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Qing or Manchu Dynasty 1644 - 1911 - the end of Emperors

Map of Qing dynasty China Qing dynasty

The Manchu people from north east China formed the last imperial Qing dynasty. The Manchus established a power base at Shenyang (Mukden) broadly based on those of Ming China including their own smaller version of the ‘Forbidden City’. Although there was a connection to the Jurchen people who formed the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), the Manchu history was short - stretching back only to the start of the 17th century, and their population was tiny compared to the Han Chinese. After subjugating Korea and Mongolia the Manchus set their eyes on conquering China. The factors leading to the downfall of the Ming include famine, economic collapse, over population and internal rebellion rather than external attack. The huge funds that had been poured into strengthening the Great Wall proved in the end futile as you can read in our full description. The Manchu cause was greatly strengthened when Ming generals and their north-eastern armies joined them. The Manchus were invited into China to help quell the rebellion of Li Zicheng in 1644 and following the pattern of previous ill-judged alliances the Manchus seized power rather than leaving after Li's defeat.

The map above shows the full area of Qing control established in the early years of the empire in gold and light orange, it nearly matched the vast territories of the Mongol dynasty. The green area became effectively independent during late Qing times, while the pink area was lost to foreign countries. Nepal and Burma were lost to Britain. Vietnam and Laos were taken into French Indo-China. As a result of two wars with Japan, China lost suzerainty over Korea, Taiwan and then Manchuria (Japanese controlled territory in light purple).

Liaoning, Shenyang, Manchu, Forbidden City, palace
Dazheng Hall at the center of Shenyang Imperial Palace, Liaoning built 1626CE

For the first ten years of Manchu rule they only controlled northern China, south of the Yangzi there remained Ming Chinese ruled territory with only nodding acquiescence to the new northern regime. The Ming contender for the throne ‘Emperor Yongli ’ was killed on the Burmese border in 1662. A revolt in the south led by Wu Sangui to re-establish Chinese rule in the north began in 1673, it rumbled on for eight years before the Manchus wiped out the whole Wu family that had declared themselves Emperors of the ‘Greater Zhou dynasty’. The Qing forces used brutal reprisals against the rebels, including the massacre of most of the population of Yangzhou, Jiangsu in 1645. In Shandong and much of the south rural life was very hard as government barely functioned, many starved to death or took their own lives in despair. Ming loyalist Guoxingye Koxinga WG held out longest against Qing conquest until 1683 from a power base in Fujian and then Taiwan. It is believed that the Triad secret societies had their origin among Ming loyalists.

Qing dynasty, sacred way, gateway
Sacred path and gateway at the West imperial Qing dynasty tombs

The Qing rulers in the early years kept themselves apart from the Han Chinese who served them. The Manchus were outnumbered 35:1 by the Chinese, so some degree of acquiescence was essential. Laws were enacted prohibiting marriage between Manchu and Chinese, and the keeping of weapons by the Chinese. Beijing had a separate enclave reserved only for Manchus. An efficient military banner system kept rebellions in check. However the efficient Chinese administrative and tax collection systems remained much the same as in Ming China. The Christian Jesuits who had arrived at court in late Ming times continued to impress the Imperial court with their knowledge of science and in particular astronomy.

The population of China had doubled since the Song dynasty to an incredible 200 million by 1762. This rapidly increased to 395 million in 1830; the pressure on resources by sheer weight of numbers weakened the Qing's ability to feed the people and maintain peaceful rule.

