Despite other nations important roles in economic ventures, China held the most sway in the world economy until around 1500, when Europe began to come to the forefront.
The tribute system was at its height during the Golden Age of Tang and Song Dynasty China. Foreign nations were invited to court to perform a ritual called the kowtow, in which they presented a small gift to the Chinese Emperor in order to receive the benefits of imperial support and trade within China;s borders. It speaks to China's importance the economic world that foreign leaders would participate in this system in order to gain access to China. China used this system to control other nations, particularly the nomad to the north, though in many cases, the participants received more in exchange than they gave.
The Silk Roads stretched across Eurasia, connecting empires and people through commerce. One of the most important contributors to this trade was China; the route was named for the silk trade, which began as a Chinese product before 500. China was an important trade hub for other goods as well, as those goods could be sold at a profit to the elite or transferred to sea bound trade routes.
During the Ming Dynasty, China amassed a fleet of 300 ships and, in 1405, they were sent out to explore the world. Led by the Chinese eunuch Zhang He, they sought foreign lands and new contributors to the Chinese tribute system. In one of history's crucial moments, these voyages were abandoned only 28 years after they began. There was little support among the elite for such an expensive, supposedly unprofitable enterprise, particularly as it was led by a eunuch who the court looked down upon. This decision paved the way for the growth of European naval supremacy.
The Portuguese were the first European nation to send out voyaging ships down the West African Coast. Not long after, Portugal's economic rival, Spain, sponsored the voyage of Christopher Colombus, which of course resulted in one of history's most significant blunders. With very little competition from either China or the Islamic World, Europe's naval sway continued to grow, as many Europeans explored the growing world with goals both political and financial. This maritime power facilitated Europe's rise to the forefront of world cultures in later centuries.
During the era 500-1400, many important religious occurrences involved the spread and evolution of already existing religions, and the birth of Islam contributed to this era of expansion.
Buddhism entered China through the Silk Roads. Though native to India, Buddhism developed into something distinctly Chinese through "cultural encounter and adaptation" (Strayer 399). It was primarily adopted during the political upheaval following the collapse of the Han dynasty; it gained popular and elite support, and Buddhist monasteries became sources of good in their communities. Many philosophies were changed to fit previous Chinese ideals, such as Confucianism and Daoism. The Mahayana version of Buddhism was much more popular in China than the original Theravada, and several distinctly Chinese variants, such as the Pure Land School, came into being. This transformation of an Indian faith into a Chinese one exemplified the changes and diffusion of religions during this era.
When Constantine converted to Christianity, he moved the capital from the crumbling city from western Rome to the eastern city of Constantinople. When the Roman Empire fell, both Rome and Constantinople claimed the legacy of both Rome's political unity and the Roman Church. In the end, the church split entirely in the crumbling Western Christendom and the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire. The Western half of the empire took several centuries (known as the Dark Ages) to rebuild, while the Byzantine empire lasted until the mid-13th century. Though the political divide affected the shape of the world at that time, the theological and cultural divide is much more apparent, as it still exists today. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church developed different traditions, ways of celebrating, and even slightly different beliefs; though very different, both were variants on the Christian traditions of earlier centuries.
Muhammad, Islam's one true prophet, forever changed the world on the religious scene. His preachings, though radical, built on existing Judeo-Christian principles; in a way, Islam was an extreme evolution of the Jewish and Christian faiths, as it granted that most of their stories were true. Through the accessibility of Muhammad's teaching and his charismatic story-telling, Islam spread like wildfire, becoming its own culture and state before the end of Muhammad's life. Most Islamic laws and teachings are based on the words of Muhhammad, or of Allah through Muhammad.
After the death of Muhammad, a political debate emerged over who should be Muhammad's successor. The majority of Muslims (Sunnis) believed that caliphs, religious and political leaders selected by the umma, were the true leaders. A smaller faction, called Shia, felt that Islamic leadership should be based in the bloodline of Ali, the fourth caliph. This conflict developed into distinct religious separation, characterized by differences in knowledge, accepted authority, and even basic beliefs. This split was an all-important development in Islam, in an age of religious shifts; this divide still exists today, and is, if anything, even more exclusive, as it takes into account the cultural separation between Arabs and Persians.
