The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.) was the last Chinese Imperial dynasty (unless one accepts the slightly puckish claims of some historians that modern Communist rule should be considered the "Mao Dynasty"). It was the second major Chinese dynasty where the royal family was of non-Han descent, after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty; in this case they were Manchurians, which gives the dynasty its alternate title as the Manchu Dynasty.

Historical thought on the Qing is conflicted - on the one hand they held together a strong and prosperous central state and bureaucracy that maintained public works while keeping taxes relatively low, and presided over a cultural and artistic flowering, but on the other, their strong isolationism and resistance to government reform ultimately brought China to its knees, wracked by foreign domination and internal rebellion.

Modern scholarship and popular conception of the Qing has a certain, perhaps regrettable, tendency to focus on this later period of dissolution and indignity, especially the humiliating Opium Wars, to the exclusion of their earlier accomplishments. In particular, the current Chinese government tends to evoke images of this period as an example of why China must resist all attempts at foreign hegemonism (i.e., on the part of the United States).

The official life of the Qing, throughout the course of the dynasty, was marked by an extreme, arguably decadent, focus on protocol and formalism, no doubt prompted in part by the Manchurian Qing ruling class's mixed feelings about asssimilation into the dominant Han cultural milieu. The Qing set up two roughly parallel bureaucracies of Han and Manchu officials, with most real power being vested in the Manchus. They forced Chinese to alter their appearance and dress to Manchu fashions, attempted unsucessfully to restrict the practice of foot-binding, and adopted Tibetan Gelug ("Yellow Hat") Buddhism as the official state-supported religion.

As the power of the Qing waned, individual Emperors tended to be reduced to the status of expendable pawns of foreign governments, and tended to die younger and younger, usually as the result of foul play. The culmination of this trend was the coronation of Pu Yi, The Last Emperor (and subject of the excellent movie of the same name), at the ripe old age of three years, and his deposition two years later in 1911, at the time of the founding of the Chinese Republic.

Before they were emperors, the leaders of the Chien-Chou tribe in Manchuria defeated rival Manchu tribes.  Their khan, Nuerhachi, began to organize his realm as a bureaucracy similar to the Chinese Empire to the south.

Born Reigned   Name (Reign title)

1559 1583-1626 Nuerhachi (Nurhaci)
1592 1626-1643 Huangtaiji (Abahai)

Abahai continued his father's rule, conquering Korea and Inner Mongolia, capturing chinese and inviting others to organize his government better. When Abahai died, his brother Dorgon was offered overlordship, but refused, instead becoming regent for his nephew.

In the 1620's and 1630's, an economic depression caused by the influx of Spanish silver from the New World was made worse by a famine in the Yangtze valley.  A rebellion broke out.  Bandits led by Li Zicheng occuiped Beijing in 1644 and forced the last Ming emperor, Chong Zhen, to commit suicide. Wu Sangui, commander of the Ming troops stationed on the Great Wall, accepted assistance from Dorgon in ousting the rebels.  But the Manchu didn't leave, and Dorgon had his nephew crowned emperor. Dorgon died in 1650 and after a brief period of chaos was declared a usurper, and Qing Shi Zu ruled in his own right.

1638 1644-1662 Qing Shi Zu  (Sunzhi)
1654 1662-1723 Qing Sheng Zu (Kangxi)
1678 1723-1736 Qing Shi Zhong (Yongzheng)
1711 1736-1796 Qing Gao Zhong (Qianlong)
1760 1796-1821 Qing Ren Zhong (Jiaqing)
1782 1821-1851 Qing Xuan Zhong (Daoguan)
1831 1851-1862 Qing Wen Zhong (Xianfeng)
1856 1862-1875 Qing Mu Zhong (Tongzhi)
1871 1875-1909 Qing De Zhong (Guanxu)
     1889-1898 Qing Ci Xi ("Empress Dowager")
1906 1909-1911 Qing Xuan Tong Di (Pu Yi)

The Chinese tradition has long been rooted in a deep respect for, and, at times, total immersion in, the ways of the past; as the 20th century loomed, however, this way of thinking began to leave the Chinese people lagging hopelessly behind their European counterparts. Chinese resistance to modernization in weaponry left them devastated in the Opium Wars, and their lack of trade savvy and experience left them open to a different kind of devastation as the British trade machine grew rich off of the Chinese people's newfound chemical dependencies. Also, the growing factionalization within China opened further the floodgates through which the "foreign devils" might carve, with a knife of opium, the Chinese melon. An inability to adapt, both militarily and fiscally, to new circumstances, combined with growing societal chaos and dissatisfaction, proved fatal to the Qing's dynastic rule.

Though the Chinese military had on their side zealotry and devotion, they proved no match for European weaponry. During the Taiping Rebellion, followers were advised in a memorandum to "hurriedly arm [themselves] with gun, sword or spear," but the latter two seemed often to be the Chinese weapon of choice, in both the rebellions and the wars with European forces. When Chinese troops, armed with spears and martial arts, charged into battle with the British, they "were totally unprepared, and [they] completely underestimated their enemies' capabilities," according to historian Debra Soled. This failure to match the Westerners' superior might forced the Chinese to allow an even greater threat to Qing control: the trade and use of opium.

Inability to stem the flow of opium into the ports, streets, and lungs of China proved to be a second spear through the heart of the Chinese dragon. When Europe finally found a product that China demanded—opium—the traders that introduced the drug "seduced the Chinese people, and caused every province of the land to overflow with that poison," according to a letter written by a Chinese official at the time. Any major attempt by the Chinese to quell the opium trade was met by another opium war, ensuring that the next generation of Chinese would be transformed into unwilling customers. It is true that the British used deceptive business practices to get the first opium into China, but thanks to Chinese inability to stand up to the foreign devils, this scourge upon the Chinese people was able to cause the border freely.

The final downfall of Qing hegemony was its struggle to control problems within its own borders, on top of those without. Disputes and compartmentalization helped to further tear apart imperial rule, according to Soled: "Local villages were no longer safe from robbers and bandits... Both wealthy families and secret societies alike created self-defense forces, which also began to be used in disputes over the land." A surge of uprisings, including the Boxer and Taiping Rebellions, halped to further erode the emperor's power base.

The Qing dynasty's suzerainty was challenged, and finally demolished, by an inability to adapt to new military and trade circumstances, coupled with an increase in societal strife and and turmoil. Eventually, the ineffectual and unpopular Qing dynasty gave way to the epic struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek's KMT and Mao Zedong's CCP; these parties, though their ideologies were radically different, both embodied the same desire: to be free, once and for all, of the antiquated system of government that had served China for so many years but now was painfully unable to deal with the problems and situations with which China must deal if it was to take its place among the nations of the West.


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