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History

What happened to China’s Qing dynasty?


By Pryaltonian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Imperial China has a long and illustrious history. It is a civilisation that began with the Shang dynasty in 1250 BC and lasted until the Qing dynasty that fell in 1912.

The last emperor to rule China was Puyi, whose regnal name was Xuantong Emperor. He came to the throne in 1908 at two-years-old and ruled until February 1912, when he was forced to abdicate. During that time, imperial China was replaced by the Republic of China.

The Qing dynasty was declining for some time. The dynasty’s peak years were under the reign of Kangxi Emperor, who ruled from 1661 to 1722. At its zenith, the dynasty was a regional superpower that had control over neighbouring areas such as Japan and Korea. By the time of the mid-nineteenth century, the dynasty faced some of its greatest challenges that would threaten the civilisation. 

There are several reasons for the decline of the Qing dynasty. Of the many reasons, some of the issues had to do with internal stability, while others had to do with the threat from Western powers. Below are some of the causes that brought about the end of the Qing dynasty.

Manchu Dominance

According to Kallie Szczepanski, when the Qings from Manchuria invaded China, there was a significant disconnect between the invaders and the Chinese-speaking people. They established themselves as outside invaders with a distinct culture and way of life from the beginning. They were separated by language, customs, religion, and social expectations. One group was the conquerors, whereas the other group was the conquered. This barrier is something that existed throughout the Qing dynasty, and it was a cause for major unrest. During this period, numerous rebellions broke out.

Early Rebellions

The White Lotus Rebellion, which lasted from 1794 until 1804, was led by the White Lotus Society, a religious group that believed in the imminent return of Buddha. According to Jonathan Spence, the millenarian Buddhists fomented the rebellion, which had its beginnings in the poor provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Initially starting in the mountainous region between the three provinces, the motivating factors for this rebellion were social and economic discontent resulting from taxes. Eventually, this rebellion was defeated by the Qings, resulting in many deaths. The people learned an important lesson, that the Manchu military was not as powerful as it once was, according to Yingcong Dai.

The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813 was founded by the Sect of Heavenly Order, an offshoot group of the White Lotus Society. The leaders of the rebellion, Lin Qing and Li Wencheng, believed they were on a great mission to challenge the Qing dynasty, according to Dorothy Perkins. Lin Qing declared that he was the reincarnation of long-awaited Buddha Maitreya, says Perkins.

Li Wencheng, on the other hand, called himself “the true lord of the Ming,” states Bruce Elleman. The uprising, which had its beginning in Henan, Zhili, and Shandong provinces, ultimately failed. When the uprising attacked the imperial palace on 15 December 1813, the future emperor Prince Mianning utilised his musket against the invaders. In this rebellion, it became abundantly clear that the people started to believe that the Qing dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven. According to Kallie Szczepanski, the Mandate of Heaven was the belief that the emperor was the “son of Heaven” who possessed the right to rule China.

Western Interference and the Opium Wars

One issue that imperial China dealt with was the interference of western nations which were determined to make a profit. By nature, China was an isolationist nation that wanted to be left alone. Kallie Szczepanski explains that the Qing dynasty sought to maintain the status quo with the heavenly mandate, thus holding onto power. To that end, they put a heavy restriction on trade and refused to trade with the Western nations.

The British, during the rule of Queen Victoria, had a robust tea industry, according to Szczepanski. Since this was the case, they attempted to initiate trade with the Qing dynasty but failed in doing so. The dynasty would only trade with the British under one condition: they pay for the tea with either gold or silver. The British at first agreed to this, but eventually, they became frustrated and looked for another way around it. This was when they introduced an opium trade with its pernicious effects. With the trade taking place between British-occupied India and Canton, in China, the Opium Wars soon broke out. There were two Opium Wars: 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.

With Britain and France winning both wars, the Qing dynasty suffered substantially. According to Taylor Wallbank, the British imposed treaties on the Chinese, which made it compulsory for them to open trading ports where they traded with Western nations. In losing these wars, it became abundantly clear that China longer was the powerful nation it once was, writes Kallie Szczepanski. Additionally, China lost a great deal of land. According to Szczepanski, France took control of Southeast Asia (thus creating French Indochina), and Japan seized Taiwan and Korea. Needless to say, a great deal of the trade was now controlled by imperialistic Western nations.

The Boxer Rebellion

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Between the years 1899 and 1901, the Boxer Rebellion began in China. Started by the Harmonious Fist secret society, it was a movement that was anti-foreigner, anti-imperialist, and anti-Christian. According to the editors at History.com, the Boxers (the name they were given by Great Britain) stole the property of Christians and actively killed foreigners. 

Empress Dowager Cixi, the most powerful person in all of imperial China, maintained a strict isolationist stance and exiled all modernisers from the imperial court, states Kallie Szczepanski. Cixi, who was not always hostile to the Western nations, decided to side with the Boxers on declaring war on imperialist nations. This resulted in further tragedy for the Qing dynasty since the Boxers lost. The Western nations executed government members and continued to impose restrictions upon them.

By Unidentified photographer – originally uploaded on en.wikipedia by Hardouin (talk · contribs) on 5 October 2004. The new versions 20066218242.jpg of 溥仪复辟朝服照, from 《中国历代人物图像数据库》., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Twilight Years

When Cixi died in 1908, Xuantong Emperor came to the throne. He would be emperor for only four years before being removed. According to Kallie Szczepanski, the Qing dynasty tried to hold onto power as long as it could, even banning words like “revolution” from textbooks and suppressing modernising tendencies. On 12 February 1912, the Xinhai Revolution began, resulting in an end to the Qing dynasty and the start of the Republic of China.