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Summary Article: Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

The Qing dynasty was the last dynasty of China. It is also known for having been established by “foreign invaders”—the Manchus—rather than by ethnic Han Chinese. This proved to be a persistent and underlying problem throughout the dynasty's reign, particularly as sentiments of ethnic nationalism began to surface with the weakening of central state power near the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As such, although the first half of Qing rule was characterized by social progress and stability because of the able leadership of the dynasty's early emperors, the Qing soon succumbed to the all-too-familiar story of dynastic growth and decline. Such a fate was made even more inevitable with the interplay of popular uprisings, inefficient government, and Western encroachment.

The Rise of the Manchus

In 1636, Hong Taiji established the Qing dynasty, thereby becoming the dynasty's first emperor, having also changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu. He was the eighth son and successor of Nurgaci (1559-1626), an able chieftain on the eastern border of south Manchuria and founder of the Later Jin dynasty in the early 17th century. It was soon clear that Hong Taiji was equally capable as his father. By 1638, the Manchus had conquered and made alliances with the Mongol tribes in inner Mongolia, and were also able to subjugate Korea. What was still left, however, was Ming China.

Although the Manchus had made many incursions into north China, these had met with stronger Ming forces and turned out to be largely unsuccessful. However, by 1644, the Ming Empire became increasingly weaker, being riddled with political turmoil and social unrest. An opportunity came with the popular rebellion led by Li Zicheng, at whose hands Beijing would fall and the Ming dynasty would come to an end. To quell the rebellion in Beijing, the Ming general Wu Sangui, along with his colleagues, had requested the aid of the Manchus, and ended up opening the gates at Shanghai Pass for the Manchus. However, once inside and having recaptured Beijing from the rebels, the Manchus quickly seized control efficiently and ruthlessly, installing Hong Taiji's very young son as the Shunzhi emperor. Ming officials were consequently faced with a literal life-and-death decision—to side with the Manchus or maintain their loyalty to the Ming. While some chose death, a number of officials also chose to work with the Manchus and helped with the dynastic transition.

During the early period of Qing rule, although formally under the reign of the Shunzhi emperor, political power actually laid in the hands of Prince Dorgon, who was then acting as a regent. While showing foresight in some decisions (such as the decision to keep Beijing as the Qing's new capital instead of sacking it), some of his other decisions were not always as commendable, nor were they well received by the Chinese populace. One example was the so-called Queue Order, which was imposed on all Han Chinese men. In a move that was meant to enforce loyalty to the new Qing state, men were forced to shave half their heads, while the rest of their hair was to be braided into a long queue. Should anyone fail to cut their hair, then they would face “losing their heads.” Early acceptance of this decree among the Chinese population was low, and it took many years before the majority of the people complied. Even then, anti-Manchu groups like the Taiping persisted to grow their hair symbolically as a challenge to the Qing state's legitimacy, to the extent that they became known as the “long-haired rebels.” Obviously, the psychological implications of this measure on the Chinese people were great.

Although it proved to take an arduously long time before the Manchus stabilized their rule over China, under the strong leadership of the dynasty's early emperors—the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722), Yongzheng emperor (1722-36), and Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-96)—significant growth and social stability did develop. This period is often known as the height of Qing power.

State and Society During Early Qing

With the Manchus came three major initiatives that were soon institutionalized into the emergent political system. The first was the employment of Manchu bannermen, who often had close personal ties to the emperor. These bannermen potentially made up a more trustworthy imperial entourage, compared to the eunuchs of previous dynasties. The second initiative was based on the fact that the Manchus were not ethnically Chinese, but had to govern over a predominantly Han Chinese population. Following from this, the early Manchu leaders strove to incorporate Chinese ways into their rule as a means to enhance their political authority. To do so, they borrowed the terminology and ideas of Confucianism, extolled Confucian ideals, emphasized the importance of a ruler's moral character, and supported study of the classics. Nonetheless, there were still limits to the extent that Chinese culture was used in the Qing system. The Manchu rulers still attempted to safeguard their language, leading to the creation of Manchu documentation that was not available to Chinese officials. It is interesting to note that ever since the time of Hong Taiji, efforts were made to translate Chinese classics into the Manchu language. The Manchus were aware of the natural advantages they had because of their geographical location on the frontier. This meant that they could learn the ways of the Chinese without having to be subject to Chinese rule or jeopardizing their own culture and way of life.

