Early Modern China: Ming (1368—1644) and Early Qing (1644-1800)

Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming dynasty founder, was born into a desperately poor peasant family. He was such a sickly baby that his parents once offered him to the Buddha if his life could be spared. When he was sixteen, during the floods of 1344, his parents and two brothers died during an epidemic, leaving him and one brother alone with no means of support. Finding refuge at a Buddhist temple, he joined in begging on the streets for food and learned basic literacy from some of the monks. In 1352, the Buddhist temple was attacked and burned by the Yuan military because it was seen as part of the Red Turban movement—troops of the White Lotus Society, which had just risen in rebellion against the Yuan government.

With his temple burned to the ground, Zhu Yuanzhang, at age twenty-four, joined a Red Turban army. Physically imposing, very intelligent, and fearless in battle, Zhu quickly impressed his commander, who made him a top assistant and then gave him command of his own troops. Zhu soon married the commander’s adopted daughter, and when his commander was killed in battle in 1355, Zhu took his place. In 1356, his troops occupied the important regional city of Nanjing, which had been the seat of several southern kingdoms. He had gained the allegiance of a number of capable men of some learning and experience, and rather than simply loot and plunder, he and his forces began to administer the territory surrounding Nanjing and to impose peace and order in areas that had been in chaos for over a decade.

As Zhu Yuanzhang’s ambitions grew with his success, he came to see the limitations of the Red Turbans, whose forces were splintered and poorly disciplined. He formally broke with the Red Turbans in 1366, and within two years he had eliminated his rivals among the Red Turban commanders. He then declared the founding of a new dynasty, the Ming (meaning “bright” or “light”) and sent his largest army in 1368 to invade and take over the former Yuan capital, which he renamed Beiping, “The North Pacified.” Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise from destitute orphan-beggar-monk at age sixteen to Son of Heaven and Emperor of China at forty is probably the most dramatic success story in Chinese history. Yet his rise to power was only the beginning, because Zhu had an additional thirty years to impose his iron will on the country and its government. If Shakespeare had been Chinese, his greatest tragedy would have been the life of Zhu Yuanzhang.

In 1368, no one could have foreseen the troubles that lay ahead. To have expelled the Mongols and reunify a strong empire under Chinese control for the first time in 250 years gave Zhu and his commanders and officials great pride and cause for optimism. The new emperor took the reign title Hongwu (Abundantly Martial), and he is also known in history as Ming Taizu (the Grand Progenitor of the Ming). He was energetic, smart, dedicated, and determined to ensure that the people of China would never have to suffer as his family had suffered. No emperor of China was ever more sympathetic to the plight of the poor. He ordered an empire-wide land and population survey, kept central government expenses low, and placed the dynasty on a firm financial footing. He built an imposing capital at Nanjing, surrounded by a twenty-four-mile wall, forty feet high and twenty-five feet wide at the top, with thirteen magnificent gates. He refused to employ large numbers of eunuchs and vowed to limit the number of concubines in his palaces. (He succeeded on the eunuch front but still ended up with forty concubines.) And he ordered villages to be self-regulating in units of 110 households, with the village leaders responsible for tax collection and recordkeeping. He also ordered that his Confucian admonitions and teachings be read aloud monthly at every village in the empire, so that the entire population could be taught the virtues of Confucian filial piety and loyalty to the emperor.

Despite all this, he became—whether from deep character flaws, the terrible insecurities of his youth, or the corruptions of power itself—a paranoid emperor who ultimately tried to control his officials through the blunt use of force and terror. He put out many pleas in 1368 and later for men of talent and dedication to come forward and aid in the great enterprise of government. Yet with the empire fully in his hands, he found it increasingly difficult to trust his subordinates. In 1376, he suddenly ordered the execution of up to a thousand officials for committing the crime of having some government tax documents “prestamped” before being filled out. What might have been a simple move toward efficiency the Hongwu emperor interpreted as proof of corruption.

