Cultural Impact of Qing Dynasty

Silk ceremonial military uniform
Collection of the British Museum

Like the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Qing Dynasty was one of the few periods in Chinese history when China proper was ruled by a non-native ethnic group. The Qing emperors were all Manchu people, who were descended from the Jurchens and hailed from the northeastern region of Manchuria. However, unlike the Mongolians, the Manchu made more of an attempt to assimilate with Han Chinese culture rather than try to subjugate it. This tactic appeared to work in their favour, as their dynasty lasted for an impressive 268 years, while the Yuan collapsed after just 97. 

However, during the first few years of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu would often use the discrepancies between their culture and that of the Han Chinese to test the loyalty of their subjects. The most famous example of this was the controversial July 1645 edict or the “haircutting order”, implemented by the regent Dorgon. This order dictated that all Han Chinese men must shave the front of their heads and comb the remaining hair into a Manchu hairstyle known as the queue, which was essentially one long, thin braid that ran down the centre of the head. 

The punishment for disobeying the edict was simple: “To keep the hair, you lose the head; to keep your head, you cut the hair”. However, this order was in direct violation of traditional Confucian values, which held that “a person’s body and hair, being gifts from one’s parents, are not to be damaged”. During the previous Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Han Chinese men would adhere to this principle strictly and never cut their hair, instead winding it into a top-knot on their head. 

The situation became so serious that widespread uprisings spread throughout cities, and hundreds of thousands of people were massacred. You could almost say things got a little hairy! The punishment may have seemed severe, but it wasn’t simply about stylistic differences between the Han Chinese and the Manchu. Dorgon felt that this edict would help to weed out any Han Chinese individuals who weren’t supportive of Manchu rule. 

Though it may have sounded restrictive, the early Qing Dynasty was actually a period of great social mobility. There was a widespread belief that, with hard work and the right education, even a peasant boy could one day become an excellent scholar. While passing the imperial examinations and becoming a government official was still considered to be the highest achievement, many members of the literati chose deliberately to avoid an official career and instead devoted their lives to scholarship, painting, poetry, and other arts. 

It was during this time that literature blossomed and great works were commissioned, such as the Siku Quanshu or “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries”, an invaluable anthology of over 3,400 books. Other texts, including Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, became emblematic works of Chinese fiction. Market towns and cities boasted a wide range of written materials, from religious pamphlets and short-story collections to joke-books and almanacs. 

However, Qing scholars became increasingly concerned about the rise of the merchant class, who were able to take advantage of the money economy and mimic the upper class way of life. The Qing court was similarly troubled by what they saw as a degeneration of traditional values, so from the 16th century onwards they worked with the scholarly elite to publish special morality books. These texts not only extolled traditional virtuous behaviour, but also tied it to concrete rewards such as educational success, the achievement of a high official position, and a wife who would bear many sons. It was at this point that the concept of the perfect chaste wife first appeared; a feminine role that was reinforced with memorial arches and shrines to honourable widows.  

New types of social organisations also emerged during the Qing Dynasty, such as the concept of the “Native Place”. These associations were spread across the country, were dedicated to one particular place, and catered to scholars, merchants, and immigrants from that area specifically. They represented a place where people could gather, meet fellow natives, receive financial aid, and store goods. In certain areas, this social institution started to evolve into something much darker. Special initiation rituals, secret lore, and an elaborate origin myth bound fellow members together in an infamous organisation known as the Triad fraternities. Appearing first in the province of Guangdong, the Triads swiftly expanded to the rest of southern China and remain one of the most powerful criminal organisations in Asia.  

Merchants Guild Hall for businessmen from Shanxi Province in Zhangye, Gansu province

Yet the “native place” organisation also had a lighter side! In many places, they were connected by the worship of a deity, around which the local people formed a sort of territorial religious cult. While many people turned to these local deities for comfort, others found the White Lotus faith more appealing. The White Lotus originated from the Pure Land sect of Buddhism that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was heavily focused on a belief in Maitreya[1], the legendary “future Buddha” that will supposedly achieve complete enlightenment and act as a savior to the people. During the Yuan Dynasty, it gradually evolved into a secret political movement that tried to overthrow the Yuan regime by claiming numerous times that Maitreya had shown up to save them. 

During the Ming Dynasty, it incorporated a deity from the Luodao sect of Chinese folk religion known as the Eternal Venerable Mother, who they believed would send Maitreya to Earth one day. Although it was officially banned under the Qing, it continued to operate in the shadows and formed a political resistance similar to that of the Yuan Dynasty, only with many more factions. Its main aim was to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming Dynasty. Many people, particularly impoverished peasants, found solace in the faith’s image of an Eternal Mother who would gather up all her children at the millennium and form one family. The movement frequently led to spectacular and vicious uprisings, most notable of which was the eponymous White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804). 

Alongside the White Lotus, Christianity was also swiftly taking hold towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. During the 1800s, Evangelical and Protestant missionaries flocked to China and managed to convert tens of thousands of Chinese citizens. The key difference between these missionaries and the earlier Catholic missionaries was that they lived among the people, set up numerous schools and hospitals, and concentrated on helping the common people rather than gaining influence in the imperial court.   

That being said, China’s peasants had another outlet besides faith through which they could absorb culture. Wealthy traveling merchants would often sponsor drama troupes from their hometowns to tour with them, which helped to spread regional styles of drama to different localities. Drama formed a bridge between language and literature, providing illiterate peasants with a sort of “living classroom” where they could learn about Chinese history by watching plays. In other words, it was their equivalent of a blockbuster movie!


[1]  Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.