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READ: Qing Dynasty

The long-lived Qing dynasty ruled over a massive multi-ethnic empire as it experienced a period of economic prosperity in the eighteenth century.

Qing Dynasty

By Eman M. Elshaikh
The long-lived Qing dynasty ruled over a massive multi-ethnic empire as it experienced a period of economic prosperity in the eighteenth century.


As a student, you’ve probably had to follow a dress code—rules about your clothing and grooming. In most cases, breaking these rules would get you into trouble with the school principal. When Manchu rulers came to power during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912 CE) in China, they imposed their own kind of dress code. All men had to style their hair in a very particular way: the front of the head was shaved, and the rest of the hair was pleated into a long braid running down the back.
The Manchu, an ethnic minority in China, had to enforce this rule upon the majority Han Chinese, for whom this was a foreign custom. We’re not sure what your principal does if you break the dress code, but if the Manchu rulers saw you in the wrong haircut, you could be executed for treason.
Illustration depicting Manchu hairstyles, called queues. By Internet Archive Book Images. No restrictions.
What’s so important about a hairstyle? How you dressed, groomed, and in some cases shaped your body really mattered in Qing China. But these weren’t playful fashion statements. These variations were more like uniforms because they differentiated people along ethnic, class, and gender lines. For instance, Manchu women were not permitted to bind their feet, whereas upper-class Han Chinese women maintained this custom. Even some common Han women bound their feet and continued to labor in the home and farm.1 But these distinctions generally collapsed over time, with Manchu and Han women living similar lives. Across ethnic groups, women largely worked domestically if they could afford to stay at home. Confucian values reinforced the idea that women should be obedient to their male family members.
As we’ll see, Qing China was a diverse and complex society, with many ethnic groups, social classes, and political actors playing a part in the formation of modern China. The Manchu Qing, who were seen as foreign by many of the Han Chinese, had to make their government feel more legitimate. So, they enforced hair and clothing standards to create a sense of unity and be a part of Chinese culture.

A multi-ethnic empire

By the eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty ruled over a vast territory, from Mongolia to Tibet to Xinjiang in Central Asia. During the eighteenth century, partly because of the influx of New World crops like potatoes and peanuts, the population doubled. In addition to these staple crops, farmers were also producing cash crops like tea. It was a time of prosperity, and farmers, artisans, craftspeople, and merchants participated in a lively trade network both domestically and abroad.
Qing dynasty of China in 1765. Public Domain.
But this huge country wasn’t really on the same page economically, culturally, or ethnically. Across this massive stretch of land and the large population, many different communities maintained their own traditions and ways of life. So how did the Qing rule over this huge country and keep it unified?
For starters, it had a really strong centralized government, led by an absolute monarch, the emperor. But the emperor also had a well-organized political structure backing him up. The Qing maintained a Ming-era political system. By not changing too much too fast, they were able to maintain Chinese unity. Under this political system, the emperor ruled over the Grand Secretariat (administrative office), which coordinated multiple imperial ministries. Over time, the Qing emperor centralized the control of these ministries in his inner court by bringing it under an imperial advisory council, which was made up of a special group of high officials. The Qing also kept the civil service system of the Ming, using the imperial examination system to vet officials.
Qianlong Emperor entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal. From a scroll depicting the 1751 Emperor's inspection tour of southern China. By Xu Wang, Public Domain.
The Qing appointed officials from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, though some things were divided along ethnic lines. While the Qing themselves were Manchu, they strategically integrated the Han and even the Mongols into government. Han elites, or those who had passed state examinations, were brought into the imperial center as civil bureaucrats or military leaders. This provided some ethnic cohesion.
The military had also become multi-ethnic. The early Qing organized their military using a banner system. Each banner, or administrative unit, had a particular function like taxation or recruiting soldiers. Initially, the banners were made up solely of Manchu warriors. Over time, the emperor allowed Han Chinese and Mongol banners as well, making the military multi-ethnic.
The Bordered Yellow Banner was one of the Eight Banners of the Manchu Qing dynasty military. It was among the three "upper" banner armies under the direct command of the emperor himself. By Sodacan ,CC BY-SA 4.0.
The banner system basically created a special class of people, called bannermen. Membership was inherited, along with land and income. This system helped the Qing consolidate their power, and it continued to be an effective political tool through the eighteenth century.
Toward the end of the century, the banner system started to fall apart. The bannermen became less disciplined and less effective, and the system was too expensive. The ethnic aspect of the banner system also started to change. In the eighteenth century, many Han bannermen were asked to leave the banners in order to restore a Manchu majority. Though the Han and other ethnic groups still remained part of the banner system, the banners eventually came to represent Manchu identity.

