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The Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Internal Threats

Zuo Zongtang, Zeng Guofan, Hong Xiuquan, Li Hongzhang, Liang Qichao

Meanwhile, in the 1850s and 1860s, the Qing faced even greater threats from internal rebellions, in particular the Taiping Rebellion begun by Hong Xiuquan. Hong was an ethnic Hakka from Guandong province in southern China, the area that had suffered the most disruption from the Opium Wars and the opening of new ports. During an illness, Hong had visions of an old man and a middle-aged man who addressed him as “younger brother” and told him to annihilate devils. Later Hong read about Christianity and interpreted his visions to mean that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong gathered many Hakka and anti-Manchu followers in southern China and instructed them to give up opium and alcohol and adhere to a strict moral lifestyle. In 1851 Hong proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping Tianguo (Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace), and by 1853 the Taipings had moved north and established their capital at Nanjing. By 1860 they were firmly entrenched in the Yangtze Valley and were threatening Shanghai. In 1864 the Qing finally suppressed the Taiping and recaptured Nanjing, but only after the rebellion had spread to 16 provinces and 20 million people had died in the fighting.

Many other rebellions occurred during or after the Taiping. By 1860 the Manchu rulers, ravaged by domestic rebellions and harassed by the Western military powers, knew they had to take drastic action if the empire was to survive. To suppress the rebellions, they turned to Chinese scholar-officials, who raised armies in the provinces. After the rebellions were suppressed, the Manchu rulers turned to the same men, especially Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, and Zuo Zongtang, to lead the effort to revitalize the dynasty and modernize the military along Western lines. The Qing officials established arsenals, dockyards (to produce Western weapons and ships), and mines and factories to develop industries. In addition, Chinese envoys went abroad to learn Western diplomatic protocols. These measures drew resistance from conservatives who thought employing Western practices was compounding defeat. Moreover, the results were disappointing. In 1884 and 1885, when China was drawn into a conflict with France over Vietnam, it took only an hour for the French to destroy the warships built at the Fuzhou dockyard.

Fears about foreign intrusion in China provoked a variety of responses among the Chinese. Intellectual leaders and high officials became divided into opposing groups of reformers and conservatives; reformers thought adopting Western science and military technology would strengthen China, while conservatives resisted efforts to copy from the West. The gentry, convinced that the dynasty was on an inevitable downward slide, felt demoralized. Peasants and townspeople protested the foreign intrusions and the changes they caused. Small groups of revolutionaries blamed the Manchu leadership and agitated to have the Manchus overthrown.

By 1898 a group of young reformers, including Kang Yuwei and Liang Qichao, had gained access to the young and open-minded Guangxu Emperor. In the summer of that year, the emperor and Kang instituted a sweeping reform program designed to transform China into a constitutional monarchy and to modernize the economy and the educational system. The program threatened the entrenched power of Empress Dowager Cixi (Guangxu’s aunt and former regent) and the clique of conservative Manchu officials she had appointed. They seized the emperor, and with the aid of loyal military leaders, suppressed the reform movement.

The Chinese peoples’ frustration reached its peak at the turn of the 20th century with the nationalist revolt against foreigners known as the Boxer Uprising. The Yihetuan (Society of Righteousness and Harmony), known by Westerners as the Boxers, were xenophobic, blaming China’s ills on foreigners, especially the Christian missionaries who told the Chinese that their beliefs and practices were wrong and backward. In 1898 the Boxers emerged in impoverished Shandong province in the northwest. As they seized and destroyed the property of foreign missionaries and Chinese converts, the Boxers attracted more and more followers from the margins of society. Small groups of Boxers began to appear in Beijing and Tianjin in June 1900. Western powers protested and prepared for war. The empress dowager at first wavered but then decided to support the Boxers. When a small contingent of foreign troops attempted to secure their interests and citizens in Beijing, Cixi ordered an attack on the foreigners, and a general uprising ensued. After the Boxers laid siege to the foreign concessions in Beijing, a multinational force of 20,000 foreign troops entered China to lift the siege. In the negotiations that followed, China had to accept a staggering indemnity of 450 million ounces of silver, almost twice the government's annual revenues, to be paid over forty years, with interest.

In 1902 the Manchu court finally adopted a reform program and made plans to establish a limited constitutional government. However, many Chinese thought the reforms were too little, too late. In 1894 anti-Manchu revolutionary Sun Yat-sen began organizing groups committed to the overthrow of the Manchus and the establishment of a republican government. Sun traveled abroad in search of support from overseas Chinese. In 1905 he joined forces with revolutionary Chinese students studying in Japan to form the T’ung-meng Hui (or Tongmeng Hui; Chinese for “Revolutionary Alliance”), which sponsored numerous attempts at uprisings in China.

In October 1911 one of the alliance’s plots finally triggered the collapse of China's imperial system. A bomb accidentally exploded in the group’s headquarters in Wuchang, and Qing army officers mutinied, fearful that their connections to the revolutionaries would be exposed. Provincial military forces began declaring their independence from the Qing, and by the end of the year most of the provinces in South and Central China had joined the rebellion and sent representatives to the new government. In December the delegates chose Sun Yat-sen as provisional president of a republican government. The Manchus turned to their top general, Yuan Shikai, but Yuan applied only limited military pressure. Yuan ultimately negotiated with the rebel leadership for a position as president of a new republican government in exchange for getting the Qing emperor to abdicate. The revolutionaries consented because Yuan was widely viewed as the only figure powerful enough to ward off foreign aggression. In February 1912 a revolutionary assembly in Nanjing elected Yuan first president of the Republic of China, and China’s long history of monarchy came to an end.

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