Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Great Enterprise

Book Cover

Book Title

The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985


Wakeman, Frederick, Jr.


The fall of the Ming house and the rise of the Qing regime in 1644 was one of the most dramatic dynastic succession. However, it happened as part of a longer process: the economic decline of the seventeenth century commerce, the social disintegration of the Ming order, and the political consolidation of Qing rule. There was an unusual demographic dip in China during the years coinciding with the global economic depression, all of which has led historians to believe that China was also caught in the same general seventeenth century crisis that had gripped the Mediterranean world.

The great Manchu enterprise had begun long before 1644 - perhaps it had begun in 1618 with the fall of Fushun in the northeast - and it was ultimately to require about two-thirds of a century to be completed, culminating with the Kangxi Emperor's victory over the Three Feudatories as well as the Zheng regime on Taiwan in the early 1680s.

The book thus discusses the long and drawn-out process of the political consolidation of Qing rule, beginning with a period of preparation along the northern marches of the Ming empire, passing through a time of experimentation as adjustments were made to the Ming institutions which the Manchus had inherited in Beijing, and then resulting in a subtle blend of Chinese and barbarian modes of rule in which Manchus and Han each had to accept the reality of Qing power and on terms not initially their own.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope is a large one, in particular with regards to the gradual process of developing the Manchu imperial order. Volume One covers the foundation of the Ming dynasty; inextricably connected to the expulsion of Mongol forces from the Central Plain and the subsequent build-up of Chinese military colonies beyond the Great Wall, as well as its relations with the Northern Frontier. After which, the volume discusses the Chongzen Court, the Manchu conquest for power and the subsequent establishment of Qing rule, with the resistance it provoked.

Volume Two covers the essential events and parties involved in the building of the Manchu institutions as well: Local control in North China, the final pacification of the North, the Dorgon Regency, the Shunzi Court and the remaining tension between Ming loyalists and the Qing rulers. The very success of the Manchus' initial reconstruction of imperial order in the seventeenth century made it difficult to widen their institutional alternatives when there was a recurrence of external challengers who appeared once more in the nineteenth century. This last time when the dynasty fell, every strand of the political fabric collapsed with it. The great enterprise was finally exhausted, the imperial order beyond repair.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Critical to this political process of rise, adjustment, and fulfillment were the Chinese mandarins who collaborated in the Manchus' development into imperial Confucian dynasties. Arguably, in return for giving up the illusory ethical heroism of the late Ming, Chinese followers of the Qing dynasty had the golden opportunity to implement political reforms that could stabilize the central government. Unfortunately, moral uneasiness was the eventual result for the policy of mutual accommodation between Manchu rulers and Chinese collaborators.

The uneasiness this provoked had two important effects. The first was the relinquishment of a certain kind of intellectual autonomy and moral commitment, so that ethical philosophers became scholarly academicians and political leaders turned bureaucratic administrators. Secondly, there was an enhancement of the mandarin's zeal for conservative reforms; reforms which ended by building up the power of the central government to the extent that the Chinese state was able to recover from the seventeenth century crisis sooner than any other major power in the world. Although this recovery was premature, the restoration of the dynastic order brought a new permanence to the ancien regime. Though regarded as barbarians, the Manchus were creators of a successful solution of their own design to the Central Kingdom's difficulties.

However, the systemic breakdown which had influenced the entire social order was seen to have caused the economic difficulties of the late Ming. Whereas earlier emperors like Taizu (the Hongwu Emperor) and Chengzu (the Yongle Emperor) had used their private agents to increase their personal control over the government, the increasing strength of the eunuchs caused later rulers to lose power and authority over the bureaucracy. Throughout China, there were numerous instances in the 1630s of public services being taken over by private parties. Whether fighting was carried out in the name of the emperor or the rebels dedicated to his overthrow, armies like Zuo Liangyu's reflected a general pattern of uncontrolled militarization during the last decades of the Ming. Stable social structures seemed to be giving way to military states which were insufficiently stable, finally bringing down a ruling house long overwhelmed by social forces it could not control.

Annotated by Michelle Djong