This is an essay on the interaction between states and social orders, using China as a prism to examine European patterns, rather than the other way around. According to Japanese historian Naito "Konan" Torajiro, the history of modern China began in the Song dynasty (960-1279), making China the first modern society; an analysis known as the Naito Hypothesis. Given that Song dynasty China had paper money, meritocratic bureaucratised autocracy, tax-paid soldiers, public rituals but private religion, scholar-gentry replacing vanishing landed aristocracy--even the offering of prizes for better crossbow designs--I find Naito's proposition to be very plausible.
I see no reason to presume that modernity began in Europe. Especially given the way various Enlightenment folk thought Chinese government more advanced in its forms of management than European states. Britain, for example, did not introduce civil service examinations until the mid C19th, over twelve hundred years after China had pioneered them and about nine centuries after they had become the only path to officialdom.
I am, however, uncomfortable with calling the previous period in Chinese history "medieval", as Naito often did. I prefer the term he also used of middle antiquity (chuko in Japanese), though I would call it China's late antiquity. And yes, that means I hold that China did not have a medieval period as such; it went straight from its late antiquity to the early modern. (The essay continues after the fold.)