Qing Dynasty

Note: Chinese names of cities and individuals appear first in Pinyin. Traditional or Wade-Giles versions, where available, follow in parenthesis.

The Golden Years of the Qing Dynasty: The Ming Dynasty Crumbles

By the middle of the 16th century, the once brilliant Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was in decline. Beset by external threats in the form of piracy on the coast and the aggressive Mongol nomads to the north, conditions were made worse by inept government leadership and fermenting internal unrest. A popular movement to return to a pure Confucian morality was brutally crushed by government forces, its proponents deprived of office, beaten, tortured and executed. Having lost popular support, the regime foundered as rebellion after rebellion broke out. Aided by desperate famine conditions in the northwest, a rebel general conquered three provinces by 1643, and went on to capture Beijing [Peking] in 1644, where he discovered the last Ming Emperor hanging from the rafters in the summerhouse behind the Imperial Palace.

The Manchu Tribes and the Transition Years

While the Ming dynasty was disintegrating, the Jurchen [Manzhou or Manchu] tribes were consolidating in the north. Based south of Mongolia, natural barriers separated and thus protected them from the warlike Mongol tribes. The country the Manchu inhabited possessed fertile soil, plentiful timber, and mineral deposits. Isolation and abundant natural resources combined with the gifted leadership of a Manchu tribal leader brought about the gradual unification of the tribes. Nurhachi [nuer ha chi] (1559-1626) was a dynamic leader and an able administrator, who over the course of thirty years, turned a diverse group of tribes into an organized state.

Nurhachi cemented relations with other clans through prudent marriages and eliminated opposition through blood feuds. Reorganizing his army, he handpicked his generals for talent and loyalty. His companies were organized into larger groups called Banners which were composed of soldiers from a variety of tribes and regions, thus eliminating a soldier’s individual loyalty to his own clan or tribe. Operating with the approval of the Ming, who named him Dragon-Tiger General, Nurhachi built a firm economic foundation for his infant state though commerce in minerals, furs, pearls and ginseng, (a root believed to restore youth and sexual prowess). His involvement with the development of a written language (a system based upon a form of Mongolian script) made possible the keeping of accurate records which lead to the improvement of governmental administration based on Confucian principles for ordered government and social unity. In 1618, Nurhachi moved openly against the Ming, capturing two principal cities, one of which, Shenyang [Mukden] was made the new capital of the fledgling Qing dynasty. Nurhachi died in 1626, before his conquest was complete, and leadership shifted to his 8th son, Abhai (r1626-1643).

Abhai continued his father’s efforts to strengthen the newest dynasty by bringing the bulk of the main portion of Manchuria under his control. His appointment of a prominent Chinese grand secretary solidified relations between the Chinese and Manchu that helped bring about the dynasty’s long middle period of prosperity and stability. When Abahai died in 1643, his six year old son succeeded him, with Dorgon, his uncle, acting as regent. Like his predecessors, Dorgon was a wise and able ruler who continued the traditions of his ancestors.

While the Manchu were moving forward towards conquest and unification, the Ming dynasty was beset on all sides. During one of its numerous internal revolutions, a Ming general invited Manchu forces to help quell an uprising in the capital, and afterwards, the Manchu stayed for the next 300 years, eventually evicting their Ming hosts. Although a presence in the south, the Qing dynasty was strongest in the north, but after a series of rebellions, the last of the Ming were overthrown in 1683, and the Qing rulers were established as the emperors of all China.

The Kang Xi Emperor

First Qing Dynasty Ruler: The Kang Xi Emperor

The Qing [Ch' ing] Dynasty was slow to establish itself, but thanks to two long term enlightened emperors who ruled in close succession, it enjoyed a long middle period of stability, prosperity and growth both geographically and culturally. By the middle of the dynasty, the territory controlled by the Dragon Throne was the most extensive in Chinese history, both past and present.

The Kang Xi [K'ang-hsi] Emperor (r1661-1722), considered the first of the Qing Dynasty Emperors, ruled for over 60 years, ascending the throne in 1661. With the exception of unrest in the north, his reign was a period of relative peace, prosperity and expansion. While commanding a large Chinese force and with the help of artillery, Kang Xi and his army defeated a large horde of western Mongols, the first ever victory against these fierce mounted warriors who had dominated the steppes for centuries.

