by Angela Xie
In the movie The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, had a traumatic life due to political unrest and the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The government showed a very negative attitude towards Western ideas, which made the whole Chinese society very isolated and detached from the industrialized world. When Puyi got his first pair of nearsighted glasses, everyone was shocked and very upset that the young emperor accepted something from the West as they believed that the Westerners were "barbarians" who were less cultured than the Chinese. This post examines the factors that weakened the authority of the Qing Dynasty and how that led to its eventual downfall, primarily focusing on the resistance to industrialization and modernization.
The Chinese emperor created the Canton System (1757-1842) to respond to a perceived political and commercial threat from the Westerners; this policy regulated China's trade with the West until China's defeat in the Opium War. For a century, the British, like other maritime Europeans, were hampered by the "Canton System," which confined commerce to Canton (Guangzhou) port through official government monopolies and during a certain season. Northern English industrialists desired more access to Chinese markets, which became the mission of the Macartney Embassy.
During the regime of Qianlong, the fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, he continued the Canton System and further rejected Lord Macartney and King George III. He says that:
Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was, therefore, no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.
This was the response of Qianlong in September 1793. He saw the Qing Dynasty as the "Celestial Empire," which obtained every precious treasure in the whole world. There was no need to accept trades or interactions with the West because they were lagging behind. Qianlong was probably right because, at the time when he ruled the country, China was at the apex of its power, with its size doubled. Nevertheless, Qianlong was still very concerned with any foreign encroachments. The conservative approach and adherence to traditional practices hindered China's ability to keep pace with the technological advancements seen in other countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The stagnation of the Qing Dynasty led to people's disappointment. Many Chinese revolutionary organizations, such as the Tongmenghui (United League), arose to oppose Qing Dynasty control and advocate for forming a republican government. Sun Yat-sen, a significant actor in the Xinhai Revolution and eventual founding father of the Republic of China, formed the Tongmenghui. 1911, the Xinhai Revolution began with the Wuchang Uprising in Hubei province. This event was precipitated by local military commanders' displeasure with the Qing government's modernization plans and lack of support for its military forces. They also despised corrupt officials and Manchu elites' involvement in government affairs. Following the revolutions, the revolutionary forces established the "Provincial Government of the Republic of China" with Sun Yat-sen as its interim president. The Xinhai Revolution was a watershed moment in Chinese history, signaling the end of the dynasty era and the start of the republican era.
As the world underwent significant transformations during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Qing Dynasty failed to adapt and meet the challenges of the time. Emperor Qianlong maintained the Canton System to continue refusing Western ideas. Ultimately, this led to a loss of trust and legitimacy among the Chinese populace and paved the way for the eventual collapse of the imperial system in 1912. The lessons learned from the Qing Dynasty's stagnation continue to serve as a reminder of the importance of adaptive governance and the willingness to embrace change to ensure the prosperity and stability of any nation.
Blair, T. (2018, June 28). The George Macartney mission to China, 1792–1794. Gale Blog: Library & Educator News | K12, Academic & Public. https://blog.gale.com/the-george-macartney-mission-to-china-1792-1794/
Carter, J. (2020, September 9). Lord Macartney, China, and the convenient lies of history. The China Project. https://thechinaproject.com/2020/09/09/lord-macartney-china-and-the-convenient-lies-of-history/