Emperor Qianlong, Qing dynasty
Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather. c. 1736-1738. From Chiumei Ho: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, London 2004. Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688?1766). Available under a Creative Commons license .
1654 Emperor Kangxi born; 1659 Battle of Nanjing ; 1661 Emperor Kangxi became ruler; 1662 Guoxingye died
1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk
1711 Emperor Qianlong born; 1715 Cao Xueqin born; 1722 Emperor Kangxi no longer ruler
1735 Emperor Qianlong became ruler
1763 Cao Xueqin died
1796 Emperor Qianlong no longer ruler
1811 Zeng Guofan born; 1814 Hong Xiuquan born; 1818 Guo Songtao born; 1823 Li Hongzhang born
1833 GeneralGordon born; 1835 Dowager Empress Cixi born; 1839 First Opium War ; 1842 Treaty of Nanjing ; Signing of Treaty of Nanjing ; First Opium War
1850 Taiping Rebellion began; 1857 Second Opium War ; 1859 Yuan Shikai born; 1860 Second Opium War ; 1864 Hong Xiuquan died; Taiping Rebellion ended; 1866 Sun Yatsen born at Cuiheng Guangdong; 1868 Lin Sen born; 1871 Emperor Guangxu born; 1872 Zeng Guofan died; 1875 Emperor Guangxu became ruler; Qiu Jin born; 1876 Murder of Captain Margery ; 1881 Lu Xun born at Shaoxing Zhejiang; 1885 GeneralGordon died; 1886 Zhu De born; 1887 Chiang Kaishek born at Xikou Zhejiang; 1890 Song Qingling born; 1891 Guo Songtao died; 1893 Mao Zedong born at Shaoshan Hunan; 1894 Japanese naval attack ; 1897 Ye Jianying born; 1898 Zhou Enlai born at Huai'an Jiangsu; Liu Shaoqi born at Ningxiang Hunan; 1899 Boxer Rebellion began; 1900 Killing of German ambassador ; 1901 Boxer Rebellion ended; Li Hongzhang died; 1902 Peng Zhen born; 1904 Deng Xiaoping born at Guang'an Sichuan; 1906 Puyi born; 1907 Yang Shangkun born; Qiu Jin died; 1908 Emperor Guangxu no longer ruler; Puyi became ruler; 1909 Li Xiannian born; 1911 Wuchang Uprising
Qing dynasty key dates

Early Qing prosperity and peace

The first four Qing Emperors Shunzhi, Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong ruled long and skillfully. Their reigns covered 150 years of relative prosperity for all in China. As foreign rulers they found it easy to reform the administration rather than sticking rigidly to ancient tradition; systems that were no longer appropriate were abandoned. Manchus worked alongside Chinese ministers to carry out their reforms. Emperor Kangxi immersed himself in Confucian doctrine and took personal interest in the examination system to attract the brightest scholars to high office. Emperor Qianlong, however, sought to impose literary censorship in the period 1772-88 by destroying any text critical of the Manchus, in an echo of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi's actions and many important historical works were lost.

artist, flowers, Zhao Zhiqian
Zhao Zhiqian: A leaf from the album "Flowers". 1859. Shanghai Museum. Available under a Creative Commons License

In 1670 Emperor Kangxi introduced the 'Sacred Edict ' Shèng yù which consisted of 16 maxims each 7 characters long. This was pasted up in every village marketplace and recited out loud at least twice a month. It represented the Emperor's direction on how people should behave. This tradition has continued into the Peoples Republic where every recent leader has contributed their own set of guiding principles for people to follow. Emperor Kangxi continued the work on large dictionaries and encyclopedias to capture human knowledge. In the 1770s the mammoth Sì kù quán shū was compiled. The Siku Quanshu catalogs over 10,000 major works of literature and was actually used as a way to censor critical books. A dictionary of 1710 had 49,000 entries.

International trade grew, not only with Europe but also with Japan and Russia. Portuguese and English trade in the South China Sea continued to produce friction. In 1661 a Dutch force tortured the undefended, Buddhist monks on Putao Shan, Zhejiang and then burnt the temples to the ground. The Qing responded by outlawed all trade with Europeans except through Guangzhou (then known as Canton). The defeat of Mongol leader Galdan in 1696 at the battle of Urga pacified the northern border, and enabled the subsequent conquest of Xinjiang in 1759. The annexation of Tibet helped pacify the Mongols because the Manchu leaders had embraced Tibetan Buddhism. The Qing emperors professed themselves as reincarnations of the bodhisattva Manjusri to gain the support of devout Buddhists. A replica of the Tibetan Potala Palace was built at Chengde housing Tibetan monks. Use of European designed artillery proved crucial to the military superiority of Qing forces. At around 1750 China was the largest, strongest, wealthiest and most populous nation on Earth.

