The Manchu Dynasty

(Ta Ch'ing Ch'ao )


The Ch'ing dynasty is of Manchurian nomadic origin. They rose to prominence in their home province during the late sixteenth century. Nurhachi, Prince of the Jurgen clan, conquered Manchuria and proclaimed himself Emperor of the Mongol hordes in 1606. He established a new state in 1616 and called it T'a Ch'ing Kuo (the Empire of Great Purity) and his dynasty the Chin. Inheriting a remarkably successful military machine, his sons were able to extend his empire deep into Chinese territory. The T'ai Tsung Emperor changed the name of the dynasty in 1636 to Ta Ch'ing Ch'ao (the Great Pure Dynasty) instead of Chin, a phrase having negative connotations in Chinese. After a lengthy power struggle, exacerbated by a weakened Ming dynasty, his grandson entered Peking and mounted the Imperial throne in 1643. The Shih-tsu Emperor was merely five years old. His successor, the Shêng Tsu Emperor enjoyed a long and remarkable reign of sixty years. After some notable early successes in extending dominion over Tibet, Mongolia and Taiwan, Shih-tsu's successors ruled over a stagnant and decaying empire for the next two centuries. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become prey to internal factions, prone to sporadic rebellions increasingly subjected to humiliations by foreign powers. Significant military defeats in 1860, 1895 and 1900 resulted in the cession of territories to Russia, Japan, Britain, France and Germany. Each of whom also enjoyed significant extra-territorial rights and commercial privileges within the rest of China. During most of this period the Empire was dominated by the Grand Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi.

A former concubine of the Emperor Hsien-fêng, Tzu Hsi rose to prominence through intrigue and sheer guile. Reactionary, vindictive, malicious, she presided over a period of decline opposing every reform, every attempt at progress and development. Although a far reaching reform programme was planned and implementation begun after her long overdue death in 1908, these came too late and too slowly to forestall catastrophe. A pro-republican uprising in 1911, after a period of bitter civil war, prompted the regent to abdicate temporal authority on behalf of the child Emperor Hsüan-t'ung. The Articles of Favourable Treatment of 1912 and other documents which constituted the act of transferring power to the republic, guaranteed the continuation of ranks and titles in perpetuity, to the Emperor himself, to his family, members of the Imperial clan, and to servants of the Imperial household. In all respects, the Emperor was to be accorded honours and privileges by the republican authorities, in the same manner as a foreign sovereign.

The first official President of the Republic, Marshal Yuan Shi Kai, acceptedthe Imperial throne on 11th December 1916, after instigating a corrupt campaign of memorials and petitions in his favour. He set about planning an enthronement ceremony and created fifty titles of nobility, including a princedom of the first rank, for his Vice-President Li Yuan-hung. His plans proved generally unpopular and were postponed several times, before his death in June 1917.

The republican regimes which followed were weak, ineffectual, and ridden by factionalism and corruption. Governments rose and fell in rapid succession. Presidents and Prime Ministers came and went out of office with surprising speed. Warlords ruled in the provinces, seized great cities and occaisionally took the capital. The capital itself being transferred from city to city, depending on which general happened to hold power at any given time. One coup d'état followed another. After yet another coup d'état, the dictatorship headed by General Huang Fu, abrogated the Articles of Favourable Treatment and expelled the Emperor from the Forbidden City on the 5th of November 1924. An act never actually confirmed by any legal or constitutional process, then or since.

In the meantime, Japan intervened increasingly in the north and east, seizing Manchuria, parts of Inner Mongolia, and eventually significant areas of China proper. At their behest, the former Emperor was restored in 1934 under the reign name of K'ang Teh. He became Emperor of Manchuria (Manchutikuo), or incorrectly but popularly known as Manchukuo, the ancient homeland of his house which had taken no part in the revolutionary upheaval of 1911. He fell into Russian Communist hands at the close of the Second World War, was turned over to the Chinese Communists in 1949, and spent the next ten years in prisons and re-education centres. Freed in 1959, he returned to Peking, became a gardener and later a member of the National People's Congress. Better known by his personal name of P'u-yi, the former Emperor lived out his days in the rambling old mansion of his father, the former Regent. The official report says that he died from cancer in 1967, but according to unofficial rumour, from the effects of wounds received during severe torture and mutilation, at the hands of "cultural revolutionaries".

The Emperor could name his successor, from amongst his surviving sons. Two edicts were drafted (secret after 1723), both done in the Emperor's own hand, one of them being sealed and placed above the throne. In case of a childless Emperor, he could appoint a prince from a collateral branch of the dynasty, provided he was from the next immediate generation. Princes, so appointed need not necessarily be the next in line of descent or by order of primogeniture. In most cases, the Emperor adopted the appointed heir before his death. If he had failed to do so before dying, his widow or mother could adopt in his stead. Despite these Confucian rules, there have been several instances in Chinese history where brothers have succeeded brothers, or cousins succeeded cousins. Ultimately, might has usually decided right.

After the restoration of the dynasty in the ancestral provinces of Manchuria, new rules of succession were passed under The Law Governing Succession to the Imperial Throne, March 1, 1937. Article 1 limited the succession to male descendants. Article 5 allowed for the absence of sons or descendants and stipulated that brothers of the reigning Emperor, borne of the same mother, and their male-line descendants succeeded according to age. They took precedence over brothers of the half blood, even if younger than the latter. Brothers of the half-blood and their descendants succeeded next. Article 6 stipulated that in the absence of brothers and their descendants, the uncles of th reigning Emperor and of the full blood succeeded. According to these regulations, Emperor K'ang Teh's full-brother, Prince Pu-chieh, become the Heir Apparent.

Since the death of Prince Pu-chieh without male issue in 1994, the rightful successor has been more difficult to establish. His surviving young brother of the half-blood would have succeeded according to the 1937 Law, the most recently accepted, officially approved and published house rules.

However, matters are complicated by claims that the late Emperor adopted a distant cousin, Prince Yü-yan [Yan-jui], while both were prisoners of the Russians in Siberia. Although this procedure seems to be in accordance with earlier precedent and Confucian custom, no official papers have come to light, which verify the adoption. Nevertheless, several individuals continue to testify in its favour. The Emperor's own autobiography does mention a conversation with the prince, in which he proposed to adopt him. However, the tone and language used in the relevant passages suggest that the motivation behind holding out such a prospect, may also have been to induce personal servitude in an environment devoid of servants and household staff.

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Dr. Morris Bierbrier, FSA.
Justin J. Corfield.
Hans Hägerdal, Department of Humanities, University of Växjö, Sweden.
Hamish Todd.
Copyright© Christopher Buyers
Copyright© Christopher Buyers
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Copyright© Christopher Buyers

Copyright© Christopher Buyers, January 2001 - June 2013