Ch'ing China

The Ch'ing State

Ming Loyalism

   Immediately upon the establishment of the Ch'ing dynasty, a loyalist movement sprang up around the Ming Prince Fu. In 1645, they declared him Emperor in Nanking, which had been the secondary capital of the Ming. Fu, however, was little interested in government and rebellion and abandoned himself to his own pleasures. After this movement peetered out, other loyalist movements sprang up all over the country. These movements were motivated not so much out of affection for the Ming rulers, but out of bitterness over a foreign dynasty ruling China. All of these movements centered around one of the Princes of the imperial house. None of these movements coordinated with one another and they were soon defeated by both Chinese and Manchu forces.

   The greatest threat to the Manchu hold on China came from the loyalist movment of Cheng Ch'eng-kung, who is better known in the West by his Dutch name, Koxinga (1624-1662). By 1655, Koxinga managed to control most of Fukien province along the central coast of China. Had he proceeded prudently, he probably would have reconquered China for the Ming; in 1659, however, he unwisely attacked Nanking and suffered a disastrous defeat. In 1661, he attacked and conquered Taiwan and began a series of coastal raids on China, but this last shred of hope for the Ming died in 1662 at the age of 38. With him went the Ming cause; when the Ch'ing conquered Taiwan in 1683, the Ming cause had effectively terminated.

Shun-chih

   The first emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty was Fu-lin, who styled himself the Shun-chih emperor (1644-1661). At his accession to the imperial throne, he was only seven years old. The imperial power, then, fell to his uncle, Dorgan, who had been so successfuly in conquering the Empire. Dorgan was effectively the absolute power in China until his death in 1650; he set all policies and kept all the imperial seals. He saw the importance of maintaining Ming institutions and bureaucratic practices so he appointed large numbers of Chinese officials into the new Ch'ing government. Each ministry, however, was headed by a Manchu prince; there was no question where the power lay.

   Dorgan was chauvinistic about Manchu culture and sought to impose it on the Chinese. He seized Chinese lands and ceded them to Manchu princes. His most bitterly hated policy, however, was the compulsory wearing of pigtails, which was the Manchu fashion of wearing hair.

   Shun-chih took over the government in 1651. He retained Dorgan's policy of hiring Chinese officials, but he introduced several innovations in order to make government more efficient. He added several sub-chancellories to the office of the Grand Secretary who was the single individual who ran the government. He abolished the Ministry of the Imperial Household, which was run by the eunuchs, and replaced it with thirteen imperial household departments; this was his effort to curtail the power of palace eunuchs which had proven so disastrously meddlesome during the Ming period.

K'ang-hsi

   When the Shun-chih emperor died in 1661 of smallpox at the age of twenty, he was succeeded by his third son, Hsüan-yeh, who styled himself the K'ang-hsi emperor (1662-1722). He was only eight years old, so the government fell to four regents. However, in 1667, at the age of thirteen, K'ang-hsi assumed the leadership of the government and expelled the regents. From this very early age, K'ang-hsi was one of the strongest and most dynamic of the Ch'ing emperors.

   Like the Hong Wu emperor at the start of the Ming dynasty, K'ang-hsi was tireless in his administration of government. On a typical day, he would rise long before sunrise and by five AM would begin holding audiences to receive officials; his day rarely ended before midnight. In Chinese versions of history, K'ang-hsi is considered one of only a handful of emperors that fit the ideal pattern. He was brilliant, energetic, moral, and tirelessly devoted to the administration of the government.

   Conscious of the bitterness that Dorgan and the Shun-chih emperor had raised by giving away Chinese lands, K'ang-hsi ended that practice and began returning lands to native Chinese. He greatly increased the number of Chinese in high official positions and greatly increased the efficiency of revenue collection by appointing Chinese servants to oversee provincial financial, textile, and judicial commissions. He increased his own power by creating out of this network a secret, personal bureaucracy; added to this personal bureaucracy was his creation of a secret and personal intelligence-gathering bureaucracy.

   K'ang-hsi believed that his power rested solely on the welfare and good will fo the common people. In order to secure that good will, his most common political practice was to remit or reduce taxes. He strove to create new confidence in imperial government by cleaning out corruption with a severe hand. He also believed that learning was the foundation of government and became one of the most profligate sponsors of learning in Chinese imperial history. He himself would sit through hours of academic lectures every day and demanded high levels of learning from his officials.

