The Jiaqing Emperor’s accession to the throne in 1796 was greeted by a double rebellion. The first was the Miao Rebellion which started in 1795 in the provinces of Hunan and Guizhou. This rebellion was eventually quashed in 1806. The White Lotus Rebellion which started in 1796 was finally suppressed around 1804. Although these rebellions were subdued, the illusion that the Qing rulers could hold the empire together had faded, while discontent always simmered just below the surface. Another uprising—this time incited by leaders of the Tianli sect—flared out in 1813 (Eight Trigrams Uprising). The Qing army quickly quelled it, but there was no way for them to stop the rot that had spread in the government.
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Daoguang Emperor succeeded his father to the throne in 1821 and spent his reign fighting the spread of opium in China as well as the invasion of Western powers. He and his ministers were strong-armed into granting concessions to Western nations after the end of the First Opium War 1842. He died in 1850 and was succeeded by his son, the ill-equipped Xianfeng Emperor.
Xianfeng Emperor faced the bloody Taiping Rebellion (1850) at the onset of his reign. The rebellion, which was at first centered in Nanjing, was quashed in 1864, but it was soon followed by several offshoot uprisings. First was the Nian Rebellion in Anhui (1853-1868), which was then followed by Muslim uprisings in Yunnan (1855-1873) and Gansu (1862-1873). The situation would only worsen for China when the Second Opium War broke out in 1856. The Qing army—already spread too thin—suffered defeats at the hands of allied Western nations. Xianfeng Emperor, like his father, was forced to grant concessions to Western powers when the war ended in 1860.
Xianfeng Emperor died in 1861, leaving the throne to his young son, the future Tongzhi Emperor, who was to remain under regency until he came of age. A coup d’etat led by Prince Gong, Tongzhi Emperor’s mother Consort Yi (later Empress Dowager Cixi), and the Manchu official Wenxiang ousted the appointed regents and held the reins of power themselves. Faced with a country devastated by the two Opium Wars and violent uprisings, this faction soon realized that China desperately needed rehabilitation. To this end, the corrupt regents tried in vain to curb the power of the equally corrupt gentry. They also tried to revive China’s agriculture which had stagnated during the past peasant uprisings.
The defeats China suffered in the Opium Wars was a hard lesson for the Qing rulers. To ensure that the empire would not suffer similar defeats in the future, the regents embarked on a “self-strengthening” program. This included the modernization of the military, as well as the adoption of Western education and technology. Chinese workers began to copy Western weapons and warships, but their inadequate knowledge on manufacturing often made the machines unserviceable. The Qing rulers also approved and supported the creation of heavy industries, such as coal mining, textile manufacturing, and the construction of telegraph lines and railroads.
As part of the modernization program, Qing officials allowed the establishment of foreign language schools in four of China’s major cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Fuzhou, and Guangzhou). American and European missionaries not only worked as evangelists but also as administrators of and teachers in these schools. For the first time in the empire’s history, a Chinese student named Yung Wing was allowed to travel to the United States to study at Yale College. He graduated in 1854 and went to back to his homeland to work as an interpreter and reformer. Hundreds of Chinese students sponsored by missionaries followed in Yung Wing’s footsteps and enrolled at colleges in New England during the late 1800s.
The self-strengthening program soon fell apart as modernization clashed with Chinese culture and the officials’ self-interest. Conservatives in the Qing imperial court (especially the scholar-officials) opposed the modernization because they believed that the heavy industries (mining and the railroad construction, for example) upset the land’s fengshui. Many of them also feared that the modernization would diminish their power and take away their privileges. Apart from power-hungry officials, the Qing bureaucracy was also bogged down by inept administrators who mismanaged the program. Empress Dowager Cixi herself diverted funds meant for the modernization of the navy and funneled them to the renovation of the Summer Palace.
Another reason for the failure of “self-strengthening” program was the existence of the unequal treaties Chinese officials signed with Western nations. These treaties gave American and European companies edge against local enterprise whose owners were ill-equipped to take on the competition. This, coupled with an empty treasury, effectively put a stop to the empire’s modernization program during Cixi’s reign.
The First Sino-Japanese War
Peace was once again shattered when China and Japan’s interests in Korea clashed during the late 1800s. Korea, though mostly isolated during the Joseon era, had long been China’s tributary. Japan, on the other hand, was forced by the Americans to emerge from its own isolation in 1853. It implemented its own modernization program which, unlike China’s version, proved to be very successful. It was not long before Japan became a powerful force in East Asia and was having its own expansionist dreams. Korea, the resource-rich hermit kingdom, was its first target.
In the 1870s, Korea slowly started to open its borders for trade with Japan. However, the Japan-Korea trade did not sit well with the Qing government as it still considered the kingdom as its tributary. The royal court of Emperor Gojong itself started to become divided between the conservative pro-China group and reform-minded pro-Japan faction. It did not help that during the 1880s Korea became engulfed in droughts, bankruptcy, and uprisings. The Koreans’ resentment of Japanese interference in internal affairs often manifested in violent incidents between the citizens of the two countries. The assassination of the pro-Japan Korean reformer Kim Ok-gyun and the Donghak Rebellion in 1894 only served as additional kindling to the First Sino-Japanese War.
When the Donghak Rebellion exploded in Korea in 1894, King Gojong was quick to ask the Qing government for reinforcements. This request was granted, and China sent more than 2,000 Qing troops led by Yuan Shikai to the peninsula. Japan took this as a direct violation of the Tientsin Convention the two countries signed in 1885 during the aftermath of the Gapsin Coup. The Meiji government responded by sending a larger expeditionary force to Korea.