Kang Xi was an able military leader, a brilliant ruler and accomplished scholar. Frequent trips to the south put him in contact with the flower of Chinese scholarship in the form of the dynasty’s most talented scholar officials. Under his patronage, scholars compiled monumental works dealing with calligraphy, painting, geography, philosophy, and ethics. With Kang Xi’s death in 1722, Yong Zheng [Yung Cheng], one of his 26 sons, took the throne and ruled for the next 14 years. Backed by military might, Yong Zheng continued the work of concentrating power under the Emperor, setting the stage for his son, Qian Long [Ch'ien-lung].

Qian Long Emperor

Qian Long, Emperor

Qian Long (r1736-1795) was an autocratic and hard working leader who, like his grandfather, had a deep interest in art and scholarship. While these three early Qing Dynasty rulers were Manchu, the cultural and artistic achievements of earlier dynasties were treasured and many aspects of Chinese culture and ethics were adapted.

Qian Long had an especial interest in literature, and during his reign, a vast collection known as The Four Treasuries was completed. This work encompassed seven sets of 36,000 volumes. In addition to the worth of the work itself, it demonstrated the Emperor’s value of culture to the large number of Chinese scholars engaged in it, cementing relations between the Chinese and the Manchu by proving that what was once considered a foreign dynasty consisted of civilized gentlemen worthy of allegiance. Through his adoption of Chinese culture and ethics, Qian Long and his advisors convinced even the most reluctant subjects of the Qing’s fitness to rule all China.

Qing Dynasty Art Objects and Innovation

Characterized as an antiquarian age, artists and craftsmen were inspired by China’s long and glorious history. Styles and motifs were taken from the past, and new works were created in old styles and forms using updated techniques. Widespread prosperity due to growing commercial wealth created a greater demand for beautiful as well as useful objects. More wealth in more hands brought about experimentation with stylistic innovations in color, form and texture. Expanding foreign markets drove the creation of new styles, especially for porcelain, and although these pieces were intended for export, the new motifs undoubtedly influenced Chinese tastes as well.

The West Opens China & the Qing Dynasty Declines

Although China was enjoying a period of internal stability and prosperity, challenges would soon arise, in the form of Europeans, particularly the British, seeking trade access to tea and silk. British subjects were clamoring for Chinese goods and although His Majesty’s earliest emissaries obeyed the Emperor’s strict rules governing trade, subsequent traders relied on force. The opening of China to the West, starting around 1699 was the beginning of the decline of the once glorious Qing Dynasty, although it would continue to exist in a considerably weakened state for another 200 years.

Qing Dynasty in Decline: Invasion and Rebellion

Once the British had gained a foothold in China, the rest of the western world demanded entry as well. The opening of the ports of Canton (Guangzhou), Xiamen (Hsiamen), Fuzhou (Foochow), Ninpo and Shanghai as a result of the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) gave the barbarians access deep within the interior of China. Having received favored nation status as a result of the treaty, the British were awarded the same rights as the multitude of western powers who followed, negotiating their own treaties with the empire, and demanding more access and greater privileges. The result was the continued weakening of the Qing Dynasty’s Imperial Court.

Unequal Treaties and the Destruction of the Summer Palace

By 220 B.C., the Chinese Empire lacked neighbors. Acquisitions of adjacent territories created a map of China in which all neighboring lands fell within her boarders, with the exception of the bleak territory to the north inhabited only by nomads. Over the long course of Chinese history, this fed into the country’s identity as the center of civilization surrounded by inferior and barbaric races. Naturally, the western visitors did not view themselves in this light, believing their intercourse with China to be free trade between two equal and sovereign nations. Chinese views of law, legal proceedings, and society were in direct contrast to those held in England, the Chinese view being communal while the British believed in the rights of the individual. These two mutually incompatible views of life and society created a gulf between the two nations that was bridged only with the use of force by the west. The Chinese disdain for the barbarians of Europe was trumped by sheer firepower when French and English troops looted and burned the Summer Palace in 1860. The Emperor and his court fled north, and while the ashes of the Summer Palace’s priceless treasures smoldered, the Europeans were found to have won the right to travel at will, sail their ships up the Yangzi (Yang-tse), to open ten additional ports to trade, to appoint ambassadors to the Imperial Court, to establish Christian missions without restraint, and to legally import opium. The peace treaty also included an enormous indemnity for the victors.

