It is said that the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
— Luo Guanzhong, the opening line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a succinct summary of the concept that "World History" is cyclicalnote .
"Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han. Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han. Sui, Tang, Song. Sui, Tang, Song. Yuan, Ming, Qing, Republic, Mao Zedong."This page would have been labeled Imperial China, but that title was already taken. This page contains the basic outlines of Chinese history prior to the founding of The Republic of China under Yuan Shikai. See the relevant article for the rise of the Guomindang, the Civil Wars, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. Much of this comes courtesy of Wikipedia, though we've quite a few (mostly amateur, but some professional) Sinologists among us. Much like many other regions, Chinese history is commonly divided into 'dynastic' periods corresponding to the strongest Empire present at the time. Generally speaking, each 'dynasty' denotes a period when a multi-national Empire dominated the region for a bit - and among the educated elite they eventually succeeded in creating an alternative pan-Chinese national identity (that began to catch on among normal people during long night of The Second Sino-Japanese War). The rise and fall of each empire generally meant a lot of crime, debt, death, and general suffering. A massive bureaucracy was used by many Empires to administer their territories, most of these being selected by competitive examinations from the Sui on. Most focused heavily on knowledge of the Confucian classics. This was a major force for keeping the writing system unified across the country, even as various spoken languages rose and fell. Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC - 1046 BC) Preceded by the only vaguely known (and semilegendary) Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BC - 1600 BC) and the legendary 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors. A relatively small state centered on the Yellow River valley, this was a bronze age culture mostly known today for the workmanship of its artifacts (including many exquisite items in cast bronze) and its position in the development of Chinese culture. And also oracle bones. Lots of oracle bones.
— To the tune of "Brother John"/"Where is Thumbkin".
Depictions in fiction:
- Creation Of The Gods: A work detailing the final days of the Shang dynasty, in which the corrupt and lecherous King Zhou of Shang was eventually overthrown by the virtuous King Wu of Zhou. In the war, a great many generals, Taoist and Buddhist immortals, and heroes of all sorts were slain and promoted to deities, hence the name of the story.
- Age of Empires features the Shang as a playable faction.
Depictions in fictionQin Shi Huangdi and that one was really enough for at least two dynasties in any lesser country. Among other things, he unified the country (perhaps a quarter to a third the size of modern China) in a swift 9 year campaign; built the Great Wall of China (later rebuilt by the Ming); created that famous Terracotta Army as part of his burial complex; and standardized the laws, coinage, and writing system. He is also known for being rather authoritarian, especially in his later years. Being a fan of the harsh legalist philosophy of jurisprudence, many of his more bloody actions (especially those against the Confucians, who later came to power and wrote all the history books) sealed his legacy as THE tyrant of China. Qin Shi Huang's successor was not nearly as capable and the dynasty soon ended. The Qin dynasty created a model that the later dynasties followed. Their influence was such that the name the West still uses for the country—China—is derived from the word Qin, which was originally rendered into western languages as Chin. (The Chinese themselves mostly call the country Zhongguo, meaning central country, although it has other names).
