The Qing and War


A scene of the Taiping Rebellion.


The Qing dynasty had taken power in China by force in 1644. Its Manchu armies had invaded China from their Manchurian homeland and had installed their leader as the first Qing `Pure’ emperor. The `alien’ Manchurians had then taken another 15 years to defeat all of the pretenders to the throne from the previous Ming dynasty. China’s population at this time was mainly Han, and they always saw the Qing dynasty as a foreign monarchy. The Qing maintained their separation from the rest of the population: Manchu and Han were kept apart and emperors only married brides with Manchurian lineage. Han men were made to wear their hair shaved at the front and worn in a long pigtail or queue at the back. This enabled the Manchus to identify their enemies in battle, but also provided a convenient way of holding a Chinese man during a beheading.

The Chinese population swelled enormously during the reign of the Qing, trebling from 100 million in 1650 to 300 million in 1800. It grew even faster over the next 50 years, to 450 million Chinese by 1850, and even the devastating crop failures and resulting famines common to China did not halt its rise.

During the 18th century the Qing dynasty employed military force to try to expand the territories controlled by the empire. It launched a series of expeditions and invasions of neighbouring states, and expanded its lands in the west of the country, although three late-18th-century attacks against Burma, and the invasions of Nepal and Tonkin, were all abject failures. By the mid-19th century the empire extended over 3.7 million square miles, and its people comprised a fifth of the world’s population.

To most outsiders China was an exotic place of mystery and intrigue but to European empire-builders and ambitious businessmen it was also a huge market to be exploited. Although China had established contact with its neighbours and with a few visiting traders in the 17th century, it was not until the mid-18th century that formal trading links were founded. The first British traders established a trading colony in Canton in 1757, but were forbidden to leave its confines. They, along with French and Portuguese traders, had to try and trade with a country who wanted to sell but not to buy. Chinese traders could come and sell their wares to the Europeans but the import of goods was largely forbidden. However, in the late 18th century, British traders from the East India Company were looking for a market for one of their main Indian crops: opium. The opium poppy was grown in huge quantities on the plains of north-east India and China soon became a lucrative market for the drug. Before long, as its addictive effects became apparent, the Qing dynasty became concerned about its widespread use. Its import was also having a negative effect on the Chinese economy with imports of the drug outstripping the country’s exports of tea, silk and other goods.

To counteract this trade deficit, the Qing dynasty introduced laws in 1839 to ban the import of opium. To the British this was an infringement of their trading rights and they instigated a conflict with China in 1839 which appropriately became known as the `Opium War’. Over the three years and five months of the Opium War, the British committed 19,000 troops. The poorly armed masses that made up the 200,000-strong Qing armies had no answer to the battle-hardened British Army, who defeated the Chinese in a series of battles. This first clash between a European power and imperial China ended with the capture of Shanghai. When the Qing forces were defeated many of their generals and their families committed suicide rather than face the shame. The Treaty of Nanking of 1842 concluded the Opium War with the Qing government reversing their decision over the import of the drug. The treaty also cost the Chinese treasury dearly with the Qing negotiators agreeing to pay the British 21 million US dollars over a three-year period. This payment included 12 million dollars in war reparations and three million in compensation for loss of trade to British businessmen. Furthermore, the Europeans – led by the British – now knew that the Qing dynasty could be coerced or bullied into agreeing to their demands for trading rights.

A number of further European attacks on the Qing dynasty and its territories ensued, with the Arrow War of 1856-58 reinforcing British rights over trade in China. This joint Anglo-French naval campaign led to the occupation of Canton in 1857 and the storming of the Taku Forts in 1858. The Allies refused to return the forts to the Chinese until they agreed to have foreign ambassadors at the Qing court. Fighting resumed again in 1860 when the British and French provoked the Chinese garrison in the Taku Forts to open fire on their ships. With this provoked action the war was back on and in August 1860 the Allies once again captured the fortifications. Having taken the forts a British and French expeditionary force marched 100 miles towards the capital at Peking. The Qing court fled and the Allied troops ransacked the Forbidden City before the Chinese finally agreed to their conditions. Virtually simultaneously the Russian Empire was taking advantage of Chinese weakness when their armies took over the vast Amur River region in 1858. Two years later, with no response from the embattled Qing court, the Russians annexed the maritime province, which became part of Siberia.

The Qing dynasty was also to be challenged during the 1850s and 1860s by a series of rebellions which almost destroyed it. The Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64, spread from Kwangsi province across most of south and central China. Its leader – who announced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ – commanded a fanatical army that grew to a total of 600,000 men. In defiance of the Qing restrictions on Han hairstyles the rebels grew their hair long, leading to the nickname `long hairs’. With its capital at Nanking, the so-called `Heavenly Kingdom’ was finally defeated in 1864. It took a million-strong Qing army with European military advisors to finally defeat the Taiping Rebellion. The cost to the Chinese population was an estimated 20 million dead. These deaths were largely caused by famine and disease, the inevitable result of the devastation of large parts of the country, before the rebels were finally defeated.

At the same time, in northern and central China, the Qing were faced with another large rebellion, that of 200,000 Nien Rebels (1851-68). This rebellion was based on the poor Qing reaction to the famine in the region that had been caused by the repeated flooding of the Yellow River. The rebels already had a strength of 40,000 in the 1840s, and then used the people’s anger at the lack of Qing government support to expand their army. Over the intervening 17 years of the rebellion, the Nien Rebels, with their fast-moving cavalry, repeatedly defeated Qing armies. Without any clear political objectives the rebellion was eventually worn down by the large number of Qing troops sent into their territory. Again the cost to the civilian population was heavy, with over 100,000 deaths in battle and from disease and starvation.

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