The Qing Empire (1644–1912) was the last great dynastic empire to rule the region. Like most Chinese dynasties, the Qing Dynasty had powerful and long-lived rulers at the beginning of the dynastic era, a period of prosperity in the beginning and middle of their dynastic era, and natural disasters, rebellions, invasions and inept ruling courts at the end.
Before the Qing Empire, the Ming Empire lasted about 270 years and then collapsed mainly from within as rival groups carved up sections of the empire for themselves and fought for supremacy. Natural disasters, famine and economic chaos convinced many people that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. This encouraged people to rebel and encouraged the Mongols and Jurchens to attack.
The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient political idea that Heaven selects an emperor and that an emperor's failure as a god spells disaster for his empire. Major natural disasters were often seen as signs of the loss of the Mandate.
The Mongols and the Jurchens lived north of the Great Wall. Both of these peoples had historically ruled in the region, but the Ming armies kept them out. The Mongols in particular wanted to conquer the Ming Empire.
Mongols had ruled the Yuan Empire (1279–1368) centuries before. Mongol armies repeatedly attacked the Ming Empire from Mongolia, but they were repulsed.
Before the Yuan Empire, Jurchens had ruled the Jin Empire. But they were conquered by the Mongols.
During the Ming Dynasty era, the Jurchens lived between Mongolia and the coast northeast of the Yuan Empire. They were divided into rival tribes after the Ming army defeated the Yuan Empire.
The Manchus emerged as a people when a Jurchen tribal ruler named Nurhaci started to conquer other Jurchen tribes in 1582.
Under his rule, Jurchen ruling families officially intermarried with Mongol ruling families, subjugated the Mongols, and absorbed their troops. This was similar to the way Genghis Khan incorporated rival tribes and countries into his own tribe in the beginning of his rule.
Like Genghis Khan, he utilized the manpower and knowledge of the people he conquered instead of killing them all or chasing them away. As part of his strategy to build a unified empire, he adopted the Mongolian script that Genghis Khan had earlier adopted from the Uighur script.
His Mongolian cavalry strengthened his army. He followed some of Genghis Khan's methods to meld diverse tribes and people into a fighting force, and he laid a foundation for further conquests.
In 1625, Nurhaci conquered the Ming city of Shenyang and made it his capital. The Ming cities gave his empire a greater base of population, and he used their skills. The Manchu empire absorbed them. They called themselves Manchus.
From the time that they captured their first Ming cities, the Manchus installed Ming officials and generals in positions of power to help them rule the Ming regions that they conquered. Though excluded from holding the highest imperial power, Ming officials, generals, and troops became somewhat loyal to the Qing court.
This policy of allowing the Ming officials to have power contrasts with the way the Yuan Dynasty distrusted the local people and brought in foreigners to administrate for them instead.
Following this strategy, the Qing army gained experienced Ming generals, and their army was modernized by Ming military technicians. Experienced Ming bureaucrats administrated for them. This enabled them to successfully conquer more Qing territory.
In 1625, Nurhaci constructed a palace in Shenyang (see below). But he didn't live to enjoy it long. He died in battle at the age of 68 a year later. His son developed it and lived there.
See the early Manchu rulers' Shenyang Imperial Palace with China Highlights.
Nurhaci's successor was his son, who was named Hung Taiji. He continued the attack on the Ming Empire, and he went further than his father in putting Ming officials into high positions of power in the empire.
Eventually, the majority of his troops were not ethnic Jurchens but Mongols, Ming people and others. The Ming army used superior Portuguese cannon against Nurhaci's troops to defeat them.
By 1600, the superiority of European technology was evident in the weaponry. So he employed Ming technicians to cast cannon for him modeled after European cannon, and he created his own artillery corps in 1634. The Ming officials helped him to stabilize conquered regions and financed him.
In 1635, he received a big boost in his drive for empire because the Mongolian ruling court presented him with the imperial seal of the Yuan Empire. In doing so, they officially recognized him as their Khan or ruler and the ruler of what was left of the Yuan Empire.
