An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Qing Dynasty 清 (1644-1911)

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) was the last imperial dynasty in China. It was founded as a federation of non-Chinese tribes under the leadership of the Manchus who originally lived in the northeast, a region later called Manchuria.

The Manchus profited from the disintegration of the central government of the Ming empire 明 (1368-1644) to conquer China. They established a political system that successfully used Chinese values to administer a multi-ethnic empire. The Manchu federation was organized militarily in the Eight Banners (baqi 八旗), whose members had hereditary privileges and lived in "Manchu towns" in Beijing (the "Tartar City") and most provincial capitals. The early Qing court rewarded Chinese collaborators like Wu Sangui 吳三桂 with highest privileges and gave them feudatories in southwest China. Three feudatories rose in rebellion (sanfan zhi luan 三藩之亂), and only after the termination of this uprising, the Qing dynasty was the master of China proper.

Yet still, its emperors had to win the confidence of the scholarly Chinese elite, particularly that of the lower Yangtze region. Imperial inspection tours (nanxun 南巡) therefore played an important role in Qing policy. Another issue was the decision in 1712 to freeze "eternally" the tax levied from the peasant population. Tax remissions and the care for disaster relief also belong to the policy of "benevolent government".

The early and high Qing emperors with the reign mottos Kangxi 康熙 (1662-1722), Yongzheng 雍正 (1723-1735) and Qianlong 乾隆 (1736-1795) were patrons of arts and literature. They also substantially expanded the territory of China by exterminating their chief enemies in the west, the Oirats or Dzungars (Western Mongols), and by conquering the Uyghur city states (modern Xinjiang), Tibet and the island of Taiwan. Qing China was in 1795 the largest, most populous and most powerful empire of the world, and when the British envoy Lord Macartney came to China in 1792, the Qianlong Emperor boasted of not needing any merchandize or techniques from abroad.

At the end of the eighteenth century increasing problems began to haunt China. Monetary inflation and rampant corruption among the officialdom (the most notorious case being that of the Bannerman Hešen 和珅) led to numerous peasant rebellions. The long period of peace had contributed to a sharp increase in population growth. Ever more people were not able to nourish themselves. Qing China was caught in the so-called "high equilibrium trap" (Mark Elvin) with a relatively high agricultural productivity without technical progress.

The White Lotus rebellion in central China (1794-1805) demonstrated that the civilian as well as the military administration of the Qing were inefficient, yet no decisive reforms were carried out.

Very cautious towards the sea and its dangers (mainly pirates), the Qing - like their predecessors, the Ming - were hesitant in the question of promoting international trade. The government allowed foreigners to purchase tea, silk and chinaware, but only in one single port, Canton (Guangzhou 廣州, Guangdong). Annoyed by the "Canton System", British and merchants from other nations requested to open more trade ports. The question of opium smuggling was then the spark igniting a series of wars in which Western powers "opened" China for trade and religious mission. The First Anglo-Chinese War (better known as the First Opium War, 1839-1842) was closed with the first of the so-called "unequal treaties" in which China was made a "semi-colony" of Western powers, including France, Russia, the US, and later also Germany and Japan.

While China had been admired during the period of Enlightenment (compare the trend of "chinoiserie" in the 18th cent.), it was in 19th century a victim of imperialism. The climax was the Boxer rebellion in 1900 when the government supported popular attacks on foreign ambassadors.

Qing China's society was turned "upside down" (Lin Man-Houng), and these problems exploded in the large rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping (Taiping tianguo 太平天國, 1851-1864) that nearly brought the Qing dynasty to an end. The rebellion was the trigger for first reforms in the military field, carried out by competent and highly autonomous governors-general like Li Hongzhang 李鴻章, Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 and Zeng Guofan 曾國藩. The "self-strengthening movement" aimed at adopting Western science and technology, but only in the field of ordnance and steamships, not in the light industry. Reforms in the political system were only effected very hesitatingly, for instance, with the creation of a Foreign Ministry (zongli yamen 總理衙門) in 1862.

A reform movement in 1898, inspired by the scholar Kang Youwei 康有為, was aborted by the conservative faction at the court, supported by Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后. Only from 1905 on the Qing government allowed the creation of "modern" universities and provincial parliaments. In the meantime, radical thinkers had taken over the field of political discussion. Some of them blamed the Qing dynasty for its inability to cope with the challenges of a technologically superior world outside, and used racist arguments to wipe away the Manchu dynasty. Others, lead by Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan 孫中山), advocated revolution.

In October 1911, a mini-revolution in Wuhan, Hubei, initiated the disintegration of the empire and the foundation of the Republic of China (1912-1949).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Qing period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.