Qing Dynasty, Rise and Zenith

Qing empire map
Qing empire map

The Qing (1644–1911) was China’s last imperial dynasty and the second of nomadic origin that ruled the entire Chinese world. Its success is due to capable and wise founders and their long-reigning immediate successors, whose admiration for Chinese culture led them to assimilate rapidly, and to retain most of the existing government institutions with few modifications. The dynasty remained prosperous and dynamic until the end of the 18th century.

The Qing is also called the Manchu dynasty. The Manchus were nomads descended from the Jurchen tribal people who lived in northeastern China (Manchuria). They had conquered and ruled northern China under the Jin (Chin) dynasty (1115–1234) but had retreated to their original homeland when the dynasty ended. They forgot their short-lived written language and reverted to a life of hunting, fishing, and raising livestock.

Manchuria was part of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and became an area of mixed residence of Jurchen and other nomadic tribal people amid the sedentary Han Chinese. Jurchen and other tribal people were responsible to Ming officials in Manchuria and went to Beijing (Peking) at stipulated times to render tribute to the Ming court.

The decline of the Ming dynasty coincided with the rise of strong leaders among the Jurchens, the first a minor tribal chief named Nurhaci, who began significant reforms and innovations that would lead his people to power. They included the creation of a written language and the militarization of all Jurchens into a banner system whereby all males were organized into fighting units and given land to farm and administer.

As a result of successful campaigns, the defeated people became serfs, liberating the bannermen into full time warriors and administrators. Nurhaci created a state called the Later Jin, which his son Abahai changed to Qing (which means “pure”) 1635. Abahai also changed his people’s name from Jurchen to Manchu.

Continuing his father’s ambitious policies Abahai expanded the banner system to include units of Mongols and Han Chinese, conquered most of Manchuria, subdued Korea and forced it to change allegiance and tribute relations from the Ming to Qing, and began attacking Ming territories near the Great Wall of China. Abahai died in 1643 and was succeeded by a young son, but his work was continued by his capable brother Dorgon, who acted as regent.

Formation of a National Dynasty

A great stroke of luck catapulted the frontier Manchu state to a national Chinese dynasty. In 1644, rebel bandits attacked and captured the Ming capital, causing the emperor to commit suicide. In the ensuing confusion Wu Sangui (Wu San-kuei), a Ming frontier general guarding the eastern extremity of the Great Wall, requested Manchu assistance to drive out the rebels, with which Dorgon happily complied.

After liberating Beijing and while Wu’s forces chased the rebels to their destruction Dorgon placed his nephew on the vacant Ming throne and proclaimed the Qing as a national successor dynasty to the Ming.

He won over many people in northern China by burying the last Ming emperor and empress with honor, restoring order, and keeping most of the Ming institutions and officials in place. Ming loyalists resisted in southern China and warfare continued until 1683, when Taiwan, the last Ming loyalist bastion, was captured.

Dorgon died in 1651 and his nephew the emperor Shunzi (Shun-chih, r. 1644–61) continued his policies but had little impact because of the brevity of his reign. Then came three great emperors: Kangxi (K’ang-hsi, r. 1662–1722), Yongzheng (Yung-Cheng, r. 1723–35), and Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung, r. 1736–1796). These three reigns totaled 134 years, during which traditional Chinese culture enjoyed its last great flowering and Chinese power attained great heights.

Capable Rulers

Kangxi was seven when he ascended an as yet insecure throne. A remarkably intelligent, ambitious, and hardworking boy, he freed himself from the tutelage of his regents at age 13 and began his personal rule, which was noted for its success in war and peace. Frugal in personal habits and in administration he repeatedly reduced taxes and permanently fixed them at a low level.

He also took a personal interest in agricultural improvements, introducing early ripening strains of rice to promote food production. He advocated vaccination against smallpox, a dreaded childhood disease that he had recovered from, and quinine (called Jesuit bark) against malaria.

He also took several tours of inspection to be personally acquainted with his realm. He worked long hours personally reading and responding to reports and memorials of officials and conscientiously fasting before reviewing capital cases, showing respect for life and the awesome responsibilities that were vested in him.

