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Qing Dynasty

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The Qing Dynasty (Manchu: daicing gurun; Chinese: 清朝; pinyin: qīng cho; Wade-Giles: ch'ing ch'ao), sometimes known as the Manchu Dynasty, was founded by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro, in what is today northeast China expanded into China proper and the surrounding territories of Inner Asia, establishing the Empire of the Great Qing (Chinese: 大淸帝國, pinyin: dqīng dgu). The Qing was the last imperial dynasty of China. Declared as the Later Jin Dynasty in 1616, it changed its name in 1636 to "Qing", and conquered all of China in 1644, ruling it until 1912. In the aftermath of the 1911 revolution, a new Republic of China was established and the the last emperor abdicated.

"Later Jin" is sometimes spelled "Later Jinn" to distinguish from another Later Jin Dynasty (936-946) .



The Qing Dynasty was founded not by the Han Chinese people who form the overwhelming majority of the population of China proper, but by the Manchus, a semi-nomadic people not even known by that name when they first rose to prominence in what is now northeastern China. Taking advantage of the political instability and popular rebellions convulsing the Ming dynasty, the highly organized military forces of the Manchus swept into the Ming capital of Beijing in 1644, and there remained until the Qing dynasty was overthrown in a revolution in 1911, with the last emperor abdicating early in 1912.

The 268 years of Qing dynasty China saw glorious successes, humiliating defeats, and profound changes to virtually all aspects of life. Today's China has in many ways been shaped by these experiences. The consolidation of Qing power was accompanied by territorial expansion, and the borders of modern China largely reflect successful Qing military campaigns. The incorporation of new lands and peoples required careful handling, and Manchu experience of nomadic culture and a willingness to adopt different postures toward different groups such as Mongols and Tibetans enhanced Qing diplomatic effectiveness. The seeds of the huge population increase were perhaps sown during the stability of the first 200 years of Qing rule, with its economic expansion, the opening up of new land for cultivation, and the spread of certain crops that were able to grow in poor quality soil. Many great works of art and literature originated during the period and the Qianlong emperor in particular undertook huge projects to preserve important cultural texts. The novel form became widely read and perhaps China's most famous novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, was written in the mid-eighteenth century. The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century was the first major instance of anti-Manchu sentiment threatening the stability of the Qing dynasty, a phenomenon that would only increase in the following years. However, the horrific number of casualties of this rebellion - as many as 30 million people may have died - and the complete devastation of a huge area in the south of the country have to a large extent been overshadowed by another significant conflict. Although not nearly as bloody, the outside world and its ideas and technologies had a tremendous and ultimately revolutionary impact on an increasingly weak and uncertain Qing state.

The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 brought an end to over 2000 years of imperial history in China and began an extended period of instability, not just at the national level but in many areas of peoples' lives. Obvious political and economic backwardness combined with widespread criticism of Chinese culture led to questioning and doubt about the future. China's turbulent history since the overthrow of the Qing may be understood at least in part as an attempt to understand and recover significant aspects of historic Chinese culture and integrate them with influential new ideas that have emerged within the last century. The Qing dynasty is the source of much of this magnificent culture, but its perceived humiliations also provide much from which to learn.

Formation of the Manchu state

The Manchu state was formed by Nurhaci in the early 17th century. Originally a vassal of the Ming, he declared himself Emperor of the Later Jin in 1609. In the same year, he expanded the state's economic and human resources as well as technology by enslaving the Chinese inhabitants of Manchuria. In 1625, Nurhaci established his capital at Shenyang (also Shenjing; Manchu: Mukden), but the following year he suffered his first major military defeat to the Ming general Yuan Chonghuan. Nurhaci died the same year. One of his most important achievements was the creation of eight banner units responsible for the civil and military administration of all its troops and their families.