In 1380, he discovered that his chief councilor and head of the Confucian bureaucracy, Hu Weiyong, was plotting against him, so he had the councilor killed, along with perhaps 15,000 other officials, including anyone with any ties to the traitor. He abolished the position of chief councilor and determined to manage the Confucian bureaucracy himself.

The only person the Hongwu emperor trusted was his wife, Empress Ma, and after she died in 1382, he became even more paranoid. “In the morning I punish a few,” he wrote in exasperation, “by evening others commit the same crime. I punish these in the evening and by the next morning again there are violations. Although the corpses of the first have not been removed, already others follow in their path. The harsher the punishment, the more violations.” Unfortunately, he did not have the presence of mind to see the self-defeating destructiveness of his own lethal policies. The “Abundantly Martial” emperor probably executed 100,0 officials during his thirty years in power.

When the Ming founder died in 1398, there was no doubt a gigantic sigh of relief felt throughout officialdom, but more blood was soon to be spilled. Emperor Hongwu had placed on the throne his twenty-one-year-old grandson, the son of his eldest son, who had died earlier. But Hongwu’s fourth son, the Prince of Yan, commanded a sizable army around the former Mongol capital, now Beiping, defending the all-important northern borders of the empire. As the oldest surviving son of the founding emperor, he felt he deserved the dragon throne. In August 1399, he announced his intentions to “save” his nephew from corrupt advisors and commanded his troops to move on Nanjing.

The young emperor was mismatched with his battle-toughened uncle, and the troops of the Prince of Yan took Nanjing by force in 1402, burning the imperial palace with the young emperor and his mother in it. The prince declared himself the Yongle Emperor (Emperor of Perpetual Happiness), presided over the burial of his nephew, and erased his name from the official records of the dynasty. He was desperate to get the endorsement of one or more high officials from his nephew’s court, but they steadfastly refused, choosing death (and posthumous fame) instead.

Fears about his own legitimacy were to haunt the Yongle Emperor for the rest of his life, but despite the violent beginning of his reign, after his nephew’s loyalist officials were eliminated, he did not repeat the terrible and destructive purges of his father. He was a vigorous and forceful emperor who consolidated the power of the Ming dynasty during his reign of twenty-two years and tried very self-consciously to fulfill the Confucian model of a great emperor. He had scholars prepare the definitive edition of The Four Books (Analects, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, and The Great Learning), as interpreted by Zhu Xi, for use in the civil service examinations. He also commissioned the compilation of all known works in Chinese into the massive Yongle Encyclopedia, which had 22,000chapters and fifty million words—the largest work of its kind in the fifteenth century.

The Yongle Emperor led five military campaigns into Mongolia to prevent any powerful federation of Mongols from threatening China. He rebuilt the Grand Canal, and late in his reign he built a magnificent new capital (with three massive concentric walls) in Beiping, now renamed Beijing, “Northern Capital.” He designed the awesome Imperial Palace in the heart of Beijing. Its large courtyards between massive ceremonial halls on raised marble platforms comprised the Outer Court, where the emperor met with his officials and attended to his public duties. To the north of these were smaller buildings and courtyards, the Inner Court, where the emperor lived with his many servants and consorts. With some 9,000 rooms, the entire complex extended for 961 meters from north to south and 753 meters from east to west. The Ming and Qing emperors lived in this large complex, known as the Forbidden City, from 1421 to 1911.

The most unusual undertaking of Emperor Yongle was to commission Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch admiral, to assemble the largest naval fleet the world had ever seen, or would see for the next five hundred years. In 1405, Zheng He led a fleet of 62 large “treasure ships” and 225 smaller ships carrying 28,000 men southward around Vietnam through the Indonesian archipelago and into the Indian Ocean as far as Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) and the southern coast of India. Some of these treasure ships were 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, about ten times the size of the ships Columbus used to sail to the New World almost a century later. From 1405 to 1433, Admiral Zheng led seven such expeditions, all of a similar size, and some as far as the Arabian Peninsula and the east coast of Africa. The Yongle Emperor claimed that the missions were to find the young emperor he had deposed, as there had long been rumors that he had escaped when his palace was burned in 1402. But the main reason was to display the power of this new Ming dynasty and to solicit more tributary states to recognize and send tribute to the Ming court.