Depictions in fictionlanguage(s) Hanyu (meaning "Han Speech") and the most widely used system of romanizing Chinese is called Hanyu Pinyin. So big that the Chinese word for "Chinese characters" is "hanzi", literally "Han characters", and was exported to other cultures as the Japanese word "kanji", Korean "hanja", and Vietnamese "Hán tự". You have one guess which part of their writing system it refers to.note The Han Dynasty was founded by Liu Bang, a Boisterous Bruiser of humble birth from what is now Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province. He was a good politician, so likable that bartenders gave him free booze because people would buy more drinks just to hang around him longer. He fought his way to the throne in the turmoil after the fall of the Qin, and although he was a bit crude and uncouth, he knew how power worked and could take advice, even criticism, and so developed policies that helped his line rule all China almost uninterrupted for 400 years. Confucianism became solidly entrenched as the official philosophy. This was also the time when many Chinese inventions came forward: paper (a must for bureaucrats), advances in metallurgy (mostly in casting iron and producing steel), and other stuff. The Han Empire coexisted with the the Roman, Parthian (Persian), and Mauryan (north Indian) empires and together these four countries ruled over more than 70% of the entire world's population. There was much trade contact between the four, both directly and via intermediaries—the Romans had to pass laws restricting the silk trade because Rome's gold reserves were being emptied by its ravenous demand for Chinese silk. The Han Chinese for their part did rather like Roman glassware, particularly glass beads (sophisticated glassmaking was as unknown in China as silk was in Rome), but never enough to seriously affect monetary policy. There is some debate about whether Roman and Chinese soldiers ever met in combat—there have been claims that the Persians captured some Roman soldiers, then moved them to their other frontier and paid them to fight for them, where they then fought Han troops in the area of modern Afghanistan. For their part the Han respected the Romans' greater relative longevity (the Persian Empire had been conquered by Alexander of Macedon and the Mauryan Empire was the first pan-Indian empire in history) by terming their realm as Daqin - "Great Qin" (the Qin and Roman Empires had also been contemporaries) - and this name has stuck. The Han Dynasty was briefly overthrown by Wang Mang (who had already been ruling as regent of three different child emperors for several years) in 9 AD, but his self-proclaimed Xin Dynasty lasted only 14 years before he was killed in a peasant rebellion and the Han Dynasty was restored. As the restored Han Dynasty moved its capital to the east from Chang'an to Luoyang, historians divide it into the Western Han (prior to overthrow) and Eastern Han (after restoration) periods.
Depictions in fiction
- Red Cliff
- Disney's Mulan, such that it hails from an era at all; much of the movie is an Anachronism Stew, and the fable it is derived from is most likely set in the Ming Dynasty.
- Wang De Sheng Yan is about Liu Bang, his rise to power and the final time of is reign.
Depictions in fictionnote Famous for its Deadly Decadent Court and incompetent line of emperors. The Jin dynasty underwent a civil war called the War of the Eight Princes in which Eight rival Jin princes hired foreign nomads as mercenaries in the civil war. As they all defeated each other and wiped each other out the power vacuum in northern China led to a wholesale evacuation from northern China, leading to the establishment of the Eastern Jin. The power vacuum left by the Jin was filled by sixteen kingdoms (304-439). Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) A period of civil war and division, marked also by artistic and cultural developments, including the maturation of Chinese Buddhism and the development of the pagoda. Due to the constant warring in northern China, southern China was heavily colonized by the Han Chinese and developed. Sui Dynasty (581-618) Strong candidates for the coveted titles of "Most Obscure" and "Shortest Lived" Imperial Chinese dynasty, they turned out to be meteoric in every sense of the word. They arose out of the anarchy following the Jin and the Southern and Northern period from the ashes of Northern Wei, a state that had been founded by the Mongolic Tuoba Xianbei people and had ruled the north for over 150 years. The Sui did this by dint of capable, energetic leadership that swept aside all competition. They engaged engaged in some of the most ambitious and large-scale expeditions the Chinese had undertaken until that point and time. Of these undertakings perhaps the most well known is that they completed the Grand Canal from Beijing (not the capital at this period) to Hangzhou, tying what is now South China together with the North. However, this came at a cost: they were considered tyrannical and extravagant while their public works exacted heavy financial and blood tolls, particularly during the reign of their second emperor. They still managed to keep truly massive dissent at bay thanks to their industriousness and Type-A Control Freak tendencies until these very traits did them in when they tried to to conquer one of the Korean kingdoms. While figures are still uncertain, this was a truly massive and costly endeavor for the entire Empire that was meant as a grandiose display of Sui Imperial power. Which meant that when it unceremoniously bogged down against a vastly smaller enemy thanks to dogged Korean resistance and the main Obstructive Bureaucrat being the Son of Heaven himself, it was a catastrophe. After a few rounds of trying, the costs broke the back of the Sui and the dynasty dissolved in rebellion and assassinations after only two generations.
Depictions in fiction
- In The Royal Diaries series, Lady of Chiao Kuo takes place during the Sui Dynasty.
Depictions in fiction
- Bridge of Birds
- Journey to the West and adaptations thereof
- Judge Dee
- Detective Dee
- House of Flying Daggers
- Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven is set in a fictionalized version of Tang China during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong
Depictions in fiction
- Water Margin
- Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars is set in a fictionalized version Song China during the reign of Emperor Huizong
- China in various works depicting the life of Genghis Khan is of this period, mostly of Western Xia and Jin empires.