Sufi Islam was a separate branch of the faith from either Sunni or Shia. It concentrated on a more personal connection with the divine, and the mystical dimension of the faith. This sect's greatest contribution during this era, arguably, was helping to spread Islam throughout the known world. Nearly everywhere Islam spread, particularly in India and Anatolia, Sufi holy men were integral to spreading their religion, as their more personal approach to Islam was more appealing to new converts. Sufism assisted the already fast-spreading religion to penetrate into different areas.
As the Byzantine Empire was spreading its influence, the Russian prince Vladimir of Kiev was looking for a way to connect with the wider world while unifying his diverse peoples. He chose to affiliate with one of the world's most prominent religions: Orthodox Christianity. This was an important development, as it opened up a whole new part of the world to Christendom, and was mutually beneficial to both Kievan Russia and the Byzantine Empire. Christianity took root in Russia, and Russian Orthodoxy still exists today.
Though not particularly influential in the grand scheme of history, the Crusades became an inextricable part of the European Christan tradition. The atrocities committed during the Crusades were justified by Christianity, which forever changed the religion's reputation and ideals. The first four, in particular, are religious conflicts, as they focus on liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims. Thus the crusades are an example of religious expansion, on a physical level into different territories, and on an idealistic level into less peaceful means of spreading.
Most political units during the post-classical era were states based on absolute rule, often founded on or profoundly affected by a common culture.
Through many centuries, China was the cultural and economic pillar of the world. Its emperors, though changing from dynasty to dynasty, always carried the Mandate of Heaven, a religious distinction that granted them the wisdom to rule. During the T'ang and Song dynasties, China reached its cultural and economic height as a state. It was solidly at the center of world trade, the fulcrum at which the Silk Road goods were transferred to the Indian ocean. The growth of the Confucian civil service system was balanced with nature-centered Daoist art, giving both ideologies sway in the development of Chinese culture.
Throughout the post-classical era, Islam spread from India, to North and West Africa, all the way to Southern Europe. The primarily christian Spain was conquered by the military forces of the powerful Abbasid Dynasty, the third Islamic caliphate. The caliphs were powerful rulers with control of both political and religious matters. During the majority of Islam's time in Spain, culture flourished, and Spanish Christians were allowed to celebrate freely or convert to Islam as they chose, though the latter was of course preferred. Particularly during the reign of the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, differences in religion did not restrict Christians from rising within the bureaucracy. During the reign of Abu Amir al-Mansur, however, Muslims began persecuting Christians openly, causing the Christians to respond violently to the Intolerance. The Christians reconquered their land, leaving the more devoutly Christian than ever before and smarting from Islamic control.
Charlemagne ruled the western European Carolingian Empire from 768 to 814 AD. This empire included Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and Italy. The Pope crowned Charlemagne as the New Roman Emperor and the absolute ruler of his territories, in the hope of recreating the unity of the Roman Empire of old. Unfortunately, the empire collapsed soon after Charlemagne's death, and though other absolute rulers attempted similar schemes, no attempt lasted long.
The Kievan Russic State emerged in the 9th century, stimulated by the trade of its diverse peoples, which included Slavs, Finns, and Viking Traders. It was named for its largest city, Kiev, and the prince of Kiev had the most sway over the empire, though each prince had nearly absolute power within his own city. Seeking to bring together the diverse peoples and religions under one banner, prince Vladimir of Kiev united his empire by converting to Orthodox Christianity. This not only connected Russia to the splendor of Byzantium, but also increased his personal power.
Before the 13th century, Mongolia was a fractious collection of feuding tribes, each led by their own powerful chief. Temujin, one of these leaders, used his charisma and personal magnetism to unite several tribes under his leadership, eventually leading to him being named Chinngis Khan, the absolute ruler of all the Mongol tribes. Fearing for the structure of his new empire, Chinngis Khan united his forces with a common enemy: the rest of the known world. Using their superior horsemanship, the Mongols conquered from China to eastern Europe, amassing the largest land empire in history. Though individual leadership structures had to be created for each conquered Khanate, the Great Khan still had power over them all. Though the Empire only lasted 200 years, its singular structure and military brutality still resonate in the modern day.
