The Qing (Ching) dynasty


After the last Ming emperor committed suicide in 1644, China was once again invaded and taken over by barbarians from the north. But this time, instead of forming a period of disunity, the Barbarians were so successful that they established another long-lived dynasty – the Qing dynasty, which was to be the last Chinese dynasty. Like most Chinese dynasties it began well, but ended badly.

The barbarian invaders were not the usual Mongols but Manchurians from the north west of China, adjoining Korea. Unlike the Mongols who were nomadic horsemen, Manchurians were settled, they were farmers, hunters and fishermen who were thus rather more organised than the Mongols. They adopted many Chinese ideas and were able to bring to China stability. In the chaos that followed the suicide of the last emperor, China became very unstable and many welcomed the Manchurians in precisely because they could impose law and order onto a troubled countryside. Indeed the Great Wall of China built with so much effort and expenditure of lives, proved in the last resort to be useless as the Manchurians were invited in by the general who had been set to keep them out: he decided they were the lesser evil and invited them in.


The queue hairstyle

On the whole, the Manchurians allowed the traditional way of live to continue. One big change was to impose a new hairstyle. This consisted of the ‘queue’ in which the front of the head was shaven, and the hair at the back was allowed to grow and was put into a plait. This was a Manchurian hairstyle, and was much resented at first, but it enabled the Manchurians to see which Chinese had accepted their rule: anyone not doing their hair in a plait was seen as a rebel and was executed. Ironically it eventually came to be considered the typical Chinese hairstyle, and cutting off the Queue was a sign of great dishonour. When the last emperor Puyi, who was deposed in 1912, finally cut off his queue in 1922 it was a sign that he had finally accepted the new world.


The Kanxi Emperor in court dress. He reigned for 6o years, the longest reign of any Chinese emperor.

The highlight of the Qing dynasty came in the 17th and 18th century when for 150 years China was ruled by just three emperors: the Emperor Kangxi 1662-1722 and then his grandson the Emperor Qianlong who ruled from 1736 – 1795. The Kangxi emperor was not unlike the Emperor Hadrian: he toured the provinces, patronised Chinese literature and was fascinated by the new toys brought in by the barbarians from the other side of the world. He was hospitable to the Jesuit missionaries and even appointed one as Astronomer Royal as he found that his predictions were more accurate than those of the Chinese astronomers. He was followed by the Yongzheng emperor who only ruled for 13 years, but who reorganised the finances, so that for the next century, the imperial treasury ran a surplus which must be just about a record for any emperor anywhere. He was followed by the Qianlong Emperor who again ruled for 60 years, mostly in great style spending his mornings on administration and his afternoons writing poetry and doing paintings. However in his latter years he again did a ‘Hadrian’ by falling for a young lad Heshen, who was corrupt and amassed a huge fortune, thereby ruining the Emperor’s reputation.

The Manchus also followed the Romans in the matter of succession. It is often pointed out that when the Roman empire was at its height in the 2nd century AD, the emperors chose their successor and then adopted them: the Manchus followed a similar system whereby the Emperor chose whom he considered to be the most capable of his often large family with sons from numerous concubines, put the name in a box which was only opened on his death when the new emperor was revealed. And in this way three highly successful emperors were chosen.


Expanding the empire

These three great emperors were all successful warriors, expanding the Chinese empire in all directions.   To the south west they captured Taiwan, or Formosa in 1683. Taiwan had been a home of an indigenous people speaking a language that is the ancestor of Polynesian languages that spread as far as Easter Island, but the Chinese invaded and settled many Chinese settlers there. They also conquered the Mongols using the new-fangled cannon which put them to a great technological advantage to the Mongols, but it is now that Mongolia became part of China, coming up against the expanding Russian empire in central Asia. They also moved westward into Tibet. Previously Tibet had been tributary territory, paying tribute and thereby acknowledging the superiority of the Chinese empire, but otherwise being independent. Now it was brought within the Chinese Empire where it remained until 1912.

This early part of the Qing dynasty is often considered to be the last great period of the Chinese imperial system, and indeed the second part of the commercial revolution which began in the Song dynasty, but was interrupted by the backward looking Ming; but the economy was strong. The population grew strongly – whether this was a good thing or not remains uncertain, but China began to fill up and even unsuitable land began to be cultivated.