Admiral Zheng He presented foreign rulers with Chinese luxury goods like silks and porcelains as well as everyday goods such as clothes, calendars, books, and Chinese money. The foreign rulers presented Zheng He in return with luxury goods from their own country, and in the case of Africa, with such rare animals as giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers, rhinoceroses, and ostriches. The Chinese took the giraffe to be the fabled unicorn of Chinese folklore that appeared only rarely in history to signal the appearance of a sage emperor. Since the main purpose of these trips was to demonstrate the power and majesty of the Ming court, they were not financially profitable, and once Zheng He died, they were discontinued. We can only speculate how different the modern world would have been if the Chinese had used their naval superiority in the fifteenth century as the Europeans did two and three centuries later—to conquer people and territory and seize control of international trade.

Ming And Qing China 1368-1911 CE

Unfortunately, none of the succeeding Ming emperors were very effective political or military leaders. In one famous case, the Wanli Emperor spent much of his nearly fifty-year reign, from 1572 to 1620, in a mental and political tug-of-war with his Confucian officials. After his officials would not allow him to elevate the consort he loved most to the position of empress because he already had an empress, he refused for two decades to hold court, read official documents, or make decisions about government policy. His officials and eunuchs were forced to carry on a charade of normality while the emperor devoted himself to the pleasures of private life in the palace. Meanwhile, increasing factionalism in the bureaucracy was accompanied by sometimes lethal power struggles between Confucian bureaucrats and palace eunuchs, who grew in numbers and influence in the middle and late Ming. By the end of the dynasty, the government supported perhaps 100,000 eunuchs and another 100,000 members of the extended imperial family.

In a pattern not unlike the Song period, the political problems of the Ming did not prevent a second commercial revolution from transforming Chinese society. During the Ming period, more land came under cultivation in southwest China, and by the late sixteenth century, new crops from the Americas—tobacco, corn, peanuts, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, potatoes, and sweet potatoes—were all introduced into China. These crops could often be grown on hilly or sandy soil not previously farmed. They helped produce another dramatic burst of population growth in the late Ming and entire Qing period. Interregional trade grew steadily, and as merchants accumulated significant wealth, they began to challenge, in practice if not yet in theory, the traditional Confucian prejudice against merchants.

The southern lower Yangzi valley region around Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou became by far the most prosperous area in China. Cotton production grew dramatically during the Ming. Farmers increasingly specialized in cash crops such as fruits, vegetables, rice, wheat, sugar, cotton, tea, and tobacco, and silver became the main medium of exchange in the economy. Vast quantities of silver flowed into China from Japan and, from 1570 onward, from the Spanish production of silver in Peru and Mexico. The Spanish took silver to Manila, where they bought Chinese products, especially silk and porcelain. The export trade grew rapidly as the world began to discover the attractions of Chinese silks, tea, and porcelain. The imperial kilns at the southern town of Jingdezhen came in the Ming to employ more than 10,000 workers. Using a special clay from that area and firing pieces at temperatures exceeding 1,300 degrees Centigrade, they produced elegant blue and white porcelain wares that have been world famous ever since.

By the late Ming, China was widely seen as the most prosperous country on earth. Some economic historians have estimated that three-fourths of all the silver produced in the New World from 1500 to 1800 found its way to China, because the Chinese economy was the most highly developed in the world and its products were better and cheaper than those of any other country. In addition, Portuguese traders had already become involved in the China trade in the 1540s, when they occupied the small peninsula of Macao on China’s southeast coast, and in 1619 they established a fort and trading post on the southern coast of Taiwan. From the sixteenth century onward, Chinese merchants began to migrate throughout Southeast Asia, where by the late nineteenth century they formed a substantial prosperous minority in almost every country. As prosperity grew, China’s population more than doubled during the Ming period.

