The Qing were the last imperial dynasty in China, reigning between the seventeenth century to the Chinese republic in the twentieth. The Qing ruled during a period in which the world’s great powers were increasingly concentrated in Europe, and this Chinese empire ultimately fell due to competition and aggression from precisely those powers.
Yet, they were hugely important in the history of modern China, and anyone studying the A Level in China in the Twentieth Century will need to grapple with the fall of the Qing. Importantly, it was this dynasty that established the borders of modern China, ruling over a multicultural and increasingly huge population, and succumbing to powers – such as the British Empire – with much more advanced technologies, trade, and militaries.
Where was the Qing Dynasty, and When?
The main dates for the Qing Dynasty are 1644 and 1912, when the empire formally established power over China and when it officially ceased to exist. However, dynastic rule preceded these dates, being technically declared in Manchuria.
The Qing was the fifth largest empire in history. Not only did it essentially establish the borders of contemporary China, but it gained control over Tibet, Outer Mongolia, and Taiwan, and its role in Manchuria gave it significant influence over Korea.
The rulers were from Manchuria, the north-eastern part of China that borders with Korea. This is the reason for its nickname – the Manchu dynasty – and its capital city was in Shenyang before moving to Beijing.
It collapsed in 1912, after eight global powers invaded together: Italy, US, Austro-Hungary, France, Japan, German, the Russian Empire, and the UK. They were trying to quell the Boxer Rebellion – an anti-foreigner movement led by the ruler at the time, Empress Dowager Cixi. When the rebellion was crushed, Cixi fled to Xi’an, Manchuria, and the empire soon came to an end.
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The Origins of the Qing Empire
What is interesting, in the context of twentieth-century China’s emphasis on Han ethnicity, is that the Qing dynasty was only the second time China was not ruled by the Han - the first time being the Mongol Empire. Rather, it was established and ruled by the Jurchen people from Manchuria.
Initially, the Manchurian state was established by a tribal chieftain called Nurhaci, who attempted to unify the tribes in Manchuria around him. in 1616, Nurhaci declared himself Khan of the Great Jin.
He attacked the Ming Dynasty to unite further tribes who at that time were still allied to the Chinese empire in Beijing and, capturing the city of Shenyang in 1625, he made that city his capital, known as Mukden.
Whilst he was allied with the Khorchin Mongols - descendants of the Mongol Empire - it was evident that he had insufficient Manchu troops to conquer China proper. However, after further military successes, he enlisted more Mongols, and enlisted into his army Han people who had defected from the Ming.
Nurhaci died in 1626. After extensive familial struggles for succession, Nurhaci’s grandson, Shunzhi, became emperor and eventually conquered Ming dynasty Beijing and declared Qing rule over the whole of China in 1644.
Shunzhi took up the Mandate of Heaven. This was the Chinese belief that anyone who ruled China did so under the pleasure of heaven. If a dynasty was overthrown, or if there were significant natural disasters, it was seen as a sign that heaven no longer supported that ruler.
After the conquest of Beijing, the defeat of the remnants of the Ming took a further seventeen years.
The Qing Dynasty at its Peak
Having established Qing power over the Chinese capital, Shunzhi died of smallpox six years later. He was replaced by his third son, who became the Kangxi emperor.
Throughout the next three generations – the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong – Qing China reached its peak of strength, influence, wealth, and cultural and artistic achievement.
Kangxi – ruling from 1661 to 1722 – is the longest Chinese ruler ever. Interestingly enough, however, his grandson, Qianlong, would have outdone him, but he resigned so as not to surpass his grandfather’s rule.
Throughout the height of the Qing, the emperors consolidated power over China and extended their territories further. Kangxi beat the Russians in battle at the Amur River, which led to the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk – allowing China to dominate much of Siberia and Manchuria (although the Russian Empire would later overturn this). He beat the Dzungar Mongols to gain control of Inner and Outer Mongolia and Tibet and gained control of Taiwan.
Part of the Chinese emperor’s job had always been to put down rebellions, and in 1673, the Revolt of the Three Feudatories was quashed by Kangxi’s forces.
Chinese government, once it moved to Beijing, was based in the Forbidden City.
Whilst the Emperor was an absolute ruler, he sat on six ministries which dealt respectively with revenue, rites and religion, war, crime, public works, and appointments to the civil service. Appointments to these ministries were split between Manchu and Han – and some Mongolians – in order to keep the multicultural nature of the regime. Just in terms of religion the diversity was vast, with Confucianism mixing with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and, later, Christianity.
These ministries were mainly for routine admin, but major decisions were taken in the court, where the noblemen and the emperor’s family dwelt.
Arts and Culture
Despite new technologies in printing and reproduction, the Qing dynasty was not a peak of Chinese culture. Inspiration came primarily from artists during the previous dynasty – the Ming – during which artistic production flourished. Porcelain, painting, and the novel, for example, came into their own, but all were performed under Ming inspiration.
The fact that the Qing were from Manchuria caused a number of measures to ensure cultural cohesion across China. Kangxi insisted that, in the military, Manchurian hairstyles must be worn – under pain of death – and Chinese women were ordered not to bind their feet. Qianlong, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, aggressively maintained official Confucian and Manchurian culture, burning any books that criticised them.
One important development was the Kangxi Dictionary, which standardised Chinese script. Kangxi also liked western instruments and technology, and he employed westerners in his court.
Whilst trade with the west was a source of wealth for China, it was also one of the factors causing imperial decline. After 1757, Canton (now Guangzhou) was the only place permitted to trade with the west. The British, for example, bought massive shipments of tea from the Chinese.
However, throughout the period, and particularly during Qianlong’s reign, China was in decline – whilst Europe was growing ever more powerful. Qianlong denied further trade with the Europeans, seeing them as lesser peoples to the Chinese and, after 1796, no further Europeans could meet with the emperor.
The Qing Empire in Decline
During the reign of Qianlong, the Chinese state was running out of money to pay their ministers and military. The tax rates were very low, and the booming population meant that there was a lot of pressure on land, government, and resources.
Efforts to modernise were increasingly thwarted by conservative politicians, and, during Qianlong, corruption was rife, meaning that money was diverted from more important things.
China’s nineteenth century was dominated by war.
Most significantly, perhaps, were the two Opium Wars with Britain. Opium was popular in China and, in order to make money, British traders attempted to sell huge quantities of it to the Chinese. The drug was banned – as there was an addiction epidemic – but the British resented this quick end to their lucrative trade. This led to war, first in 1840 and then again between 1856 and 1860. The treaty forced upon China after Britain’s victory brought many westerners into the country and weakened Qing rule.
In 1860, the Russian Empire was expanding, and it retook the Amur River. In 1894, furthermore, China fought Japan over influence over Korea. Japan won completely and China was forced to submit ports and land.
Between 1850 and 1864, China was shaken by the Taiping rebellion, in which the Christian Hong Xiuquan took over the city of Nanjing for a decade. Twenty million people are ultimately thought to have died, and the war inspired many similar rebellions to flourish across the next half a century.
The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was one of the most important of these. Directed towards the Europeans, however, it was supported by the Qing ruler of the time, Empress Dowager Cixi. It attempted essentially to kick out foreigners, but this led to eight countries invading the country and quashing it – to defend their colonial interests there.
As a result, the Dowager Cixi fled to Manchuria. She returned after a year in 1902, but further revolution – namely the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 – overthrew her successor, and a republic was established by anti-Qing revolutionaries. The resulting republic was to lead to the rise of the famous Mao Zedong.