Qing Dynasty China

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The Manchu people were a non-Chinese people closely related to the Mongols. At some point in the 16th century they migrated to the east, to what is today the region of Manchuria, in northern China. There, they settled down and organized a state modelled along Chinese lines.

In the mid-17th century, the Ming empire of China experienced a prolonged period of instability. The Manchu were able to take advantage of this and, they breached the empire’s defences, marched on Beijing and drove the Ming court from power. Seizing the throne of China for themselves, the Manchu leaders called their dynasty the Qing (“Brilliant”).

The Qing emperors took a generation to firmly establish their power over China, but once they had done so they took the Chinese empire to new heights of grandeur and power. During the late 17th century, and throughout most of the 18th century, three remarkable Qing emperors sat on the Chinese throne in succession. They imposed a new level of efficiency on the government of China, and annexed vast regions of inner Asia, including Tibet, to the empire. By the late 18th century imperial China was at its zenith.

The 19th century saw precipitate decline. Western merchants clamoured to be let into the massive Chinese market, and they smuggled in the opium drug on an industrial scale. Chinese society was swept by an epidemic of debilitating drug use.  Western governments supported their merchants with military power, and seized coastal ports such as Hong Kong for their own use, and negotiated access to many other cities throughout the Chinese empire. Humiliating as these set-backs were, they had nothing like the impact on Chinese society that a series of huge rebellions had. The most famous of these as the Taiping rebellion (1850-64), in which 20 millions people are estimated to have lost their lives.

The Qing dynasty was greatly weakened by these episodes, and it gradually lost the loyalty of the Chinese people. Attempts to modernise the Chinese army and navy were shown to be inadequate in repeated defeats at the hands of European and Japanese forces, and efforts to industrialise the economy and government were too little and too late.  The Manchu emperors were seen as unable or unwilling to protect the interests of the Chinese people, and were increasingly viewed as alien rulers. Finally, in 1912, the commander-in-chief of the Chinese army removed the last of the Qing emperors (a child of 6) from his throne, and proclaimed a republic.

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