The Last Century of Imperial China 1760  CE

Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1760CE
Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1815CE
Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1842CE
Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1860CE
Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1872CE
Map of The Last Century of Imperial China at 1900CE

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1760CE

In 1760, the Chinese empire is at the height of its power. The giant country has experienced almost 80 years of internal tranquility and external expansion under three of the greatest emperors in the country’s long history. The Qianlong emperor (reigns 1735-95) currently occupies the throne. He rules from the magnificent Forbidden City in Beijing, where the enormous imperial court is located.

Non-Chinese rulers

These rulers belong to the Qing dynasty. Their ancestors were the leaders of the Manchu people, close relatives of the Mongols of central Asia.

The Manchu conquered China more than a century before. They are determined to maintain their separate identity from the bulk of the Chinese population. Marriage between Manchus and Chinese is prohibited, the Manchu homeland is kept free from Chinese settlement (in theory at any rate), and Chinese men are obliged to wear queues (pigtails at back of the head) to emphasise their ethnic identity. Also, care is taken to ensure that the most senior government posts (ministers, governors-general, governors) are shared out equally between Manchus and Chinese officials.

On the other hand, the Qing emperors are committed to upholding the traditional Chinese ideology of Confucianism. This traces its beginnings to the great philosopher Confucius in the 5th century BCE, and its teachings on social harmony have shaped Chinese state and society from ancient times. The dynasty has thus won the support of the great majority of Chinese officials. These are mostly recruited by means of the ferociously competitive public exams, which test them in their grasp of Confucian doctrine and government matters.

The Civil Service and the Gentry

The examination system is millennia old, and has a central place in the Chinese state. It ensures that all civil servants are of high intelligence and are steeped in the same Confucian beliefs; and that government office is not the preserve of a few hereditary aristocrats. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in Chinese history of men rising from lowly origins to the highest offices in the empire.

The officials of the civil service administer the Chinese empire through an elaborate organisation of provinces, prefectures and counties; beneath them, the local gentry run local affairs. The gentry class is made up of educated people who have passed the lower exams but not the higher exams (with their 1% or 2% pass rates), which secure entry to an official government career. They make up the local elites in the small towns and villages of China, settling minor disputes, supervising irrigation projects, running the local schools and so on.

An expanding population

The population of China is growing strongly (it would approximately double during 18th century, from 150 million to 300 million). At this time, expansion of food production is more than keeping pace: new crops such as maize, potatoes, peanuts have arrived from America, new strains of rice are being developed, and a steady stream of innovations such as improved irrigation techniques, double-cropping, better fertilizers, is making more and more intensive farming possible.

Also, there is internal migration from densely-populated areas (for example the lower Yangtze valley, Yangtze delta and south coast of China) to under-populated areas (in the mountainous region between Yellow River and Yangtze valleys, the southwest of China, western China and the newly-conquered regions of the northwest). On the back of this agricultural expansion come rising standards of living for all classes, thriving commerce and increasing urbanization.

Qing China and the wider world

The Tributary system

The countries surrounding China – Korea, Annam (Vietnam), Laos, Burma and Thailand – are in a tributary relationship with their powerful neighbor.  They send regular tribute missions to the Chinese court in Beijing, to confirm their subservience to the emperor of China. These missions also provide opportunities for trade between these countries and China.

Japan, for all its cultural debt to China, is the one major country in East Asia which stands aloof from the Chinese tributary system.

Central Asia

In its dealings with the peoples of central Asia, the Chinese government has been obliged to use military force on a large scale. It is from this harsh region that China’s conquerors have traditionally come, and the Chinese army is used to keep these turbulent nomads in check.

A recent factor is the spread of Russia to the Pacific, and treaties (in 1689 and 1727) have fixed the borders between the two outsized states and regulated trade between them.

Foreign trade

The maritime trade with South East Asia, India and beyond, is restricted to the port of Guangzhou (Canton), where it can be conducted under the watchful eye of Chinese officials. The Portuguese have their own enclave in nearby Macao, but that is the only (legal) exception to this rule. Europeans – not only Portuguese, but later Dutch and English – have been arriving since the 16th century. They are regarded with particular suspicion by officials for their outlandish looks and unrefined behaviour.