He finished the work of suppressing Ming loyalist revolts and the formidable revolt of the Three Feudatories. He campaigned against the Mongols and negotiated a treaty with Russia that defined part of the borders between the two empires and put part of Outer Mongolia under Qing control. He also installed a friendly cleric as the Seventh Dalai Lama, thus extending Qing authority over Tibet.

Although personally friendly with Jesuit missionaries, some of whom were his teachers and employees, he rejected the papacy’s attempt to claim authority over Chinese Catholics and definition of what rites Chinese Catholics should follow. The defeat of the Jesuits’ position on Chinese rites by their opponents in the Catholic curia ended over a century of cultural exchange between China and Europe.

Kangxi was both a keen student and a patron of the arts and learning. He sponsored numerous projects that included the compiling of a multivolume history of the Ming dynasty, a comprehensive dictionary, and other publications. His court was filled with literary men and artists.

Although his last years were clouded with problems of finding a worthy successor among his many sons, Kangxi’s long reign ended with the Qing dynasty firmly established. To many of his subjects, he approached the ideal ruler.

Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1723–1735) was Kangxi’s fourth son and his successor. Because he was already 44 when he ascended the throne, his reign was a short one. Like his father, Yongzheng was able, conscientious, and hardworking.

He focused on making his government efficient by weeding out incompetence and corruption and making all officials accountable. The civil service, recruited on merit through exams, enjoyed high morale under his reign. He concentrated military power in his own hands and personally commanded all the Manchu banner units, sidelining the Manchu tribal and clan chiefs and imperial princes.

Although he did not personally command campaigns, Yongzheng continued to consolidate his empire’s borders with expeditions against the Mongol tribes that had not submitted, and by a second treaty with Russia that completed the drawing of borders between the two empires. Yongzheng’s legacy was a more efficient and tightly controlled empire than the one he inherited and one that was institutionally stronger.

Yongzheng was followed on the throne by his fourth son, then aged 24 and well prepared for his role, who reigned as Emperor Qianlong, a keen student of history. His paragons were Taizong (T’ai-tsung, r. 627–47, statesman and general) and his grandfather Kangxi, and he abdicated in 1796 so that his reign would not be longer than that of his revered grandfather. Qianlong excelled in war, personally leading some campaigns.

Under him Qing arms finally reduced the troublesome Olod Mongols and Turkic tribes, extending Chinese control into Central Asia as had the great Han, Tang (T’ang), and Yuan (Mongol dynasty) dynasties. Peace and prosperity prevailed, education and culture flourished, and the civil service exams recruited capable men to serve the government.

As had his grandfather, Qianlong made numerous tours of inspection throughout his realm, and as had both his predecessors, he lavishly patronized the arts, including many Jesuit artists and architects who gathered at his court. He was also an avid collector, who added a vast array of arts to the imperial collection.

A great literary project that distinguished his reign was the compilation of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries. It contained more than 36,000 volumes consisting of 10,230 titles divided into four categories: the classics, history, philosophy, and belles-lettres.

Seven complete sets of the compilation were printed and deposited in different libraries throughout the realm. However the emperor also had an ulterior motive in sponsoring this project—to weed out works that were hostile to the Manchus.

Qianlong’s reign both saw the culmination of Qing greatness and was the forerunner of dynastic decline because of corruption during his later years. He abdicated in 1796 but continued to wield power until his death in 1799 even as his son was nominally in control.

The long and successful reigns of three great and ambitious emperors took the Qing dynasty and China to the height of power and prosperity. While the monarchs were of nomadic Manchu origin, they had almost totally assimilated to and identified with Chinese culture.

The Manchu written script, proclaimed as one of two official languages of the empire (together with Chinese), was soon relegated to the background. All of the three rulers considered themselves cultured Chinese rulers and patrons of the arts.

Despite certain favoritism shown to Manchus in the highest ranks of government, Chinese occupied the bulk of the civil service positions and most gradually became reconciled to Manchus for sharing and honoring their culture and traditions. However splendor bred complacency that led to degeneration. By the beginning of the 19th century, changing world conditions and the accumulation of domestic problems would lead to rapid decline of the Qing dynasty.