The Jurchens (“Nuzhen” in Chinese pinyin romanization) were a Tungusic people who inhabited parts of northeast China and North Korea. Around the 11th century, part of the Jurchens migrated to the Yellow River basin. Those who remained were made up of three divisions: Haixi, Jianzhou, and Yeren. In the early 17th century, the remaining Jurchen tribes were unified under the leadership of Nurhachi (1559-1626). He organized them into “Eight Flags,” which were at once both an administrative system and a military confederacy. In times of war, then, the men readily and easily formed companies and battalions. Otherwise, they lived as trans-humans, engaged in pastoralism and small-scale gardening. Nurhachi was their leader and the supreme commander of the confederacy.
In 1616, Nurhachi founded an empire at Mukden (Shenyang) and proclaimed himself emperor. In one sense, this was the birth of the Qing Dynasty, though not yet in name. At the same time, the ruling class of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) grew increasingly corrupted. Nurhachi seized this opportunity to cut ties with his former liege, the Ming emperor. Active preparations were made for invading the Ming territories by Nurhachi and his Eight Flags, and a full-scale assault was launched in 1618.
In 1626, Nurhachi died of a serious wound inflicted in the battlefield. His son Huang Taiji (1592-1643) succeeded to the throne and continued the military operation relentlessly. By then the Jurchen army had grown into 24 “Flags,” thanks to the addition of eight Mongol Flags and eight Han Flags. It scored significant military successes against the Ming troops during the following decade. In 1636, Huang Taiji renamed his empire “Qing,” which went down in history as “Manchu Qing.” Subsequently the Jurchens came to be known as the Manchus, of the Qing Dynasty.
At the time of Manchus’ aggression, the Ming Dynasty was also under siege from within, especially from the peasant uprisings led by Gao Yingxiang (?-1636), Li Zicheng (1606-1645), and Zhang Xianzhong (1606-1647). To deal with the imminent threat of peasant uprisings, the Ming government had to withdraw its troops from the north. But other than leaving the borders more vulnerable, this measure did little to stop the drive of the peasant uprisings. The Ming Dynasty collapsed on March 19, 1644, when the peasant troops of Li Zicheng stormed into Beijing, and the Ming emperor hanged himself.
Soon, however, the Manchus army overpowered the peasant armies and took possession of Beijing. Emperor Shunzhi (1644-1661), who had succeeded Huang Taiji as leader of the Manchus, moved his court to Beijing from Mukden (Shenyang). With this, a new dynasty was born in Chinese history—the Qing Empire (1644-1911). But it took the Qing rulers several more decades to subjugate the resistance movements put up by the remnants of the Ming loyalists who remained in the south and in Taiwan.
Although most of the country was conquered by now, there were still serious challenges for the Manchu rulers. The Manchus were greatly outnumbered by the Hans, and the empire was vast. For the purpose of maintaining internal cohesion and political stability, many Han administrative and military talents were employed. A number of Chinese ways and customs were adopted, and communication between the Hans and Manchus was encouraged, even though intermarriages were forbidden.
The reign of the Qing Dynasty involved a total of 12 emperors, some of whom were very able. Under Emperor Shunzhi, for example, the Qing Dynasty was swiftly consolidated. While he was effective, a number of his successors were extraordinary. Among them was Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), a great ruler who is remembered for his visionary policies. Kangxi managed to recruit many noted Han scholars into his service, a feat that positively changed the sentiment and attitude of the majority of the Hans toward the Qing rulers.
Emperor Qianlong, (1736-1795), the grandson of Emperor Kangxi, was another great ruler. During his reign, the Qing Dynasty reached its zenith in terms of power and wealth. A series of military conquests brought the territorial expanses of China to a historical high. Moreover, he was a man of letters. After a reign of 60 years he retired in 1795, leaving the throne to his son. Approximately 150 years later, the Qing monarchy had come to be regarded as a legitimate possessor of the Mandate of Heaven, or at least one that was ruling on a divine commission.
Peace at last prevailed. As long as the economy was thriving, people seemed to be contented. Literary traditions flourished and culminated in the composition of great novels and dramas. However, the peace proved to be the calm before a tumultuous storm. A population explosion ensued. Increasingly, it led the carrying capacities of land to be overtaxed, and the people grew restless. A revolt led by the religious sect called the White Lotus Order erupted in 1796. The insurrection spread like wild fire among the discontented poor and lasted into the beginning of the next century. The suppression was bloody and effective, but there was no end to the trouble in sight.
The 19th century was a time of continual unrest, during which the Qing Dynasty started to deteriorate. First there was the Opium War (1840-1842), which exemplified a collision of cultures and philosophies. On one hand, there was the deep-rooted Confucian tradition that had reigned supreme in Chinese thought and life for over 2,000 years. On the other hand, there was the European ideology of progress and liberty. This initial conflict between the two civilizations was to last for more than a century.
