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The Qing Dynasty: Last of the Imperial Dynasties of China– Part 1


The last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty, was established by the Manchus in 1636 to designate their regime in Manchuria. The Qing Dynasty came to rule over China in 1644, when the capital, Beijing, was captured. This dynasty remained in power until 1912, when it was overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution, which led to the formation of the Republic of China. The history of the Qing Dynasty can be divided into three parts – its formation and early years, its Golden Age, and its decline and downfall.

Emperor Nurhaci, ancestor of the Qing Dynasty (Public Domain)

From Jurchen to Manchu

The Manchus are an ethnic group that inhabited the north-eastern part of China, which was named after them as Manchuria. The Manchus of the Qing Dynasty trace their lineage to the Jurchens who established the Jin Dynasty during the 12th century. From the late 16th to the early 17th centuries, a Jurchen leader by the name of Nurhaci unified the various Jurchen tribes. In 1616, Nurhaci declared himself the Emperor of the Later Jin. Two years later, Nurhaci instituted military operations against Ming China, justifiably based on his ‘Seven Grievances’. The Jurchens were successful in their campaign, capturing the cities of Liaoyang and Shenyang, both of which served as Nurhaci’s capital for some time. In 1626, however, Nurhaci suffered his first major military defeat by the Ming, who were led by Yuan Chonghuan, and he died later in the same year.

The Manchu campaign against the Ming continued under the leadership of Nurhaci’s son and successor, Hong Taiji. Apart from consolidating the gains made by his father, Hong Taiji also continued the expansion of the empire by invading Mongolia, and Korea. It was Hong Taiji who changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu, and the name of his dynasty from the Later Jin to the Qing. Hong Taiji, however, did not bring an end to the Ming Dynasty. It was only during the reign of a later successor, the Shunzhi Emperor, that the Ming Dynasty came to an end. In 1644, Beijing was captured by an outsider rebel leader named Li Zicheng, who established the Shun Dynasty. The last Ming emperor, Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide before the rebels had entered the capital.

Shanhaiguan along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by Wu Sangui in 1644. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Shanhaiguan along the Great Wall, the gate where the Manchus were repeatedly repelled before being finally let through by Wu Sangui in 1644. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About-turn from a Ming General

Having captured Beijing, Li Zicheng advanced north to confront Wu Sangui, a Ming general guarding Shanhaiguan. This was a militarily strategic point, as it was the garrison stationed here that had prevented the Manchus from entering the capital for years. Realizing that he was caught between a rock and a hard place, Wu Sangui decided to throw his lot in with the Manchus, and together with his new allies, they defeated Li Zicheng. For this, Wu Sangui was rewarded by being ennobled as a feudal prince. Additionally, he was given the governorship of Yunnan and Guizhou. Although the last Ming emperor was dead, Ming loyalists continued their resistance against the Qing Dynasty. Some of them moved to the south, to establish the Southern Ming, whilst others fled to Taiwan, where the Kingdom of Tungning was established.

It would take the Qing Dynasty almost 20 years before the last of the Ming loyalists were defeated, thus allowing them to become the undisputed rulers of China. It may be said that the Qing Dynasty faced one more major rebellion during this time. Wu Sangui, together with two other feudal princes, launched the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, which lasted for 8 years. Ultimately, however, the Qing Dynasty was victorious.

Armored Kangxi Emperor (Public Domain)

Armored Kangxi Emperor (Public Domain)

It was during the early reign of the Kangxi Emperor that the Revolt of the Three Feudatories took place. The Kangxi Emperor and his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, are regarded to have been the greatest of the Qing emperors, and it was during their reigns that the Qing Dynasty achieved its Golden Age, the subject of the second part of this article, along with the decline and fall of the Qing Dynasty.


By Wu Mingren

Top Image: Flag map of Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912) (CC BY-SA 3.0)


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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