Depictions in fictionRags to Royalty, Magnificent Bastard (although very much indebted to good advisers) and Despotism Justifies the Means all rolled into one. The Ming is the first Chinese Empire we have anything more than very basic documentation for, with about 10,000 government documents remaining from the period - not enough for a detailed picture of government activity, but enough for a reasonably accurate outline. The minor cultural stuff (plays, songs, opera, etc) wasn't so lucky and a lot was destroyed during the PRC's Cultural Revolution, leading to an ongoing hunt through overseas archives and collections for surviving copies. Internationally the Ming were best-known for being a gigantanormous Space-Filling Empire which ruled over about a third of the entire world's population and was ridiculously rich and cultured by the standards of the day. These days they are certainly most famous for the porcelain which they exported in such prodiguous amounts (see: Priceless Ming Vase) and building most of the current Great Wall. Also sent the eunuch admiral Zheng He, a Yunnanese Muslim descended from semuren servants of the Yuan Dynasty, to explore the western seas as far as Sultanate of Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania. He did so with a fleet larger than all the world's navies of the time combined - which was then mothballed because it was a huge money-sink and the whole project had only brought in minimal returns in the form of slightly increased trade. No amount of cultural posturing or diplomacy could change the fundamental nature of Chinese trade with the outside world, which was always going to be very limited - spices grew domestically or just a thousand kilometres to the south, furs were brought in overland from Siberia, and both cheap and high-quality/luxury manufactured goods were all produced domestically (the impoverished and geographically disadvantaged Europeans, on the other hand, had to traverse many [tens of] thousands of kilometres of open ocean to buy all of these things). Domestically the Ming were known for a fair bit more than all that, of course. Economically the stability of their rule and lightness of their taxes allowed a lot of Smithian/pre-modern commercialisation and growth, which taken together with the tripling of the population (c.80 to c.250 million) gave the Ming more than twice the wealth of the Song (peak Song population was c.120 million)note . Politically they were more famous for retaining the anti-aristocratic policies of the Yuan and the Civil Service system (including examinations) of the Song, which ensured that a centralised state (with only minimal recourse to nobles and aristocrats) in which the monarchy and its civil service played the most important roles would be around to stay. They also oversaw a huge flowering of culture, which was helped in large part by their unprecedented wealth and the expansion in literacy (with up to 10% of men and 1% of women — yes, women — being literate) and printing (to the point that there were literally books and pamphlets on every subjectnote , something that had never happened before). Prose was still not really regarded as a 'proper' artistic field in the Ming, but some pretty awesome novels were produced including Journey to the West and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Ming were contacted by the Portuguese and the Castilians when they first established trade posts across the East Indies in the 16th century, and later the Dutch when they seceded from the Habsburg Duchy of Burgundy (the modern-day Low Countries) and seized many Portuguese overseas possessions. Having run up a huge balance-of-trade deficit when buying Chinese luxury goods with hard currency, the Portuguese assented to a political union with Castile in 1580 so they could have tax-free access to Castilian silver imports (shipped over from modern-day Columbia and Mexico in what was then Castilian America). European ceramics- and clothes-making techniques were relatively crude because the region was so underpopulated and poor (much like northern China, Europe as a whole was too dry and cold for rice cultivation), meaning that Chinese goods were of incomparably higher quality than anything the region could produce domestically. Even Indian producers could not compete with Chinese ones at the higher end of the market, and so much silver flowed into China that late Ming suffered from a severe inflationary pressure. The influx of silver from The Americas more than doubled the amount of silver in Europe in the 16th century and more than quadrupled it in the 17th, and silver coins minted in Castilian America became a de facto standard currency of the Ming Empire (as in Europe). From the Portuguese outposts also came a new wave of Christian missionaries to China, especially the Jesuits, who laid the foundation of modern Christianity in China and would contribute significantly to the court life of the later Qing Empire. The war to defend Korea against Japan (late 16th century) involved large land and sea battles and sieges on a scale which exceeded that of the greatest (Ottoman-Habsburg wars, Thirty Years' War) in contemporary Europe, chewing through huge numbers of recruits and resulting in critical shortages of trained archers and suitable bow-wood. Accordingly the