Qing Dynasty

Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912)

This empire was founded by Manchus, a group of people coming from Manchuria (and who formerly called themselves the Jurchens—see Jin Dynasty above.), to the northeast of China. For this reason, it is sometimes called the ‘Manchu Dynasty’. Europe referred to the Manchus as ‘Tartars’ for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which was basically a generic term for any nomadic people in the region of Siberia. Contemporary maps of Qing China distinguish between the core Han ‘China proper’ in the south and ‘Chinese Tartary’ in the north (as opposed to ‘Russian Tartary’ in Siberia and ‘Independent Tartary’ in the area of Kazakhstan, nomadic peoples not part of any big empire). More than 20 million government documents survive from the Qing, more than most Qing-contemporary European countries put together, but quite a few of these are 7-8 copies of the same thing. All of these, including the 800,000 held by Taiwan, are being digitised and should be available online by 2030 – making these exciting times for Qing Historians worldwide.

The Manchus adapted themselves quickly to the Chinese style-governance, but with important restrictions on the majority Han based on traditional Manchurian ideas. Distinction between “Manchu” and “Han” were strictly defined and ruthlessly maintained, but on the basis of cultural and social conventions, rather than ethnicity. Positions of privilege were reserved only for “Manchus” belonging to the “Eight Banners,” supposedly made up of loyal members of the original Manchu tribes that founded the Qing Dynasty. In practice, so many Han people who contributed to the founding of the dynasty were enrolled among the banners that, by the time Qing had unified all China, a large majority of the bannermen may well have been Han by ethnicity rather than Manchu already. Nevertheless, the bannermen were required to rigorously observe Manchu customs, live in separate areas of the cities where they resided, and serve as soldiers in service of the dynasty, in return for the privileges and monetary subsidies they received. This dynasty persisted into the twentieth century, where it spectacularly collapsed and the seeds of modern China were born.

The beginnings of the dynasty were actually quite dramatic: the Manchu started as a federation of Jurchen tribes in what is now known as Manchuria (or Dongbei, the Northeast in Chinese). Under leaders such as Nurhaci and Huang Taiji, they would consolidate and strengthen their position, expanding their influence into Mongolia and Korea. After the last Mongol khan submitted to the Manchus, their imperial house became kin of Genghis Khan himself by marrying Mongol princesses. Following the fall of the Ming, former imperial general Wu Sangui, who guarded the pass of the Great Wall to Manchuria would defect to them, thus opening up their way into China proper (Wu Sangui would go on to be considered a traitor of historical proportions in China, since, after surrendering to Qing, he rose up in a revolt against his new master a couple of decades later after having been given the huge and rich province of Szechwan to govern. Since his betrayal(s) were supposedly motivated by love triangles, his story is also the fodder for Chinese novels and soap operas). And thus, after decades of brutal conquest and slaughter that saw the Qings conquer not only China proper but also Tibet, Xinjiang, Western Mongolia, and parts of modern Tadjikistan and Kirghizstan, late imperial China would enter another age of prosperity and cultural advancement, the High Qing. Its emperors were known by the nianhao (or era names, corresponding to an emperor’s reign) Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong respectively. After that (actually already under the later Qianlong years) things started to go down south…

The ultimate reason for the Qing Dynasty’s eventual failure and collapse was its shoestring budget, which precluded it from fostering economic development or bureaucratic reform even when it pursued these things wholeheartedly (as in its final decade). The Qing never taxed more than 2% of the country’s GDP; Britain had been taxing 8% of GDP as early as 1650, a figure which had only risen since then. The early Qing kept taxes so low because Confucius had espoused a doctrine of fiscal-economic liberalism which stressed minimal taxation and government intervention in the economy, which in practice had been marred by laws restricting commerce in the name of ‘Confucian’ morality until the Ming (under whom they’d been relaxed, a policy continued under the Qing). The late Qing weren’t able to raise taxes – even when they wanted to – because of the continued influence of that concept, administration inertia, and ever-growing local and regional autonomy. There are serious questions as to whether any government could’ve handled the gargantuan tasks the Qing faced, and they managed to survive a Civil War that by all accounts should have destroyed them and would probably have taken down most lesser Chinese empires. Tellingly, although the regions the rebels held in the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion had just a fifth of the country’s total wealth, they had used high taxes to effectively fight the entire rest of the country to a standstill.

