- In the Story of China we've reached the 10th century, more than 1,000 years since the first emperor united China.
(horse neighing) (dramatic music) After the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, China was plunged into decades of civil war.
The soldier-poet Wang Renyu witnessed the destruction of his country.
The barbarians have overthrown the Tang Dynasty, he wrote, our cities have been abandoned, our Temple courtyards lie in ruin.
China has entered a truly dark time, but things cannot go on like this forever.
The way surely has not been finally lost, I believe heaven will soon announce a new dynasty.
And in around the year 960, it did.
(dramatic music) (explosion booming) - [Announcer] The Story of China - The Chinese empire was founded in the third century BC.
It's the oldest state on earth.
Over the last 2,000 years, it's faced many challenges.
It's been defeated and occupied and at times even fallen apart.
But it always came back together again.
In the story of China, we've reached the 14th century, and the beginning of China's most dazzling age, the Ming dynasty.
Here in Nanjing is the tomb of the founder of that age, one of the greatest Chinese emperors.
And yet the man who built this was born a lowly peasant who first gained fame as a rebel.
The story of the man who rose to this splendor is, well, literally incredible.
He came from the poorest peasant family.
His mother and father had given him away when he was a child.
He'd spent years as a as a wandering beggar, as a penniless Buddhist monk.
He'd risen through the ranks of the secret peasant societies fighting against the government and won a series of staggering victories, both against the government and against his peasant rivals.
(dramatic music) (wagons creaking) When he became emperor, he gave himself the title Hongwu, literally, above all mighty in war.
He was suspicious, coarse, brutal, utterly ruthless, but a creative genius.
And he founded one of the greatest eras of stability in government and in society and high civilization in the history of the world.
The new dynasty was to be called the bringer of light, the Ming.
(explosion booming) (spear swishing) (dramatic music) (firecrackers booming) China has been a great power for most of its history, but that doesn't mean it's always been stable.
In fact it's been repeatedly invaded by foreigners.
When the future Ming emperor Hongwu was young, China was under the rule of the Mongols whose empire stretched to the gates of Europe.
(soldiers yelling) (hoofbeats thundering) But in the 1350s the Mongol empire began to break up.
In China resistance armies rose against them in the different regions.
And now warlords fought each other in bitter civil war.
China was torn apart.
Chaos ruled, but opportunity beckoned for a young peasant leader, Zhu Yuanzhang.
Here in Nanjing, Zhu made his stronghold.
He built a reputation for justice and good governance and vast numbers of refugees flowed into the city.
It became a safe haven in time of war.
And Zhu's strength grew.
And now the people here in the city called on Zhu to declare himself emperor.
But he was a peasant and reluctant to take power.
So he asked for a sign.
The tale is told by Chinese storytellers.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] Up until this point, Zhu Yuanzhang had had a remarkable life.
Among other things, he had been an outlaw and a monk.
But after his bravery and success in battle, the people clamored for him to be emperor.
But Zhu felt unworthy and asked the heavens for a sign to tell him if he should accept.
The week before his planned coronation, dark clouds gathered, and it rained every day.
But on the appointed day, the sky was clear for 10,000 miles and the sun was radiant.
Zhu Yuanzhang sat on the throne and acknowledged the people.
"Yes," he said laughing, "it was indeed the will of heaven."
- And so Zhu announced that he had received the Mandate of Heaven.
That same year, 1368, now calling himself the Hongwu emperor, he drove the Mongols out of North China and made Nanjing capital of his new dynasty.
(dramatic music) And now he set out to rebuild the Chinese state, not with Confucian ideas of virtue which had inspired the Song golden age, but by force and fear.
He surrounded his capital with giant walls to show the might and legitimacy of Ming rule.
It's just epic, isn't it?
This isn't a castle, it's a gate!
Three great courtyards leading to the main gate.
From the moat, you've got to cover about a kilometer to get through it into the city.
Believing himself to be guided by heaven, Hongwu reshaped the layout of Nanjing as a cosmic city mirroring the heavenly constellations.