Qing Decline

The pivotal time in the fortunes of the Qing dynasty was about 1800, the emperors in the later half of the century did not have the strength of leadership of their predecessors, natural disasters started to question their ‘Mandate of heaven’. The reason for the gradual degradation of their ability to rule is widely debated but population pressure must be the fundamental one. There were always so many unemployed people that prices were driven too low for factories to be able compete with handmade goods. All viable land had already been used for agriculture, there was nowhere left to plant new crops.

As the Manchu people were originally grassland horse riders their military successes only extended to the land and not the seas. After a number of humiliating naval defeats by neighbors and pirates the Qing dynasty turned its back on the sea, leaving trade to continue without naval support.

The first of many internal rebellions was the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804) which was a Buddhist inspired movement to reinstate the 'native' Ming dynasty. The rebels managed to hold out in mountain retreats. It was the first demonstration that Manchu power was limited and it all proved very costly. An offshoot of this movement was the Eight Trigrams Society which attacked the Forbidden City in 1813, it received the support of several top eunuchs. In the late Qing dynasty over 60 million died in various rebellions including many troubles with the Miao ethnic group.

It should be remembered that at this time it was people rather than horses were still pulling the plow. Girl infanticide occurred in times of hardship as boys were stronger and were needed to carry on the family line. Women's modesty and celibacy were held up as correct behavior. The Qing dynasty turned more and more to Confucian orthodoxy and failed to understand or utilize the new european technology. With limited reforms China became stultified. The facade presented was truly impressive but behind it the signs of decay were evident. The decline is evident in the artwork produced – the Ming tradition was continued where artists were meticulous copyists rather than innovators. During this time work in ivory grew in quantity through the opening of trade with Africa, and although highly skilled, the designs lacked experimentation and evolution. The inertia stemmed from the universal belief that all that was made in ancient times was naturally superior to anything modern. Export porcelain was the only exception to this malaise, here the requirements of european customers forced the makers to innovate.

The Queue

hair, queue
Chinese Meal. Men with hair in 'queues' c. 1880 Image by caviarkirch available under a Creative Commons License

Hatred of Manchu rule as 'foreigners' led to many rebellions. The Qing response to weakening control was to make the laws harsher. In 1645 by Imperial edict, all Chinese men were forced to shave the top and sides of the head and plait their hair from three braids into a queue biànzi dangling from the back of their heads, a continuous reminder of the rule by Manchu foreigners. Initially the queue had been used to quickly distinguish between those who had surrendered and those who still resisted Manchu rule. The queue was in some respects a practical hairstyle as it kept unruly hair out of the eyes. It could be coiled on the top of the head beneath a cap or coiled around the neck. As part of joining the fad for Chinoiserie some Westerners adopted the ‘pigtail’- including George Washington and King George III. It became a traditional fashion worn by some with pride and some even continued with the queue into the Republican period. The Taipings in their rebellion (1850-1864) cut off their queues to demonstrate their opposition against 'foreign' Manchu rule. It was the largest and most bloody Civil War in human history (see our section on the rebellion for more on this).

Dāo shān huǒ hǎi
A mountain of knives; a sea of fires
An extremely difficult and dangerous situation.

Foreign aggression

In foreign disputes the Qing Empire had no response to the advanced British Navy that wished to open up China to trade. The silver used by the Chinese to purchase opium led to a huge drain on Imperial finances. Growing tensions led to the Opium Wars which resulted in an erosion of China's economic and military power. With a justifiable suspicion of foreign sea traders and also of the Han Chinese people of the Yangzi basin, the Manchu rulers wanted full control of foreign trade in tea and silk. They chose to funnel all trade through one port (Guangzhou Canton) with a ban of coastal transport of goods, everything, including delicate porcelain had to come by tortuous overland routes to the port. This ban was widely flouted to the financial benefit of many southern Chinese.