In the post-classical era, technology, particularly printing, was inextricably entwined with expansion and the spread of ideas. Communication and betterment through technology is a trademark of this period in history.
Printing is arguably the most important invention of the post-classical era. Though printing was certainly used before this date, the first dated printed book was a Chinese scroll 16 feet long from 868 AD, and the text was the "Diamond Sutra". The art of printing was invented in China, and it was used to convey religious doctrines, philosophical ideas, and factual information throughout China, and soon after, throughout the known world.
The huge expanse of Muslim culture facilitated a great deal of movement, be it trade, technology, people, or cultural ideas. The city of Baghdad became a cultural center of knowledge and invention, particularly in medicine and brocade-weaving. Among the most important inventions that Islam helped to spread was paper-making. This technology strengthened bureaucracies and facilitated the spread of Islamic ideas throughout the known world. It was, by extension, through the Islamic world that Europe received a great deal of its technology and classical history.
This time period was crucial in the development of Western Europe, especially technologically. Europe's population rebounded, setting of a chain reaction of reclaiming farmland, urbanization, skill specialization, and technological innovation to assist with all three. Through the interconnections facilitated by the Mongol Empire and the growth of long-distance trade, Europe now had access to technologies from throughout the known world, many of which they quickly adopted and improved as they saw need. One example of this spirit of innovation was the improvements made to gunpowder and the gun, though these items were originally invented in China. The High Middle Ages could also be classified as political or economic, as it marked the start of Western Europe's rise to dominance.
This "cultural blooming" began in Italy, and from there spread throughout Europe. Following closely on the heels of the High Middle Ages, this expansion of European culture based on classical Greek philosophies created a more humanistic approach on life. This span of cultural growth was aided and abetted by the availability of paper and printing, invented in China so many centuries earlier and spread through Eurasian interconnections. It is a continuation of the expansion of the printed word, and the culmination of Europe's journey out of the Dark Ages.
Despite a short periods of increased opportunity, patriarchy increased throughout this period and persisted even into later centuries.
At the very birth of Islam, all Muslims were fairly equal under Allah, but that changed as time progressed. Despite allowances in the Quran, which, in theory, made women and men equal, patriarchy within the Islamic world continued to strengthen through the early centuries. Beginning around 634 with the second caliph Umar, the caliphs gradually made laws restricting women from associating with men, in prayer, and then in public. The wearing of veils became mandatory during Umar's reign, as did private prayer for women. The caliph Mansur ordered that a separate bridge be built for women in Baghdad. This growing separation was more easily enforced for the upper class than for the lower. Nevertheless, all women soon became subject to worse discrimination as old Arab cultural practices came back into favor, such as honor killing for sexual offenses. This abuse was justified, particularly in the Hadith, by the perception of women as vile temptresses and inferior to men. This perception and the stigma attached to it still exist in modern Islam.
The practice of binding the feet of Chinese women supposedly began during the Song dynasty. From a very young age, women's feet were forcibly broken and mangled, in keeping with the standards of beauty and size expected of them. Women with bound feet could hardly walk, as they were so crippled.This practice continued until it was banned in the early 1900s, the tradition holding fast until it too was forcibly broken. Foot-binding remains one of the most poignant signs of male-dominated society in all of history.
The urbanization of 11th century Europe gave women new working opportunities in the cities. Professions varied from city to city, as to what was men's work, what was women's work, and what was open to either gender. Trades to include women including brewing, weaving, retail, midwifery, and of course, prostitution. By the 1400s, however, working opportunities for women had declined. The plague, though for a while creating even more jobs for the fairer sex, eventually led to inventions like water-powered mills and heavier looms that could only be worked by men. Gradually, women were shut out of the working world, though some gained freedom through religious wisdom. It took centuries for women to regain any kind of equality in the workplace.