The Taiping Rebellion

External pressures created by foreigners were not the only problems plaguing the empire. By 1850, the Qing Dynasty was seriously threatened by a large-scale popular revolt. China’s past was riddled with instances of discontent among its peasants, and the country had a history of rebellions that typically fermented around religion, one of China’s bloodiest was the Taiping Rebellion, brainchild of Hong Xiuquan (1814 to 1846). Having failed to qualify for a post at the Imperial Court, Hong had a fever-induced dream, in which he discovered himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ called upon to save the Chinese people from its corrupt government and the teachings of Confucius. Hong studied with an American missionary, and his Chinese Christian movement, Worship God Society was born. Multiple factors contributed to the widespread success of this revolt, which began in the south. Due to the weakening of the authority of the Empire’s central government, regional bands of militia began forming in an attempt to keep order in the east. Trading patterns that had existed for centuries were disrupted by the European invaders thus creating economic distress for the Chinese. Simmering antagonism between the Han Chinese and the Manzhou (Manchu) ruling class incited out of work miners, charcoal makers, coolies and hungry peasants. The lure of revolt against wealthy and indolent oppressors wrapped in the banner of The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (also referred to as The Taipings) was irresistible to large number of followers that would eventually swell to almost 300,000. Hong proclaimed himself King and appointed five sub-kings, one of whom was an accomplished military commander, and in 1853, the rebel kingdom captured Nanjing, which was made the movement’s headquarters. The Taipings new order called for equitable distribution of land and goods as well as equality for women, and especially the end of concubinage and foot binding.

The Qing Empire Suppresses The Taiping Rebels

Early in the rebellion, Qing troops were ineffective against the growing army of rebels who gained a following in all but two provinces. The lack of tax revenues from those occupied lands coupled with catastrophic flooding of the Huang Ho (Yellow River) hampered the efforts of the dynasty to suppress the rebellion, but soon the tide began to turn. This was due in part to western fire power, but the alienation of the scholar/gentry class because of the movement’s policy concerning personal property also played a part. Because of this, the rebels lacked educated leaders who could administer civil governments in the occupied cities and provinces. Landowners also took issue with the concept of redistribution of acreage. The rebels lacked a cavalry, and therefore mobility, and ultimately were no match for Empire forces armed and trained by the west, who watched the proceedings from the sidelines until they felt Shanghai and their own interests were threatened.

The Taiping Rebellion Fails

In 1862, a combined Qing and French and English force was mustered, and by 1864, Nanjing was recaptured. Dissention among the Kings of the Taipings, who, contrary to policy, kept harems and lived in luxury weakend the movement which was no match for the combined Empire and European force. Hong Xiuquan took poison, and the rebellion ended. The rebellion had cost China twenty million in casualties and ultimately accomplished nothing but to demonstrate how easy it might be to topple the Dynasty. It is thought that the Taiping rebellion, with its philosophy of social order, rejection of Confucian values, and admiration of discipline and hard work for a higher destiny laid the groundwork for the Communist movement that would make its appearance in 1921.

The Taipings were only one of the groups staging rebellion against the Dynasty. The Nian Rebellion in the north and revolts by Muslims in the northwest and southwest made the years 1853 to 1873 difficult ones for the Empire, however ones the flames of rebellion were extinguished, the Qing Dynasty experienced what would be considered a brief rebirth.

-Reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer.


Morton, W. Scott & Lewis, Charlton M.; China Its History and Culture C 2005 McGraw- Hill Inc NY.

Gascoigne, Bamber; The Dynasties of China c2003 (earlier ed 1973) Carroll & Graff (Avalon ) NY.

Dillon, Michael (ed); China A Cultural and Historical Dictionary c1998 Curzon Press, UK.

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