There is a strong and growing demand for tea in Europe, but little demand for European goods in China; as a result European merchants pay for their cargoes with silver, most of which comes from Spanish America, either via the Philippines (which is under Spanish rule), or via British traders. Silver is flooding into China, underpinning its sophisticated banking system and oiling the wheels of its flourishing economy.

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1815CE

The later years of the Qianlong emperor’s reign were marred by the dominance of his favourite, the eunuch Heshen. (Chinese emperors surrounded themselves with eunuchs, who served them in their private quarters. Because of their inability to have children, and thus to establish rival dynasties, they were seen as more loyal than other officials, so more suitable to act as personal servants to emperors).


Heshen enjoyed huge influence with the emperor, and demanded large bribes in return for granting access to him. Starting at the top, corruption and inefficiency seem to have spread rapidly through government. In 1795 the Qianlong emperor abdicated, and Heshen effectively became the regent to the new emperor, who was only a child. This put him in a position to wield even more power. However, the old emperor died in 1799, and Heshen was immediately forced to commit suicide (apparently leaving behind an enormous fortune).

This was an unfortunate episode at the very top of government, and measures were soon being taken to reimpose discipline and rectitude on the civil service. However deeper forces were at work, undermining China’s prosperity and political stability.

Population expansion outstrips economic expansion

At some date in later 18th century, population growth reached a point where it began to outrun the ability of the economy to expand fast enough to keep pace. The increasing number of peasants has meant that each family has had to make do with a smaller amount of land to farm, and the amount of food it can grow is beginning to decline. For millions of peasants, never much above subsistence levels even at the best of times, this is a serious matter.

Of course it is not just farming populations that are growing, the elite classes are also expanding in numbers. The size of the civil service is fixed, however, and only a certain number can pass the public exams. This is leading to a growing pool of disappointed and resentful failed candidates, fertile soil from which opposition to the regime can spring. Such men provide the natural leaders for rebellion.

The decline of the army

Another factor at work is the decline in military standards in the Qing army. This trend had been going on for a long time – unsurprisingly, given the peace of the times, and therefore the lack of active service in which fighting skills can be honed. To make matters worse, creeping corruption in the military administration means that many troops only exist on paper.

The White Lotus rebellions

The White Lotus sect is a religious group especially widespread across northern China. It mingles Buddhist, Taoist and other elements into a heady message promising salvation for its adherents. At times of stress it can become a vehicle for dissent.

A White Lotus rebellion broke out in the mountains between the Yangtze and Yellow rivers plains in 1796. This was joined by bandits, smugglers and other groups on the margins of society, and continued to spread inland over a huge area.

It took Qing forces several years to suppress the rebellion, and was only achieved with heavy expenditure and significant cost to the regime’s military reputation. It was finally ended in 1804.

Rebellion broke out again in the same area in 1813, again inspired by a White Lotus sect; and again it was only slowly put down.

Opium smuggling

The years since the mid-18th century have also seen the growth of smuggling – and with it piracy – along the south China coast. This has been caused mainly by the illegal trade in opium.

In the early 1770s the British East India Company began to grow the opium poppy in its Indian territories. The crop found a ready market in China, and the British now had a commodity to exchange for tea – they no longer had to pay with silver.

In 1792 the British government sent a trade mission to the Chinese court under Lord Macartney, with the aim of opening up trade to China. This was famously dismissed out of hand by the Qianlong emperor saying, “we have no need for your products”.

By the mid-1790s some 4000 chests of opium were being shipped into China each year, and an alarmed Chinese government banned the import of the crop. With grim inevitability the opium trade therefore fell into the hands of smugglers.

In the early 19th century a sharp fall in the price of opium (as more of the crop is grown in India) has led to a rise in opium sales, and of smuggling.

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1842CE

During the early 19th century, Western merchants in China – and in particular by far the largest group of them, the British – became increasingly dissatisfied with the way in which they were treated. Isolated in Guangzhou, the only port in which they were allowed to operate, strictly regulated, not allowed to live on shore, and their trade subject to stoppages by what seemed like the arbitrary whims of officials, they found life increasingly difficult.

