Manchu: 

  • Qing dynasty rulers adopted Confucianism, Daoist, and Buddhist philosophies as a tool to make them “appear more Chinese.”
  • The Qing adopted the Chinese language.
  • Qing governments financially supported traditional Chinese artists and architects.

The Qing expansion

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

  • North in Mongolia (1697)
  • West into Xinjiang (1750s) and Tibet (1720)

Why China expanded

The Qing viewed expansion as necessary for the defense of China against 

  • the eastward expansion of the Russian empire
  • the strengthening of a new Mongol state (Dzungars) west of China in Central Asia

How China governed conquered areas

  • Conquered lands ruled separately from China by a government agency called the Court of Colonial Affairs
  • Native elites from conquered regions used to govern the territories

China's impact on conquered peoples

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.

The Russian Empire

Main idea

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

The Russian government

  • An absolute monarchy that was controlled by the Tsar.
  • A wealthy landowning nobility supported the Tsar’s rule.

The Russian economy

  • Agricultural economy with minimal amounts of industry, trade, and commercialization.

Russian society

  • Feudal (until the late 19th century) system in which peasants and serfs worked the land of wealthy nobility.
  • Eastern Orthodox Christianity was the dominant religion.

Russia expansion

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:

  • New bureaucratic government systems
  • Modernization of the military
  • Education for the sons of elites
  • Forced adoption of European dress and grooming standards (tsar required men to shave their beards)

When and where Russia expanded

  • East across Northern Asia (15th – 18th centuries)
  • South to the coasts of the Caspian and Black seas (16th – 18th centuries)
  • West into East Europe (16th – 18th centuries)

Why Russia expanded

Russia expanded for the following defensive and economic reasons:

  • To prevent nomadic groups like the Mongols from raiding, conquering, and enslaving Russian-speaking areas
  • Access to natural resources like furs and minerals
  • Direct access to merchants and trade routes
  • Access to ice-free warm water trading ports
  • Access to farmland

How Russia governed conquered areas

  • Ethnic Russians held power and influence in Russia
  • Territorial prikazes—managers assigned by the tsar—administered territories

Russia's impact on conquered peoples

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.

  • Large pieces of what had been open graving lands were closed off and privatized (made private property), preventing pastoralists from grazing their herds.
  • In other areas, the Russian state charged taxes to cross land. Many pastoral communities had no choice but to settle down and give up pastoralism. As a result, natives depended on Russians and the Russian economy for survival. 

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.