45: The Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911)

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The Rise of the Manchus = Ch’ing

The establishment of the Ch’ing dynasty by the Manchus was about as seamless as it gets. The fraternal organization of military oligarchs replaced one with another and the peasantry barely knew the difference.

The Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus from the northeast. Who were the Manchus? Like many before them, they had begun as Siberian forest dwellers. They migrated south into the steppes. They were related to the Jurchen before them, who had established the short-lived Chin dynasty in Northern China. They coexisted with the Sung dynasty in the south, who were both crushed by the Mongols under Ghengis Khan.

The Manchus were just one of many tribal kingdoms in the early 1600’s. Due to the efforts of a father and his son, Murhachi (1559-1626) and Abahai (1592-1643)1, they dominated and consolidated the nomadic tribes of the steppes. After this relatively rapid ascent to power, the Manchus conquered China in less than 50 years. By the middle of the 17th century, they had control of a larger empire than the Ming Dynasty. It included Korea and Manchuria, as well as China. By the end of the century, they controlled more territory than any Chinese imperial government had ever controlled. The Manchu Empire expanded to include Chinese Turkestan, i.e. Sinkiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Further, Nepal, Vietnam & Burma all became tributary vassals.

How were the Manchus able to rise to power over the other nomadic tribes so quickly? Why was Ghengis Khan able to become Grand Khan of the multitude of tribes? Why were any of these nomadic kingdoms able to rise to dominance so rapidly in succession, one after the other? The answer is the same. The nomadic tribes respected military power. If one tribe was able to establish undisputed dominance, the other tribes would align themselves behind this power. If no tribe could establish dominance ,then the nomadic tribes fought amongst themselves. Due to this process, the nomadic empires would go through cycles of disintegration and consolidation depending upon the military strength of individuals and their tribes.

Why were these consolidated nomadic empires, the Jurchen, the Mongols, and Manchus, to name just a few, able to dominate China so regularly? One factor was certainly the ferocity of the warriors of the steppes. From childhood, they engaged hunting and military encounters – just to survive. Further the nomadic empires were able to exploit the weakness of the Chinese imperial governmnetdue to civil war and peasant uprisings. These two factors have allowed these nomadic empires to militarily dominate China, especially northern China.

But what has allowed them to maintain control?

The third factor, unusual from a Western standpoint, has manifested regularly throughout Chinese history. It concerns the soldiers themselves. In most of the dynastic changes and takeovers, the soldiers are interchangeable. Just as individual tribes consolidate behind the strongest tribe, so do armies and their soldiers align behind the strongest military leader.2 The rise of the Ming and the Ch’ing were both based upon large-scale defections of entire armies from one side to the other. As we already mentioned, the early military strength of the Ming was based upon hundreds of thousands of soldiers who had previously been part of the Mongol army. Similarly, the success of the Manchus was based upon a similar pattern. Entire Chinese armies switched to their side and were welcomed with open arms.3

To understand the phenomenon of entire armies switching sides, we must remember that Chinese armies were made up of peasant conscripts or hereditary soldiers. As mentioned, the peasantry had no loyalty to the aristocracy of any cultural persuasion. The main factors behind peasant loyalty were the potentials for social stability and tolerance, not cultural cohesion.

Twentieth century European warfare seems much different, as armies are fighting for their country. French soldiers fight for France, German soldiers fight for Germany, and English soldiers fight for England. However the Chinese soldiers do not fight for China. They fight for the strongest general, whomever that might be, whichever culture he may belong to. They are fighting for the general with the most potential, not with a common culture.

The chasm between the ruling class and peasantry was much greater than between the nomadic and Chinese ruling classes. The shared literacy amongst the ruling class generated the perception of Chinese imperial culture. The non-literate multi-varied cultural expressions of the peasantry were too diverse to generate a common cultural bond.

Fighting for ‘China’ was more a concept of the ruling literati and warrior class than it was for the agrarian peasantry. Life went on the same for the peasantry regardless of which culture the ruling class belonged. In contrast, history tells the story of the rise and fall of the literati.

The soldier class, made up many times of conscripted peasantry or the professional soldier class, had personal self interest at heart before Chinese cultural preservation. Fighting for ‘China’ meant risking one’s life for the preservation of the rights and privileges of the Chinese ruling class whomever that might be. The culture of the ruling class generally had little to do with the rights of the peasant class. Therefore whole armies would throw their weight behind whichever general that it deemed most likely to win, or whomever seemed to have the most potential for establishing social order.

This was indeed the case in the rise of the Manchus. Frustrated with more than a century of mismanagement, the Chinese citizenry were fed up. The Manchus portrayed themselves as liberators, not conquerors. Indeed they welcomed Chinese soldiers and officers into their ranks. The Manchu takeover of China could not have occurred without internal Chinese assistance.

The Manchus, like the multitude of other nomadic cultures, had an immediate affinity for Chinese imperial culture, perhaps because they derived ultimately from the same source. Because of this affinity, they worked to preserve Chinese culture rather than to destroy it. Because of this effort towards preservation, rather than destruction, the transition between the Ming and Ch’ing was the least problematic dynastic change for the Chinese people as a whole.

