Qing Dynasty: The Last Imperial Family

Emperor Qianlong meeting with the ambassador Macartney in 1793.

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

China's last imperial family, the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), was ethnically-Manchu rather than Han Chinese. The dynasty emerged in Manchuria, northern China, in 1616 under the leadership of Nurhaci of the Aisin Gioro clan. He renamed his people the Manchu; they were previously known as the Jurchen. The Manchu dynasty did not take control of Beijing until 1644, with the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Their conquest of the rest of China ended only in 1683, under the famed Kangxi Emperor.

The Quing Dynasty and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty

Ironically, a Ming general had formed an alliance with the Manchu army and invited them into Beijing in 1644. He wanted their assistance in ousting an army of rebellious peasants, led by Li Zicheng, who had captured the Ming capital and were trying to set up a new dynasty in accordance with the tradition of the Mandate of Heaven. Once they got to Beijing and evicted the Han Chinese peasant army, the Manchu leaders decided to stay and create their own dynasty, rather than restoring the Ming.

The Qing Dynasty assimilated some Han ideas, such as using the civil service exam system to promote capable bureaucrats. They also imposed some Manchu traditions on the Chinese, such as requiring men to wear their hair in the long braid or queue. However, the Manchu ruling class held themselves apart from their subjects in many ways. They never intermarried with Han women, and Manchu noblewomen did not bind their feet. Even more than the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty, the Manchus kept themselves separate from the greater Chinese civilization to a large degree.

Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

This separation proved a problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the western powers and Japan began to impose themselves with increasing impudence on the Middle Kingdom. The Qing were unable to stop the British from importing massive amounts of opium into China, a move intended to create Chinese addicts and thus shift the balance of trade in the UK's favor. China lost both of the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century and had to grant embarrassing concessions to the British.

As the century wore on, and Qing China weakened, foreigners from other western countries such as France, Germany, the US, Russia, and even former tributary state Japan made increasing demands for trade and diplomatic access. This sparked a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment in China encompassed not only the invading western traders and missionaries but also the Qing emperors themselves. In 1899-1900, it exploded into the Boxer Rebellion, which initially targeted the Manchu rulers as well as the other foreigners. Empress Dowager Cixi was able to convince Boxer leaders to ally with the regime against the foreigners in the end, but once more, China suffered a humiliating defeat.

The defeat of the Boxer Rebellion was the death knell for the Qing Dynasty. It limped on until 1911, when the Last Emperor, the child ruler Puyi, was deposed. China descended into the Chinese Civil War, which would be interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, and would continue on until the Communists' victory in 1949. 

Qing Emperors

This list of Qing Emperors shows the birth names first and then the imperial names, where applicable.

  • Nurhaci ruled 1616-1636
  • Huang Taiji, r. 1626-1643
  • Dorgon, r. 1643-1650
  • Fulin, the Shunzhi Emperor, r. 1650-1661
  • Xuanye, the Kangxi Emperor, r. 1661-1722
  • Yinzhen, the Yongzheng Emperor, r. 1722-1735
  • Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor, r. 1735-1796
  • Yongyan, the Jiaqing Emperor, r. 1796-1820
  • Minning, the Daoguang Emperor, r. 1820-1850
  • Yizhu, the Xianfeng Emperor, r. 1850-1861
  • Zaichun, the Tongzhi Emperor, r. 1861-1875
  • Zaitian, the Guangxu Emperor, r. 1875-1908
  • Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, r. 1908-1911