Foundations of modern China – The Manchus and the Qing dynasty

What have the Liao, Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasty in common? Answer: They are all foreign-led dynasties, also called ‘conquest dynasties’ of China. Liao by the Khitans, Jin by the Jurchens, Yuan by the Mongols and Qing by the Jurchens again or better the Manchus as they were called the second time.

This post is based on China (Part 6): The Manchus and the Qing – series of HarvardX a MOOC about ancient Chinese history.

Manchu + Qingmanchus

The last foreign-led dynasty and in fact the last dynasty and the end of imperial China is led by the Manchus of their Great Qing empire. They lay the foundation of modern China in many ways. Compared to the Ming, it doubles the territory and brings Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan under control of the central court. And once and for all, they beat the threat of the northern tribes. The minority rule, 1 Manchu to 250 Han Chinese, lasts for 276 years and brings about some of the greatest rulers China has ever seen. In today’s historic soaps the early Qing are featured as heroes but they are also a major part of one of the most shameful episodes of modern China and are blamed as foreign demons that dragged down China and for almost everything else that went wrong.

Rise of the Manchusming

Near the end of the Ming dynasty in 1630, a rebellion ravages throughout China, led by a former post official, Li Zicheng. Around 1644 the Ming capital Beijing will have fallen. The Ming emperor hangs himself and the court flees to the South.
At the same time in the North-East of China, a state is established that rivals the Ming. They are descendants of the former Jurchen’s Jin dynasty. Starting with continued raids into northern Ming territory, by late 1620 Ming has lost control over North-East China. The Jurchen state conquers Korea in 1630 and 1636 they give themselves a new name, ‘Great Qing’ or Da Qing.
One month after the Ming emperor had hung himself in Beijing, the Ming general Wu Sangui, is looking towards the Manchu’s to help with Li Zicheng’s rebellion. He opens the gates of the Great Wall at Shanghai pass, which were built to keep the northern barbarians out and let the well organized Manchu army into China. The Qing army beats the inner Chinese rebel army soundly, moves into Beijing and declared the Qing as the new master of China.
Wu Sangui, the Ming general who helped the Qing conquer China, will be rewarded as the governor of Yunnan province and also moves later against the Qing, in a major rebellion of the three feudatories.
Conquest dynasties

Conquest on horseback

The Manchus, similar to their brethren the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols conquer China on horseback with military force. But the Manchus, compared to their relatively short-lived Northern compatriots, employ a civil government as well, incorporate part of the Han literati elite into their court to establish the Qing as the legitimate ruler with the mandate of heaven. They conquer China on a horseback but govern it from a palace. And they rule well, bringing Qing-China a period of peace and prosperity like never before.
Foreign dynasties in China share some similarities. They all begin as all-out war machines with a highly militarized mobile, multi-ethnic and multilingual societies. Further, they all show administrative adaptability with different governing systems for different groups and regions as well as several capitals as a legacy of their nomadic lifestyle.

Han literati

Who are the Manchus?

Manchus are descendants of the Jurchens, who founded the former Jin dynasty in the 12th century. They don’t follow a fully nomadic lifestyle but live in villages and practice agriculture. Under the Ming, they are loyal military advisors and are in charge to keep the northern tribes from uniting in exchange for nobility from the Ming emperor.

Manchu – Origin storyChangbai mountains

According to the Manchu origin story, they come from the Changbai mountains between China and Korea. There, a heavenly maiden becomes pregnant by eating a fruit. The child understands and can speak from birth and has a mission to bring peace to a village. Of course, he succeeds and everything is well for some time till his descendants become arrogant and violent. As a consequence, the whole clan is whipped out, except for one child, which is saved by a bird. This boy is the founder of the Jurchens with the name Nurhaci.

Lessons from the Han

He eventually unites the Jurchen and some Mongol tribes against the will of his Ming employer. By 1626 he controls the northern parts of the Ming empire. His 8th son, Hong Taiji, not only controls a Chinese speaking population but builds a bureaucratic state modeled after the Chinese with the help of the Han people, who also provide him with Chinese military technology to conquer China. Hong Taiji renames the Jurchens by inventing the Manchus as a common identity for his subjects and calls the dynasty Da Qing and not Jin to make a clear distinction to the Jurchens from the 12th century.

