The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was the last Chinese dynasty, and the longest dynasty ruled by foreigners (the Manchus from Manchuria, northeast of the Great Wall).
The Qing Dynasty had the most overseas contact, though it was mostly resisted. China glories in the prosperity of the Qing Golden Age, but remembers with shame the forced trade and unequal treaties later in the Qing era.
Simple Facts to Understand the Qing Dynasty
- The Manchu-led Qing Dynasty was preceded by the Han-led Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
- The Qing capital was Beijing, where emperors continued to rule from the Forbidden City.
- In the age of exploration/colonialization, China remained isolated and expanded its borders and population.
- In the age of industrialization, China remained traditional and undeveloped.
- The dynasty prospered initially, but became increasingly fraught with disasters and attacks toward the end.
- It lasted 268 years, the fifth longest imperial dynasty, despite many uprisings against the Manchu rulers.
- It was followed by the Republic of China era (1912–1947).
Qing Origins — The Rise of the Manchus (220–1644)
The Manchus lived northeast of the Great Wall, which had stopped a large invasion of theirs for the majority of the imperial era (221 BC – 1911 AD).
The Manchus Were Originally Jurchen Tribes (220–1582)
After the Han Dynasty (220 AD), Jurchens had grown in power and ruled China in the Jin Dynasty era (265–420).
They were kept north of the Great Wall in subsequent dynasties, and were conquered by the Mongols of the Yuan Empire (1279–1368). The Mongols and the Jurchens were then driven north of the Great Wall by the Han Chinese of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Nurhaci United the Manchus (1559–1626)
The Manchus emerged as a people when a Jurchen tribal ruler named Nurhaci started to conquer other Jurchen tribes in 1582. They subjugated the Mongols, and absorbed their troops. In a similar way to Genghis Khan, he utilized the manpower and knowledge of the people he conquered.
In 1625, Nurhaci conquered the Ming city of Shenyang and made it the Manchurian capital. The Ming cities gave his empire a greater base of population, and the Manchu empire absorbed them. You can still see the early Manchu rulers’ Shenyang Imperial Palace today.
Hong Taiji Continued the Attack (1626–1643)
Nurhaci’s successor was his son, who was named Hong Taiji. He continued the attack on the Ming Empire, strengthening his artillery with European technology, and Ming-technician-cast cannon. He created his own artillery corps in 1634.
His empire was called the Later Jin Dynasty 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. Hong Taiji died in 1643, and his son Fulin led the Manchus.
Ming Rebels Take Beijing (1643–1644)
While facing Manchu attacks from the north the Ming Dynasty were also faced with civil rebellion. Li Zicheng emerged as the leader of the whole Chinese rebel army and took Beijing with little resistance in 1644.
Great Wall Gates Opened to The Manchus (1644)
However, when Li Zicheng sent an army to attack Ming General Wu Sangui and his army, who were guarding the Great Wall against the Manchus at Shanhai Pass, instead of surrendering to the Chinese rebels, Wu Sangui sided with the Manchus and let them through the gates of the Great Wall.
Then the Manchus swept aside the rebels and the last of the Ming Dynasty resistance, conquering Beijing in 1644.
The Beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644)
In 1644, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty had hanged himself after the capital was conquered, and China was in chaos for months. The Qing (Jurchen, Mongol, and Ming) army swept south.
In October 30, 1644, about 5 months after the Qing army occupied the capital, Hong Taiji’s son Fulin became the Emperor Shunzhi, and he announced the new dynasty was founded.
Emperor Shunzhi (ruled 1644–1661)
Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661) was a 5-year-old when his father died in 1643 and he was named emperor. 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.
The Regent Dorgon Led the Government (1643-1650)
Dorgon was the regent and ruled on behalf of the child emperor. When Dorgon died in 1650, Emperor Shunzhi started to rule personally when he was 13 until he died at 24 in 1661.
His policies of reappointing the Ming officials helped the empire to stabilize and prosper. The Manchus did not destroy Beijing and decimate the population as was commonly done. Instead, they persuaded Ming officials and military leaders to surrender to them.
The Hairstyle Massacre (1645)
In 1645, Dorgon decreed that Ming men must shave away their hair apart from Manchu-style pigtails. This started the queue hairstyle that is seen in movies about the Qing Empire.
This hairstyle was humiliating, but helped him to identify resisters. According to Confucius, we are given our body, skin and hair from our parents, which we ought not to damage. Traditionally adult Han people did not cut their hair.
Dorgon said, “Keep your hair, lose your head; keep your head, cut your hair.” Tens of thousands who resisted were massacred.
But opinions about the queue did change over time. After 286 years people had accepted it, and when the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912 many people refused the new government’s call to cut their queue!