Although its inability to mobilise its people’s resources in the form of taxes was its greatest weakness, the second and most notable was its increasingly obsolescent and eventually obsolete military and military-industrial complex. This seriously damaged the Qing’s prestige and caused many to believe that it had lost its legitimacy as a government, directly contributing to the revolution which ended it. The last Ming holdouts had been crushed by the 1680s. Since then the Qing’s military needs had never gotten so desparate that they needed to resort to producing muskets (to compensate for a lack of bowmen) and there had been zero need for siege or naval guns of any kind. But it wasn’t just that India and Europe were swimming in guns when the Qing weren’t; the Qing also lacked the gun-tactics that had been developed over the past three hundred years of European gunpowder-warfare. If there had been any straight-up matches between European and Qing military forces before this disadvantage had become catastrophically wide, perhaps the Qing would have realised the need to get to work churning out muskets. But there weren’t; the Qing’s massive population and wealth put off all would-be challengers from seriously considering taking them on until 1839. In the First Opium War, well-drilled British troops under the command of veterans of the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (1790-1815) using tactics perfected during said wars took on poorly-trained Qing musketment who hadn’t fought a war in living memory. The result was a foregone conclusion.

The Qing’s third great weakness (a well-developed but overwhelmingly agricultural economy) limited the tax-base available to the Qing government and increased the expense of developing a modern military-industrial complex – leaving even less money for economic development projects. This weakness was not apparent at first, since it was not seen as a weakness but rather regarded as the norm. In a world in which agriculture and people were the foundations of the economy and the source of virtually all its wealth (mining and manufacturing that didn’t use agricultural products being very much in the minority), an empire with a third of the world’s population and agricultural production all to itself had good grounds for calling itself the richest and most powerful on earth.

However, in the early 19th century this began to change. Devices made from large quantities of high-quality steel and iron could harness the energy stored in coal to power pumps, ships, and even new types of overland vehicle – traction machines (tractors) and locomotives (trains). The Europeans’ superior knowledge of chemistry had also born fruit for the first time, with the invention of new types of fertiliser that could be made from minerals. The practical upshot of this was that there was a whole new way to improve agricultural productivity: things mined from the earth. Like their German and Russian counterparts Qing metalworkers, miners, and agronomists had very little knowledge of these processes. But unlike the Germans and Russians, the Qing didn’t have the money (or the sense of paranoia and fear inspired by neighbours doing likewise and becoming so much richer and therefore stronger as a result) or the willingness to abandon Confucian-style Liberal Economics necessary for them to follow suit by creating State-owned technical colleges, universities, industrial enterprises, telegraph companies, and railways.

All this brings us back to the war of 1839: the so-called ‘Opium War’. The highland poppy naturally occurred on the Indian side of the Himalayas, Cantonese traders first introduced southern Chinese consumers to Opium in the early-Ming era, marketing it as a pain-relief medicine and powerful aphrodisiac (‘opium-smoking parlour’ and ‘brothel’ quickly became synonymous). In the late Ming Tobacco was also purchased from Spanish traders operating in Manila. In both cases the Chinese merchants quickly cottoned on that anyone who could farm poppies and tobacco domestically could make a killing, and so through a series of wise purchases and bribes the cultivation of both was well-established by the early Qing. Demand for opium and tobacco grew even faster than the population (which had almost doubled Ming levels to c.400 million by 1850), making growing either full-time a viable alternative to other cash-crops like cotton, hemp, wheat, and rice – let alone subsistence-crops like millet, corn, and potatoes.

For all that Chinese tobacco and poppy breeds could satisfy the demands of the middle-classes (along with tea, these goods only became affordable for the poor in the mid-late 19th century), they just weren’t as good as the originals and so high-quality opium and tobacco were imported throughout the Ming and Qing. Opium and tobacco were already being produced and shipped out of India and central America in vast amounts for export to other Indian regions, the middle east, and Europe – so exporting some to China as well was really just a question of buying some and shipping it there. Given the constant stream of Chinese ships returning from Malaya to China with near-empty holds after delivering Chinese luxury-goods to the islands (where they would be carried to India by Indian Muslim traders), taking Opium on the homeward journey was a great way of reducing their overheads. When the Portuguese and the Dutch East India Company started trying to get ‘in’ on East Asian trade in the 16th century, they too began carrying Opium and this practice was later adopted by the British East India Company when it in turn finally gained the resources and political leeway to operate in this lucrative market.