Ming resorted to manufacturing and issuing firearms, which were still more expensive than bows but required far less training (weeks, versus years), to arm many of their troops. The naval battles and sieges also encouraged the manufacture and use of large artillery pieces. However, all previous and later military actions were on a vastly smaller scale and chiefly against steppe-nomads - in which bow-armed horse cavalry played the most important role, and siege cannon and muskets were an expensive liability. Accordingly, the Ming employed the Jesuits to buy up all the very latest European gunsmith manuals and bring select Ming gunsmiths up to speed on the latest, most efficient weapons designs (as tested on Europe's myriad battlefields) and test-firing procedures, which the Ming gunsmiths would otherwise have had to figure out for themselves. Given that by the 1620s gunpowder weapons were more than twice as expensive in the Ming than they were in western Europe (due to high long-term demand for them in war-torn western Europe, which eventually pushed per-unit prices down), design trial-and-error was a pretty expensive proposition. There were also no wars in which they could determine the battlefield-efficiency of such indigenous prototypes either. Towards the end of the dynasty, the flourishing of culture was not mirrored politically; later imperial courts were plagued by corruption and the overbearing influences of eunuchs. Natural disasters, costly endeavours such as the intervention in Korea (the Imjin War) would strain imperial coffers. Ironically, it was not the Manchus who first brought an end to the dynasty: a peasant rebellion led by Li Zicheng marched into Beijing; during those tumultuous and tragic events, the last official Ming emperor would commit suicide. Elsewhere, such as in Sichuan, warlords and other peasant leaders would take power, among them Zhang Xianzhong. The last remnants (supposedly) loyal to the Ming dynasty, led by Zheng Chenggong, a some time pirate also known as Koxinga to Westerners, established a de facto independent state on the island of Taiwan in 1661 after driving out the Dutch who had established an outpost there. This state, called the Kingdom of Tungning, lasted until 1683, when the Qing troops under Admiral Shi Lang, who had formerly served under Zheng but defected to the Manchus, conquered the island.
Depictions in fictionGenghis Khan himself by marrying Mongol princesses. Following the fall of the Ming, former imperial general Wu Sangui, who guarded the pass of the Great Wall to Manchuria would defect to them, thus opening up their way into China proper (Wu Sangui would go on to be considered a traitor of historical proportions in China, since, after surrendering to Qing, he rose up in a revolt against his new master a couple of decades later after having been given the huge and rich province of Szechwan to govern. Since his betrayal(s) were supposedly motivated by love triangles, his story is also the fodder for Chinese novels and soap operas). And thus, after decades of brutal conquest and slaughter that saw the Qings conquer not only China proper but also Tibet, Xinjiang, Western Mongolia, and parts of modern Tadjikistan and Kirghizstan, late imperial China would enter another age of prosperity and cultural advancement, the High Qing. Its emperors were known by the nianhao (or era names, corresponding to an emperor's reign) Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong respectively. After that (actually already under the later Qianlong years) things started to go down south... The ultimate reason for the Qing Dynasty's eventual failure and collapse was its shoestring budget, which precluded it from fostering economic development or bureaucratic reform even when it pursued these things wholeheartedly (as in its final decade). The Qing never taxed more than 2% of the country's GDP; Britain had been taxing 8% of GDP as early as 1650, a figure which had only risen since then. The early Qing kept taxes so low because Confucius had espoused a doctrine of fiscal-economic liberalism which stressed minimal taxation and government intervention in the economy, which in practice had been marred by laws restricting commerce in the name of 'Confucian' morality until the Ming (under whom they'd been relaxed, a policy continued under the Qing). The late Qing weren't able to raise taxes - even when they wanted to - because of the continued influence of that concept, administration inertia, and ever-growing local and regional autonomy. There are serious questions as to whether any government could've handled the gargantuan tasks the Qing faced, and they managed to survive a Civil War that by all accounts should have destroyed them and would probably have taken down most lesser Chinese empires. Tellingly, although the regions the rebels held in the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion had just a fifth of the country's total wealth, they had used high taxes to effectively fight the entire rest of the country to a standstill. Although its inability to mobilise its people's resources in the form of taxes was its greatest weakness, the second and most notable was its increasingly obsolescent and eventually obsolete military and military-industrial complex. This seriously damaged the Qing's prestige and