The capital that the emperor had created was the greatest city on earth and it still has the greatest set of city walls on earth, 33 kilometers of them.
And the 13 city gates matched the 13 great stars.
The center of power would replicate the harmonious order of heaven whose mandate had now passed to the ruler of the Ming.
Hongwu set out to make the state all-powerful, as it still is today.
You can see his thirst for control stamped even on the bricks in the city wall.
Now, look at this.
Here's a wonderful insight into Ming power.
Late 1300s they got a census, they'd registered households, the country was thousands of well, I suppose what we'd call tithings, groups of communities.
And 152 of these areas contributed to the making the bricks for this vast enterprise here.
And all the bricks are stamped, just look at that, with who made it and where it was made.
So if you made a bad brick they knew who you were and where to find you.
(gentle music) But for the real story of Hongwu's revolution you have to go out into the countryside.
China is an agricultural civilization and out here, Hongwu thought, was the true soul of China.
Born a peasant, he identified with the peasants.
He had irrigation systems built and reduced the demands for forced labor.
He registered all land to make taxes fairer.
For Hongwu the basis of society was the village.
Villages like this one, Tangyue.
Here the Bao family were village headmen and tax collectors and they soon did well in the new Ming state.
Let's just have a look at where we are.
I've got your lovely map here.
- Yes, this location is the east side of this village, and also a Ming entrance from She Xian county.
So here is the Ming ritual center in the Ming dynasty - So we've got a street, we've got an academy for education, and a temple.
So the village is making, people are making money now.
- [Kam] Yes.
- [Michael] And the family later used their money to build fabulously ornate ancestral halls for their men and their women.
Women who did their duty as loyal wives and mothers under the Ming emperors.
The Bao story is told in the old printed edition of their family history, first put together in the Ming.
So how many copies of something like this would be produced?
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] The blocks were carved out of wood and they're hand printed.
Very few copies were made, just one for each branch of the family.
In the Ming dynasty, the most prominent figure was Bao Xiangxian.
He had a senior post in the Ministry of War.
He was in charge of this area so, when there was a rebellion in the borderlands, he was sent to handle it.
(soft music) - Hongwu had been an outlaw in these hills and his bitter experience of the time of anarchy drove him to compile an all-embracing set of laws and punishments.
The great Ming code.
It drew on a thousand years of Chinese law, but its severity has never been forgotten.
(Chinese music) (speaking foreign language) Here one local story has been turned into a play showing Ming law at work.
An innocent woman is condemned for the murder of her new husband.
Accused of infidelity, she's tortured and executed by a harsh magistrate.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] I play a new wife whose husband goes missing.
Finding what she thinks is his body she asks the magistrate to investigate.
But a jealous neighbor accuses her of murder and of taking a new lover.
(speaking foreign language) - [Michael] But the body on the dam wasn't her husband.
Just like in a Hollywood thriller, he turns up again but too late, Hongwu's strict law had taken its course.
(speaking foreign language) The letter of Ming law wasn't always justice.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] Punishment under the Ming was very cruel, especially to women.
(speaking foreign language) The wooden donkey and hand-clamping caused awful pain and humiliation.
(speaking foreign language) (cymbals clashing) (speaking foreign language) - So Hongwu wanted to force people to be good.
In a country so vast and so diverse, the state had to be seen to be strong.
"If I'm lenient," Hongwu said, "How will the people live peaceful lives?"
It's an old proverb in China, better a year of tyranny, than a day of anarchy.
Hongwu's rule rested on the hard realities of power.
But his grandfather had been a village diviner, who made divination compasses to see the pattern of the future.
And the emperor followed these beliefs.
"I will rest neither day nor night," he said, "to restore the ancient customs of the people."
By returning to the roots of Chinese culture he thought he could find what the Chinese call the Tao, the true harmonious way.
The Wu family firm have been making these divination compasses since the Ming.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] We magnetize the needle using a meteorite that has been passed down from our ancestors.
Once it's in the compass, the needle interacts with the earth's magnetic field.
That way it constantly recharges itself so it works forever.
(speaking foreign language) (dramatic music) - [Michael] But Hongwu's reign would be a turning point in Chinese history.
