Decline of the Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty, China (1644–1911)

The fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century signified the end of imperial rule. Established by Emperor Shunzhi in 1644 after the Ming government’s overthrow, the dynasty enjoyed prosperous initial years, reaching the peak of its power in late 1800. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the dynasty gradually declined due to complex interplay between the external and internal factors. Lack of economic and political innovations exposed the once-powerful dynasty to emerging European influence, weakening the Qing government; furthermore, the constant domestic rebellions worsened the situation.

The 19th-century military confrontation between the Qing dynasty and the western world, especially Britain, illustrated a lack of economic and political innovation in the Chinese empire. Before 1839, china had sealed itself against the western traders. The lack of formal diplomatic relations between western nations and china limited the opportunities of western merchants. Besides, the dynasty wanted to protect its citizens against foreign influence and colonization. Economically, the country was self-sufficient with a massive population to cover domestic production and consumption[1]. Indeed, the self-sufficient economy created trade imbalances that affected the British economy. Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain were in high demand in Britain while British goods faced low demand in the Chinese market. As such, Britain experienced a massive silver drain due to the expanding trade deficit. Britain opted for opium to address the challenge, a Chinese traditional medical treatment since the 7th century.

Through the British East India Company, Britain began mass cultivation, production, and opium distribution, which became their primary revenue source. As Feige and Miron point out, the British government offered the British East India Company all kinds of support, creating a Bombay and Bengal monopoly in 1830 and 1773, respectively [2]. Eventually, the corporation started trading opium for tea in the Canton; the only port western merchants were allowed. While Britain prohibited opium sales in the UK, it smuggled more than 75 tons of opium in 40 years to China [3]. As the opium illegal trade continued, the Qing Emperor viewed it as a threat. According to the dynasty, the opium trade drained its valuable resources, including tea, silk, silver, and porcelain. Besides, opium weakened the empire’s defense against external attacks, as more than 90% of the country’s male population below 40 years was opium addicts [4] . Hence, the emperor started engaging in debates to curb the havoc caused by the increased use of opium.

The Qing government’s initial attempt to intervene in the opium trade by forbidding its importation was unfruitful as governors and ministers benefited from the illegal trade. Therefore, in 1839 the emperor made his seventh attempt to eradicate by delegating Imperial commissioner Lin Zexu to inspect the ships entering the country through Canton, the only treat port. Lin Zexu confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium in public[5] . The act, which angered the British government, resulted in a series of demands, among them legalization of opium in China, the introduction of diplomatic ties, facilitation of free trade in China, and equal treatment of both Chinese and western merchants. Rejection of the agreement would subject the British Empire to a significant financial turmoil.

Eventually, the two countries engaged in a military war that humiliated the Qing Empire as most of its population were weak and addicted to opium. Besides, the rift that existed between the Chinese population and the government further weakened the Qing society. The government ruled by the Manchus instituted various policies, which Han people disagreed with, for instance, the policy that required shaving of male head and leaving a long tail. Losing the first opium war against the British weakened the Qing Empire. By signing The Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, the empire accepted defeat and paid hefty compensation, which further drained their economy[6]. Besides, China handed over essential territories such as Hong Kong and five ports, including Canton, to the British. Furthermore, two years later, the country faced sanctions from France and the United States, further weakening the government.

After experiencing an economic, political, and social downfall in the first half of the 19th century, the second half exposed the Qing Empire to decline further. Driven by the urge to increase their trade privileges, the British and France engaged the Chinese in the second opium war. In 1858, both nations compelled the Qing government to sign the Tianjin Treaty, but china declined, which restarted the war. Hanes and Sanello maintain that despite the large numbers of Chinese troops’ British and French navy had superior weapons compared to the Chinese military[7]. By 1860, the country agreed to abide by the Tianjin Treaty, which allowed foreign ambassadors to settle in the empire. Besides, the treaty handed more ports over western control and paved the way for the legalization of opium export to China in 1958. Losing both wars weakened the government and the morality of the Qing people. Allowing foreigners in the country introduced a new religion, Christianity, threatening the existing Confucianism, which established a significant imperial rule ideology.

