The Qing Dynasty, which remained in power from 1644 to 1912, was one of the greatest and most powerful Chinese dynasties in history. Under the Qing, China’s territories expanded to their greatest extent. The empire was a regional power and directed, or attempted to direct, the policy of nearby countries like Japan and Korea. The Chinese also controlled all interactions with Europeans. European consumers greatly desired Chinese goods and European traders wanted access to Chinese markets, but the Qing decided that, because there was little they wanted from the Europeans, they would greatly limit European access.

The Qing Dynasty quickly established itself in a period that soon became known as the Golden Age of Qing power. This period was characterized by the long, stable reign of a few emperors, the conquest of territory, and the consolidation of the empire. The dynasty inaugurated the Golden Age under the rule of the Kangxi emperor, who ruled China between 1661 and 1722. The Kangxi emperor’s 65-year tenure was the longest of any Chinese emperor. The Golden Age that begun under his rule continued with the crowning of his fourth son, who called himself the Yongzheng emperor.

The Yongzheng emperor continued to conquer territory, but his primary achievements were the consolidation and strengthening of the empire. In particular, he focused his efforts on improving imperial administration. He attempted to root out corrupt officials and led an effort to restore the standards of the State Examinations, which had been a hallmark of the Chinese bureaucracy since the seventh century. (The Chinese civil service was traditionally very prestigious, and as competition was fierce, anyone who wanted to join had to excel in a series of rigorous exams.) The Yongzheng emperor also enacted heavy penalties on anyone convicted of manipulating the exchange rates of coins.

The son of the Yongzheng emperor became the Qianlong emperor and his reign (1735-1796), perpetuated the greatness achieved under his ancestors. Chinese forces conquered further territory to the North and West, put down several uprisings, and strengthened control over Tibet. The Qianlong emperor also inaugurated a massive cultural initiative that resulted in the production and reproduction of thousands of books. The emperor’s support of culture, however, belies the degree to which he censored writers; those whom the emperor perceived to be writing negative works were regularly persecuted. Such persecution had been much more infrequent under the previous Qing emperors. Late in Qianlong’s reign, moreover, the bureaucracy began to return to corrupt ways seen so often in past aging empires. The end of Qianlong’s reign in 1796 perhaps marks the beginning of the decline of the Qing Dynasty.


A painting of the Qianlong Emperor in his study by Giuseppe Castiglione, 18th century (Source: Wikimedia)

The ruling philosophy of Confucianism dominated Chinese culture. Jesuit and other Christian missionaries had relatively briefly worked in 16th and 17th century China but were eventually expelled by the emperor as disruptive. Traditional Buddhist and Daoist beliefs continued but no longer challenged the primacy of Confucianism.


In the 17th century, the Chinese scholar Yang Guangxian wrote of the differences between Christianity and Chinese religious traditions. His explanation helps to explain Chinese rejection of Christianity and Christian missionaries:

Confucian teaching is based on the Five Relationships (between parent and child, ruler and minister, husband and wife, older and younger brothers, and friends), whilst the Lord of Heaven Jesus was crucified because he plotted against his own country, showing that he did not recognize the relationship between ruler and subject. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a husband named Joseph, but she said Jesus was not conceived by him.

Those who follow this teaching [Christianity] are not allowed to worship their ancestors and ancestral tablets. They do not recognize the relationship of parent and child. Their teachers oppose the Buddhists and Daoists, who do recognize the relationship between ruler and subject and father and son. Jesus did not recognize the relationship between ruler and subject and parent and child, and yet the Christians speak of him as recognizing these relationships. What arrant nonsense!

Read a longer excerpt of Guangxian’s writings.

The 18th century was one of China’s great artistic ages. Blue and white porcelain with transparent enamels was shipped to European cities. The population of China increased from 130 million in 1700 to 313 million by 1794. Corn from the Americas joined the traditional northern crops of millet and sorghum and allowed the restoration of a demographic balance between northern and southern China. Eventually peanuts and sweet potatoes, also from the Americas, further expanded agriculture. As in western Europe, Chinese merchants now had their shops in one place, their houses in another. Merchant and artisan guilds greatly expanded in number and function, with security funds, insurance plans, and entertainment programs. Dictionaries and encyclopedias were published.

