Type of Government
The Qing Dynasty was an empire led by the Manchu ethnic group, which ruled China from AD 1644 to AD 1911. The Qing government was an absolute imperial monarchy with authority vested in an emperor who served as head of state, head of government, and leader of the armed forces. The emperor supervised a system of six executive ministries and twenty-four military divisions. Members of the imperial family often served as high-ranking governmental or military leaders. The judicial branch was organized around a system of imperial courts with jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases.
The term “Manchuria” refers to a portion of northeastern China—located between Russia and Mongolia—which, in the early twenty-first century, was organized into the Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. Between the first and the twelfth centuries AD, a number of ethnic tribes in Manchuria, including the Tungus, Jurchen, and Khitan, formed transient nations and kingdoms that competed for control of the territory. Frequent conflict and conquest between the Chinese empire and the northeastern tribes played a significant role in shaping the borders of China throughout the imperial age.
Between AD 1110 and 1115, Chief Wanyan Aguda (1068–1123) led a series of military and diplomatic campaigns to unite the Jurchen tribes in Manchuria. Aguda’s empire, later called the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), allied with the Sung Dynasty in China to defeat their common enemies, the Manchurian Khitans. The following year, the Jin turned against the Sung and captured the capital of Kaifeng, driving the Sung to the city of Hangzhou. The conflict between the Sung and the Jin continued intermittently for more than a century until the Mongolian armies of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227) conquered both the Sung and the Jin to establish the Yüan dynasty in AD 1279.
During the Yüan Dynasty (1279–1368) and the subsequent Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Jurchen remained in Manchuria, fractured into tribal states. In 1616 Jurchen tribal leader Nurhachi (1559–1626) united the tribes into a confederation that historians now call the Late Jin Dynasty.
Though the Jurchen were initially allied with the Chinese, Nurhachi’s descendent, Emperor Abahai (1592–1643), instigated separatist policies that included severing diplomatic ties with China. Abahai adopted the name “Manchus” for the tribe and the name qing (pure) as the new dynastic title. As the Qing grew in strength, the Chinese Ming Dynasty was beginning to weaken as rebel factions developed across the nation. In 1644 the Qing armies took advantage of China’s political instability and invaded Beijing. Within two years, the Qing destroyed the remnants of the Ming government and took control of the nation under an imperial regime.
The emperor of the Qing Dynasty and his family were the sole source of authority in the government, assisted by a complex system of administrators that served to disseminate imperial policy to the populace. The emperor had the power to institute law by decree, appoint or remove civil servants, declare war, and negotiate treaties and agreements with foreign governments. Brothers and sons of the emperor, designated “princes,” were appointed to high-ranking government and military posts. Toward the end of his reign, the emperor had the power to choose a prince to serve as his successor.
The most powerful organ in the central government was the Grand Secretariat, an administrative cabinet divided into six ministries. The emperor appointed two presidents and four vice presidents to supervise the Secretariat. The central government also contained the Court of Colonial Affairs, which was in charge of supervising the empire’s vassal territories and instituting policies governing the nation’s ethnic minorities.
The military administration was organized into twenty-four “banners,” a system initiated by Nurhachi during the Late Jin Dynasty. Each banner was under the supervision of a commander-in-chief and was organized according to ethnic composition. Manchurian banners were placed in charge of strategically important locations and served as guards for the imperial palace, while Mongolian and Chinese banners were placed in secondary positions or assigned as reserves to support Manchurian soldiers.
The judicial branch was responsible for administering a complex civil and criminal penal code, which was based on Confucian legalism, a political philosophy developed from the works of Confucius (551–479 BC), that stressed adherence to state policies as a moral and legal virtue. The central government maintained a system of imperial courts, each of which supervised a number of provincial courts.
Under the Qing, China was divided into nine super-provincial regions, each governed by an imperially appointed governor-general. Beneath the governor-generals were eleven provinces, each led by an appointed governor. Provincial governors supervised a number of territorial circuits, which were further divided into prefectures and subprefectures, headed by appointed prefects and subprefects. At the lowest administrative level were districts, each led by an appointed magistrate. At the periphery of the empire were vassal states and semi-autonomous tribes under the authority of the nearest administrative division and generally supervised by a military detachment.