China's defeat in the Opium Wars led to the opening up for trade of a whole series of concessionary treaty ports all around China's coast and up the Yangzi River as far as Chongqing. Some districts such as Qingdao and Hong Kong were under direct foreign ownership. Many Chinese chose to escape poverty and famine by moving abroad, taking up the many new opportunities opening up in Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo, South America and the United States. The interest in China was to a limited extent reflected the other way; the first Chinese Ambassador to the UK Guo Songtao reported positively about civilization in Europe, in fact to such an extent that his widely read diaries were banned for a while in China. Wang Tao went further, praising the English political and economic system above that of China, saying only the legendary Golden Age in China surpassed it. They saw the rapid transformation in Europe and how age-old traditions did not apply to a modern industrial world, Britain had broken from Greek/Roman knowledge and institutions to create new ones.

In 1861 China was more or less forced to set up a ‘Foreign Office’ to deal with all aspects of diplomacy and foreign aggression. She had resisted this move for centuries because it made the standing of other nations ‘almost’ equal, contrary to the traditional view of barbarian tribes surrounding the one truly civilized nation. This was the Zǒng lǐ gè guó shì wù yá men abbreviated to Zongli yamen. Although it was supposed to direct the Emperor in foreign policy, it was strong regional leaders such as Li Hongzhang that had the most influential voice.

Karl Marx in 1858 (whose works were to play a great part in China's future development) wrote:

“… A giant empire …... vegetating in the teeth of time, insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse and thus continuing to dupe itself with delusion of Celestial perfection.”

Muslim rebellion

As well as the Taiping rebellion and Opium Wars just as deadly a revolt occurred in the ‘Panthay Rebellion ’ when Muslims rose up in 1856. The trigger point was in distant Yunnan but revolts also occurred in Muslim dominated north-western China. Millions of Muslims died in the revolt which was savagely suppressed.

Ningxia, mosque, muslim
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia

The key figure in China at the end of the Qing dynasty was Dowager Empress Cixi who controlled a succession of young, weak emperors so that she remained the effective ruler. Ancient tradition forbade the succession to go up a generation (and so allow uncles to take power) so the death of an infant emperor severely limited options to cousins and nephews. The Confucian tradition placed the wishes of parents above oneself, and in this way young Emperors had to defer absolutely to the wishes of Cixi. In the 1860s the ‘Self-Strengthening Movement’ sought reform to revitalize Qing rule. It aimed to bring in knowledge of western science and technology. Li Hongzhang was one of the leading reformers. However, Cixi resisted these reforms and backed the Boxer Rebels (see section) against the foreigners. This Rebellion and other disastrous disputes with Russia, Japan and European Powers led to the collapse of the empire and the foundation of the Republic of China in 1911.

Nothing in Chinese history is straightforward. For although the Republic was founded the Emperor remained with all his titles within the Forbidden City. He just abdicated his right to rule the people, he continued to carry out Imperial duties under the 'Articles of Favorable Treatment '. The President of the Republic occupied the area to the west of the Forbidden City, ( Zhōng nán hǎi) a site that it occupies up to the present day. So Emperor and President co-existed side-by-side in this strange arrangement. This state of affairs was necessary because the vast majority of the ordinary Chinese people still believed in the Imperial system not a Republic, by just taking away the right to the govern the institution of Son of Heaven was maintained.

The last flicker of Qing rule was the installation of Puyi as a puppet Emperor (1932-45) of Manchuria during the Japanese occupation .

Video not visible
Kim Dramer's short video about the fall of the Qing dynsty

The Hundred Days reform

The Qing dynasty's disarray is most clearly evident in the hundred days that sought to radically reform China. Leading officials such as Li Hongzhang had seen the superiority of European technology; warfare and industry at first hand and strove to seek the support of the young Emperor Guangxu. The leading intellectual Kang Youwei believed he had the answer: a system of reforms that harmonized with Confucian philosophy (‘Chinese learning for basic principles; Western learning for practical application’). The movement had its roots in the Gōng chē shàng shū Gongche Shangshu movement of 1895; this was a response to the ignominious treaty with Russia when a 10,000 character petition was sent to the Emperor. Kang had struggled to gain an audience with the Emperor, but when he did the reforms were imposed rapidly in June to September 1898. The ancient examination system was reformed; the University in Beijing and modern technology schools were founded; commerce and engineering were promoted.

