Becoming an Expert: The Qing Dynasty5:00 PM
One of my favorite Chinese dynasties, the Qing Dynasty, last imperial dynasty of China, lasted
for almost 300 years, extended China's borders farther than ever before, and perfected the
imperial system. The French writer Voltaire,
author of Candide (one of my favorite books) praised China for having the most effectively
organized government that the world had ever seen.
The founders of the early Qing dynasty were members of the Jurchen tribe, which had
conquered the Northern Song many years before. The Jurchen were nomadic people, but later
abandoned their nomadic habits for more settled ways. They adopted a new name, the
Manchu, and took control of China, even forcing the Chinese to wear Manchu-style pigtails. I
would be a little ticked off if conquering tribes restricted my fashion decisions.
To keep control over a huge country of millions of people, the Manchu gave top posts in the
government to Manchus and lower posts to Chinese. The Manchu rulers sometimes
appointed two officials, one Manchu and one Chinese, to the same post, with overlapping
duties so that they could
keep an eye on each other, like checks and balances in the American government. The
Manchus took over Beijing (current capital of China) as their administrative center, and the
emperor resided in the lavish Forbidden City. Surrounding this
was the Imperial City for high-ranking officials. Manchu and Chinese lived in seperate areas,
divided by walls.
The Manchu continued to conquer other parts of China, as well as defining territorial boundaries
with Russia. The Manchu claimed Tibet and took control of many territories.
The Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) Emperor was enthroned at the age of seven. At thirteen he managed
to get rid of the regents who ruled for him. (Talk about a child prodigy!) He believed that one act
of negligence could bring
sorrow to the entire country, and worked hard (often to the point of exhaustion) as an emperor.
He went on six tours of the South with a large entourage to learn about local conditions, remind
officials of his command, and publicize his concern for the people. The Kangxi Emperor issued
the Sacred Edict, sixteen moral maxims based on Confucian teachings to be read at public
places. The Kangxi Emperor sponsored many ambitions literary projects like dictionaries and
encyclopedias, to win over Chinese scholars.
Kangxi's son Yongzheng had a short reign but strengthened the powers of the monarchy by
setting up an inner core of advisors called the Grand Council and warning officials and scholars
against making political alliances or forming factions.
The Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) Emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1796, combined his father’s
authoritarianism with his grandfather’s support of culture. He sponsored an enormous literary
enterprise that both benefited scholars
and kept them under his control. This was the compilation of the Siku quanshu (The
Complete Library of the Four Treasuries), which included 3450 titles in 36,000 volumes and a
descriptive catalog of over 10,000 titles, which is still consulted today. These projects provided
scholars with rewarding work, but they were also used by the court to find and destroy all
books considered harmful to the empire.
Because China's name in Chinese means "Middle Kingdom," and the Chinese believed that they
were the middle of the world, the Qing emperors took China's superiority for granted and
demanded tribute from nearby foreign countries. Only some countries, like Japan, did not give
The early Qing rulers helped small farmers, who made up eighty percent of the population,
giving them tax cuts when harvests were bad. The government established granaries, bought
grain when crops were over abundant, and distributed grain when crops were bad to keep
From the beginning of the 19th century, Qing prosperity steadily waned. A population explosion
stretched government resources and capabilities to the limit. The actions of foreign powers,
who took advantage of the weak Qing government to gain Chinese trade and territory, hastened
the decline. Furthermore, factionalism and division at court prevented the Qing dynasty from
dealing effectively with these problems. Eventually, problems grew so severe that the people
began to take matters into their own hands. In 1911 Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang,
led by Sun Yat-sen, overthrew the dynasty and founded the Republic of China.