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Fall of Qing Dynasty

The nineteen century witnessed the decline of the Qing dynasty.  A loser of the Opium War of 1842, the Qing government fully exposed its weakness and inefficiency when fighting against the foreign powers and signing the “Unequal Treaties” afterwards. The Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 further humiliated the imperial government. The defeat by Japanese troop was followed by a period in which the great powers scrambled for privileges in China, exacting lease territories, railroad concessions and mining rights, and carving out their respective “spheres of influence.” The intensifying imperialist aggression and threat of dismemberment created a life-or-death crisis for the Chinese people.

Political Leaflet of the Railway Protection League

Cixi, the Empress Dowager

Cixi, the Empress Dowager, belatedly came to realize that reform was the only way to save the Manchu rule from falling.  She turned first to the education system and abolished the civil service examinations, which had existed for thousands of years in China's imperial governance. The Qing Court sent many young people to study abroad hoping they could use what they learned from the West to save the regime. However, the outcome was contradictory to the Qing dynasty’s expectations. Those young people, once exposed to the advancement and modernization in the west, felt deeply that the corrupt and incompetent Qing Court was the root of the backwardness and weakness at home.  A lot of them transformed themselves into revolutionaries who opposed the Qing’s rule in China.  Some invariably became radicals and increasingly became convinced that for China to restore her past glory and to catch-up to the modern world, the Qing court, whose incompetence had been proven, must go.

There are a variety of contributing factors to the Qing's fall. Some western scholars emphasized the social changes that took place as a consequence of the mid-19th century rebellions. According to them, changes happened to the gentry, the traditional elite in terms of size and composition. Frederic Wakeman has suggested that in the past, the difference in status and function between the upper and lower gentry had been so great that the Qing court had been able to exploit it. However, after the mid-19th century rebellions, the upper and lower gentry began to form a mutually advantageous alliance. The gentry group also formed another alliance with the merchants. In the late 19th century, the gap between those two groups narrowed, which showed itself in the rise of the merchants’ status and the involvement of the gentry in projects relating to mining, railways, and other industries. The "merchant-gentry alliance" was very unhappy with the Qing government since it had ceded the railway and mining rights to the foreign powers. They wanted those rights back to use the Chinese capital to establish private companies to open mines and build railways.  The widespread movement for the protection of railway and mining rights that began around 1903 was an example.

Global Situation at the end of the 19th century

Imperial edict for abdication

China mainland scholars tend to think that the anti-Manchu sentiment motivated the revolutionaries to overthrow the Qing dynasty. China had long been governed by the Han people until the Qing dynasty came to the power. Manchu people, who were once called the "barbarous group" by the Han people, enjoyed political and economic privileges that the Han couldn't have in the Qing's government. In the late 19th century, the anti-Manchu attitude was intensified by the inability of the Manchu government to cope with the onslaught of imperialism from the West. Sun Yat-sen once said that when he first advanced the Principle of Nationalism, he won responses mostly from secret societies but "seldom from the middle-and-above social strata." Shortly afterwards, however, "progressive ideas prevailed and nationalism spread at a tremendous pace, penetrating into every stratum of society. Almost everyone came to realize the necessity of waging a revolution." 

Imperial edict for abdication

Imperial edict for abdication.

1. R. Keith Schoppa, Twentieth Century China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
2. Frederic E. Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China. New York: Free Press, 1975.
2. Sheng Hu, "Anti-imperialism, democarcy and industrialization in the 1911 Revolution," in The 1911 Revolution: A Retrospective After 70 years, 9-25. Beijing: New World Press, 1983.
3. Shu Li, "A Re-Assessment of Some Questions Concerning the 1911 Revolution."  in The 1911 Revolution: A Retrospective After 70 years, 67-127. Beijing: New World Press, 1983.

Fall of Qing Dynasty