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Late Imperial China

Late Imperial China

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Late Imperial China was a highly tumultuous period, hallmarked by severe autocracy along with widespread upheaval. Late Imperial China is composed of the final two imperial dynasties; the Ming Dynasty, followed by the Qing Dynasty. What did these vast Dynasties accomplish for China? How did their actions lead to the abdication of the throne on February 12, 1912? And how is their culture displayed through their prints and writings?

Late Imperial China Time Period

The Ming Dynasty began in 1368 with the rule of Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Taizu. It ended in 1644 with the suicide of the last Ming Emperor, Chongzhen. The Qing Dynasty began with the rule of Emperor Shunzhi, a Manchurian ruler, and ended in 1912 with the abdication of the boy emperor, Xuantog.

  • Late imperial China is formally known as 1368-1912.
  • Family life in late imperial China was complex, an example of this is that children were often brought up under the care of extended family, and various women of the home, and each child had an extensive community.
  • Females were required to learn embroidery, cooking, and sewing whereas males would engage in play and training at a young age before moving on to family work such as shopkeeping or fieldwork.
  • Children of the elite would learn to read, to write calligraphy and elite boys would go into education where they would be required to learn literacy such as the classics.
  • In around 1500 AD, the most used and accepted form of religion and philosophy was Taoism, many others being Buddhists.
  • The primary form of art in Late imperial China was Chinese Calligraphy.
  • The Ming Dynasty was an Absolute monarchy government, whereas the Qing Dynasty was run by an Integrated Bureaucracy.

Late Imperial China Timeline

Late Imperial China began with the Ming Dynasty and ended with the Qing Dynasty. Let's have a closer look at its timeline and important dates.

1368The Ming Dynasty began
1368Zhu Yuanzhang re-established Han-Chinese rule
1398Zhu Yuanzhang's death, was succeeded by his grandson, Jianwen
1402Zhu Di, Zhu Zhu Yuanzhang's son took the throne
1449The Mongol invasion of the Ming Dynasty marked the start of the decline of the Ming Dynasty
1644The end of the Ming Dynasty
1644The Qing Dynasty began
1840-1842The First Opium War
1850-64The Taiping Rebellion (Christian uprising against Qing)
1898Failed Emperor reforms meant that conservatives took over
1900The Boxer Rebellion
1905The Examination system was suspended
1912The abdication of the throne, and the end of the Ming Dynasty (the last dynasty of China)

Did you know?

The majority of the Great Wall of China was repaired and built during the Ming Dynasty.

Late Imperial China Definition

Imperial China spans more than 2,000 years, from 221 BC until AD 1912. During this period, China was ruled by its emperors during a time of political unrest and multiple invasions. Late Imperial China refers to the Qing and Ming Dynasties, as they were the last dynasties to exist, meaning that their economy, culture, and ongoings were largely impacted by the Dynasties that came before them.

Many scholars believe that key aspects of China’s late imperial economy came into existence as a result of a series of changes that began in the late Tang dynasty and culminated during the Song dynasty.1

- Tim Wright

Late Imperial China Imperial Insignia Qing Dynasty StudySmarterFig. 1 Imperial Insignia Qing Dynasty


Something that relates to an empire run by an emperor.

Late Imperial China Dynasties

Many dynasties came before the Ming and Qing, a few are as follows...

  • Sui Dynasty (581–618)
  • Tang Dynasty (618–906)
  • Five Dynasties (907–960)
  • Song Dynasty (960–1279)
  • Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

Ming Dynasty: 1368-1644

The Ming dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang. He was of humble origins and his parents had both died in his childhood during natural disasters. He spent several years begging at a Buddhist monastery, but his time there ended when a militia destroyed the monastery. After this event, Taizu joined a rebel group that was partnered with the White Lotus Society and quickly became a leader.

The White Lotus society

The White Lotus society originated from the White Lotus religious movement which combined religious and political tenants. The main theme of the White Lotus was forecasting the imminent return of the "King of Light" or the future Buddha Maitreya. The Buddha Maitreya is the 5th and final Buddha who will reinstate the Dharma.

