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Chinese History
Imperial China - Qing
Qing (1644 – 1911)

The Qing Empire can readily be divided into two parts: Early and Late, because after 1800 the influence of Western Powers becomes ever more marked, and directly associated with Chinese autonomy

Map: Qing Empire in 1820
Qing Empire in 1820 - Click map to enlarge
Courtesy of Wikipedia:
In 1616 a new and powerful Jurchen tribe arose in Manchuria. They defeated rival tribes and proclaimed a new Manchu Kingdom, which in reference to the above map, included the provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and the now Russian province of Primorsky Krai. They are sometimes referred to as the Later Jin - yes, the same Jin that had plagued Chinese Northern borders for a millennia!

They had designs on the rich resources China offered, but bided their time as the ruling Ming Empire self-destructed. In 1644 they entered China via a Great Wall gatehouse, and were guided through by Chinese protesters. Heading straight for Beijing, they met a similar reception at the gates of the city, and the Great Qing Empire was born

The Qing quickly assimilated themselves into Chinese society, for after all, their ancestors had ruled this region of China several times before. It took 17 years for the Qing to take full control of China, and they came to find controlling such as vast Empire was a daunting task. In 1662 Emperor Kangxi came into power, and he is the longest reigning of all Chinese rulers. The Qing army was just strong enough to hold the major fortresses, but needed the help of Ming troops to have real authority. The four Southern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian were given to Ming military commanders. This worked for a while, and allowed Kangxi to focus on other parts of his Empire. However, these three regions became largely autonomous, and openly revolted 1673, in what is known as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Kangxi easily extinguished the rebellion, leading the fighting personally. He then turned his focus to Tibet, and later Northeast Russia, again with great success. He exerted control over the Mongols via marriage of his daughter, making them vassals. Later he retook Taiwan from rebels who had previously revolted and defeated the Dutch invaders. The map above is a good representation of the Empire under Kangxi

After the Kangxi Emperor's death in the winter of 1722, his fourth son Prince Yong (雍親王) succeeded him as the Yongzheng Emperor. Yongzheng remained a controversial character because of rumours about him usurping the throne, and he was involved in great political struggles with his brothers. Yongzheng was a hardworking administrator who ruled with an iron hand. His first big step towards a stronger regime came when he brought the State Examination System back to its original standards. In 1724, he cracked down on illegal exchange rates of coins, which was being manipulated by officials to fit their financial needs. Those who were found in violation of new laws on finances were removed from office, or in extreme cases, executed.

Emperor Qianlong
However, it his successor Qianlong (R. 1735–1796) that most Chinese regard as being the most memorable of the Qing Emperors, and during his reign China reached the zenith of its power. He launched several ambitious cultural projects, such as the compilation of Siku Quanshu, or Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature. With a total of over 3,400 books, 79,000 chapters, and 36,304 volumes, Siku Quanshu is the largest collection of books in Chinese history as well as the largest series of books ever edited by the feudal authority. Unfortunately this was also accompanied by the growing use of literary inquisition, with many who wrote the wrong things (To the Emperors whim or mind of that day) being executed.

Qianlong had a long and prosperous reign. His success was in part the result of the cumulative contributions of his predecessors. With the strong financial base created by the reforms of Kangxi and Yong Zheng, Qianlong was able to finance a series of military campaigns which saw the Chinese empire expand in all directions to reconquer lands claimed by earlier dynasties, raising the empire to its greatest extent. These campaigns included wars against Burma, Annam (Vietnam), Taiwan, Turkestan, the Zungars, and the Ghurka. His victories in the north against Turkestan and the Zungars were truly significant, bringing vast areas under Chinese control and destroying the power of the northern nomads, a constant threat to Chinese security. Although Qianlong sometimes claimed to be, like his forebears, a military genius, the evidence suggests that his ability lay in selecting and rewarding men with true military talent.

This military power was equalled by the brilliance of Chinese culture. Qianlong patronized poets and painters; his palaces became a series of great buildings stuffed with riches from all over the world, and resplendent in gilt, precious gems, and metals. In 1793, the British ambassador to the Chinese court, Lord McCartney - cited in Wakeman's study The Fall of Imperial China - wrote: (The buildings are). … furnished in the richest manner, with pictures of the Emperor's hunting's and progresses; with stupendous vases of jasper and agate; with the finest porcelains and japan, and with every kind of European toys and sing-songs; with spheres, orreries, clocks and musical automatons of such exquisite workmanship, and in such profusion, that our presents must shrink from comparison.

Like the ideal Confucian monarch, Qianlong was a competent if uninspired poet who wrote over his lifetime hundreds, perhaps thousands of poems. He collected famous works of art and curios, and his collection, originally housed in the palace in Beijing, is now the heart of the collection of the world's greatest storehouse of oriental art treasures, The Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

One interesting piece of information we have discovered is that at one point during the early years of his reign, Qianlong made a secretive visit to the southern provinces. His intention was to personally observe the local dignitaries before committing troops or replacing officials, and scrutinise trading practices - especially around Guangzhou (Foshan / Nanhai). In order to successfully prevail in this subterfuge, he needed to remain as an anonymous visiting trader or low level dignitary. However, his staff needed to honour him, especially at mealtimes if he should be the one to pour drinks (Tea) for the companions. They adopted the habit of tapping the index and middle finger second joints flat onto the table top, repeating this 4-times in sets of two beats (8 taps in all). In this way they secretively acknowledged his supremacy as Emperor, whilst maintaining the secret.

Today in Canton - which we can consider to be Guangdong, Hong Kong, and the Cantonese speaking world of southeastern China; this practice still continues at every meal or for every drink proffered. We are aware this is not known outside of 'Canton'? although neighbouring provinces such as Guangxi and Hunan do observe this custom, as I observed personally in 2009.