Submission of the Han population and the ‘Mandate of Heaven’

After establishing the Qing dynasty in Beijing, it takes 40 years to subdue the rest of the country. During his reign, Taiwan becomes incorporated into China for the first time in 1683. As a minority ruler, the Manchus are conscious from the very beginning about their political legitimacy. They take some pain to establish themselves as a legitimate Chinese dynasty with the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. To win over the Han elite and population, they work hard on their Confucian credentials but at the same time, they also holding onto their Manchu identity. This thin line between assimilation and Manchu identity is an important aspect of the Qing dynasty.heaven

The virtue of being a ruler

The Mandate of Heaven or Tian Ming states that only when the emperor shows true (Confucian) virtue, Heaven grants the emperor the mandate to rule. If he doesn’t display true virtue, he loses this mandate and a new ruler can gain the Mandate of Heaven.

Majority vs Minority Chinese

Once again, the conquest of China by foreigners or barbarians is a shock for Han people, who felt superior to their northern neighbors. According to ancient Confucian texts, it is okay for barbarians to become Chinese but not to rule China as barbarians. So the Manchu rulers are faced with quite some resistance by the Han population.

The queue – not just a haircutqing dynasty

One of the most prominent signs for Han submission is the forced new haircut which all males in Qing had to wear: To shave the front part of the head and grow the hair long and braid it into a queue at the back (Chinese version of the mullet). Everyone who did not follow this order was faced by losing his head: “Keep your hair and lose your head, or lose your hair and keep your head.”
In order to establish Qing rule over China and not just to military conquer, the Manchus relied on support from Han literati not just as administrators. They had to present themselves as true protectors and promoters of Chinese tradition, ideas, values, and institutions. To confirm the Qing as a Confucian regime, they sponsored among other things large scale scholarly projects. E.g. writing the history of the last dynasty, the Mings, to show respect for Chinese tradition and also to authenticate Qing in Chinese history.

The end of the three feudatories

The conquest of Ming China and the consolidation of Qing rule over China come eventually with the end of the ‘Three feudatories’ or ‘San Fei’ rebellion and the defeat of former ally Wu Sangui (and his son) in 1683. This also brings about the transition from Ming loyalism to Qing loyalism. During the rebellion, most Han align themselves with the Qing and not Wu Sangui although he is ethnic Han. The last Ming resistance comes from a loyalist who flees to Taiwan and wages a coastal war against the Qing. Once those ‘pirates’ are defeated, Taiwan becomes incorporated into the administrative system for the first time.
But ambivalence between Manchu nativism which emphasizes martial arts, being a brave warrior or a ‘real’ men, the Manchu language, a simple and frugal lifestyle/dress, etc versus the Chinese, Confucian cosmopolitan (palaces, arts, literature, painting, etc) remain intact throughout Qing dynasty.

Long-lasting Qing empire

For Chinese, it is a disturbing fact that China was under the rule for so long. One of the ways to explain it is to stress acculturation or assimilation of the Manchu: They became like the Chinese. Hence the proverb: “China may be conquered by people from the outside, but China in the end always conquer its conquerors”.

qingg dynasty

And for sure Manchus had to and did widely acculturate to Chinese lifestyle. Manchus were the greatest champions of Chinese calligraphy, poetry, and other arts. They stopped speaking and writing in Manchu in favor of Chinese. The Manchu way of life, which they tried hard to continue in the beginning, was mostly neglected. But till the very end of the Qing dynasty, everyone could recognize the difference between Han Chinese and the Manchu rulers. Share of power was largely in the hand of Manchus, including economic and legal privileges. Shamanism kept being their preferred religion, women never bound their feet and had a different fashion and although they stopped speaking Manchu they never spoke any regional dialect and their Chinese accent was clearly Beijing/Manchu. Till the end, the ‘Banner System’ was essentially what kept the Manchus distinguishable from the Han majority.
But there is no denying that Manchus changed over the course of their control of power over China. You could say that exactly the sum of Manchu and Chinese thinking was a big part of the success of the Qing empire.

Qing dynasty – superpower China

manchu and qing
Nowadays there is quite some talk about the unprecedented rise to power of China. And in modern times it is indeed unparalleled. But in a more historic view, China has always been a dominant regional if not global power and it might be truer to say that today’s rise to power is more a return to the normal situation.
And the ‘High Qing’ period of the 18th century is taken as reference for Chinese today as part of their modern and political identity. The 18th century was indeed a prosperous China or shengshi 盛世. During this golden age of China, the population more than tripled from 100 to over 300M people, which lay the foundation for an unprecedented economic boom and rise in wealth.