He concentrated power in the person of the emperor himself.
It would prove a dangerous legacy.
In 1398 he died.
And China was plunged into crisis.
(shutters crashing) (soldiers shouting) - If a person of such authority, of such stature, dies, who takes over?
(dramatic music) (sword clanging) And is the next person in line as able with the same kind of vision?
Could he do the job?
(woman screaming) - [Michael] As his successor Hongwu had named his grandson.
But the boy's uncle rose against him.
- He took the excuse of weeding out disloyal ministers and staged an uprising and then after three years of civil war he took the throne and became the Yongle emperor.
- Yongle, it means perpetual happiness and when a tyrant calls himself that, you have to watch out.
Having done away with his nephew he ruthlessly purged his enemies, 'cause people knew he was a usurper .
But there were rumors also that he was illegitimate, that he hadn't been the son of the first emperor Hongwu.
So he ordered all the ministers of the previous ruler to swear allegiance to him or die.
And among them was the chief minister, Fang Xiaoru.
Loyal, severe, honest, and he was ordered to write the edict proclaiming the legitimacy of the new emperor.
He threw his brush down.
"I would rather die," he said.
"You are not the true emperor.
"Where is your nephew?"
The emperor ordered his death but with the most cruel sentence that was possible under Chinese law.
Death by nine degrees.
That meant that not only you died, but your parents and your grandparents and your children and your grandchildren and your brothers and your cousins and your nephews, to nine degrees of relationship.
And the emperor paused and said, "But make it 10."
(dramatic music) And now Yongle took a momentous decision.
In 1403 he ordered the building of a new capital at his own power base 700 miles to the north.
There on top of the old Mongol capital he built a vast new city.
Beijing, north capital.
This is Tiananmen Square in the heart of today's Beijing and it's a great place to get a sense of the majestic scale of the Ming dynasty city.
Over there Tiananmen Gate, the gate of heavenly peace.
With the famous portrait of Chairman Mao above it.
You go through the gate and you're into the imperial city and the forbidden city in its very heart.
The construction of Beijing took a million men 20 years.
Like other autocrats in history Yongle wanted to create an architecture of absolute power.
But Ming Beijing was more than an imperial capital, it was also a vast ritual space were the emperor petitioned the powers of heaven, to ensure the fertility of the earth, the stability of society, and of course, the security of the dynasty.
And this is the end point of that great way that we traced all the way from Tiananmen square.
It's the altar of heaven.
This is the site of the most sacred rituals in the Ming dynasty state.
I find this an incredibly moving place even when you're surrounded with all the business of tourism.
This altar symbolizes that Chinese search to find harmony between the three layers of the cosmos symbolized in this.
The earth, humanity, and the heavens.
(percussion music) Reaping the benefits of stability, in the early 1400s, small market towns sprang up everywhere and China's economy began to grow and diversify.
In a gigantic engineering project, the Grand Canal was refurbished for a thousand miles between Beijing and the south.
Ferrying raw materials, timber, and rice, up to the new capital.
It's still a mainstay of the Chinese economy today.
So this is a nice way of life Mr. Hu, I like the calmness of it.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] Yes, it's very tranquil.
My whole family is on the boat.
At the back there are bedrooms and a toilet, we've got everything we need.
If we have a bit of free time, we have a game of mahjong or watch TV.
- [Michael] How much of the year do you spend on the boat?
- [Translator] We spend 350 days on the boat and the rest at home.
- Helped by the Grand Canal, in the 15th century China's economy became once more the largest in the world.
Although the renovation was an imperial project, there's thousands of small operators, individual boat owners like Mr. Hu here who conduct their own business.
Person wrote at the time to travel up and down the canal and everybody's doing business.
So the Ming saw the spread of a mercantile mentality across China.
Making money out of trade.
The population rose to between 150 and 200 million, incredibly, in the 15th century, when less that three million lived in Tudor England.
A third of the people of the world lived under Ming rule.
So after the shock of the Mongol occupation China was restored, and in Chinese eyes the borders of the Ming were again those of civilization itself.
