Resistance in the Late Qing Dynasty & Early Republic

The relative prosperity experienced during the Kangxi period greatly contrast with the condition of Manchu China in the nineteenth century. By this time, China was entering one of its most challenging phases—being bombarded inside and out. Internal rebellions shook the social order and economy, Western powers increasingly degraded China’s place in the world, and Japan even began to dominate China rather than the historic opposite. This led to all kinds of hardships for all levels of society, resulting in various forms of resistance, some radical, eventually causing the collapse of the dynasty and a politically unstable republic.

Problems in China

Between these eras, the population tripled: growing from 150 million to 450 million. As asserted by Joseph W. Esherick, this figure showed prosperity, but also added a great burden; land ownership and power were also increasingly centralized in the hands of a few among hundreds of millions (5). Arguably, the inclination of the Qing system to cause downward social mobility for many contributed to this. All of this is not to mention the degradation of Confucian ideals that had guided the empire for millennia.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Manchus did Sinicize themselves to quite a high level throughout their rule, though they were still resented as hegemonic rulers. Mark C. Elliot explains:

By the nineteenth century, Manchus wrote and spoke in Chinese, educated their children in the Confucian classics, composed poetry, and absorbed the cultural norms of the Chinese literati. Their skills as horsemen and archers, which Qing emperors promoted to preserve Manchu identity, declined markedly. Still, they were separate and privileged elite, and resentment of their political dominance was natural. (qtd. in Esherick 6).

However, some more progressive literati, like Yuan Mei (1716-1798), blended a Taoist-Buddhist love for nature with a peaceful acceptance of new ideas, which might not have been all bad. He Prosed:

In these few rooms next to a brook

the monks are long gone, Buddha’s fallen from his pedestal.

Incense ash all over the ground swirls into wind.

Squirrels gnaw prayer flags and shake their tails wildly.

I stumble over flowers on the wild vines

and in surprise clusters of butterflies swarm up.

(qtd. in Barstone and Ping 338).

Understandably, though, resistance came from all levels of society, with those of peasants with no options (and other marginalized groups) being violent rebellions that shook the social order:

  • The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), led by Hong Xiuquan. On this, Esherick states that Hong and his followers founded the God Worshippers Society and gained support from “…vulnerable groups seeking protection and support, and secret-society members willing to offer their fighting skills,” eventually growing five hundred thousand supporters strong (7). Surely this was a decisive time for the future of China and the Qing dynasty. The rebellion was finally quelled in 1864, though the dynasty’s standing was heavily weakened (“Qing”).
  • The Nian Rebellion (1851-1868). This mass rebellion, lacking any clear ideology, was essentially an ever more powerful horde of bandits who grew to be full-scale rebels, taking advantage of poor peasants with no alternatives in the regions of northern Anhui and southern Henan (Esherick 60).
  • Muslim Revolts, lasting from 1862-1867 took place in the Shaanxi province after anti-Islamic pogroms led to local outrage (Esherick 56).

The fact that these rebellions could even take place on such a large scale reflects popular suffering on mass levels due to the system in the Qing Dynasty, which caused mass marginalization and resulted in immense resistance, eventually leading to its collapse in 1911.

A series of wars also weakened the struggling, centralized system, with all levels of society suffering and being driven to resistance:

  • The Opium Wars (1839-44; 1856-60). During these conflicts were fought with England, who wanted a larger share of trade with China. After China’s first loss, many more ports beyond Guangzhou were opened to Western trade; after China’s second loss, large tracts of land were ceded to Russia (“Qing”).
  • Anglo-French War (1894-95)
  • Sino-Japanese (1894-95). In this conflict, China fought with Japan over Korea, which had historically paid tribute to China; the loss hurt Chinese esteem as Japan has risen above it and Taiwan was also then taken by Japan (“Qing”).
  • Boxer Rebellion (1900)

Moreover, the shift to the treaty system promoted by the Western powers, says Yü, marked the beginning of the end. He states,“… the replacement of the tributary system by the treaty system in the 1840s already marked the beginning of the end of the traditional Sinocentric world order. It would take Chinese intellectuals five more decades to see the full implications of this historic event” (135). Certainly, provisions in this era were doomed to mean an end to China’s ancient place as a world power for the time being.

Nonetheless, ever more direct forms of imperialism took place in China. Bo and Wang assert that after the Sino-Japanese War China was further divided by foreign powers into “leased territories and spheres of influence.” Moreover, Japan did not stop with Taiwan and sought control of more and more of the mainland, with the U.S. even joining the mix by pushing an “open door” policy so it too could enjoy some of the spoils; however, this resulted in great levels of anti-foreign sentiment on the part of the Chinese (Bo and Wang).

Undoubtedly, China was now marginalized on multiple levels. On one level, the Western powers arrived and gradually exerted their influence over the region, at China’s expense. On top of this, Japan was now overtaking China.