The immediate issue of the conflict was trade. Large quantities of opium were shipped and smuggled into China through the southern port of Guangzhou (Canton). It was extremely lucrative to the British but did great harm to the Chinese society. Seriously alarmed by the debilitating effects of this drug, the Chinese authorities decided to ban opium trade in 1838. A high government official named Lin Zexu (1785-1850) was sent to Guangdong with the authorization to prohibit the bootlegging of opium on the penalty of death. In June 1839, a great amount of opium was seized from British merchants and then burned. Approximately 4,000 British troops appeared off the shore of Macao in June 1840, and the Opium War commenced.
The war eventually ended in 1842, when the Qing government was forced into signing the Nanjing Treaty. In addition to the payment of a huge indemnity, Hong Kong was ceded to the British for 99 years, five coastal ports were opened to foreign trade, and extra-territorial rights were granted to the British in China. Soon, other Western powers followed suit and demanded similar treaties and concessions.
Not only was China bogged down in the quagmire of humiliation and deprivation caused by a series of treaties with Western powers, but rebellions mushroomed as well. The one with the greatest momentum was known as the Taiping (Heavenly Peace) Movement. It was headed by Hong Xiuquan (18121864), a scholar-priest whose theology combined Christian notions with traditional Chinese values. By 1851, the movement had spread far and wide, drawing into its rank and file millions of poverty-stricken peasants and craftsmen who were suffering in the wake of the Opium Wars. The rebellion army sent the government troops fleeing in southern and central China. After Nanjing was captured, Hong set up the “Heavenly Peace Kingdom” (1853-1864).
As the cornerstone of the Chinese ruling elite, the scholar-gentry looked askance at the Taiping Movement. Many of its members proceeded to organize militia units in the name of local security and self-defense. Their military tactics and maneuvers were so successful that official recognition soon followed, elevating the militia forces to the spearhead of the Qing army against the rebels. The most prominent of the gentry-militia leaders was Zeng Guofan (1811-1872), a graduate of the civil service examinations who commanded a large following of scholarly and military talents, talent such as Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885). Zeng played a pivotal role in suppressing the Taiping Movement and other rebellions of the time.
Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang reasoned that the European countries were strong because they had modern science and technology. A number of measures were initiated in order to salvage the traditional social system and institutions by emulating the Western approach to modernization while discarding its ideology of democracy and individualism. These self-contradictory efforts were doomed from the very beginning, and the country continued its downward spiral. Between 1894 and 1895, China lost its war with Japan over Korea. As a result, Taiwan was ceded to Japan, whereas Korea, once a protectorate of China, was declared to be independent. In 1910, an emboldened Japan reduced Korea to one of its colonies, in defiance of its agreement with China.
The dramatic decline of China led its intellectuals to search for ways of reinvigorating the nation. In a historic memorial to the imperial court, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), Liang Qichao (1873-1929), and others vehemently called for reforms. The reformists found an ally in the young emperor, who granted an audience to Kang Youwei in 1898 and was persuaded by him to introduce sweeping changes. Before long, however, the conservative force led by Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) stepped in to nip the reformist agenda in the bud. The young emperor was stripped of power, and some reformists were ruthlessly executed. The Reformist Movement, which had lasted only a hundred days, was put to rest.
The 1900 Boxer Movement grew out of the local militia in Shandong and Shanxi, whose creed was to help the Qing government fight whatever was foreign. The Boxers were primarily peasants who saw foreign aggressions and influences as the root cause of China’s deepening crisis. Their activities received tacit sanction from the authorities, but there were times when the xenophobic sentiments of the Boxers went beyond control, hence the government’s ambiguous attitude toward them. The high point of the rebellion occurred in 1900, when the Boxers were summoned to besiege the foreign legations in Beijing. It triggered the invasion of an international contingent of troops from Britain, America, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, and Austria. The siege was lifted, but in the heat of the moment, some of the imperial palaces were looted and burned by the allied troops, inflicting great losses on China’s cultural treasures and artifacts.
Entering into the 20th century, the Qing Dynasty was the ghost of what it used to be: corrupted, demoralized, servile to foreign extortions, out of touch with reality, and detested by its own people. A revolution was in the air, drawing its inspiration primarily from the teachings of Sun Yat-sen (18661925), a prominent leader who called on the Chinese to overthrow the Qing monarchy and institute a political system that advocated “nationalism, democracy, and livelihood of the people,” known as the “Three Principles of the People.” On October 10, 1911, an armed revolt in Wuhan set off the revolution that quickly toppled the Qing rule, the last dynasty of China. Sun Yat-sen was elected the first president of the Republic of China.
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