His empire was called the Later Jin at first, but in 1636, he renamed it the "Great Qing Empire." The word Qing (清) means clear and connotes the words clean and fresh. Perhaps, he wanted to signify that they were making a fresh start in contrast with the morass of the Ming Empire.
However, he didn't live to conquer Beijing. He died in 1643. By 1643, rebel armies had taken over most of the Ming Empire.
Li Zicheng emerged as the leader of the whole rebel army after winning wars against his rivals. In 1644, when Li Zicheng's army went to Beijing, someone opened the city gate for him.
He then sent an army to attack a Ming general named Wu Sangui (1612–1678) and his army who were guarding the Great Wall against the Manchus at Shanhaiguan Pass. With armies before and behind him, the general sided with the Manchus and let them through the gate of the Great Wall. Then the Manchus conquered Beijing in 1644.
The Jurchens, Mongols and a Ming army swept south in 1644, and the Qing Dynasty began.
Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661) was a child when his father Hung Taiji died in 1643. He was named the first emperor of the dynasty. During his rule, the main priority of the court was to conquer the rest of the empire and establish a government for the new empire.
It took about another 20 years for the Manchus to defeat the rest of the Ming forces who had strongholds in the south and on Formosa.
In the southwest, a Ming dynasty clan member lived in unconquered territory in 1652. A general recaptured Guilin from the Qing, and most of the local commanders supported the Ming side. The Ming kindom was conquered in 1659.
Dorgon was the regent for the child emperor. His policies of reappointing the Ming officials and continuing the Confucian Imperial Examinations helped the empire to stabilize and prosper.
The Manchus did not destroy Beijing and decimate the population as was commonly done. Perhaps this was because Wu Sangui and many other Ming officials had already sided with them. In this way, the Manchus persuaded other Ming officials and military leaders to surrender to them.
Perhaps in a test of loyalty, in 1645 Dorgon decreed that Ming men must shave their hair in the front and make a long pigtail in the back. This started the hairstyle that is seen in movies about the Qing Empire. This hairstyle was humiliating to the people, but helped him to identify resisters.
He said, "To keep the hair, you lose the head; to keep your head, you cut the hair." Tens of thousands of people who resisted the Ming were massacred.
In 1646, he reestablished the Imperial Examinations. These examinations were held every three years, and in this way, he gained the support of large numbers of literati and staffed the bureaucracy.
Dorgon died soon after this in 1650. Emperor Shunzhi started to rule personally in 1650 when he was 13, and he died in 1661.
After Emperor Shunzhi's death, the Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) became the ruler. He had one of the longest reigns in dynastic history. Like Kublai Khan at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, and Zhu Yuanzhang in the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, during his long rule he set the policy direction for the empire and stabilized it.
The Kangxi Emperor was seven years old when he became an emperor, but regents ruled the empire in his place. When he was 15, he had a regent named Oboi imprisoned. In this way, he started ruling himself when he was 15. He was known as a very hardworking emperor.
Emperor Kangxi faced a big crisis for his own survival almost as soon as he became an emperor. Wu Sangui (1612–1678) who earlier had helped the Qing conquer the empire and others rebelled in 1673.
Wu Sangui rebelled together with the rulers of the other two fiefdoms and took control of the south. Qing armies defeated this rebellion.
An anti-Qing territory on Taiwan was also conquered by Qing forces in 1683. Parts of the island had been ruled by descendants of Koxinga.
The Russians invaded an area on the northern frontier in the 1680s. After a series of battles and negotiations, the two empires signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 that secured the borders. Two Jesuits negotiated the treaty.
In 1696, he personally led a Qing army to victory against the Dzungars in the northwest.
Emperor Kangxi's main policy decisions were for territorial expansion, continuing the Neo-Confucian bureaucratic system, putting Europeans in the court, monopolizing key industries, and trading with Europeans while resisting their expansion.
Under the Ming Dynasty, the Ming Empire developed a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to internal trade and industry. But under the Kangxi Emperor and his successors, the court more carefully controlled commerce and industry and monopolized important industries. The empire reverted to the economic policies of earlier dynastic eras.
During his reign, the economy improved and the population started to grow. New food crops such as corn, peanuts and potatoes helped the peasants to have enough to eat.