“The Manchus ruled as conquerors and maintained permanent garrisons in strategic centers throughout the country, but they adopted Chinese culture, perpetuated the time-honored administrative machinery and laws, associated Chinese with themselves in the highest boards at Peking and opened to them all the provincial offices. They guarded against revolt by forbidding a Chinese to hold office in his native province, by frequently shifting officials and by dividing the administrative responsibility for each province among several officers who could serve as checks on one another.”4

Golden Age of the Ch’ing (1644≈1775)

The first century and a half of the Ch’ing dynasty must be considered another Golden Age for China. The Ch’ing dynasty expanded to control Tibet and the western steppes previously controlled by the Mongols. The Manchus controlled the largest Chinese empire in history. Internally the Manchu rulers were long-lived and ruled diligently.

Sheng-tsu (r. 1661-1722), followed by his son, Shih-tsung (r. 1722-35) and then his grandson, Kao-tsung (r. 1735-96) ruled the Golden Age of the Ch’ing. Each of these Manchu emperors took an active role in governing the empire. They adopted all the preexisting institutions. They worked with the military to establish dominance of the surrounding areas. But equally as important, they worked to control internal corruption, recruiting the best people for administration amongst both Chinese and Manchu.

The Manchus did not discriminate against the Chinese, as had occurred during the Mongol occupation. Instead, the Manchus administered the Chinese effectively and encouraged them to pursue traditional cultural interests and grow economically. The early Ming emperors actively campaigned against corruption and generally attempted to be good rulers. During this period, the Chinese Empire was on top of the world.

The peak and the beginning of the end of the Manchu Dynasty occurred during the reign of Kao-tsung. While an active ruler for the first decades of his reign, he lost interest towards the end. He began to withdraw from politics and give control to his favorites. His favorites began to encourage graft and corruption. The growing influence of the Europeans accelerated the whole cycle of mismanagement that was just beginning. It must be stressed, however, that the Golden Age of the Manchus was so good that European philosophers admired it and the European aristocracy sought out their products. During this period, trade with Western nations increased the general Chinese prosperity. In the 19th century, this was to have serious ramifications.

Popular, Alchemical, & Martial Taoism during the Ch’ing

By the Ch'ing, the Taoist organizations had crystallized. However they were not unified. There was still the liturgical organization of Heavenly Masters that was centered in the south of China. This Taoist group served the needs of the community. They performed exorcisms, weddings, and the like, and also presided over regular services to impart the sacred into day-to-day life.

The alchemical Taoists were a distinctly different branch. In their psychological and scientific pursuits, they sought clarity through precision. While explicit, it was still for the elite, as it required study as well as practice. Their practices spread from the north.

There was no hostility or rivalry between the two branches of Taoism. They were serving different demographics. One served the populace and the other the elite. One focused upon rites and rituals, the other on individual self- cultivation practices.

During the Ch'ing, the alchemist Liu I Ming wrote a commentary upon Chang Po Tuan’s The Inner Teachings of Taoism.  Just as Chang wanted to clear the air of the ambiguity that had arisen after the Triplex Unity was written, Liu attempts to elucidate Chang’s work. As Liu says:

“I have torn away the shell to expose the pit, broken open the bones to reveal the marrow. The jewels of this treasure chest are set out clearly in the open, in hopes that readers will understand at a glance and not be deceived by misleading interpretations.” (The Inner Teachings, p. xvi)

Language of the Heavenly Masters deliberately confusing to de-verbalize experience

Although those who practiced Taoist alchemy used symbolic language, it was specific. In contrast, the language of the Heavenly Masters was deliberately confusing – presumably to minimize the importance of words. In the tradition of Confucius, the Taoist initiate would read or write phrases over and over, without any explication. The theory was that the words of the masters were enough to enable students to come to an understanding on their own. This is akin to the koan tradition in Zen, which attempted to evoke a non-verbal experience.

Taoism, philosophy of the martial arts & the secret societies

There was another branch of Taoism, the martial. With its emphasis on self-cultivation, practice, and eventual spontaneity, Taoism was still the philosophy of the secret societies. Now that the foreign Manchus were in power, the secrecy of these organizations had to be maintained for personal safety. Additionally, they did not want to align themselves with the more public groups for fear of retaliation. It was these secret societies that attempted to liberate the Chinese from first the Manchus and eventually the Europeans, just as they had liberated the Chinese from the Mongols, six centuries before.

While adopting Chinese culture, the Manchus also dominated it. During the Ch’ing dynasty, as in the other dynasties, political dissent was not tolerated. The religious institutions were permitted to exist as long, as they didn’t foment revolt. The patriarchal nature of Buddhism and Confucianism melded seamlessly with the Manchus. While institutional Taoism was tolerated, politically active Taoism was suppressed, as it was directed towards Chinese nationalism5.

