The China File: the Qing Dynasty, 1644–1912

The Chinese Empire under the Qing, circa 1870 by Philg88

  • The Qing, a non-Han Chinese dynasty, was the last imperial dynasty of China.
  • The Qing dynasty was founded by Nurhaci (1559–1626), a Jurchen chieftain from Manchuria.
  • The first emperor of China proper, however, was Nurhaci’s grandson, Fulin, the Shunzhi Emperor (1638–1661).
  • At 14,700,000 km², the Qing Dynasty ruled the largest Chinese Empire and the fifth largest empire in history.
  • During the Qing, China continued to be the most populated country in the world with over 400 million citizens between 1851 and 1912.
  • Also, China continued to be the world’s richest country by estimated GDP during the Qing, commanding almost a third of the world’s total GDP during the 17th century.
  • The Qing arose in the wake of the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, that fell from the 1630s and 1640s like many Chinese dynasties under the weight of government corruption, peasant revolts, famine caused by droughts that were possibly aided by the “Little Ice Age.”
  • In 1644, the Manchu took advantage of the chaos, crossed the Great Wall of China, and seized the capital of Beijing from rebels under Li Zicheng.
  • While it took the Qing decades to conquer China through brutal wars the cost the lives of millions, resistance by the ethnic Han Chinese continued for centuries until the Xinhai Revolution of 1912.
  • In power, the Qing instituted censorship laws, replaced tenant farming with serfdom, sought to end trade with foreign countries, and forced all Han Chinese to sport the queue hairstyle or be executed.
  • The Qing period saw unprecedented contact between China and powers of Europe, which resulted in several military defeats, territorial losses to Europe, hefty indemnities, the end of the Imperial Examination, and ultimately the end of imperial China.
  • Despite government censorship, the Qing Dynasty saw the creation of Peking opera and some of China’s greatest works of literature, from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio to Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, widely hailed as the zenith of three thousand years of Chinese prose.
  • As with the dynasties before it, the Qing collapsed under the weight of state corruption, political infighting, foreign invasion, and internal revolution, first with the White Lotus Rebellion, then the Taiping Rebellion, the Dungan Revolt, and lastly the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.
  • The 14-year Taiping Rebellion, in particular, cost the lives of an estimated 60 million, making it the second deadliest conflict in human history after World War II.
  • As with the fall of many imperial dynasties, the interregnum after the 1912 fall of the Qing was bloody, violent, and it would not end until 1928 with the Kuomintang’s Northern Expedition.