Friday, February 12, 2010

The End of Imperial China

It was on this day in 1912 that His Imperial Majesty, Xuantong, “Great Emperor of the Great Qing Dynasty, Grand Khan of Tartary, the Lord of 10,000 Years and the Son of Heaven” formally abdicated, bring the Manchu dynasty and thousands of years of imperial tradition in China to an end. At the time the Emperor was only 6-years-old and was acted for by the Empress-Dowager Longyu who was quite out of her depth and had no one to turn to but the military strongman General Yuan Shihkai (who ultimately proved untrustworthy). In an alliance with the revolutionaries he was able to secure the abdication of the Qing in exchange for political power for himself. The downfall of Imperial China came in such a sudden, confused collapse that the true historical significance of it escaped many, and still does to this day. Consider for a moment that until February 12, 1912 there had been an Emperor of China continuously since at least 221 BC.

To give westerners a little context on this, consider that when the first Emperor of China came to the throne Hannibal had just become commander of the armies of Carthage, the Ptolemy’s ruled Egypt and the Roman Republic had just built its second circus. Carthage would rise and fall, Egypt would fade from the ranks of the great powers, the Roman Republic would become the Roman Empire, rise, divide, fall, come back as the Holy Roman Empire, rise, fragment and fall, the Ottoman Empire would rise, nearly conquer Europe and then fade into the background while all the while the succession of Emperors in China continued. Dynasties rose and fell but there was always a “Son of Heaven” on the Dragon throne until this day in 1912.

The scattered groups opposed to the imperial system had very little in common (which would ultimately lead to decades of anarchy among feuding warlords) but most agreed on racial xenophobia; hatred of the Manchurians was all they agreed on in many cases. It is, therefore, ironic that Sun Yat-Sen, who believed himself entitled to leadership in a post-imperial China, waved the Han nationalist flag while spending much of his life in the United States and coming back to China with a hunchbacked American lackey in a ridiculous uniform clanking with worthless medals who expected to become military commander of the new republic. All the ideas expressed were foreign and foreign advisors were never far from even the most rabid sounding nationalists.

Sun Yet-Sen even went to pay homage to the tomb of the last Ming emperor simply because he was the last Han monarch to rule China before the Qing dynasty came to power and Manchu and Mongol princes assumed the places of importance. However, we should not be too surprised at this. The same man who railed against the decadent Manchu court was a flagrant philanderer, the same man who called for freedom and democracy was an absolute autocrat who would have nothing to do with any organization or party he did not control and the same man who berated the widespread corruption of the late Qing period presided over a provisional government that set a new standard in graft, nepotism, cronyism and corruption of every kind.

On the other side of the thick walls of the “Great Within” the boy Emperor did not really know what monumental event had taken place either. Nothing much changed in his daily life and inside his Forbidden City he was still treated as the Lord of 10,000 Years, partly because not everyone was convinced all the sudden changes that had taken place would be permanent. Most elites tried to keep a foot in each camp and for the Manchurians and traditionalists at least there was still hope that after the novelty of the republic had worn off the people would come back to the system they had known for thousands of years. This was only the beginning of the troubles modern China would face, but it all started with the end of the imperial era, the end of the Great Qing, 98 years ago today.


  1. Is it just me, or is this just typical? Overthrow that which is imperfect, and replace it with something worse.

    And one wonders why those of the Anglo-conservative tradition so distrust those who seek power and authority.

  2. Just proves that revolutionaries almost always behave as badly (usually worse) as the monarchical regime they "liberated" the people from. One things for sure, had the Geat Qing remained on the throne, China would be a freer, healthier, more democratic place than the socialist police state it has become!

  3. It just shows that revolutionaries always behave as badly (usually worse) than the monarchical regime it "liberated" the people from. China would be a freer, more prosperous, more democratic place than the current socialist police state!

  4. That's true. It would not be hard to beat the horrific Mao regime. Yes, there famines and hard times under the Qing, but these were natural -not intentional like the famines caused by the "Great Leap Forward" that killed millions by starvation. The Qing Empire was also on the road to becoming a more 'free' society with representative bodies to advise the Emperor, new education methods planned, infrastructure updates etc. But it would have been progress in the mold of Meiji Japan -embracing the technical and practical advances but within a traditional, native framework and keeping native, traditional institutions and culture in tact.