He also let a number of Jesuits into the empire and appointed them to positions in his court. He valued them for their knowledge and used them as advisers. They helped him in his diplomatic and military affairs, and they helped him modernize the empire.
They taught his technicians how to make better guns and cannons and advised him about world affairs.
He wanted to govern more directly and bypass the officials. He had a secret message system involving locked boxes that he used to send messages directly to people.
He thought his officials were untrustworthy and might try to manipulate things for themselves or usurp power. He spent many hours a day personally directing imperial matters
Emperor Kangxi had a lot of sons by different women. The man who emerged as the next emperor was his son called Emperor Yongzheng (1668–1735), and his son's son is called the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799).
During this seventy-three year period, the Qing Dynasty prospered the most of any period in the dynasty's history, and the population grew quickly. Through foreign trade, the court and the merchants gained wealth.
The empire grew larger because they subdued Tibet and the Xinjiang regions. They inherited Mongolia from the dynasties founders. The land area of the empire was second only to that of the Yuan Empire in size. The population reached about 300 million during this time.
The Qianlong Emperor officially reigned for 61 years as Kangxi did. But he actually reigned till his death in 1799. His court was successful at the beginning of his reign, but he turned despotic at the end and set the empire on a course towards destruction.
He also destroyed the Dzungars and expanded the empire further into Central Asia.
But he grew greedy. After his victories in the west, he wanted to expand his empire southwards and tried to conquer the militarily strong kingdoms of Burma and Vietnam. His misrule brought big problems to the whole empire.
He sent four armies against Burma from 1665 to 1669. Each was destroyed at great cost to the empire. An army sent to Vietnam was also driven out.
He started to indulge himself in rich pleasures and luxuries and building palaces. He left court matters to officials who stole the court's money. His actions depleted the empire's funds.
Discontent against Qing rule arose, and people started to arise in rebellions. The White Lotus Rebellion was a big popular uprising that started in 1794.
He also dealt ineffectively with Europeans who wanted to trade and also wanted to colonize the area. His isolationist actions towards Europeans were detrimental and set the stage for later problems and invasions.
After the death of Emperor Qianlong in 1799, the Qing empire began to topple. Like the Tang, Yuan and Ming Empires, the Qing Empire ended in rebellions, wars, natural disasters, economic problems, famines, and invasions.
During the 1800s, the dynasty seemed somewhat successful because the population kept growing, the territory stayed intact, and the empire slowly modernized. On the other hand, the ruling court involved in their own intrigues and seeking a luxurious life was inept to deal with a rapidly changing world and numerous uprisings and natural disasters.
The isolationist policy towards Europeans set by Emperor Qianlong proved to be a big mistake. During the 19th century and early 20th century, the Qing court was not prepared for conflicts with Europeans and Japanese.
European technology rapidly improved after the First Industrial Revolution at the end of the 1700s. But the Qing empire modernized little. Their repressive policies made their dynasty ill-equipped to survive. In the 1800s, Europeans easily defeated the Qing army and navy, and they forced the Qing to give them trading ports.
The First Opium War between Britain and the empire started in 1838. The British wanted to have greater access to the Qing Empire for trade, and the Qing court wanted to keep out British opium and maybe to keep out British influence.
Britain gained Hong Kong in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking. This war showed that the Qing army and navy were obsolete.
The British then wanted greater access to the empire and the right to send ships on the rivers for trade and military purposes. They also wanted an embassy in Beijing.
In 1854, Great Britain tried to renegotiate the Treaty of Nanking. When the court refused, there was the Second Opium War that the British easily won.
There was another war between the French and the Qing Empire called the Sino-French War (1883–1885).
There was also a war with the Japanese called the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). They lost this war also.
The Japanese modernized remarkably quickly in the latter part of the 19th century, and they also started to attack the empire and take territories for colonies. Unlike the Europeans who wanted open trading ports, the Japanese wanted to conquer and colonize the whole region.
In 1894, a Japanese naval victory surprised the Qing navy that had bought large European battleships and cruisers. The Qing court thought that their fleet was more powerful than the Japanese fleet. However, a lack of training and funds to support the fleet contributed to their loss.
