Civilization in Crisis: Qing China

Civilization in Crisis: Qing China



Civilization in Crisis: Qing China

The parts of Asia still independent from European dominance after 1750 suffered from political decline and from the reactions to new challenges. They also faced the threat of Western imperialism and the West’s industrial lead. China, under the Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century, enjoyed growth and prosperity and had the power to limit European intervention. At the end of the century, the foundations of Chinese civilization had been demolished by internal and external pressures.

The Last Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Qing Empire in China. The Manchu leader Nurhaci (1559-1626) united the tribes of his region into a formidable fighting force that conquered much of Manchuria and drove back the Chinese living to the north of the Great Wall. The Manchu elite increasingly adopted Chinese ways in bureaucracy and court ceremonies. Many of the Chinese scholar-gentry entered Manchu service. The Manchu seized advantage of the weakness of the Ming dynasty to enter China and seize control of Beijing in 1644. Within two decades, the Manchu were masters of China. As the Qing dynasty, they ruled an area larger than any previous dynasty had, except the Tang. The Manchu retained much of the political system of the Ming, although they assumed a more direct role in appointing local officials and reduced their tax exemptions. Chinese and Manchu officials were paired at the highest posts. The examination system continued. The rulers were generous patrons of the arts and employed scholars to compile great encyclopedias of Chinese learning.

Economy and Society in the Early Centuries of Qing Rule. The Manchu also maintained the social system of the Ming. The values of respect for rank and acceptance of hierarchy were emphasized. The extended family remained the core unit among the elite. Women continued under the dominance of elder men. Their lives centered on the household. Daughters were less wanted than sons, and female infanticide probably rose during this period. Lower-class women continued to work in fields and markets. The Manchu attempted to alleviate rural distress and unrest through decreasing tax and labor burdens; repairing roads, dikes, and irrigation systems; and limiting land accumulation by the elite. Population growth and the lack of available land checked the success of the reform efforts. Landlords increased their holdings and widened the gap between rural classes. Commercial and urban expansion increased under the peaceful conditions of the first century and during half of Manchu rule. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the influx of silver in payment for exports created a favorable balance of payments. European traders came to Canton, and Chinese merchants traveled overseas. A new group of merchants, the compradors, who specialized in the import-export trade along the southern coast, were a major link between China and the outside world.

Rot from Within: Bureaucratic Breakdown and Social Disintegration. By the late eighteenth century, the Qing were in decline. The exam system, which provided able bureaucrats, was riddled by cheating and favoritism. Positions in government service were seen as a method of gaining influence and building family fortunes. The resulting revenue loss caused a weakening of the military and deterioration of the dikes confining the Yellow River. By the middle of the nineteenth century, flooding left millions of peasants without resources. Throughout the empire mass migrations and banditry increased social unrest. The existing Chinese social and economic systems could not cope with the changes stemming from the greatly increased population resulting from the introduction of American crops.

Barbarians at the Southern Gates: The Opium War and After. The Manchus continued to treat Europeans as just another type of barbarian, although the advances by Europeans in science and industry made them dangerous rivals to the empire. Confrontation occurred over the importation of opium from India into China. The British had lacked commodities, apart from silver, to exchange for Chinese goods. Opium reversed the trade balance in their favor, but the Chinese saw the trade as a threat to their economy and social order. Silver left the country and opium addiction became rampant. Government efforts to check the problem failed until the 1830s, when an important official, Lin Zexu, came to end the trade at Canton and nearby. He blockaded European trading areas and destroyed opium. The British merchants demanded and received military intervention. War began in 1839; the Chinese were defeated on sea and land and sued for peace. Another conflict ended similarly in the 1850s. The settlement after the first war awarded Hong Kong to the British and opened other ports to European trade and residence. By the 1890s, ninety ports were open and foreigners had gained long-term leases over ports and surrounding territory. Opium continued to pour into China. By the middle of the century, British officials managed China’s foreign trade and customs, and the court had to accept European ambassadors.