(singing in foreign language) And now, rather like today, China went out to the world.
In the early 1400s, decades before Columbus and Vasco De Gama, they sent seven great voyages westwards, under Admiral Zheng He.
One of the fleet assembly places was the bay of Quanzhou on the coast of Fujian.
Here in this great natural lagoon is what the Chinese in the Ming dynasty called the gathering place of the ships.
This is where those huge expeditions waited at anchor for the monsoon winds.
Huge fleets, 63 ocean-going vessels, the biggest of them with 28,000 crew, just imagine it, heading out to the barbarian countries of the West .
Zheng He was a high-ranking Muslim courtier, a eunuch.
He wasn't sent to explore or trade, let alone to conquer, but to receive tribute and show off the glory of the Yongle emperor.
As for Zheng He's ships, little was known until the modern excavation of the Ming dockyards in Nanjing.
What they found suggests the largest boats could have reached 240 feet long, the biggest wooden ships yet made.
And now here in Nanjing, TJ Jia and his team are building a fabulous replica.
- Mike, if you look at this establish shot-- - Whoa.
- For a boat, it's pretty sizable, isn't it?
- [Michael] It's sensational TJ, it's absolutely amazing.
- [TJ] This is not complete yet, it's only half the size.
(singing in foreign language) - [Michael] It has six main decks with watertight compartments and a great decorated stern towering 60 feet above the keel.
- [TJ] All the planks, this is natural curved.
- Incredibly, it's said Zheng He had 60 of these large vessels, what they called the treasure ships.
(laughing) It's just an absolutely fantastic, isn't it?
That is-- - From the inside it looks much bigger than outside.
- It's amazing, amazing.
And how many masts would a big ship like this have had?
- There are six masts, altogether.
With two main mast in the middle, the tallest one, 38 meters.
- [Michael] Huge.
- It's big mast.
Because only that kind size of sail and mast can drive this boat.
- Yeah, yeah, you remember Zheng He's inscription says, and our sails, billowing like clouds-- - Yes!
- Pushed us on day and night.
- Exactly, that's the exact description!
- Fantastic, fantastic.
- [TJ] When we have all these sails, in full wind, it look like that.
(orchestral music) - There's nothing approaching the size of the treasure ships still afloat today.
But an ocean-going junk sails out of Hong Kong for a children's charity and I hitched a ride to get a flavor of Ming life at sea.
(children cheering) (orchestral music) (waves crashing) And today Zheng He has become a national hero, a symbol for the new world of Chinese expansionism and growing naval might.
(dramatic orchestral music) (shrieking) (children talking and shouting) The great Ming voyages were made possible by Chinese inventions, the stern rudder, watertight compartments and the magnetic compass, which they already had in the Tang Dynasty.
So how did they navigate?
Well they didn't have charts like modern charts but Chinese merchants had sailed to the Persian Gulf before and east Africa as far back as the Tang dynasty and this is one of the portolans that they used.
Very schematic maps of direction of travel.
A bit like a kind of London tube map, almost.
Top of the page here is actually India, north is that way, you sail this way from China and the main landmarks are all actually written down in little boxes.
The area of Mumbai there, further on, the area of the Gulf of Cambay and then towards Pakistan, the Macron coast and Iran.
And there's an associated handbook which gives you the distances between the different ports and the star directions, too.
The seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 went across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and down the coast of East Africa.
They brought back new knowledge, rare foods and plants and exotic animals.
Even a giraffe, which the Chinese identified with the mythical unicorn.
An auspicious sign for the Yongle emperor.
But after the sixth voyage, Yongle died.
And after one more expedition the new emperor Xuande called a halt.
So why did they stop?
Ming dynasty at that point was the greatest power on earth, they had maybe 200 million people.
They'd been the great scientific innovators.
They'd made the great inventions with which the West would later dominate the world.
For some Western commentators it shows that Chinese lacked the will to pursue the boundaries of knowledge.
It would be like stopping moon exploration at Apollo 8.
But maybe it's something else, maybe it's about how you use technology.