The defeat by another East Asian nation, however, was especially painful, as Japan was still seen as a cultural satellite of China; Yü states,

The marginalization of China did not fully manifest itself until the end of the first Sino-Japanese war. It was a catastrophe of this magnitude that finally awakened Chinese intellectuals to the painful truth that China had been marginalized not only in the world but in East Asia as well (137)

China, a former center of world culture and power, was now weak and marginalized, as seen above. Essentially, as other powers around the world evolved and advanced, China chose tradition and remained the same, which came to be its downfall. Yü explains, “The real trouble with China was that due to her long isolation from the outside world, she had lagged behind the West in social evolution” (141).

Life of the Literati

While the literati inherently had their own methods of resistance, many were actually part of the problem. An inefficient bureaucracy and corrupted officials plagued the late Qing Dynasty. An example of this corruption can be seen in the diversion of funds meant to create a navy to instead construct a decorative warship out of marble for display outside of the Summer Palace (“Qing Dynasty”). Nevertheless, literati expressed dissatisfaction at what had become of society, such as Ye Kunhou, a literati quoted heavily by Esherick, who prosed: “Only the officials are shameless./ If we just refrain from loving money,/ When we work just a little on the people’s behalf,/ They are moved to eternal gratitude.” (qtd. in Esherick 84).

Sullivan notes, however, that not quite as much painting occurred during this time, certainly because of instability, but he specifically states, “by the nineteenth century, the court painters, once to highly honored, had sunk to a status hardly higher than that of palace servants, and even their names are not known” and that literati more specifically were in a sense paralyzed by the immovable Qing culture (276).

At any rate, the literati further suffered during the rebellions as well, triggering resistance of others’ resistance. During the Taiping Rebellion, for example, Ye Kunhou and his family eventually “…sought refuge in a small hut that barely kept the rain out, deep below the cliffs of Sleeping Dragon Mountain” (Esherick 11). The huge complication of the literati lifestyle certainly made a huge impact on the mindset of China’s educated elites, especially those uprooted to such levels described.

Many, more than ever, felt a strong desire and nostalgia to return to the old days when their positions were unthreatened, driving them increasingly more to reactionary conservatism: they believed society needed to return to a pure, minimalist Confucian model. According to Esherick, Ye Kunhou was driven to believe that “a government that governs least governs best” and this need for light government “reflected the fundamental Confucian obligation to serve and protect the emperor’s subjects, to ‘nourish the people’” (68).

Nonetheless, many elites also resisted by establishing local militias during the rebellions, resistance that ultimately benefitted them in multiple ways. These militias had a great level of appeal to all levels of society by allowing subjects to protect their own homes and families while also defending the state (Esherick 13). Interestingly, this new organization that gave a greater purpose to combat was its own return to Confucian ideal for society—with a sense of harmony and common acceptance of roles.

In the end, the Ye family reaped the benefits of these militias: as asserted by Esherick, “…practical men who had proved themselves on the battlefield as much as in the examination hall” (56). Thus, Ye Kunhou and son Ye Boying were awarded positions after the rebellions calmed, gaining more power to restore a level of Confucian governance (which they did through various philanthropy projects).

Despite this, there was still a large loss of Confucian ideals of the past, which was amplified by the Qing Dynasty’s long inclination towards the spread of urban, less Confucian culture. This occurred for three main reasons: first, the growing market led to more travel by merchants between cities and small towns; second, printing improved, allowing for more standardized scholarship and commerce; and third, the Qing Dynasty had a long-term policy of attempting to standardize and systemize society in its vast domain (“China”). The Confucian training of the literati, which valued a more traditional version of Chinese society, went against what was becoming of China. There had already been a large force of conservative scholars who resisted modernization and westernization (“Qing Dynasty”). It’s important to note, however, that Taoism too favored a more traditional life, albeit away from society altogether.

Tiehua in the Forbidden City (mingqing jiaju 2) 3
A piece by Tang Peng (pictured, although from much earlier in the Qing Dynasty) echoes the literati’s desire to retreat from this increasingly complicated and chaotic society, which only grew as Chinese society modernized. This piece is influenced by Taoist and Confucian ideals that valued isolated reflection in nature. This could also reflect a widespread desire to retreat to a traditional, morally pure time. Taoism even emphasized ‘un-learning’ all that one knows. Notice humanity’s small role in this nature-dominated landscape with mountains in the distance; there is a sharp contrast with a modern society that is inclined to dominate nature and move beyond old ideals.

Qiu Jin reflects the literati resentment for what had become of China during this time. Qiu was female literati who fled the Boxer Uprising and blamed the Manchu rulers for many of China’s struggles. She prosed:

I grieve to think of China’s brass guardian camels sunk in thorns.

