The Qing Dynasty
The Qing Dynasty was China’s last imperial dynasty and it lasted nearly 300 years from 1644 until 1912. In the timeline of China’s history, the Qing Dynasty comes after the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 until 1644, and before the Republic of China, which lasted from 1912 until 1949.
The period of the Qing Dynasty is known for having powerful rulers that had long reigns, being a time of prosperity throughout much of the period, and being punctuated by natural disasters, invasions, and rebellions from the people which eventually brought the dynasty to its end.
The Beginning of the Qing Dynasty
Before the Qing Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty reigned for about 270 years. Its collapse was caused by rival groups within the power structure that each fought for supremacy. During the final years of the Ming Dynasty, there were major problems in China, including famines, natural disasters, and even economic turmoil. With all of these problems, the people felt that those in charge were no longer under the Mandate of Heaven, which was that belief that Chinese rulers claimed gave them the authority from Heaven to rule over the people. As a result, the people began to rebel. This opened the door for China to be attacked by the Jurchens and the Mongols, which led to the decline of the dynasty.
Emperor Shunzhi (1644-1661)
The first emperor of the Qing Dynasty – Emperor Shunzhi - took power in 1644 and his reign lasted until 1661. He was the successor to Huang Taiji, his father, who died in 1643. Emperor Shunzhi’s main priority was to finish conquering the rest of the Ming Dynasty which still had factions throughout China so he could establish one government that would rule over the new empire. He also wanted to move the capital city of the empire to Beijing.It took several years for the Manchus, the new rulers of the empire, to finish conquering the people from the Ming. It was not until 1659 when the last known member of the Ming Dynasty – Koxinga – was driven out of the land. He tried to create an uprising and take control of the capital city. However, the armies of the Qing drove him all the way back to Taiwan.
Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722)
From 1661 until 1722, Emperor Kangxi ruled over the Qing Dynasty. Kangxi was the third son of Emperor Shunzhi and the time of his reign is often considered to be the time when the dynasty began to flourish. His 61-year rule means that he had the longest reign of any Chinese emperor throughout history. However, since he technically took power at the age of seven, his effectiveness as a ruler did not come until later. During his younger years as emperor, his grandmother and four officials made the decisions. During Kangxi’s reign, China enjoyed a long period of prosperity and stability. It was during his reign that the period referred to as the “Prosperous Era of Kangxi and Qianlong” began, but it lasted for generations after he died. By the time Emperor Kangxi passed away, the Qing Empire ruled over much of the East, including all of China, Manchuria, Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet and even parts of Russia.
Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735)
The next emperor of the Qing Dynasty was Emperor Yongzheng, whose reign lasted from 1722 until 1735. The main priority that Emperor Yongzheng had during his reign was to set up and establish a government that was effective without using too much money. He continued the idea of his father – Emperor Kangxi – of using force in order to maintain the dynasty’s power and position. Throughout Yongzheng’s reign, China continued to experience a time of prosperity and peace. He cut down on the amount of corruption and waste that went on in the power structure of the government. Also during his time in power, the Grand Council was created. This body was created in 1733 and its intended purpose was to be involved in the military affairs of the empire, but soon expanded into making policies for several areas of the courts. The Grand Council impacted imperial China for generations after it was formed.
Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796)
Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from for about six decades from 1735 until 1796, was the fourth Qing emperor in China. He was the also the fourth son of Yongzheng. During his rule, China enjoyed a continued era of peace and prosperity. He also strived to maintain the Manchu heritage throughout China because he believed that the key to the dynasty’s power and its moral character was related to its heritage. One of the ways he helped preserve the culture was by ordering books and texts to be burned if they were either rebellious or against the Qing Dynasty. This “purge” was completed within ten years and more than 150,000 copies of books were either banned or burned. Emperor Qianlong’s reign, unlike most emperors, did not end with his death. In 1796, he abdicated his position to his son – Emperor Jiaqing – out of respect for his grandfather. He did not want to have a reign that lasted longer than his grandfather – Emperor Kangxi. However, he still kept total control until he died in 1799.
Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820)
From 1796 until 1820, Emperor Jiaqing ruled the Qing Dynasty. He succeeded his father – Emperor Qianlong – but he rid his administration of some of the things that his father had done. For one thing, he prosecuted one of his father’s favorite officials – Heshen – who is often referred to as one of the most corrupt officials in the history of China. While he was in power, there were two assassination attempts on Emperor Jiaqing. One occurred in 1803 and the other in 1813 and both were attempts by members of the royal family. The ones involved in the assassination attempts were caught and executed. Jiaqing also exiled hundreds of members of the imperial family. In addition, the laws against spreading Christianity were formed under Emperor Jiaqing. The law, which prohibited dealings with sorcerers and sorceresses, was extended in 1811 to include a clause about Christianity. By 1870, the law stated that any Europeans who were caught spreading Catholicism in China would be put to death or given to Muslim cities as slaves.
Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850)
The sixth Qing ruler in China was Emperor Daoguang who ruled from 1820 to 1850. For the first time in several generations, there were major rebellions and disasters that plagued the ruling emperor during this time. Under his reign, the First Opium War took place from 1839 until 1842. The war pitted Great Britain against China over the issues of trade, justice for foreign nationals, and ideas about diplomatic relations. The First Opium War started when China confiscated nearly three million pounds of opium coming in from British traders. The British government was not happy about the seizure and it used military force to get satisfaction. China ultimately lost the war and was forced to surrender the city of Hong Kong under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.
The Taiping Rebellion also began under Emperor Daoguan and this almost caused the dynasty to come to an end. This rebellion was a huge civil war and rebellion against the Qing Dynasty that occurred in southern China between 1850 and 1864. The rebellion was led by Hong Xiuquan after he announced that he was given visions about him being Jesus’ younger brother. During the war, more than 20 million people died, making it one of the deadliest military battles ever.
Emperor Xianfeng (1850-1861)
During Emperor Xianfeng’s reign of the Qing Dynasty from 1850 to 1861, the empire began to go into decline. Although the Taiping Rebellion began during the previous emperor’s reign, the bulk of it occurred during Emperor Xianfeng’s rule. The Taiping military captured the city of Nanjing in 1853 and there were fears that it would take Beijing next. However, that did not happen. Rebellions and protests plagued Xianfeng’s entire time as emperor and millions of people died as a result. He also had the problem of the French and British trying to expand their empires into China. The Second Opium War occurred during his rule and the British and French repeatedly requested to meet with Emperor Xianfeng, but they were denied. Xianfeng died in 1861, due in part to living a life full of overindulging.
Emperor Tongzhi (1861-1875)
Emperor Xianfeng’s successor was his son, Zaichun, who came to be known as Emperor Tongzhi. He ruled from 1861 until 1875, but much of his reign occurred during his adolescence as he was only five years old when he took power following his father’s death. Because of his age, his mother – Empress Dowager Cixi – made many of the decisions. Tongzhi had very little influence during his reign, but he did attempt to make some political reforms. But in 1874, Tongzhi clashed with several officials in his administration, including some family members, who objected to his plans to rebuild one of the main palaces when the empire simply did not have the money to do so. By the next year, he died of smallpox. He accomplished very little and he had no sons to take over his reign.
Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908)
One of the last emperors of the Qing Dynasty – Emperor Guangxu – was the grandson of Emperor Daoguang. He tried many progressive ideas to try to save the dying empire during his reign that lasted from 1875 until 1908. One of his main initiatives was the Hundred Days’ Reform, which was a movement in the spring of 1898 aimed at making big changes in the social and institutional structure of the empire. Some of the goals of this movement included using the idea of capitalism to strengthen the nation’s economy, employing measures to strengthen the military, and changing the government into a constitutional monarchy with democracy.
The movement ended, however, due to intense opposition from the ruling elite. They said it was too radical and there should be a more moderate path for making such big changes. As a result, a coup was launched against him and he was forced into seclusion in 1898, effectively ending his influence and rule. He was put under house arrest until his death ten years later in 1908.
Emperor Xuantong (1908-1912)
The final emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China was Emperor Xuantong. His rule lasted from 1908 until 1912 with another short rule that lasted for 11 days in 1917. He was chosen to be emperor at the age of nearly three by Empress Dowager Cixi while she was on her deathbed. His father – Prince Chun – was the Prince-Regent, meaning he was effectively in power until the young boy was old enough to make decisions.
The Fall of the Qing Dynasty
The downfall of the Qing Dynasty was not something that happened overnight. It was weakened over several decades through protests from the people, major rebellions, and conflicts and wars with other nations, including major powers like Britain and France.
The decline began during the second half of the 1800s. The two Opium Wars caused devastating blows to the empire of China as Hong Kong, a major city in China, was taken. This showed other countries that China was no longer the superpower that it once was and had now become vulnerable and weak.
Once other nations saw China as weak, China began to lose a grip on its power. France took control of Southeast Asia and made it a French colony. Japan took control of Taiwan and by 1900, major countries established areas along China’s border where they controlled the military and trade.
There were also internal struggles that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. With all of the chaos occurring and wars taking place, the people felt that the ruling class was no longer under the Mandate of Heaven. As a result, they felt the government should be overthrown. Empress Cixi got rid of any government officials who wanted to modernize the country as she had no desire to make reforms.
The Boxer Rebellion occurred in 1900 and this was essentially the Chinese people creating an anti-foreigner movement. They opposed the Qing ruling class and also the European powers. They united with the Qing army to defeat the foreign powers, but they were unable to do so. This was a major blow to the empire and ultimately contributed to its downfall.
The Final Blow
The final blow to the Qing Dynasty was when the six-year-old emperor – Emperor Xuantong – abdicated his throne in 1912. A man by the name of Sun Yat-sen led one final rebellion against the Qing empire and overthrew the government, bringing an end to two millennia of Chinese feudal democracy.