The Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912

David Pong

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
The Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912

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The last seventy-some years of the Qing dynasty, simply put, is a story of decline. But a closer examination reveals a much more complex and nuanced picture. The reasons for decline are fairly straightforward, though scholars might dispute the relative weighting among them. The period opened with the First Opium War (1839–1842), a milestone in the dynastic decline. Viewed more broadly, however, the sources of this decline—if seen as a function of ailing institutions such as the examination system or an increasingly inefficient revenue system out of sync with population growth—can be traced back to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and before. As such, this perspective focuses on large sociopolitical forces that beg the question of whether the decline was not just of the Qing political order but of China’s civilization itself. Symptomatic of this decline, reforms came slowly and with limited and sporadic government support. Known as the Qing Restoration, which began around 1860, the aim was to reinvigorate the Confucian state through administrative and tax reforms, as well as a practical application of Confucian principles in governance. To tackle the thorny problem of foreign threats, the reformers’ initial response was the adoption of Western military technology and diplomatic practices, conveniently encapsulated as “self-strengthening” (ziqiang自強), in 1861. But reforms soon acquired a life of their own. It became apparent early on that the adoption of one Western technological or diplomatic innovation would inevitably lead to the adoption of another. Modern guns and boats would require new military training, just as their manufacture would require machinists and engineers, and they in turn would demand support industries such as coal mining and a modern transportation infrastructure. To finance these projects, the self-strengtheners branched out into money-making enterprises. A steamship company and textile mills followed, first under government purview, but eventually, under further pressure to combat cheap foreign manufactured goods, import-substitution industries were promoted, now completely in private hands, who were touted as patriotic entrepreneurs. To meet demands, modern education was introduced. In the meantime, the foreigners—their enterprises, missionaries, and military might—continued to threaten the Qing Empire, extracting greater concessions each time there was an altercation or war, which the Chinese inevitably lost. By the end of the 19th century, some Chinese began to realize that, if they were to become a modern nation, their political system had to be seriously reformed and, should that fail, changed. The combined effect of modern commerce, industry, and education had led to major diversification and enrichment of the Chinese elites. They were now poised for greater say in the polity. When their demands were not satisfied, they deserted the Qing Court, and the dynasty collapsed in 1912. Seen in its immediate aftermath, all the efforts at reform or self-strengthening had failed. Over the long haul, the late Qing had laid the foundation for modern China. There was no turning back.

Article.  23006 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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