Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: After the middle of the eighteenth century there began a continuous decline, slow at first and then gathering speed. The European works on China offer various reasons for this: the many foreign wars (to which we shall refer later) of the emperor, known by the name of his ruling period, Qianlong, his craze for building, and the irruption of the Europeans into Chinese trade. In the eighteenth century the court surrounded itself with great splendour, and countless palaces and other luxurious buildings were erected, but it must be borne in mind that so great an empire as the China of that day possessed very considerable financial strength, and could support this luxury. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The wars were certainly not inexpensive, as they took place along the Russian frontier and entailed expenditure on the transport of reinforcements and supplies; the wars against Turkestan and Tibet were carried on with relatively small forces. This expenditure should not have been beyond the resources of an ordered budget. Interestingly enough, the period between 1640 and 1840 belongs to those periods for which almost no significant work in the field of internal social and economic developments has been made; Western scholars have been too much interested in the impact of Western economy and culture or in the military events. Chinese scholars thus far have shown a prejudice against the Qing Dynasty and were mainly interested in the study of anti-Manchu movements and the downfall of the dynasty. On the other hand, the documentary material for this period is extremely extensive, and many years of work are necessary to reach any general conclusions even in one single field. The following remarks should, therefore, be taken as very tentative and preliminary, and they are, naturally, fragmentary.

“The decline of the Qing Dynasty began at a time when the European trade was still insignificant, and not as late as after 1842, when China had to submit to the foreign Capitulations. These cannot have been the true cause of the decline. Above all, the decline was not so noticeable in the state of the Exchequer as in a general impoverishment of China. The number of really wealthy persons among the gentry diminished, but the middle class, that is to say the people who had education but little or no money and property, grew steadily in number.

Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi: Court Life During the Time of Empress Dowager Cixi; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Summer Palace Used by Cixi ; Wikipedia Beijing ; Travel China Guide ; Summer Palace ; Books on Cixi; “ Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China “by Jung Chang; “China Under the Empress Dowager” by E. Backhouse and J.O. Bland; “The Dragon Empress” by Marina Warner; “Dragon Lady” by Sterling Seagrave; Boxer Rebellion National Archives ; Modern History Sourcebook ; San Francisco 1900 newspaper article Library of Congress ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Cox Rebellion PhotosCaldwell Kvaran ; Eyewitness Account ; Sino-Japanese ; Wikipedia article on the Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia

Opium Wars Period in China

The success of the Qing dynasty in maintaining the old order proved a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. The centuries of peace and self-satisfaction dating back to Ming times had encouraged little change in the attitudes of the ruling elite. The imperial Neo-Confucian scholars accepted as axiomatic the cultural superiority of Chinese civilization and the position of the empire at the hub of their perceived world. To question this assumption, to suggest innovation, or to promote the adoption of foreign ideas was viewed as tantamount to heresy. Imperial purges dealt severely with those who deviated from orthodoxy.[Source: The Library of Congress]

When the Qianlong Emperor died at last in February 1799, leaving the kingdom apparently prosperous, but in fact riddled with contradictions and problems that had never been properly solved. China in the 19th century was humiliated and emasculated by colonialism after the Opium Wars, torn apart by rebellions and brought to its knees by famines. Most of the decisive events in 19th century occurred in southern China. The First Opium War (1839-42) took place primarily around Hong Kong and Canton. Shanghai was the center of the foreign occupation. And, the Taiping Rebellion (1851 to 1864) transformed parts of southern China into a brief quasi-utopian state.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “At the time these events were perceived [in China] largely as a border skirmish. The Qing emperor was preoccupied with a series of internal rebellions, and his officials were so nervous of passing on the letters the British handed in that he had little idea of what the trouble was about. When hostilities began, repeated accounts of glorious Chinese victories over the barbarians left the emperor in the dark about the real outcome. It was an inglorious episode on both sides, with its roots in an expanding imperial power being rebuffed in its efforts to trade.” [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

“There was nothing, the Chinese loftily replied to the British emissaries, that China needed or wanted from the west not their goods, not their ideas and certainly not their company. There was plenty that the British wanted to buy from China, though, and by the 1780s, the British appetite for tea and Chinese indifference to British goods had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company began to fill by supplying opium grown in British Bengal. It was a trade that greatly benefited the British exchequer, the merchants who traded it, the officials who grafted on it, the Chinese wholesalers who bought it and the foreign missionaries who travelled with it.”