Early Qing Chinese armies roamed westward over Central Asia and, by the Treaty of Kyakhta in 1727, Russia was forced to acknowledge Chinese jurisdiction over the region. At the same time, Russia assumed control of the Kamchatka Peninsula to the north along with the Kuril Islands. Increasingly, the two states of Russia and China established control over the grasslands from which earlier nomad threats had appeared. Still, there were a number of tribal rebellions in the 18th century including uprisings in Yunnan (1726-29), Guizhou (1795-97), Gansu (1781-84), and Guanqxi (1790). Taiwan had an uprising in 1787, but it was not a major threat to the Qing Dynasty. The most serious rebellion was in western Sichuan, which simmered from 1746 through 1776. The tremendous population increase and the limited amount of land for increasing agricultural production combined to produce serious hardships and impoverishment of the people. This was in part the reason for the White Lotus rebellion in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Hubei in 1795, which continued into the next century. Instead of being started by a border lord looking to claim the Mandate of Heaven (the Chinese parallel to the Divine Right of Kings), it was started by the Chinese themselves.

This, however, was not the only reason why the White Lotus rebellion deserves notice. Since the rebels were ethnic Chinese, Qing troops found it much more difficult to fight them. Rebels employed guerrilla tactics and would often melt into the populace once they had harassed the imperial troops. After ten years (the rebellion lasted from 1794 to 1804) the emperor’s soldiers suppressed the rebellion, but they only did so after killing tens of thousands of rebels and civilians. The White Lotus led impoverished settlers into rebellion, promising personal salvation in return for their loyalty. Beginning as tax protests, the eventual rebellion gained growing support and sympathy from many ordinary people. The rebellion grew in number and power and eventually, into a serious concern for the government. The rebellion was forcibly put down in the early 19th century.


This map shows the growth of the Qing Empire. (Source: Wikimedia)


The feudal age of the Shogunates continued throughout this century. The theoretical head of the nation was the (actually almost powerless) Divine Emperor, while real power continued to be exercised by the Shoguns, now of the Tokugawa line. They allowed the Emperor and his court a certain monetary allowance each year, while the Shogun himself luxuriated in the growing wealth of Japan. The Shogun had a large personal retinue, enough to intimidate any potentially disloyal subordinates. He was advised by a cabinet of 12 members. A Board of Censors supervised all administrative offices and kept watch on the feudal lords (called the Daimyo).

Over a million sword-bearing warriors, called samurai, served the Shogun and the daimyo lords. Exempt from taxation, they were paid by the Lord to whom they owed obedience. The code of the samurai demanded courage, asceticism, and self-control. With decrease of warfare, however, the purely military character of the caste changed throughout the 18th century. Thus, while the samurai remained a pensioned and privileged aristocracy, they began to perform administrative and judicial functions. Some samurai manned the learned professions of medicine, teaching, and scholarship. Both lords and peasants suffered from radical fluctuations in agricultural prices entailed by the penetration of a money economy into the countryside. Some lords sought to preserve their economic status by employing new agricultural methods, building mines, and establishing industrial enterprises. Others adopted sons of merchants, thus improving the family finances, and securing for the merchants the prestige of samurai rank.

As a result, class distinctions began to lose part of their sharpness, although only in day-to-day reality, not in law and theory. Osaka, with 500,000 people by 1783, was the meeting place of Japanese merchants and the capital Edo (Tokyo) was already twice as large as Paris. Powerful craft guilds, officially recognized as early as 1721, extended their networks and monopolies and in some instances began to resemble western, privileged trading companies.


