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The Qing fall in the 1850s

varyar

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Location
Western New York
#1
Today, the seeds of a new AH story started sprouting in my brain. The basic POD is that during the Taiping Rebellion, the Taiping forces manage to break north and storm Beijing. The Emperor is slain (either by his own hand or by the Taiping - historians differ on the subject in TTL) and his brothers are either killed or flee into Manchuria. The Taiping success is fleeting, though, as the Hunan and Anhui armies soon arrive on the scene and take the capital back from the rebels. There, after much internal debate, Zong Guofan issues a proclamation that the Qing have lost the Mandate of Heaven and that he, reluctantly, will take their place. Zeng Guofan becomes the first emperor of the Yan (Flame) Dynasty, pledging to 'burn away the corruption and false teaching that have poisoned China' and taking the era name Jiande (Establishing Virtue).

Naturally, this change in dynasties makes the second half of the 19th century a golden age for China and it reaches superpower status by 1900.

Wait, no, it still has very serious internal and external issues to contend with and while it does fare better than OTL, Yan China lags behind Japan and the West. They're at least able to keep the Japanese out of Korea and Taiwan. Only during the 1920s, though, does China catch up with Japan. After that point, it lurches its way onward and upward, and by 2019, Yan China is about as prosperous and powerful as OTL China, if not a little more so. It's a mostly free constitutional monarchy, but the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities is not that great. Also, it probably has 200-300 million more people as it didn't suffer the demographic effects of the warlord era, the Japanese invasion and Maoism. Mongolia (all of which remained Chinese here), Xinjiang and Tibet are most likely all being flooded with Han settlers; possibly Outer Manchuria as well, but I suspect it ended up in Russian hands just like in OTL. The current emperor is the Tielong Emperor, born in 1940 and about to celebrate 50 years on the throne.

(Against that backdrop, my very vague notion of the actual story is that it centers on a developing friendship and then romance between two Beijing residents - one is Taam Jidaan, a police officer from Guangzhou, the other is Nicole Lee, an American exchange student studying at a local university. It's a little thin, I know.)
 
#2
Does the new Yan dynasty manage to sort out all the other rebellions (Nian, Miao, Panthay etc.) any quicker than the Qing managed IOTL?

Because if they’re allowed to fester whilst the Yan are consolidating themselves (crushing the remainder of the Taiping, dealing with any Qing loyalists etc.) things could get messy.

And, if the POD is pre-1856 (is the POD the Taiping refusing to settle in Nanjing and going full force for Beijing, rather than the smaller northern expedition of OTL?), do the Westerners take a wait-and-see approach to the new dynasty rather than plunging into the 2nd Opium War? If the Opium War does go ahead and the Yan immediately get trounced that’d probably do bad things for prestige and stability- so you probably want to avert it if things are going “better than OTL”.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#3
According to Ito Hirobumi, all of China's problems in the 19th century could essentially be traced back to that the Western powers had interfered to keep the Qing from falling during the Taiping Rebellion. In Ito's opinion, it simply messed too much with the traditional Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven. By all reason, the Qing had lost it by the 1850s, and so should have been allowed to fall, allowing for something new to take its place, which could then have started modernizing China. The problem with the Qing from the 1850s onward was not just that they to a great extent lacked the impetus, but that they fundamentally lacked the legitimacy to be able to push through the radical reforms necessary for China.
 

varyar

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Location
Western New York
#4
Does the new Yan dynasty manage to sort out all the other rebellions (Nian, Miao, Panthay etc.) any quicker than the Qing managed IOTL?

Because if they’re allowed to fester whilst the Yan are consolidating themselves (crushing the remainder of the Taiping, dealing with any Qing loyalists etc.) things could get messy.

And, if the POD is pre-1856 (is the POD the Taiping refusing to settle in Nanjing and going full force for Beijing, rather than the smaller northern expedition of OTL?), do the Westerners take a wait-and-see approach to the new dynasty rather than plunging into the 2nd Opium War? If the Opium War does go ahead and the Yan immediately get trounced that’d probably do bad things for prestige and stability- so you probably want to avert it if things are going “better than OTL”.
I think the other rebellions wouldn't last too long here, but the 2nd Opium War would definitely be a huge burden for a new dynasty. I'm inclined to hand wave it away if possible, but I don't know much about it (or the first one, although I am currently reading a book on the subject - it hasn't gotten to the actual war yet, though).

According to Ito Hirobumi, all of China's problems in the 19th century could essentially be traced back to that the Western powers had interfered to keep the Qing from falling during the Taiping Rebellion. In Ito's opinion, it simply messed too much with the traditional Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven. By all reason, the Qing had lost it by the 1850s, and so should have been allowed to fall, allowing for something new to take its place, which could then have started modernizing China. The problem with the Qing from the 1850s onward was not just that they to a great extent lacked the impetus, but that they fundamentally lacked the legitimacy to be able to push through the radical reforms necessary for China.
Interesting thesis. Seems fairly reasonable to me, but again, I don't know as much about the period as I'd like to.
 
