The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) was the last imperial dynasty in China. Founded by the Manchus, it was the second conquest dynasty to rule the entire territory of China and its people. The Manchus were formerly known as Jurchens, residing in the northeastern part of the Ming territory outside the Great Wall. They emerged as the major threat to the late Ming dynasty after Nurhaci united all Jurchen tribes and established an independent state. However, the Ming dynasty would be overthrown by Li Zicheng’s peasants rebellion, with Beijing captured in 1644 and the Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming emperor, committing suicide. The Manchus allied with the former Ming general Wu Sangui to seize Beijing, which was made the capital of the Qing dynasty, and then proceeded to subdue the Ming remnants in the south. The decades of Manchu conquest caused enormous loss of lives and the economic scale of China shrank drastically. In total, the Qing conquest of the Ming (1618–1683) cost as many as 25 million lives. Nevertheless, the Manchus adopted the Confucian norms of traditional Chinese government in their rule and were considered a Chinese dynasty.
The Manchus enforced a ‘queue order,’ forcing the Han Chinese to adopt the Manchu queue hairstyle. Officials were required to wear Manchu-style clothing Changshan (bannermen dress and Tangzhuang), but ordinary Han civilians were allowed to wear traditional Han clothing, or Hanfu. Most Han then voluntarily shifted to wearing Qipao anyway. The Kangxi Emperor ordered the creation of the Kangxi Dictionary, the most complete dictionary of Chinese characters that had been compiled. The Qing dynasty set up the Eight Banners system that provided the basic framework for the Qing military organization. Bannermen could not undertake trade or manual labor; they had to petition to be removed from banner status. They were considered a form of nobility and were given preferential treatment in terms of annual pensions, land, and allotments of cloth.
Over the next half-century, all areas previously under the Ming dynasty were consolidated under the Qing. Xinjiang, Tibet, and Mongolia were also formally incorporated into Chinese territory. Between 1673 and 1681, the Kangxi Emperor suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, an uprising of three generals in Southern China who had been denied hereditary rule of large fiefdoms granted by the previous emperor. In 1683, the Qing staged an amphibious assault on southern Taiwan, bringing down the rebel Kingdom of Tungning, which was founded by the Ming loyalist Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong) in 1662 after the fall of the Southern Ming, and had served as a base for continued Ming resistance in Southern China. The Qing defeated the Russians at Albazin, resulting in the Treaty of Nerchinsk.
By the end of Qianlong Emperor’s long reign, the Qing Empire was at its zenith. China ruled more than one-third of the world’s population, and had the largest economy in the world. By area it was one of the largest empires ever.
In the 19th century the empire was internally stagnant and externally threatened by western powers. The defeat by the British Empire in the First Opium War (1840) led to the Treaty of Nanking (1842), under which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and importation of opium (produced by British Empire territories) was allowed. Subsequent military defeats and unequal treaties with other western powers continued even after the fall of the Qing dynasty.
Internally the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), a quasi-Christian religious movement led by the “Heavenly King” Hong Xiuquan, raided roughly a third of Chinese territory for over a decade until they were finally crushed in the Third Battle of Nanking in 1864. This was one of the largest wars in the 19th century in terms of troop involvement; there was massive loss of life, with a death toll of about 20 million. A string of civil disturbances followed, including the Punti–Hakka Clan Wars, Nian Rebellion, Dungan Revolt, and Panthay Rebellion. All rebellions were ultimately put down, but at enormous cost and with millions dead, seriously weakening the central imperial authority. The Banner system that the Manchus had relied upon for so long failed: Banner forces were unable to suppress the rebels, and the government called upon local officials in the provinces, who raised “New Armies”, which successfully crushed the challenges to Qing authority. China never rebuilt a strong central army, and many local officials became warlords who used military power to effectively rule independently in their provinces.
In response to calamities within the empire and threats from imperialism, the Self-Strengthening Movement was an institutional reform in the second half of the 1800s. The aim was to modernize the empire, with prime emphasis on strengthening the military. However, the reform was undermined by corrupt officials, cynicism, and quarrels within the imperial family. As a result, the “Beiyang Fleet” were soundly defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). The Guangxu Emperor and the reformists then launched a more comprehensive reform effort, the Hundred Days’ Reform (1898), but it was soon overturned by the conservatives under Empress Dowager Cixi in a military coup.
At the turn of the 20th century, the violent Boxer Rebellion opposed foreign influence in Northern China, and attacked Chinese Christians and missionaries. When Boxers entered Beijing, the Qing government ordered all foreigners to leave. But instead the foreigners and many Chinese were besieged in the foreign legations quarter. The Eight-Nation Alliance sent the Seymour Expedition of Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, French, American, and Austrian troops to relieve the siege. The Expedition was stopped by the Boxers at the Battle of Langfang and forced to retreat. Due to the Alliance’s attack on the Dagu Forts, the Qing government in response sided with the Boxers and declared war on the Alliance. There was fierce fighting at Tientsin. The Alliance formed the second, much larger Gaselee Expedition and finally reached Beijing; the Qing government evacuated to Xi’an. The Boxer Protocol ended the war.