Opium Wars

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ “Western military weapons, including percussion lock muskets, heavy artillery, and paddlewheel gunboats, were far superior to China's. Britain's troops had recently been toughened in the Napoleonic wars, and Britain could muster garrisons, warships, and provisions from its nearby colonies in Southeast Asia and India.

Sebastien Roblin wrote in This Week: “The first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships. The Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant. HMS Volage's Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese "intimidation," fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor. [Source: Sebastien Roblin, This Week, August 6, 2016 ]

“Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — "bannermen" — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute. Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government's finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.”

"Unequal Treaties" After the Opium War

The result of the First Opium War was a disaster for the Chinese. By the summer of 1842 British ships were victorious and were even preparing to shell the old capital, Nanking (Nanjing), in central China. The emperor therefore had no choice but to accept the British demands and sign a peace agreement. This agreement, the first of the "unequal treaties," opened China to the West and marked the beginning of Western exploitation of the nation. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, consultant: Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

After the Chinese surrendered,the Treaty of Nanjing was signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary in August 1842. The first of several "unequal treaties," it that gave up the island Hong Kong to the British "in perpetuity," opened five ports to European trade, forced China to pay an indemnity of $21 million (around $500 million in today’s money and large sum for a largely impoverished country and bankrupt dynasty) and minimal tariffs on imported goods. It also forced China to continue accepting East India Company opium. The Qing Emperor at first refused to accept the Nanjing Treaty, but another British attack changed his mind. Further concessions were made after the second Opium War in 1860.

The Treaty of Nanjing also limited the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem; granted British nationals extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese laws). In addition, Britain was to have most-favored-nation treatment, that is, it would receive whatever trading concessions the Chinese granted other powers then or later. The Treaty of Nanjing set the scope and character of an unequal relationship for the ensuing century of what the Chinese would call "national humiliations." The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.

One unequal treaty, which forced China to involuntarily open new "treaty ports" and pay further indemnities to European powers, was drawn up after China refused to apologize for a torn British flag. In the Convention of Peking in 1860 China opened up more ports to foreigners and paid more reparations and allowed British ships to carry indentured Chinese laborers (“coolies”) to the United States and legalized the opium trade.

Neither the Chinese emperor or Queen Victoria were happy about the outcome of the Opium War and the treaties. Elliot became the chargé d'affaires in the Republic of Texas and the Chinese official who negotiated the treaty was sent to Tibet.

Uprisings in Turkestan (Xinjiang)

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Emperor Xuanzong (Daoguang (1821–50), a man in poor health though not without ability, had much graver anxieties than those caused by the Europeans. He did not yet fully realize the seriousness of the European peril. In Turkestan (Xinjiang), where Turkish Muslims lived under Chinese rule, conditions were far from being as the Chinese desired. The Chinese, a fundamentally rationalistic people, regarded religion as a purely political matter, and accordingly required every citizen to take part in the official form of worship. Subject to that, he might privately belong to any other religion. To a Muslim, this was impossible and intolerable. The Muslims were only ready to practice their own religion, and absolutely refused to take part in any other. The Chinese also tried to apply to Turkestan in other matters the same legislation that applied to all China, but this proved irreconcilable with the demands made by Islam on its followers. All this produced continual unrest.[Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Turkestan had a feudal system of government with a number of feudal lords (beg), who tried to maintain their influence and who had the support of the Muslim population. The Chinese had come to Turkestan as soldiers and officials, to administer the country. They regarded themselves as the lords of the land and occupied themselves with the extraction of taxes. Most of the officials were also associated with the Chinese merchants who travelled throughout Turkestan and as far as Siberia. The conflicts implicit in this situation produced great Muslim risings in the nineteenth century. The first came in 1825-1827; in 1845 a second rising flamed up, and thirty years later these revolts led to the temporary loss of the whole of Turkestan.

“This process of colonial penetration of Turkestan continued. Until the end of the first world war there was no fundamental change in the situation in the country, owing to the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia. But after 1920 a period began in which Turkestan became almost independent, under a number of rulers of parts of the country. Then, from 1928 onward, a more and more thorough penetration by Russia began, so that by 1940 Turkestan could almost be called a Soviet Republic. The second world war diverted Russian attention to the West, and at the same time compelled the Chinese to retreat into the interior from the Japanese, so that by 1943 the country was more firmly held by the Chinese government than it had been for seventy years. After the creation of the People's Democracy mass immigration into Xinjiang began, in connection with the development of oil fields and of many new industries in the border area between Xinjiang and China proper. Roads and air communications opened Xinjiang. Yet, the differences between immigrant Chinese and local, Muslim Turks, continue to play a role.

Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping rebellion was the world's bloodiest civil war. Lasting for 13 years from 1851 to 1864, it nearly toppled the Qing Dynasty and resulted in the death of 20 million people — more than the entire population of England at that time. The conflict began as an uprising and a rebellion but became ‘simply a descent into anarchy.” It is also viewed by many historians as a precursor to the Long March and the Cultural Revolution.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the 1840s a young man from Guangdong named Hong Xiuquan (1813-1864) created his own version of Christianity and made converts in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. Hong believed that he was the Younger Brother of Jesus and that his mission, and that of his followers, was to cleanse China of the Manchus and others who stood in their way and “return” the Chinese people to the worship of the Biblical God. Led by Hong, the “Godworshippers” in rural Guangxi rose in rebellion in 1856 in hopes of creating a new “Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace” (Taiping Tianguo). Their movement is known in English as the Taiping movement (“taiping” meaning “great peace” in Chinese). The rebels swept through southern China and up to the Yangzi River, and then down the Yangzi to Nanjing, where they made their capital. Attempts to take northern China were unsuccessful, and the Taiping were eventually crushed in 1864. By that time, the Taiping Rebellion had caused devastation ranging over sixteen provinces with tremendous loss of life and the destruction of more than 600 cities. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Gordon G. Chang wrote in the New York Times: For almost 14 years, two forces skirmished and battled and laid siege to each other’s fortresses and cities, with most of the fighting along the country’s longest river, the Yangtze, China’s ‘serpent.” “The glow of the fires illuminates the sky,” exclaimed one Chinese observer near Shanghai in the spring of 1860, “and the cries of the people shake the earth.” As Platt observes, the conflict ended not by surrender but through annihilation. [Source: Gordon G. Chang, New York Times, March 30, 2012, Gordon G. Chang is a columnist at and the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”]

Muslim Wars

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “While in the central provinces the Taiping rebellion was raging, China was suffering grave setbacks owing to the Lorcha War of 1856; and there were also great and serious risings in other parts of the country. In 1855 the Yellow River had changed its course, entering the sea once more at Tientsin, to the great loss of the regions of Henan and Anhui. In these two central provinces the peasant rising of the so-called "Nien Fei" had begun, but it only became formidable after 1855, owing to the increasing misery of the peasants. This purely peasant revolt was not suppressed by the Manchu government until 1868, after many collisions. Then, however, there began the so-called "Muslim risings". Here there are, in all, five movements to distinguish: (1) the Muslim rising in Gansu (1864-5); (2) the Salar movement in Shaanxi; (3) the Muslim revolt in Yunnan (1855-1873); (4) the rising in Gansu (1895); (5) the rebellion of Yakub Beg in Turkestan (from 1866 onward). [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“While we are fairly well informed about the other popular risings of this period, the Muslim revolts have not yet been well studied. We know from unofficial accounts that these risings were suppressed with great brutality. To this day there are many Muslims in, for instance, Yunnan, but the revolt there is said to have cost a million lives. The figures all rest on very rough estimates: in Gansu the population is said to have fallen from fifteen millions to one million; the Turkestan revolt is said to have cost ten million lives. There are no reliable statistics; but it is understandable that at that time the population of China must have fallen considerably, especially if we bear in mind the equally ferocious suppression of the risings of the Taiping and the Nien Fei within China, and smaller risings of which we have made no mention.

“The Muslim risings were not elements of a general Muslim revolt, but separate events only incidentally connected with each other. The risings had different causes. An important factor was the general distress in China. This was partly due to the fact that the officials were exploiting the peasant population more ruthlessly than ever. In addition to this, owing to the national feeling which had been aroused in so unfortunate a way, the Chinese felt a revulsion against non-Chinese, such as the Salars, who were of Turkish race. Here there were always possibilities of friction, which might have been removed with a little consideration but which swelled to importance through the tactless behaviour of Chinese officials. Finally there came divisions among the Muslims of China which led to fighting between themselves.

“All these risings were marked by two characteristics. They had no general political aim such as the founding of a great and universal Islamic state. Separate states were founded, but they were too small to endure; they would have needed the protection of great states. But they were not moved by any pan-Islamic idea. Secondly, they all took place on Chinese soil, and all the Muslims involved, except in the rising of the Salars, were Chinese. These Chinese who became Muslims are called Dungans. The Dungans are, of course, no longer pure Chinese, because Chinese who have gone over to Islam readily form mixed marriages with Islamic non-Chinese, that is to say with Turks and Mongols.