A managed economy

The Qing also used their imperial power to influence the economy, which flourished throughout the eighteenth century. Farming was vital to the government for providing economic growth and stability. The economy revolved around farming villages and towns, rather than major urban centers. Qing leaders promoted agriculture by encouraging people to settle new land and by providing seeds, livestock, and tax breaks. Farmers created productive agricultural colonies throughout the country, especially at the edges. Soon Qing society was an agricultural powerhouse.
But all this farming didn’t diminish commercial activity. In fact, Qing China was arguably one of the most commercialized countries at the time. During this period, farmers started producing surplus and selling goods. Trade between villages and regions developed into a robust network, creating the growth of bustling towns like Suzhou. Domestic trade boomed, and merchant guilds were established to facilitate it. As a result, the merchant class, who were traditionally looked down upon in Confucian thought, grew much larger and became powerful both socially and politically. Qing rulers were wary of this, and they tried to limit the power of wealthy merchants by instituting some restrictions on trade and industry.
Though domestic trade moved in all directions, foreign trade was pretty one-sided. Qing China had an incredibly favorable balance of trade with Western countries, meaning China exported way more than it imported. The most important foreign good China imported was not a good at all but a currency: silver, to be exact. As China exported goods, silver flooded the Chinese market.
Detail of Prosperous Suzhou, an eighteenth-century scroll painting by court painter Xu Yang commissioned by Emperor Qianlong. The large painting depicts the bustling urban life of Suzhou. In this section of the painting, Xu Yang shows busy commercial activity in China’s waterways. Public Domain.
The Qing had a very restrictive trade policy with the West, but they had looser agreements with their Russian, Central Asian, and Southeast Asian neighbors. Western trade was regulated under the Canton system that developed in the eighteenth century. It said Westerners could trade only in Canton harbor (today’s Guangzhou) and only with approved Chinese guilds. This system helped regulate foreign trade, and it also enriched the members of these select guilds—some becoming the richest men in the world. Other coastal cities were depopulated, making this particular harbor the locus of foreign trade.

Qing China in context

During this age of prosperity, China’s workforce grew. Laborers and merchants spread outward in search of economic opportunities. The workforce migrated between China’s many distant regions, and also outside of China. Many Chinese traveled overseas, mostly to Southeast Asia.
The Thirteen Factories c. 1805, displaying the flags of Denmark, Spain, the United States, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands Canton (Guangzhou). Public Domain.
Southeast Asia was controlled by several different states, many of which were mired in political turmoil. Though parts of the region had some kind of centralized state in control, much of the rest of Southeast Asia was managed by looser political structures. Some scholars have described these as “solar polities,” (a polity is a state) where a strong urban center exerts a gravitational pull on the surrounding areas. As a result, many semi-independent tributaries were under partial control of powerful city-states. Through trade and migrant labor, Qing China also had power in the region. The most active ports of trade in the region were in modern-day Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia, where Qing Chinese migrants and merchants moved across regional networks.
Territorial divisions in mainland Southeast Asia c.1750 CE. By Nicolas Eynaud, CC BY-SA 4.0.
From its start, the Qing ruled over a massive and multi-ethnic empire, including Manchus, Han Chinese, Mongols, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and numerous other groups. Despite challenges, the eighteenth century was a time of prosperity and relative peace, with an ethnic minority unifying China under its control for nearly three centuries!
Author bio
Eman M. Elshaikh is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences, focusing on history and anthropology. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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