From my personal observations, as practiced on a daily basis, I can add that the tapping varies from city to city, and with what is being served. Generally tea is as above; but liquor takes many local forms on the theme. From this you may also infer that Cantonese people hold Qianlong of all the Qing Emperors in the highest esteem. There is a lot more associated with this story of course, but let this suffice to whet your appetite, whilst we move on...

Qianlong's latter years
During the late years of Qianlong's reign, the Qing government saw a return of rampant corruption. The official Heshen was arguably one of the most corrupt in the entire Qing Dynasty. He was eventually forced into committing suicide by Qianlong's son, the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796–1820).

In 1796 open rebellion by the White Lotus Society against the Qing government broke out. The White Lotus Rebellion continued for eight years, until 1804, and marked a turning point in the history of the Qing Dynasty.

Qianlong was a talented and strong emperor, and he had inherited stable institutions, but the closing years of his reign saw the final decline of imperial China. China was soon to face a variety of challenges, from within as rapid population growth began to overwhelm traditional institutions, and from without, as the ambitious Western powers led by Great Britain began to cast covetous eyes on the wealth of the empire. During these gathering crises, the throne, like the Qianlong emperor himself, was isolated by custom and tradition, prevented by its own past successes from perceiving the need for rapid and revolutionary changes necessary to confront those challenges. It might be said that the strengths of the Qianlong emperor were his own: he was intelligent, diligent, and conscientious. His faults, perhaps, were those of the Confucian system. He lived and died the ideal Confucian monarch, the last which imperial China would ever see as it entered upon its final decline.

The Decline of Qing
In trying to present a synopsis of Chinese history, I am conscious of avoiding becoming embroiled with minuté. Therefore my next task is to try and explain succinctly the enormous historical impact the Colonial Western Powers exerted on China from around 1800 onwards. These are mainly: Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, Holland (Dutch), USA and Japan. These are the main players who all wanted 'A piece of the action'. For some it was trade, and when this was forbidden, they came and took what they wanted. For others it was land, and still others just wanted to rule China. This is augmented by a succession of weak Chinese Emperors who wanted China 'Closed' to all trade and outside forces; and the role of the last effective Chinese ruler by proxy, Empress Dowager Cixi. Let's try a list with some added pertinent points:

Map: Qing Empire in 1890
Qing Empire in 1890 - Click map to enlarge
Courtesy of Wikipedia
For a dynamically larger scale map please click here

The above map is quite revealing:
• Russia has already chewed off bits of Northern China via treaties of extortion - which Chinese still resent to this day.
• The Japanese invasion of Burma resulted in Britain and China fighting as allies and eventually dividing the spoils of war.
• Some of the countries above are friendly powers, and I name Nepal (The Gurka's), Siam, and Malaysia for special mention within the British sphere. Spain controls The Philippines, whilst the Dutch were ever present in the Southeast and Vietnam. Germany looked to pick up any left-over's, whilst the French just wanted to fill their museums and pockets - and what they couldn't carry away they simply burned!
• Today as you wander around The Forbidden City, and see a mass of maroon columns, remember that one century ago these were covered with gold leaf. The French privateers removed this for personal and private gain, stole whatever they could carry, and set fire to all that remained: which included precious tapestries and manuscripts - I suggest you read 'Empress Orchid' by Anchee Min for a different take of this period of history.
• The British were no better, sacking both old and new Summer Palaces, plus much of Guangdong that evaded the Dutch.

So what was really going on?

The Opium wars were basically a British and Dutch subterfuge to extract silver and trade from an Empire that was 'Closed' to foreigners. Opium was cheap and plentiful to the Foreign Powers, and they used it deliberately to destabilise the Qing Empire via Guangzhou. To cut a long story short - Hong Kong was ceded to the British on long-term lease; as was Macao to the Dutch.

Empress Dowager Cixi - The Dragon Lady

Many historians described Dowager Cixi as one of "the most formidable women in modern history", who could become a terrible enemy if she was antagonized. She was described to be "power hungry, ruthless and profoundly skilled in court politics". Most Chinese dislike her a lot. However, she tried to control and stop the Qing Empire from being divided and ruled by various foreign powers. In this she was successful, but at what a great cost!

In the first Japanese invasion of 1894, the Qing fleet was destroyed and they were soundly beaten. However, the Eight-Nation Alliance failed to capitalise on gains they could have made.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899 was initially targeted at removing the Qing from power. However, Cixi was shrewd and subtly converted this movement into one aiming to remove foreign powers from China. In this she was generally successful; but the cost in human life, especially amongst Christian missionaries was horrific. Beijing was invaded by the Eight-Nation Alliance, and Cixi + Royal Family fled to Xi'an.

However, this proved to China's gain - and upon her return, Cixi was able to pay-off the Eight-Nation Alliance with silver, a lot of it! China was at last free of the threat of the foreign powers. Cixi and her Emperor son both died in 1908 (Some reports say they were both shot by a General Yuan Shikai, a very powerful court and family member).

The vacuum was filled by a two-year-old Emperor and his Regent. Popular revolts became commonplace as the last Chinese Empire folded. Both Nationalists and Communists were involved, and in1912, China became a democratic country inspired by Sun Yat Sen.

This now overlaps our history of modern China, which is probably the most confusing period of all Chinese history. If you really want to understand why the peoples of modern China and Taiwan consider themselves to be Brother's, then you better start - just after the fall of the mighty Qing here
This information is as supplied by Wikipedia and, as dated March 2009 or later, and/or other reliable sources. Some of the above text is sourced under Collective Commons 3 Licence, as reproduced and/or edited by China Expats:


Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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