Late Imperial China The White Lotus society StudySmarterFig. 2 The White Lotus society

Taizu successfully led a military campaign to invade the city of Nanjing and he used Nanjing as a base of operations. His overall goal was to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of the Yuan empire and he accomplished this by capturing Beijing in 1368. The Yuan empire rulers fled the palace and Taizu established the Ming Dynasty.

Did you know?

The Ming became one of the most stable of all the Chinese dynasties. This stability rose from the severely autocratic style of rule by the Ming dynasty. Taizu ruled an empire based on military discipline, respect for authority, and justice. He saw any form of disrespect as tantamount to terrorism and even disciplined his own officials if they did not kneel before him.

Taizu was a paranoid emperor who saw enemies everywhere. This led to multiple efforts to root out betrayals and conspirators. Taizu’s efforts began in 1380 with a 14-year internal investigation performed by his own secret police. He had morphed those who served as palace guards into his own personal secret police and their efforts led to almost 30,000 executions. Taizu had two more of these efforts due to his severe paranoia and executed 70,000 government workers. He did not differentiate between high-level or low-level government workers who were under suspicion; they were executed together.

Late Imperial China Portrait of Ming Emperor Taizu StudySmarterFig. 3 Portrait of Ming Emperor Taizu

The Ming dynasty ended with the suicide of the emperor Chongzhen in 1644. Before his suicide rebel groups had advanced across the nation overpowering the imperial forces...

  • These rebels were also responsible for the destruction of the Yellow River dikes in 1642 which added to the chaos and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
  • The flooding added to the already present property and agricultural losses caused by other natural disasters.
  • The Ming dynasty ended with a chaotic combination of events and left behind a political crisis.

Qing Dynasty: 1644-1912

The Qing Dynasty, also referred to as the Manchu dynasty or Pinyin Manzu, was the last imperial dynasty of China: 1644-1912.

Late Imperial China Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing dynasty StudySmarterFig. 4 Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing dynasty.

The Qing dynasty began after the death of emperor Chongzhen in 1644. Later in the year, the Manchu people overcame the resulting chaos to rule over China as the Qing dynasty with Emperor Shunzhi as the head. This Manchurian rule was the second time that China was not led by the Han people. Emperor Kangxi ruled for 61 years, 1662-1722. This 61-year rule was the longest of all Chinese emperors!

Did you know?

Han citizens were discriminated against and forced to relocate from Beijing and criticism of the Qing dynasty would result in stiff penalties. Those deemed to be too outspoken were found and beheaded.

The Qing society was conservative at the beginning and only became more so throughout their reign.

  • Homosexuality was assigned severe criminal penalties.
  • The purity of women became a significant issue.
  • The perceived impurity of widows led to the creation of homes for widows where male interaction was limited.
  • Although they were unmarried due to the death of their husband they were seen as unclean to future suitors.

The Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Rebellion started in 1899 as the efforts of the Harmonious Fist secret society. The group targeted Christian missionaries and seized their property and eventually grew into a wave of violence against foreigners. The leadership of the nation had been left to the widow of Emperor Xianfeng, Empress Dowager Cixi. Empress Dowager Cixi had operated as the regent for multiple minor age relatives and eventually overthrew Emperor Guangxu who was her nephew.

Late Imperial China The Boxer Rebellion StudySmarterFig. 5 The Boxer Rebellion

Empress Dowager Cixi sided with the boxers, and their exploits attracted attention from Europe. Cixi declared war on the West and western forces were deployed to China. The western forces defeated the Imperial Army and the Boxers in 1901. The dynasty was further weakened by the execution of pro-boxer government officials and imposed sanctions. After the death of Empress Dowager Cixi in 1908 the last emperor took the throne, child ruler Xuantog.

Important fact!

The final Imperial Emperor was known as the boy king, Xuantog, who abdicated the throne on February 12, 1912.