caused many to believe that it had lost its legitimacy as a government, directly contributing to the revolution which ended it. The last Ming holdouts had been crushed by the 1680s. Since then the Qing's military needs had never gotten so desparate that they needed to resort to producing muskets (to compensate for a lack of bowmen) and there had been zero need for siege or naval guns of any kind. But it wasn't just that India and Europe were swimming in guns when the Qing weren't; the Qing also lacked the gun-tactics that had been developed over the past three hundred years of European gunpowder-warfare. If there had been any straight-up matches between European and Qing military forces before this disadvantage had become catastrophically wide, perhaps the Qing would have realised the need to get to work churning out muskets. But there weren't; the Qing's massive population and wealth put off all would-be challengers from seriously considering taking them on until 1839. In the First Opium War, well-drilled British troops under the command of veterans of the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars (1790-1815) using tactics perfected during said wars took on poorly-trained Qing musketment who hadn't fought a war in living memory. The result was a foregone conclusion. The Qing's third great weakness (a well-developed but overwhelmingly agricultural economy) limited the tax-base available to the Qing government and increased the expense of developing a modern military-industrial complex - leaving even less money for economic development projects. This weakness was not apparent at first, since it was not seen as a weakness but rather regarded as the norm. In a world in which agriculture and people were the foundations of the economy and the source of virtually all its wealth (mining and manufacturing that didn't use agricultural products being very much in the minority), an empire with a third of the world's population and agricultural production all to itself had good grounds for calling itself the richest and most powerful on earth. However, in the early 19th century this began to change. Devices made from large quantities of high-quality steel and iron could harness the energy stored in coal to power pumps, ships, and even new types of overland vehicle - traction machines (tractors) and locomotives (trains). The Europeans' superior knowledge of chemistry had also born fruit for the first time, with the invention of new types of fertiliser that could be made from minerals. The practical upshot of this was that there was a whole new way to improve agricultural productivity: things mined from the earth. Like their German and Russian counterparts Qing metalworkers, miners, and agronomists had very little knowledge of these processes. But unlike the Germans and Russians, the Qing didn't have the money (or the sense of paranoia and fear inspired by neighbours doing likewise and becoming so much richer and therefore stronger as a result) or the willingness to abandon Confucian-style Liberal Economics necessary for them to follow suit by creating State-owned technical colleges, universities, industrial enterprises, telegraph companies, and railways. All this brings us back to the war of 1839: the so-called 'Opium War'. The highland poppy naturally occurred on the Indian side of the Himalayas, Cantonese traders first introduced southern Chinese consumers to Opium in the early-Ming era, marketing it as a pain-relief medicine and powerful aphrodisiac ('opium-smoking parlour' and 'brothel' quickly became synonymous). In the late Ming Tobacco was also purchased from Spanish traders operating in Manila. In both cases the Chinese merchants quickly cottoned on that anyone who could farm poppies and tobacco domestically could make a killing, and so through a series of wise purchases and bribes the cultivation of both was well-established by the early Qing. Demand for opium and tobacco grew even faster than the population (which had almost doubled Ming levels to c.400 million by 1850), making growing either full-time a viable alternative to other cash-crops like cotton, hemp, wheat, and rice - let alone subsistence-crops like millet, corn, and potatoes. For all that Chinese tobacco and poppy breeds could satisfy the demands of the middle-classes (along with tea, these goods only became affordable for the poor in the mid-late 19th century), they just weren't as good as the originals and so high-quality opium and tobacco were imported throughout the Ming and Qing. Opium and tobacco were already being produced and shipped out of India and central America in vast amounts for export to other Indian regions, the middle east, and Europe - so exporting some to China as well was really just a question of buying some and shipping it there. Given the constant stream of Chinese ships returning from Malaya to China with near-empty holds after delivering Chinese luxury-goods to the islands (where they would be carried to India by Indian Muslim traders), taking Opium on the homeward journey was a great way of reducing their overheads. When the Portuguese and the Dutch East India Company started trying to get 'in' on East Asian trade in the 16th century, they too began carrying Opium and this practice was later adopted by the British East India Company when it in turn