Along with unparalleled prosperity in China in the sixteenth century came many other social and cultural changes. Growing contradictions in the life of the Chinese literati helped stimulate more creative philosophical analysis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than at any time since the Neo-Confucian revival of the Song. Every scholar admired the Confucian ideal of public service, but the only route to officialdom was examination success, which required rote memorization and the mastery of a deadly dull prose genre called the eight-legged essay. The good Confucian official was duty bound to criticize the emperor if he erred, and in Ming times he often did, even though any Ming official who spoke up was likely to be publicly beaten within an inch of his life, exiled, or even executed. One response was to avoid public service; another was to try to rethink the whole Confucian tradition.

The only later Confucian thinker ever to rival the great Zhu Xi was the Ming scholar-official and visionary Wang Yangming. Even as a youngster, Wang had the ambition to become a Confucian sage. He passed the exams and served with distinction in officialdom, but that wasn’t enough for him. In 1506, when he was thirty-four, he wrote a memorial criticizing the emperor for protecting a corrupt eunuch. The emperor had Wang beaten with forty strokes of a bamboo rod and exiled to a remote region of southern China. While in exile, Wang had a breakthrough experience much like what the Buddhists called enlightenment.

Wang drew on the idealism of Mencius, who had proclaimed the goodness of every person, and on the Chan Buddhist teaching that all people carry the Buddha-nature within themselves. Wang declared that to find moral truth one needed above all to look deeply into one’s own heart. The followers of Zhu Xi, in Wang’s view, made Confucianism an abstract philosophy dependent on detailed study of ancient texts. He argued that knowing and doing are one and the same thing: “I have said that knowing is the intent of acting and that acting is the work of knowing and that knowing is the beginning of acting and acting is the completion of knowing.”

The implications of Wang’s new views were profound. If all people have the seeds of goodness within themselves, they can cultivate goodness, even greatness, without necessarily being brilliant scholars. Some of Wang’s followers emphasized that this principle applied to women as well as men, challenging the traditional Confucian assumption of male superiority. Some of his followers preached his vision to commoners and refused to dress in the silk robes and caps of scholar-officials. Wang Yangming’s philosophy seemed made for the times; more and more people were becoming literate, and the wealth and prosperity of society provided new outlets for creativity besides examination success and government service.

The publishing industry flourished in the Ming as never before, producing guidebooks to cities, examination preparation books, morality books for men and women, almanacs, popular stories in vernacular Chinese (rather than the more difficult classical language), popular songs, poetry, and dramas for reading as well as performing. Four great novels, or long pieces of narrative fiction, were published in the sixteenth century, including The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; Water Margin, a Robin Hood-like story about a band of righteous outlaws from Song times; Journey to the West; and Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei), a social satire and highly erotic tale of a rich, hedonistic urban merchant and his wife and five concubines.

Status competition in the late Ming embraced various forms of connoisseurship, including collections of art, calligraphy, ancient bronzes, odd-shaped stones, old books, and expensive new editions. Urban merchants and scholar-officials hired landscape artists and architects to build elegant gardens with ponds, rocks, trees, bamboo groves, pavilions, bridges, and meandering pathways to simulate in a small space the beauty and grandeur of mountains and natural forests. These gardens were scenes of endless poetry readings, calligraphy parties, dramatic productions, and philosophical discussions. Connoisseurs even competed to see who could assemble the most highly cultured circle of friends.

Some of the most creative landscape painters in Chinese history worked during the Ming period. As in earlier dynasties, the court employed many painters to make imperial portraits, supply murals for palaces and temples, and commemorate official occasions of all types. The most famous Ming painters were poet-painters from the central China region of the southern lower Yangzi valley, particularly the beautiful canal-laced city of Suzhou, where many literati built their private estates and gardens. The peace and prosperity of Ming times allowed these amateur artists to travel widely, and to see the paintings of earlier masters, which were now being assembled in private rather than official collections. Ming landscape painters were deeply aware of the Song and Yuan traditions and often made direct references in their work to the earlier masters. At the same time, some Ming artists self-consciously manipulated the earlier traditions in order to use painting as a vehicle for their own artistic creativity.

