By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
The Qing dynasty, known also as the Manchu Dynasty, ruled China for nearly three centuries before its collapse in 1912. But its position was precarious long before its fall. And many of China’s structural problems during that time can be laid at the feet of foreign powers that exploited Manchu weakness for their own advantage.
The Opium Wars
China had long been a desirable trading partner for European powers. But it was clear by the early 19th century that Europeans craved Chinese goods more than China desired anything from the West. That is, until the British started transporting massive amounts of highly addictive opium to China from its colonial possessions in India and Burma.
The opium trade reversed the balance of trade, and created new health, social, and economic problems associated with the skyrocketing use of this drug. Ultimately, when the Qing dynasty tried to enforce the ban on opium imports in 1839, the British government went to war, ostensibly to protect the lives and rights of British traders, but really to protect the drug trade.
The war lasted three years, until 1842. And it irrevocably altered China’s fate. With Britain’s victory, the Qing dynasty was forced to give up extraordinarily favorable terms of trade. Even so, the British weren’t satisfied for long.
They waged a Second Opium War in the 1850s, and—along with France, Russia, and the United States—extracted still more concessions. From this point on, through the rest of the 19th century, the US and major European powers maintained a privileged status in China to the disadvantage of the Qing dynasty.
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The imperial government’s position deteriorated further after its surprising loss in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. In a settlement, China agreed to cede territory, including Formosa (present-day Taiwan), along with trading privileges, and pledged to pay Japan a large indemnity. But its only hope to secure the funds needed was to turn to the very powers that had already gained so much leverage over its trading ports.
Several European powers awarded the Qing dynasty loans in exchange for physical spheres of influence in the country. As examples, China granted trade, railway, and mining concessions to the British, French, Germans, Belgians, Japanese and Russians. This turned China into a semi-colonized state.
Anti-foreigner sentiment surged among Chinese nationals as a result. Resentments against Western imperialism peaked in 1900, when a secret society rooted in Confucian ideas initiated a violent peasant uprising against foreign nationals and Christian missionaries. The Qing dynasty sided with the rebels, provoking an invasion by no fewer than eight foreign armies, and the occupation of Beijing. China was now without an effective central government.
However, the vacuum of legitimate authority left by the impotent imperial government was filled with growing revolutionary and anti-imperialistic sentiment. Ironically, such ideas had been spawned by foreigners.
As in other colonial contexts around the world, Western contact brought Western ideologies and philosophies to China. New ideas about self-determination and democracy took root among Chinese professionals and students. Books circulated criticizing China’s elite and their corrupt complicity with Western powers. And secret societies began to plot ways to overthrow the Qing dynasty.
Sun Yat-sen: Threat to Qing Dynasty
The physician Sun Yat-sen ultimately came to personify the threat to Qing dynasty rule. Under what he called the Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen called for democracy, nationalism, and livelihood in a China that was to be free from foreign influence and liberated from imperial rule. He formed a group called the Revive China Society to organize support, even while he lived abroad, and a number of revolutionary uprisings took root.
Unrest boiled over on October 9, 1911, when an accidental explosion in the city of Wuhan, in central China, exposed a revolutionary plot that provoked a confrontation between rebels and the imperial government. A small bomb detonated in the conspirators’ headquarters. Afterward, police discovered a membership list in the scorched building, and several of the group’s leaders were arrested. But mutineers were able to seize the city’s main armory.
With a child emperor, Puyi, on the throne, and distrust growing in the general population, troops sympathetic to the nationalist cause turned on the imperial government. Revolutionaries quickly gained the upper hand in one Chinese province after another. Officials within the Qing court now sought to stem the revolutionary tide by establishing a constitutional monarchy that would end authoritarian rule.
End of Qing Dynasty
Former viceroy Yuan Shikai was to serve as premier. But before he could seek to exert control, provincial leaders and rebels declared their allegiance to an opposition umbrella group known as the Revolutionary Alliance. Sun Yat-sen had been integral to setting up this group. He rushed back to China from the United States, while his supporters streamed into the eastern China city of Nanjing to convene a national assembly to decide the country’s future. The leaders of this assembly declared China to be a republic and Sun Yat-sen its provisional president.
Still, Sun Yat-sen offered an olive branch to Yuan Shikai, bypassing the imperial government in the process. He proposed that if the army leader agreed to the formation of a republic, he could serve as president. Yuan Shikai agreed and switched sides. A succession of military units now abandoned the government. And with few options left, the six-year-old Emperor Puyi abdicated the throne in February 1912, ending the Qing dynasty.
Common Questions about Western Imperialism and the End of Qing Dynasty
When the Qing dynasty tried to enforce the ban on opium imports in 1839, the British government went to war, ostensibly to protect the lives and rights of British traders, but really to protect the drug trade. The war lasted three years, until 1842.
The imperial government’s position deteriorated after its surprising loss in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. In a settlement, China agreed to cede territory, including Formosa (present-day Taiwan), along with trading privileges, and pledged to pay Japan a large indemnity.
Under the Three Principles of the People, Sun Yat-sen called for democracy, nationalism, and livelihood in a China that was to be free from foreign influence and liberated from imperial rule.