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Qing Dynasty

Duration: 1644~1911
Capital: Beijing

In 1644, China fell under the rule of an ethnic minority group named the Manchus. The time of this last Chinese dynasty is so close to the present day that many Chinese find themselves most familiar with the course, or at least fragments, of its history. An average Chinese peasant family may easily trace its descent up to the reign of a certain Qing emperor, relating for example, “the grandfather of my great grandfather moved from Shandong to this village during the reign of Emperor Daoguang.” And it is something admirable for someone today to own a set of Chinese chess pieces that were once played by some other emperor.
Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Beijing Opera took shape in the Qing Dynasty.

Founding of Qing Dynasty

The Qing regime started from a Jurchen clan, the Aisin Gioro, in northeast China. Originally a vassal of the Ming Empire, the Aisin Gioro clan began unifying the Jurchen clans under khan Nurhachi and challenging Ming overlordship. A unified Manchu people was formed on the basis of the various Jurchen tribes, and the Ming forces had been forced out of Liaoning by 1635. The peasant uprising led by Li Zicheng toppled the Ming Dynasty in 1644. The Manchus took the opportunity by allying with Wu Sangui, the former Ming general stationed at Shanhai Pass, crushed Li Zicheng’s rebel forces, and seized capital Beijing. Further efforts of conquest wars followed to complete the Qing’s annexation of China proper (including Taiwan).

Unlike the Yuan Dynasty where discrimination against Han Chinese was an official institution, the Qing embraced Han Chinese culture, prominently Confucian ethics. All the Qing emperors after making Beijing its capital were well-versed in Chinese traditional culture. Emperor Qianlong, for example, was proud of his Chinese calligraphy and poetry. Besides inheriting the Ming capital Beijing, the Qing Empire copied most elements of the Ming state (e.g. the law code), and the imperial civil service examinations continued to be the almost exclusive way of drafting officials to the bureaucracy. For the ordinary Chinese populace, life did not change much except their looks – men were ordered to shave the forehead and wear a long queue.
Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Calligraphy by Emperor Qianlong, who was proud of his education in Han Chinese culture. The Qing rulers open-mindedly embraced Han Chinese culture.

Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Man with a clean-shaven forehead and a long queue and woman dressed in Manchu-style garment. A representative image of Qing Dynasty Chinese folk.

Qing Dynasty Emperors

In stark contrast with their predecessors in the Ming Dynasty, most Qing emperors were diligent in managing state affairs. It is said that they usually got up between four and five o’clock every morning to study, do morning exercises, take dinner, and prepare for the daily imperial meeting which started at nine. Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1722~1735) left a record 30 million written characters in replying to memoirs submitted by his ministers, and probably died from an excessively heavy workload.

The Qing Dynasty boasts the emperor with the longest reign in Chinese history – Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661~1722), who reigned for 61 years. Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735~1795), his grandson, could have surpassed him, but opted to “retire” in the 60th year of his reign in favour of Emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796~1820).
Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty HistoryQing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Emperor Kangxi, who held the record long duration of reign over the entire history of Imperial China.

Emperor Qianlong reigned for 60 years, second only to his grandfather Kangxi.

The Chinese folk tend to remember certain Qing Emperors by circulating folk tales centering on them. Emperor Qianlong, for example, are known to the Chinese populace today for the legendary stories that arose from his inspection tours to the Jiangnan (meaning south of the Yangtze River) regions, during which romantic affairs, anecdotes, etc took place. Popular TV dramas & films often use the reigns of Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong as their backdrop.
Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty HistoryQing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Popular TV dramas featuring legendary stories centered around Qing Emperor Qianlong. Qing Dynasty is a frequently-used backdrop for popular literature and TV dramas & films. Some actors/actresses became a wild hit known to every Chinese household.

Late Qing Dynasty: embarking on the road to modernity

The Qing Dynasty marked the final high point of China’s imperial times. National population is estimated at over 300 million by the end of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1795), and was to grow further to 400 million by the fall of the Dynasty. This was clearly a population explosion given the fact that most former dynasties recorded populations from 30 million to 200 million at the most. High-yield crops such as potatoes and corn were introduced into China, partly relieve the pressure on food supply.

Yet behind the glittering prosperity of the Qing Empire lay the threat from outside. Though having created a glorious ancient culture and civilization, the Chinese were falling behind in a global perspective, having made little advance in the production methods over the past thousand years. The Western world stepped into the Industrial Age, while China remained in the dream of being the most glorious nation and kept the door closed for exchanges with the West. Macartney Embassy (1793) to Beijing, a delegation sent by King George III of England, failed to impress Emperor Qianlong with examples of the latest European technologies. And four decades later, the British were to open the Chinese market by war, known as the Opium War (1838~1842, waged on the dispute over a Chinese ban on opium smuggling into China). In the six decades that followed until its final collapse, the Qing Dynasty suffered constant defeats and humiliations in the conflicts with the Western powers, and had to sign one unequal treaty after another. Provisions of these treaties often involve annexation of land, reparation of war costs, and concession of sovereignty.
Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

While England was under the reign of Queen Victoria, China was ruled by Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the target of much criticism for her conservatism.

Calls for reforms surfaced, and the Qing government did carry out some reforms in a bid to salvage the Empire from the danger of being annexed. The Chinese began to learn from the West, introducing modern sciences and technologies and building up their own industries and a new army. At a time, a Beiyang Fleet was established (mainly through purchasing warships from Germany and Britain), then the strongest in Asia. Western influences were to reshape the way of life of Chinese citizens, especially in such modern cities like Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, etc.

Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

The Beiyang Fleet was representative of the achievements of the late Qing’s learning from the West.

The Bund, Shanghai, by late Qing Dynasty. Western influences on Chinese populace’s way of life began with the metropolises of Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, Guangzhou, etc.

However, much of these modernization efforts turned out in vain, as China continued to suffer defeats in wars against Japan (1894~95) and against a coalition of eight powers (1900~1901), each incurring astronomical amounts of reparation along with annexation of territory. Disappointed Chinese reformers turned more radical, blaming the misfortunes of the nation on the Manchu rule and the decadent political culture. Many revolutionary societies, notably one led by Dr. Sun Yatsen, were organized overseas, bankrolling and masterminding murders, uprisings and rebellion at home. The Wuchang Uprising (1911) sounded the death knell for the Qing Dynasty. Independence was declared in most southern provinces, and the Republic of China was founded. With the promise of being elected President, Yuan Shikai, former commander of the Qing’s new army, forced the Qing court to abdicate, formally giving way to the Republican era of China.

Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Qing Dynasty Culture, Qing Dynasty History

Puyi, the last Qing Emperor, acceded to the throne at the age of only three, and was to abdicate three years later in 1911.

After abdication, Puyi (middle) and his family were allowed to go on living in the Forbidden City, until in 1925 when Lu Zhonglin (left), a general under warlord Feng YuXiang, forced him to move out on a rather short notice. The two were later to meet after the founding of People’s Republic of China (1949), and both men put all unhappy memories behind and laughed.


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