Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in Decline

Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in Decline
Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty in Decline

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was the last of 24 dynasties in Chinese history and one of the most successful. The transition from its predecessor the Ming dynasty, was one of the least disruptive in Chinese history. In the territory it controlled the Qing was the second largest in Chinese history, after the Mongol Yuan dynasty.

The Qing is also called the Manchu dynasty, after the ethnic origin of the ruling house. The Manchus were frontier people from northeastern China; they were originally nomadic but as frontier vassals of the Ming had learned agriculture and Chinese ways before 1644.

Although the Manchus maintained a privileged status for their people, they nevertheless gained the support of their majority Han Chinese subjects by upholding Chinese institutions and assimilating to Chinese culture. China enjoyed a century and half of prosperity under three capable and long reigning early Qing emperors, Kangxi (K’ang-hsi), Yongzheng (Yung-cheng), and Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung).

Qing dynastic fortune began to decline toward the end of the Qianlong reign partly due to the emperor’s failing ability as he aged, allowing corruption to flourish. There were, however, longer-term reasons beyond Qianlong’s or anyone’s control that led to the turn of dynastic fortunes.

One was the demographic disaster. Over a century of peace led to an unprecedented explosion in population, which tripled in two centuries from approximately 150 million in 1650 to about 450 million in 1850 while arable land rose from 5.27 million qing (ch’ing) in 1661 to 7.9 million in 1812 (1 qing = 15.13 acres).

Thus food production did not keep up with population increase despite the introduction of new crops— maize, sweet potatoes, and peanuts—and improved farming techniques. The result was the decreasing size of farms and the migration of poor farmers to cities, where there were no factories to absorb them. This domestic crisis was made worse by the opium problem.

Other causes of dynastic decline included the corruption and loss of martial spirit of the once powerful Manchu banner army. Mounting domestic problems that overwhelmed the later Manchu rulers fueled a revival of anti-Manchu sentiments that had never died out, especially in southern China.

From before the common era trade between China and the West had been primarily overland, across Eurasia via the Silk Road. Portuguese traders who first arrived on the coast by sea in the 16th century supplanted the overland trade, and China accumulated a surplus due to European demand for Chinese silks, tea, and porcelain. Westerners eventually found a profitable item to sell to the Chinese: opium.

By the 18th century Great Britain had gained primacy as China’s trading partner and primary seller of opium, which the British East India Company produced in Bengal, India. Increasing Chinese addiction to opium, and the government’s inability to prohibit its import created an unfavorable balance of trade for China, in addition to moral and public health crises.

The incompatible Chinese and Western views of the world order, diplomatic relations, and international law resulted in wars between China and Great Britain and France, called Opium Wars by China, in the mid-19th century. Defeats led to the signing of dictated treaties that opened up China on Western terms and the imposition of extraterritorial rights for Westerners in China, plus territorial losses and indemnities.

Belatedly, the Qing government responded with limited adoption of Western-style reforms beginning in the 1860s. Loyalists and reformers saved the dynasty by defeating serious rebellions (the Taiping Rebellion, the Nian Rebellion, and the Muslim Rebellions being the most threatening) and inaugurating modernizing schemes such as the Tongzhi Restoration/Self-Strengthening Movement.

But the reforms were inadequate due to the lack of central leadership and massive corruption under the dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi) who held the reins of power between 1862 and 1908.

Her reactionary policies aborted the dynasty’s last chance for survival through the Hundred Days of Reforms in 1898, and her xenophobia resulted in the disastrous Boxer Rebellion in 1900. A revolution led by Western-educated Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1911 ended the dynastic era in Chinese history.

Although the decline of the Qing dynasty preceded negative Western influences, its inability to adjust and respond effectively accelerated its decline and fall. Additionally the nature of the Western impact changed the traditional pattern of the dynastic cycle because, unlike previous invading groups who had prevailed over China, the Westerners enjoyed technological superiority backed by a highly advanced civilization. The clash of traditional Chinese with modern Western civilizations would result in a radical and difficult transformation of China that would persist into the 21st century.