China’s hidden century: Qing Dynasty and its legacy

Recently, a very interesting exhibition is being held in the British Museum, called “China’s Hidden Century”, or “Lives in the late Qing Dynasty” in Chinese. Regarding the Qing Dynasty, modern Chinese actually have some completely different and divisive views. This is because China is a multi-ethnic country. Before the end of the Qing Dynasty, the concept of a so-called Chinese nation did not actually form.



The Qing Dynasty was established after the Manchus overthrew the Han regime in the Ming Dynasty. After that, the Han people belonged to the conquered class in the social structure, almost at the bottom. At the same time, because of the large number of Han people, it is an ethnic group that Manchu rulers should pay special attention to. The embarrassing thing is that the civilisation of the Manchus is lower than that of the Han people. The Manchu ruling class is gradually sinicised, and the Manchus and Hans have also begun a long process of integration. This process is dominated by the Manchus. For example, the hairstyle of Han men is regulated by law with the front half shaved and a long pigtail left in the second half. The restrictions of women clothing are slightly looser. At that time, Han women can still wear Ming Dynasty costumes, but through the restrictions on accessories and styles, it is hard not to notice a clear contrast with the bright and beautiful costumes of the noble Manchus.



No matter how self-sinicisation is carried out, a very simple fact is still placed in front of the Manchu rulers: I am a Manchu, an aristocrat, and a ruler, and the Han people are slaves of this country ruled by us, and they are different from us. Once the Han people have the opportunity, they will rebel and carry out the so-called “Anti-Qing Restore-Ming Movement”. Looking around, through the entire life of Qing Dynasty, some Han people have indeed been resisting, and paid the price of their lives for it. However, most of the Han people became the support force of the Qing Dynasty because of their better living standards and more content with the status quo.



The forces of support and opposition have been competing to form a balance. If there is no external interference, due to habit and inertia, the Qing Dynasty may continue forever, and the Manchus and Han people may one day blend in with each other, and it will no longer be possible to distinguish them. However, the world has entered another period. The West, especially the British Empire, came to Asia with its superior industrial civilisation strength. In South Asia, the Indians were also being ruled by the alien Mongols, the so-called Mughal Empire. The British first conquered the Mongol rulers and made them agents of British rule in India. Later, the Mongol ruling class was directly packaged and thrown away, and India became part of the empire on which the sun never sets. In China, the situation is different. The British routed the Manchu rulers and forced them to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. However, the Qing Empire was not merged into the British Empire, except for Hong Kong.



Here, I want to stress that: the development of history always seems to be unexpected. The people of India and Hong Kong who were colonised by the British may mourn their fate. However, today, their descendants do have a good feeling of Britain.



Back to the Qing Dynasty, the rulers who had internal and external troubles, lost control of the entire country. Within the country, the lowest stratum of the Han people, that is, the peasants, guided by the Bible, challenged the Manchu regime, and even divided the country in a certain period of time. They waged a human catastrophe fighting against the army of the Manchus (and the inferior Hans) in the civil war. These Han Chinese armed forces who called themselves the Taiping Army shocked the British Parliament which had been watching and secretly supporting them, because they were too cruel and anti-human.



Although the Taiping Army failed eventually, it fundamentally shook the entire country. In less than 50 years, the Manchu Qing Dynasty declared a peaceful end, and China entered a new stage of the Three Principles of the People. The pigtail has been cut off, and the thoughts of Chinese people, whether they are Han or Manchu, or other ethnic groups, have become chaotic and diverse. The advanced and the backward coexist, the big cities are the first to be Westernised, and the concept of the Chinese nation has also been officially promoted, with the Han nationality as the foundation and composed of five major ethnic groups.



The concept of the Chinese nation has been honed over a century and has become deeply rooted in the hearts of the people now. So a particularly interesting phenomenon happened, that is, today’s Han people will cry bitterly for the defeat of the Manchu ruling class in the past, feel humiliated by the unequal treaties signed by the Manchus, and even think that the cultural relics and treasures in the palace courtyard looted by the West belong to them. This kind of cognition and thinking is completely different from that of the ancestors of the Han people hundreds of years ago. Why is that? One possible explanation is the education about history. Based on national unity and patriotism considerations, Chinese officials blur and hide the concepts of the ruling class, government, and country, so that the descendants of slaves now share the misfortune of their former masters, passionately.



Indeed, when visiting this exhibition, I found that a lot of modern Chinese people have not been able to stay out and examine this extinct dynasty objectively and carefully. First, they were so excited about the Qing Dynasty’s geographical map of unification, “How vast is my China.” Immediately afterwards, they sincerely admired how exquisite and elegant the clothes of the Manchu royal family are! The battle armour of the Eight Banners is so strong and light. Then, they would collectively line up to take pictures before the Treaty of Nanjing, as if they were talking to their distant ancestors. Yet the content is not “My ancestors, the Qing Dynasty finally perished under internal and external attacks hooray”, but “Don’t worry, our China is now very strong, and will not be humiliated again.” In the end, they will sigh, “why these exquisite objects are not in China, but are exiled overseas, which is really a great shame.”

When I heard these words, I couldn’t help feeling that the Qing Dynasty was not dead. Its legacy is being perfectly inherited by some of the Chinese mainland people at the moment.



In a global first, the resilience and innovation of 19th-century China is revealed in a major new exhibition.

Between 1796 and 1912 Qing China endured numerous civil uprisings and foreign wars, with revolution ultimately bringing an end to some 2,000 years of dynastic rule and giving way to a modern Chinese republic. This period of violence and turmoil was also one of extraordinary creativity, driven by political, cultural and technological change. In the shadow of these events lie stories of remarkable individuals – at court, in armies, in booming cosmopolitan cities and on the global stage.

The exhibition is underpinned by a four-year research project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and led by the British Museum and London University, in collaboration with over 100 scholars from 14 countries.

Exquisite objects are brought together for the first time – from cloisonné vases given by the Last Emperor’s court to King George and Queen Mary for their coronation in 1911, to a silk robe commissioned by the Empress Dowager Cixi. The show illuminates the lives of individuals – an empress, a dancer, a soldier, an artist, a housewife, a merchant and a diplomat.

Visitors will glimpse the textures of life in 19th-century China through art, fashion, newspapers, furniture – even soup ingredients. Many people not only survived but thrived in this tumultuous world. New art forms, such as photography and lithographic printing, flourished while technology and transport – the telegraph, electricity, railways – transformed society.

This extraordinary exhibition will open a new page in public understanding of late imperial China.


The Citi exhibition: China’s hidden century

The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

British Museum, London

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