Imperial Examinations Continued (1646–1911)
In 1646, Dorgon reestablished the imperial examinations, held every three years, and in this way, he gained the support of large numbers of literati and the bureaucracy.
A problem in the empire increasingly became the lack of modern education. The empire concentrated on Imperial Examinations, studying ancient philosophical and religious texts.
The Qing rulers did little to promote the knowledge of the world. Instead, they were isolationist.
Emperor Kangxi — the Qing Golden Age Begins (ruled 1661–1722)
The reigns of emperors Kangxi and Qianlong was the richest period in the all Chinese feudal dynasties. It is well-known in China as the “Kang-Qian flourishing age”.
After Emperor Shunzhi’s death, 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 61-year rule he set the policy direction for the empire and stabilized it.
Restricted Foreign Trade (1661–1840)
The Ming Empire developed a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to internal trade and industry. But under Emperor Kangxi and his successors, the court more carefully controlled commerce and industry and monopolized important industries, reverting to the economic policies of earlier dynasties. Emperor Kangxi only allowed foreign businessman to trade with Chinese in four cities: Guangzhou, Xiamen, Songjian, and Ningbo.
3 Reasons Why the Qing Dynasty Banned Foreign Trade:
1. The Chinese ruling class believed that China was the greatest empire — the ‘Middle Kingdom’ — and scorned outsiders.
2. The Manchu rulers didn’t want the Han in coastal areas to grow stronger through trade with foreigners.
3. The Qing government was angered by foreign ambassadors’ “impoliteness” — the ambassadors refused to kneel to the ruling class.
Emperor Yongzheng — The Golden Age Continues (ruled 1723–1735)
Emperor Kangxi had a lot of sons by different women, but Emperor Yongzheng (1668–1735) the fourth prince was named as successor in his will. Less well known than his father and son, he continued the Qing’s prosperous period with efficiency.
Emperor Qianlong — End of the Golden Age (ruled 1735–1796)
Emperor Yongzheng’s son was named Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799). He officially reigned for 61 years as Kangxi did. But he actually reigned till his death in 1799. His court was successful early in his reign, but he later his greed set the empire on an unfavorable course.
China’s Huge Prosperity and Growth
Qianlong’s reign was the most prosperous in the Qing Dynasty, and the population grew quickly to about 300 million. However foreign trade was restricted to only Guangzhou (Canton) at one point.
The empire grew larger, as they subdued Tibet and the Xinjiang regions, inheriting Mongolia from the dynasties founders, and wiping out the Dzungars (a large Mongolian tribe of hundreds of thousands). The land area of the Qing empire was second only to the Yuan Empire’s in size.
Huge Growth in Chinese Literature
The Qing era’s main literary accomplishments were extremely large encyclopedias and compendiums of literature comprised of hundreds of volumes and popular 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. See more on The History of Chinese Literature.
Qianlong’s Greed Brought Decline (1765–1799)
However, Emperor Qianlong grew greedy. After his victories in the west, he tried to conquer the kingdoms of Burma and Vietnam from 1765 to 1769 and failed at a great cost to the empire.
In his later years he indulged in luxuries, sex, and palaces, leaving court matters to corrupt officials. Discontent against Qing rule increased, and people arose in rebellion over heavy taxation. His isolationist actions towards Europeans kept the people from adopting technology and scientific knowledge, and set the stage for later inadequacy and invasions.
Emperor Jiaqing (ruled 1796–1820) — Qing Decline Began
During the 1800s, the dynasty seemed somewhat successful because the population kept growing and the territory stayed intact, but the empire modernized too slowly, and the ruling court dealt poorly with a rapidly changing world and numerous uprisings.
A Great Missionary Age (c. 1800–1912)
Protestant evangelical Christianity was introduced by Western missionaries, and tens of thousands of Chinese converted.
The missionaries set up numerous schools and hospitals, educating tens of thousands of students and educating doctors and nurses in Western medicine. They also set up colleges and universities. See more on Christianity in China.
Emperor Daoguang (ruled 1821–1851) — War with Europe
The Trade Wars and Opium Wars (1838, 1854)
In the 1800s, Europeans easily defeated the Qing army and navy, and forced the Qing to give them trading ports.
The British wanted greater Qing Empire trade, but the Qing court wanted to keep out British opium and influence. Britain defeated China twice in 1838 and 1854 (the Opium Wars) to force trade treaties, and gained Hong Kong until 1997 under the Treaty of Nanking of 1842.
Emperor Xianfeng (ruled 1851–1861) — Many Rebellions Started
From 1796 until the end of the dynastic era, the Qing court faced rebellion after rebellion, but they defeated or thwarted all of them. This was however at great cost to the population and the Qing grip on power.
The Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864) — 25,000,000 Died!