The third initiative was the use of a dual-appointment system in the empire's civil administration. Both Chinese and Manchus were placed in important positions, although there tended to be more Manchu than Chinese officials at the capital and more Chinese than Manchu officials in the provinces. This was a measure aimed at not only fostering loyalty to the Qing state among the Chinese people, especially among the scholar-officials, but at allowing the state to tap into Chinese talent. It also became the case that the role of Manchu officials was more to monitor their Chinese counterparts than anything else.

Notably, the Qing also developed an efficient legal system. Like the great Tang Code, the Qing legal code was primarily concerned with corrective measures, although it was partly administrative as well, considering how it prescribed instructions for the exercise of traditional rites. Yet the application of the Qing code often proved challenging to the magistrates in charge, given that it comprised 436 main statutes and about 1,900 supplementary substatutes. Nevertheless, the Qing legal system did fulfill its underlying purpose of supporting the Confucian order within society through the enforcement of personal relationships.

The Qing rulers were equally adept at trying to bring about change in other areas. Having inherited the problems of a weak Ming financial system, the Yongzheng emperor issued a number of needed reforms, especially regarding the taxation structure. However, vested interests, together with an inherently corrupt establishment, meant that the implementation success rate was relatively low, particularly when it came to collecting taxes from the landed gentry. The informal system of personal networks (guanxi) remained firmly entrenched in the government bureaucracy. And indeed, this remains a central characteristic of Chinese politics and society today.

Another significant development in Chinese administration under Yongzheng's reign was the creation of the grand council, which was based on an efficient inner court. This council had evolved from the emperor's Office of Military Finance, which had been secretly established and was tasked with handling urgent matters. Its documents were mainly confidential, often being in the Manchu language, with memorials being sent directly to the emperor.

It is also noteworthy that the Qing had been strongly against the traditional practice of foot-binding, and Manchu women did not bind their feet. There was, however, no systematic decree that was made to ban this practice, and foot-binding practices continued, even among the peasant masses. Foot-binding proved to be both physically and psychologically debilitating (sometimes even life-threatening) to the women who had to go through this form of self-inflicted torture.

Unrest and Foreign Encroachment During the Later Qing

From 1600 to 1911, Imperial China saw a dramatic increase in its population, which was accompanied by an increase in trade, as exemplified through the Canton trade system. In fact, China's first encounter with Europeans dates back to the Kangxi emperor's reign, when Jesuit missionaries such as the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived in China through established trade routes. Yet China's encounters with the Western powers only increased in the years to come, as commercial trade expanded and interest in the Far East grew among the Western world. Despite these seemingly positive developments, China was simultaneously becoming increasingly troubled by domestic problems and by problems on its frontier. By the 19th century, the Manchu government had grown progressively weaker, with this century soon to become another century of dynastic decline.

The Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722) was the longest-reigning emperor and is considered one of China's greatest emperors.

The lack of strong leadership was demonstrated at the end of the Qianlong emperor's rule with the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), which cast a long shadow over the dynasty. The rebellion was initiated as a mass protest against the unfair demands of tax collectors. The number of uprisings that occurred one after the other eventually became too much for the imperial military to control. The growing systematic corruption within the government further helped make matters worse. Although this rebellion eventually was suppressed under the Jiaqing emperor, its consequences were wide ranging. Not only was it costly to the empire, but it also dispelled the common belief of the Manchu banner forces’ invincibility. This episode further prompted other subsequent uprisings like that of the Eight Trigrams sect (1813) in north China, which became even more daring—they tried to invade the Forbidden City—and led to more than 70,000 deaths.

