Why The Qing Dynasty Decline and Fell

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 10, 2021

Chronology of Events from 1840 to 1919

1839 – 1842 First Opium War with England; concluded by Treaty of Nanjing, the first of the “unequal treaties”

1894 – 1895 Sino-Japanese War

1898 China forced to lease territories to Germany, Russia, France, and Britain; “Hundred Days Reform” 

1899 “Open Door Doctrine” proposed by the United States

1899 – 1901 Boxer Rebellion: a popular uprising turned against the Western presence in China

1904 – 1905 Russo-Japanese War

1911 (October) Revolution breaks out in Wuchang, signaling the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the Republic

1912 (February) Yuan Shikai becomes president of the Republic of China

1912 (August) Guomindang (GMD) revolutionary party formed

1915 (January) Twenty-One Demands presented by Japan

1915 (December) Yuan Shikai attempts to restore the monarchy

1916 (June) Death of Yuan Shikai

1917Civil war breaks out between Beijing and Guangzhou governments

1917 (September) Sun Yat-sen establishes Republic of China Military Government in Guangzhou (Canton)

1918 Warlords begin claiming territory across China

1919 May Fourth Movement

The Opium Wars

Between 1839 and 1842 China fought the first Opium War with Britain. The war was concluded by the Treaty of Nanjing, the first of what was to be described as unequal treaties.

A second conflict occurred between 1856 and 1860, this time also involving France.

As the incident which precipitated the war concerned the treatment of a ship called the Arrow, this war is known as the Arrow or Anglo-French War.

The first attempt at a settlement was made by the Treaty of Tianjin, 1858.

When the British and French delegates were prevented from ratifying the treaty, the second round of hostilities occurred which resulted in a Chinese capitulation and the signing of the Convention of Beijing, 1860.

These treaties and others signed at this time, provided the framework for the Western imperialist penetration of China.

The Republican Revolution (the 1890s–late 1920s)

The first phase of the Chinese Revolution resulted from popular frustration over the accumulated burdens of China’s struggle with decades of socioeconomic changes; failed imperial leadership; the threatening, disruptive, and humiliating presence of Western and Japanese power on Chinese soil; and disenchantment with reform.

It was largely the product of new social forces, including the first generation of modern students, many of whom were educated in Japan, Europe, or the United States; intellectuals with disengaged from the traditional order; members of a maturing middle class of entrepreneurs and urbanites most involved with the modernizing sectors of the country’s economy; and even peasants receiving some modicum of modern-life education.

In the 1890s a revolutionary movement was born whose most visible leader became Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925).

Sun was a young man from south China who lived for some years with a brother in Hawaii, where he attended a local missionary school and graduated from Oahu College in 1883.

He subsequently studied medicine in Canton and then Hong Kong before taking up practice in Macao in the early 1890s.

In those years he also began to ponder China’s dilemma, increasingly believing that only the ouster of the dynasty with its Manchu roots could save the country. He commanded serious, although long, unsuccessful, revolutionary activity in 1895.

Sun’s political ideas were never well articulated, even if he remained fundamentally a constitutionalist throughout his life, admiring the French Third Republic but seeing his country’s most logical model in Japan-Asian and successfully modernizing by the turn of the twentieth century.

Owing to China’s lack of experience with anything but the monarchy, Sun argued that before arriving at a constitutional order, its people would need guidance and would have to pass through phases of military control and political tutelage.

This part of his legacy to the revolutionary movement proved costly to the Chine people in that it encouraged political leaders in their all-too-frequent tendency toward dictatorial politics.

Even if one of China’s earliest revolutionaries Sun missed the Republican Revolution when it erupted in late 1911, being on one of his many fund-raising trips abroad.

The specific events that led to the abdication on February 12, 1912, of the last Qing emperor, Puyi, and the end of the monarchical form of government, began on October 9, 1911.

An accidental bomb explosion occurred in Hankou, one of several cities in the Wuhan area that had become a haven for radical young Chinese.

With strong branches of secret societies, a large number of industrial and other workers, modern schools, and units of the New Army (the main state military force, created as part of governmental reforms in 1901), the area was ripe for revolutionary infiltration and agitation.

A group of revolutionaries was making bombs in the Russian Concession area of the city when the accident occurred. A police raid during the confusion provided authorities with membership registers for the network of revolutionary societies that had been forming since 1904.

Now vulnerable to wide-scale and potentially disastrous repression, the revolutionaries had little choice but to unleash an uprising immediately. It began early the next morning with the mutiny of the Wuchang Eighth Engineer battalion.

