In 1600, China was “the largest and most sophisticated of all unified realms on earth”. So wrote Sinologist Jonathan Spence, reflecting the achievements of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when China wielded huge influence internationally, in part because of the boom in global trade. But do cultural influence, trade and wealth equate to ‘superpower’? Historians have used the term ‘dynastic cycle’ to characterise the waxing and waning of China’s fortunes. This framework may help us probe whether China has always (or ever) been the greatest global superpower.
Various dynasties have been lauded by different historians. Mark Edward Lewis labelled the Tang (618–907) a “cosmopolitan empire”, while John Fairbank called the Song (960–1279) “China’s greatest age”. The epic voyages of Admiral Zheng He (sailing 1405–33) suggested to some that the early Ming was “when China ruled the seas”, whereas Charles Hucker concluded that the reign of three great Qing emperors during the late 17th and the 18th centuries constituted “China’s last golden age”.