Qing Dynasty

15 April, 2009

The Qing dynasty began in 1644, when the Manchu warriors occupied China, replacing the Ming dynasty, already weakened by "administrative decadence, factional strife and civil war" 1. The Qing came as "restorers, reformers and upholders of the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy" 2 but remained foreigners in a country with a majority Han population whom they ruled through assimilation and discrimination. Despite policies which favored the Manchu as a superior ethnic race, concepts of nationality and nationalism did not strongly emerge until the nineteenth century, when intrusions of foreign powers emphasized the failures of the Qing Empire. This led to a rise in nationalism, which was accentuated by the previous discriminating policies exercised by the ruling Manchu. This study will examine the concept of ethnic identity in the early rule of the Qing dynasty, and the reasons for and impact of the rise of nationalism 3  in the decline and collapse of the Qing Empire.

Lords, Slaves, Extermination

The Manchu warriors seized the throne from the Ming dynasty in 1644 and consolidated their rule over the Chinese territory by 1683 with the storming of Taiwan. Stability and the 'Golden Age' of the Qing dynasty only began in 1680 however, thanks to the efforts of Emperor Kangxi. In the early rule of the Qing dynasty under emperor Shun-Chih (with the 'supervision' of the Manchu regent Dorgan), the "Qing settled in China like a race of lords destined to reign over a population of slaves, just as the Mongols had done"4. The Han were banned from Manchuria "in order to keep an area free from all foreign influence and to preserve a monopoly in the exploitation of ginseng."5 The policy of the early Qing towards the Han was heavily racist and exploitative. Peking, the capital, and other cities were divided between North and South, expelling the Chinese from the North to establish Manchu enclaves. In 1645, all Chinese with skin disease or affected by smallpox were expelled from Peking, leading people to think that "the occupying power was going to exterminate the whole Chinese population" 6. The same year, the Manchu imposed on pain of death the wearing of the pigtail, which lead to popular uprising and riots which were rapidly repressed by massacres 7. The invading power confiscated the land from the peasants and "made the labor force which cultivated their estates into positive slaves"8. The Manchu conquest of China was carried out with "extreme savagery"9 and led to an atmosphere of fear and terror. This is often symptomatic of colonial powers, as is observed in the extermination and exploitation of the indigenous people in South America after the invasion and occupation of the continent by the Spanish Empire.

The "brutality, tyranny, and expropriation"10 carried out by the Manchu forces were abandoned with the arrival of Emperor Kangxi who reigned from 1662-1722 and showed a "sense of adaptation and an openness of mind"11 which led the Qing dynasty into a Golden Age that lasted over 100 years. Slavery was abolished in 1685 and confiscations were prohibited. Nonetheless, the Manchu maintained a policy of exclusivity, emphasizing the ethnic differences between their race and the Han. They preserved their own identity by banning intermarriage with the Chinese, spending their summers in Manchuria (which was still barred from Han and hence 'pure') and they continued speaking the Manchu language which was also kept in use at least in court documents. 12. Furthermore, changes in the dress of the Chinese were instituted and Manchu clothes were mandatory. The Qing tried to forbid the binding of women's feet, but this ruling was withdrawn in 1668 because of the difficulties in implementing this law. 13 The Han were also at a disadvantage politically, as the Manchu retained military strength "by separating the duties of the Chinese troops and of the Manchu troops. The Chinese were not trained as a striking force" 14 which made it difficult for them to attempt a coup against the Qing emperor. Likewise, the Qing used a system of dual appointments for government positions, where the Chinese appointee was required to perform the manual labor under the supervision of a Manchu. The Qing also employed Manchu officials "in a ratio greatly out of proportion to their number in the population of the empire" 15. The preference of Manchu over Han is not only a result of ethnic discrimination, but also a calculated policy to protect the emperor since the Manchu had a vested interest in supporting the rule of the Qing dynasty.