Factors in the fall of the Ch’ing: Weak Rulers

There are multiple factors associated with the fall of the Ch’ing. We’ve mentioned the growth in corruption due to the Emperor’s lack of attention to affairs of state. The imperial government from the Sung dynasty on to the Ch’ing had been based upon a strong Emperor. Whenever the Emperor was actively involved in politics, things went relatively well. Whenever the Emperor retired from active involvement, the rule of the government degenerated. This decline was due to the demands of competing factions, none of which could achieve ascendancy. After the active involvement of the early Manchu Emperors, the later Emperors tended to pursue self-interest over the public good.

The lack of strong leadership was one factor in the fall of the Ch’ing, as it had been for the Ming before them, and the Yuan before them. Although the fall of the Sung Dynasty was primarily due to the military prowess of the Mongols, the preceding dynasties – the T’ang, the Sui, and even the Han, Ch’in and Chou – had all fallen due to lack of strong leadership.

We can now identify a few persistent patterns regarding Chinese imperial dynasties. Each dynasty began with strong rulers, who were militarily strong as well as committed to leadership. This was true of all the traditional Chinese dynasties: the Chou, the Ch’in, the Han, the Sui, the T’ang, the Sung, the Yuan, the Ming and the Ch’ing.

 The period of strong leadership normally lasted 100 to 200 years except in the case of the Ch’in and Sui dynasties. This was true of the Chou, the Han, the T’ang, the Sung, the Ming and the Ch’ing. This period of strong and committed leadership was followed by a decline in imperial interest with the resulting decline of the dynasty. This pattern held true in nearly all of the dynasties.

Sometimes the cyclical rise and fall of the dynasties was related external events that were beyond the control of individual emperors. The military consolidation of the Central Asian tribes was the most prominent of these external circumstances. This was certainly a factor in the fall of both the Ming and Sung dynasties.

Population growth spirals out of control

Sometimes there were internal factors beyond the control of the emperor that led to the fall of the dynasty. Perhaps a good emperor was born into a period when the warlords had already assumed control due to a weak imperial government. Perhaps the vitality of the institutions had already played itself out. However, the biggest internal factor was probably population itself.

With prosperity comes population growth. As the population grows to the capacity of the existing technology, it inevitably shoot spast the limits of that technology. Perhaps there will be natural disasters or bad climatic conditions, but most likely there will just be too many people born to be accommodated with the existing social technology.6

With increasing prosperity, their Chinese population increased from 300 million in 1750 to 400 million in 1850. As the population grew beyond the ability of the land to support it, there grew up a whole class of people without work or home. The government increasingly didn’t care, maybe because it was truly beyond their control or maybe because of pursuing their own agenda. Whatever the reason, the rapid increase in population was a major factor that destabilized the Ch’ing Dynasty.

Britain, Opium, & the Boxer Rebellions

The final major factor in the decline of the Ch’ing was the Europeans, specifically the British. During the last century of the Manchu dynasty, the British began to exert an incredible influence in China.

One of their biggest contributions was the introduction of opium. Opium served two purposes. First it balanced British import-export books. Second it weakened Chinese will, which made them more susceptible to European influence.

The British had been importing huge amounts of tea from China. They needed to export something to China so that trade wealth would flow both directions. Because the Chinese were not interested in European goods, the British introduced opium to balance their books.

Opium had an incredibly negative effect upon Chinese society. Recognizing that opium was undermining their culture, the government attempted to ban it. Employing military force, the British required the Chinese to rescind their ban.

By the turn of the century there were Chinese rebellions against European influence. Simultaneously these rebellions attempted to throw the Manchus out. ‘Self-determination’ and ‘China ruled by Chinese’ became mantras.

Those that spearheaded the resistance to the Europeans and the Manchus were called Boxers by the British. This is why these rebellions are called the Boxer Rebellions. These Boxers were traditional martial artists.

Although these initial rebellions were unsuccessful, they set the stage for the eventual overthrow of the Manchus and the reassertion of Chinese nationalism. Initially the Chinese looked to the West for assistance in creating a modern state. But when the Western governments only supported the exploitation of the masses, as is their tendency, the Chinese embraced the Communism of Mao Tse Tung.7 But we are getting ahead of our story.


1 China to 1850, p.145

2 This was also true in Greek and Rome after Alexander the Great. Armies would quickly change sides in order to be on the winning side.

3 This is a foreign experience in the west. In the last world wars of the 20th century there were many prisoners of war, there were massive surrenders, there were even double agents, but there were not examples of French, German, American, or Japanese armies switching from one side to the other. Basically the cultural differences were too great.

4 EB, V5 p. 523

5 One sees the same break in Catholicism. The bishops are aligned with governments everywhere, while the priests fight for the rights of their parish.

6 For instance, Africa was better off ecologically before the Europeans came. Disease and internal warfare kept the population under control. With the European agricultural and medical techniques introduced into Africa during this same period of the 1800s, it allowed population to skyrocket, which create eco-destruction in its wake. Africans, so recently entering the domain of modern medicine, continues to have large families, appropriate in times of high infant mortality, very inappropriate in 20th century Africa. Praise Malthus.

7 Similarly because American industrialists wanted to exploit the Vietnamese and their resources the United States continually thwarted Vietnam’s efforts to become a democracy in the later 20th century.

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