finally gained the resources and political leeway to operate in this lucrative market. However, the Qing had very much defined themselves (culturally) as an Empire of Sour Prudes who condemned the pleasure-loving and intellectual ways of the Ming. This took a turn for the extra-prudish when the use of Opium actually became a problem in society rivalling that of alcoholism. Accordingly, in the late 1830s the governor of Guangzhou county (run from Guangzhou city) attempted to curb its use as part of a wider program of sobering up his constituency. In doing so he made two mistakes: targeting foreign merchants, and refusing to compensate them for their losses. Given just how close the British East India Company's ties with the British government were, this was a mistake; even so the vote was close, with the resolution to declare war upon the Qing passing by less than 30 votes in a chamber (the House of Commons) with more than 600 representatives. The Qing lost two naval wars (1839-42, 1860-62) sparked by trying to ban or heavily tax imported goods including opium due to their woefully obsolescent military. As a consequence the Qing were forced to accept European control of a few dozen fishing villages and small towns on the major rivers and coasts, and that Europeans in China would be tried according to the laws of their home country. The latter measure was insisted upon partly because of cultural Values Dissonance including variable toleration of Christianity and Christian practices, but also because laws varied so incredibly widely between Qing districts and even counties; in the most extreme examples what was illegal upon pain of death in one village (e.g. alcohol, opium) could be perfectly legal in a village just ten miles away. The Qing were also forbidden from passing or enforcing pre-Ming-style sumptuary laws banning the consumption of any goods, and were asked to pay the debts the Europeans had run up fighting the wars. This would not have been a problem for a state which was willing and able to tax its people on anything more than a token level, but the burden of reparations constituted a pretty heavy millstone around the Qing's all-too-slender neck. There was insurmountable resistence at the local level against any moves towards greater taxation or centralisation of the bureaucracy. This forced the Qing to borrow money to pay the reparations... from European banks, which (because of the high rates at which Europeans had invested their savings in and generally trusted them, this being another development precipitated by Europe's endless series of wars) could offer much lower interest rates than Qing banks. Around the middle of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion broke out in southern China, led by a decidedly unorthodox Christian convert claiming to be the brother of Christ named Hong Xiuquan. It lasted fourteen years, created a fair-sized state centered on Nanjing, caused the death of about 20-30 million people, and was finally put down with foreign aid. With its regular armies (based on the Banner system) in a state of near total disarray, the Chinese government (especially enterprising local officials) formed militias from local populations, armed them with foreign guns, and hired foreign instructors to train them. Numerous foreign "mercenaries" (in many cases, regular officers offered by foreign nations who decided that the survival of Qing government was preferable to chaos) were hired to lead Chinese armies, both of the national government and locally organized militias. The conflict was one of the largest civil wars of all time, dwarfingnote even the one going on across the Pacific (coincidentally, named the Taiping Yang, or Peaceful Ocean in Mandarinnote ). At the same time, the Nien Rebellion up north put additional pressure on the Qing regime and even threatened the capital. The two rebel leaders failed to cooperate, leading to their eventual defeat. The Qing government attempted a program of reform to make China more Western and hopefully save it from further humiliation. It failed, partly because the reformers actively squabbled with each other instead of the foreigners, partly because even the reformers thought all China needed was a better military and the rest could stay the same, partly because the Empress was rumored to have taken the program's funds to build herself a boat made out of marble (and the Summer Palace in Beijing, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and finally because Chinese armies and fleets equipped with modern weapons but not properly trained in their use were soundly thrashed by the upstart Japanese who had modernized more thoroughly in the First Sino-Japanese War. That Empress' name was Cixi (pronounced 'Tsih-shee'), and if there was ever a real life Dragon Lady, Cixi was it. Originally a concubine to the late emperor Xianfeng, Cixi stayed in power as regent for 48 years, originally in non-romantic union with fellow empress C'ian. This regency covered the 'rule' of multiple emperors. One was her son, who resisted her iron grasp by refusing to study, sneaking out to brothels, and finally dying of smallpox without having had the courtesy to sire a son. Lacking a traditional heir, the two empresses named Cixi's young nephewnote as the new Emperor. While all this was distracting