Apart from the foreign affairs crisis, in the third quarter of the 19th century, the empire faced constant military and political rebellions due to social dissatisfaction, which further weakened its stability. Taiping rebellion, a radical religious and political uprising, is a significant uprising. For more than 14 years (1850-64), the upheaval caused the death of more than 20 million Chinese; indeed, the rebellion resulted in many crises in the Qing dynasty. As foreigners, particularly missionaries, began to penetrate the empire, Chinese culture began to drift away from traditional beliefs. The Chinese people began to adopt western beliefs and culture, especially Christianity. According to Duindam, Artan, and Kunt, the Taiping rebellion resulted from the government neglecting its citizens during disasters such as floods, famines, and droughts that affected the country’s radical movement[8] . The British victory in the first opium war widened the differences between the government and the population[9]. By 1853, the uprising’s prominence swept across the empire and influenced other rebel groups such as the Triads.

The movement assaulted government officials and took over essential shipping ports, which drained government revenue. Moreover, the rebellion awakened the nation by challenging the Manchus Mandate of Heaven; losing the divine notion exposed the Manchus to further challenges and possible overthrow. Despite the Confucian teaching, the population viewed the government officials as corrupt. Lead by Hung Xiuquan; the main movement goal was to overthrow the Manchus government and restore the past kingdom glory. Initially, the rebellion was successful in capturing various cities and establishing their rule. However, due to their military inexperience, inferior weapons, and top leadership wrangles, the Taiping unrest gradually declined.

The Taiping uprising was instrumental in streaming Chinese governance. Due to the war, the government abolished land tax and reduced corruption in the ports. The political structure changed and adopted a regional approach rather than the central bureaucracies. Nevertheless, the rebellion was instrumental in eradicating emperors’ age, which further exposed the country to western dominance[10]. The western countries used the rebellion to turn the Chinese population against the government, which weakened the dynasty resulting in its ultimate collapse. Besides, the movement was a product of the clash between the west and east.

Similarly, the Nian rebellion was a significant crisis faced by the Qing Empire. Although the rebellion existed in the 18th century, starvation and floods in the 1850s had considerable economic growth. The organization had no organized government system capable of coordinating military attacks; hence, it relied on guerilla warfare and cavalry attacks[11]. The organization caused considerable instability within the Qing Empire by scorching farms and fields, depriving the necessary resources’ government forces. The rebellion formed cross-links with the Taiping movement; indeed, the uprising lasted longer because the defeated Taiping follower joined the Nian rebellion. Moreover, the second opium war ensured the further success of the rebellion[12] . Eventually, the formation of imperial pacification by scholars and military generals emphasized military action, economic and political reforms in combating the growing revolt. Indeed, the strategy destroyed the movement in 1868 by further recruiting latter troops.

Additionally, the Muslim rebellion further aggravated the crisis within the dynasty. The uprising resulted from clashes between the Muslims and Chinese in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces in 1821. Although religious factors motivated the clashes, political and social factors played a vital role. The Muslims in these provinces felt that government officials favored the Chinese, forcing them to rebel against both authorities and Chinese authorities[13]. The formulation of pacifier policies and the lack of unifying policies weakened the Muslim rebellion. However, in 1862 another Muslim revolt spread through the two provinces. The revolt had considerable impacts on the Qing dynasty’s stability as military generals spread personnel across the second opium war, the Taiping rebellion, and the Nian rebellion[14]. The rebellions weakened the Chinese dynasty by causing considerable destruction of human life and property, which deprived the essential production capital. Besides, the Manchu locus of power shifted as military generals accumulated more power.

The gradual fall of the Qing dynasty resulted from both internal and external factors. The Chinese government’s failure to innovate its economic and political policies exposed the country to western influence. The conservative trade policies that sealed the empire against western goods caused trade imbalances forcing countries such as England to innovate new measures such as opium trading to cover the rising trade deficit. Losing the opium war had advanced effects on the empire’s social, political, and economic aspects. Apart from the defeat’s humiliation, the country lost valuable assets such as ports and territories to foreigners. Moreover, it worsened the relationship between the people and the population. Finally, the constant rebellion experienced amid foreign attacks further weakened the dynasty. The western influence caused the Chinese people to challenge their traditional beliefs and teaching that formed the foundation of imperial rule. Furthermore, the revolt deprived the government of essential goods such as food and taxes necessary for a strong empire.

Share this Post