Despite the policy of discrimination carried out by the Qing dynasty, it is necessary to examine the process of sinicization of the Manchu, since the new emperors appealed to Han ideology to legitimate their rule, and used Ming institutions to govern China. Assimilation of the Han by the Manchu and vice-versa were an important quality which contributed to the length of the reign of the Qing dynasty over a foreign territory. The Manchu arrived in China with a strong understanding of Chinese culture thanks to "constant interaction with the Ming Chinese population of Liatun, and more particularly of the absorption into the evolving Manchu state by capture and voluntary adherence of educated Chinese collaborators who were knowledgeable in the Confucian arts of government" 16. They adapted the Ming apparatus of government with a few changes, creating a sense of continuity within the territory. Nonetheless, the Qing emperors revised the law code and the tax arrangements and revitalized the political system, both through an increasingly active role on the part of the emperor, and the inclusion of local elites into government. The assimilation of Chinese culture was also used to justify the Qing rule through the Mandate of Heaven. The Manchu appeared to defend Confucianism and Chinese high culture, providing a "common ground for the scholar-gentry and the dynasty" 17. It must be pointed out however, that Confucian culture was limited to the gentry, and the majority of Chinese believed in native gods and religions such as Taoism, so Confucian did not create a common sense of identity.

Assimilation but however a Foreign Power

Despite the efforts to assimilate, the Qing imperial court maintained their status as a foreign power, but "suffered from a deep and abiding insecurity about its ethnic origins and was forever on the lookout for what it considered treasonous anti-Manchu attitudes"18. This contributed to the Literary Inquisition, a period of heavy censorship of any references to the Qing's "barbarian origins" 19 The Manchu wanted to dispel any "doubts that the Qing was not quite a legitimate dynasty and they were alien usurpers undeserving of the Mandate of Heaven" 20. The dynamics between the Manchu and the Han were plagued by racism and an imbalance of power, but it is interesting to note that "political divisions were not usually along Chinese-Manchu lines" 21 until the end of the 18th century. While the Manchu were "conquest elites, ethnically unlike Chinese, distinct in custom, language and script" 22, so were a number of previous dynasties which had ruled over China, and the country was further divided into many different ethnicities. There was no conception of 'nationality' other than a distinction between races, be it Han or other, and a hierarchy existed between the different groups. The Chinese Moslems for example formed a social group apart from the Chinese population and actively pursued the preservation of their religious affiliation and ethnic origins, but they were victims of discrimination from the Han and the imperial administration 23. The unifying factor in China was the "power and resilience of the state; the very idea of China and the superimposition of a common written script which allowed everyone to participate in a national culture" 24, but not a common identity or nationality since the Qing dynasty failed to pursue a policy of national consolidation and integration. The weaknesses of the Qing Empire it appears cannot be explained by the foreignness of the ruling house since discrimination and racism seem to be symptomatic of the various empires which ruled over China across time. To the contrary, the Chinese empire reached its peak both in terms of size and stability under Emperor Qianglong, and the sustained peace led to a rise in population growth.

National identity in Qing China is a phenomenon which was consciously constructed as an object of contestation to the failures of the ruling dynasty to protect the State against foreign powers. This is partly due to the sino-centric philosophy of the Qing Empire and the inability of the ruling class to modernize in order to keep up with rival powers. The Qing managed to neutralize its neighboring countries which acknowledged its suzerainty and paid tribute to the Empire. But the territorial threat to China's power was not adjacent to the country; it came overseas in the form of Western missionaries, merchants, and finally armies. The disintegration of the Qing dynasty was a result of the decay of dynastic rule and the intervention from foreign powers. This led to a political breakdown in the form of foreign pressure, and to domestic instability as the contact with foreigners increased a sense of identity crisis and eventually nationalism.

The Taiping Rebellion: Massacre and  Roots of Wardlordism

With the population explosion came a growing need for resources, reforms and modernization, a challenge the Qing dynasty refused to meet. The isolationist policy which the Qing favored impacted both their foreign relations and the economic situation. The lack of trade coupled with population growth led to an increase in poverty and popular discontent. Popular uprising occurred but were crushed, starting with the uprising in 1775 of the Society of the White Lotus, a secret society, and then the Society of Heaven's Law. Religious groups further emerged as a contentious source, of which the Taiping Rebellion is a perfect example where Southern Peasants, led by a 'Christian' leader rose against the Qing dynasty. The Qing Emperor failed to control the uprising which lasted from 1851 to 1864, killing millions. In order to overcome the Taiping Rebellion, the Qing Emperor encouraged the rise of local armies among the elites, eventually leaving to the decentralization of China's military power, providing the roots for warlordism 25. Other religious uprisings were the Mohammedan risings which were they too instantly crushed. These groups of contention illustrate the loss of control of the Qing dynasty over domestic polities and the growth of opposition to the foreign power.