The Japanese quickly destroyed a large Qing fleet and made Formosa a part of their empire. They turned it into an industrial colony. The Qing dynasty also ceded a part of Liaoning.
From 1796 until the end of the dynastic era, the Qing court faced rebellion after rebellion, but they defeated or thwarted all of them until the Qing rulers gave up power to Sun Yatsen in 1912.
In 1796, a rebellion against the Qing court was led by the White Lotus Society. This rebellion lasted eight years until 1804.
The Taiping Rebellion lasted for 13 years from 1851–1864. The leader of the Taiping was Hong Xiuquan who had been influenced by a missionary, but didn't become a Christian.
Instead he led a quasi-Christian movement that had some Christian beliefs and ideals. Many of his ideas seem right. He banned slavery, men using concubines, arranged marriages, opium use, foot binding, torture, and the worship of idols. He wanted women to have more equality in society.
He made Nanjing his capital, and his army seemed to be ready to attack Beijing. However, there were internal feuds and corruption. Britain and France sent troops to aid the Qing army.
It is thought that during the long war, about 25 million people died. It is thought to be the second bloodiest war in history after WWII.
Several other large rebellions and wars happened about the same time. The Dungan Revolt involved a large region around Gansu and Shaanxi in the central and north-western part of the empire. It was partly sectarian war between three Muslim religious sects called the Gedimu, Khafiya, and Jahariyya.
One aim of the Muslims was to establish a Muslim kingdom in the region. However, many Muslims sided with the Qing and fought on the Qing side. It is thought that several million people were killed in this war and by the army's extermination of people to clear the Gansu Corridor of Muslims.
The Qing army's goal in clearing the Gansu Corridor of Muslims was to prevent the Muslims in Xinjiang and those in the central part of the empire from uniting.
The Panthay Rebellion was another Muslim rebellion in Yunnan that lasted from 1855 to 1873. It is thought that perhaps a million people died in that war.
The Miao people also rebelled in Guizhou. It is thought that millions of people were killed in two wars around 1800 and from 1854 to 1873.
In addition to these rebellions, the Hakka people and the Punti people in the southeast fought a long ethnic war. Neighboring villages and clans fought each other viciously between the years 1855 and 1867.
Then there was another Dungan revolt in the northwest in 1895. In this revolt also, Muslim groups aided the Qing army to quell the rebellion. There were also other rebellions.
There were some great natural disasters in the last 50 years of the dynasty that contributed to weakening it. This pattern of natural disasters was seen as a sign that the dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven.
Two of the biggest floods in the world's history helped to end the Qing dynasty. There was one of the world's biggest natural disasters in history when the Yellow River flooded in 1887. It is thought that between 1 to 2 million people died.
The Yellow River flooded again in 1898. The Yangtze River flooded in 1911, and about 100,000 died.
The Gansu Earthquake killed about 22,000 people in 1879. The earthquake measured about magnitude 8.
The Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–1879 killed about 10 percent (about 10 million people) of the population of several northern provinces.
The great disaster and little aid provided by the Qing government made the people even more discontented with the Qing Dynasty.
There was another famine from 1896–1897 which led in part to the Boxer Rebellion. At first, the Boxer Rebellion was an anti-Qing rebellion.
About 60,000 people died from bubonic plague in northeastern China alone during the years 1910–1912. The plague spread inland also.
After all the major rebellions, genocide and mass exterminations in the middle 1800s, there were many natural disasters in the late 1800s as described above. All these disasters impoverished the survivors who faced foreign economic competition and modernization with little knowledge of the outside world or scientific knowledge.
Due to modernization and imports, a lot of people lost their work. So the poor died and faced starvation, and the population became poorer overall.
However, better health care and Western medicines provided by missionary doctors saved tens of thousands of lives. So the population didn't drop as much as it would have due to the disasters.
Railroads and some early factories made traditional work obsolete. For example, railroads put a lot of people who worked along the canal system out of work.
Foreign imported industrial products such as cotton clothes were much cheaper than many locally produced products. This put a lot of people out of work also.