A map of Edo in the early 19th century (Source: Wikimedia)

In the 18th century, shoguns increasingly aligned themselves with the philosophy of Confucianism. They sought to inculcate loyalty and obedience in all ranks, but some traditionalists rejected this adoption of Chinese religious beliefs and sought new solutions. The scholarly field of kokogaku or “National Learning,” developed by scholars such as Motoori Norinaga and Hirata Atsutane, promoted what it asserted were native Japanese values as an alternative to Confucianism. It emphasized the Emperor’s divine authority had its roots in Japan’s mythic past, referred to as the “Age of the Gods.” In another direction, a handful of men began to penetrate the secrets of western civilization, chiefly through the Dutch language and books.

During this relatively peaceful century, Japan’s population remained stable at about 30 million. An excess of rain and grasshoppers in 1732 reduced almost three million people to near starvation while thousands of people and still more horses and cattle died. Rice production increased as a result of improvement in seeds, irrigation and drainage systems, tools, and the commercial production of fertilizers made from sardines, colza, soya, or cotton cake.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the traditional Japanese Shinto Religion (its history, practices, and beliefs) in this short video by the Asian History Museum.



Due to its close geographical connection to China, Korea also adopted elements of Confucian ideas and aspects of Chinese bureaucracy in the 10th century. Korea became a part of the larger Chinese tribute world, and so eligible for Chinese aid against Japanese invaders in the 1590s. After the Japanese invasion, Korea became increasingly isolationist, earning the name “Hermit Kingdom.” In the 17th century, intellectual activity was intense. For the most part, however, this activity was limited to considerations of moral philosophy and to genealogical research. In 1706, the Hyeonchungsa Shrine was erected near Asan in memory of the famous Admiral Yi Sun-sin whom the government had already bestowed the title “Yi Chungmu Kong,” meaning “Loyalty-Chivalry Lord.


Buddhism was at the heart of both Myanmar and Thai ethnic identities, so that the fate of the religion was intertwined with the fate of these two nations. In Myanmar (also referred to as Burma), the Mons rebelled in 1740, setting up their own kingdom at Pegu and capturing the Myanmar capital, Ava, in 1752. A new Myanmar leader, Alaungpaya (1714-1760), defeated the Mons, founding Rangoon in 1755 and re-uniting Myanmar. In 1759, his forces defeated the British East India Company on the island of Negrais forcing them to leave Myanmar. Between 1760 and 1769, the Chinese invaded four times in an unsuccessful attempt to control the territory. They finally succeeded in making Myanmar a vassal state in 1771. Myanmar warred with Thailand (also referred to as Siam) late in the 18th century in an attempt to expand their territory. Thailand continued to be a large country and extended down the Malay peninsula almost to Penang.

In 1767, the Thai capital at Ayudhya was ransacked by the Myanmar forces. Buildings and artwork were destroyed, and members of the royal family members were either killed or taken captive. When the Myanmar were driven out in 1782, a new dynasty, the Chakri was established. The first of that dynasty, King Rama I (1730-1809), built Wat Phra Kaew, a Theravada Buddhist temple in 1785.


A view of Wat Phra Kaew from the outer courtyard (Source: Wikimedia)

The area now known as Laos was comprised chiefly in the 18th century by the Kingdom of Lung Prabang, although as early as 1707 the southern part broke away to be part of Vientiane. The area of west Vietnam (also referred to as Annam) became a vassal state to China in 1788. On the Malay Peninsula, the British East India Company acquired Penang from the Sultan of Kedah for a naval station in 1786.


Malaria arrived in Indonesia and practically destroyed Batavia (now Djakarta) in 1732. The Dutch introduced coffee cultivation along the north coast and the east end of Java, as well as in the Madura Islands, as they extended their political control. Indonesians were required to work in spice groves by local princelings who, in turn, were commanded by Dutch overseers.

The English assumed control of Sumatra which they relinquished by the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The English reconquered Sumatra in 1795 and, by 1798, the Dutch East India Company was out of business. The British also temporarily occupied Manila in the Philippines between 1762 and 1764 and during that time opened that city to world commerce. When the Spanish regained control, however, they again closed the islands to international trade, although they exchanged American silver for Chinese silk there.


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