Qing Dynasty: Social Classes, Laws & Economy

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you would like to learn more about the last dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty, and what brought about its end, this lesson has what you are looking for.

The Manchus

The Manchus were a proud people who had inhabited the northeast corner of China in the area called Manchuria since prehistoric times. With a language and culture all their own and distinctive from Chinese culture and traditions, the Manchus thrived as early hunter-gatherers in isolation for centuries.

By 1616 CE, the Manchus had regrouped under a new dynasty they called the Jin (later the Qing) under their first emperor Nurhachu. By 1644 CE, the Qing Dynasty was in the hands of a 6-year-old boy too young to rule alone. Therefore, a regent named Dogon ruled in his stead while events played out in China.

A peasant rebellion overthrew the ruling Ming Dynasty in 1644, but a Ming general named Wu Sangui conspired with Dogon for the Qing army to reinstate the Ming. Unfortunately for Wu Sangui, Dogon decided to keep control of China and install the Qing as the new dynasty.

Dogon was able to rule as regent until the year 1651 CE when the 13-year-old Shunzhi became the first Qing emperor to rule of all of China.

Emperor Shunzhi

Qing Society and Laws

The Manchus believed themselves superior to the Han whom they regarded as racially inferior. When they conquered China in 1644, Dogon immediately enacted laws to keep the Manchus from marrying and procreating with the Han. Manchus were also required to speak their own language and to only educate their children in Manchurian run schools.

Dogon also instituted laws that required all Han Chinese men to shave their hairlines allowing for a long mane of hair to grow which was then to be fashioned into a single braid (Manchurian traditional style). Manchu women were also ordered to refrain from binding their feet, which was a Han Chinese social custom at the time.


The Qing were never able to endear themselves to the southern region where the Ming still had support or to the peasants in central China due to their racial separation policies. In 1796, Qing disdain began the White Lotus Rebellion that nearly toppled the dynasty. The White Lotus were a religious sect who were also loyal to the Ming.

Qing policies placed the Manchus in control of southern and central Chinese provinces, and the White Lotus sect sought to place the Ming back in charge of imperial China. Not until the year 1804 were the Qings able to quell the rebellion.

Chinese Economy under the Qing

Under emperor Qianlong, China had become the largest and most populated empire in the developed world which caught the attention of the then second largest empire, Great Britain. China had introduced the world to Chinese luxuries like tea and textiles like silk. However, under Qianlong, there was only one port available to Great Britain which they called Canton (also known as Guangzhou).

This system was inadequate for the British, so in 1792 Lord McCartney was dispatched to Beijing to discuss increased trade rights to China in which Qianlong refused. While emperors like Qianlong kept China closed to the West, their population exploded. Under the Qing, a long period of peace void of invasion threats caused a rapid rise in birth rates. Outdated farming techniques which couldn't keep pace with the increase in agricultural output produced from a larger farming class and China struggled to feed its people.

Opium Wars

By the 1830s, European nations had established imperial colonies across the globe including in Asia leaving China as one of the last hold outs. Qianlong's son Jiaqing also refused to allow more access into China as well as his successor emperor Daoguang. Britain decided to open China to trade in a two part plan of religion and addiction.

In 1839 the first of the Opium Wars began in China where the British illegally smuggled opium into China through Canton creating an addiction epidemic. In 1842, the Chinese were forced to cede the ports of Shanghai and Hong Kong to the British. In 1856, British and French forces united for the Second Opium War forcing the Qing in 1858 to cede more ports to both nations and allow Christian missionaries into China.

The Open Door

Many Chinese peasants hated the idea of converting to Christianity, and in 1900 a group called the Boxers started a rebellion killing thousands of Christian missionaries and Chinese converts. That year Britain, France, Russia, Japan and the United States sent armies to China to stop the rebellion.

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