The leader of the Taiping Rebellion was Hong Xiuquan. His quasi-Christian movement had some forward-thinking ideals which the Qing Dynasty disagreed with (he banned slavery, men using concubines, arranged marriages, opium use, foot binding, torture, and the worship of idols, and he wanted women to have more equality in society).
He made Nanjing his capital, and his army seemed ready to attack Beijing. However, Britain and France sent troops to aid the Qing army. In 13 years, about 25 million people died. It is thought to be the second bloodiest war in history after WWII.
3 More Rebellions and Wars (1854–1873)
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.
The Hakka people and the Punti people in the southeast fought a long ethnic war between the years 1855 and 1867.
The Panthay Rebellion was a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan that lasted from 1855 to 1873, in which about a million people died.
Empress Dowager Cixi (ruled 1861–1908)
Empress Dowager Cixi’s son (Emperor Tongzhi) “reigned” from 1862 to 1874, and her nephew (Emperor Guangxu) “ruled” from 1875 to 1908. But it is said that she was the real ruler during this long and crucial period of time.
How Cixi Gained and Retained Power
The Empress Dowager (1835–1908) started to rule after British and French troops attacked Beijing and destroyed the Summer Palace in 1860. It’s said that Emperor Xianfeng then fell into a depression, and as a result died in 1861, making Cixi (his concubine and son’s mother) an empress dowager to help his son rule.
To maintain and gain power at the top, Cixi was ruthless in a dangerous court situation where assassinations and plots were the way of life. She had to maintain the traditional system, although this cost millions of lives and kept the empire from progressing.
Muslim’s Revolt in the North (1864–1877) — Millions Killed
With several other large rebellions and wars happening around the Qing Empire, the Dungan Revolt involved a large region in the central north.
It was partly a war between three Muslim sects, aiming to establish a regional Muslim kingdom. However, many Muslims fought with the Qing army, who cleared the Gansu Corridor of Muslims to prevent Muslims in Xinjiang and central China uniting. Several million people were killed.
Huge Famines (1876–1879 and 1907) — Around 35,000,000 Died
The Northern Chinese Famine killed about 10 percent 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.
The 1907 Chinese Famine killed about 25 million people. These were two of the biggest famines in world history.
The Great Yellow River Flood (1887) Killed 1–2 Million
Big floods helped to weaken the Qing dynasty. One of the world’s biggest natural disasters was the Yellow River flood of 1887. It is thought that between 1 to 2 million people died.
Loss of the Mandate of Heaven?
The Chinese believed that Heaven (worshipped at the Temple of Heaven) would show when a dynasty was to end, and no longer had the support of Heaven, by natural omens like famines, floods, and earthquakes. This belief caused increasing unrest in the empire.
Economic Crisis in the Late 1800s
After the rebellions and wars in the middle 1800s, and the natural disasters in the late 1800s, the survivors faced foreign economic competition with little outside scientific knowledge. Due to modernization and imports like cotton clothes, a lot of people lost their work. Railroads and some early factories made traditional (e.g. canal) work obsolete.
By 1900 it’s said imports were worth four times more than exports, in sharp contrast to the Qing Golden Era when Chinese products were highly valued worldwide.
The Japanese Took Taiwan and Liaoning (1894–5)
The Japanese modernized remarkably quickly in the latter part of the 19th century, and started to attack the Qing Empire and take territories for colonies.
The Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), and the Japanese made Formosa (Taiwan) and Liaoning (the northeast corner of China, i.e. Manchuria, once the Manchu homeland) a part of their empire. Taiwan became an industrial colony.
Emperor Guangxu Imprisoned by Cixi (1898)
In 1898, the Empress Dowager blocked her nephew from reforming the government and imprisoned him. He died from arsenic poisoning in 1908. People suspect that Cixi killed him the day before she died. Some suspect she was poisoned too.
The Boxer Rebellion (1900)
In 1900, a rebellion started among the poor, led by people who studied martial arts, so 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, so the leaders supported the Qing Dynasty.
It became an anti-Christian movement, with tens of thousands of converts killed and tortured. Then Cixi declared war on foreigners, and the Boxers marched against the foreigners in Beijing. Foreign armies then defeated the Qing troops and the Boxers.
The Origin of “China’s Harvard”
The US sent a detachment of troops in the war against the Boxers, and the Qing court was forced to pay war reparations to the US. The US used these funds to build Tsinghua University, now China’s top-ranking institution.
The Last Emperor (presided 1908–1912)
In 1908, when Cixi and the emperor suddenly died, Puyi became “the last emperor” — 2-year-old Emperor Xuantong. The empire’s official ruler was a prince regent Zaifeng, Puyi’s father.
In the early 1900s, Sun Yatsen had traveled around the world to organize a revolution against the Qing Dynasty. His 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 Shikai to be president. In this way, the Qing Empire ended in 1912, and so began the turbulent Republic of China era.