How significant was international trade to Chinese society?
China has always been a focal point for international trade, either through official channels or black markets. Many foreign markets, especially Europe and the Americas, valued Chinese goods as unique and valuable long before China started to supply a major portion of generic consumer items.
The constant struggles and wars that divided China during the Warring States Period caused trade to be difficult and inconsistent, especially for traders from inland. After the Warring States and the introduction of the Qin and Han Dynasties, international trade became more commonplace, as there was a government structure to appoint officials and control standards. In fact, the roots of international trade started during the Spring and Autumn Periods (771-475 B.C.E.) as states traded between their borders. Most non-ruling Chinese were peasants, living under the well-field system, who farmed and worked to support the elite classes. The balance of power shifted when the tax structures in the Lu State changed, causing peasants to become free and so the majority of the tax population.
Under the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C.E., international trade flourished as common coinage and standards were implemented. Large scale international trade began under the Han Dynasty, when the famous Silk Road was built, creating a true class of merchants who bought and sold goods as their livelihood. This was the major route until the Song Dynasty in 960 C.E., when the population and resulting trade both grew by enormous numbers. As the Dynasties fell apart, one after another, the population shifted from a war economy to subsistence, and then production. By the time of the Quing Dynasty's fall in 1911, after some of the most violent and damaging wars in Chinese history, the production of war goods almost enveloped all other commerce. The common people lived in poverty while the ruling classes benefited from their work until the death of Mao Zedong, after which trade agreements were renegotiated and restrictions were lifted, allowing for the State Capitalism Society existing in China today.