In 1644, the Manchu people swept into China from their homeland in the northeast, wrested power from the Ming Dynasty, and proceeded to rule the empire as the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus had a talent for expanding the empire and went on to rule China for more than 200 years. The arrival of Western nations, however, would disrupt and weaken Qing rule. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Resurgence of the Jurchens
In AD 1234, the Mongols overran China and drove the Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty back to their homeland in the region that is now Jilin and Heilongjiang. Their descendants later paid tribute to the Ming rulers, but they did not remain in obscurity for long. In 1599, they emerged from obscurity after they were organized into a colored banner system. This system was headed by the Jianzhou chieftain named Nurhaci (1559-1626). Over the next few years, the ambitious Nurhaci cemented alliances with neighboring Mongol tribes and Han Chinese. He incorporated them into the banner system through a mixture of subjugation and marriages.
The Jurchens watched closely as Ming rule collapsed in China. They soon took advantage of the empire’s disarray and started raiding its northern frontiers in early 17th century. These raids, however, stopped when Ming soldiers started using Portuguese cannons to drive them back. Nurhaci died in 1626 and was succeeded by his son Abahai (Hong Taiji). He continued his father’s conquests and soon turned the Koreans into tributaries and the Mongolians into allies.
It was during his reign that the Jurchens transformed themselves from a confederacy into a cohesive state. As descendants of the Jin Dynasty, Abahai believed that China was his people’s inheritance and made it his goal to reconquer it. He knew that if he wanted to gain a foothold in China, he and his people would need to assimilate, so he used the Han people in his court to acquire knowledge on and adopt the Ming system of governance. The greatest skill the Han people taught the Jurchens was how to replicate the Portuguese cannons of the Ming soldiers. Abahai later dropped the “Later Jin Dynasty” used by his father and transformed it to “Qing” (“clear” or “pure”). In 1635, he changed his people’s name from “Jurchen” to “Manchu.” Abahai died in 1643 and was succeeded by his young son (the later Shunzhi emperor) with his brothers Dorgon and Jirgalang as regents.
The Manchus’ Road to China
By the early 17th century, China was seething with rebellions and the Ming rule was disintegrating. In 1643, the popular rebel leader Li Zicheng from Henan declared the Chongzhen emperor deposed and crowned himself as China’s new ruler. He announced the creation of a new dynasty and proceeded to take Beijing. On April 24, 1644, Li Zicheng and his troops stormed Beijing and took it from the Ming. The desperate Chongzhen emperor hanged himself from a tree on the same night.
The Ming Dynasty faded, but the fight for supremacy was not yet over. Eager to crush Li Zicheng, the Ming general Wu Sangui asked the Manchus for help in retaking Beijing. The idea of asking a foreign power for help in quelling a rebellion became a fatal mistake as the Manchus, under the leadership of Dorgon, took advantage of the situation and took over China as soon as they defeated the rebels in 1645. The people rebelled against their new Manchu overlords, but any resistance was always ruthlessly crushed (such as the case of the ten-day massacre in the city of Yangzhou). The new rulers then ordered all males to adopt the Manchu queue as a sign of their submission. Men who refused to wear the queue were sentenced to death.
Ming holdouts fled to southern China, but they were also pursued and tracked down by the Manchus. Guangdong held out until 1649, but the Ming loyalist-pirate Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) continued his fight against the Manchus in Xiamen. He attacked Nanjing in 1659 but failed to take the city. Zheng Chenggong died in Taiwan in 1662 after seizing the island from Dutch colonists.
The Qing Dynasty
Dorgon appointed Han Chinese to government posts but ensured that only Manchus would occupy the plum positions. One exception was the collaborationist Wu Sangui who was granted the title of “prince” and rewarded with a large fief in the province of Yunnan. The distrustful Manchus had a policy of removing landowners and farmers from their lands and replacing them with Manchu bannermen or other loyal vassals. Kangxi Emperor then ordered Wu Sangui (and three other feudal lords) to abandon their lands in the south and move to Manchuria. Incensed at this decision, Wu Sangui immediately launched a rebellion in 1673. This revolt, however, garnered few sympathies from the Han people as they considered the general a traitor. Wu Sangui’s doomed Revolt of the Three Feudatories continued even after his death in 1678 and lasted until 1681. The fall of Taiwan into Manchu hands soon followed in 1683.
Kangxi Emperor was one of the most remarkable and longest-serving rulers of Qing Dynasty. In 1689, he and a Jesuit advisor were able to negotiate a common border with Russia in Siberia in the Treaty of Nerchinsk. This treaty also gave China the possession of the Amur river. After securing peace with Russia, he campaigned against and successfully subdued the Dzungars.