I’m ashamed—I have no real victories. I’ve just made my horses sweat.

So much national enmity hurts my heart.

How can I spend my days as a traveler here enjoying spring wind?

(qtd. in Barnstone and Ping 345).

 Responding with Resistance

Certainly, Chinese citizens did not just sit passively as they saw their nation get marginalized time and time again. In cities, for example, a variety of organizations started to arise.

While it was generally traditional in the Qing days, Beijing became a popular city for societies of gentlemen painters for the first half of the twentieth century, which such societies flourishing (Sullivan 277). In this instance of artists, who were often literati, coming together, they managed to make the best of harsh times.

The city of Shanghai was also a refuge—after many artists and collectors went to the city in the Taiping Rebellion days from the Jiangnan region, leading to its status as a refuge for art, with the city growing in commerce as well (Sullivan 278). In these groups, modernist, Western styles were explored in a rather resistant manner. This understandably horrified conservatives, with Liu Haisu being seen as a “traitor to art” for example (Sullivan 282).

Not all organizations and societies were so peaceful—some were violent and took on deep political matters. A significant example is the Boxers. These were a variety of societies geared towards fighting the spread of Western influence in China (“Qing”).

According to Bo and Wang, with the encouragement of the faltering Qing dynasty, the boxers “rose to avenge the national humiliations of the previous six decades,” burning churches and foreign residences, killing missionaries and Chinese Christians.

Their rebellion was not particularly effective though, as they shunned the use of guns, thus allowing Western powers to take back Beijing in ten days, some of which then went on a “…spree of wanton violence and destruction, burning palaces, looting treasures, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and raping Chinese women” (Bo and Wang). Certainly this resistance ultimately led to a worse scenario, further marginalizing China at the hands of Western powers.

On September 7, 1901, the Boxer Protocol was forced upon the Qing government, imposing a slew of destabilizing restrictions on the empire and satisfying the needs of 11 external powers (Bo and Wang). The Qing government implemented a variety of economic and governmental changes, but this failed to save their rule (“Qing”).

As is in many situations with such extreme circumstances, a wave of radicalism arose both before and after the fall of the Qing. Obviously, this would eventually culminate in the Chinese Communist Party’s complete takeover of the nation in 1949, but some pro-republic rhetoric existed in the early twentieth century.

A key organization in this process was the Revolutionary Alliance, formed in 1905 with its leader being the American-educated Dr. Sun Zhongshan (“Qing”).

A step in radicalization first came in the shift from interpretation of Confucian doctrine and other historically Chinese theories on society to the discovery of completely new views by intellectual elites (Yü 126-127). Understandably, this ended up taking a highly western focus as modernization generally meant westernization in this era. Yü states, “that what they identified as China’s “national essence” turned out to be, more often than not, basic cultural values of the West such as democracy, equality, liberty, and human rights (130). This type of thinking certainly promoted the overturning of the dynasty and the formation of a republic.

At any rate, though, Chinese intellectuals for a long time still adhered to a mindset that favored China as the origin of knowledge (though this decreased with time), leading them to draw distance from the Manchus, but also be careful about seeing Western values as universal and coincidence with China’s early history (Yü 140).

Fall of the Qing

By 1911, many Chinese provinces were declaring independence from Qing rule. Desperate the Qing court sought Yuan Shikai for help, who exploited their weakness and the lack of experience among revolutionaries to take power (Bo and Wang).

His rule was short-lived, and after his removal from power and death shortly thereafter, the nation descended into warlord rule, with many fighting with each other for more influence in the central government (Bo and Wang). Years of war and instability would be ahead, culminating in China’s experience in World War II then civil war, with stability only arriving in 1949 under the authoritarian regime of the CCP. 

Overall, while the Qing Dynasty possessed many traditionally Chinese characteristics, it became increasingly modern and stratified, resulting in countless forms of resistance, with tiehua being merely a local form of national expression. This context helps explain just how the art could come into existence and perhaps how it was able to persist.

Works Cited

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Bo, Zhiyue, and Jianwei Wang. “Chapter 4: Fall Of The Qing And The Struggle For Control.” History of Modern China. N.PAG. US: Mason Crest Publishers, 2006. History Reference Center. Web. 17 July 2016.

“China”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Esherick, Joseph W. Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History. Berkley: University of California Press, 2011. Print.

“Qing.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 17 July 2016.

“Qing dynasty”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Struve, Lynn A. “Dreaming and Self-search during the Ming Collapse: The Xue Xiemeng Biji, 1642-1646.” T’oung Pao 93 (2007): 159-192. Print.

Sullivan, Michael. “The Twentieth Century.” The Arts of China, 4th ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. 274- 298. Print.

Yü, Ying-Shih. “The Radicalization of China in the Twentieth Century.” Daedalus 122.2 (1993): 125-150. PDF.