Women in Ming times reveal an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the Hongwu Emperor tried to promote a very orthodox brand of Confucianism that emphasized a woman’s “Three Bonds”: her subordination to her father, her husband, and her adult sons. The Ming government began to provide a cash reward for families whose widows committed suicide or lived out their widowhood in celibacy. Scholars compiled biographies of virtuous widows and began to emphasize sexual purity and chastity as the greatest of all female virtues. Some encouraged and celebrated lifelong chastity or suicide even among young betrothed “widows” who had not yet married when their fiances died.

On the other hand, with the publishing boom in Ming times, more women than ever before became literate, and those in the scholar, landlord, and merchant classes began to develop the same passions as the male literati for art and literature. In late Ming poetry, fiction, and drama, romantic love was a very popular theme. Some of the most prominent literati in the country had open, much-celebrated affairs with courtesans—high-class prostitutes who worked in semibondage yet gained fame themselves as great poets, painters, calligraphers, and musicians.

One of the most famous of these was the courtesan Liu Shi, who was sold to a courtesan establishment (the less polite term is brothel) when still a child. This often happened to young women from poor families. They worked first as maids in the brothel and once they were old enough were taught to “serve” the brothel’s male customers. At fourteen, Liu Shi was sold to a government minister to become his concubine. She quickly became his favorite in the household, and he spent many hours teaching her the arts of poetry, painting, and calligraphy. This made her the least popular person in the household, and the minister soon sold her back to the same establishment.

As the former concubine of a famous government minister, she became one of the most expensive courtesans in the Songjiang area (a city south of the Yangzi where many government officials lived). In subsequent years, Liu Shi had love affairs with several other very prominent men, including Chen Zilong and Qian Qianyi, two of the most prominent poet-scholar-officials of the Ming period. During a pleasure boat trip that lasted several months, Qian married Liu in a formal wedding ceremony even though he already had a proper wife. This caused a great scandal, but Qian was prominent enough that the episode did little to hurt his career.

When the Ming dynasty collapsed in 1644, Liu Shi urged Qian to commit suicide as loyal officials were expected to do in such circumstances. Incapable of following her advice, he defected to the Manchus and held an official position for a couple of years before resigning his post. For such irresolution, he was widely criticized. He and Liu Shi turned increasingly to Buddhism in their later years, seeking detachment from passion as consolation for their lost dynasty. In 1663, two years after her daughter was married, Liu Shi shaved her head in the style of a Buddhist nun. Qian died the next year. When relatives descended on his estate to try to claim his property for themselves, Liu Shi took her own life by hanging herself. Qian’s son had her buried with Qian as his second wife.

Despite the low status of courtesans and concubines in Chinese culture, Liu Shi has been widely admired ever since for her abundant talents in poetry and painting, and even more for her courage and strength of character, as seen in her steadfast loyalty to the Ming dynasty and her final act of suicide to protest the greed, arrogance, and malice of her husband’s relatives. She showed to one and all that a mere courtesan could match the artistic sophistication of the greatest of Chinese male literati and the highest ideals of Chinese civilization.

Themes of romantic love in literature initially grew out of the flourishing Ming courtesan culture, but the proper wives of scholar-officials also enjoyed romantic literature along with their husbands, and some developed companionate marriages in which husband and wife enjoyed the same intellectual and cultural interests and developed deep emotional ties as both lovers and friends.

A time of great cultural ferment, the late Ming also witnessed growing political and economic problems. The sixteenth-century surge of prosperity was concentrated in the southern lower Yangzi valley and did not extend far toward north or southwest China. The wealthy found ways to avoid taxes and shift more of the tax burden onto the poor. Increasing impoverishment forced many peasants to become tenants paying high rents to wealthy landlords. A major tax reform in the sixteenth century, the “Single Whip Tax Reform,” combining land and labor taxes into one annual payment in silver, increased efficiency but did little to ease the growing tax burden on the poor.

