The “Prosperous Age” was a period where Qing China experienced a drastic increase in population, flourishing trade and commerce, and a remarkable level of social and political stability during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong.
However, its brilliance was overshadowed by its subsequent consequences and China was soon at its breaking point in the 19th century. This essay would then evaluate on the implications of the “Prosperous Age” and how the long-term consequences proved to be more negative in the 19th century due to a string of crisis, and subsequent problems that continued even in modern China of the 20th century. Negative Unanticipated Long Term Consequences
Reversal of Trade Fortunes with Britain
During the 18th century, there was mounting European demand for Chinese goods (Hung, 2011). Britain in particular, had strong liking and demand for Chinese goods especially tea. Hence, it led to the outflow of British silver into China, but little inflow of silver back into the British economy resulted in China enjoying a trade surplus (City University HK, 2007) while Britain suffered from a trade deficit.
To redress this deficit, Britain began to smuggle and sell opium in China (City University HK, 2007). China’s attempt to prohibit opium then resulted in the Opium Wars and suffered a tragic defeat. The defeat in the Opium War led to the signings of unequal treaties .
Upon signing of the unequal treaties, much Chinese marked it as the beginning of a century of shame and humiliation. Although China was never formally colonized, the lack of ability to defend its basic sovereign rights and ability to govern its own country made it look like a like semi-colonized state of Britain. Consequently, the Qing government was seen as weak and inefficient to combat against the foreigners and much Chinese lost faith in the Manchurian Qing government.
As a result, this gave rise to the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) where violent revolts and attacks were targeted against foreigners as a sign to resist their influence. Boxers, supported by China, suffered a yet another defeat and were forced to sign yet another unequal treaty: Boxer Protocol, where the reparations drastically crippled the Chinese economy till the mid 20th century (Zheng, 2009).
Thus, we can see that the initial trade surplus, a sign of “Prosperous Age” resulted in British to redress the situation by selling opium to the Chinese led to the Opium Wars and the unequal treaties which greatly weakened Qing China internally and externally in the 19th century.
China’s failure to counter foreign influence led to their continued defeat in the Boxer Rebellion at the end of 19th century, where another unequal treaty continued to cripple her till mid 20th century , thereby demonstrating the long term consequence of the “Prosperous Age” was indeed negative in the long run, especially since the consequences did not confine just to the 19th century but even stretched to the 20th century. Reforms did not keep up with population boom
During the “Prosperous Age”, China’s population tripled from less than 150 million to over 400 million (Perkins, 1969). Civil Service Exam however continued its strict quota for passing (Bentley & Ziegler, 2003) and that meant a lower ratio of scholar to population passes. The frustration of students led to the rise of influential leaders like Hong Xiuquan who sought for reforms which led to the Taiping Rebellion . Coincidentally, the backbone of his rebels were the poor peasants who were forced out of arable lands and were socially upset and frustrated, which was also due to the consequence of the population boom.
The consequence of the Taiping Rebellion led to a weakened Qing as they were forced to decentralize power to provincial elites to deal with the crisis and this power was never fully recovered even after the rebellion was suppressed (Sng, 2011). Provincial elites who did not return the power were a growing sign of defiance and could have the possibility of rising up against the imperial court.
The unneeded civil unrest caused by Taiping Rebellion also served to exacerbate subsequent crisis like the Northern Chinese Famine (1876-1879) where the government was severely blamed for not providing sufficient aid. The excess unrest and loss of power proved to be detrimental in the 19th century as it crippled China and the country with no official political bloc stepping up to assist with the problems and crisis. In short, China was in a total disarray and chaotic. Lack of technological advancement
Qing China favoured political and social stability over technological innovation which they feared would lead to unsettling changes. Furthermore, the vast population available to firms was a cheaper alternative to increase output, rather than investment of new technologies which was costly (Bentley & Ziegler, 2003).
This proved to be adverse in the 19th century when China engaged in wars. In the Opium Wars, the Qing military was no match against the British who utilized better technology to triumph (Tanner, 2010). The first defeat resulted in Treaty of Nanjing which ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Subsequent wars like the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1985) had China suffering a crushing defeat against a more superior and modernized Japanese army.
China then ceded Taiwan, Penghu and the Liaodong peninsular to the Japanese. It clearly implied that China could not defend its own sovereign ground and indicated how backward the Chinese army. It questions the right of China to even claim rights over those territories if she could not even defend it properly. The problem gets exemplified into the 20th century when China continued to suffer several defeats to the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War .
Even with the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-1895) which was embraced to modernize China was insufficient. The subsequent defeats to Allied forces in the Boxer Rebellion and Japanese in the Sino-Japanese Wars marred the success of the movement.
Especially significant was the defeat in First Sino-Japanese war as for the first time in over 2000 years of history, regional dominance in East Asia shifted from China to Japan (Johnson, 2010). Coupled with the defeat, China’s international and regional standings were challenged and staged subsequent revolutions that led to other problems and the eventual demise of Qing. Positive Long Term Unanticipated Consequences
Building a new foundation based on common people
The end of Taiping Rebellion inspired nationalists (Del Testa & Lemoine & Strickland, 2001) to fight for the betterment of Chinese. It was because of the consequence of the “Prosperous Age” that led to the decisive rise of nationalist to seek for reforms. An example would be the decentralizing of power, which meant many parties would be involved in decision-making process, rather than just the monarch government.
This would ensure that concerns are taken into deliberation before decision-making that will benefit majority of the Chinese, rather than the imperial court only. The nationalist dream then culminated in the 1911 Revolution in the early 20th century, where the Qing was overthrown and the Republic of China was established.
Nevertheless, the dream of the nationalist was short-lived due to a power struggle within. Even though election was scheduled for 1913, but it soon became clear than Yuan Shikai wanted to establish his own power base. Sun Yat Sen was then forced into exile after he stepped down as head of the newly formed Kuomintang (Foster, 2007). The new government was then monopolized by Yuan and led to decades of political division and warlordism, including monarchy restoration (Blecher, 2010).
Therefore we can see that the perceived benefits from the consequence of “Prosperous Age” in the 19th century did not fully materialize in the 20th century. Monarchy restoration was attempted and defeats the purpose of the promised sharing of power with the people initially. Political and social unrest persisted even with the new government which culminated in the May Fourth Movement (1919). Hence, we can see that China did not become better even with the end of Qing. It would be judgmental to argue that the initial rise of nationalists had resulted in a better China.
It would be fairer to argue that the initial rise of nationalists led to more power struggle and dissident movements like the Chinese Warlord Era (1916-1928) as there were no strong political forces to enforce stability and order until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came in 1949. Conclusion
Hence, we can see that the consequences of the “Prosperous Age” proved to be more negative. The severity of the negative consequences shed light on the crises in the 19th century which crippled China internally and externally. The impact of the consequences was so overwhelming that it even snowballed to the 20th century and further crippled modern China. In contrast, the perceived positive consequences was that it built the foundation but the problem was that the foundation was weak and unstable which in turn led to more problems which culminated in more movements and revolutions.
Furthermore, problems like sovereign issues were not solved by reforms or China’s surge in military strength but rather treaties that returned territories to her under imminent conditions . Thus, we can see that the long term consequences were more negative in the 19th century as it continued the crippling of China economically, socially and militarily and as well as set the stage for the movements and revolutions in the 20th century which did not necessary bring about stability and communal power amongst its people until the CCP came into power in 1949.
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