Nurhaci's successor Hong Taiji (Abahai) continued to build on his father's foundations, incorporating the first Chinese banners into his army. Hong Taiji also adopted many Ming political institutions into his Manchu state, but also provided for Manchu domination of those institutions through a quota system. When Lingdan Khan , the last grand-Khan of the Mongols, died on his way to Tibet in 1634, his son Ejei surrendered to the Manchus and gave the great seal of the Yuan Emperor to Hong Taiji. In 1636 Hong Taiji renamed the state Qing (pure) suggesting ambitions beyond Manchuria. In a series of military campaigns, he won the submission of Inner Mongolia, Korea and took control of the Amur River (Heilongjiang) region.

The conquest of China

After years of civil unrest, the Ming capital Beijing was sacked by a coalition of rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. The Ming dynasty officially came to an end when the last Ming emperor committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree on the hill overlooking the Forbidden City. After taking Beijing in April 1644, Li Zicheng led an army of 60,000 strong to confront Wu Sangui, the general commanding Ming's 100,000 strong garrison guarding Shanhaiguan (山海关). Shanhaiguan is the pivotal northeastern pass of the Great Wall of China located fifty miles northeast of Beijing and for years its defenses were what kept the Manchus at bay and out of China. Wu, caught between two enemies, decided to cast his lots with the Manchus and made an alliance with Dorgon, regent to the then six-year old Shunzhi, son of Huang Taiji who had passed away the year before.

Together the two armies met Li Zicheng's rebel forces in battle on May 27, 1644. Even though the rebel forces were routed, Wu's army was so weakened by the day's fighting that he had no choice but to join the Manchus forces as they captured Beijing on June 6 and began their conquest of the whole of China. The process took another seventeen years of battling Ming loyalists, pretenders and rebels. The last Ming pretender Prince Gui sought refuge in Burma but was turned over to a Qing expeditionary force headed by Wu Sangui who had him brought back to Yunnan province and executed in early 1662.

Kangxi and Consolidation

The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662 - 1722) assumed the throne at age seven. During the early years of his reign, he was largely aided by his grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager, Xiaozhuang.

The Manchus found controlling their newly won empire a daunting task. The vastness of China's territory meant that there were only enough banner troops to garrison key cities forming the backbone of a defence network that relied heavily on surrendered Ming soldiers.

In addition, three surrendered Ming generals were singled out for their contributions to the Qing imperial cause, ennobled as feudal princes (藩王), and given governorships over vast territories in Southern China. The chief of these was Wu Sangui, who was given the provinces of Yunnan, and Guizhou, while generals Shang Kexi (尚可喜) and Geng Zhongming (耿仲明) were given Guangdong and Fujian provinces, respectively.

As the years went by, the three feudal lords and their territories inevitably became increasingly autonomous. Finally, in 1673, Shang Kexi petitioned Kangxi Emperor, stating his desire to retire to his home town in Liaodong (遼東) province and nominating his son as his successor. The young emperor granted his retirement but denied the heredity of his fief. In reaction, the two other generals decided to petition for their own retirements to test Kangxi's resolve, thinking that he wouldn't risk offending them. The move backfired as the young emperor called their bluff by accepting their requests and ordering all three fiefdoms to be reverted back to the crown.

Faced with the stripping of their powers, Wu Sangui felt he had no choice but to rise up in revolt. He was joined by Geng Zhongming and Shang Kexi's son Shang Zhixin (尚之信). The ensuing rebellion lasted for eight years. At the peak of the rebels' fortunes, they managed to extend their control as far north as the river Changjiang (長江). Ultimately, though, the Qing government was able to put down the rebellion and exert control over all of southern China.

The threats, however, weren't all internal. Kangxi personally led China on a series of military campaigns against Tibet, the Zunghars , and later Russia. He arranged the marriage of his daughter to the Khan Gordhun to avoid an invasion. Gordhun's military campaign against the Qing failed, further strengthening the Empire. By the end of the 17th century, China was at its most powerful since the early Yuan Dynasty.