And perhaps the Ming scholar-bureaucrats in the end realized that their interests were better served pursuing the traditional goals of Chinese civilization, of achieving harmony between human kind and the cosmos, within the borders of China.
(surf crashing) (gentle music) The truth is, dominating the wider world was not on the Chinese agenda.
For the Ming, after all, China was the world.
(gentle music) But there may have been a more pressing practical reason for giving up on sea power.
The threat from their old enemies, the Mongols.
Out to the north, Ming armies made almost annual expeditions beyond the mountains into the vast steppe lands of Mongolia.
And then in 1449 the Zhengtong emperor was defeated and captured by the Mongols.
The greatest military fiasco in the Ming period and that led to a massive rebuilding of the Great Wall and a new mood of defensiveness.
(wind whistling) This is the Juyongguan Pass, one of the most famous passes in Chinese history, as important in Chinese history as the Khyber in the history of India.
What you're looking at now, mainly the creation of the Ming dynasty.
You can see the Great Wall snaking down from the mountains, all around us coming down to this point and down there too.
And it's coming down here to a great fortress, the Chinese emperors called it the first fortress of the world.
You see the series of gates where the road originally ran out to Mongolia.
The garrison town rooftops over there and up there the Buddhist and Taoist temples that served the people who lived here.
Bristling with weaponry, armored bowmen on the walls and the watchtowers.
Beacons to alert the defenses as the Ming emperors start to define China as a Han civilization again, against what lay in the world beyond.
(gentle music) (people talking) (rhythmic music) But at home, China was changing.
Especially in the rich cities of the South like Suzhou.
Ming China had begun as an agricultural state with a stifling command economy, but now the growth of the market gave birth to a new urban moneyed class who would begin to loosen the grip of Ming autocracy.
Suzhou, they said, was heaven on earth.
Like Renaissance Florence with its high culture and its palaces and mansions, these days you can even stay in them.
(birds singing) (rooster crowing) This was the house of the Fung family.
They were only middling merchants, but as you can see, they lived the good life.
And in your Ming dynasty guest room there's fine furniture, as you can see.
Wooden bath that the servants would fill for you in the evening.
And a lovely four-poster bed hung with muslin mosquito nets, very necessary here in Suzhou.
30 rooms, ancestral hall and a shrine room and a little family school.
All belonging to the one extended family.
(singing in foreign language) The Fung family had joined a new world of conspicuous consumption, of private wealth and taste.
On their table the finest blue glazed porcelain bought by the new rich from their local art dealers and made by thousands of indentured workers in the state pottery kilns.
Soon they'd be exporting these thing to Europe.
To meet the consumer demand old arts reached new heights under the Ming, among them, lacquer making.
It's a craft that demands incredible attention to detail.
The best work was so coveted that Ming collectors traveled hundreds of miles to buy the top brand names from the most famous houses.
(singing in foreign language) Such confusions of pleasure were a long way from the austere world of the first Ming emperor.
Even fashion was now no longer the preserve of the ruling class.
And as regards designer labels, well, Suzhou was all the rage.
If it wasn't made in Suzhou, people said, people just didn't want to wear it.
The hems go up, the hems go down, and the fuddy-duddies complained that these new people with their newfangled fashions are erasing the class differences which were implicit in the old traditional styles of costume.
(rhythmic music) In the cotton and silk industries, demand skyrocketed.
And Suzhou silk was the best.
(rhythmic music) A proletariat of poor textile workers was emerging in small factories and workshops, a bit like the early industrial revolution in Britain, but critics now asked, was all this pursuit of wealth and beauty making a better world?
Some of the, hello-- - Hi.
- Hello, how are you?
- Hello, hi.
- [Michael] Just looking at your beautiful silk!
- Yes, this the very traditional material.
- [Michael] May we have a look, at the-- - Which one?
Do you like?
- Yeah the one with the, like a Chinese imperial-- - Maybe this one.
- Gown, doesn't it?
- [Wang] Okay.
- This is the kind of thing the mandarins used to wear.
- Yes, this is like gold color.
In the pattern, in here is long life.
