The Qing Dynasty Part II: The Final Dynasty
The Kangxi Emperor ascended the throne in 1661, at the age of seven, after his father, the Shunzhi Emperor, died suddenly from smallpox at just 23 years old. Kangxi would go on to rule the Qing Dynasty until his death in 1722. Kangxi’s reign of 61 years makes him the longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, and he is also reckoned to be one of its most illustrious.
At the beginning of Kangxi’s reign, four regents were chosen to run the actual affairs of state. Eventually, one of them, Oboi, obtained absolute power as sole regent, and this was a threat to the young emperor. This problem was resolved in 1669, when Oboi was arrested, and actual power was transferred to Kangxi’s hands.
Young Kangxi Emperor, age about 20. (Public Domain)
Qing Dynasty Achievements
It was during Kangxi’s reign that a number of significant achievements were made by the Qing Dynasty. For instance, in 1683, the Kingdom of Tungning (in present day Taiwan), which was founded in 1661 by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong, was conquered. As mentioned in the previous article, a major revolt, the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, was also put down.
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Additionally, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed between the Qing Dynasty and the Russians in 1689, which stopped the Russians from advancing further south, thus ensuring that the Amur Valley and Manchuria were in Qing hands. Furthermore, Kangxi checked the power of the Dzungars, a nomadic Oirat tribe from the western part of Mongolia. Louis Cha’s wuxia novel, The Deer and the Cauldron, has these events of Kangxi’s reign as part of its background.
Jade book, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period. (Rama/CC BY SA 2.0)
Kangxi is also remembered as a strong administrator and a highly cultured ruler. For instance, he is recorded to have read all the reports and memorandums presented to him and dealt with each one efficiently. Kangxi was also an avid reader and a study hall called the Nanshufang was opened in 1677, where he regularly had discussions on historical and philosophical matters with the leading scholars of the day. Kangxi’s voracious appetite for learning also led to the entry of the Jesuits into China, who brought with them not only Christianity, but also Western knowledge.
Matteo Ricci and Paul Xu Guangqi From La Chine d'Athanase Kirchere de la Compagnie de Jesus: illustre de plusieurs monuments tant sacres que profanes, Amsterdam, 1670. Plate facing p. 201. (CC BY SA 3.0)
The Rule of the Qianlong Emperor
Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, was another eminent Qing emperor. It was during his reign, which lasted from 1735 to 1796 that the Qing Dynasty achieved its largest territorial extent. As a side note, Qianlong abdicated in 1796, so as to not reign longer than his grandfather. He remained as an ‘Emperor Emeritus’ till his death in 1799.
Qianlong’s ‘Ten Great Campaigns’, which lasted from the 1750s to the 1790s, may be said to have had mixed results. On the one hand, the Qing were successful in their campaigns in Inner Asia, though much less so in their wars with the Burmese. Several anti-Qing rebellions, such as one in Taiwan, and another in Lhasa, Tibet, were also quelled.
While Qianlong was a benevolent ruler, the decline of the Qing Dynasty had already begun during the later years of his reign. The last two decades of Qianlong’s reign saw the rise of Heshen, a favorite of the emperor. Although an intelligent individual, Heshen was corrupt and power hungry. The emperor turned a blind eye towards his favorite, and it was only after Qianlong’s death that his successor, the Jiaqing Emperor, was able to arrest Heshen, relieve him of his duties, confiscate his properties, and forced him to commit suicide. By then, however, the damage had already been done.
Grand Secretary of the Wenhua Palace. (Public Domain)
The Fall of the Qing Dynasty
The Jiaqing Emperor did all he could to maintain order within the empire, although the growing problems proved to be too much for him (as well as subsequent emperors) to handle. Additionally, he tried to curb the smuggling of opium into China, which would eventually lead to the Opium Wars during the reign of his successors. Whilst these wars highlight the external pressures faced by the Qing Dynasty, the empire was also facing threats from within.
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The most famous example of these is the Taiping Rebellion, which occurred around the same time as the Second Opium War. Although the rebels were eventually defeated, this rebellion is reckoned to have nearly brought the Qing Dynasty down and is regarded to be the first major instance of anti-Manchu sentiment that threatened the existence of the empire.
A scene of the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864. (Public Domain)
Unfortunately for the Qing Dynasty, things only got worse after the Taiping Rebellion. Dissatisfaction amongst the population continued to grow over the decades, whilst the court remained entrenched in its corrupt practices. Eventually, in 1911, the Wuchang Uprising, which led to the Xinhai Revolution, broke out. Thus, in 1912, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown, its last emperor, Puyi, who was still a child, was forced to abdicate, and the Republic of China was established.
A photo of Puyi, the last emperor of China. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Detail of a portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in Court Dress. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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