When the last Chinese dynasty—the Qing dynasty—fell in 1911–1912, it marked the end of the nation’s incredibly long imperial history. That history stretched back at least as far as 221 BCE when Qin Shi Huangdi first united China into a single empire. During much of that time, China was the single, undisputed superpower in East Asia, with neighboring lands such as Korea, Vietnam, and an often-reluctant Japan trailing in its cultural wake. After more than 2,000 years, though, Chinese imperial power under the last Chinese dynasty was about to collapse for good.
The ethnic Manchu rulers of China’s Qing dynasty reigned over the Middle Kingdom beginning in 1644 CE, when they defeated the last of the Ming, up until 1912. What brought about the collapse of this once-mighty empire, ushering in the modern era in China?
As you might expect, the collapse of China’s Qing dynasty was a long and complex process. Qing rule gradually collapsed during the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, due to a complicated interplay between internal and external factors.
Murmurs of Dissent
The Qings were from Manchuria, and they established their dynasty as a conquering force of the Ming dynasty by non-Chinese outsiders, maintaining that identity and organization throughout their 268-year reign. In particular, the court marked itself off from its subjects in certain religious, linguistic, ritual, and social characteristics, always presenting themselves as outside conquerors.
Social uprisings against the Qing began with the White Lotus uprising in 1796–1820. The Qing had forbidden agriculture in the northern regions, which were left to the Mongol pastoralists, but the introduction of new world crops such as potato and maize opened the northern region plains farming. At the same time, technologies for treating contagious diseases such as smallpox, and the extensive use of fertilizers and irrigation techniques were also imported from the West.
White Lotus Rebellion
As a result of such technological improvements, the Chinese population exploded, increasing from just shy of 178 million in 1749 to almost 359 million in 1811; and by 1851, the population in Qing dynasty China was close to 432 million people. At first, farmers in regions adjacent to Mongolia worked for the Mongols, but eventually, the people in the overcrowded Hubei and Hunan provinces flowed out and into the region. Soon the new migrants began to outnumber the indigenous people, and conflict over local leadership grew and grew strong.
The White Lotus rebellion began when large groups of Chinese rioted in 1794. Eventually, the rebellion was crushed by the Qing elites; but the White Lotus organization remained secret and intact, and advocated for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.
Another major contributing factor to the downfall of the Qing dynasty was European imperialism and China’s gross miscalculation of the power and ruthlessness of the British crown.
By the mid-19th century, the Qing dynasty had been in power for over a century, and the elites and many of their subjects felt they had a heavenly mandate to remain in power. One of the tools they used to stay in power was a very strict restriction on trade. The Qing believed that the way to avoid the errors of the White Lotus rebellion was to clamp down on foreign influence.
The British under Queen Victoria were a huge market for Chinese teas, but the Qing refused to engage in trade negotiations, rather demanding that Britain pay for the tea in gold and silver. Instead, Britain began a lucrative, illicit trade in opium, traded from British imperial India into Canton, far from Beijing. The Chinese authorities burned 20,000 bales of opium, and the British retaliated with a devastating invasion of mainland China, in two wars known as the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60.
Completely unprepared for such an onslaught, the Qing dynasty lost, and Britain imposed unequal treaties and took control of the Hong Kong region, along with millions of pounds of silver to compensate the British for the lost opium. This humiliation showed all of China’s subjects, neighbors, and tributaries that the once-mighty China was now weak and vulnerable.
With its weaknesses exposed, China began to lose power over its peripheral regions. France seized Southeast Asia, creating its colony of French Indochina. Japan stripped away Taiwan, took effective control of Korea (formerly a Chinese tributary) following the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895–96, and also imposed unequal trade demands in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki.
By 1900, foreign powers including Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan had established “spheres of influence” along China’s coastal areas. There the foreign powers essentially controlled trade and the military, although technically they remained part of Qing China. The balance of power had tipped decidedly away from the imperial court and toward the foreign powers.
The Boxer Rebellion
Within China, dissent grew, and the empire began to crumble from within. Ordinary Han Chinese felt little loyalty to the Qing rulers, who still presented themselves as conquering Manchus from the north. The calamitous Opium Wars seemed to prove that the alien ruling dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven and needed to be overthrown.
In response, the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi clamped down hard on reformers. Rather than following the path of Japan’s Meiji Restoration and modernizing the country, Cixi purged her court of modernizers.
When Chinese peasants raised a huge anti-foreigner movement in 1900, called the Boxer Rebellion, they initially opposed both the Qing ruling family and the European powers (plus Japan). Eventually, the Qing armies and the peasants united, but they were unable to defeat the foreign powers. This signaled the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty.
The Last Days of the Last Dynasty
Strong rebel leaders began to have major impacts on the ability of the Qing to rule. In 1896, Yan Fu translated Herbert Spencer’s treatises on social Darwinism. Others began to openly call for the overthrow of the existing regime and replace it with a constitutional rule. Sun Yat-Sen emerged as China’s first “professional” revolutionary, having gained an international reputation by being abducted by Qing agents in the Chinese Embassy in London in 1896.
One Qing response was to suppress the word “revolution” by banning it from their world-history textbooks. The French Revolution was now the French “rebellion” or “chaos,” but in fact, the existence of leased territories and foreign concessions provided plenty of fuel and varying degrees of safety for radical opponents.
The crippled Qing dynasty clung to power for another decade, behind the walls of the Forbidden City, but the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 put the final nail in the coffin when 18 provinces voted to secede from the Qing dynasty. The Last Emperor, 6-year-old Puyi, formally abdicated the throne on Feb. 12, 1912, ending not only the Qing dynasty but China’s millennia-long imperial period.
Sun Yat-Sen was elected the first president of China, and the Republican era of China had begun.