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Dynasties

During the Ming Dynasty, especially in its later years, more and more political power was amassed in the hands of eunuchs. Originally, in earlier Chinese dynasties, eunuchs just served as harem and palace guards. Chinese emperors typically had harems with well over 1,000 concubines.

While the employment of eunuchs as harem guards made sense, they moved, in the course of history, into many positions in the administration of the imperial court, as well as the country, and finally even the military.

In a large number of Chinese families of that time, one of the sons would be castrated at early age, so he would later qualify to serve at the imperial court. Being unable to seek pleasures as would other males, many of the eunuchs just concentrated on becoming rich and powerful. In the early 17th century, one of the eunuch, Wei Zhongxian, effectively ruled China all by himself while the emperor was kept busy entertaining himself in his harem. Another eunuch, Zheng He, became admiral of a huge Chinese fleet, sailing the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean up to the African east coast.

The early 17th century saw, for the first time, Japan attempting to intrude seriously into Chinese spheres of political influence, trying to conquer the Korean peninsula. Though the Japanese were repulsed, the Chinese war effort brought the imperial court in Beijing to the brink of bankruptcy. When the Ming Dynasty pressed its subjects for more taxes, peasant rebellions erupted in various parts of the country, further weakening the imperial court.

The internal conflicts in China were an opportunity, the Manchus north of China had been waiting for. The Manchus, like the Mongols further to the north-west, were one of the principal peoples, supposed to be kept out of China by the Great Wall. Most of the time, the Great Wall served its purpose, even at the beginning of the 17th century.

But then, a Chinese general in charge of guarding a section of the Wall, decided to just let the Manchu armies pass. It wasn't really that he wanted his emperor harmed. But Chinese peasant armies were threatening Beijing, and the Chinese general at the Great Wall calculated that if he were to let loose the Manchu hordes, they would engage the Chinese peasant rebel armies in battle, and somehow, the two enemies would decimate each other.

Alas, while the Manchu hordes decimated the Chinese peasant rebel army alright, they did not suffer much loss themselves. They were still strong enough to turn against Beijing which they took in 1644, establishing the Qing Dynasty.

Though they took Beijing in 1644, the Manchus needed another 40 years to conquer all of China. They met with much resistance especially in the south of China. There, a large number of secret societies were formed, initially for the sole purpose of opposing Manchu rule. While the Manchus have long since been disposed of, remnants of these secret societies exist to the very day. However, their focus has shifted from political terrorism to enriching themselves through criminal means. They are commonly known as "triads".

The Qing Dynasty lasted until 1911, for 258 years all in all. Initially, the Qing Dynasty was able to expand the reaches of the Chinese empire to include Mongolia as well as Tibet. An administrative reform as well as widespread irrigation measures also brought about new prosperity. However, more than any previous dynasty, the Qing was marked by a long, long decline, spanning more than half of the Qing period. Instrumental to the decline of the Qing Dynasty was the involvement of the Western imperial powers. As they preferred a weak Qing Dynasty over whatever might have replaced it, they shored it up on several occasions when Chinese rebels were about to get rid of it.

While there has been trade between China and Europe since the times of the Roman Empire, it had initially only been conducted through caravans crossing central Asia, and the caravans were those of Arab and Turk traders, not of Europeans. Marco Polo was the first high-profile European visitor to China, not exactly a political or military force.

This changed in the 16th century when the first Portuguese vessels showed up at Chinese ports. Though these vessels didn't come for military conquest, they were equipped with intimidating military hardware, cannons, which were actually based on a Chinese invention, gunpowder. The vessels arrived for trade, and their military equipment made sure that the Chinese governments of that time, though unhappy about the whole matter, allowed them to conduct business. In 1557, the Portuguese were given permission to set up shop in Macao.

After the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and later almost every other western power arrived on China's coast, wanting to trade. Initially, the western merchants paid for Chinese products mostly in silver. While selling Chinese products, such as tea, silk, and porcelain in Europe was making huge profits, delivering silver and, to a lesser extend, gold to the Chinese was not. However, the Chinese didn't really want any European merchandise the Western traders offered.

Looking for high-profit merchandise for which to create a secure market in China, the British finally chose opium. There was ample supply from India, and once there were enough addicts, there was a steadfast demand.

The British began selling opium in China in 1773. The consequences for the Chinese economy were severe: addicts by the millions, willing to pay any price they could afford for British-imported opium.