Taiwan was also taken by Qing forces in 1683 from Zheng Chenggong's son, Zheng Jing ; the former had conquered it from the Dutch.

Kangxi also handled many Jesuit Missionaries that came to China hoping for mass conversions. Although they failed in their attempt, Kangxi still peacefully kept the missionaries in Beijing.

Civil order and recognition by the people of Qing was Kangxi's foremost agenda.

The Yongzheng & Qianlong emperors

Yongzheng (r. 1723 - 1735) and his son Qianlong (r. 1735 - 1796) and their reigns were at the height of Qing power.

After Kangxi's death in the winter of 1722, his fourth son, Yinzhen (later to be known as Emperor Yongzheng) succeeded. Yongzheng remained a controversial character because of rumours about him usurping the throne. Nonetheless Yongzheng was a very hardworking ruler. His first big step towards a stronger regime came when he brought the State Examination System back to its original standards. In 1724 he cracked down on illegal exchange rates of coins, which was being manipulated by officials to fit their financial needs. Yongzheng was known as harsh, and in many ways, ruthless.

Yongzheng did show trust in Han officials, and appointed many of his proteges to prestigious positions. Nian Gengyao was appointed to lead a military campaign. Yonzheng's reign saw more consolidation of territory, a toughened stance towards corrupt officials, and the creation of a Military Affairs Department (軍機處).

Yongzheng died in 1735, shortly after he ordered his third son, Hongshi, to commit suicide. This was followed by the succession of his son Hongli as the Qianlong Emperor. Qianlong was known as an able general. Succeeding the throne at the age of 23, Qianlong personally led the military in campaigns near Xinjiang and Mongolia. Revolts and uprisings in Sichuan and parts of southern China were successfully calmed.

Around fourty years into Qianlong's reign, the Qing government saw a return of rampant corruption. Officials such as Ho Shen was arguably one of the most corrupt in the entire Qing Dynasty. He was eventually executed by Qianlong's son Jiaqing (r. 1796 - 1820).

Rebellion, unrest and external pressure

Qing Empire, 1892
Qing Empire, 1892

One common view of the 19th century was that it was an era in which Qing control weakened, and prosperity diminished. China suffered massive social strife, economic stagnation, and explosive population growth. Moreover, starting with the reign of the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1820 - 1850), Western penetration and influence was more freely allowed into the country. Britain's desire to continue its illegal opium trade with China collided with imperial edicts prohibiting the addictive drug, and the First Opium War erupted in 1840. China lost the war; subsequently, Britain and other Western powers, including the United States, forcibly occupied "concessions" and gained special commercial privileges. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanjing.

Sovereign areas already hospitable to informal empire largely avoided formal rule during the shift to New Imperialism. China, for instance, was not a backward country unable to secure the prerequisite stability and security for western-style commerce, but a highly advanced empire unwilling to admit western (often drug-pushing) commerce, which may explain the West's contentment with informal 'Spheres of Influences'. China, unlike tropical Africa, was a securable market without formal control. Following the First Opium War, British commerce, and later capital invested by other newly industrializing powers, was securable with a smaller degree of formal control than in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Pacific. But in many respects, China was a colony and a large-scale receptacle of Western capital investments. Western powers did intervene military there to quell domestic chaos, such as the Taiping Rebellion and the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. For example, General Gordon, later the imperialist 'martyr' in the Sudan, is often accredited as having saved the Manchu dynasty from the Taiping insurrection.