It is said that by 1900, the value of imports was four times more than the value of exports. This was much unlike the height of the Qing Empire in the 1700s when their products were considered very valuable around the world.
Their economy didn't advance along with the West and Japan. Common people faced a lot of suffering, and many didn't survive. Many people blamed their problems on the Qing Dynasty, foreigners, and Christians.
Compounding the problem in the empire was the lack of modern education. The empire's literati concentrated on training for the Imperial Examinations.
Literate people wanted their children to concentrate on training for the government examinations. They studied ancient philosophical and religious texts. People had little knowledge or appreciation for modern Western education.
The Qing rulers did little to promote knowledge of the world and modern education. Instead, they were isolationist. They feared that the people would understand the outside world.
It is said that Empress Cixi who ruled the empire from behind the scenes didn't well appreciate the need for modernization of industry. She probably didn't understand how to set up a modern school system.
She wasn't educated herself. She came into power over hundreds of millions of people because she was a favorite concubine of one of the last emperors.
At the end of the empire, most of the modern education in the empire was provided by missionaries. They set up numerous universities, medical schools, and schools for youngsters to learn to read and get an elementary education. By 1911, they operated about 3,000 schools.
The Qing court was inept in the last decades. The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) who was a concubine of an emperor came to power in 1861 and ruled behind the scenes until her death.
Her son reigned from 1862 to 1874, and her nephew ruled from 1875 to 1908. But it is said that she was the real ruler during this long and crucial period of time from 1861 until 1908 at the end of the empire.
Modern historians see her rule as a mystery. Not much is known about her. People are not even sure where she was born. Somehow she ruled the empire from behind the scenes.
She was not well educated. She was simply one of many concubines, but she was favored by her emperor, so she had a high position among the concubines. Then her son was selected to be the emperor.
She started to rule the empire directly after 1860 when British and French troops attacked Beijing with a comparatively small force.
They destroyed the Imperial Summer Palace. It is said that when the Emperor Xianfeng heard of this news, he fell into a depression, turned heavily to alcohol and drugs, and became seriously ill.
When he was dying in 1861, he named eight regents for his five year old son who was to be the next emperor when he died.
He also wanted Cixi (this son's mother) and his Empress to help his son. For some reason, the Empress made Cixi a co-Empress.
What followed after this were various plots and assassinations, and she was implicated in some of them. She used her power and the court's riches to terrorize people and accumulate money, jewels, and antiques to build lavish gardens and palaces.
It is known that in 1898, she blocked her nephew from reforming the government and imprisoned him. He died from arsenic poisoning in 1908. People suspect that maybe Cixi killed him the day before she died. Some people suspect that she was poisoned too.
She wanted to survive and gain power in a dangerous court situation where assassinations and plots were the way of life. To maintain her power at the top, she had to maintain the traditional government system although this cost millions of lives and kept the empire from progressing.
In 1900, another rebellion started among the poor and unemployed. It was led by people who studied martial arts. It was called the Boxer Rebellion.
At first their goal was to overthrow the government and expel or kill foreigners. But Cixi supported the movement secretly, and then the leaders wanted to support the Qing.
It became an anti-Christian movement. Tens of thousands of converts were killed and tortured. The indigenous Christians probably didn't fight back. But relatively few Protestant missionaries were attacked by the mobs.
Then Cixi declared war on the foreigners, and their troops marched against the foreigners in Beijing. Foreign armies defeated the Qing troops and the Boxers.
The US sent a detachment of troops in this war, and the Qing court was forced to pay war reparations to the US. The US used these funds to build a large university called Tsinghua University.
The famous Shaolin Temple's leaders (of the Kung Fu TV series) were thought to have been involved in this rebellion, and some fled to other countries such as Australia and the US.
In the early 1900s, Sun Yatsen traveled around the world to organize a revolution against the Qing Dynasty. Facing assassination plots and court bounties, he wanted to institute a modern democracy.
He was educated in Hawaii and in a Christian college in Hong Kong. Assassins were sent against him, and there was bounty set at 3,000 teals of silver, but attempts to stop him failed, and he became well known and popular around the world and among educated Chinese people especially outside the empire.