Revolt of Yakub Beg and General Tso

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The revolt, however, of Yakub Beg in Turkestan had a quite different character. Yakub Beg (his Chinese name was An Chi-yeh) had risen to the Chinese governorship when he made himself ruler of Kashgar. In 1866 he began to try to make himself independent of Chinese control. He conquered Ili, and then in a rapid campaign made himself master of all Turkestan. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“His state had a much better prospect of endurance than the other Muslim states. He had full control of it from 1874. Turkestan was connected with China only by the few routes that led between the desert and the Tibetan mountains. The state was supported against China by Russia, which was continually pressing eastward, and in the south by Great Britain, which was pressing towards Tibet. Farther west was the great Ottoman empire; the attempt to gain direct contact with it was not hopeless in itself, and this was recognized at Istanbul. Missions went to and fro, and Turkish officers came to Yakub Beg and organized his army; Yakub Beg recognized the Turkish sultan as Khalif. He also concluded treaties with Russia and Great Britain. But in spite of all this he was unable to maintain his hold of Turkestan. In 1877 the famous Chinese general Tso Tsung-Tang (1812-1885), who had fought against the Taiping and also against the Muslims in Gansu, marched into Turkestan and ended Yakub Beg's rule.

“Yakub was defeated, however, not so much by Chinese superiority as by a combination of circumstances. In order to build up his kingdom he was compelled to impose heavy taxation, and this made him unpopular with his own followers: they had to pay taxes under the Chinese, but the Chinese collection had been much less rigorous than that of Yakub Beg. It was technically impossible for the Ottoman empire to give him any aid, even had its internal situation permitted it. Britain and Russia would probably have been glad to see a weakening of the Chinese hold over Turkestan, but they did not want a strong new state there, once they had found that neither of them could control the country while it was in Yakub Beg's hands. In 1881 Russia occupied the Ili region, Yakub's first conquest. In the end the two great powers considered it better for Turkestan to return officially into the hands of the weakened China, hoping that in practice they would be able to bring Turkestan more and more under their control. Consequently, when in 1880, three years after the removal of Yakub Beg, China sent a mission to Russia with the request for the return of the Ili region to her, Russia gave way, and the Treaty of Ili was concluded, ending for the time the Russian penetration of Turkestan. In 1882 the Manchu government raised Turkestan to a "new frontier" (Xinjiang) with a special administration.

One bright spot of the Qing endeavors in Xinjiang was General Tso — of General Tso chicken fame. Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ In 1873, Chinese General Tso Tsung-tang established himself in Barkoul and Hami in eastern Xinjiang, having been sent by the government to endeavour to put a stop to the great Muslim rebellion, which, beginning with a mere spark, had spread like wildfire all over Western China, and through Central Asia. The difficulties to be overcome were so great as to appear almost insuperable. It was then common to meet with articles in the foreign press in China, ridiculing both the undertaking of Tso, and the fatuity of the government in endeavouring to raise money by loans, in order to pay the heavy war expenses thus incurred. Within a year of his arrival in the rebellious districts, Tso's army was marching on either side of the lofty T'ien-shan in parallel columns, driving the rebels before them. When they reached a country in which the supplies were insufficient, the army was turned into a farming colony and set to cultivating the soil with a view to raising crops for their future support. Thus alternately planting and marching, the "agricultural army" of Tso thoroughly accomplished its work, an achievement which has been thought to be among “the most remarkable in the annals of any modern country." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Sino-Japanese War

In the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Japan easily defeated China in a war that would decide who would control the Korean peninsula. Known as the Jiawu War in China, the Sino-Japanese War lasted only a year. The decisive moment was the surprising defeat of the Chinese navy at the Battle of the Yalu River in 1894.Weakened by decades of foreign occupation, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with Japan. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, pay a large indemnity, allow Japanese industry into four treaty ports and recognize Japan's hegemony over Korea (even though the Korean peninsula was officially granted the independence). China also ceded Port Arthur and the Liaotung peninsula in southern Manchuria to Japan.

The Sino-Japanese War erupted in August 1894. In 1895, the Japanese virtually annihilated the Chinese navy in a single day, aided by their Chinese adversaries, whose first cannon shot of the war landed firmly on their own commanding admiral. After nine months of fighting, a cease-fire was called and peace talks were held.