In addition, the Taiping Rebellion (太平起義) (1851-1864), the Nian Rebellion (捻軍起義) (1853-1868) and the Muslim Panthay Rebellion, along with Russian-supported Muslim separatist movements in Gansu province and Chinese Turkestan (i.e. Xinjiang province), drained Chinese resources and almost toppled the dynasty. Han officials such as Zeng Guofan was sent out to crush the Taiping rebellion, which had gathered a lot of strength over the years. After several failed military campaigns, Zeng Guofan's brother Zeng Guoquan was able to enter the Taiping capital at Jinling (Present-day Nanjing) in 1864, toppling the Taiping Kingdom. Subsequently Zeng voluntarily asked for the cutting down of his Xiang Army , to avoid any speculation from the court that he planned revolt. The Nian Revolt was crushed in 1868, and was credited partly to Li Hongzhang's Huai Army . The end to two large revolts, however, did little to ensure stability within the Empire. There was increasing pressure from external powers.

In this political cartoon, China is being divided up by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan
In this political cartoon, China is being divided up by the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, France, and Japan

The Rule of Empress Dowager Cixi

By the 1860s, the Qing dynasty had put down the rebellions with the help of militia organized by the Chinese gentry. The Qing dynasty then proceeded to deal with problem of modernization, which it attempted with the Self-Strengthening Movement. Several modernized armies were formed including the much renowned Beiyang Army; however the fleets of "Beiyang" were annihilated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), which produced calls for greater and more extensive reform. After the start of the 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was in a dilemma. It could proceed with reform and thereby alienate the conservative gentry or it could stall reform and thereby alienate the revolutionaries. The Qing Dynasty tried to follow a middle path, but proceeded to alienate everyone.

In the late 19th century a new leader emerged. Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the mother of child emperor Tongzhi, and Aunt of Guangxu successfully controlled the Qing government and was the de facto leader of China for close to 40 years. She was known for her "behind the curtain" participation in politics.

10 years into the reign of Guangxu (r. 1875 - 1908), western pressure was so big on China that she forcefully gave up all sorts of power. In 1898 Guangxu attempted the Hundred Days' Reform (百日维新/戊戌变法), in which new laws were put in place and some old rules were abolished. Newer, more progressive-minded thinkers like Kang Youwei was trusted and recognized conservative-minded people like Li Hongzhang were removed from high positions. but the ideals were stifled by Cixi and Guangxu was jailed in his own palace. Cixi, on the other hand, only concentrated on her own power and well being. At the occasion of her 60th Birthday she spend over 30 million taels of silver for the decorations & events, an unthinkable amount even by today's terms.

In 1901, following the murder of the German Ambassador, the Alliance of Eight Nations (八國聯軍) entered China as a united military force for the second time. Cixi reacted by declaring war on all eight nations, only to see Beijing under their control within a short period of time. Along with the Guangxu Emperor, she fled to Xi'an. As a military compensation, the Alliance listed scores of demands on the Qing Government, including an initial hitlist which had Cixi as No. 1. Li Hongzhang was sent to negotiate and the Alliance backed down from several of the demands.

Fall of the Dynasty

Mass civil disorder had also begun and continuously grown. Cixi and the Guangxu emperor both died in 1908, leaving a relatively powerless and unstable central authority. The eldest son of Zaifeng, Prince Chun, was appointed successor at age two, leaving Zaifeng with the regency. This was followed by the dismissal of General Yuan Shikai from his former positions of power. In late 1911 Zaifeng created the "Imperial Family Cabinet", a ruling council of the Imperial Government almost entirely consisting of Aisin Gioro relatives. This brought a wide range of negative opinion from senior officials like Zhang Zhidong .

The Wuchang Uprising succeeded on October 10th, 1911, this was followed by a proclamation of a separate central government in Nanjing with Sun Yat-sen as its provisional head. Numerous provinces began "separating" from Qing control. Seeing a desperate situation unfold, the Qing government brings an unwilling Yuan Shikai back to military power.

Republican forces continued in their campaigns to bring down the corrupt Qing government. Although such revolutions were unsuccessful at first, they led to mass violence and pressure that dismantled the central regime to a point where, finally and unexpectedly by most, in 1911, Sun Yat-sen and his alliance successfully brought down the powerless Qing Regime in the Xinhai Revolution, creating the Republic of China.