But the economy flourished. Traditional agricultural boomed as new strains of rice were introduced which matured in fifty days rather than a hundred days, so that two crops a year became possible. New crops were introduced from America – maize, potatoes and sweet potatoes, to say nothing of tomatoes. The new crops were not popular: the potato did not taste anywhere near as good as rice, but it will grow almost anywhere and will save you from famine in the poor years. Industrial crops such as cotton, sugar and tea expanded, and tea in particular became very popular in England and caused something of a revolution in China to produce enough for the western markets. Silk and porcelain were produced in ever greater quantities and were hugely successful.

Then in the 19th century everything began to go wrong. The big problem was that in the west the biggest revolution, the biggest upset the world had ever seen was taking place. It goes by the name of the Industrial Revolution, but this is in many ways is a misnomer because it was much more than that; there was industry, yes and all the military advantages that this brought, but there were also advances on a much wider scale: there was a medical revolution with the invention of anaesthesia and antiseptics and vaccines – the western doctor could come along and cure you. My own subject of archaeology was invented and indeed a new approach to history. Before the British came to India, Indian history did not really go back to before the advent of the Muslims in the 12th century AD. The British administrators with their insatiable curiosity discovered the golden age of the Asoka kingdoms in the 3rd century BC. They showed that Buddha was a real person who had lived in India in the 4th century BC, even though his creed was no longer practised in India. They rediscovered Sanskrit which was still alive but not taken seriously, they even found and translated the Kama Sutra and eventually the archaeologists came along and discovered the Indus valley civilisations of the Stone and Bronze Ages.


The Industrial Revolution

This spirit of enquiry is all part of the phenomenon that we call the Industrial Revolution, but it is really a completely new way of thinking and acting. It is tempting to call it democratic, though democracy is a word with many meanings: perhaps rather it is the spirit of enquiry, of liberal or perhaps libertarian ideals which encourage trial and error and experimentation. But these ideals are anathema to all barbarian empires. When faced with this revolution, the great Ottoman Empire cracked and asked itself what went wrong without ever supplying a proper answer. The Indian empire cracked and was taken over by the East India Company and then by the British Empire which did not quite know what to do with its empire, and finally reluctantly gave it away having first taught it all the wrong lessons. The western world too, where the revolution took place, proved unable to understand it properly, and produced explanations – Marxism, Socialism, Fascism – that are wildly off-target. In China too, the original empire was destroyed: though surprisingly, despite great trauma, China came through with its boundaries, and even some of its ideals, intact.

"The reception of the Diplomatique (Macartney) and his suite, at the Court of Pekin". Drawn and engraved by James Gillray, published in September 1792.

The reception of the Sir George Macartney at the Court of Pekin, drawn and engraved by James Gillray, published in September 1792. An attache commented: “We entered Pekin like Paupers, remained in it like Prisoners and departed from it like Vagrants”.

Two events provide the outline of the story: the first came in 1793 with the mission of Lord George Macartney from which the Chinese emerged apparently triumphant. The Chinese Empire still ran by the age-old principles of gift exchange, principles which would have been at home in ancient Egypt, in the Minoan Empire or indeed in the Maya Empire at its height. The emperor was the supreme ruler of all under heaven: outside lands were welcomed, but only as tributaries. Gift exchange was the order of the day, but to present one’s gifts, one must have an audience with the emperor, and to get an audience, one has to perform the kowtow, bowing down and pressing your forehead to the ground. And having performed your kowtow, you may present your gifts.

The western world however was operating by very different principles where ambassadors were sent out and exchanged formal greetings and then set about drawing up commercial treaties specifying how trade and exchange was to be carried out between the constituent parties. The two systems were totally different and there was no way that they could be reconciled.  The Chinese had established a system whereby there was just one port of entry at Canton in the extreme south-west corner of the country, at the mouth of the Pearl River, far away from Beijing. The British eventually seized a rocky barren island at the mouth of the river called Hong Kong and developed their influence from there. But all trade had to go through Canton where the Chinese merchants and officials took the foreigners for a ride. The foreigners were not happy; they wanted more ports of entry further up the coast nearer to the heartlands of Beijing and the Yellow River.

In 1793 Lord George Macartney, a cousin of the King, was sent out to negotiate a new treaty. He went out with three ships and a staff of 500 diplomats and 600 cases of British manufactured goods. When he eventually arrived in Beijing he found that the Emperor had decided to move to his summer palace at Chengde– 600 miles to the north. The British followed and eventually were granted an audience. Lord Macartney refused to perform the Kow Tow, the Emperor said he was not interested in the British baubles, and the British did not get any of the concessions they had been asking for. It was to be the last time that the Chinese were to be able to swat away these strange and awkward foreigners in this way.


The Opium War

Fifty years later the situation was reversed and the Chinese were humiliated as result of the first Opium War. This is a very unfortunate episode because it is a case where from the moral point of view the British were in the wrong, and the episode poisoned relations between China and the modern world for a long time to come.