The opium trade was banned in 1800, but only in 1839, serious attempt were made to enforce the ban. In Canton, then China's main port, most of the British opium was confiscated. This was reason enough for the British government to declare war on China. In 1840, during the first aptly named Opium War, British gunboat set off towards Beijing. The Chinese gave in, the opium trade resumed, and on top of that, the Chinese had to concede Hongkong to the British. There was a second opium war a few years later when the Chinese emperor again tried to get rid of British opium, but the result was pretty much the same.

Only when the British succeeded in smuggling out of China the seeds for growing tea, and only after tea plantations were formed in India and on Ceylon, did the British loose interest in selling Indian opium to China. For tea was the most priced Chinese export item. Once enough tea was grown in India and on Ceylon, there was no longer any point in growing opium in India and bartering it for Chinese tea.

The Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars not only weakened the country in its international relations but also undermined the grasp of the imperial court in Beijing over its subjects. The sentiment was wide-spread that the Qing Dynasty had lost its Mandate of Heaven. As elaborated before, in such a situation, Chinese philosophy and religion consider it just and appropriate to finish off a dynasty by means of a rebellion.

Indeed, there were two major rebellions, and numerous lesser ones, soon after the Opium War debacles. The first one was the Taiping rebellion, originating from Canton. There, a man named Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and, oddly enough, there were millions who believed him. Hong Xiuquan brand of Christianity was rather militant and included kind of a cultural revolution, in many ways similar to the communist Cultural Revolution, initiated by Mao Zedong at the end of the sixties of the 20th century.

The Taiping cultural revolution, too, involved the burning of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples, the smashing of altars and idols of other creeds, and a campaign of very active civil disobedience.

In 1851, when the imperial court in Beijing tried some countermeasures, Hong Xiuquan simply declared war. The Taiping formed a regular army of more than one million men and women and marched north from Canton, taking city after city. By 1853, the Taiping had conquered the traditional Chinese southern capital of Nanjing, practically ruling over all of southern China.

Far-reaching social reforms were implemented. Opiumalcohol, and even tobacco were declared illegal drugs, and slavery, prostitution, and the trade in wives were outlawed. Overall, a new society was born, featuring all the typical characteristics of new social systems, including strength from the common belief to be immune to the corruption and the decadence of the old ways.

The Qing imperial court in Beijing clearly no longer had the Mandate of Heaven. But it had the mandate of the Western powers.

The Western powers didn't want a new society in China, or, more particularly, they didn't like the internal strength which could be expected from such a new society. They found it more convenient to deal with the corrupt and hallow Qing court.

Therefore, the Western powers organized the Qing armies for a military campaign against the Taiping, in spite of the fact that the Taiping could have turned all of China into a Christian nation. Several Western powers sent not only military advisers and arms but even regular troops. By 1864, the Taiping rebellion had been thoroughly defeated. Hong Xiuquan committed suicide.

The second serious rebellion which the Qing Dynasty survived during its long decline was less massive but nevertheless is better known among Westerners with overall limited knowledge of Chinese history, probably because of its catching name: the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers were a secret society, one of many existing at that time in China. They practiced a fist-fight martial art, and their society's full name was "Boxers United in Righteousness". They weren't organized very well, and they lacked a mature political concept but they were fanatically anti-foreign and anti-Christian, and they believed that they couldn't be harmed by bullets shot at them by Westerners.

For centuries, the Chinese have never been particularly happy about Europeans coming to their shores. But to understand the hatred against anything Western that prevailed among the Chinese towards the end of the 19th century, one has to take a look at what happened in China after the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion.

The Western powers just dictated the Chinese court treaty after treaty to suit their desire of the day. When the Chinese rebelled against any of the treaties, they were easily defeated by Western military power, and they will then presented with huge indemnity bills, and yet another set of so-called unequal treaties. By that mechanism, the Western powers dictated which Chinese ports were to be opened for international trade, and they instigated a system of extraterritorial jurisdiction were by foreigners could only be tried by their own courts, no matter what their crime had been on Chinese soil.

China also lost its suzerainty over neighboring territories. The French made Indo-China their colony, and the Japanese forced China out of Korea and occupied Taiwan.

From just before the end of the Taiping Rebellion1861, to be exact, until 1908, China was effectively ruled by the favored concubine of a deceased Qing emperor, the Empress Dowager Wu Cixi. She wasn't among China's most talented administrators, though she knew how to stay in power, for period of 47 years.

The Empress Dowager died in 1908, leaving the throne to her two-year-old successor Puyi. With no recognizable government, rebellions again broke out in several parts of the country. The most successful one was let in Wuhan by the physician and revolutionary Sun Yatsen.

 

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