The Greatest Dynasties in China: Qing Dynasty

The Greatest Dynasties in China: Qing Dynasty
By Leon Long
China Expert

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE) was the last imperial dynasty of China. The Qing dynasty, especially in the eighteenth century when the Qing Empire was the largest and most prosperous in the world, saw prolific cultural and artistic achievements. But the latter half of the Qing Dynasty (circa 1800-1912) was marked by a series of crises, internal turmoil, and foreign aggression that ultimately led to the collapse of the dynasty. Understanding the political, social, and economic factors that contributed to the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty helps us better comprehend the historical context that shaped modern China.

The Facts of Qing Dynasty

  • Duration: 1644-1912
  • Capital City: Beijing
  • Population: about 436 million
  • Area: about 13,160,000 square kilometers (5,081,104 square miles)

Significant Events of Qing Dynasty

Several significant events took place during the Qing Dynasty, which shaped its history and impacted the Chinese people. Some of the most notable events include:

The First Opium War (1839-1842)

The First Opium War

A trade war between the British Empire and the Qing Dynasty, sparked by disputes over British opium imports, concluded with a British victory and the Treaty of Nanjing, whereby Hong Kong was ceded to the British and the ports of Canton (Guangzhou), Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai were opened for foreign trade. This marked the beginning of China's "Century of Humiliation" and eroded the Qing Dynasty's authority and prestige.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860)

In another conflict with Western powers, the Qing Empire suffered further military defeats and was forced to sign treaties granting additional rights and privileges to foreign nations. Britain won southern Kowloon. The Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) was looted and burned.

The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864)
The Taiping Rebellion

A massive civil war was led by Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and challenged the authority of the Qing Dynasty. The rebellion aimed to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish a Christian theocracy in China. Although the rebellion was eventually suppressed, it severely weakened the Qing government and exposed its inability to maintain control and stability.

Yangwu Movement (The Self-Strengthening Movement) (1861-1895)

The Qing government introduced Western methods and technology in an attempt to renovate the Chinese military, and diplomatic, fiscal, and educational policies. Prominent among the innovations introduced was the Zongli Yamen (1861), which was an imperial office established to manage relations with foreign countries, as well as the Jiangnan Arsenal (1865), the Nanjing Arsenal (1867), the Beiyang fleet (1888) (China's first modern navy), and various government-sponsored modern industries. But the movement ultimately failed to save the empire.

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901)

This was called the Yihetuan Movement in Chinese. Yihetuan literally means "the militia united in righteousness". The Boxers were ordinary villagers who reacted violently against the increasing influence of foreign Christian missionaries and diplomats in China. The rebellion was crushed by foreign powers, further weakening the Qing Dynasty.

The Xinhai Revolution (1911)

The Xinhai Revolution

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous Chinese students pursued education overseas. During their time abroad, they recognized the incompetence of the Qing government and started devising plans for a revolution. A faction called Tong Meng Hui (the Revolutionary Alliance) was formed in Japan in 1905. The primary objective of the Revolutionary Alliance was to implement a constitutional monarchy, whereby a sovereign would govern the nation under a constitution designed to safeguard the citizens. The Revolution began with the Wuchang Uprising, an armed rebellion against the Qing Dynasty rulers that broke out on October 10, 1911, in what is today's Wuchang District, Wuhan City, in central China's Hubei Province. The revolution finally resulted in the abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, and the establishment of the Republic of China.

The Notable Persons of the Qing Dynasty

Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722)

Kangxi Emperor

Personal name Aisin Gioro (family name) Xuanye (given name). He was the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the second to rule over China proper. His reign, which lasted from 1661 to 1722, was characterized by extensive political and military achievements, making him one of the most significant emperors in Chinese history. Kangxi is also known for having the longest reign in Chinese imperial history, spanning over 61 years. Potatoes and corn—plants native to the Americas—were introduced as crops during Kangxi’s reign, and food was considered plentiful during that time. Additionally, Kangxi oversaw an explosion in exports, particularly that of cotton, silk, tea, and ceramics.

Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799)

Personal name Aisin Gioro Hongli. He ruled from 1735 to 1796. During his reign, the Qianlong Emperor's military campaigns expanded the Qing Empire's territory and strengthened its borders. His administrative reforms increased government efficiency and improved the country's infrastructure, leading to a period of prosperity. Additionally, Qianlong was a patron of the arts and commissioned many notable works, including the Siku Quanshu (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), a comprehensive collection of Chinese literature.

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908)

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi was a powerful figure in the late Qing Dynasty, and she is known for her political influence and her efforts to modernize China. She was a highly influential and controversial figure, who effectively ruled China for nearly half a century through her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, and her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, implementing various reforms and dealing with foreign threats.

