After defeating the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the Qing Dynasty immediately solidified their rule by forcing the Han Chinese to assimilate. One of the Manchu emperor’s first edicts was for men to shave the front parts of their heads and braid the remaining hair at the back into a long queue. Those who defied the order were punished with death. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during this time.
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The Rise of the Qing and the Enforcement of the Queue
By the middle of the 16th century, the Ming Dynasty was already on the verge of collapse. The gradual collapse started when the empire was ruled in succession by incompetent or indifferent rulers. The division between the eunuchs and government officials also affected the imperial court. The Yuan Mongols had retreated back into the steppes after their downfall in the 14th century, but a new confederation under Altan Khan ramped up the raids into northern China during the mid-1500s. The raids finally stopped when the Ming sued for peace in 1571.
However, the threat from the marauding northern tribes was not yet over. During the late 1500s, the Jianzhou Jurchens (descendants of the Jin Dynasty) led by Nurhaci started to raid China’s northern frontiers. The Jianzhou (along with other Jurchen tribes) occupied Jilin and Heilongjiang and had long paid tribute to the Ming emperors. In 1599, Nurhaci started to organize his people into a banner system. 300 households comprised a company, and 50 companies, in turn, were organized into colored banners. The original banners made up of Jurchen tribesmen grew overtime when they brought to heel the neighboring Mongol tribes and Chinese people.
By 1600, Nurhaci had transformed the Jurchen confederation into a cohesive state. They saw themselves as inheritors of the Jin Dynasty, so in 1616, Nurhaci announced the creation of the Later Jin Dynasty with himself as its head. They intensified the raids in northern China, but the Ming were able to rout them with the help of cannons obtained from the Portuguese.
The troubles of the Ming Dynasty only intensified in the years that followed. The drastic drop in temperatures during the early 1600s led to a series of droughts and floods. The crises worsened when the supply of silver from Japan and the Americas dropped. Impoverished peasants were unable to pay their taxes, and many soon turned to rebellion and banditry.
The Jurchens, meanwhile, were steadily consolidating power. Upon Nurhaci’s death in 1626, his son, Abahai (Hong Taiji), succeeded him as leader of his people. He continued his father’s quest to subjugate Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans during the early years of his reign. With the help of Chinese collaborators, the Jurchens adopted the Chinese government system and modernized their military by acquiring knowledge on how to manufacture cannons. In 1635, Abahai renamed his people “Manchus” and discarded the Later Jin Dynasty in favor of “Qing” (“pure” or “clear”).
While the Jurchens were busy subduing northern peoples and transforming their state, Ming China, on the other hand, was racked with uprisings. Li Zicheng led the rebellion in Henan, while Zhang Xianzhong harassed the Ming authorities in Sichuan. Watching from their vantage point in the north and seeing the chaos that engulfed China, the Manchus came to believe that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The loss of the Mandate gave them the determination to conquer China. Abahai died in 1643, and he was succeeded by his young son (the later Shunzhi emperor). His uncle Dorgon and Jirgalang ruled as his regents.
In 1643, the rebel leader Li Zicheng declared the Ming emperor deposed and announced the creation of the Shun dynasty. He then mobilized his supporters and stormed Beijing on April 24, 1644. The doomed Chongzhen emperor hanged himself on the same night when he learned of his troops’ defeat.
Wu Sangui, a Ming general, asked the Manchus for assistance in driving out Li Zicheng and the rebels. The Manchus used this moment to sweep into China itself. They kept their promise to Wu Sangui and drove out Li Zicheng and his rebels out of Beijing when they arrived in June 1644. They also used the moment to establish a foothold in China. The remaining Ming administrators were forced to leave Beijing and move the seat of government to Nanjing. Pockets of resistance against Manchu rule, however, still existed. Shi Kefa led a Ming resistance in the city of Yangzhou, but it was ruthlessly crushed by the Manchus in 1645.
By June 1645 and despite the resistance, the Manchu rulers were already solidifying their rule in China. One of the first decrees they issued was to compel Chinese men to shave the front part of their heads and braid the remaining hair at the back into a queue. The shaving and plaiting were to be done within ten days, and those who refused to comply would be executed.
For the Manchus, the wearing of the queue was a symbol of submission, but for the Chinese, it was a symbol of oppression and forced assimilation. Many refused to comply, and it was followed by a ruthless crackdown on dissenters. The wearing of the queue, however, was limited only to the Manchus and the (Han) Chinese. Tibetans, Mongols, and Uighurs were exempted from wearing this hairstyle. The practice of plaiting the hair lasted until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.
Picture by: Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14580605068/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/geschichtedeskos05rose/geschichtedeskos05rose#page/n192/mode/1up, No restrictions, Link
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Rhoads, Edward J. M. Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928. University of Washington Press, 2011.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.