#5
I think the other rebellions wouldn't last too long here, but the 2nd Opium War would definitely be a huge burden for a new dynasty. I'm inclined to hand wave it away if possible, but I don't know much about it (or the first one, although I am currently reading a book on the subject - it hasn't gotten to the actual war yet, though).
With a POD a few years earlier you can probably avert the specific events that gave rise to the 2nd Opium War IOTL, and assuming Zeng is at least somewhat more amenable to the west than Xianfeng and his conservative clique of advisors (which isn't exactly a high bar to clear) that helps- but I'd imagine some of the more rapaciously-minded members of the British community would look to take advantage of the chaos in the aftermath of the Taiping sack of Beijing, and be pushing for more privileges, open-ports, trying to stir up trouble etc.

On the other hand, the Taiping drive north and sack of Beijing would presumably have a major effect on trade and the economy, so maybe the British community (or at least the more moderate, even-tempered members therein) is inclined to be relatively benign towards the Yan on the basis that they're restoring law and order and some semblance of normalcy, and that's good for the bottom line?

If the Taiping do something particularly gruesome whilst sacking Beijing, and make Zeng look better by comparison, that'd probably help too.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
#7
In that case, Shanghai is surely a better bet than Beijing. Have the Taiping sweep down the Yangtze and somehow catch Gordon or Ward off guard as they try and assemble their militias. If the loss of two foreign generals isn't enough- and it's possible that it might not be, given that they were basically mercenaries- you could have their employers be captured, tried and executed when Shanghai falls to the Taiping.

That way might work even better. That might leave Zeng as the last major force standing against the Taiping, so he could end up getting the foreign backing that was channeled to the Ever Victorious Army. He ends the war not just as the great victor in China, but with clear lines of communication to the foreign powers who in this scenario might be quite pleased with him removing the Qing.
 
#9
In that case, Shanghai is surely a better bet than Beijing. Have the Taiping sweep down the Yangtze and somehow catch Gordon or Ward off guard as they try and assemble their militias. If the loss of two foreign generals isn't enough- and it's possible that it might not be, given that they were basically mercenaries- you could have their employers be captured, tried and executed when Shanghai falls to the Taiping.

That way might work even better. That might leave Zeng as the last major force standing against the Taiping, so he could end up getting the foreign backing that was channeled to the Ever Victorious Army. He ends the war not just as the great victor in China, but with clear lines of communication to the foreign powers who in this scenario might be quite pleased with him removing the Qing.
This would entail pushing back the POD, though- given Ward and his Ever Victorious Army didn’t get off the ground until the 1860s.

And by that stage, the Taiping probably lack the momentum to take Beijing and unseat the Qing (especially given they’ve been distracted by a side campaign against Shanghai). Which means Zeng’s path to the throne is significantly less clear.
 

d32123

Well-known member
Location
Seattle
#10
Even a successful Taiping Rebellion (plausibility of which is very arguable) would result in a government facing the same external pressures that OTL Qing faced in the second half of the 19th century. They are still going to have to serve as a vehicle for foreign capital to plunder and exploit China, and thus will lose their legitimacy much as the Qing did in short order. Unlike the Qing they could survive as some sort of constitutional monarchy (like OTL Thailand) but I don't think replacing one dynasty with another is going to alter the fundamental class dynamics at play.
 

Makemakean

Rootless Rōnin
#12
Even a successful Taiping Rebellion (plausibility of which is very arguable) would result in a government facing the same external pressures that OTL Qing faced in the second half of the 19th century. They are still going to have to serve as a vehicle for foreign capital to plunder and exploit China, and thus will lose their legitimacy much as the Qing did in short order. Unlike the Qing they could survive as some sort of constitutional monarchy (like OTL Thailand) but I don't think replacing one dynasty with another is going to alter the fundamental class dynamics at play.
This kind of begs the question of why that didn't happen to Japan. After all, as late as the first half of the 1860s, things in Japan were not looking good. The British and Americans had very successfully been able to use gunboat policy against them, the Tokugawa Shogunate was falling apart, and the opposition to the Tokugawa was poorly organized if not outright atomized in the various provinces and had widely differing views on what to replace the Tokugawa with. And yet within only a few decades, Japan had not just managed to go through an internal constitutional revolution, but modernize themselves sufficiently that they not just became a colonial power, but was also able to defeat Western powers in war.
 