Crime and punishment

One particular issue was that, when European sailors committed crimes in Guangzhou and come before Chinese magistrates, they are liable to cruel punishments which, though normal in China, had never been practiced, or had long fallen into disuse, in Europe. The British sea captains now refuse to hand over members of their crew, however guilty, to the Chinese authorities.

Growing tensions

Commercial interests back home in Britain, for their part, were increasingly frustrated by the way that the potentially huge Chinese market was largely closed to them. Repeated requests to open negotiations with the Chinese court were ignored. The feeling grew that things needed to change, by force if necessary.

On the Chinese side, there was growing alarm at the growth of opium smuggling. In the 1820s almost 20,000 chests were entering the country each year. The huge demand for opium had reversed the balance of trade so that there was now a net outflow of silver from China. Calls were rising that the trade should be stamped out, by force if need be.

In 1837 and 1838 a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to suppress opium smuggling around Guangzhou took place. This culminated in March 1839, when all foreign merchants were required to hand over their stocks of opium, on penalty of death. Twenty one thousand chests were handed over and their contents destroyed.

The First Opium War

Even though there was a strong feeling in Britain against the opium trade (selling opium was, after all, illegal in Britain), the British government came to believe that all trade with China, legal as well as illegal, was under grave threat;  and that it could not be seen to be failing to protect British commerce. It therefore dispatched an expeditionary force to China.

British warships destroyed Chinese war junks, and successfully attacked coastal forts.

Later they occupied several coastal cities, including Shanghai, which were the gateways to the richest part of China as well as commanding the routes up both the Yangtze and the Grand Canal. A Chinese force sent in response to these attacks was destroyed.

The first of the “Unequal Treaties”

The Chinese government was thus forced to negotiate, and the Treaty of Nanjing was the result (1842). This required China to pay Britain a large indemnity; to open five ports (including the great cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai) to British trade and residence (so that the merchants need no longer be confined to their ships); to hand over the island of Hong Kong to Britain (at that time barely more than a barren nest of pirates); and to conduct diplomatic relations on a basis of equality with Britain.

The Treaty of Nanjing was the first of many “unequal treaties” between Western nations and China. They were so called because they were the result of force or the threat of force, and benefitted Western powers at the expense of China. The most important provisions involved the opening of “treaty ports” to foreign trade; extraterritoriality – that is, crimes committed by foreigners – would not be dealt with by Chinese magistrates, but by the relevant Western authority; the freedom of movement to Christian missionaries; and “most-favoured-nation” status, by which all privileges won by one nation would automatically be applied to all the others which had signed such treaties earlier.

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1860CE

The population was already expanding faster than agricultural production by 1800, and continued to do so until the mid-19th century (from 300 million to 400 million between 1800 and 1850). Living standards for farmers dropped as the size of their plots, their crops and their incomes all decreased. Misery spread.

The Taiping rebellion

Hong Xiuquan (1814-64) was a failed examination candidate from the region of Guangzhou who had picked up some distorted views about the teachings of Christianity. In the late 1840s, after having visions, he announced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and had a divine mission to establish the true faith in China. He preached the overthrow of the Manchus, and called for the wholesale transformation of state and society with a mix of ancient remedies, like the redistribution of land, and radically new elements, such as equality between men and women.

He founded a religious community and in 1851 announced the establishment of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace – Taiping Tianguo – with himself as the Heavenly King. In 1852 he led his followers – by now essentially a rebel army – north and west, on a long march on which they were joined by more and more followers. In March 1853, now numbering more than a million, they captured one of the great cities of China, Nanjing. They made this their capital.

Taiping forces then succeeded in bringing much of the middle and lower Yangtze Valley (the most densely populated regions of China) under their control. Around Nanjing they made a start at building their “Heavenly Kingdom”, but did not get far with this. Some land was redistributed, and taxes and rents were reduced; however, no radical new society emerged. The Taiping leaders seem to have been more concerned with seeking the support of the landowners and the gentry, whose support they needed to maintain control over the territories they occupied.

Other rebellions

The success of the Taiping rebellion encouraged other uprisings to break out. The Nian rebellion broke out to the north of the Taiping area in 1856, and its leaders co-operated with the Taiping to some extent.