He espoused both Christianity and the need for a new government. In 1908, Cixi and the emperor died. The chosen new emperor who was named Puyi was only two years old. The empire's official ruler was a regent named Zaifeng.
The Wuchang Uprising succeeded relatively bloodlessly in 1911, and Sun Yatsen became the first president. The capital of the new government was in Nanjing.
Sun Yatsen wanted to implement a republican constitution, but this never happened. Sun Yatsen stepped down to allow a Qing general named Yuan to be president. In this way, the Qing Empire ended in 1912.
The Qing era's main literary accomplishments were extremely large encyclopedias and compendiums of literature comprised of hundreds of volumes and popular novels.
Starting from Emperor Kangxi, the Qing court sponsored huge publishing projects to print encyclopedias, histories and compendiums of literature.
The other main achievement was in the writing of novels. In the middle of their dynastic era, when the empire was at its height, one of the four great classic novels was written called Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢).
The Dream of the Red Chamber has an uncertain authorship. Like the other three great classic novels that were written in the Yuan and Ming eras, it was written in a vernacular language — the Mandarin language that was the language of the Qing capital.
The novel was probably mostly composed by Cao Xueqin (about 1715–1763) in the middle 1700s. It is known for its detailed portrayal of the lives of the people of Cao Xueqin's own clan. His clan was a wealthy ruling clan in the Qing era.
The first printing of the book was in the late 1700s. It is thought that another person or other people contributed the ending of the story since the original ending of the story was lost. The book has a lot of textual problems, and there are different versions.
In a preface to a printed version in 1792, two editors claimed to have put together an ending based on the author's working manuscripts that they had bought from a street vendor.
At the end of the Qing era around the turn of the 20th century, educated people had easier access to foreign literature, and they were more influenced by Western culture. Some writers started to write literature like the Western-style literature that became available.
Students started to travel abroad to study, and schools built by missionaries educated tens of thousands of students. There was a general sense of crisis, and the modernistic literature that they wrote reflected this. Some writers produced fiction more like Western fiction.
Intellectuals also started translating foreign works on science, politics, and literature. These translations were popular, and the culture started to change.
Protestant and evangelical religion was introduced at the end of the Qing Dynasty era. The biggest religious change during the Qing era was that thousands of Protestant and Evangelical missionaries came in the 1800s and before 1912, and tens of thousands of common people converted.
They lived among the common people and set up numerous schools and hospitals. Unlike the Catholic monks who had earlier arrived during the Ming and early Qing eras, they didn't concentrate on getting a position in the ruling court to influence the rulers and officials. They wanted to be with and help the common people.
However, they influenced young people who eventually became leaders. They were influential in educating tens of thousands of students and educating doctors and nurses in Western medicine. They also set up colleges and universities for higher education.
By converting common people, the religion didn't disappear with the change of governments in the 20th century as Catholicism disappeared in the early Qing era. Instead this type of Christianity became the fastest growing religion. The most famous of these Christians was Sun Yatsen.
Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925) was the most influential person of his time at the end of the Qing Empire and by far the most influential Christian. He is called the "Father of Modern China" because he helped to organize resistance and rebellion against the empire and was China's first president.
Sun Yat-sen was born in 1866 in Guangdong. It is said that when he was young, a former Taiping soldier of the Taiping Rebellion told him about their goals and beliefs. He influenced him.
When he was 13, he went to Honolulu, Hawaii. He returned to Guangdong after graduating from a school in Hawaii. He had learned Christian beliefs, and when he arrived in Guangdong, he hated what he thought was superstitious idolatry and tried to destroy an idol in a temple.
He fled to Hong Kong after that, and he enrolled in a Christian academy in Hong Kong in 1884. He became a Christian doctor. Political, social and religious change became the main goals of his life.
He helped to organize a revolution against the Qing that was successful and relatively bloodless. In 1912, he became temporary president.
When asked about why the revolution was a success, he said: "To Christianity more than to any other single cause. Along with its ideals of religious freedom … it inculcates everywhere a doctrine of universal love and peace. These ideals appeal to the Chinese; they largely caused the Revolution, and they largely determined its peaceful character."
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