The emperor cautiously welcomed European Jesuit friars in his realm. He retained the missionaries in his court where they worked as astronomers, diplomats, mathematicians, and architects. The Jesuits received his respect when they helped the emperor recover from malaria with the introduction of quinine. He allowed them to evangelize freely in China, but they soon fell from grace when the pope and the emperor could not agree on the issue of ancestral worship. The Jesuits were forbidden to proselytize some time after Kangxi Emperor’s death in 1722, and Christianity was officially banned in 1724.
Kangxi Emperor’s fourth son Yongzheng succeeded his father. His accession to the throne, however, was tainted with scandal as he was named emperor while his father was on his deathbed. Rumors also spread that he gained the throne after poisoning Kangxi Emperor which made him nothing but a usurper.
With this reputation, Yongzheng Emperor knew that his hold on the throne was shaky and that his brothers were only waiting for the perfect time to strike. Upon his accession, he curbed the power of his brothers by placing the Eight Banners under his direct control. He replaced most of the 24 personnel with his own trusted men and took away most of the bannermen’s privileges. He also decreased the number of troops under the bannermen’s supervision to prevent them from launching a rebellion.
The emperor also decreed that he himself would choose his successor. He departed from the Chinese custom which favored the eldest son of an empress, as well as the Manchu way which was rooted in merit and influence. The name of emperor’s chosen successor would be written in a document which would be then hidden away. The document would only be taken out after the emperor’s death.
The treasury that Yongzheng Emperor inherited from his father was drained, so he was hard-pressed to carry out tax reforms. The system used by Kangxi Emperor was the head tax. However, it was vulnerable to tax evasion as cunning landlords schemed with yamen clerks to help them conceal their assets and incomes from the central government. The emperor realized that the head tax put most of the burden to the peasants who did not have the knowledge nor means to evade taxes. To ease the peasants’ plight, the emperor decided to merge the head tax into the land tax.
Another reform Yongzheng Emperor implemented to combat corruption was the legalization of the “meltage fees.” Qing farmers and landowners usually used silver taels to pay their taxes. Before the revenues could be transported to the central treasury, the local officials needed to have the taels melted into ingots. The meltage fee was shouldered by the taxpayers, and to the government officials’ delight, this surcharge would often reach as high as 50 percent of the tax collected.
The benevolent Kangxi Emperor then made this surcharge illegal. Local officials, however, continued to keep a portion of the meltage fees for themselves to cover some of their expenses. Although he had his misgivings, Yongzheng Emperor knew that the “meltage fee” was a practical way to increase revenue. He legalized the surcharge and allowed the local administrators to keep a part of it. He believed that the money would serve as a motivation for local officials to be honest. But corruption was deeply rooted in the system, and exploitation continued during and even beyond his reign.
China under Yongzheng Emperor was stable and prosperous. He died in 1735, and he was succeeded by his fourth son, the Qianlong Emperor. During his reign, China was able to solidify its presence in Tibet and the empire’s northwestern frontiers. He launched a genocidal campaign against the Dzungars of Central Asia and was able to wipe them out from their homeland. He then resettled the area with Han, Manchu, Hui, and Uighur peoples. The Joseon Dynasty of Korea, meanwhile, continued to be a tributary and Qing ally.
China reached the zenith of prosperity and stability under Qianlong Emperor’s reign. He inherited his ancestors’ distrust of foreign influences, so he issued an order for his administrators to monitor the sea trade closely. In 1760, he ordered the closure of all ports to foreign ships and limited foreign merchants only within the port at Guangzhou. The British East India Company, meanwhile, was the empire’s main trading partner after supplanting the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders during his reign.
A patron of the arts and a poet himself, Qianlong Emperor commissioned scholars to curate and compile thousands of Chinese literary works. However, this task was actually censorship as he ordered the scholars to destroy any work critical of the Manchus.
The Beginning of the End
Discontent was also growing among China’s disenfranchised. Qianlong Emperor’s reign saw the resurgence of the mystical White Lotus Society, the harbinger of doom of the previous dynasty. In 1774, Wang Lun, the sect’s leader in Shandong, led an uprising in the city. It was promptly quashed, but the uprisings continued to flare during the emperor’s reign.
The people’s discontent finally boiled over when the White Lotus sect launched a widespread rebellion starting in 1796. Henshen, the Manchu bannerman who was Qianlong’s personal favorite, led the campaigns against the rebels. Upon Qianlong Emperor’s death in 1799, the Jiaqing Emperor had Heshen arrested after discovering that he had diverted the army’s funds to his own pockets. The emperor allowed him to commit suicide after he was arrested.
Pictures by: Anonymous Qing Dynasty Court Painter – Royal Academy of Arts, part of the The Three Emperors, 1662 – 1795 exhibition which ran from 12 November 2005 – 17 April 2006 in London. Website might be taken down at some point in future., Public Domain, Link
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
Peterson, Willard J., ed. The Cambridge History of China. The Ch’ing Dynasty to 1800. Vol. 9. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
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