Political Parties and Factions
Qing society was organized according to a caste system led by the imperial family and members of the social, political, and intellectual elite. In rural areas, wealthy landowners functioned as local leaders and dominated the population through a system of indentured servitude. In urban districts, a culture of educated scholars and religious leaders made up the ruling class. While the general populace was subordinate to the elite, movement between the two groups was common.
Because ethnic Manchurians were in the minority, the government took steps to increase ethnic integration across the nation in order to strengthen popular allegiance to the empire and reduce the influence of the ethnic Chinese. Members of vassal states and tribes were invited to take part in Qing culture and to train or apprentice to join the elite circles of society.
The Qing government explicitly forbade the development of rival political factions and parties. Members of any social class that attempted to form political unions faced severe penalties under the penal code. Informal political influence groups existed, primarily organized around trades or professions. Informal groups exerted a potent influence on local leaders and thereby played a role in the development of imperial policy. Though nationalist movements occasionally developed, the Qing military and internal security made it difficult for nationalist factions to gather into large groups and thereby gain political influence.
Through a combination of diplomacy and military force, the Qing subdued the nomadic tribes at the empire’s periphery and expanded the borders of the empire to their greatest historical extent. By 1700, the empire had achieved a degree of economic and military stability that firmly established the Qing as one of China’s most prosperous dynastic periods.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British traders began selling opium, harvested in India, to the Chinese people. China soon became Britain’s primary opium market, and the opium trade became one of the largest illegal drug operations in global history. Opium addiction became a serious problem in China, and social reformers in the Qing government began attempting to restrict the opium trade and to expel the British opium dealers. The British violently defended their opium trade despite laws that made their activities illegal both in China and Britain.
After the Qing conducted raids of British trade ships in 1838 and 1839, the British responded by sending a naval detachment to China. From 1840 to 1841, in what was later called the First Opium War, the British bombarded the Chinese coast with gunboats. The Qing government surrendered and was forced to sign treaties that granted the British unlimited access to China’s most productive ports.
In the wake of the opium wars, the government faced an increase in popular unrest and was forced to commit their military to internal peacekeeping. Recognizing that the Qing government was deteriorating, the Japanese began taking steps to annex the Korean peninsula. Korea was an important strategic territory, and both China and Japan wanted to control the nation for military and economic gain. From 1894 to 1895, the Qing military fought a losing battle against the Japanese for control of the Korea. After their defeat, the Qing government was burdened by conflict on many simultaneous fronts and mired by internal dissent. The United States, France, Britain, and Japan forced the government to sign treaties allowing for unlimited free trade and began to divide China into economic districts, largely replacing the government.
The Qing responded by funneling funds into secret societies organized to fight against foreign control. The Boxer Uprising of 1900, led by the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” or “Boxers,” was a popular rebellion in Beijing in which groups of Chinese fighters attacked foreign traders and trade offices. A coalition of French and British soldiers violently subdued the Boxers in Beijing and forced the Qing to allow the establishment of permanent, foreign military installations.
The Qing government instituted a series of democratic reforms aimed at holding the empire together despite widespread public dissent and the dominance of foreign powers. The reforms were ultimately unsuccessful as rebel groups gained strength. In the 1911 Wuchang Uprising, the Qing government lost a series of crucial battles to a rebel faction led by democratic reformer Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). Though some factions of the Qing continued to fight with Sun Yat-Sen’s faction for the next several decades, the uprising signaled the end of the imperial age and the beginning of China’s modern period.
After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China was divided into regions under the control of local gentry and warlord leaders. Sun Yat-sen’s faction, which gained an early advantage in Beijing, was forced to contend with warlord armies, Qing loyalists, and a growing communist movement fueled by military support from the Soviet Union. The resulting power struggle lasted for decades and ultimately resulted in the establishment of a communist state, the People’s Republic of China.
The legacy of the Qing Dynasty was evident in the administrative and military structure of both the republican and the communist factions. Though subsequent governments would utilize a more diffuse distribution of power and reject the idea of imperial, hereditary leadership, the Qing legacy remained a part of Chinese government into the modern age.
Der-Wei Wang, David and Shang Wei. “Dynastic Crisis and Cultural Innovation: From the Late Ming to the Late Qing and Beyond.” Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006.
Waley-Cohen, Joanna. “The Culture War in China: Empire and the Military Under the Qing Dynasty.” New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006.