In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: “The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?” Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant “clear” or “pure,” were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu’s fate during the dynasty’s infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.
The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing — and the entire imperial Chinese system — in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.