Thursday, February 29, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 11: The Early Qing Dynasty's Pacification of China

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6 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff resumes his history of China with the first of several entries on the last imperial dynasty: the Qing.

Qing Dynasty: The Politics of Hair
In our last entry we told the turbulent story of the Ming dynasty’s fall to a Chinese peasant rebellion. 

No sooner had the weakened but victorious rebels taken Beijing did invading Manchu armies from the northeast move in to take advantage of the chaos, easily defeating the Chinese rebel army and marching into Beijing’s Forbidden City to assume power they would hold from 1644 until the early 20th century.

The six-year old boy emperor Shunzi was installed on the throne with Prince Regent Dorgon declaring the Qing dynasty (pronounced “ching,” meaning “clear” or “pure”) rulers of China while assuming authority to govern the empire.

Like the invading Mongols of centuries past the Manchus were greatly outnumbered by ethnic Han Chinese, and although they controlled Beijing and territories to the northeast, most of China was still inhabited by Ming loyalists and otherwise non-aligned Chinese who disliked being ruled by alien invaders.

Thus Dorgon began the process of pacification, sinicizing the Qing to strengthen its appeal among Chinese subjects while simultaneously stamping out armed resistance.

While pacification of an occupied country can take place very quickly in the modern age, in 1644 it was a long and arduous process. 

After World War II allied forces were able to bring Germany and Japan under control quickly due to modern transportation methods such as troop transports, supply trucks, and airplanes as well as instant communication over radio or leaflet drops. Even in 1949 the new Chinese communist regime was able to move quickly throughout the country and establish control within one year.

But in 1644 everything—armies, communications and news, supplies—moved much more slowly and it ultimately took the Qing several decades to bring China under full control.

Dorgon’s first step was an olive branch. The Ming emperor Chongzhen, who had hanged himself from a tree when rebel forces entered the Forbidden City, was given a proper funeral with Confucian rites and his remains were buried in the Ming Tombs alongside his ancestors. This smoothed things over with many formerly Ming Chinese.

Social interaction between ethnic Han and Manchurians was encouraged although the imperial family’s bloodline was kept 100% pure. In preparation for the 1644 invasion of China most Manchu officials had already learned to speak and write in Chinese.

The Ming bureaucratic system was largely preserved and just as Kublai Khan had done in the 14th century, Han Chinese were retained in most government positions except the highest echelons. The policy became known as “yi han zhi han,” meaning “let the Han govern the Han” although supreme leadership would remain Manchu.

In other words, just as foreign invaders had done in the past, the Manchus “became more Chinese” in order to maintain control over a much larger population.


Not all the Qing’s pacification policies were so gentle.

Dorgon mandated all Han Chinese males adopt the Qing shaved head and queue hairstyle (see picture) as a symbol of loyalty to the regime. Failure to comply meant execution or, as the common saying at the time was, “lose your hair or lose you head.”

Ming Chinese males had grown their hair long, sometimes braided in a top bun so not only was the Qing queue ugly, it also became a hated symbol of Manchu domination. 

Fortunately the women fared better (also see picture).

Over the next 268 years, whenever rebellions erupted, male insurgents would cut off the queue and grow out their hair as an act of defiance. But just in case the rebellion failed, many males kept a skullcap with attached fake queue handy.

(This reminds the Correspondent of eastern Europeans who in 1990 publicly burned their [expired] communist party membership cards while safekeeping their active card at home, just in case the communists came back to power…)

In 1650 Dorgon died in a horseback hunting accident although rumors swirled for years that he had been killed by political opponents. As the process of pacification continued, the Shunzi emperor came of age and assumed leadership. However he contracted smallpox at 23, a disease that was endemic to Chinese society but which ethnic Manchus had little immunity to.

Shunzi died in 1661 leaving the throne to his son, the boy emperor Kangxi (pronounced “kahng-shee”) who had also contracted smallpox but survived—considered a good omen and sign of strength. Kangxi would go on to become the longest reigning emperor in all of Chinese history (r. 1661-1722), the greatest of all Qing emperors, and one of the handful of greatest Chinese emperors.

Not all of Kangxi’s tactics for pacification involved the proverbial carrot either. He frequently employed the stick against uprisings.

Going back to the Manchu conquest of 1644, several Ming generals had thrown in their lot with the Qing and fought alongside them to remove the Chinese rebels who they considered worse.

For their loyalty Dorgon gave the generals three provinces in the south and appointed them “kings.” One of the three was Wu Sangui who readers may remember was the key Ming general who helped defeat the 1644 peasant armies at the Battle of Shanhai Pass.

When Kangxi became a young adult, the three southern “kings” presided over their own local armies and decided their loyalty had come to an end. In 1673 the three generals united to overthrow the Qing in what’s known as the “Revolt of the Three Feudatories” and overran most of southern China.

Incidentally southern China has historically been a hotbed of rebellion, even moreso in recent centuries. In a future column we’ll cover the mother of all southern rebellions which also ranks as the third deadliest conflict in human history: the Taiping Rebellion.

In 1676 Ming loyalists who had retreated to Taiwan heard of the revolt and landed on southern Chinese shores to join in. Chahar Mongols who were conquered by the Qing in 1635 rebelled as well.

The 22-year old Kangxi found himself at war with five different enemies, four in the south and one in the north. He would rise to the occasion and his management of the rebellions would begin the story of his long and fabled reign.

First Kangxi focused on the nearest and most isolated enemy, the northern Mongols. Leading the Qing’s small but elite “Eight Banner Army” he marched into modern-day Mongolia and in less than two months crushed the uprising. 

With his rear flank cleared Kangxi then focused all his forces on the south. It took four years but he defeated two of the three feudatories plus the Ming rebels who were forced to retreat back to Taiwan.

During the fighting general Wu Sangui had become senile and proclaimed himself emperor, dying shortly after in 1678. It was left to his grandson Wu Shifan to carry out the rebellion with the sole remaining feudatory, but his forces were cornered in modern day Yunnan province bordering Laos, Burma, and extreme eastern Tibet.

In 1681 Wu’s armies were beaten at Kunming and he committed suicide, his remaining forces surrendering the next day.

Kangxi had pacified the mainland and now stood unopposed from the Sea of Okhotsk through Mongolia and down to the Vietnamese border. But the landing of Ming loyalists from Taiwan still concerned him and two years later he set his sights on the coastal island.

Kangxi didn’t consider Taiwan part of China and he had no desire to govern it, once calling the island “a ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization,” but the remaining Ming loyalists forced his hand.

In 1683 Kangxi sent a naval fleet commanded by Admiral Shi Lang, a defector whose family had been executed by Ming loyalists. Shi Lang, highly motivated to exact revenge, knew Ming naval tactics and soundly defeated his opponent at the Battle of Penghu. By October Taiwan was in Qing hands and the last vestiges of Ming rebels were wiped out.

(May that chapter of Taiwan’s history not repeat itself in the 21st century)

Thus 1683 marks the first instance in nearly two-thousand years of imperial history where China has ever ruled Taiwan.

Kangxi wanted to quickly rid himself of that responsibility, declaring “Taiwan is outside our empire and of no great consequence” as he tried to sell the island off to the Dutch who refused. So the Qing found itself stuck with Taiwan for another two hundred years.

In the next chapter we’ll talk about the remainder of the great Kangxi emperor’s reign.

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