varyar

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
Location
Western New York
#13
This kind of begs the question of why that didn't happen to Japan. After all, as late as the first half of the 1860s, things in Japan were not looking good. The British and Americans had very successfully been able to use gunboat policy against them, the Tokugawa Shogunate was falling apart, and the opposition to the Tokugawa was poorly organized if not outright atomized in the various provinces and had widely differing views on what to replace the Tokugawa with. And yet within only a few decades, Japan had not just managed to go through an internal constitutional revolution, but modernize themselves sufficiently that they not just became a colonial power, but was also able to defeat Western powers in war.
Really, all I'm looking for is for China to do better than it did in OTL (via a belated, sort of Meiji type reform) - given how horribly the 20th century went in reality, I don't think better alternatives are that improbable. The outside world, especially the Japanese and Russians, will press in on China, and it will suffer losses in land and money, but I think a new, more energetic dynasty than the Qing could manage to thread the needle and reach 1900 or 1920 intact enough to really modernize, the way China eventually did in reality.

(Then fast forward another 100 years and Lewis Tan and Leighton Meester star in the movie based on my story.)
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
#14
While an Emperor Zeng (I know that's not what he'd have been called) is an interesting proposition, if you want a Meiji-esque China then perhaps the easiest method is to avoid the Tongzhi Emperor's death from smallpox in 1875 at age 19.

The Tongzhi Restoration was unstable and superficial, yes, but it still had enormous success in reviving the dynasty from the brink of collapse. If it had continued it might well have got China on to a more stable footing. Remember that even OTL, the Qing successfully repudiated an unequal treaty in 1881 when Russia sought to annex the Ili Valley. They enjoyed a certain amount of success against the French on land. Even going into the 1895 war with Japan, many foreign observers thought they were the more powerful state.

Now all that has very little to do with the Emperor himself, but his early death and the squabble over his succession meant that his mother Cixi had to realign herself with the conservatives to keep her position as regent. Before that she was capable of working with the Self-Strengthening Movement.

If you can give China even one more decade where the Empire is ruled by an uneasy coalition of Prince Gong, Cixi, Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang... well, someone's going to end up out of favor and quite possibly dead, but a hell of a lot of ground might be covered in the meantime.
 

Japhy

This is the way
Published by SLP
#15
What I read of it looked very promising indeed. Any chance of you completing China 1865?
I mean it was about Zeng becoming Emperor and it basically wasn't something I was comfortable with narratively (I didn't want it to be a bunch of White Guy observations) so if anyone can do it better I just wish them the best of luck. And I'm always thrilled to read more China AH.
 

Japhy

This is the way
Published by SLP
#16
Even a successful Taiping Rebellion (plausibility of which is very arguable) would result in a government facing the same external pressures that OTL Qing faced in the second half of the 19th century. They are still going to have to serve as a vehicle for foreign capital to plunder and exploit China, and thus will lose their legitimacy much as the Qing did in short order. Unlike the Qing they could survive as some sort of constitutional monarchy (like OTL Thailand) but I don't think replacing one dynasty with another is going to alter the fundamental class dynamics at play.
Just because Marx had racist views on Asian societies doesn't mean he was right.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
#17
This would entail pushing back the POD, though- given Ward and his Ever Victorious Army didn’t get off the ground until the 1860s.

And by that stage, the Taiping probably lack the momentum to take Beijing and unseat the Qing (especially given they’ve been distracted by a side campaign against Shanghai). Which means Zeng’s path to the throne is significantly less clear.
Good point, for some reason I thought Ward at least was around by the late 1850s. And the Shanghai merchants only really boomed after the Treaty of Tientsin.

Alright, how about Canton, as it was? Lots of western merchants and missionaries there. Perhaps if we posit a general collapse of Qing rule across the south?
 

Alex Richards

Tends to eat truffles once found
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
#18
Good point, for some reason I thought Ward at least was around by the late 1850s. And the Shanghai merchants only really boomed after the Treaty of Tientsin.

Alright, how about Canton, as it was? Lots of western merchants and missionaries there. Perhaps if we posit a general collapse of Qing rule across the south?
I don't think Canton works. It's too close to Hong Kong and Britain will be able to, if not outright defeat an attack on Canton, at the very least evacuate the merchants beforehand.

This might be a good PoD for 'the British Southern China Protectorate' to emerge however.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
#19
Though that might be an interesting spur to serious Chinese reform- if after the various internal rebellions are put down, the Qing have to grapple with the de facto loss of control in one of the richer parts of the country.
 
#20
... if you want a Meiji-esque China then perhaps the easiest method is to avoid the Tongzhi Emperor's death from smallpox in 1875 at age 19.
You possibly don't even need to avoid this, simply see that the traditional succession rules are followed. This is going from memory but Prince Gong's son Zaicheng was meant to inherit the throne, with the Dowager Empress Ci'an backing him, but the Dowager Empress Cixi was able to subvert things and have her nephew ascend to become the Guangxi Emperor instead.