The Decline and the fall of Qing Dynasty in China

The Qing Dynasty was founded by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro, located in northeast China, expanded into China proper and the surrounding territories of Inner Asia, establishing the Empire of the Great Qing. The Qing was the last imperial dynasty of China. Declared as the Later Jin Dynasty in 1616, it changed its name in 1636 to “Qing”, it became the ruler of all of China in 1644, completing the Manchu conquest. Between 1839 and 1842 the British fought an “Opium War” against China to force the Chinese to keep buying the drug opium from British India, although opium use was banned in China.

The Chinese and Japanese governmental policy restricted European trade (according to William McNeill). These modernizing changes took place just as China’s Manchu-led Qing Dynasty was reaching its highest peak under the Qianglong Emperor (1736-95). Immediately after the Qianglong Emperor retired in 1795, the Empire faced a series of domestic rebellions by ethnic minorities, secret societies, and sects under the Jiaqing Emperor (1796-1820) and his successor Daoguang (1820-50).

The first of these was the Miao Revolt (1795-1806), the second was the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1805), and the third was by the Eight Trigram Sect (1813). Although the Qing succeeded in putting down all three uprisings, in addition to quelling Muslim uprisings in Xinjiang during the 1820s, this era of rebellion led to incredible destruction and to massive economic dislocation. During a second war in 1860 a combined British French army attacked Beijing and burned down government buildings. In 1894-95 Japan attacked and annexed Korea, Formosa (Taiwan) and Port Arthur.

After each of these wars the foreigners forced the rulers to sign “unequal treaties” giving the foreign powers control of China’s seaports and allowing them special trading rights. China was also divided up into spheres of influence, each falling under one or another foreign power. There was a lot of discontent in China. Many Chinese blamed the Manchus for allowing China to be taken over by foreign powers and in 1850 the Taiping Rebellion broke out. For 14 years the country was laid waste, cities were destroyed and 20 million people were killed.

The Manchus were forced to call on the Europeans to help them put down the rebellion, but this weaken their position even more. By the early nineteenth century, population pressure, rising inflation, the increasing costs of river conservancy, and a numerous other fiscal problems prompted him to hold his officials more closely accountable for cost overruns and to authorize deductions from their supplemental salaries (known as yanglian) in order to hold the line on administrative expenses. From this point onward, rational fiscal administration deteriorated quickly.

Informal networks of funding became the hallmark of the Chinese bureaucracy, and the acceptance of lougui became the mark of even virtuous officials. Corruption continued to be a problem, and the central government increasingly resorted to the sale of official titles (and even substantive offices) to cover its costs. Clearly the dynasty was on a downward spiral. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to claim, as some scholars have, that the Qing state no longer had the capacity for effective action.

By the Xianfeng era (1851-1861), the Qing dynasty was on its knees, and the end appeared in sight. Foreign imperialism, domestic rebellion, and a series of succession Crises over the next few decades combined to create unprecedented political and administrative problems for the imperial Chinese state. ( Richard J. , Smith; Pg-43) Unfortunately for China, this era of Qing conservatism occurred just as when military reform in Europe was speeding up. The Industrial Revolution in England, in particular, was to usher in dramatic changes.

It was in the immediate aftermath of these rebellions that China was to experience its first military defeat in its encounters with the West, as the British traversed half the globe to subdue China in the Opium War. For the British, the central conflict in the Opium War was over free trade, rather than over the main product of this trade-opium. Within China, however, one of the most important domestic questions was whether the Manchu emperors in northern China should have the power to dictate to Han merchants in southern China what they could and could not trade.

By means of their victory in the Opium War, the British clearly supported the rights of the Han merchants against the Manchus; this ethnic Han-Manchu struggle continued and intensified over the next seventy years, eventually resulting in the 1911 Revolution, when the Han finally succeeded in overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty. The British victory in the Opium War represented a significant advance for the Han Chinese majority, and further weakened the Manchu’s political power in preparation for an eventual Han victory. (Bruce A. Elleman, Pg- 4)

By the year 1900 the Chinese Empire had been in existence for over 2000 years. During this time the Chinese had become extremely clever at astronomy, mathematics, engineering and medicine, but the empire had grown weak. Western powers like Britain, France as well as Japan had gained great influence through trade and the use of force during the nineteenth century and the Manchu dynasty seemed paralysed and unable to modernise and accept the changes that were happening, or react in a proper way to the challenges.

The dynasty revitalized itself during the Tongzhi period (1862-1874) under the capable but conservative regency of the Empress Dowager, Cixi (1835-1908). Following the death of the Tongzhi emperor at the age of nineteen, she placed her four-year-old nephew on the throne to reign as the Guangxu emperor (1875-1908). Although often painted as a weak figure under the complete control of his domineering aunt, Guangxu seems to have been capable of bold, independent action, at least on occasion, in the later years of his reign.

By the early 20th century, mass civil disorder had begun and continuously grown. Cixi and the Guangxu emperor both died in 1908, leaving a relatively powerless and unstable central authority. When the Guangxu emperor died mysteriously in 1908 without issue, Cixi’s infant grand nephew, Pu yi, became the Xuantong emperor (1909-1912) under a conservative regent, Prince Qing. (Richard J. Smith, Pg-44) In early October 1911, Wuchang, together with its sister cities of Hankow and Hanyang, contained an estimated 7,000 army troops.

About half of those troops were in revolutionary cells. In addition, about 1,500 police and 1,000 Manchu Patrol and Defence Force personnel watched the area, nearly all of them loyal to the Manchus. This was made to have control, if the members of the revolutionary cells were to act against the dynasty and in conjunction with Szechwan turmoil. On October 9 an accidental explosion occurred in the Russian Concession of Hankow that was to lead to the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the establishment of the Chinese Republic.

While Peking was quietly collapsing into Yuan’s hands, the battle for the Wuhan cities raged, and the flight away from the faltering Manchu dynasty took over in the provinces. By mid-November fourteen provinces had declared against the Manchu dynasty. On October 10, 1911, Soldiers from the Wuchang armoury, led by Yuan Shi Kai, joined in the rebellion. This is known as the “Double Ten” incident in Chinese history. This latest turn of events finally forced the Qing government’s hand.

Valiant efforts to contain it failed and finally, on February 12, 1912, Pu Yi abdicated, bringing the curtain down on the 270-year-old Qing Dynasty and 5000 years of absolute monarchy in China. (E. G. Ruoff,Pg: 200-202). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 brought an end to over 2000 years of imperial China and began an extended period of instability, not just at the national level but in many areas of people’s lives. It is concluded that from the beginning of the 19th century, Qing prosperity steadily waned. A population explosion stretched government resources and capabilities to the limit.

The actions of foreign powers, which took advantage of the weak Qing government to gain Chinese trade and territory, hastened the decline. Furthermore, factionalism and division at court prevented the Qing dynasty from dealing effectively with these problems. Internal problems and external conflicts lead to the decay of a glorious empire from the beginning of 19th century, focusing in the Opium war and the following unequal treaties. Eventually, problems grew so severe that the people began to take matters into their own hands, and the fall of the dynasty resulted.