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The Decline and Collapse of the Qing Dynasty

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Harris writes articles on history and has a graduate-level education in social science.

The decline and collapse of the Qing Dynasty

The decline and collapse of the Qing Dynasty

Qing Dynasty

Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911, also known as Ch’ing or Manchu, was the last of the Chinese dynasties. Imperial China reached its zenith of power and influence during the Qing period. The Qing dynasty lasted almost 300 years, extended China’s borders farther than ever before, and perfected the Chinese imperial system. The Qing Empire appeared so orderly and prosperous in the 18th century that the French philosopher Voltaire praised the Chinese for having the most effectively organized government that the world had ever seen. European thinkers admired the powerful and learned Qing rulers as “enlightened despots” and advised their own kings to copy Chinese methods of government.

The Qing was the strongest and most glorious of the Chinese dynasties. It was also the last. After flourishing in the 18th century, it fell apart in the 19th. Like many complicated systems, it grew brittle and inflexible. It could not adjust as new problems arose. Bad harvests, warfare, rebellions, overpopulation, economic disasters, and foreign imperialism contributed to the dynasty’s collapse. A revolution erupted in October 1911. In 1912 the boy Emperor Xuantong (Hsüan-t’ung, commonly known as Henry Pu Yi) abdicated, or stepped down, from the throne. The overthrow of the Qing dynasty marked the end of a system of government that China had known since the founding of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty in 221 BC.

The fall and collapse of the Qing dynasty were caused by external and internal changes within and outside the dynasty, peasant revolts, the rise of Sun Yat-Sen and overall western influence. What happens when there is a trade imbalance between two major trading countries? Just ask Great Britain and China. It’s hard to get by when the country you need goods from does not really need to trade goods with you. This is what happened with Great Britain and the Qing Dynasty. There was a high demand for China’s tea in Great Britain but a low demand for Britain’s goods in China. Great Britain was in debt to China, and they had to do something to get out. As a result, they turned to selling silver to make the imbalance better. China could care less about Great Britain’s silver, so Great Britain was still behinds in payments.

When selling silver did not work, they began selling opium. Opium is an addictive drug grown in India, smoked from a pipe that comes from the seed of the papaver somniferum plant. China’s people became quickly addicted to the drug and traded silver, originally from Great Britain to get opium. Opium was illegal, and China wanted the trade of opium to stop. China tried to make new restrictions against foreign merchants and ships, and Great Britain did not like this idea and fought back resulting in the Opium War (step off 54). Of course, Britain came out on top because they had better artillery, forcing China to sign the Treaty of Nanjing. This was only the beginning of Western influence in China because now more ports were open to foreign merchants. All trade was put under European control causing more western ideas, foreigners, and cultures to spread into China.

Who wants to live in a place with famine, bandits, droughts, and floods? Early Chinese villagers certainly did not. China was already struggling with its economy and life was becoming worrisome and hard for villagers. They were not satisfied with their living conditions, and the result of the villagers’ anger was not a good one. In 1850, one of the bloodiest civil wars this world has ever seen broke out, The Taiping Rebellion (Stefoff 55). The leader of this rebellion was a Christian leader, Hung Xiuguan. He claimed to have the responsibility of destroying the Qing Dynasty, a responsibility given to him by God. Hung Xiuguan and his rebels captured Nanjing and Hung Xiuguan renamed it Taiping Tien-Kuo or The Heavenly Dynasty of Perfect Peace. In the process, about 25,000 men, women, and children were killed. New rules and regulations were made affecting many people for ten years. Of course, china was not able to deal with this alone, but with the help of the western powers, (the same people causing them some many problems) Nanjing was eventually restored.20 million more people were killed while trying to recapture Nanjing.

The decline of the Qing Dynasty was started in the middle of the Chien Lung reign. The Qing Dynasty had experienced a very prosperous period. But at the middle of the Chien Lung years, there were both internal problems and external invasion. And let’s see how these problems became the symptoms of the decline of this formerly great country. The administrative inefficiency was a serious problem causing the Qing government to collapse. Since the emperor of the Qing government held a suspicion feeling on the officials, so he set up many restrictions, checks, and regulations on them. Gradually the officials thought the less responsibility, the less risk they will face. This really hinders the administration of the government. And there was nobody wants to take charge on important matters. So the decision had to be made up by the emperor himself. But after Chien Lung, there was no great emperor.

Economically speaking, the Qing government faced a great problem about it. The government spent too much on the military aspect. And also the luxurious life of the Ching ruler had coasted a great sum of money, the serious corruption of the government worsened the economic problem. By 1800 the economic foundation of the Ching Empire had been badly weakened! By the way, the population of Ching increased. Obviously, there was not enough land, many people had no arable land to farm, and the unemployed often turned to banditry or became recruits for rebel’s outfits.

At this point, you are probably wondering how on Earth the Qing Dynasty lasted this long after all the wars and rebellions. And by this time it seemed as if China did not have much say in what went on in its own territories. Communism was clearly not working for China. Sun Yat-Sen realized this, and he attempted to do something about it. He came close to death to try to make his dream of China becoming a Republic a reality.

