Qing Empire (1644 – 1912)

The last of the great Chinese dynasties.

Pig farming
Li Zicheng
Han submission to Manchu rule
Siku Quanshu

Who were the Qing?

The Qing Dynasty was founded by the Manchu people, a foreign tribe who took control of China in 1644. They ruled the country for more than two-hundred years, building the largest empire in Chinese history.

Even though the Manchu were outsiders to Chinese culture and politics, they did not try to wipe away the nation’s traditional culture. Instead, they embraced it, consciously transforming themselves into culturally Chinese rulers.

Many people in China remained suspicious of the Qing, and never quite accepted them as true Chinese. Despite that fact, the Qing were still one of the most successful dynasties in Chinese history.

The origins of the Qing

The Manchu people had been living in relative isolation for centuries – a stable farming community to the north of Chinese borders. They were particularly good at pig farming, and wore pig-leather coats.

The Manchu people were ethnically distinct from the Han people of China, who had been ruled by Han dynasties for hundreds of years. At the beginning of the early modern period, China was ruled by the Ming Dynasty, who were considered extremely traditional.

In the early 1600s, the Manchu people began to attack the borders of Ming China, but they were kept away by the Great Wall of China, which had been specifically built many centuries earlier to stop invasions from foreign tribes.

The Manchu invasion

In 1644, the Ming Dynasty was toppled, not by a foreign tribe, but by a group of Chinese rebels. When they ousted the emperor, their leader, Li Zicheng, proclaimed himself emperor of a new Shun Dynasty.

This dynasty was short-lived. In the aftermath of the Shun rebellion, a powerful general from the Ming Dynasty turned to the Manchu people for help. He agreed to open the gates of the Great Wall for them, as long as they helped him to rid China of the rebels.

The Manchu easily defeated the rebel forces, and took control of Beijing. Their leader, Prince Dorgon, declared himself emperor in 1644. This marked the start of yet another dynasty: the Qing.

Qing changes

When they came to power, the Qing were viewed with fear and distrust – an alien culture who had infiltrated China. In an effort to force obedience, the Qing imposed some major changes.

For example, the Haircut Edict required all men to cut their hair in a traditional Manchu queue. This was meant to symbolize Han submission to Manchu rule, but some people committed suicide before obeying; in Confucianism, people are never meant to cut their hair.

The Qing also banned certain books and theater productions with politically subversive themes. Rebellious groups, like the Heaven and Earth Society, were persecuted. All of this was meant to solidify Qing control.

Qing continuation

Apart from some of their more extreme measures, like the Haircut Edict, the Qing Dynasty was generally loyal to traditional Chinese culture. Their system of government was mostly the same as their Ming predecessors, and they promoted similar moral values.

The Sacred Edict was issued by the Qing in 1670 to promote Confucian values, which included close knit families and respect for elders. This edict was widely circulated throughout China, and over time, some people began to respect their foreign leaders.

In 1773, the Qing commissioned the Siku Quanshu – a library containing thousands of traditional Chinese books. This library was so comprehensive that it is sometimes referred to as the Great Wall of Chinese Culture.

Territorial expansion

The Qing Dynasty had imperial ambitions, and oversaw a period of significant expansion. Under the Ming, China had only consisted of 13 provinces; under the Qing, this number expanded to 18, as parts of Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet and Taiwan came under their command.

This expansion was achieved through clever warfare, but also diplomacy. The Manchu knew what it was like to live outside the borders of China, and were able to forge relationships with cultures in a similar position. They welcomed these people into Chinese society, and did not punish them for cultural differences.

The Qing also commissioned a 12 year project to systematically map the entire empire using modern tools and professional surveyors. This process was unlike anything they had seen before, and came to symbolize their meticulous control over the vast, diverse empire.

Opium Wars

Like so many empires in the early modern period, the decline of the Qing was intimately linked to the arrival of foreign powers.

In the 19th century, the British Empire was illegally importing opium into Chinese ports. The British were getting rich from this, and the Qing leaders were unhappy. The opium had led to widespread addiction, and social problems all over China.

The Qing tried to force the British away, but the British refused to leave. War broke out, but Britain used superior military technology to defeat the Qing forces. China was forced to sign an unfavorable peace deal, giving up Hong Kong to British rule. This was a turning point in Chinese history, as they realized how vulnerable they were to European forces.

The collapse of the Qing

In the final decades of the 1800s, foreign powers began to chip away at the borders of Qing China. Russia seized territory in the north, Japan took control of Taiwan, and Germany and Britain also claimed pieces of land.

In 1911, a rebellion took place. The rebels were sympathetic to Western ideologies, and wanted to overthrow the Qing. In 1912, the emperor was forced to abdicate, bringing the long Qing Dynasty to an end.

The fall of the Qing ended more than 2000 years of imperial rule. China became a presidential republic, and the new government quickly reformed the country, taking inspiration from foreign democratic nations.

The legacy of the Qing


When they first came to power, the Manchu Qing were a foreign force, but they stayed loyal to traditional Chinese customs. They promoted Confuscian ideologies, and protected traditional Chinese books.

The same cannot be said of the Chinese Republic, or the communist regime which followed. In modern China, many traditional Chinese customs are completely forbidden, and the legacy of the Qing suppressed.

The collapse of the Qing is similar to the stories of other early modern empires, from the Aztecs and the Incas, to the Mughals and the Japanese. In all of these cases, a once-great empire was destabilized by foreign forces, before finding itself completely reshaped in the style of a Western state.

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