Also in 1856, a Muslim uprising which established a rebel state, known in the West as the Panthay kingdom, in southwest China; and a second major Muslim revolt soon broke out in the northwest of China as well.

Other disturbances came from secret societies such as the Red Turbans, who nearly succeeded in capturing Guangzhou, and the Small Sword society, which did succeed in occupying Shanghai for a time; and tribal minorities such as the Mao people also rose in revolt at this time.

The Second Opium War

In these desperate years the Qing court was faced with yet another challenge. British commercial interests had been disappointed with the results of the First Opium War; trade with China, expected to expand strongly, had barely increased. The reason was that there was limited demand for British goods (mainly cottons and other textiles) in China, but the British blamed Chinese officials for obstructing trade.

Growing tensions led to a second “Opium War” (1856-60). As with the first, this involved the British (and soon the French) bombarding and occupying Chinese coastal positions, but, after further misunderstandings, also saw a march on Beijing itself and the burning of the emperor’s Summer Palace.

Once again the Chinese government was forced to negotiate “unequal treaties” with Western powers (the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, and the Convention of Beijing in 1860). These opened more ports (“treaty ports”) to Western trade, including along the River Yangtze, far in the interior of the country. These treaties also gave foreigners – including missionaries – freedom of movement within China, legalized the opium trade, and enabled the British to appoint an ambassador to the imperial court in Beijing.

The Russians were also involved by this stage, and for their troubles were rewarded with two chunks of territory, one a small piece in the northwest of China, the other a huge portion of northeast China. The Russian naval base of Vladivostok soon began to rise here.

In 1860, with much of the Chinese heartland under rebel control, and having to sign humiliating “unequal treaties” with hated foreigners, the Qing regime seemed to be reaching its end.

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1872CE

The Qing dynasty was to endure for another generation, however.

With the imperial court in Beijing unable to deal effectively with the rebellions, Qing loyalists in the provinces had become active in raising and organizing large regional armies. Although these had the backing of the imperial court, the new forces were led and paid for independently by the local gentry in those provinces most threatened by the rebellions.

The regional armies

By 1860 these regional armies had already scored some successes. In the wake of violent in-fighting amongst the Taiping leaders, in 1856, these regional forces had retaken some territory. New Taiping leaders had soon emerged, and in 1860 the rebels were able to go on the offensive again, but the regional armies were not pushed back for long. By May 1862 they had reached the Taiping capital, Nanjing. After a long siege, they captured the city with huge loss of life in 1864. Mopping-up operations against the Taiping continued until 1871, by which date the regional armies had put down the Nian rebels as well.

By 1872, both the main Muslim rebellions had also been defeated.

The impact of the rebellions

The rebellions had caused immense destruction, and a horrific number of deaths, from combat, starvation and massacres. The Taiping rebellion alone had been one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Estimates of the war dead range from 20 to 70 million, with some as high as 100 million. Millions more lost their homes and possessions.

Many areas had effectively been depopulated. The huge death toll of course offered some relief to the severe population pressure, particularly in the lower Yangtze region; however, the population had returned to pre-1850 levels by the last decade of the 19th century.


The Qing government set about restoring the affected regions. It sponsored large-scale immigration into depopulated areas, repaired and extended irrigation works, and reduced taxation or exempted populations from paying taxes altogether. For the gentry, the examinations, in some places suspended for 10 years, were reinstated, schools and academies were revived, and libraries restocked.

The support of the gentry had in fact proved vital in defeating the rebellions; above all it was they who had raised and led the regional armies, almost independently of central government direction. In the aftermath, therefore, the Qing regime made important concessions so that gentry control in the localities was strengthened, and their leadership of local militias and self-defence organizations formalized. These changes somewhat reduced the powers of centrally-appointed magistrates.

The Self-strengthening Movement

The fight against the various rebellions had been led by a group of remarkable men, and these now became among the most powerful figures in China. They now led the “self-strengthening” movement, by which western technology began to be introduced into China. At the center of this program was the establishment of arsenals and shipyards to enable China to produce Western-style armaments.

