I Late Imperial China (1644–1911)

Late Imperial China (1644-1911)



1368-1644 Ming dynasty

British East India Company 1600


  • 1644 Qing dynasty founded
  • 1692 Kangxi issues Edict of Toleration
  • 1720 Gonghang guild system established

Papal bull ends Jesuit mission in 1740s


c. 1740 Pu Songling's Strange Tales first published

1757 All Western trade restricted to


Boston Tea Party 1799

1799 Qianlong emperor dies and Heshen

sentenced to death

c. 1805 Shen Fu publishes Six Chapters of a Floating Life

Queen Victoria ascends British throne 1837

  • 1839-1842 Opium War
  • 1842 Treaty of Nanjing

Communist Manifesto published 1848

  • 1851-1864 Taiping Rebellion
  • 1860 Convention of Beij ing signed / Yuanming Yuan burned

American Civil War 1861-1865

  • 1861 Zongli Yamen founded
  • 1865 Jiangnan Arsenal created

Japan's Meiji Restoration 1868

  • 1884-1885 Sino-French War
  • 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War
  • 1898 Hundred Days Reform
  • 1900 Boxer Uprising
  • 1905 Sun Yat-sen forms Revolutionary Alliance

Henry Ford builds first Model T 1908 Cixi and Guangxu Emperor die

  • 1911 Wuchang Uprising
  • 1912 Republic of China established

Early to Mid-Qing

  • 1. SHUNTIAN (BEIJING) EXAMINATION HALL: The Shuntian Examination Hall (first built in the early Ming dynasty [1368-1644]) had more than 50 rows of low buildings with over 17,000 examination cells. It was one of the largest in the whole of China (only Nanjing's was larger). The larger buildings behind the gate at the center and upper portion of the compound were walled off and separated from the rest of the compound and were where the administrative staff and officials (who graded the exams) resided.
  • 2. EXAMINATION SYSTEM: Using exams to select imperial officials began in China as early as 165 BCE. A three-tier system with each tier conferring to a more prestigious degree (and access to a higher office) began around 1370. The examination hall shown here held the provincial level (juren) exams. While the notion of an examination to select officials may sound quite conventional, the first record of any similar civil service exams in European countries did not occur until the early eighteenth century.
  • 3. EXAMINATION CELLS: Each cell contained two boards that could be arranged to form a bench, a table, and a bed. The cell itself was a little over three feet wide and four feet deep. When sitting, they faced north toward the front to allow guards to monitor their actions. Given the open nature of the cells, the exam experience was highly dependent upon the weather.
  • 4. LIFE and DEATH WITHIN THE EXAMS: Typically held in early autumn, the exams were often hot, dirty, and uncomfortable affairs. Exam candidates, upon arriving at the examination hall, had to provide proof of their identity and status (to prevent others from taking the exam in their place). With the stress and minimal amenities, it is no surprise that candidates (some were in their 60s and 70s) died during the exam. In such cases, their bodies were wrapped, labeled with their name, and thrown over the wall for municipal authorities to collect and notify their next of kin.
  • 5. CHEATING: Despite the many efforts to prevent cheating, there are many stories of examinees bringing in cheat sheets, study aids, and other guides to help them construct their "eight-legged essays" (1.1). Those caught cheating would be dismissed and forbidden from taking the exam for the next two cycles, which for many students would mean the end of their dreams of ever becoming an official. Equally, to prevent collusion between local exam takers and exam graders, no local officials were allowed to serve as graders.
  • 6. A TYPICAL DAY AT THE EXAMS: The question for the day would be received at 10 a.m. The exam candidates would remain in their cells until dusk writing a draft 600-700 characters long and then carefully copy out a final version. Simply copying the essay in the correct and elegant calligraphic style could, even for a rapid writer, take many hours. After handing in their exam papers, they would be provided with a meal and then attempt to get a night's rest in preparation for the next day's exam (the exam would usually have at least three days of testing).