To make matters worse, the Ming government in the early seventeenth century became increasingly paralyzed by deadly factional struggles between powerful eunuchs and crusading scholar-officials. Wei Zhongxian, the most notorious eunuch of the late Ming, gained control of the court in 1625. He lashed out against the Donglin Movement (named after the Donglin Academy where moralistic, reform-minded scholars studied) and had thousands of scholar-officials jailed, tortured, and killed. When a new sixteen-year-old emperor came to the throne in 1627, he soon arrested Wei, who then hanged himself in prison. This gave officials some hope that the dynasty might be saved, but the Ming decline had progressed too far to be reversed. The state was nearly bankrupted already in the 1590s by providing aid to Korea to help it resist attacks from Japan, and by the 1620s, the Ming government had lost the capacity to keep peace within its own borders.

Famines in northwest China provoked peasant uprisings beginning in 1628, and by 1634 large areas were under the control of rebel bands of peasant soldiers, led by two different bandit leaders, Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong. In 1639, Japanese and Spanish merchants both stopped shipping silver to China, which quickly drove up the price of silver and led to many riots by peasants against high rents and high taxes. In 1642, anti-Ming rebels destroyed the dikes of the Yellow River, leading to extensive floods, famine, and a smallpox epidemic.

All the unrest came to a head in 1644, when Li Zicheng’s forces captured Beijing and the last Ming emperor hung himself on a hill overlooking the Forbidden City. Li’s forces were badly disciplined and proceeded to terrify the population of Beijing and surrounding areas. The strongest military commander under the Ming, Wu Sangui, guarded the Great Wall north of Beijing. Although the details remain murky, Wu invited a powerful army of Manchu troops to join him in taking Beijing back from the rebel forces. The Manchus were descended from the Jurchen Jin dynasty rulers who had taken north China during Song times. They had already declared a Chinese-style Jin dynasty in 1616, and in 1636 they changed the name of their dynasty to the Qing, meaning pure.

Wu Sangui surely knew of the power and ambition of the Manchus, though his initial invitation to them to breach the Great Wall was stated in terms promising only wealth in exchange for helping defend the Ming state. In any case, it quickly became apparent that the Manchu forces were the most capable and well-disciplined in the empire.

The Manchus’ professional military forces were organized under eight different colored flags or banners (four solid colors and four with borders). There were eight Manchu banner divisions, eight Chinese banners, and eight Mongol banners, all expert riders and archers and all under Manchu leadership. They quickly took Beijing, restored order, and proclaimed that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to the Qing dynasty.

Where the Chinese people surrendered, they were assured that Chinese life and culture would continue on in peace and prosperity. If they resisted they would be killed, as was demonstrated vividly when the southern city of Yangzhou refused to surrender. Manchu forces took the city and for ten days were given free rein to rape, loot, and kill the entire population at random. Some Chinese officials chose to resist to the death and to kill their families to prevent their violation by the invading forces. But many other Chinese, including Wu Sangui, opted to cooperate closely and fully with the Manchu invaders. They saw that the Ming cause was hopeless and that the disciplined rule of the Manchus offered their best chance for a peaceful future. The peasant rebellions and rent riots of the late Ming proved in the end much more terrifying to the Chinese landlord-scholar elite than the prospect of being ruled by the Manchus.

This Manchu bannerman, part of the Imperial Bodyguard, tests his bow from a crouching position

This Manchu bannerman, part of the Imperial Bodyguard, tests his bow from a crouching position. Manchu troops were all skilled archers who carried a powerful bow and a quiver full of arrows and were able to shoot accurately while riding a horse at full speed. Only the best and most reliable soldiers were made part of the elite Imperial Bodyguard. Courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York

The one serious Manchu intervention in Chinese life was that all Chinese males had to adopt the Manchu hairstyle: to shave the front half of the head and grow the remaining hair into one long braid at the back, the queue. Hairstyle can be a powerful symbol, and Chinese men had always been proud of their long hair tied in a topknot (something like Japanese sumo wrestlers today). Forcing the queue on Chinese males probably increased the resistance rate among the Chinese, but it also worked as a visible and omnipresent symbol of Chinese submission to Manchu power.

