The Qing Dynasty was the final imperial dynasty in China, lasting from 1644 to 1912. It was an era noted for its initial prosperity and tumultuous final years, and for being only the second time that China was not ruled by the Han people.
Fall of the Ming Dynasty
Near the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1616, Manchurian forces from northeastern Asia defeated the Ming army and occupied several cities on China’s northern border.
A full-scale invasion followed. China was defeated in 1644, with Emperor Shunzhi establishing the Qing Dynasty.
Many of the new Han subjects faced discrimination. Han men were required to cut their hair in Mongolian fashion or face execution. Han intellectuals attempted to criticize the rulers through literature; many were rounded up and beheaded. Han people were also relocated from the power centers of Beijing.
Kangxi ruled for 61 years, from 1662 to 1722, the longest of any Chinese emperor.
He oversaw several cultural leaps, including the creation of a dictionary considered the best standardization of the Han language and the funding of surveys to create the most extensive maps of China up to that time.
Kangxi also reduced taxes and stifled corruption and governmental excess. He enacted policies that were favorable to farmers and stopped land seizures. He trimmed his own staff and expenditures significantly.
Kangxi also squashed military threats, pushing back three Han rebellions and seizing Taiwan. Kangxi also stopped continuous invasion attempts by Tsarist Russia and brokered the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which brought a vast area of Siberia into Chinese control and allowed him to stifle rebellion in Mongolia.
Potatoes and corn—plants native to the Americas—were introduced as crops during Kangxi’s reign, and food was considered plentiful during that time. Additionally, Kangxi oversaw an explosion in exports, particularly that of cotton, silk, tea and ceramics.
Qianlong ascended to the throne in 1735 and spent 60 years ruling China. Not a dynamic ruler, Qianlong’s later reign was characterized by his own disinterest in ruling.
Qianlong was more preoccupied with artistic pursuits. He published over 42,000 poems, and added his poetry by hand to hundreds of pieces of historical artwork in the palace, though he wasn’t considered very talented.
Qianlong was also obsessed with preserving Manchu culture and enacted dictionary and genealogy projects to that end. He also believed that sorcerers were targeting Manchurians and created a system of torture to combat that, while also creating a program in which thousands of Chinese books that had even the slightest disparagement of Manchurians were destroyed.
Conservative Qing Society
Social mores became more conservative during the Qing reign, with worsened penalties for homosexuals. Increased demand for purity in women led to a mass refusal of men to accept widows as their brides.
This led to significant growth in suicides of widows, and the creation of homes for widows where interaction with men was limited.
Arts Under The Qing Dynasty
This conservative shift reflected on the arts, and there was a general turn against literature and stage plays that were deemed subversive. Books were routinely banned, and theaters shut down.
Despite this oppressive atmosphere, some creative work did gather attention, as with the poetry of Yuan Mei and Cao Xueqin’s novel Dream of the Red Chamber.
Painting also managed to thrive. Former Ming clan members Zhu Da and Shi Tao became monks to escape governmental roles in Qing rule and became painters.
Zhu Da embraced silence as he wandered across China and his depictions of nature and landscapes are imbued with manic energy.
Shi Tao is considered an artistic rule-breaker, with Impressionist-style brush strokes and presentations that predated Surrealism.
The 19th century featured several military confrontations between China and the western world, the Opium War of 1840 being the first. A two-year conflict, it pitted China against Great Britain.
Opium was used medicinally in China for centuries, but by the 18th century it was popular recreationally. Following its conquest of India, Britain cultivated and exported opium to China, flooding the country with the drug.
An addiction crisis followed. A ban was attempted, and smoking opium outlawed, but British traders worked with black marketers to bypass laws.
Military confrontation became likely, and soon British forces shut down Chinese ports. Among many concessions during negotiations, China was forced to give up Hong Kong to the British.
A second Opium War was waged from 1856 to 1860 against the British and the French, bringing more unequal agreements.
Christian missionaries were allowed to flood the country, and western businessmen were free to open factories there. Ports were leased to foreign powers, allowing them to operate within China according to their own laws, and opium addiction rose.
Internal political and military threats created further instability for the Qing Dynasty.
The White Lotus sect was suppressed after an eight-year rebellion, lasting from 1796 to 1804. The Eight Trigrams sect rose up in 1813, taking several cities and entering the Forbidden City before being defeated.
The most deadly was the Taiping Rebellion, lasting from 1850 to 1864. Put into motion by Christian religious fanatic Hong Xiuquan, the city of Nanjing was occupied by rebels for a decade and 20 million Chinese died in the conflict.
Emperor Dowager Cixi
The influence of Empress Dowager Cixi expedited the end of Imperial China.
The widow of Emperor Xianfeng, who ruled from 1851 to 1861, Cixi was regent for her infant son Tongzhi from 1862 to 1874, then for her three-year-old nephew Guangxu, who ruled for 46 years with Cixi considered the real power behind the throne.
In 1898, Guangxu tried to take on the role of reformer in an attempt to modernize China, but this effort was squashed by Cixi after several months. Guangxu sought the support of an army general who betrayed him, and he found himself under house arrest at Cixi’s direction. Cixi also executed Guangxu’s fellow reformers.
The Boxer Rebellion ignited in 1899, the work of the Harmonious Fist secret society.
The group seized the property of Christian missionaries, attracting militant followers, then moved into the cities, attacking and killing foreigners.
Western countries sent troops, but Empress Dowager sided with the Boxers, declaring war on the West. Western forces defeated the Imperial Army and the Boxers in 1901, executing government members who had supported the Boxers and imposing sanctions that weakened the Qing rule.
After the Empress Dowager died in 1908, Xuantong, known as “The Last Emperor,” took the throne, but he wouldn’t reign long.
Fall of the Qing Dynasty
The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, overthrown by a revolution brewing since 1894 when western-educated revolutionary Sun Zhongshan formed the Revive China Society in Hawaii, then Hong Kong.
In 1905, Sun united various revolutionary factions into one party with Japanese help and wrote the manifesto, the Three Principles of the People.
In 1911, the Nationalist Party of China held an uprising in Wuchang, helped by Qing soldiers, and 15 provinces declared their independence from the empire. Within weeks the Qing court agreed to the creation of a republic with its top general, Yuan Shikai, as president.
Xuantog abdicated in 1912, with Sun creating a provisional constitution for the new country, which ushered in years of political unrest centered around Yuan.
In 1917, there was a brief attempt to reinstate the Qing government, with Xuantog being restored for less than two weeks during a military coup that ultimately failed.
Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.
The Dynasties of China. Bamber Gascoigne.
China Condensed: 5000 Years of History and Culture. Ong Siew Chey.