The dowager-empress Cixi

These experiments all took place in the provinces, but recognition of the superiority of Western technology was by no means absent at the imperial court in Beijing. Here, the early 1860s saw power fall into the hands of the dowager empress, Cixi, who was to dominate the Qing regime until her death in 1908.

Cixi maintained her power by playing different factions off against each other: she first supported one, then the other. As a result, policy tended to veer from one set of policies to another. Although Cixi gave the go-ahead to many individual reforming initiatives, she never gave her whole-hearted support to a permanent program of industrialization that would bring about the huge changes that China so badly needed.

What is happening in The Last Century of Imperial China in 1900CE

The last decades of the 19th century have seen a steady deterioration in China’s situation.

The “Self-strengthening” Movement continues

The leaders of the “Self-strengthening” movement continued their program of creating modern, Western-style industries, with the building of shipyards, coal mines, railways, steamships, textile mills, and the Imperial Telegraph Administration, which had a large impact by modernising government communications.

They also began the task of creating the educational infrastructure to produce the required native personnel to man these industries.

Despite many disappointments, much progress was made. The difference between the Chinese and Japanese experience of industrialization, however, was that the former lacked the consistent government backing that Japanese industry was able to count on.

The missionaries

The treaties which closed the Second Opium War had opened most of China up to Christian missionary activity. Wherever they went, the missionaries incurred the hostility of the local gentry. The missionaries attacked time-honoured customs such as foot-binding for women, and advocated education for girls. Missionary-sponsored schools and colleges undermined the gentry’s control of education. The Western medicine they brought (many of the missionaries were doctors) was a threat to the traditional Chinese medicine patronized by local gentry families.

Furthermore, the terrible suffering unleashed by the Taiping rebellion was associated in many Chinese minds with the influence of Christianity.

Anti-missionary incidents had occurred throughout the 19th century, but became much more common from the 1860s onwards. When these occurred, Western powers demanded punishment of the officials who had either let the incidents happen, or even supported them. Western governments also demanded compensation, and one such incident led to a brief war between France and China (1884), in which a Chinese fleet was destroyed.

The Sino-Japanese War

However, it was not a Western nation, but an Asian one, that caused the Chinese the greatest humiliation.

As Japan modernized its economy, it tried to bring Korea under its economic control. Korea had traditionally formed a key part of the traditional tributary system centered on China, and China aided the Koreans in resisting Japanese encroachments. Tensions mounted until war between China and Japan broke out in 1894.

The Chinese fully expected to win this war against her much smaller neighbor. However, they were comprehensively defeated both on land and sea, and were forced to sue for peace. The Chinese government had to recognize the independence of Korea, and to end tribute missions; and to cede Taiwan and a string of smaller islands to Japan.

The Aftermath of the War

Taking advantage of China’s manifest weakness, the foreign powers – Russia, Germany, France, Britain and of course Japan – demanded, and gained, “spheres of influence” within China in which they could exercise special economic privileges.

Some senior Chinese officials saw the defeat by Japan as showing how urgently more reforms were needed, and in 1898 the Qing government embarked on a radical reform program, which came to be known as the “100 Days”. Sadly, this alarmed many conservatives, including the dowager empress Cixi. She had the leading reformers executed (though some were able to flee abroad), and though she allowed some reforms to remain in force, many of the urgent changes that China so badly needed were blocked.

The Boxer Rebellion

Hatred of foreigners, particularly missionaries, increased in the last years of the 19th century, and from 1898 members of a group which used martial arts to help spread its message, and who were known as the Boxers, attacked missionaries in an ever-wider area of northern China. In May 1900 a force of Boxers marched on Beijing and laid siege to the foreign enclave there. The court, unwilling to be seen as the tool of the hated foreign powers, issued an edict blaming the latter for these developments.

In August, a large international force arrived in Beijing and ended the siege. The dowager empress fled the capital along with the young emperor, and the foreign troops looted the city.

In September 1901 the Chinese government was forced to agree to the Boxer Protocol, by which the foreign powers demanded the punishment of Boxer leaders as well as officials who had co-operated with them; the destruction of the forts defending Beijing; and the payment of a huge indemnity (fine).

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1760 CE