Western Powers in China, Opium Wars,Unequal Treaties

The Western powers became increasingly interested in expanding their influence into the Chinese territory, particularly in the form of trade. The Opium trade led by the British Empire disrupted Chinese society, leading to inflation (as a large amount of money left the country) and peasant unrest (a result of the addiction). Consequently, the Qing abolished the Opium trade in 1839, setting off the Opium Wars with Great Britain which the Chinese subsequently lost. The resulting 'Unequal Treaties', starting with the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 ceded the Chinese territory of Hong Kong to Britain, forced China to pay indemnity to Britain and opened 5 ports (11 ports with the Treaty of Tientsin) to foreign trade, acknowledged diplomatic equality between British and Chinese officials, and imposed the Most Favored Nation principle on China by which Britain would benefit from any agreements the Asian country would make with any other. The second Opium War in 1857 further turned China into a British colony, exposing the country's military and thus political vulnerability. The 'Unequal Treaties' were further exposed through the Treaty of Wanghia with the USA in 1844 by which the Americans demanded the same favorable treatment as the British and insisted on extraterritoriality, and the Treaty of Whangpoa with France in 1844 which opened China to Catholic missionary activities. Through the Unequal Treaties, the Qing dynasty thus lost its political sovereignty by 'agreeing' to the presence of foreigners and their armies, and its economic sovereignty through the influx of cheap goods from abroad and the heavy payments imposed on the Chinese by the foreign powers. These treaties were a humbling experience to a nation that had previously perceived itself as the 'Middle Kingdom' ruled by a Mandate from Heaven. The Chinese interpreted this experience as a failure of the Qing dynasty to protect the interests of China, and this contributed to a rise in nationalism for everything that was not Manchu.

Chinese Nationalism, Republican Revolution (1911)

The beginning of Chinese nationalism is rooted in "nation-saving groups like the Study Societies and young Confucian scholars" 26 and in the vocabulary used by the high Qing officials to mobilize the Chinese against the foreigners by creating a common sense of identity in the face of a foreign threat. Furthermore, the increased exposure to Western ideology emphasized the concept of nationalism as a popular movement that could reinstate the former prestige of China. The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 represents a movement against the ruling dynasty which they blamed for its weaknesses and inefficiencies in the face of the foreign powers. Their slogan was "overthrow the Qing and exterminate the foreigners" 27. The uprising was a nativist response to growing Western presence 28 and was a violent manifestation against foreigners in China eventually crushed by an international military expedition, further demonstrating the weaknesses of the Qing dynasty. The ensuing Boxer Protocol demanded heavy reparations to foreign powers, and a formal apology from the Emperor for having supported the anti-foreigners movement (through the 'encouragements' of Empress Tzi Hsi who saw this as a ploy to oust the Westerners). Through the various Treaties, China was literally carved up and divided among the foreign Western powers. The Qing government had to raise taxes to pay for indemnity, eroding the sense of pride and self-respect of the Chinese population. The humiliation was accentuated by the necessity of the Chinese to model their reform on the superior Western powers. The Sino-Japanese War over the control of Korea in 1894 was an additional 'foreign shock', leading to the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1896 by which China had to recognize independence of Korea and hand over Taiwan. The loss of the vassal states also weakened the traditional perception of China as a strong power, as the ruling dynasty proved incapable to protect her territories.