However, the Qing had very much defined themselves (culturally) as an Empire of Sour Prudes who condemned the pleasure-loving and intellectual ways of the Ming. This took a turn for the extra-prudish when the use of Opium actually became a problem in society rivalling that of alcoholism. Accordingly, in the late 1830s the governor of Guangzhou county (run from Guangzhou city) attempted to curb its use as part of a wider program of sobering up his constituency. In doing so he made two mistakes: targeting foreign merchants, and refusing to compensate them for their losses. Given just how close the British East India Company’s ties with the British government were, this was a mistake; even so the vote was close, with the resolution to declare war upon the Qing passing by less than 30 votes in a chamber (the House of Commons) with more than 600 representatives.

The Qing lost two naval wars (1839-42, 1860-62) sparked by trying to ban or heavily tax imported goods including opium due to their woefully obsolescent military. As a consequence the Qing were forced to accept European control of a few dozen fishing villages and small towns on the major rivers and coasts, and that Europeans in China would be tried according to the laws of their home country. The latter measure was insisted upon partly because of cultural Values Dissonance including variable toleration of Christianity and Christian practices, but also because laws varied so incredibly widely between Qing districts and even counties; in the most extreme examples what was illegal upon pain of death in one village (e.g. alcohol, opium) could be perfectly legal in a village just ten miles away. The Qing were also forbidden from passing or enforcing pre-Ming-style sumptuary laws banning the consumption of any goods, and were asked to pay the debts the Europeans had run up fighting the wars. This would not have been a problem for a state which was willing and able to tax its people on anything more than a token level, but the burden of reparations constituted a pretty heavy millstone around the Qing’s all-too-slender neck. There was insurmountable resistence at the local level against any moves towards greater taxation or centralisation of the bureaucracy. This forced the Qing to borrow money to pay the reparations… from European banks, which (because of the high rates at which Europeans had invested their savings in and generally trusted them, this being another development precipitated by Europe’s endless series of wars) could offer much lower interest rates than Qing banks.

Around the middle of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in southern China, led by a decidedly unorthodox Christian convert claiming to be the brother of Christ named Hong Xiuquan. It lasted fourteen years, created a fair-sized state centered on Nanjing, caused the death of about 20-30 million people, and was finally put down with foreign aid. With its regular armies (based on the Banner system) in a state of near total disarray, the Chinese government (especially enterprising local officials) formed militias from local populations, armed them with foreign guns, and hired foreign instructors to train them. Numerous foreign “mercenaries” (in many cases, regular officers offered by foreign nations who decided that the survival of Qing government was preferable to chaos) were hired to lead Chinese armies, both of the national government and locally organized militias. The conflict was one of the largest civil wars of all time, dwarfingnote  even the one going on across the Pacific (coincidentally, named the Taiping Yang, or Peaceful Ocean in Mandarinnote ).

At the same time, the Nien Rebellion up north put additional pressure on the Qing regime and even threatened the capital. The two rebel leaders failed to cooperate, leading to their eventual defeat.

The Qing government attempted a program of reform to make China more Western and hopefully save it from further humiliation. It failed, partly because the reformers actively squabbled with each other instead of the foreigners, partly because even the reformers thought all China needed was a better military and the rest could stay the same, partly because the Empress was rumored to have taken the program’s funds to build herself a boat made out of marble (and the Summer Palace in Beijing, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and finally because Chinese armies and fleets equipped with modern weapons but not properly trained in their use were soundly thrashed by the upstart Japanese who had modernized more thoroughly in the First Sino-Japanese War.

That Empress’ name was Cixi (pronounced ‘Tsih-shee’), and if there was ever a real life Dragon Lady, Cixi was it. Originally a concubine to the late emperor Xianfeng, Cixi stayed in power as regent for 48 years, originally in non-romantic union with fellow empress C’ian. This regency covered the ‘rule’ of multiple emperors. One was her son, who resisted her iron grasp by refusing to study, sneaking out to brothels, and finally dying of smallpox without having had the courtesy to sire a son. Lacking a traditional heir, the two empresses named Cixi’s young nephewnote  as the new Emperor. While all this was distracting everyone, however, modernisation was definitely not happening.