However, China was soon made to face yet another pressing problem—that of the opium trade. By 1834, Qing administrators became concerned over the greatly increasing imports of opium into China. This trend had not only stressed the state's silver reserves, but growing opium addiction among the Chinese populace was also responsible for a number of social ills. Moreover, with London ending the East India Company's monopoly over British trade (the company had been well versed in the ropes of Chinese imperial bureaucracy and thereby was largely able to avoid conflict), a new phase in China's foreign relations began with Britain demanding diplomatic equality to the Middle Kingdom. This, in turn, raised serious questions over the legitimacy of the empire's tribute system.

The situation deteriorated when the Daoguang emperor sent Lin Zexu, an incorrupt imperial commissioner, to negotiate with foreign traders to stop the exporting of opium to China in 1839. Lin, however, had to resort to desperate measures, resulting in the barricading of foreigners in their factories to compel them into surrendering their opium stocks. This move ultimately led to the Opium War of 1839-42, which ended with China's defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing. The period that followed effectively saw the emergence of a new treaty system.

Restoration and Decline of the Qing

Only around a decade after the Qing's encounter with British gunboats, the regime was faced with a new crisis. From 1846 to 1848, China had been ravaged by disasters and famines, which resulted in a disaffected populace, while the dynasty had still not yet recovered from its Opium War defeat. It was under these circumstances that the Great Taiping Rebellion became one of the most definitive uprisings in pre-modern Chinese history.

The Taiping movement was founded by Hong Xiuquan, who had preached on the creation of a Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace in China based on his particular interpretation of the Old Testament. By today's standards, he was an eccentric character who believed that God had called on him to save humankind. Yet by late 1850, he already had a following of around 20,000 believers, and in January 1851, he proclaimed himself Heavenly King of a new Kingdom of Great Peace.

From 1851 to 1864, China found itself engulfed in a destructive and costly Taiping-imperialist war. The Taiping were met with initial success; however, the shortsightedness and administrative incompetence of its leaders ultimately led to the movement's failure. Nonetheless, what this rebellion signaled was the significant loss of the Qing's ruling legitimacy. In 1861, a coup d'état took place in Beijing, installing Empress Dowager Cixi as regent. Under this new leadership, the Qing went through a period of restoration. Through the capable commander Zeng Guofan, the Taiping were eventually suppressed. At the same time, the empress dowager revived components of Confucian government, while gradually adopting Western ways and a more cooperative policy toward the foreign powers.

But as to be expected, this revival soon lost its momentum after 1870. Significant reforms proved difficult to implement because of the traditional inertia of the Chinese polity. By the time the Self-Strengthening Movement gained ground and an appreciation of the need for China to modernize developed, it was already too late. The self-strengthener notion of combining Chinese values with Western tools proved to be ultimately unsuccessful, as it remained hindered by the conservative factions of Qing society. Even with the emperor's support, radical reforms were still thwarted, as was the case when Emperor Guangxu tried to implement some 40 reform decrees in 1898.

The implications of China's unwillingness to modernize were reflected in China's humiliating defeat at the hands of its “Little Brother,” Japan, after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which resulted in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Nonetheless, it was only with the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) that the Qing came to realize the stark realities of its dwindling authority and legitimacy in the face of growing Western power. The Boxer protocol, for one, remained a major financial burden to the government, as well as an important symbol of humiliation to the Chinese. However, as China became the “Sick Man of Asia,” this resulted in a power vacuum which gave rise to the nationalist revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen.

See Also:

Imperialism , Nationalism , Treaty of Shimonoseki , Westernization

Further Readings
  • Bickers, Robert and Wasserstrom, Jeffrey “Shanghai' ‘Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted’ Sign: Legend, History and Contemporary Symbol.” The China Quarterly, v.142.
  • Fairbank, John K., ed. The Chinese World Order: Traditional China' Foreign Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • Yingjie, Guo Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary China: The Search for National Identity Under Reform. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.
  • Mitter, Rana. A Bitter Revolution: China' Struggle With the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Teng, S. Y. and Fairbank, J. K.. China' Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Wakeman, Frederic Jr. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: The Free Press, 1975.
  • Yeophantong, Pichamon
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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