A Civilization at Risk: Rebellion and Failed Reforms. The dislocations caused by the European incursions spawned a massive rebellion in southern China during the 1850s and 1860s. A semi-Christian prophet, Hong Xiuquan, began the Taiping Rebellion. The dissidents offered programs of social reform, land redistribution, and liberation of women. They attacked the traditional Chinese elite. The provincial gentry rallied to the Qing and assisted in the defeat of the rebellion. In the last decades of the century, dynamic provincial leaders led a “self-strengthening” movement aimed at countering the challenge of the West. They encouraged foreign investment in railways and factories and military modernization. They wanted only to preserve the existing order, not to transform it. Although they professed loyalty to the dynasty, the Manchu increasingly were unable to control the provinces. Despite a defeat by Japan in 1894-1895, the Manchu and their allies among the scholar-gentry resisted reform. The last decades of the dynasty were dominated by the dowager empress, Cixi; in 1898 she crushed a serious reform effort. The involvement of members of the royal household in the Boxer Rebellion further weakened China.

The Fall of the Qing: The End of a Civilization? After the defeat of the Taipings, resistance to the dynasty centered in secret societies. The revolts they inspired failed, but they were a training ground for more serious resistance. By the end of the century, sons of the scholar-gentry and compradors became involved in plots to overthrow the regime and to create a government modeled on that of the West. Sun Yat-sen was one of their most articulate leaders. The revolutions were deeply hostile to European involvement in Chinese affairs. Sporadic outbursts failed until 1911. A spreading rebellion forced the abdication of the last Manchu in 1912 and led to the establishment of a republican government. The ending of the civil service exams in 1905 was as important a watershed for Chinese civilization as the fall of the Qing in 1912. This step signified the ending of the use of Confucian values as a base for governing society. The era of the scholar-gentry had closed. Nonetheless, many Confucian attitudes survived to influence developments in the newly emerging China.

Global Connections: Chinese Decline and a Shifting Global Balance. China who was a seriously weakened civilization was thrown into prolonged crisises by the challenge posed by the West.  The Chinese civilization did not survive. Why? The Chinese had to face a sudden and brutal challenges from the West. The Chinese regarded Westerners as barbarians without a culture. To the Chinese, defense of their civilization meant survival of the Qing. Once the dynasty failed, the Chinese had little to fall back on. The Chinese did not have a great indigenous religious tradition to fall back on.

Key Terms
Nurhaci: United the Manchu in the early seventeenth century; defeated the Ming and established the Qing dynasty.

Kangxi: Qing ruler and Confucian scholar (1661-1772); promoted Sinification among the Manchu.

Compradors: Wealthy group of merchants under the Qing; specialized in the import-export trade on China’s southern coast.

Lin Zexu: Nineteenth-century Chinese official charged during the 1830s with ending the opium trade in southern China; set off the events leading to the Opium War.

Opium War: Fought between Britain and Qin China beginning in 1839 to protect the British trade in opium; British victory demonstrated Western superiority over China.

Taiping Rebellion: Massive rebellion in southern China in the 1850s and 1860s led by Hong Xiuzuan; sought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and Confucianism.

Cixi: Conservative dowager empress who dominated the last decades of the Qing dynasty.

Boxer Rebellion: Popular outburst aimed at expelling foreigners from China; put down by intervention of the Western power.

Puyi: Last Qing ruler; deposed in 1912.

Fill in the blank

Overseas trading links gave rise to a wealthy new group of merchants, the __________________, who specialized in the import-export trade on China’s southern coast.


In the late 1830s, the Chinese emperor sent one of his most distinguished officials, _____________________, to stamp out the opium trade.


Led by a mentally unstable, semi-Christian prophet named Hong Xiuquan, the ________________ Rebellion exacerbated stresses within Chinese society.

The last decades of the Manchu dynasty were dominated by the ultraconservative dowager empress ______________________________.


In 1912, the last of emperor of China, a small boy named _____________________, was deposed.

True or False

Overseas trading links gave rise to a wealthy new group of merchants the compradors, who specialized in the import-export trade on China’s south coast.


Led by a mentally unstable, semi-Christianized prophet named Hong Xiuquan, the Boxer Rebellion exacerbated the already considerable stresses within Chinese society.


The Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1898 and was put down only through the intervention of imperialist powers in 1901.

The Taiping Rebellion broke out in 1898 ad was put down only through the intervention of imperialist powers in 1901.


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Civilization in Crisis: Qing China


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Civilization in Crisis: Qing China