The meaning is very good, the long life, and here is five bat.
- [Michael] And people buy this to make dresses, or clothes or-- - For make a wedding dress, for Chinese wedding dress.
- A wedding dress.
- Wedding dress.
Maybe Chinese, the man, the jacket.
For jacket, it's nice.
- For men too?
- Like this one, maybe.
I show you.
- [Michael] Oh.
That is beautiful, isn't it?
- It's nice, you know here is a dragon.
The dragon, is for man.
It's perfect pattern.
- Oh, right, yeah, so it's strength?
The dragon is strong and brave?
But good luck as well?
- Yes, it's like king!
- Like a king?
- The symbol of the king, yes of course!
- Yeah, the emperor, wears dragons.
So if you were tired of the delights of Ming Suzhou, you were tired of life.
And when you'd made your money and retired you came home and left your mark with a lovely garden.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] The founder and owner of this garden was an official in the Ming dynasty.
It took him 16 years to complete and it covers 12 acres.
Working in this garden gives me such great pleasure every day.
If I could, I'd work here all my life.
What can I say?
It's really hard to express my feelings about this beautiful place.
- This was one of 90 gardens in Suzhou.
Adorned with playful poems and inscriptions, it was a feast for the senses.
A far cry from Hong Wu's day, when the land was simply there to be plowed by the peasants.
These private gardens in the Ming dynasty were rich men's passions.
Passion being the operative word.
They traveled hundreds of miles to bring back weirdly shaped stones to place in the garden.
They dug artificial hills like this one on which they placed gazebos where you could take in the different viewpoints, the distant fragrance hall where the lotuses were planted, the magnolia hall, and even better, the scent of snow and rosy clouds hall.
The pleasures of the Ming, for some.
The gardens were nature in miniature and as for nature at large, Ming thinkers had a lot to say about that too.
In a time that saw the rise of tourism and guidebooks.
Especially in the remote highlands down to Yunnan and Vietnam.
(cymbals clashing) Here the Ming had opened up new territories with exotic tribes and peoples.
Intrepid travel writers now describe their landscapes and geology.
The most famous Ming travel writer was Xu Xiake.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] I think Xu Xiake was a saint.
Today he's revered as a traveler and honored as a geographer.
He went to extraordinary places and had a completely original mind.
He was a really great man, he's an important figure in our history.
- Xu wrote about nature and feeling like the European romantics.
In his records he sounds like a 19th-century natural scientist.
But in all his wanderings from the heartland to the edge of Ming China, what we never sense is the existence of a world beyond.
And the world beyond was getting closer.
In August 1582 a visitor arrived in the tiny Portuguese trading post of Macao on the South China Sea.
It was an event of no apparent significance in the greater scheme of things.
But its repercussions would be world shaking.
The visitor was an Italian Jesuit called Matteo Ricci and his mission, unbelievably, was to convert China to Christianity.
The founding of Macao had been part of the extraordinary expansion of European powers in the few decades since Columbus discovered the New World.
Small maritime states on the Atlantic seaboard, they were nothing compared with the greatness and antiquity of China, but with their new knowledge and propelled by Chinese inventions it was the Europeans, not the Chinese, who would seize the time.
And it all began with a simple trading deal.
This is the old fortress on the top of Macao.
The Portuguese had made their earliest explorations of the Chinese coast 1513, 14.
And then in 1557 the Ming government allowed them to actually settle on this peninsula and to live here.
Not a formal treaty and the Ming government looked after them very carefully.
They had a landward wall with garrisons to make sure that they didn't come out of here except at the allotted times.
Twice a year, when they could sail up to Canton to trade.
It was the Europeans' first foothold.
Here in the South Ricci worked for 15 years, learning to speak Chinese like a native.
And then in 1598, he set off overland to Beijing.
The China he traveled through, he wrote, was the best-governed state on earth and a deeply moral civilization.
But Christianity, he thought, would be the completion of their faith.
To achieve that, his idea was to go to the very top, to find a Chinese emperor like Constantine, who'd converted the Roman empire to Christianity.
He's an honorary Chinese person, yeah?