Walking along Beijing's trendy downtown shopping district today, there is little to distinguish it from a modern Western city. Glass-faced office buildings dominate the skyline, and popular American restaurant chains, such as Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks, crowd the main streets. Given these superficial similarities, one might assume that modern China is unconcerned with its own past in its race to adopt the global trends of the twenty-first century. Yet this illusion is quickly dispelled by the imposing presence of the Forbidden City in the very center of the city. As the former residence of the Qing emperors (1644-1911), the Forbidden City occupies over 250 acres of prime real estate in downtown Beijing. Now a museum, the 600-year-old palace is a sprawling complex of some 800 halls and 9,000 rooms. Its presence offers a potent reminder of China's imperial past.

QING DYNASTY (1644-1911)—The

last Chinese imperial dynasty, founded in 1644 by Manchus from northeastern China. It fell in 1911 after the Wuchang Uprising.

LATE IMPERIAL CHINA—A period of Chinese history traditionally defined as beginning with the end of Mongol rule in 1368 and concluding with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.


The main gate and entrance to the Forbidden Palace, erected during the Ming dynasty and rebuilt in 1651. Over 100 feet tall, the gate has five arched portals through the base, the middle and largest being exclusively for the emperor.


official walled compound just west of the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing, which in the first decades of the PRC housed its top leaders and today serves as the headquarters of the party and top government officials.


term Han Chinese today refers to the ethnic majority of China's population.

In imperial times, "Han Chinese" often referred to individuals viewed as culturally Chinese regardless of their ethnicity.

JESUITS (SOCIETY OF JESUS)—A Christian religious order of the Roman Catholic Church

The Forbidden City is not merely a dusty relic retained out of a misplaced nostalgia for a bygone era. The Qing emperors and their accomplishments are well known to most contemporary Chinese. The popularity and interest in the Qing dynasty is illustrated by the numerous television series fictionalizing the lives of the emperors and court life. Often more than 50 episodes long, the series are immensely popular among all age groups. Similarly, at most major tourist sites one can dress up in imperial costumes and have a souvenir picture taken. Numerous restaurants in many major cities have also adopted "imperial" themes where the staff dress in late imperial clothing, and specialty dishes from recipes adapted from the imperial kitchen are served.

The symbolic power of the Qing is not limited to entertainment and tourism. Mao Zedong clearly sought to tap into the symbolic power of the Qing when he stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949, and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China. For decades, China's top leaders have (in an explicitly symbolic move lost on no Chinese) lived in Zhongnan Hai, the former imperial gardens adjacent to the Forbidden City. Why does a country that has so fervently sought to sever itself from its pre-revolutionary past continue to celebrate its imperial roots?

The allure stems, in some part, from the sheer success of China's last dynasty, the Qing dynasty. In comparison to the long succession of dynasties that preceded it, the Qing stands out as one of China's most accomplished imperial dynasties of the early modern world. The Qing emperors ruled an empire of roughly 4.6 million square miles that, by the end of the Qing dynasty in the early nineteenth century, contained nearly one-third of the world's population.

The Qing's rise to power was not without challenges. The Qing emperors were ethnically Manchu, not Han Chinese. The Manchus stormed into Chinese history as a powerful military presence out of the Northeastern Asian steppes in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was their ability to co-opt Chinese culture and attitudes— while retaining their ties and control of the Asian steppes—that helped to secure their rule over China.

The Qing dynasty also marked an era of increased contact between China and Europe. Western accounts of China have tended to exaggerate the insularity of late imperial China and the Qing ruler's disdain for European ideas. Although the average Chinese remained generally unaware of Europe, to suggest that this meant China had no interest in things non-Chinese over-simplifies the global ties of the era. Documents in this chapter reveal that the Qing court had considerable contact with many Europeans, including Jesuit priests, diplomatic envoys, and merchants. Still, Qing China remained quite selective in what they sought from Europe. China dominated much of Asia, politically, culturally, and commercially. As a result, the Qing rulers focused, for the first century and a half of their rule, on consolidating and expanding their power over China and in Asia rather than worrying about the shifting global, political, and military balances of power occurring in Europe at the time.

that first established Chinese missions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Successfully operating in the Ming and early Qing era, the Jesuits actively transmitted European knowledge to China and Chinese learning to Europe. Their influence ended when Pope Clement XI decided that Chinese Confucian practices and offerings to the emperor constituted idolatry.

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