However, conservatives at the imperial court were threatened by the reforms and soon it became a power-play between Emperor Guangxu and Dowager Empress Cixi. A plot to remove the Empress with the support of army leader Yuan Shikai backfired, many leading reformers were executed or fled into exile and the Emperor himself was stripped of power and incarcerated within the Summer Palace. The last opportunity for a major reform of the dynastic system was lost.

taiping, naval battle, qing
Taiping cannon fire against the Qing war junks that are assaulting the capital of the celestial kingdom. Early photograph c. 1860. Available under a Creative Commons License

Puyi 溥仪 [7 Feb 1906 - 17 Oct 1967] or P'u-i WG

The life of the Last Emperor Puyi spans the transition from Imperial China to the People's Republic and exemplifies the turmoil of the time. After the trauma of the Taiping Rebellion and the Opium Wars it had become the norm for Dowager Empress Cixi to rule as the regent on behalf of infant Emperors since 1861.

Emperor Puyi
Portrait of Puyi (Xuantong Emperor) (1906-1967) Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Puyi was born in 1906 as a prisoner in Imperial opulence within the Forbidden City. Dowager Empress Cixi struggled in vain to maintain control over a disunited and bankrupt nation. It was the attitude towards the foreigners that was causing the greatest trouble. Imperial support for the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion movement greatly weakened the position of the dynasty.

Emperor Guangxu, died on 14th Nov 1908 from arsenic poisoning (possibly ordered by Cixi herself). The Dowager Empress died the following day. It was these inauspicious events that saw Puyi at the age of three become the last Emperor of China with the title Xuantong (宣统). Puyi's father Zaifeng (Prince Chun) was made regent but proved an incompetent and corrupt man. Zaifeng had been passed over in the succession because of Cixi's suspicions about his pro-European sentiments (he had traveled to Europe to appease the western powers over the Boxer Rebellion) and because he was of the same generation of Guangxu - the rules of imperial succession require that the new emperor must be of the next generation.

Emperor Puyi of the Qing Dynasty was only six when the Republic of China was declared in 1911 and took no part in these events, in fact he remained unaware of them. Surprisingly, his sheltered life of luxury within the thick walls of the Forbidden City was hardly affected by the change, he remained the Emperor of China in title and honor. The new Republic had a slender grasp on power, the overwhelming mass of the population had for thousands of years been ruled by an emperor and so it was judged politically expedient to not change the situation drastically. So the Imperial Court was given extensive funds to continue life in lavish and wasteful luxury just as it had done before 1911. The only change was that the Emperor's power did not extend beyond the walls of the Forbidden Palace. It was the machinations of imperialist minded Yuan Shikai that governed his fate. Seen by the Europeans as the strong man who could unite and modernize China, Yuan Shikai acted as the effective regent for Puyi. Yuan Shikai's ambitions were, however, to found his own dynasty rather than continue as President of a Republic. When he proclaimed himself Emperor in 1915, revolts began anew and he died from kidney failure later in 1915 with the country still locked in rebellion.

So in the years 1912-24 Puyi was still seen as a potential ruler of China should the fragile Republic fail. For these twelve years China had both a President and Emperor. In July 1917 General Zhang Xun at the zenith of his power had Puyi proclaimed Emperor of China again, but only for 11 days. It seems Zhang wanted the emperor to become an absolute ruler rather than a figurehead but this was unacceptable to Republicans. The leading world power at this time was Britain and it was the Scotsman Reginald Johnston who became Puyi's most trusted adviser, friend and mentor. Ostensibly he was brought in as tutor in English but he acted as a spy, passing on reports to the British legation. Britain wanted an insider in the Palace if the shaky Republican grip on power should end. Britain seemed to have planned a constitutional monarchy for China, as that was the system in Britain, where the monarch is head of state but has no political power. Reginald Johnston had been governor of the British enclave at Weihaiwei, Shandong and had learned much of Chinese customs and had become a scholar of Chinese literature. He was seen by his British masters as to have become too Chinese and not entirely trusted. Johnston introduced many modernizations to the Imperial Court despite the open opposition of the Imperial eunuchs and Dowager Empresses. Telephones, bicycles, films, spectacles and western clothes were some of the many new innovations that at last made their way into the Palace.