Despite the effectiveness of the Manchu forces and their Chinese collaborators, it took a full generation to put the dynasty on a firm footing. At age fifteen, the Kangxi Emperor took control of the government in 1669 by arresting his regent, the powerful Prince Oboi, believing that he was plotting against him. Just four years later, as the emperor turned nineteen, three former Ming generals, including Wu Sangui who had been awarded large independent fiefdoms in south China, had risen in revolt against the dynasty. The Kangxi Emperor led the successful suppression of these forces by 1681, and two years later Qing forces took the island of Taiwan, wiping away the last remnants of Ming loyalist resistance to Manchu rule.

Often compared with his contemporary Peter the Great of Russia, the Kangxi Emperor was one of the most effective rulers China ever had. He was to hold the throne for sixty years until his death in 1722, the longest reign in Chinese history to that point. In 1712, he froze the tax assessment (based on the number of able-bodied males in each area) so that taxes would not increase in the future even as the population increased. He extended the empire northward and established the borders with Korea and Russia that remain in place (with some disputed areas) today. He also led successful campaigns against the Mongols in Central Asia, and his troops occupied Tibet, extending the dynasty’s borders westward far beyond anything imagined by the Han or Tang.

An itinerant barber in Beijing, photographed in 1865

An itinerant barber in Beijing, photographed in 1865, tends a customer with the Manchu hairstyle (head shaved in front and the queue, a long single braid, in back) that was forced on all Chinese males in 1644 as a universal symbol of Chinese submission to Manchu rule. Itinerant barbers carried all their equipment on a shoulder pole; on one side were a bowl, razors, and brushes in a chest that doubled as a seat for the customer, and on the other side were a water container, bowl, and charcoal burner. Adoc-photos / Art Resource, NY

What made Kangxi a great emperor were not just his military conquests but his ability to recruit able and dedicated Chinese officials to the service of his dynasty. He was a diligent, hardworking emperor and a good judge of character who valued and rewarded honest answers from his officials. This in turn inspired their loyalty and devotion to him. Kangxi honored Ming loyalists who refused to serve the Qing as long as they did not engage in forceful resistance. He held special examinations to recruit eminent Chinese scholars to work on the official history of the Ming dynasty, an effective way to enlist proud Chinese in the service of Manchu rule. He opened the examination system to Chinese from the south, where resistance to Manchu rule had been widespread. He also patronized Chinese art, philosophy, and poetry by recruiting scholars and officials to compile a massive encyclopedia, several kinds of Chinese dictionaries, authoritative editions of important works in philosophy, and the complete poems of the Tang dynasty.

The Kangxi Emperor was interested in Western learning, which Jesuit missionaries brought to China starting in the sixteenth century. Several Jesuits working in the late Ming court explained Western theories of astronomy, calendar calculations, mathematics, geography, and military technology. The Jesuits saw Chinese ancestor worship as mere civil ceremonies of respect, not idolatrous pagan rites. Thus, they allowed their Chinese converts to maintain their social obligations under Chinese beliefs and customs. In the early eighteenth century, a papal envoy to the Qing court declared that ancestral worship could not be performed by Chinese Christians. This intolerance, plus the national jealousies and competition among Western Christian missionaries, led Kangxi to place more restrictions on missionary activities, thus ending the Jesuit dream of converting a Chinese emperor.

In 1722, the Kangxi Emperor died and was succeeded by another powerful and competent ruler, the Yongzheng Emperor. Some people accused the Yongzheng Emperor of poisoning his father and seizing power. Whether true or not, he was a much more guarded and suspicious man than his father. He took several steps to reduce the power of Chinese officials and to make the government more responsive to the emperor’s will. He expanded a secret memorial system (begun by his father) whereby high officials could send him confidential messages quickly by an empire-wide, pony express-type system. He also instituted a thorough tax reform to try to eliminate tax evasion among the wealthy and privileged classes.

