The Collapse of Imperial China

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  • 0:02 New Cultures
  • 1:28 War on Drugs & Same Mistakes
  • 3:55 Boxer Rebellion &…
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Qing Dynasty was the last of the imperial dynasties to rule China, and largely fell due to the work of outside powers. From an over-dependence on old ways to a failed war on drugs, the Qing suffered greatly during their last years.

New Cultures

By the first years of the 20th century, China was in trouble. The Qing Dynasty had ruled China since 1644 and, despite being Manchu, demonstrated a willingness to rule China just like the best native Chinese emperors had. Drawing on the rule of earlier emperors, like Kangxi, as well as the extensive writings of Confucian philosophy, the Qing were ardent in their attempts to ensure that their rule had all the advantages of traditional Chinese government. However, the world had changed greatly, and traditional practices were now simply out of date.

For centuries, China had thought of itself as the center of the known world, and therefore, the only really civilized state. Granted, for centuries its neighbors had included the mobile Mongolians and Turks, and countries like Vietnam, Korea, and Japan that were often willing to pay tribute to keep the Chinese out of their hair. However, that strategy could not work anymore. Despite the best interests and the best attempts of the government, the Chinese were no longer able to keep new powerful neighbors out of China. These neighbors included the significant colonial powers of the day, ranging from France and Britain to Germany and the United States. In negotiations, the Chinese made big claims about being the center of heaven, and the Westerners just laughed to themselves, happy to kowtow to the Emperor's whims in order to gain access to the commercial opportunities that China presented.

War on Drugs & Same Mistakes

Of course, the Westerners were not just seeking to sell benign products to the Chinese—they wanted to make money. During the 19th century, one of the most profitable trade goods was opium, an unrefined form of heroin. Needless to say, opium was incredibly addictive, and for the British, it was an incredibly cheap good to sell. Poor Chinese soon developed an addiction for the stuff, causing the British to make many fortunes off of its sale. However, the Chinese opposed this new drug in much the same terms as the modern American government limits cocaine from South America. Unlike the United States, though, China was really in no place to challenge the British, and during the Opium Wars, they learned that the hard way. The Chinese fought the British twice to try to stop the sale of opium, once from 1839-1842 and again from 1856-1860. The Chinese lost both times. After losing thousands of troops to the better-armed British, they were forced to make further concessions, including allowing even more opium to flood Chinese cities.

Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty saw that it was unable to halt the West's cultural and commercial advance. Believing it was a weakness of their innovations, they returned to more traditional Confucian thought. One institution that had long been part of Chinese culture was the Imperial Examinations, meant to allow only the best and brightest to serve as administrators. However, so much hinged on the outcome of these tests that instead of fostering new thought, more conservative approaches took over. The Imperial Examinations now had formulaic answers, instead of the originality that had brought the Qing such prosperity at the beginning of their reign. In fact, the Exams themselves would be discarded as another harmful innovation, meaning that the leadership became mired in more and more inability.

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