China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing

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  • PDF eBook: 369 pages.
  • Author: William T. Rowe
  • Published: 2009

In a brisk revisionist history, William Rowe challenges the standard narrative of Qing China as a decadent, inward-looking state that failed to keep pace with the modern West.

The Great Qing was the second major Chinese empire ruled by foreigners. Three strong Manchu emperors worked diligently to secure an alliance with the conquered Ming gentry, though many of their social edicts―especially the requirement that ethnic Han men wear queues―were fiercely resisted. As advocates of a “universal” empire, Qing rulers also achieved an enormous expansion of the Chinese realm over the course of three centuries, including the conquest and incorporation of Turkic and Tibetan peoples in the west, vast migration into the southwest, and the colonization of Taiwan.

Despite this geographic range and the accompanying social and economic complexity, the Qing ideal of “small government” worked well when outside threats were minimal. But the nineteenth-century Opium Wars forced China to become a player in a predatory international contest involving Western powers, while the devastating uprisings of the Taiping and Boxer rebellions signaled an urgent need for internal reform. Comprehensive state-mandated changes during the early twentieth century were not enough to hold back the nationalist tide of 1911, but they provided a new foundation for the Republican and Communist states that would follow.

This original, thought-provoking history of China’s last empire is a must-read for understanding the challenges facing China today.

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  • PDF eBook: 369 pages.
  • Author: William T. Rowe
  • Published: 2009

From the book’s introduction:

The great Qing empire was by far the largest political entity ever to center itself on the piece of earth known today as China.1 It more than doubled the geographic expanse of the Ming empire, which it displaced in 1644, and more than tripled the Ming’s population, reaching in its last years a size of more than half a billion persons. Included within the Qing empire were not only those people who saw themselves as “Chinese” but also people who had never previously been incorporated into a Chinese dynastic state, including Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, certain groups of Mongols, Burmese and Tais along the southwestern frontier, indigenous populations of Taiwan and other newly colonized areas both on the frontiers and in interior highlands, and also the people who occupied the Qing throne itself and would come to be known as “Manchus.”

This enormous territory, or at least the vast bulk of it, and this huge and continuously growing population, with all its attendant tensions, would be bequeathed to its successor states, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. For the Qing was many things, but one of those things was the closing chapter of the two-thousand-year history of imperial China.

To govern this unprecedentedly expansive empire for nearly three hundred years, the Qing in its heyday worked out systems of administration and communication more efficient and effective than any of its predecessors. And, to feed this unprecedentedly large population, it achieved a level of material productivity (indeed, prosperity) far beyond that of any earlier Chinese dynasty, as well as institutions of economic management probably more ambitious and effective than any seen previously anywhere in the world.

While scholars of Chinese art and literature may reasonably argue that the Qing’s aesthetic output was not quite the equal of, say, Tang poetry, Song painting, or Ming porcelain, its vibrant cosmopolitan culture did make great contributions in all of these areas, and it also pioneered in new venues of artistic expression such as the novel and the theater, to say nothing of print journalism.

And while it is a mistake to see China at any point in its imperial history as hermetically isolated from other parts of the world, there is no question that it was under the Qing empire that relations and mutual influences between the eastern and western ends of the great Eurasian landmass became qualitatively more intense, and also more conflictive, than they ever had been in the past. The implications of this are still being worked out today.

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