The Yongzheng Emperor died in 1736 and was succeeded by the Qianlong Emperor, who, like his grandfather, Kangxi, also reigned for sixty years. He tried in many other ways to emulate his grandfather. He made a number of southern tours of the empire as the Kangxi Emperor had done. He intensified Qing involvement in Tibet and sent more troops there in the late eighteenth century to help defend the Tibetans against attacks from the Gurkhas of Nepal. He also extended Qing control further west into the Mongol regions of Chinese Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region). The boundaries of China today are based largely on the Qing borders as established in the Qianlong reign.

The Qianlong Emperor also imitated his grandfather as a patron of Chinese culture, including the arts, philosophy, and poetry. He became the most avid art collector and sponsored the greatest library building effort in the entire history of China. The Complete Works of the Four Treasuries was to include a copy of every significant work ever published in Chinese. Part of the emperor’s concern was to collect all known works in order to suppress anything that was judged harmful to the dynasty or to public morals. Therefore, some military works, all works with anti-Manchu content, and works judged to be heretical as pornographic or as anti-Confucian were to be burned. Anyone who harbored subversive writings faced the death penalty, but if they turned in such works they were not punished.

The three great emperors of the Qing—Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong—saw themselves as sage-kings in ways that extended the Chinese model of emperorship beyond the Chinese-speaking world. They presided over a multiethnic empire, uniting the Manchus with the Chinese, the Mongols, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, and many minority tribes in south and southwest China. They were very conscientious, deeply versed in the traditions of Confucianism and Buddhism themselves, and not about to tolerate criticisms of their rule.

The Manchu emperors and their Chinese officials saw the eighteenth century as one of China’s greatest eras of peace and prosperity. Culturally and politically it was a conservative time, partly enforced by strong-willed emperors and partly embraced by Chinese scholar-officials who came to reject the late-Ming trends of individualism and creativity in philosophy and art as somehow responsible for the Ming collapse and the Manchu conquest. The school of Wang Yangming fell into general disfavor in the early Qing, but there were also creative developments in art and philosophy, even if they were not as exuberant as in the late Ming. Some painters and writers found subtle ways to express their unhappiness with Manchu rule or with Chinese society.

Two of China’s greatest novels were written in the middle of the eighteenth century. Wu Jingzi, a failed examination candidate, wrote a brilliant satirical novel, Unofficial History of the Scholars, poking fun at ignorant and arrogant scholars who cared only about examination success, wealth, and status. Cao Xueqin, whose Chinese grandfather had been a close personal bondservant of the Kangxi Emperor, wrote The Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone), which is universally acknowledged as China’s greatest novel. Set in a framework of Buddhist reincarnation and proclaiming the illusory nature of material life, The Dream of the Red Chamber is a compelling psychological portrait of a very large and powerful family gradually falling into poverty and disgrace.

These two novels seem prophetic, in that the Qianlong reign was glorious on the surface but showed by its end the unmistakable signs of dynastic decline. Government institutions and revenues did not keep pace with the rapid population growth of the eighteenth century. In his last twenty years, the Qianlong Emperor became overly fond of one of his imperial Manchu bodyguards, Heshen, who used his privileged position to embezzle millions of ounces of silver for his own private fortune. This coupled with the continuous military campaigns of Qian-long’s later years left the state near bankruptcy by the end of his reign.

When Qianlong died in 1799, officials were finally free to speak out against Heshen. Qianlong’s son, the Jiaqing Emperor, had Heshen imprisoned, charged with corruption, and forced to hang himself. When his fortune was assessed, it equaled in value about half of all the state revenues for the past twenty years. Heshen was one symptom of dynastic decline in the Qianlong Emperor’s later years. An even more ominous symptom was a serious peasant rebellion, lasting a decade and ranging over five provinces, under the same White Lotus banner that had sealed the fate of the Ming dynasty. The rebellion was suppressed by 1804, but the difficulty Qing forces faced in putting it down showed how much the Manchu banner garrisons scattered around the empire had declined in fighting effectiveness during the century of relative peace.

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