Qing society

Manchu males had the custom of braiding hair into a pigtail. During the Qing Dynasty, the Manchus enforced this custom onto the Han population, and any male who was seen without pigtail outdoors was to be beheaded.

Qing politics

The most important administrative body of the Qing dynasty was the Grand Council which was a body composed of the emperor and high officials.

The Qing dynasty was characterized by a system of dual appointments by which each position in the central government had a Manchu and a Han Chinese assigned to it. During the Qianlong Emperor's reign, for example, members of his family were distinguished by garments with a large circular emblem on the back, whereas a Han could only hope to wear clothing with a square emblem; this meant effectively that any guard in the court could immediately distinguish family members from the back view alone.

With respect to Mongolia, Tibet and Eastern Turkestan, the Qing Dynasty maintained a loose system of control, with the Qing emperor acting as Mongol Khan, patron of Tibetan Buddhism and supporter of Muslims and keeping a loose system of control.

How this system is best described remains a strong point of controversy because of its current political implications. Supporters of Chinese nationalism argue that Qing rule over these areas is best described as an extremely high degree of autonomy within a single nation-state, while supporters of Tibetan independence argue that the Qing dynasty was a personal union between many legs.

However, Qing policy changed with the establishment of Xinjiang province in 1884. In response to British and Russian military action in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Qing sent New Army units which performed remarkably well against Hongchongbong.

The abdication of the Manchu Emperor, who had integrated the Empire, inevitably led to the controversy about the status of the Qing outer territories. It was and remains the position of Mongols and Tibetan nationalists, that because they owed allegiance to the Qing monarch in a personal capacity, that with the abdication of the Qing, they owed no allegiance to the Chinese state. This position was rejected by the new Republic of China and subsequent People's Republic of China which have claimed that these areas remained integral parts of China. The Western powers accepted the latter theory, largely in order to prevent a scramble for China.

Qing military

The development of the Qing military system can be divided into two broad periods separated by the Taiping rebellion (1850 - 64). Early Qing military was organized around the Manchu banner system first developed by Nurhachi, and later expanded by Nurhachi's son Hong Taiji to include Mongolian and Chinese banners. These banner armies were supplemented by the Green Standard Army (綠營兵) which outnumbered banner troops by three to one. The Green Standard Army was made up of ethnic Han Chinese troops who had surrendered to the Manchus during their conquest of China, and led by a mixture of Banner and Green Standard officers. Both the banner troops and Green Standard were standing armies, paid for by central government. In addition, regional governors from provincial down to village level maintained their own irregular local militias for police duties and disaster relief. These militias were usually granted a small annual stipend for part time service obligations. They received very limited military drill if at all and were not considered combat troops.

Banner Armies were divided along ethnic lines, namely Manchurian and Mongolian. There existed a third branch of Chinese troops, consisting of those who had joined the Manchus before their conquest of China. However these Chinese bannermen were not regarded as equal to the other two branches due to their late addition to the Manchu cause, and also their Han Chinese ethnicity. After the conquest of Mainland China the military roles of the Chinese Banner troops were quickly subsumed by the Green Standard Army. The socio-military origins of the Banner system dictated that population within each branch and their sub-division into eight banners were hereditary and rigid, and only under special circumstances were social movements between banners permitted. In contrast, the Green Standard Army was originally intended to be a professional volunteer force, but during the protracted period of peace in China proper from the 18th to mid 19th centuries, recruits from established farming communities dwindled, due in part to Neo-Confucianism's negative stance on military careers. In order to maintain its numbers, the Green Standard Army began to internalize, and gradually became hereditary in practice.