Xuantong Emperor (1906-1967)

Personal name Aisin Gioro Puyi, he is better known as the last emperor of China, whose abdication marked the end of the Qing Dynasty and centuries of imperial rule in China. In many ways, Puyi’s life history reflects the political changes of China during the 20th century. He became emperor at the age of 3 in 1909 and abdicated in 1912. He was enthroned for a short period in 1917. And from 1932 to 1945 he became the Emperor of Manchukuo, a puppet state of the Empire of Japan. He was captured by the Soviet Army in 1945 and was transported to the Soviet Union. He returned to China in 1950. He was incarcerated for ten years as a war criminal until he was declared reformed and lived as a commoner after that.

Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864)

Born in a Hakka family in Guangdong province and experienced several failures in the civil service examinations before coming into contact with Protestant Christian writings. He founded the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Under Hong Xiuquan's leadership, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom implemented a number of social and political reforms, including land redistribution, the abolition of slavery, and equal rights for women. The kingdom was based on a unique interpretation of Christianity, which blended elements of Confucianism, Daoism, and indigenous Chinese beliefs. Hong Xiuquan died in 1864, likely from poisoning himself with wild vegetables in a desperate attempt to survive the siege of Nanjing.

What is the Qing Dynasty Known for?

The Qing Dynasty is known for several significant achievements and events in Chinese history. Here are some of the most notable:

Expansion of the Empire

The Qing Dynasty expanded China's territory to its largest extent, including the incorporation of Tibet and Xinjiang into the empire.

Economic Growth

The Qing Dynasty saw significant economic growth, including the development of trade and commerce, the growth of urban centers, and the expansion of agriculture.

ceramic of China

Technology Achievements

  • The ceramic industry reached a new height during the Qing dynasty and created some of the most splendid porcelains ever crafted. An immense variety of porcelains was produced, which included those for imperial use, for popular consumption, and for export.
  • Agricultural technology improved during the Qing Dynasty, with new crop varieties and farming techniques being introduced. The introduction of "New World" crops such as corn, sweet potatoes, and peanuts from the Americas helped increase crop yields and alleviate food shortages. Better irrigation systems and the promotion of agricultural manuals also contributed to increased agricultural productivity.
  • Advancements in gunpowder weapons were made during the Qing Dynasty, including the development of new types of cannons, muskets, and rockets. The “Red Barbarian Cannon”, an artillery piece based on European designs, was widely used by the Qing military. The “Shenjiying”, or “Divine Machine Division”, was an elite military unit specializing in firearms and artillery, playing a crucial role in the Qing's military conquests.
  • The printing industry continued to develop during the Qing Dynasty, with the introduction of copperplate engraving and color printing. The "Rongbaozhai" (Studio of Glorious Treasures) was a famous print workshop that produced high-quality woodblock prints and calligraphy works. The "Siku Quanshu" (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), one of the largest encyclopedic works in Chinese history, was made possible due to advancements in printing technology.
  • Shipbuilding technology improved during the Qing Dynasty, with the construction of larger and more advanced ships. The "Fuchuan" warships, used by the Qing navy, were known for their speed and maneuverability. The "Yangwu Movement" in the late 19th century aimed to modernize China's shipbuilding industry by adopting Western technology and building modern naval vessels.

Cultural Achievements

  • Qing Dynasty painters continued the tradition of Chinese landscape painting and developed new styles. The Four Wangs, which included Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, and Wang Yuanqi, were influential in shaping the Orthodox School of painting. Other notable painters include Bada Shanren, Shitao, and the court painter Giuseppe Castiglione, who introduced Western painting techniques to the Chinese court.
  • Qing Dynasty Painting
  • The Qing Dynasty saw a flourishing of literary works, with famous writers such as Pu Songling, Cao Xueqin, and Wu Jingzi making their mark. Pu Songling's "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio" is a collection of supernatural stories, while Cao Xueqin's "Dream of the Red Chamber" is considered one of China's Four Great Classical Novels. Wu Jingzi's "The Scholars" is a satirical novel that critiques the examination system and the scholar-official class.
  • The Qing Dynasty saw the development of various regional opera styles, with Peking Opera emerging as the most famous and influential. Combining music, singing, acting, acrobatics, and martial arts, Peking Opera became a popular form of entertainment and remains an important part of Chinese culture today.
  • The Qing Dynasty was also marked by ambitious encyclopedic projects. The "Kangxi Dictionary" was a monumental work that standardized the Chinese language and remains a valuable resource for scholars. The "Siku Quanshu" (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries) was a massive compilation of over 3,400 books, covering a wide range of subjects and representing the accumulated knowledge of Chinese civilization up to that point.

Where Can I See the Influence of the Qing Dynasty Today?

Cultural sites: Visiting sites in Beijing such as the Summer Palace, Yuanmingyuan (old Summer Palace) and Prince Gong's Mansion will provide insight into the architecture and artistry of the Qing dynasty.

Art and artifacts: Many museums around the world, including the National Palace Museum, display paintings, ceramics, calligraphy, and other relics from the Qing dynasty. You can watch a Peking opera show in Beijing.

Cuisine: Traditional Manchu and Han Chinese dishes popularized during the Qing dynasty can still be found in various regions, reflecting the culinary influence of the period.

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