The rise of the Qing dynasty

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Key points

  • The listen Qing were the last dynasty of emperors to rule China, from 1644 to 1911.
  • The Qing emperors were listen Manchu, an ethnic group from the north-east of China.
  • The first Manchu leader, listen Nurhaci, was a skilled warrior, as were his sons after him. But it was also their willingness to adapt to Chinese culture that allowed them to defeat the Ming who came before them.

Video about the Qing dynasty

What is a dynasty?

A dynasty is a series of rulers who are all from the same family.

Chinese history before 1911 is almost always talked about in terms of the dynastic cycle.

The dynastic cycle means that one dynasty comes to power, rules for a period of time, and then declines and falls. A new dynasty then rises to take their place.

A diagram showing the dynastic cycle: rise, flourish, decline, fall

Dynasties in China were said to have the ‘Mandate of Heaven’. When the dynasty fell, the Mandate passed to the new dynasty.

What is the Mandate of Heaven?

The Mandate of Heaven is the pre-20th century Chinese belief that an emperor would be blessed with the right to rule by Heaven.

If the emperor was a poor leader, Heaven would stop supporting him and his right to rule would move to someone else. Signs that the ruler was losing Heaven’s favour could include plague, famine, comets and rebellion. This belief could be used to justify rebellion against a bad ruler. Good omens from Heaven could also be used as evidence that Heaven had blessed a ruler and his reign was justified.

Dynasties over time

Historians often divide up Chinese history into a series of dynasties, for example the listen Tang, listen Song, listen Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The table below shows general similarities and differences between the different dynasties.

Similarities between dynastiesDifferences between dynasties
They always have an .Some dynasties had larger empires than others.
The new dynasty would often adopt the laws and customs of the previous one.Some dynasties made major reforms to how things worked.
They generally followed the teachings of .Some dynasties were not Chinese.

What came before the Qing?

The dynasty before the was called the dynasty (1368 - 1644). The Ming emperors were Han. They had been very powerful early on in their reign, but by the late 16th century they were in trouble.

There were a lot of problems:

  • Natural disasters
  • Poor harvests
  • Plague
  • Wars, such as against the , the Japanese and the Dutch
  • Emperors who governed badly (or not at all)
  • Disruptions to international trade

People got poorer, and so peasants started to rebel against Ming rule. Meanwhile in the north-east, a powerful new group had emerged: the .

Who were the Manchus?

The Manchus were a people from Manchuria, in the north-east of modern China. They spoke a language called Manchu, which is related to other languages found in Siberia. It is written in a script based on old Mongolian.

To be added
The map shows in yellow the cultural zones of the Manchu people. These areas did not have defined borders.

The Manchus were originally mostly farmers, but they were also skilled hunters and horseback archers. The men had a distinctive hairstyle, known as the ‘queue’, where the front of the head was shaved and the remainder of the hair plaited into a long plait.

They spoke a different language, they dressed differently and were culturally different from the Han. However, as they lived close to the Ming border, even the early Manchus knew a bit about how the Ming empire worked.

How did the Manchus unite?

Nurhaci (1559 - 1626) first united the various tribes of Manchuria. He expanded the land he ruled, fighting Mongols, Koreans and the Ming as he did so. He reorganised all Manchu households into military divisions known as . As well as providing a military system, the banners organised all aspects of Manchu life.

Nurhaci rebelled against Ming rule in 1618. Nurhaci later died in the wars and his sons took over his armies. By the 1640s, they were ready to attack the listen Shanhai Pass, the last defence of the Great Wall. Once through, listen Beijing would be undefended and the Manchus would be able to seize Ming China.

How did the Manchus seize China?

Beijing fell before the Manchus could get there. A peasant rebel leader named listen Li Zicheng conquered the city in April 1644. Many were killed as his men and burned their way through the city. Unable to escape, the last Ming emperor committed suicide.

Li Zicheng then attacked listen Wu Sangui’s Ming troops, who were stationed nearby in the Shanhai Pass. Wu Sangui chose himself with the Manchu forces against Li Zicheng. He let the Manchus in through the Great Wall. Wu and the Manchus defeated Li Zicheng, and the Manchu forces entered Beijing.

Following the violence of Li’s rebellion, many people welcomed the well-ordered Manchu forces. The Manchus declared themselves the to the Ming dynasty, and the Qing dynasty began. However, the war did not end there. The conquest of the rest of the Ming territories took another forty years. Although the conquest of Beijing had been quite smooth, elsewhere the Manchus used violence to force other cities to surrender.

Activity - Who's who in the rise of the Qing dynasty?

How did the Qing dynasty rule China?

Historians have different views about how the Qing dynasty ruled. On the one hand, some view the Manchus as successful rulers after the conquest because they adopted Chinese ways of governing. For example, the Qing were quick to use former Ming soldiers in their armies and to take on Ming officials to help them govern.

However, some historians have started to re-think how the Qing ruled. They adopted Chinese ways of governing, but the Manchu people firmly remained Manchu. The Qing forced people in China to adopt the hairstyle. This was at first very unpopular, but Manchu fashions were very influential on Chinese style. Under Manchu influence, people in China began wearing fur, eating new foods and wearing styles related to Manchu dress. The Eight Banners remained separate from the population, living in separate city districts from the Han Chinese. Manchu emperors were proud of their heritage.

The Manchus chose ‘Qing’ as the name of their dynasty. But what does Qing mean?

The character listen qing means ‘clear’. It can also mean ‘pure’ or ‘fresh’. It may have been chosen to suggest a fresh start after the Ming dynasty.

It might also have suggested opposition to the Ming. ‘Ming’ listen means ‘bright’. The character is made up of the characters for sun listen and moon listen.

The word ‘ming’ is associated with fire, whereas the word ‘qing’ is associated with water.

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