9 The Qing Dynasty

The Qing dynasty 清朝 (1644-1911 CE) is the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history. Its territorial expansion is one of the largest in history, ruling from the borders with Kazakhstan to the East China Sea, from today’s Mongolia to Bruma and Laos (see this map of 1820, and CC 225).

In order to understand how the Qing dynasty was established, we need to look at two areas.

One is Manchuria, north-east to Beijing, where the Manchu lived. They traced themselves back to the Jurchens, who ruled the northern area of today’s China and established the Jin Dynasty right next to the Song empire. The central figure in the 16th century is Nurgaci 努爾哈赤 (1559-1626 CE), who unified several independent units into a state and reestablished the Jin dynasty, known as Later Jin dynasty. His son Hong Taiji (r. 1626-1643) continues the father’s expansionist agenda, engaging with the Ming dynasty. Initially defeat, Hong’s troops got hands on Ming’s firearms, and learned to use them. Hong now had a strong able army, and in 1636 he gave a new name to his dynasty, Qing 清 (“pure”).

The second area is within the Ming dynasty. By the end of it, several groups organized and rebelled against the government. Li Zicheng (born Li Hongji 李鴻基) was peasant who lead a rebellion all the way to the capital, Beijing, and seized it in 1644. The general in charge for the defense of the Ming government, Wu Sangui 吳三桂 (1612-1678), decided to side with the Manchu coming from North to put down the peasants’ rebellions. The Manchu thus entered in Beijing in the same year, and massacred the peasants. The transition from Ming to Qing was very violent and it costed a lot of lives. Soon it was clear that to Wy Sangui and anyone that the Manchu were the new ruling power.

Taking the South however will require more years of battles and violence. Often considered the last great emperor, Kangxi 康熙 (r. 1662-1722) is credited with having transformed the empire into a unified, functioning machine. He made improvements both in the social structure, stopping massacres and organizing the army, and in the cultural sphere. He supported the literati, restoring the connection between government and elite class that was broken under the Ming founder Zhu Yangzhang, and funded many literary projects. The very famous Kangxi Dictionary 康熙字典 was done under his guidance. The radicals that we still use today to categorize Chinese characters were set up under his government.

The Qing dynasty is also famous for continuous and extensive contacts with Europeans, for better or worse. Thanks to the patronage of the Kangxi emperor, the art flourished, with painters traveling to East Asia from Europe. Giuseppe Castiglione 郞世寧, a Jesuit painter, lived in Beijing for decades under Kangxi and his two successors. He introduced the Qing dynasty to European tastes in painting, and learned the local styles. Europe was equally curious and celebrating the “Oriental” fashion. If you visit London’s Kew Gardens, you will see the Great Pagoda (circa 18th century) that was built not as a sign of appropriation but of celebration of this foreign style.

While trade and exchange of ideas flourished, much tension derived from desires for assertion. European empires such as the British one pushed to have access to markets and freedom to exchange, something that the Qing ruling court was trying to avoid. The Opium wars are one of the direct consequences of the Qing attempting to maintain control over economic exchanges along their southern borders, in direct conflict with European Empires’ colonialist agendas.

Eventually, the Qing dynasty fell like other dynasties before it for similar reasons: internal struggles and never-ending wars along too many borders. All of this was exacerbated by the violent intrusion of European powers.

The Attempts to Reform

The last phase of the Qing dynasty (1860s – 1911/12) saw an increase of crises on all fronts. The empire’s self-sufficiency was broken by foreigner forces. Starting with the 1840s, the empire was under pressure to adapt to the new global order established by colonizing empires. Internally, Han Chinese (now developing a sense of nationalism) began to identify the ruling Manchu as usurpers.

Literati and educated individuals, this time including women, began to push the throne for reforms. An attempt happened in 1898, during the period known as the Hundred Days’ Reform 戊戌變法. In these 103 days, several reforms were proposed and initial steps to implement were taken. Among these, the establishment of a schooling system in the entire empire; industrialization of the economy; the creation of a constitution and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy on the British and Japanese model; abandoning the study of the Confucian classics to focus more on mathematics and the sciences. In crafting these reforms, Kang Youwei 康有為 and Liang Qichao 梁啓超 had a particular prominent role, but several other thinkers such as Tan Sitong 譚嗣同 (1865-1898 CE) participated.

Initially, emperor Guangxu 光緒 agreed to these changes. But it all ended when his aunt, Empress Dowager Cixi 慈禧太后 took over the throne supported by conservatives and condemned the reformists. Kang Youwei fled to Japan and then Switzerland; Liang Qichao fled to Japan where he remained; Tan Sitong was executed. All these three advocated for the liberation of women and more equal roles in society. Yet the did so from their still privileged position. A female anarchist active mourned the same time, He-Yin Zhen 何殷震 (circa 1884-1920 CE), was one of the few voices who spoke clearly and correctly about the conditions of low-class and laboring women.


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