After the conquest, the approximately 200,000 strong Manchu Banner Army was evenly divided; half was designated the Forbidden Eight Banner Army (jinlubaqi|禁旅八旗)and was stationed in Beijing. It served both as the capital's garrison and Qing government's main strike force. The remainder of the Banner troops was distributed to guard key cities in China. These were known as the Territorial Eight Banner Army (zhufanbaqi|駐防八旗). The Manchu rulers, keenly aware of their own minority status, reinforced a strict policy of racial segregation between the Manchus and Mongols from Han Chinese for fear of their being assimilated by Han culture while living in close proximity with the subjugated Han people. This policy applied directly to the Banner garrisons, most of which occupied a separate walled zone within the cities they were stationed at. In cities where there were limitation of space such as in Qingzhou (青州), a new fortified town was purposely erected to house the Banner garrison and their families. Beijing, being the imperial seat, was a special case: the Regent Dorgon ordered the entire Chinese population forcibly relocated to the southern suburbs. The walled city was portioned out to the remaining Manchu eight Banners, each responsibled for guarding a section of the city that surrounded the Forbidden City palace complex(紫禁城).

Due to their nomadic tradition, the Manchu and Mongolian Banner troops specialized in light cavalry operations rooted in organized hunting expeditions, while the Chinese Banner troops and Green Standards filled the roles of infantry, musketeers, artillery, and sappers. The policy of posting Banner troops as territorial garrison was not to protect but to inspire awe in the subjugated Chinese populace at the expense of their expertise as cavalry. As a result, after a century of peace and lack of training the Territorial Banner troops had deteriorated greatly in their combat worthiness. This is mirrored by a similar if slower decline in the Green Standard Army. In peace time, soldiering became merely a source of supplementary income. Soldiers and commanders alike neglected training in pursuit of their own economic gains. Corruption was rampant as regional commanders submitted pay and supply requisitions based on exaggerated head counts to the quartermaster department and pocketed the difference. When the Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1850s the Qing Court found out belatedly that both the Territorial Banner troops and Green Standards could not on their own put down even local rebellions let alone keep foreign invaders at bay.

The Qing military forces suffered a series of disastrous defeats at the hands of the Taiping rebels culminating in the loss of the city of Jinling (金陵) - present day Nanjing (南京). The fall of Jinling in 1853 saw the massacre of its entire Manchu garrison and their attached families in the city. Shortly thereafter rebel expeditionary forces penetrated as far north as the suburbs of Tianjin (天津). In desperation the Qing court ordered an ethnic Han Chinese mandarin Zhen Goufan (曾國藩)to reorganize the regional and village militias (Tuanyong|團勇,Xianyong|鄉勇) for defence against the Taiping rebels. The force Zhen created became known as "Xiang" Army (湘軍), named after the region it was raised. Xiang Army was a hybrid between local militia force and a standing army. It was better trained and led than local militias, but was paid for in most parts by regional coffers and funds its commanders - mostly Chinese gentries - could muster. Xiang Army and the Huai Army (淮军) that came after it collectively were called Yongying (勇營), a system built on the Neo-Confucian idea of binding the troops' loyalty to their immediate superiors and to the regions which they were raised. This gave the troops, at least in the short term, a higher level of esprit de corp. However in the long run it created more problems for the Qing government. Firstly, the Youngying signalled the beginning of the end of Manchu dominance in military matters. Secondly, its command structure fostered cronyism amongst regional army commanders and laid the seeds to warlordism.

By late 1800s, with China fast descending into a semi colonial state, even the most conservative elements in the Qing court could no longer ignore China's military weakness in contrast to the "barbarians" literally beating on its gates. The new western weaponry such as repeating rifles and steam driven dreadnoughts battleships rendered China's traditionally trained and equipped armies useless. Attempts were made to reform military institutions and to train certain units in westernized drills, tactics and weaponry. These units were collectively called the New Model Army (新式陸軍). The most successful was the Beiyang Army (北洋軍) under the overall supervision and control of the Chinese general, future Republic president and abortive emperor, Yuan Shikai (袁世凱).

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Last updated: 02-07-2005 16:58:35
Last updated: 02-28-2005 11:12:07