Qing Dynasty, China's Last Imperial Family

With a List of the Dynasty's Emperors

Qianlong
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 vast majority of the nation's population. 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 took control of Beijing in 1644 with the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Their conquest of the rest of China ended only in 1683, under the famed Kangxi Emperor.

Fall of the Ming Dynasty

Ironically, a Ming general who had formed an alliance with the Manchu army 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, the divine source of authority for China’s early kings and emperors. After they reached Beijing and evicted the Han Chinese peasant army, the Manchu leaders decided to stay and create their own dynasty rather than restore 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 largely stayed separate from the greater Chinese civilization.

Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

This separation proved a problem in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the western powers and Japan began to impose themselves increasingly 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 shift the balance of trade in the UK's favor. China lost both Opium Wars of the mid-19th century—the first with Britain and the second with Britain and France—and had to make embarrassing concessions to the British.

As the century wore on and Qing China weakened, other countries, including France, Germany, the U.S., 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 encompassing 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 other foreigners. Empress Dowager Cixi eventually was able to convince Boxer leaders to ally with the regime against the foreigners, 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 was interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II and continued until the Communists' victory in 1949.

Qing Emperors

This list of Qing emperors shows their birth names, imperial names where applicable, and years of rule:

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