The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), is known as the Jiawu War in China and to scholars in English as the First Sino-Japanese War in English (the Second Sino-Japanese War refers to the Japanese occupation of China before and during World War II). “Jiawu” refers to the year in the 60-year cycle of the traditional Chinese calendar.

Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Rebellion was a violent uprising against foreigners by a group of Chinese that wanted to rid China of foreigners and foreign influences. It occurred after China's humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the partitioning of much of the east coast of China among the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Russia and Germany through trade concessions. This resulted in resentment towards foreigners among ordinary Chinese.

In 1900, Chinese insurgents known as the Righteous Fists of Harmony (and dubbed the Boxers by foreigners) rose against both the Qing dynasty and Western influences. Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians were slain, as were foreign diplomats and their families. To blunt the Boxers’ threat to the dynasty, Cixi sided with them against the Westerners. But troops sent by a coalition of eight nations, including England, Japan, France and the United States, put down the Boxer rebellion in a matter of months. [Source: Owen Edwards, Smithsonian magazine, October 2011]

The Chinese also resented Western technologies such as railroads, steamboats and telegraph lines putting Chinese out of work. Westerns were blamed for all kinds of tragedies — droughts, plagues and floods — and accused of stealing babies and filling ships with cargoes of "eyes and female nipples" bound for Western medicine cabinets. Many Chinese also believed that priests smeared themselves with menstrual blood, nailed naked women and fetuses to the Christian cross, and made flags from the pubic hair of 10,000 women.

Empress Dowager Cixi and the Collapse of the Qing Dynasty

At the end of the 19th century China existed as a nation in name only. The Qing dynasty controlled only parts of China and the rest of China was divided among warlords and foreigners who controlled different parts of the country. As the Qing dynasty fell apart more and more of China was wrestled from its control. The Qing dynasty was weakened by the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. The Empress Dowager supported the Boxer rebellion in 1900 and at one point declared war against the United States, Japan and seven European countries.

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) was a Chinese empress dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908. In her book The Boxer Rebellion, Diana Preston wrote of the Empress Dowager: "On the one hand she was afraid of the Boxers because they threatened her rule. She couldn't control them. On the other hand, they represented a growing and highly motivated army she didn't have to pay, one that might help her 'purify' China of its corrupting foreign influences." Her own troops finally joined the Boxers.

Cixi survived the Boxer Rebellion , but with a reputation for cruelty and treachery. She needed help dealing with the foreigners clamoring for greater access to her court. So her advisers called in Lady Yugeng, the half-American wife of a Chinese diplomat, and her daughters, Deling and Rongling, to familiarize Cixi with Western ways.

After the Boxer Rebellion the Empress Dowager fled from the Forbidden City in Beijing for Xian with her court. She and the Emperor managed to slip out of the city disguised as peasants. Even though the Qing Dynasty was in ruins, foreigners kept it propped because they viewed a Qing dynasty under their control better than a potentially hostile newcomer and they saw no better alternative.

The Empress Dowager Cixi died at the age of 72 on November 15, 1908. The day after she died, court officials announced that the death of imprisoned Emperor Guangxu. The cause of his death remains a mystery. One rumor has it he was poisoned on the empress dowagers orders. According to a Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, she "almost certainly ordered the simultaneous death by poisoning of the young emperor and empress the day before she died in 1908."

End of the Qynasty

Just before she died in 1908, the Empress Dowager Cixi — the de facto leader of imperial China — arranged for Emperor Guangxu’s nephew — her grandnephew Puyi — to be named the last emperor of China. On February 12, 1912, the 6-year-old child emperor of the Qing Dynasty abdicated, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. The Qing Dynasty was brought down by a highly organized revolutionary movement with overseas arms and financing and a coherent governing ideology based on republican nationalism.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The fact that another child was to reign and a new regency to act for him, together with all the failures in home and foreign policy, brought further strength to the revolutionary party. The government believed that it could only maintain itself if it allowed Yuan Shikai, the commander of the modern troops, to come to power. General Yuan Shikai, who had played so dubious a part in the 1898 reforms and crackdown on reformers, didn’t challenge Cixi while she was alive even though his loyalty was questioned. He was beyond challenge the strongest man in the country, for he possessed the only modern army. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The chief regent, however, worked against Yuan Shikai and dismissed him at the beginning of 1909; Yuan's supporters remained at their posts. Yuan himself now entered into relations with the revolutionaries, whose centre was Canton, and whose undisputed leader was now Sun Yat-sen. At this time Sun and his supporters had already made attempts at revolution, but without success, as his following was as yet too small. It consisted mainly of young intellectuals who had been educated in Europe and America; the great mass of the Chinese people remained unconvinced: the common people could not understand the new ideals, and the middle class did not entirely trust the young intellectuals.

