In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Qing Dynasty up to 1840

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Documentary Sources and Official Histories
  • Journals
  • Historiographical Studies
  • Formation of the Qing State
  • Demographic History
  • Social Structure
  • Daily Life and Lifestyles
  • Economic Conditions
  • Education and Intellectual Life

Chinese Studies Qing Dynasty up to 1840
Leif Littrup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0090


The territory of the Qing dynasty was in 1840 still at its maximum, roughly 25 percent larger than the present Chinese territory and more than double the size of the previous Ming dynasty. The history of the Qing dynasty is about this expansion and how Han Chinese tradition and institutions interacted with a leadership dominated by ethnic or organizational minorities, the Manchus and other bannermen. It was a time of change in society and government that belies the still heard claim that it was an immobile empire both internally and in a world context. This article focuses mainly on government and political history; it touches on social and cultural history, but these are dealt with more extensively in other articles in the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies. The population probably doubled in the period, and many people may have experienced rising or at least adequate living standards. There were few technological breakthroughs in production, but rational application and expansion of existing methods to more land in combination with other economic measures secured a rise in production, at least until around 1800, aided by a government apparatus with qualifications and flexibility to solve problems that arose. The ethnic or organizational complexity of government administration may have helped to create a strong administration, but state finances were never strong enough to evade corruption and its threats to society. Foreigners arrived as before, Qing subjects went abroad, and the integration of China in the world and the world economy before the European powers started to intrude on Qing territory, both on the coast and the continental borders, is now accepted by most historians although it is always possible to find rhetoric, rules, and actions that, seen in isolation, may support the impression of an isolating empire.

General Overviews

Peterson 2002 presents the best overview of the period from around 1600 to the late 18th century, supplemented with topical chapters, and is a relatively recent addition to the Cambridge History series. Fairbank 1978 is somewhat outdated but still useful for some topics, although the emphasis is clearly on the following period. Spence 2013 and Hsü 2000 are standard textbooks for the period from around 1600 to the present, and both have good sections on the period. Rowe 2009 is a good condensation of recent scholarship on the period, and Wang, et al. 1991–1993 is the most comprehensive modern Chinese overview.

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

    Chapters 1 to 4 are a good introduction to Qing history in early 19th century. Particularly noteworthy is Joseph Fletcher’s contribution. The time is approaching to have a fresh edition with the latest scholarship to this monumental work.

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

    The best introduction to more traditional scholarship on the period, but the author’s strength is clearly after 1840. Good for foreign relations. Originally published in 1970. Substantially reedited with the third edition in 1983. Chapters 1 to 8 deal with the period with no major changes since that edition.

  • Peterson, Willard J., ed. Cambridge History of China. Vol. 9, The Ch’ing Dynasty, to 1800: Part 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Like other volumes of the Cambridge History, it has chronological chapters, starting with the period before 1644 and each of the three emperors to the end of the 18th century. Followed by topical chapters on the conquest elite, literati, women, social conditions, and economy. Valuable as a more recent volume but, unfortunately, still with the Wade-Giles transcription.

  • Rowe, William T. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2009.

    A succinct exposition of recent research by a leading scholar among the “revisionists” of Qing historians. An excellent supplement to other more traditional overviews, helping us to place Qing history on a sounder basis as that of a state, or empire, in recent history.

  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.

    Good as a first introduction to the field and a great pleasure to read. Political and economic history with a great deal of social history often focused on individuals. Chapters 2 to 6 on the period. First edition 1990. Third edition has been revised to incorporate recent scholarship, including commerce and related topics. A volume with sources has been published to accompany its use as a textbook.

  • Wang Rongsheng 王戎笙, Li Xun 李洵, Guo Songyi 郭松义, et al., eds. Qingdai quanshi (清代全史). 10 vols. Shenyang, China: Liaoning renmin chubanshe, 1991–1993.

    Resulting from a major national research project, this work shows the state of Qing history research in the People’s Republic of China, mostly based on published sources. No reference to archival material has been found. Vols. 1 to 6 cover the period, basically chronologically but with chapters on socioeconomic, cultural, and other topics. Each volume has one or two editors.

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