By June 1894, the Japanese forces had captured the royal palace in Seoul and then set up a puppet government. Combat between the two troops soon started, but the Japanese were able to rout the Chinese soldiers in the Battle of Seonghwan (July 28-29, 1894) and Battle of Pyongyang (September 15, 1894). Two days later, the Japanese navy proved that its country’s military overhaul worked when it overpowered China’s Beiyang Fleet in the Battle of Yalu River. In October of the same year, Japanese forces crossed the Yalu River into Manchuria and proceeded to massacre Chinese soldiers and civilians. The Japanese occupation of Manchuria was followed by the invasion of the Pescadores (Penghu Islands).
The defeats China suffered during the First Sino-Japanese War finally forced its rulers to sue for peace. On April 17, 1895, representatives of both countries signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Korea, Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the Liaodong Peninsula were all annexed to Japan. (The annexation of the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan, however, was later blocked by Western powers.) The Russians, meanwhile, took advantage of China’s weakened state to pressure its rulers into leasing the Liaodong Peninsula to them instead. Apart from the annexation of several territories, China was forced to pay a hefty war indemnity and grant concessions to Japan.
China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War doomed the Qing Dynasty further. The empire’s foremost scholar-officials, including Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Tan Sitong, all clamored for additional reforms. Their request was granted in June 1898 when the Guangxu Emperor finally approved what would be later called the Hundred Days’ Reform. But the conservatives felt that these reforms once again threatened their privileges, so they convinced the Empress Cixi to stop them. The empress then led a coup to oust the Guangxu Emperor. She then had the emperor imprisoned in one of the Qing palaces. The reformers Kang and Liang managed to escape to Japan, while the rest of the advocates for reform were executed.
Peace would be a far-fetched goal as the 20th-century greeted China with a peasant uprising called the Boxer Rebellion. This violent anti-imperialism and anti-Christian rebellion would only fuel the end of the Qing Dynasty. While Western troops were battling the rebels, Empress Cixi and members of the royal family fled to Xian in humiliation. The Qing Dynasty had completely lost not only its prestige but also the confidence of the Chinese people.
Reformers and revolutionaries alike emerged during the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty. The reformers were led by officials such as Zhang Zhidong, Yuan Shikai, and Liu Kunyi. The revolutionaries, on the other hand, included Huang Xing, Zuo Rong, and Qiu Jin.
One of the most significant reformer-revolutionary was Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), a native of Xiangshan (later renamed Zhongshan), Guangdong. He lived with his brother in Hawaii for some time during his youth before coming back to China. He then studied medicine in Hong Kong, and eventually converted to Christianity. In 1894, he tried to convince Viceroy Li Hongzhang to implement reforms but he was rebuffed. He went back to Hawaii, but he was no longer pushed for reforms. There he organized a revolutionary organization, and plotted to seize Guangzhou. This plot, however, failed.
While staying in London in 1896, Sun Yat-sen was kidnapped by Qing agents. He was released through the efforts of his friend James Cantlie and the British press who rallied behind his cause. He later met with exiled reformers Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, but unlike them, Sun Yat-sen believed that the Qing Dynasty had no place in modern China. He later teamed up with fellow revolutionary Huang Xing to form the Revolutionary Alliance while exiled in Tokyo in 1905. Their initial goal was to overthrow the Manchu rulers, followed by the establishment of a military dictatorship which would usher China from monarchy to democracy.
The Guangxu Emperor died of arsenic poisoning on November 14, 1908, and was quickly followed Empress Cixi’s own death the day after. As Guangxu was childless, his three-year-old nephew Puyi was enthroned as emperor upon his death. But the regents of the young emperor were unprepared to handle the uprisings that would rock China. An uprising shook Hunan in 1906, which was followed by a mutiny four years later in the city of Guangzhou.
The 1911 Revolution and the Foundation of the Republic of China
In May 1911, an uprising led by the local gentry flared up in the province of Sichuan. This was in protest to the central government’s proposal to nationalize and finish the provincial railroad networks using foreign loans. This proposal, however, did not sit well with the Sichuan gentry who had poured their own money into the local railroad project. The realization that they would only recoup a portion of their investments if the Qing pushed through with the nationalization of the railroad network naturally angered them. They then organized protests which the authorities promptly tried to suppress.
The Qing authorities, however, made the mistake of summoning the New Army stationed in Wuhan to suppress the rebellion in Sichuan. Their ranks had been infiltrated by Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries, and many soldiers by then were sympathetic to their cause. Instead of suppressing the rebellion, the revolutionary troops took Wuchang on October 10, 1911, and immediately set up a military government in Hubei province. This was supported by the local assembly which then announced Hubei’s independence. It was not long before the rebellions spread through central and eventually, to southern China.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen was in the United States when the revolution happened and only read about the events in the newspapers. He came home and agreed to become temporary president of the independent provinces.
Yuan Shikai, the Qing prime minister, tried to keep Puyi in power by suppressing the rebellions, but his efforts were in vain. He finally negotiated the emperor’s abdication in exchange for a sizable settlement. On February 12, 1912, Empress Dowager Longyu signed the abdication papers on behalf of the young Xuantong Emperor. This abdication effectively ended imperial rule and ushered in the era of the Republic of China. In December 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen resigned from the presidency and handed the reins of power over to Yuan Shikai.
Photo by Unknown author – http://unsuk.kyunghee.ac.kr/jangmyun_2004/NZEO/bbs/view.php?id=gallery_km&no=25, 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.
Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
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