Printing and book culture in late imperial China

How did the printing and book cultures differ throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties? In short, the Ming Dynasty allowed for the expansion of this culture, whereas during the Qing Dynasty, many books and plays were under strict scrutiny and often banned.

Ming Dynasty Printing and Book Culture

During the Ming Dynasty, there was a boom in publishing full-length novels. These affordably produced books allowed commoners to purchase and read, which was previously a higher income bracket activity. There was a demand for fiction, especially that which was written in colloquial language. During the Ming dynasty, writers returned to classical prose and poetry of previous dynasties.


An informal and ordinary style of language, often used in casual conversation.

Accompanying this return to classical prose was the restoration of the literary examination for public office. This change demonstrates the value put upon literacy during the Ming Dynasty. Feng Menglong authored a series of comedic short stories which were popular with merchants and educated women. These short stories featured palace figures as well as ghosts and were well-received. Modern historian Caitlin Gallagher suggests that his vernacular short stories reveal the fused culture that the Ming Dynasty was home to. In particular, she analyzes Menglong's “Censor Chen Ingeniously Solves the Case of the Gold Hairpins and Brooches,” and “Old Man Zhang Grows Melons and Marries Wennu,”.2

The rise of the merchant class during the Ming Dynasty, as interpreted from historical context and Feng Menglong’s short stories, created a complementary fusion culture of capitalism and Confucianism

- Caitlin Gallagher2

Late Imperial China The seal of the Ming Dynasty StudySmarterFig. 6 The seal of the Ming Dynasty

Most of the well-known examples of literature from the Ming dynasty were written under pseudonyms. One example is an erotic work entitled Jin Ping Mei translated as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus which was authored under the pseudonym Lanling Xiaoxaio. This pseudonym translates into English as The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling.


A name that is used by an author, which is fictitious.

Qing Dynasty Printing and Book Culture.

The conservative shift in society was reflected in writings of the time. During the Qing dynasty, books and plays were banned if they were deemed subversive. Poetry and classic novels did find success in the Qing dynasty, such as the poetry of Yaun Mei.

Poetry and Life of Yaun Mei.

Chinese painter and writer, Yuan Mei was born on March 25, 1716, and lived until January 3, 1798. During his lifetime he was an impressive student, gaining his basic degree at just eleven. At 23 Yuan Mei achieved the highest degree in academia and continued in advanced studies until he failed his Manchu Language studies.

His poetry engaged in Taoist themes such as mediation and the natural world. Yuan Mei created a large surplus of literature, a few of his poems are as follows...

  • Motto
  • Gone Again to Gaze on the Cascade
  • Just Done
  • Climbing the Mountain
  • Nearing Hao-pa
  • P'u-t'o Temple
  • Wrapped, surrounded by ten thousand mountains

As a common practice in late Imperial China, Yuan Mei as a poet was also a government official. After his retirement, Yuan Mei and his family moved to a private estate called 'The Garden of Contentment.'

Fun Fact!

Yuan Mei was an advocate of education for women!

Writing women in late imperial china

Without legal property rights, Imperial China restricted women to the work within the home. The subordinate women of late Imperial China were not treated as equals, and during the Qing Dynasty, they were seen as citizens of the second-class. It wasn't until 1954 that the equality of women and men in China was stipulated in the Constitution.

Ming Dynasty Female Writers

Empress Xu, born in 1362, was an educated woman who wrote bibliographies of virtuous women. Xu was a strict Buddhist and regularly meditated. This was connected to court politics, and Xu is credited as the first person to transcribe a Buddhist sutra from a dream revelation. She wrote it one night after burning incense and meditating. The Buddhist female deity of compassion, Guanyin, appeared to Xu as though in a dream and the sutra was shown to her as a warning. The sutra is composed of conventional Mahayana philosophies, and the mantras were standard Tibetan Buddhist writings.

Late Imperial China Empress Xu illustration StudySmarterFig. 7 Empress Xu illustration


Religious teaching in the form of a short statement of beliefs. In Buddhism, sutras are believed to be the teachings of Buddha.