The failure of the Qing dynasty to protect its territory was a result partly of a crisis of succession. The emperors lost control and power to the advisors and the empresses. Dowager Empress Tzi Hsi accelerated the fall of the Qing dynasty through her influence over the Emperor and refusal to reform. She was uneducated and opposed to modernization, executed reformers and had the formed emperor assassinated. She died leaving Pu'Yi, a two year old on the throne, further weakening the government, thus strengthening the revolutionary movement. The Confucian ideology which the Qing has faithfully adopted for 200 years created an impasse where modernization was viewed as undesirable, and the Qing failed to implement the necessary reforms. The attempt to reform by Emperor Guangxi in 1898 with the Hundred Days Reform was proven useless, and convinced the population that the only way to modernize China and defeat the foreigners was to overthrow the 'foreign' Manchu in a revolution.

The failure of the Qing to successfully transmit power from one emperor to the next created a vacuum of power, and provided an ideal environment for a revolution. The vacuum of power was further emphasized by a succession of natural disasters in the early 20th century, with floods and famine devastating the country. The inability of the Qing to provide for the people increased peasant support for an anti-Manchu movement. This came in the form of the Republican Revolution in 1911, led by Sun Yatsen, an educated Christian Chinese. The successful Wuchang uprising created a separate central government, emphasizing the 3 principles of Nationalism, Democracy and Livelihood. Hence the Republic of China was created on a basis of nationalism as a founding ideology and unifying movement.

The Qing dynasty suffered from "repeated blows by foreign powers, each new imposition or humiliation set off a wave of alarm among patriots by revealing afresh China's vulnerability and inadequacy of previous efforts to reverse the crisis." 29 The foreign shocks and the importation of a western concept of 'nationalism' led to a crisis of identity, emphasized by resentment for the discriminating treatment of the Chinese both at the hands of their ruling dynasty and of the foreign powers. This put the two offending forces on equal footing and efforts were concentrated at eliminating both. The Chinese has lost confidence in their rulers, and the Golden Age of the Qing had ended. The decay of the empire, inability of the rulers to consolidate a common ethnic identity or to identify with their subjects led to resentment and opposition. The rise in nationalism and failures of the Qing dynasty to consolidate a national identity during its rule, modernize and protect the Chinese empire from invading forces eventually inspired a revolution that toppled the ruling Qing dynasty, the last Imperial Dynasty of China.





Bianco, Lucien Origins of the Chinese Revolution, Stanford University Press, 1971

Dittmer & S.S.Kim, China's Quest for National Identity. Cornell UP,1993

Ehserick, Yeh and Zelin, Empire, Nation and Beyond, Institute of East Asian Studies, UCBerkeley, 2006

Feuerweker, State and Society in 18th Century China,Center for Chinese Studies The Finer, 'China: The Golden Century of the Ch'ing, 1680-1780,' in The History of Government, Vol.III.

University of Michigan. 1976

Gernet, J, A History of Chinese Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 1996

Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China, New York, 2004














Goldstein, Avery, University of Pennsylvania, fall 2005


  1. 1. Feuerwerker, p.7
  2. 2.  Feuerweker p 31
  3. 3.  Defined as an anti-Manchu movement consolidating a common 'Chinese' identity with China as a powerful nation
  4. 4.  Gernet p.467.
  5. 5.  Gernet p.468.
  6. 6. Ibid.
  7. 7. Gernet, p. 468.
  8. 8. Ibid.
  9. 9. Ibid.
  10. 10. Finer, p. 1127.
  11. 11. Gernet, p. 149.
  12. 12. <a href=" http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/china/later_imperial_china/qing.html">Qing Dynasty</a> 
  13. 13. Ibid
  14. 14. Ibid.
  15. 15. Ehserick p.71.
  16. 16.  Feuerwerker p.6.
  17. 17.  http://www.thecorner.org/hist/china/lqreform.htm 
  18. 18.  Elliott p.17.
  19. 19.  Ehserick p.71.
  20. 20.  Elliott p.17.
  21. 21.  Ehserik p.71.
  22. 22.  Feuerwerker p.6.
  23. 23.  http://www.thecorner.org/hist/china/lqreform.htm 
  24. 24.  Elliott p.17. 
  25. 25. Goldstein.
  26. 26.  http://www.thecorner.org/hist/china/lqreform.htm 
  27. 27. Ibid.
  28. 28. Goldstein.
  29. 29. Wang, p. 66.