In the 1890’s he formed a secret, anti-Qing society and by 1895 there was a price for his head in China forcing him to have to leave the country (McLenighan 34). His dream was to see China become a Republic and to make this happen he formed the Revolutionary League in the year 1905.Out of this came the Three People’s Principles, Nationalism, Democracy, and the People’s Livelihood. Nationalism would help China to run things on their own without interference from foreigners. Democracy meant rule by parliament and constitution, and the People’s Livelihood made it so that the land and other resources should benefit the people and not fatten the ruling classes (McLenighan 34).

Things were looking good for Sun Yat-Sen when Empress Dowager Ci Xi died. The next and last emperor of China would be the three-year-old Henry Pu Yi. Sun Yat-Sen and company took advantage of this very quickly. In early 1912, the Qing Regents signed a document giving up the throne in Pu Yi’s name, leaving Sun Yat-Sen as President of a Republican. That was the end of the Qing Dynasty. Unfortunately for Sun Yat-Sen, he was only President for four years because the people of China didn't agree with all of his views. He was replaced by Yuan Shikai. After Yuan Shikai’s death, China began to fall apart, so Sun Yat-Sen never lived to see his ideas of The Three People’s Principles become a reality. He died of cancer in 1925.

The last 100 years of China was nothing but problems. Rebellion, wars and civil wars, pressure from foreigners, and foreign immigrants spreading their ideas and cultures throughout China. China let the foreigners get by with too much, and the foreigners took advantage of China’s weaknesses. The dynasty got weaker and weaker as timed progressed, but China did not go down without a fight.

Qing Dynasty Achievements

Their achievements included strong economic prosperity and coupled with Qianlong's success in preserving the Inner-Asian Empire (encompassing Xingjiang and Mongolia).

At the height of its power, Qing Dynasty was greatly successful and pioneers in many areas of art and culture for China. During their rule, there was tremendous growth in areas of literature and the arts. There were reported 26,000 volumes of the encyclopedia accomplished. Moreover, during their time, one of the best novels was written. It was called "Story of the Stone, " and it broke ground because it was very explicit in the expression of emotion, which is not typical of the Chinese. Chinese as a group tend not to be emotionally expressive. Arts and Literature took further strides when poets expanded their programs, and astonishingly one play included 240 acts that took over two years to perform on stage. Painting also took another leap and helped the Chinese expand color schemes, especially in porcelain. The borders of China were also expanded to their greatest extent ever, nd this was quite remarkable. These achievements were strongly acknowledged by the British, with whom Qianlong received often.


  • Gascoigne, Bamber, and Christina Gascoigne, (2003), “The Dynasties of China: A History”, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.
  • Sun, Chafoen, (2006), “China: A Linguistic Introduction.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • Wakeman, Frederick Jr, (1977), “Fall of Imperial China.” New York, NY: The Free Press, 1977


7th Grade Student on September 26, 2018:

Came here in hopes of finding information about the fall of the Qing dynasty after missing out on so many History classes. Interesting information but almost none of it is tested. And whatever is tested is not here. So yea, my History exam is tomorrow and I am pretty screwed...


hello sara, i have a question for you. In your article, you said that "china couldn't care less about britain's silver," but why is it that in every other piece of information i read, it says that china kept importing silver until the price of silver hyperinflated? I'm really confused.... plz someone anyone HELP QUICK, i need this information urgently! thanks so much!

kid on May 04, 2017:

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WOO WOO on October 16, 2013:

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John on April 04, 2013:

I'm puzzled when you said the Qing dynasty was greatly successful and pioneers in many areas of art and culture for China. Did you know anything about the queue order or Qianlong's literary inquisition? From what I know, the native Chinese culture was lost when the Manchus (Qing dynasty) banned them from wearing the top knot and their traditional clothes. Funny though, the CCP political oppression of Tibet seems similar to the Qing dynasty which makes me wonder did you get this information originating from the Chinese government (PRC)?

Vendatta on April 04, 2013:

"Of all the Chinese dynasties, the Qing was the strongest and most glorious." What kind of bullshit is this? If Qing dynasty was the most strongest and glorious, why did the eight banners (Qing army) got crushed by Great Britain and France during the opium wars? Why during the Taiping rebellion did the eight banners lose battle after battle and won only with western help?

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Zubyre Parvez from East London on September 19, 2010:

Hi Sara,

I think you have some interesting research here. I think it was the Tang dynasty that was the real heights of civilisation. Chinese have had a 5,000 year civilisation and their emperors were divinely selected, the culture itself was literally a semi-divine culture. They were light years ahead of the time, as Chinese medicine, philosophies testify, compared to the feeble scientific rationalism of Europe, really. There were some backward things during some periods of decline. But it's actually the best mankind has had, perhaps. So we should know that this was the heights of who we are as human beings. Because that Taoism, the supreme sophistication of the Chinese language, it's just ummatchable, and found nowhere else in all the ages. Regards, zubyre.