The problem really concerned tea. Tea was becoming increasingly popular in England and was imported in huge quantities from China. But how to pay for it? The answer was in silver, in particular Mexican dollars, and the huge import of dollars upset the Chinese financial system. It was difficult to find anything more suitable in exchange and opium became the answer. The Chinese were acquiring a great taste for opium. The government tried to forbid it, but smugglers were importing it in quantity. Tobacco was becoming fashionable everywhere and if you deal in tobacco, why not opium? Opium, it is true, is somewhat more addictive, but is it all that much worse than tobacco? Or so the argument went. The British decided to join the opium smuggling in a big way: opium was being grown in huge quantities in India, from where it was easy to transport it to China.


The Battle of Anson’s Bay, 1841. The Nemesis, lurking in the background to the right, was itself impregnable, being iron-clad, and had far heavier cannon than the Chinese junks.

So the British joined up with the smugglers, made friends with the pirates, corrupted all the officials and imported huge amounts of opium. Silver instead of flowing into China began to flow out. The Chinese barricaded the British ships in their ports. The Quaker traders sided with the Chinese and if the Chinese had been just a little more clever they might have split the British between the Quakers and Jardine Matheson. But the extremists on both sides prevailed and the British had a new paddle steamer, the Nemesis, steam-powered and iron clad with the latest cannon and the battle was over very rapidly. The Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing whereby the Chinese paid an indemnity of 21 million ounces of silver, and were forced to concede five treaty ports, while the rocky island at the mouth of the River Pearl called Hong Kong was yielded in its entirety to the British. The modern age had arrived.

There were other problems too: the Qing dynasty was following the fate of all other dynasties and was cracking up. There was a terrible rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) in which 20 million people died. The leader had studied Christianity, proclaimed that he was Jesus’ younger brother, sang hymns and practiced an austere puritanism forbidding tobacco and opium. The Christians disliked him almost as much as the Confucians, but it took fourteen years before the rebellion was put down.

Then there were problems from Japan. Japan had long been a sort of vassal state, but of all the barbarian empires who were challenged by the Industrial Revolution the only one to face the challenge with any degree of success was Japan. From 1603 – 1868, Japan was ruled by a warrior elite who suppressed all dissent but brought peace and prosperity; but they kept all outsiders firmly outside – no foreign trade was allowed. However in 1853 the American navy under Commodore Perry arrived, and in a brief and terrifying display of firepower ‘opened up’ Japan. In 1868 there was a revolution and a group of young reformers ousted the Samurai warriors, “restored” the fourteen year-old emperor to the throne as a constitutional i.e. powerless monarch, and set about modernising Japan. They were hugely successful.

Their clash with China came over Korea. Korea had long been a proud independent nation, though a vassal of China. However the Japanese decided to add Korea to their empire; the Chinese objected, they went to war and the Chinese were humiliated. As a result, the Japanese too forced the Chinese to grant them a trading port on the coast of China.


The Empress Cixi


The Empress Cixi, as drawn by a court painter

In this account, the emperors have deservedly been forgotten but we can end our account with one of the worst emperors of all, who was not an emperor but an empress, the Empress Cixi (1861-1908). She began as a concubine whose son became the Tongzhi emperor. He was manipulated by his mother, but he was a weakling, and when he died in 1875, his mother took charge completely, putting an infant nephew on the throne and running the country. Sometimes she gave orders from behind a curtain, but sometimes she did not even bother with the curtain. She was a very cunning operator who played the reactionaries against the reformers, but she always came down on the side of the reactionaries, and in 1898 she successfully thwarted an effort to carry out some meaningful reforms. She finally died in 1908 and was followed by Puyi (who the westerners called Henry), the last ineffectual emperor.


Puyi, the last Chinese emperor, photo published  in 1934. He is often considered to be rather a dolt, but the fact that he survived till 1967  under the most unpropitious circumstances suggests that he must have had something about him.

He finally formally abdicated in 1912, but he lived on becoming a gardener in the Botanical gardens. In the Cultural Revolution he was thoroughly ‘re-educated’ and finally as an old man in 1964 he wrote his autobiography in which he recounted what had happened on his wedding day when at the age of sixteen he was formally introduced to his wife. The young couple were finally packed off to bed but he was so terrified by the appearance of his wife in glamorous red robes that he fled the wedding room down the passage to his favourite library where he spent the night studying his beloved beetles. Thus the Chinese empire came to an end.




And what happened in the 20th century?

Created 4th May 2015