In 1840, a fleet of British gunboats initiated the First Opium War and China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’. It represented a precipitous descent for the Manchu Qing dynasty, whose rise had been equally precipitous. The warlord, Nurhaci, united the Manchus before moving south to secure his new capital Mukden; as the Ming dynasty disintegrated, Nurhaci’s heirs seized the Chinese imperial throne. In the 18th century, the Manchus had controlled a vast empire through the conquest of Outer Mongolia, Tsinhai, and the extermination of the Dzungars. They also secured the vassalage of Korea, much of Indochina and annexed the Amur region by defeating the Russians. The long reigns of the Kangxi (1661–1722) and Qianlong (1735–96) emperors marked the pinnacle of Qing power. But military discipline began to decline, sapped by imperial overreach. As with the Yuan and Ming, overtaxation triggered a series of revolts from the 1790s, leaving a fatally weakened empire to face British aggression.
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