- [Peter] Yeah, and a great person.
- He didn't succeed in that, but astonishingly, there are 70 million Chinese Christians today.
And in a sense you could say their story begins with Ricci.
- When he was in Shaozhou he wrote two important books.
One is a true doctrine of the lord of heaven.
That's Catholic doctrine and another one is Euclid's elements.
- [Michael] Euclid's elements?
- That's very important to Mathematical books, even after Matteo's death people at that time they say we have never had a foreigner to be buried in the capital and the one important official at that time said one worthy only for the Euclid's elements can be buried here.
So you can see how important the works he has done.
- Most Chinese scholars were more interested in that new knowledge than what one described as the Christian's strange theology.
Ricci prepared for the emperor a map of the world on which the Chinese learned of new continents.
And saw that the world was far bigger than they'd ever imagined.
And in Ricci's Western science, the Mandarins found even more astonishing revelations.
"These Westerners are passionate about astronomy," said one of the Chinese scholars, "and they've brought instruments with them "connected with that science.
"And they believe that the earth hangs in the firmament, "and that it's a globe "and that if you go all the way round westwards "you end up going eastwards.
"And if you go all the way up northwards "you go over the top of the world "and then you travel southwards "and come back to where to you started."
As you can see it's an astrolabe, but what an astrolabe.
Of course it enables you to take very accurate sun measurements and star measurements.
The Chinese had used a lunar calendar prior to the arrival of the Jesuits Matteo Ricci and now they're, with imperial patronage, switched their science to a solar calendar, which is much more accurate, of course.
(twangy music) But the implications of the new Western science were about far more than cosmology.
They were a challenge to the entire system of thought developed by the Chinese over so many millennia.
With Western ideas and Spanish silver from the Americas, Ming China was being drawn into the wider world.
The question was how would it respond.
Ricci himself died in China in 1610.
In the end China had converted him, not the other way round.
He'd come to love and admire the Chinese and what he called their 4,000-year-old tradition.
Ricci's Chinese diary was published after his death and in it he makes some thought-provoking comparisons between the Europeans and the Chinese.
Though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighboring nations neither the king nor his people ever think of waging wars of aggression.
In this respect it seems to me, says Ricci, that they are very different from the peoples of Europe, who are forever disturbing their neighbors and entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination.
But Ricci also saw a fatal insularity in the Chinese worldview.
The extent of the Chinese kingdom is so vast, and its borders are so distant, and yet their lack of knowledge about the world beyond the oceans is so complete that they think their kingdom includes the whole world.
By the early 1600s, as the world was changing around them, the emperors were losing touch with the people, shutting themselves up in the forbidden city.
Shunning the hard work and moral purpose needed to run the state.
We've an insight into those times from the writer Zhang Dai who came from a rich land-owning family, here in Shaoxing.
You can still make out the shape of the Ming dynasty city, a great rectangle framed by tree-lined canals.
(cymbals clashing) (Chinese music) This was a great cultural and economic center and this is where the Zhang family had set up in their beautiful estate in what Granddad Zhang called the happiness garden.
Across the country, as the gap between rich and poor was widening, Zhang wrote about the life of the rich in poignant detail.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] In my opinion, Zhang Dai's writings are of very great importance to the study of the culture and the history of his time.
(speaking foreign language) In his works he reflected on the last years of the Ming Dynasty and the glory of the society in this region.
- But the prosperity of the Ming had been bought on the backs of the poor, while the rich still lived the good life like Edwardian aristocracy on the eve of the First World War.
Oh, this is very beautiful.
This is Zhang's house, it's now a hotel.
Hello, yes very nice to be here.
My name's, Zhang was typical of his class in the late Ming.
He had leisure and no responsibilities, a career writer in a proudly literary city.
- [Desk Clerk] 2,500 years old.
- 2500 years old?
- Yeah, yeah.
- Don't think we've got towns as old as that in England!
(Chinese music) Looking back Zhang saw that society was corrupt and unjust.
I had it all in my youth, he wrote.
I was a silk stocking dandy addicted to luxury but it was all an illusion.