Finally the new Guangxu Emperor reached his majority and started trying to get things moving on his own. With the assistance of a man named Kang Youwei, they came up with a plan to massively shake up the social structure of China. This is known as the Hundred Days Reform. However, a lot of people currently in power didn’t particularly appreciate having their jobs cut out from under them. Also, there was a plot underfoot to trick the Emperor into signing away control of China to Japan. Kang Youwei, hoping to get more people on his side, appointed a man named Yuan Shikai as leader of his forces. Yuan Shikai proceeded to tell Cixi exactly what was going on. Kang Youwei ran to Hong Kong to escape Cixi, and Guangxu abdicated and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his (and her) life – when she apparently had him poisoned as she was dying to ensure he wouldn’t outlive her. Harsh, Cixi. Harsh.

Second, the lower classes of China were very annoyed at the Western incursions, and one group of peasants got it into their heads that it was their destiny to save China by getting rid of all the Westerners. They also believed that they were immune to bullets. Despite this, this group, known fully as the Harmonious Society of Righteous Fists but more commonly as the ‘Boxers’, travelled across China attacking the foreign powers until they reached Beijing. There they besieged foreign buildings (primarily the embassies), opposed by the foreign-power armies called the League of 8. Cixi supported the Boxers; she even demanded that the Chinese armies come to Beijing to help them fight the foreigners. By this point, the armies were all ‘suuure, right’ and did virtually nothing to help out.

In 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed, and Cixi finally started an actual reform program. Unfortunately, while the reforms were in more sweeping than the failed Hundred Days Reform had been, they still weren’t enough to make much visible difference.

Thirdly, a man named Sun Yixian (you may know him as Sun Yat-sen or Sun Zhongshan) realised that China was still way behind, and that Cixi was taking China down a highway to Diyu, make no mistake. He summarily started to support revolutionary ideas to turn China into a parliamentary democracy. Many of these ideas grew in popularity, particularly amongst China’s armies.

To make a now extremely long summary short, Cixi’s program failed and Sun Yixian’s revolution got underway just as the Qing were setting up a provisional parliament. The rebels were powerful; in the intervening years China’s armies had been filled with Sun Yixian’s ideas. Whatever the army wanted was going to stick, and the Qing knew it. Realising that Yuan Shikai had the support of at least some of the army, Prince Chun,note  father of the last emperor of China, asked him to lead the fight against the rebels. Yuan Shikai happily did so, on the proviso that he got to be the undisputed leader of the armed forces. Yuan then went to negotiations with the rebels and was persuaded to support the newly formed republic…so long as he got to be the undisputed leader of the country.

Yuan Shikai: 1, China: 0.

This is the dynasty most often seen in Chinese dramas and kung-fu movies, perhaps because documentation from the time is more readily available, particularly of small details a historian of earlier dynasties might omit, and there is photographic evidence of everything from clothing to buildings. The queue hairstyle (forehead shaved, with a long braided pigtail at the back) associated with the period was imposed by imperial edict at the beginning of the dynasty on pain of death, partly as a measure to mark the submission of the Han population. The fact that late in the dynasty people were cutting their queues off showed how ineffectual the Qing became.

It’s worth mentioning though that while the decline of the Qing was quite spectacular, for 200 years they were pretty much thedominant power in Asia, and one of the most powerful nations in the world. Most of China’s modern borders are based on the conquests under the Qing (including Tibet), and especially in its early period the Qing dynasty was characterized by expansion, discovery and reform. The Qing, it seems, will Never Live It Down.

More revisionist historians such as William T. Rowe do not see the Qing in such a negative light anymore though; Chinese nationalist historiography (and that includes the Communists’) has often painted things in the darkest colours, but such views are have become less useful with the benefit of hindsight and more research. In other words, even in the later years the Qing were not actually doing that badly. With the intention of avoiding natter, the above account leaves out the ongoing economic and ecological problems which were of a completely internal nature, which were also crucial factors in the fall of that dynasty.