“The state of China in 1911 was as lamentable as could be: the European states, Russia, America, and Japan regarded China as a field for their own plans, and in their calculations paid scarcely any attention to the Chinese government. Foreign capital was penetrating everywhere in the form of loans or railway and other enterprises. If it had not been for the mutual rivalries of the powers, China would long ago have been annexed by one of them. The government needed a great deal of money for the payment of the war indemnities, and for carrying out the few reforms at last decided on. In order to get money from the provinces, it had to permit the viceroys even more freedom than they already possessed. The result was a spectacle altogether resembling that of the end of the Tang dynasty, about A.D. 900: the various governors were trying to make themselves independent. In addition to this there was the revolutionary movement in the south.

“The government made some concession to the progressives, by providing the first beginnings of parliamentary rule. In 1910 a national assembly was convoked. It had a Lower House with representatives of the provinces (provincial diets were also set up), and an Upper House, in which sat representatives of the imperial house, the nobility, the gentry, and also the protectorates. The members of the Upper House were all nominated by the regent. It very soon proved that the members of the Lower House, mainly representatives of the provincial gentry, had a much more practical outlook than the routineers of Beijing. Thus the Lower House grew in importance, a fact which, of course, brought grist to the mills of the revolutionary movement.

“In 1910 the first risings directed actually against the regency took place, in the province of Hunan. In 1911 the "railway disturbances" broke out in western China as a reply of the railway shareholders in the province of Sichuan to the government decree of nationalization of all the railways. The modernist students, most of whom were sons of merchants who owned railway shares, supported the movement, and the government was unable to control them. At the same time a great anti-Manchu revolution began in Wuch'ang, one of the cities of which Wuhan, on the Yangtze, now consists. The revolution was the result of government action against a group of terrorists. Its leader was an officer named Li Yuanhong. The Manchus soon had some success in this quarter, but the other provincial governors now rose in rapid succession, repudiated the Manchus, and declared themselves independent. Most of the Manchu garrisons in the provinces were murdered. The governors remained at the head of their troops in their provinces, and for the moment made common cause with the revolutionaries, from whom they meant to break free at the first opportunity. The Manchus themselves failed at first to realize the gravity of the revolutionary movement; they then fell into panic-stricken desperation. As a last resource, Yuan Shikai was recalled (November 10th, 1911) and made prime minister.

“Yuan's excellent troops were loyal to his person, and he could have made use of them in fighting on behalf of the dynasty. But a victory would have brought no personal gain to him; for his personal plans he considered that the anti-Manchu side provided the springboard he needed. The revolutionaries, for their part, had no choice but to win over Yuan Shikai for the sake of his troops, since they were not themselves strong enough to get rid of the Manchus, or even to wrest concessions from them, so long as the Manchus were defended by Yuan's army. Thus Yuan and the revolutionaries were forced into each other's arms. He then began negotiations with them, explaining to the imperial house that the dynasty could only be saved by concessions. The revolutionaries—apart from their desire to neutralize the prime minister and general, if not to bring him over to their side—were also readier than ever to negotiate, because they were short of money and unable to obtain loans from abroad, and because they could not themselves gain control of the individual governors. The negotiations, which had been carried on at Shanghai, were broken off on December 18th, 1911, because the revolutionaries demanded a republic, but the imperial house was only ready to grant a constitutional monarchy.

“Meanwhile the revolutionaries set up a provisional government at Nanking (December 29th, 1911), with Sun Yat-sen as president and Li Yuanhong as vice-president. Yuan Shikai now declared to the imperial house that the monarchy could no longer be defended, as his troops were too unreliable, and he induced the Manchu government to issue an edict on February 12th, 1912, in which they renounced the throne of China and declared the Republic to be the constitutional form of state. The young emperor of the Hsuan-t'ung period, after the Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1931, was installed there. He was, however, entirely without power during the melancholy years of his nominal rule, which lasted until 1945. In 1912 the Manchu dynasty came in reality to its end. On the news of the abdication of the imperial house, Sun Yat-sen resigned in Nanking, and recommended Yuan Shikai as president.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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