(gentle music) Social critics were now asking whether the pursuit of wealth had eroded the idea of service to the state.
Some blamed the imperial system itself: let's throw the scoundrels out, they wrote.
And died for it.
In the 1630s the crisis came.
Beyond the lantern-lit pavilions gangs of unemployed roamed the countryside.
The silk workers went on strike.
Peasant rebellions raised their flags and then even nature seemed to turn against them.
(water crashing) (percussion banginig) (water crashing) (percussion banginig) (water crashing) (percussion banginig) the Yellow River broke its banks, overwhelming the dykes so carefully restored by Ming engineers a century before.
Whole cities and towns were wiped out, epidemics and famines killed millions.
(singing in foreign language) The old cycles of Chinese history had returned to haunt them and for the first time, China's rulers had discovered the limits of autocracy.
Along the coasts, the government could no longer give protection to communities against bandits, outlaws, and pirates.
More and more the people were left to their own devices.
Here in one village in Fujian a public-spirited local, a retired civil servant, came back home to help out.
Wow, look at this.
Here Mr. Zhao set up charities and in 1604 paid for new walls to protect the village when the local government had run out of cash.
His descendants, the Zhou family, are still here.
Like a mini fortress.
In the center of the village, he built a great fortified tower house, a refuge for the whole village in time of crisis.
That's absolutely wonderful, isn't it?
- Because the soldiers, they have to watch the outside, and there's only windows for the outside on the top floor.
- You can see the landscape all around from the top floor.
So Mr. Zhao?
Very nice to meet you.
(speaking foreign language) Hi!
And as in so many places in today's China, the Zhao family can still tell their ancestors' story.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] Our ancestors lived by the sea but moved inland to get away from pirates.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] He was a government official but when he retired, he returned and rebuilt the family village.
(speaking foreign language) - [Translator] He repaired the walls and built new towers to defend the village.
- The harsh justice of the first Ming emperor, a guarantee of stability, was another world now.
There may have been more freedoms, but security had gone.
As one of Mr. Zhao's sons observed here in 1619, the days of peace seem a long time ago.
And in 1644, the end came.
(cannon booming) (officers and soldiers yelling) In the north, in Manchuria, the Manchus had created a powerful new state, and sensing China's weakness, their armies surged down onto Beijing.
To avoid capture, the emperor Chongzhen hanged himself from a tree on Coal Hill, overlooking the forbidden city.
His memorial is still there.
(footsteps thundering) (officer yelling) Next year the Manchu army swept across the Yangtze.
If they resisted, the rich cities of the South were devastated.
In Shaoxing, Granddad Zhang's happiness garden was wrecked, along with the family mansion.
And the Chinese Proust, Zhang Dai, fled to become a penniless Buddhist monk.
"As I think about the things that I did in the past," he said, "I write them all down.
To beg forgiveness.
"In life, everything has a payback.
"The rags I'm wearing now are payback "for the fine furs and silks that I once had.
"The straw that I sleep on is a payback for the soft beds, "the smoke in my eyes and the dung in my nostrils "payback for the voluptuous fragrances of the past.
"This sack on my shoulder, "a payback to all those who used to carry me.
"For every kind of sin, there is a kind of retribution."
(singing in foreign language) I was nearly 50 years old that year of 1645, Zhang wrote.
My country was shattered and I had lost everything.
Looking back, it was as if my life under the Ming had been a dream.
(lush Chinese music) So ended the Ming Dynasty, China's most glamorous empire.
They ruled for almost 300 years with many great achievements.
They created the image of China we still have today.
But they bequeathed an authoritarian state where the needs of the many must come before the desires of the individual.
It was an old conundrum in Chinese history, as it still is today.
(Chinese music) (explosion booming) Next time in The Story of China, the last imperial golden age, the glories of the Qing dynasty.
From high art to pulp fiction.
- He's the rebel.
And that's more important than being a hero.
- [Michael] The coming of the Europeans and the first opium war, when Chinese junks were blasted to defeat.
It wasn't just the Americans who went to war with the British over tea.