On the 12th February 1912 the Chinese Emperor Puyi abdicated the royal throne, effectively bringing to an end over two millennia of imperial rule in China. Puyi’s abdication was the culmination of a long decline for the Qing Dynasty, a process which had started in the previous century.
The Qing Empire was the last great dynasty to rule over China, coming to power in the wake of the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century.
Towards the end of its 270 year reign the Ming Dynasty had become beset with a host of problems. A crucial basis for imperial rule in China was the idea of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, the belief that an emperor was selected by heaven to act as a god on earth. A series of famines, natural disasters and economic calamities that hit the latter Ming Dyasty led to a growing popular belief that the Ming Emperors had lost this Mandate of Heaven.
In the early seventeenth century the Manchu, a people from north east China, started to gain increasing influence over central Asia. After subjugating Korea and Mongolia, they turned their attention towards the Ming Empire.
The Manchu gained increasing experience and expertise through alliances with various Ming leaders based in the northern cities. Eventually, in 1644, the Ming invited the Manchus into China to help quell the Li Zicheng rebellion. The rebellion was halted, but the Manchu took the opportunity to seize political power.
The Qing dynasty ruled from 1644, and in the eighteenth century oversaw a period of prosperity and growth in China. Much like its predecessor however, the Qing’s ‘Mandate of Heaven’ came into question following a series of disasters in the nineteenth century.
The Yellow River flood of 1887 was one of the worst natural disasters in history, with estimates suggesting a death toll somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. The Gansu Earthquake two years later killed around 22,000 people, while The Northern Chinese Famine of 1876 -1879 killed around 10% of the population in China’s Northern provinces, and highlighted the inadequacies of the Qing rule in this period.
Natural disasters were accompanied by increasing foreign intervention in China. The Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century had seen humiliating defeat for China. The loss of territories such as Hong Kong disrupted the economy, and the forceful opening of trade with Europe highlighted China’s increasing vulnerability on the international stage.
In the shorter term, China’s rapidly growing population put ever more pressure on the archaic institutions of the country. As discontent spread through China’s massive but largely impoverished population, a series of rebellions and uprisings took place.
The combined resentment of foreign influence in Chinese culture, and growing dissatisfaction with the failing economy, culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. This major uprising was backed by the royal family, but also served to highlight just how tenuous their authority over the country had become.
Ultimately, the Qing Empire was destroyed by revolution in 1911. Over the preceding years various revolutionary groups in China had allied themselves with the Republican movement of Sun Yat-sen.
The revolution started with an uprising in Sichuan which was swiftly followed by a series of rebellions throughout the country, leading to the seizure of a variety of important locations. Provinces began to declare themselves independent of the imperial court, and the imperial institution became increasingly redundant.
Puyi, at the time just twelve years old, abdicated the throne in February 1912, leading to the creation of the Republic of China. Although Puyi would be briefly restored as a puppet emperor during the Japanese occupation, the 12th February marks the anniversary of the end of two millennia of Chinese history, and the origins of modern China.