On October 11, the uprising spread to Hanyang, and on the twelfth to Hankou. By October 22, it extended to Hunan and Shaanxi provinces, and by the end of the month, three more provinces had succumbed: Shanxi, Jiangxi, and Yunnan.

At the same time, a group of field commanders sent a list of demands to the Qing court. The document called for establishing a parliament before the year was out, promulgating a constitution, electing a premier, and reducing the power of the emperor.

Once the monarchy had passed into history, Sun Yat-sen’s popularity among progressives made him the logical choice for the new republic’s first president, but the presence of a formidable rival in Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), a military leader who commanded China’s most powerful and disciplined army and controlled Beijing, as well as the fear of forcing a civil war, prompted Sun to step aside in Yuan’s favor.

Despite committing to constitutional order in China, Yuan was more interested in ensuring his own power.

Remaining in Beijing and refusing to cooperate with the fledgling national assembly meeting in Nanjing, he turned his troops against the assembly and dispersed its delegates, scrapped the constitution, and proclaimed himself president of life.

The storm of opposition that erupted after he announced plans for the restoration of the monarchy and the commencement of his “reign” in 1916 drove him from power.

Yet, far from improving China’s political situation, Yuan’s ouster left a vacuum in national politics that no successor could fill adequately. 

In the absence of a strong central government in Beijing (where the fiction of republicanism was preserved), local military leaders (warlords), with private armies, emerged across the country.

Their separatist ambitions as well as lack of commitment to republicanism and nationalism kept China politically fragmented and internationally weak for nearly two decades.

For this part, Sun Yat-sen would struggle in vain over the next few years to establish a workable government in Canton as a base from which to lead the struggle for national unification.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Western-educated or at least Western-influenced intellectuals emerged to challenge not merely the old politics but also the philosophical basis of traditional China.

Western standards became the standard by which the “new” man and women judged China, and Western political institutions, culture, scientific knowledge, and technology promised the means by which they sought to forge a modern nation.

To achieve the complete transformation of national life, men like Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), Cai Yuanpei (1868-1948), and Hu Shi (1891-1962), all products of foreign education, called upon their countrymen to eliminate the last vestiges of the past.

Unlike previous reformers, they had no desire to revitalize Confucianism. Rather, they strove to discredit the teachings of Kongzi as a reactionary, obscurant philosophy whose continued domination of Chinese society would hold back progress only further.

To replace Confucian ideas, men like Chen, Cai, and Hu published magazines (New Youth, new Tide, and Weekly Critic) in which they offered a tantalizing assortment of Western substitutes, including the philosophies of Kant, Nietzsche, Dewey Bergson, and Marx.

Within a few years, Chinese intellectuals and other elites were introduced to ideas and systems of thought that had taken Europeans more than a century to develop and digest. 

Glorification of science may have been excessive, but the debates and controversies that flourished in those years had two major consequences: They enormously stimulated the thinking public in China and strengthened nationalist sentiment, and they popularized such notions as progress, democracy, freedom, and individualism, particularly through the new magazines whose editors and writers abandoned classical Chinese in favor of the vernacular (Bai Hua).  

Together with the intellectual revolution sweeping China, Great Power conflicts in Europe and Asia that produced the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and led to World War (1914-1918) also had the effect of altering the geopolitical framework of foreign influence in China.

Some Western powers diminished their presence, while others, particularly Germany and Japan, moved toward greater prominence.

This trend as well as developments at the Paris Peace Conference (1919) that settled World War I and betrayed Chinese interests, contributed to the growing activism of many Chinese in the early 1920s.

For their participation in the war on the side of the victorious allies, they hoped to see an end to the “unequal treaties”. If the pronouncements of world statesmen about “territorial integrity” and “national self-determination” had any meaning, Chinese progressives felt certain that Germany’s concessions would be returned to China.

However, because of a secret agreement signed in early 1917 by England, France, and the warlord government in Beijing, Chinese hopes were frustrated. 

The revelation of allied duplicity, and the transferral of Germany’s Shandong holdings to Japan, released a torrent of protest among incredulous Chinese of all classes that culminated in a major eruption on May 4, 1919.

On that day, over 3,000 university students assembled at Tiananmen to condemn allied decisions.

Organizing a union, the students were able to prolong the protest, thereby attracting support from around the country that, joined by many patriotic Chinese merchants, culminated in a large-scale and effective boycott of Japanese goods.

Although this public outcry had little effect on China’s relations with the outside world, it represented a significant advance in the growth of Chinese nationalism.

Many people received their initial taste of political activity by participating in the strikes, demonstrations, and boycotts that swept the country – particularly its urban centers where the earliest signs of popular nationalist sentiment appeared- as part of what became known as the “May Fourth Movement”.

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