everyone, however, modernisation was definitely not happening. Finally the new Guangxu Emperor reached his majority and started trying to get things moving on his own. With the assistance of a man named Kang Youwei, they came up with a plan to massively shake up the social structure of China. This is known as the Hundred Days Reform. However, a lot of people currently in power didn't particularly appreciate having their jobs cut out from under them. Also, there was a plot underfoot to trick the Emperor into signing away control of China to Japan. Kang Youwei, hoping to get more people on his side, appointed a man named Yuan Shikai as leader of his forces. Yuan Shikai proceeded to tell Cixi exactly what was going on. Kang Youwei ran to Hong Kong to escape Cixi, and Guangxu abdicated and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his (and her) life - when she apparently had him poisoned as she was dying to ensure he wouldn't outlive her. Harsh, Cixi. Harsh. Second, the lower classes of China were very annoyed at the Western incursions, and one group of peasants got it into their heads that it was their destiny to save China by getting rid of all the Westerners. They also believed that they were immune to bullets. Despite this, this group, known fully as the Harmonious Society of Righteous Fists but more commonly as the 'Boxers', travelled across China attacking the foreign powers until they reached Beijing. There they besieged foreign buildings (primarily the embassies), opposed by the foreign-power armies called the League of 8. Cixi supported the Boxers; she even demanded that the Chinese armies come to Beijing to help them fight the foreigners. By this point, the armies were all 'suuure, right' and did virtually nothing to help out. In 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed, and Cixi finally started an actual reform program. Unfortunately, while the reforms were in more sweeping than the failed Hundred Days Reform had been, they still weren't enough to make much visible difference. Thirdly, a man named Sun Yixian (you may know him as Sun Yat-sen or Sun Zhongshan) realised that China was still way behind, and that Cixi was taking China down a highway to Diyu, make no mistake. He summarily started to support revolutionary ideas to turn China into a parliamentary democracy. Many of these ideas grew in popularity, particularly amongst China's armies. To make a now extremely long summary short, Cixi's program failed and Sun Yixian's revolution got underway just as the Qing were setting up a provisional parliament. The rebels were powerful; in the intervening years China's armies had been filled with Sun Yixian's ideas. Whatever the army wanted was going to stick, and the Qing knew it. Realising that Yuan Shikai had the support of at least some of the army, Prince Chun,note father of the last emperor of China, asked him to lead the fight against the rebels. Yuan Shikai happily did so, on the proviso that he got to be the undisputed leader of the armed forces. Yuan then went to negotiations with the rebels and was persuaded to support the newly formed republic...so long as he got to be the undisputed leader of the country. Yuan Shikai: 1, China: 0. This is the dynasty most often seen in Chinese dramas and kung-fu movies, perhaps because documentation from the time is more readily available, particularly of small details a historian of earlier dynasties might omit, and there is photographic evidence of everything from clothing to buildings. The queue hairstyle (forehead shaved, with a long braided pigtail at the back) associated with the period was imposed by imperial edict at the beginning of the dynasty on pain of death, partly as a measure to mark the submission of the Han population. The fact that late in the dynasty people were cutting their queues off showed how ineffectual the Qing became. It's worth mentioning though that while the decline of the Qing was quite spectacular, for 200 years they were pretty much the dominant power in Asia, and one of the most powerful nations in the world. Most of China's modern borders are based on the conquests under the Qing (including Tibet), and especially in its early period the Qing dynasty was characterized by expansion, discovery and reform. The Qing, it seems, will Never Live It Down. More revisionist historians such as William T. Rowe do not see the Qing in such a negative light anymore though; Chinese nationalist historiography (and that includes the Communists') has often painted things in the darkest colours, but such views are have become less useful with the benefit of hindsight and more research. In other words, even in the later years the Qing were not actually doing that badly. With the intention of avoiding natter, the above account leaves out the ongoing economic and ecological problems which were of a completely internal nature, which were also crucial factors in the fall of that dynasty.
Depictions in fiction
- 55 Days at Peking
- Boxers & Saints
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Dream of the Red Chamber
- Fearless (2006)
- Flowers of Shanghai
- The Good Earth
- The Legend of Zhen Huan
- Moment in Peking
- Once Upon a Time in China
- Princess Returning Pearl
- Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
- Towards The Republic
- The Warlords