Qing dynasty – Trade

A booming long-distance domestic trade (esp. grain/rice) and foreign trade (esp. tea), a lenient taxation and laissez-faire policies, as well as the territorial expansion all, supported the booming economy of the 18th and early 19th century in China. Which was equal if not bigger than all of Europe together and the lifestyle in Chinese cities was of a similar standard as in South-East England.

The three great kings of the Qing dynasty

China of the 18th century, between 1662 – 1799, was the empire of the three kings: the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperor.

Kangxiqing dynasty

Kangxi was the first and probably one of the greatest Chinese emperors ever, at least since emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, more than 2,000 years earlier. He presided over the longest ever reign, had a total of 55 children and was responsible for a major expansion into inner Asia. Due to the sheer amount of children, his succession did not quite go without controversy.

3 great kingsYongzheng

The 4th son eventually becomes the Yongzheng emperor. He oversees the consolidation of fiscal health and generates a surplus for the empire. Yongzheng also fights successfully the increasing corruption and basically re-founds the Qing dynasty within only 13 years of his reign. Apparently, he had such a work ethic, that he literally works himself to death in his mid 50’s.

Qianlong qianlong

He is the 2nd longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history. In some ways, he reigns even longer than Kangxi as he abdicates 4 years before his death but holds all strings behind the back of his successor. Qianlong inherits both from Kangxi and Yongzheng and for sure wanted to establish him as one of the greatest. A global PR campaign makes sure that every one of his fellow monarchs around the globe will have heard about his feats. His military campaigns combine China proper with inner Asia, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang to the largest Chinese empire since the Tang dynasty. The third of the three kings finally and completely defeats China’s northern rivals once and for all. His territorial legacy is the foundation of modern China.

England’s peeking through the door

qing dynastyA British embassy to Qing under Macartney comes at end of High Qing in 1793. The emperor, after a long reign, is 83 years and Qing China at its peak. The only concessions to the British from the Qianlong emperor come in the form of ritual. Macartney is exempt from the formal kow-tow which is usually required when meeting the emperor. The English takes this as a success over Chinese formalities but it also shows some flexibility from the Chinese. This is the only success for this English embassy, no trade concession, what the English came for, was made. Only 50 years later, this might turn out differently but at that time England had nothing to offer what Qing China wanted or needed.

Men of war

Though a quote from Macartney prescient some of the events from the not too distant future: “The empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for the 150 years past, and overawe their neighbors, merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shores, but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.”
And this is more or less exactly what happens after the death of the Qianlong emperor in 1799. Already during the end of his reign strain begin to appear. The high population growth which was the basis for the economic boom becomes a problem for society and institutions. The increasing competition in the unchanged examination jobs system, which created a lot of dissatisfied literati and youths probably. Despite a tripled population, the size of the administration has kept unchanged as well. There is neither an increase in tax revenues nor reforms of the legal system. Granaries fall apart.

Taiping rebellionTaiping rebellion

All that led to an increase in reliance on the individual family as well as religious sects for community coherence. Which unsurprisingly offers a fertile ground for the widespread rebellions which will plague the later part of the Qing dynasty during the 19th century. The biggest of all those rebellions, the ‘Taiping Rebellion’ still is the largest civil war in Chinese and world history with a tally of at least 20M deaths. It almost brings the Qing to collapse but only almost. Leader of the Taiping rebellion is a visionary Hong Xiquan, who proclaimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

Unprecedented level of corruption and trade imbalance

A weakened end of the High Qing period already shows strains in society, administration, rebellion, and an ever-increasing corruption. One of the most corrupt officials in (Chinese) history ever, is a man with the name of Hesen. Under the tutelage of the Qianlong emperor, he rises quickly to power and in-law of the emperor. Only after the death of the emperor he gets arrested. The inventory of his arrest accounts for a wealth bigger than that of the emperor himself and a sum of literally ½ of all the state income during his time!
After the death of the Qianlong emperor 1799, the Qing dynasty still continues for quite some time with a string of different emperors. Probably the most famous one for Western views is the last emperor Puyi, who comes to ‘power’ in 1908 when he is still a baby. But his successors inherited a weakened and highly corrupt state without similar authority or power to reform or rejuvenate the empire. This weak Qing China is ill-equipped for the challenges of the 19th century when the British come knocking once more.

Grim outlook

opiumBy 1800, China is still one of the most powerful countries in the world and without a doubt the largest scale economy. The English run an enormous trade imbalance, once tea had become a craze in Europe and they don’t have anything to offer in exchange. This only changes once opium comes into the picture as the most profitable single item of the 19th century.


That’s it for today. Let us know what you think in the comment section.

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