Qing Dynasty Female Writers

Wu Zongau was an unknown female poet until 1843 when a local official inquired about the circumstances of her death. She had committed suicide on the way to marry a rebel general she did not wish to wed. The local official Wu Tiangkang saw Wu Zongau as a model for virtue and printed a collection of her poetry. He also encouraged his colleagues to compose plays and write biographies of Wu Zongau. She became a celebrated female poet and had many biographies written about her life.

Yun Zhu was born in 1771 and was a prolific collector of women's poetry. After her death, her son Linqing found that she had collected over 3,000 poems by women during her life. Her most prominent work was a book of poetry titled Women's Poetry: Anthology for a Correct Beginning. She was well-traveled and continued her work in collecting women's poetry until she died in 1833.

Women's Poetry: Anthology for a Correct Beginning

This book is made up of 1,700 poems by 933 authors, taking 20 years to finish! The book was proofread by Yun Zhu's daughters-in-law and granddaughters.

Late Imperial China - Key takeaways

  • The Late Imperial Chinese Era spanned from 1368-1012, The Ming Dynasty: from 1368-1644, and The Qing Dynasty: from 1644-1912.
  • The final Imperial Emperor was known as the boy king, Xuantog, who abdicated the throne on February 12, 1912.
  • During Late Imperial China, the Literature and the Arts closely mirrored the political and social themes of the period, reflecting its culture well.
  • Printing became affordable and accessible during Late Imperial China, allowing commoners to purchase and read, which was previously a higher income bracket activity.
  • Modern historian Caitlin Gallagher discusses how book culture and Menglong's short stories reveal the fused culture during the Ming Dynasty.


  1. Tim Wright, (2020). Late Imperial Economy, 960–1895.
  2. Caitlin Gallagher, (2015). Feng Menglong’s Vernacular Short Stories: A Guide To The Rise of the Merchant Class in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): A Complementary System of Confucianism and Capitalism. Abstract.

Frequently Asked Questions about Late Imperial China

Late Imperial China is considered to include the last two dynasties of China. These are the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1368-1912.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 (ending Imperial China as the boy king, Xuantog, abdicated the throne on February 12th), Yuan Shikai became the first president of the Republic of China.

Late Imperial China is the time period from 1368-1912 which includes the final two dynasties of China. Imperial means something that relates to an empire run by an emperor, meaning that an important feature of late Imperial China was that it was run by a selection of emperors.

The collapse of Imperial China was caused by the several military losses followed by the Boxer Rebellion. These led to revolution and the abdication of the boy emperor, Xauntong. 

Late Imperial China is classes as 1368-1912. It covers the time period of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Some Dynasties during the earlier Imperial China are the Tang Dynasty, the Five Dynasty, the Song Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty.

Final Late Imperial China Quiz

Late Imperial China Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What time period was Late Imperial China?

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Fill in the blank.

The _____ of the boy king, _____ ended the Late Imperial period?

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Abdication & Xuanto.

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The longest reigning Emperor of China was Emperor Kangxi, who ruled for 61 years, 1662-1722.


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Did women achieve positions of power in the Late Imperial period?

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Yes, through outliving their emperor husbands or acting as regents over child rulers.

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What was the boxer rebellion?

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The culmination of the efforts of the Harmonious First secret society to wage war on the West.

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The emperor at the time side with the boxer rebellion.


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What year did the Imperial dynasties end?

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What two Imperial lines ruled during Late Imperial China?

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The Ming Dynasty, followed by the Qing Dynasty.

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Who collected poetry written by women in Late Imperial China?

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Yun Zhu was a prolific collector of women's poetry. 

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What did Emperor Taizu do to combat perceived betrayals and plotting?

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He performed internal investigations with his personal police force. 

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Fill in the blanks.

The Ming dynasty maintained stability through _____.

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Severely autocratic rule.

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How were underage rulers controlled by older officials?

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A regent would be assigned to monitor the rule of the young emperor and  would result in the regent ruling from the background.

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What weakened the Qing Dynasty and contributed to the end of Imperial rule?

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Natural disasters. 

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