   It was K'ang-hsi who completed the wars of conquest started almost a century earlier by Nurhaci. His greatest conquest was the suppression of the Three Feudatories. The Ch'ing had come to power through the help of Chinese generals who had defected to their side. In reward for this service, they granted each of the major generals their own territories; these nearly independent territories were known as the Three Feudatories. While Shun-chih tolerated these semi-autonomous states, K'ang-hsi strove to curtail their power. When they broke out into open rebellion in 1673, K'ang-hsi managed to conquer all three territories by 1681.

   K'ang-hsi's biggest threat, however, came from the Mongols and the Russians in the north. Beginning in the late 1500's, Russians began to aggressively expand their territory. They moved west into Europe, south into Ottoman territories, and gradually expanded east across Asia. By the 1640's, the Russians had conquered Siberia and were making raids into Manchu and Chinese territory. K'ang-hsi feared an alliance between Russians and Mongols, so he aggressively attacked the Mongols and seized territory in Turkestan. He then turned on the Russians and defeated them soundly in 1685. This led to the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which was China's first treaty with a European power. With the Russians out of the way, K'ang-hsi defeated the Mongols in 1696 and in 1697, he incorporated Outer Mongolia and Hami into the Chinese Empire. By 1750, under the leadership of Emperor Ch'ien-lung, the Ch'ing conquered all of Turkestan, making the Ch'ing empire the largest Chinese empire in history.

Yung-cheng

   At the death of the K'ang-hsi emperor, Yung-cheng, at the age of 45, became emperor of China. Although he ruled for only twelve years, from 1723 to 1735, he greatly modified Ch'ing government. Deeply suspicious by nature, he concentrated power into his own hands. He seriously curtailed the feudal powers enjoyed by Manchu princes and then he took away their military power; all military power, which had been shared by the earlier Ch'ing emperors, was now concentrated in the hands of the emperor.

   Like that of the Hong Wu emperor, the administration of the Yung-cheng emperor worked effectively because he was absolutely tireless in his administration of government. He kept all his officials on a very short leash and punished incompetence, insubordination, and corruption with an unmatched fury. He expanded K'ang-hsi's personal intelligence-gathering network into a secret police feared by every government official. He did not fight corruption with just a heavy hand; he also rewarded officials for not being corrupt by setting up an "integrity nourishing allowance." This allowance rewarded virtuous service and partially eliminated the temptation to charge surtaxes or to take bribes.

   His most significant innovation in the conduct of the state was the creation of the Grand Council in 1729. This Council was designed to help directly the Emperor in the drafting of edicts and to serve as the primary advisory council in matters of state and military government. This was the most far-reaching and efficient innovation of the Ch'ing period, for the Grand Council, which usurped the powers of the Grand Secretary, was able to formulate policy quickly, efficiently, and privately. So efficient was it that it was retained for most of the Ch'ing period.

Ch'ien-lung

   The last great emperor of the early Ch'ing was Hung-li, who styled himself the Ch'ien-lung emperor (1736-1795). His reign was awesomely long; at a length of fifty-nine years, it is second only to K'ang-hsi's reign, which lasted for sixty-one years. All during his boyhood, Ch'ien-lung had been prepared for the throne. He was rigorously trained in the Classics, in Confucianism, the ethics and practice of government, and in Manchu military arts. By the time he became emperor at the age of twenty-five, he was perhaps the best trained individual for the job in all of Chinese history.

   He announced that the rule of his father had been too strict, while that of K'ang-hsi, his grandfather, had been too lenient. He announced a "middle course" for his own government and, with two brilliant assistants, the first decade and a half of his rule was marked by peace and unprecedented prosperity.

   He was one of the greatest military emperors of the dynasty. He finally conquered the Mongols in 1759 and, by the next year, had annexed all of Turkestan. In 1770, he subjugated Burma and again, in 1789, he brought Annam beneath his rule. The Ch'ing empire had now become the greatest empire in Chinese history and possibly the world.

   But while the Ch'ing empire reached its highest point under the Ch'ien-lung emperor, both Chinese and Western historians date the decline of the empire to the same figure in history. At the age of sixty-five, growing increasingly senile and decrepit, Ch'ien-lung fell for a handsome palace guard named Ho-shen (1750-1799). He was first made Grand Councillor and then a minister of the Imperial Household. Assured of the Emperor's constant good graces and increasingly in control of the senile old man, Ho-shen was free to do whatever he pleased whenever he pleased. He was unabashedly corrupt and demanded bribes with complete abandon. His practices spread throughout the government and into the provinces; by the 1790's, the imperial government had become hopelessly corrupt. Ch'ien-lung retired in 1795, but he still controlled the government. It wasn't until his death in 1799 that Ho-shen was finally executed. The damage to the government, however, was so extensive that the imperial administration never regained the same level of integrity and efficiency it had enjoyed under the early Ch'ing emperors.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97