USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Rise and Fall of the Qing Dynasty

In the first couple of chapters, I wrote about the problems China faced in the nineteenth century. Let us remember that in 1800 China was still very much a world power, and it was still led by the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which in the mid-seventeenth century had taken power from the ethnically Chinese ruling dynasty, the Ming. In truth, however, China faced major internal issues in the eighteenth century, foremost was a lack of economic, agricultural, and political innovation to deal with emerging European power. This lack of innovation was painfully exposed in conflicts with Britain over the trade and sale of opium in the 1840s and 1850s. We know from previous chapters that China, under pressure from a mounting crisis of opium addiction, attempted to ban the sale of opium through ports. We know that at one decisive point the Chinese seized a huge amount of British opium and destroyed it in an act that was something akin to the Boston Tea Party. Unlike the Boston Tea Party, however, the subsequent conflict between China and Britain did not go well for the Chinese. Britain, using its superior navy, forced China into submission and made the Chinese emperor sign a highly punitive and humiliating treaty. The treaties ending the Opium Wars with Britain acted as a catalyst for other exploitative treaties, and soon China became prey to aggressive foreign economic interference, a trend resented by the population.

This crisis in foreign affairs was mirrored by even greater turmoil within China itself. Huge rebellions tore apart the Qing regime in the mid-nineteenth century. Following the Opium Wars, the massive Taiping Uprising raged in central China from 1850-1864. As a matter of bleak comparison, think about the U.S. Civil War, which lasted four years and took some 650,000 lives. Taiping, by contrast, lasted fourteen years and was responsible for, along with a collapse of general order, some 30-40 million deaths. If this was not enough, another great rebellion broke out to the northwest of the lands controlled by the Taiping. This rebellion, the Nian Rebellion, lasted from 1851 to 1868, even longer than the Taiping Uprising. Nian forces were broken by the emperor in a war of attrition, and with the help of foreign forces, thus further undermining Qing sovereignty. Finally, in 1855 the large Muslim minority in southeastern China revolted against Qing rule in protest of rising taxes and fewer economic opportunities. The last Muslim rebels fell finally to Qing forces in 1871. In sum, from around 1850 until 1871, for 21 years, the Qing government was forced to expend a huge amount of resources and attention to simply maintain a tenuous hold over its domain.

There were two important consequences of the chaos created by the three great mid-nineteenth century rebellions in China. The first is that the Qing Dynasty was not able to reform itself and innovate in a way that could narrow the differences in power between itself and its European and American (and soon Japanese) competitors. Second, foreign influence became more pronounced in China as Chinese sovereignty weakened. The Qing Dynasty was only able to survive by relying on foreign powers. Economic and legal concessions meant that China had fewer options in the international arena. If internally its grip on the people and the land was severely compromised, externally China had basically given up any claim to international authority or even to simple national autonomy.

The amazing fact that Qing China survived the mid-century crises should not obscure the fact that its sovereignty (the monopoly of the use of force within its borders and its ability to defend itself from external threat) was for all intents and purposes gone. A process of reform at the end of the century would strengthen the Qing a bit and give it some last gasps of breath, but reform was too little too late and could not save China from Qing collapse.

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