In 1924 Puyi was ejected from the Forbidden City and lost his title as Emperor when the left-wing General Feng (a.k.a. The Christian General ) took over Beijing. Puyi was moved to Prince Chun's Northern Mansion with a much reduced retinue and monetary allowance. Here Puyi fretted about his imprisonment; he then escaped with Johnston's help to the Japanese Legation. Japan was at the time seen as a modern and liberal state, many Chinese Republicans had stayed there including Sun Yatsen and the writer Lu Xun. Japan was investing heavily in modernizing Manchuria. So Puyi's move was not unpatriotic but pragmatic, with Japanese help he could hope to come back one day as Emperor of a revitalized China or at least ruler of Manchuria; he was after all the hereditary ruler of the Manchu people.

It was only in the 1930s that Emperor Hirohito 's plans for conquest of China and Asia became clear. Puyi was powerless to stop himself becoming the tool of the Japanese in Manchuria. He was installed as Emperor of Manchuguo (Manchuria) on 1st March 1934, a step that greatly legitimized Japan's control of the region. Puyi was imprisoned in the former Salt Tax Administration building in Changchun. He was not allowed out and the Japanese selected who was allowed to come in to see him. He put his Imperial seal on any and all the official papers that were put before him, he had no choice. The years were of utmost boredom, he had a small household of servants and family. He became a devout Buddhist and a vegetarian. His wife Empress Wanrong (a.k.a. Elizabeth) took to opium and they had no children.

Emperor Puyi, Mao Zedong
'Henry' Puyi and Mao Zedong, Autumn 1961. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

When the Soviets liberated Manchuria in 1945, after the dropping of the U.S. atom bombs on Japan, Puyi and a small entourage tried to flee to Japan. He was stopped by the Soviet troops at the airport. He stood trial for war crimes by the Allied powers in Japan where he claimed he was a helpless puppet who had been kidnapped by the Japanese. In 1950 he was handed over to the Chinese government. Puyi expected to be executed. The regime, however, had other plans, he would be far more useful to them if he was converted to the Communist cause. So, in the Fushun prison in Liaoning he was remolded as a Communist. Like many actions in Chinese history this was not a new strategy, Emperor Yongzheng had used this in the case of the treason of Zeng Jing . After extensive sessions of self criticism Puyi took all the blame for the catastrophes that befell him including the admission that he had not been kidnapped but gone over to the Japanese voluntarily. He wrote a book of his life slanted to please his Communist jailers. He was released in 1959 and thereafter lived more or less as an ordinary citizen in Communist China. Once again Puyi had adapted to conditions and against the odds survived to old age. He was the embodiment of the Daoist tradition of bending with the wind and water in order to survive.

Puyi seems to have accepted his fate under the People's Republic, he was allowed some special favors and worked as a part-time librarian and gardener. When at a reception in 1960 for Field Marshal Montgomery he was asked if he was happy, Pu Yi replied “I am a gardener now and I have never been happier in my life. It is much better to be a gardener than to sit on the throne of the Imperial Palace doing just what you're told to do”. Shortly after Zhou Enlai intervened to save him from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He died in 1967 of bladder cancer at a hospital in Beijing. Puyi's half brother Puren lived in Beijing to the ripe old age of 96, dying in April 2015.

The incredible story of his life is told in the award winning film The Last Emperor in 1987 by Bernardo Bertolucci . A child born as the most pampered person in the World is gradually stripped, step by step of all vestiges of Imperial splendor to die alone as an ordinary person.

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