    There also would not have been demographic 'drowning out' of minorities that we have seen in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet.

  5. actually there was one instance where the "emperor" thing was not continuos, immedietly after a general xiang yu from a chu (one of china's previous states) overthrew the second emperor (in revenge for qin killing his family), he declared himself "hegemon king", or hegemon lord, in chinese:霸王 bawang. and he removed the emperor's meritocratic system and replaced it with an aristocratic feudal system, but was defeated by the first han emperor, Liu Bang.

    China had a king and airstocracy for 2,000 years BEFORE they had an emperor, their zhou dynasty was extremely aristocratic and feudal, the imperial system actually did away with aristocracy, and replaced it with a meritocratic system. I don't see how that was good thing from a monarchist/airstocrat point of view.

  6. and the chinese zhou dynasty lasted about 800 years, and before that, the shang dynasty lasted for about 600 years- longer than the later imperial dynasties. It was due to their king and aristocracy, with ranks of duke, marquis, count, baron etc, as opposed to the later imperial dynasties which lasted on average around 250 years, with their imperial meritocratic based system.

  7. That is why I said "since *at least* 221 BC". Of course there was alot of history before that, but it starts to get mixed with mythology when get so far back and then there is also the fact that the Qin destroyed alot of the evidence of the earlier regimes to cement the Qin as the "first". However, it was the start of a united empire over the Chinese heartland. And there is no reason for monarchists to oppose meritocracy -most aristocracy comes from meritocracy and in any event the two were not exclusive. China long had a merit-based system of civil service alongside a landed aristocracy that were all part of the picture.

  8. As I recall, rabid historian, the Chinese actually did retain an aristocratic set of titles, but they trailed away over the generations. By way of example, say a man is made a Duke. His son can only ever be a Marquis, and his son an Earl/Count, and so on, so that within about seven generations, the title is extant.

    Of course, the Marquis heir of the Duke can be made a Duke himself, but he cannot succeed his father's title (so in a way, it is purely honorary, and to an extent, not a hereditary title).

    It has its merits, however, in that it encourages a family to continue to serve the Emperor in order to maintain a title and their rank. And if they're working for the Emperor, they can't exactly overthrow him then can they?

  9. yeah but it was "honorary" in all senses of the word. what i mean by that, is that the title carries no privelege, no benefits given to the holder during china's imperial era. And the difference between meritocracy and aristocracy is that anyone with enough money can get an education and take the imperial exam, and i think the landed airstocracy your talking about are the chinese landed gentry, and they were allowed to own land after they passed an exam, and received a degree, not an aristocratic title. otherwise they weren't allowed to own land.
    This system led to a large amount of merchants becoming part of the chinese scolor gentry, since they can afford the education and confucious did not like merchants. He would not have envisioned the imperial system this way, because confucioius was born in a minor aristocratic rank in the zhou dynasty, when aristocractic titles were really hereditary and carried out full administrative duties. the examination system came a hundreds of years after he died.

    archeologists have so far uncovered artifacts and written records from the shang and zhou dynasties. thousands of oracle bones, some of them which detail the shang dynasty's lineange and succesion were found. they are pretty sure the date for zhou is correct, and that it was china's longest dynasty.

    The first emperor purposefully destroyed the aristocratic lineage of china's warring states and replaced it with a purely merit system because he followed the legalist philosophy, in which the only hereditary rank should be the ruler.
    and later dynasties like ming and qing employed a new inflexible neo confucianist doctrine, with new cultural innovations like footbinding, which goes against the original confucian principle of filial piety, which includes not harming your own body. other dynasties dished out aristocratic titles just so the recipient could show it off for some service he did.

  10. The Qing outlawed footbinding actually and at the end of the day anyone could take the examinations and every country around the world bestowed titles to recognize service. I'm still not sure exactly what point you're trying to make here but I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with the original post so I think we will leave it here.


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