In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Photographic Collections
  • Journals
  • The First Sino-Foreign Wars (the Opium Wars)
  • The Gentry/Elites
  • The Commercial Community

Chinese Studies The Fall of the Qing, 1840-1912
David Pong
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0029


The last seventy-some years of the Qing dynasty, simply put, is a story of decline. But a closer examination reveals a much more complex and nuanced picture. The reasons for decline are fairly straightforward, though scholars might dispute the relative weighting among them. The period opened with the First Opium War (1839–1842), a milestone in the dynastic decline. Viewed more broadly, however, the sources of this decline—if seen as a function of ailing institutions such as the examination system or an increasingly inefficient revenue system out of sync with population growth—can be traced back to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and before. As such, this perspective focuses on large sociopolitical forces that beg the question of whether the decline was not just of the Qing political order but of China’s civilization itself. Symptomatic of this decline, reforms came slowly and with limited and sporadic government support. Known as the Qing Restoration, which began around 1860, the aim was to reinvigorate the Confucian state through administrative and tax reforms, as well as a practical application of Confucian principles in governance. To tackle the thorny problem of foreign threats, the reformers’ initial response was the adoption of Western military technology and diplomatic practices, conveniently encapsulated as “self-strengthening” (ziqiang自強), in 1861. But reforms soon acquired a life of their own. It became apparent early on that the adoption of one Western technological or diplomatic innovation would inevitably lead to the adoption of another. Modern guns and boats would require new military training, just as their manufacture would require machinists and engineers, and they in turn would demand support industries such as coal mining and a modern transportation infrastructure. To finance these projects, the self-strengtheners branched out into money-making enterprises. A steamship company and textile mills followed, first under government purview, but eventually, under further pressure to combat cheap foreign manufactured goods, import-substitution industries were promoted, now completely in private hands, who were touted as patriotic entrepreneurs. To meet demands, modern education was introduced. In the meantime, the foreigners—their enterprises, missionaries, and military might—continued to threaten the Qing Empire, extracting greater concessions each time there was an altercation or war, which the Chinese inevitably lost. By the end of the 19th century, some Chinese began to realize that, if they were to become a modern nation, their political system had to be seriously reformed and, should that fail, changed. The combined effect of modern commerce, industry, and education had led to major diversification and enrichment of the Chinese elites. They were now poised for greater say in the polity. When their demands were not satisfied, they deserted the Qing Court, and the dynasty collapsed in 1912. Seen in its immediate aftermath, all the efforts at reform or self-strengthening had failed. Over the long haul, the late Qing had laid the foundation for modern China. There was no turning back.

General Overviews

Given the nature of this topic, general overviews come largely in the forms of textbooks, of which several are notable. Hsü 2000 is a systematic, insightful account: it first appeared in 1970, and the relevant section has not been updated for some time. There is a slight emphasis on political leadership, particularly the imperial. Spence 1999 is written in smooth-flowing prose. Though shorter than Hsü 2000, it does not give up much in terms of essentials. Fairbank 1978 and Fairbank and Liu 1980, though somewhat dated, contain excellent essays on late Qing, some of which will be discussed in relevant sections below. In Chinese, a number of works on the history of the Qing dynasty also provide extensive treatment of the period in question. A notable example is Qingdai quanshi (especially Vol. 8, edited by Mi Rucheng, and Vol. 9, edited by Xu Che and Dong Shouyi), which adopts a Marxist perspective. Xiao 1962–1963, though dated, probably provides the most thorough treatment of the period, in nearly 3,000 pages. Among these works, only Hsü 2000 provides a convenient, though brief, evaluation of the Qing period. Both the Qing dynasty and the 1840–1912 periods are often viewed as the beginning of modern China. Either way, the implication is that modern China is a continuing process, giving rise to numerous studies of 20th-century China that devote substantial treatment of the pre-1912 era.

  • Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 10, Late Ch’ing, 1800–1911, Part 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    The bulk of this work, from chapter 4 to the end (chapter 11), analyzes major political topics of this period. Authored by major scholars of China’s modern history, this is an authoritative work. The treatment is topical and, therefore, as a whole does not provide a flowing narrative.

  • Fairbank, John K., and Kwang-ching Liu, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 11, Late Ch’ing, 1800–1911, Part 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    Similar to Vol. 10 in organization, this volume deals with the economy, foreign relations, military, and intellectual and social developments as well as the reform and revolution of the last decade of the Qing.

  • Hsü, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    By far the most thorough text on the period (chapters 7–20). Balanced, methodical, and often insightful. Originally published in 1970.

  • Qingdai quanshi (清代全史). 10 vols. Shenyang, China: Liaoning renmin chubanshe, 1991–1993.

    See especially Vol. 8, edited by Mi Rucheng 宓汝成; Vol. 9, edited by Xu Che 徐彻 and Dong Shouyi 董守义; and Vol. 10, edited by Liu Kexiang 刘克祥. Reflecting a Marxist influence, this “complete history of the Qing” provides ample coverage on social economic issues, highlighting the exploitation of the poor (peasants and workers). In international relations, the maltreatment of China and the Chinese by the foreign powers and foreigners—imperialism—is stressed.

  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1999.

    Chapters 6–11 pertain to the period in question. Though less detailed than Hsü 2000, this extremely well-written text provides good coverage and is especially strong on weaving social history into the main narrative. Third edition published in 2013.

  • Xiao Yishan 蕭一山. Qingdai tongshi (清代通史). 5 vols. Taibei: Taiwan shangwu yin shuguan, 1962–1963.

    Despite its title, claiming to be a “comprehensive” history of the Qing, by far the greater part of this work—parts of Vol. 2, Vols. 3–4, and parts of Vol. 5 (tables)—relate to the history of the Qing from c. 1840. The approach is traditional, with an overconcentration on scholars and schools of thought, but the book is nonetheless a mine of information.

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