Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Decline of the Qing Dynasty

The beginnings of the decline of the Qing dynasty ironically can be found in the Qing emperors’ desire to prevent the armed forces from becoming a threat to the dynasty. The Qing emperors were descended from the Manchus, a people ethnically distinct from the majority Han. The Manchus were aware that even hundreds of years into their rule, they were perceived as outsiders in the midst of the majority Han. With this self-awareness, Qing emperors worked to decentralize power. They had read history and knew that challengers to the throne often arose from those who had large armies to use as a power base. The Manchus believed the hostility to them as outsiders made them even more vulnerable.

In an effort to prevent any army from arising to challenge the dynasty, the Qing decentralized Army authority, organized their forces into two large groupings and the Dynasty retained the responsibility to actually pay the salaries of the troops. In one sense, the Qing’s strategy was successful. They ruled for almost 300 years, and prevented the army from rising up to challenge them. However, the Qings had violated some of the basic teachings of Sun Zi notably, Sun Zi’s call for proper marshalling of the army, and having the general retain control of salaries: As Sun Zi wrote in Chapter 1, paragraph 9: “By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure. The Qing, with their complicated structure of Banners and the Green Army, and with the state retaining control of salaries prevented the Army itself from presenting a threat, but made it difficult for the Army to counter external threats.”

By ignoring basic tenets of ancient Chinese thought, the Qings may have weakened the Army in such a way as to prevent a coup, but at the same time, the Dynasty was left open to other internal threats. Ironically, the most serious of these internal threats came from others who explicitly rejected ancient Chinese thought. In the 1850’s, large groups of poor Chinese rejected the strictures of Confucianism and embraced ersatz Christianity. Many of these poor Chinese believed the world that was ordered according to the dictates of Confucianism kept them poor and without prospects. These impoverished peasants eagerly received Hong Xiu Quan’s interpretation of himself as heavenly king, God’s son, Jesus’ brother sent to earth to establish a new order that would start by eradicating the hated Confucians. It is hard to comprehend how charismatic Hong was and how fertile the ground was for the type of ideology he sewed. Large portions of the formerly docile Han population took up arms to challenge, so many in fact that the civil war ended up killing 25 million Chinese.

Hong and his followers scored many initial successes against the Qings’ poorly organized and led armed forces. To their credit, the dynasty realized unless there was serious reform in the Army, Hong might well be successful. The Qing court appointed Zeng Gou Fan as the military governor of Jiangsu and Jianxi Provinces. Zeng had success leading a militia against the Taipings, having organized and lead the militia using the traditional Chinese military teachings. Zeng built a well organized army, and with the aid of opportunistic Western powers, was able to crush and destroy the Tiaping.

Immediately after the Taiping Rebellion, the Qings had to contend with another rebellion that expressly rejected Chinese thought. The Panthay Rebellion in Yunnan Province featured Moslems dissatisfied with their treatment at the hands of the Chinese majority. This rebellion took almost 20 years to quell at the cost of 80,000 lives, and was yet another serious threat to Qing authority.

Appealing to Zeng for defense of China was another step in the decline of the Qings. The Qing Emperors had deliberately tried to prevent the armed forces from becoming a rival power base, but had to forgo that policy. The Qings were forced to appeal to the local militias, like those of Zeng, to fight off the Taipings in the south and east, and the Moslems in the west. It was apparent to the local governors that the Qing were unwilling or unable to exert their centralized authority. Traditionally in China, once the provinces lost their respect and fear for central authority and power, the dynasty was in decline.