The Mughal, Qing, Romanov and Ottoman dynasties all ruled over multi-ethnic agrarian Euraisan empires in the 17th and 18th century. All faced enormous political, economic and social transformations which challenged their rule in the 19th century. In this essay, we will first give a thematic account of the challenges they faced and their responses, and end with an assessment of how effective their responses were.
First, empires required strong military. Western European innovations -- new military organization/mobilization exemplified by Napoleon, followed by industrialization of warfare –- posed the most direct challenges to these empires. Ottoman and Russia both faced invasions by Napoleon, and they would fight each other later in the century, with Ottoman (in alliance with Britain and France) winning the Crimean War (1853-56) and Russia winning other conflicts. The last Mughal emperor was deposed after the British sacked Delhi during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. (11-4) Qing faced many defeats by foreign powers with modern military capabilities, starting with the Opium War (1839-42) against Britain. These military challenges spurred surviving empires to undertake military reforms. Ottoman Tanzimat Reform beginning 1839 included “updating and modernizing the military.” (10-3) From 1865, Qing embarked on the Self-Strengthening Movement which included naval modernization (GD-3). Russia’s railroad build (11-2) was undertaken as “the Crimean War demonstrated the military cost of an obsolete communications system.” (Note 1)
Second, military reforms required industrialization, and both required capital and expertise. For example, Russia’s railroads had to be financed from London. (13-5) It is thus not surprising to see fiscal and educational reforms at the core of reform movements. Ottoman’s reform involved “revamping the fiscal structure” and “creating schools”. (10-3) Qing’s Self-Strengthening Movement established technical schools and translation bureaus. (Note 2) Russia’s “Great Reform” of 1861 (GD-5) -- the emancipation of serfs -- can be interpreted as a reform of its agrarian tax base after the Crimean War.
Third, penetration by westerners, for example protestant missionaries in China (10-4), together with education reforms later, brought in new ideas which undermined political legitimacy of existing dynasties. In China, the leader of Taiping Rebellion claimed to be Jesus’ brother. (10-4) In the Ottoman Empire, nationalism caused Egypt’s autonomy and Greece’s independence. (10-3) In response, political reforms were promised, but proved difficult to execute. Russia’s Tsar Alexander II agreed to set up Duma shortly before his assassination in 1881, after which the decision was reversed. (GD-5) Qing’s short-lived Hundred Days’ Reform (1898) included arrangements for constitutional monarchy. Execution challenges lied not only in convincing the ruling dynasties to voluntarily give up power, but also in the need to maintain the fundamental power sharing arrangements with military, religious and land-owning elites. In the Indian Mutiny, the Mughal side tried to restore alignment among the emperor, the military (Sepoys), and the ulama. (11-4). When the last Tsar fell in February, 1917, disobedience of Cossacks played a key role. (Note 3) These examples pointed to the continued importance of traditional elites for the these ruling dynasties up till their very end.
In summary, with the exception of Mughal which already lost most powers in the 18th century, all dynasties we have investigated introduced innovations from western Europe to reform their military, fiscal, education, and political systems. Despite these efforts, Qing, Romanov and Ottoman dynasties all ended in the early 20th century. In the final part of this essay, we will argue that these regimes – and their reforms – were NOT particularly unsuccessful from a broader perspective.
To assess their efforts, we need to appreciate the massive social transformation these dynasties faced. World population grew from 0.9 to 1.6 billion between 1800 and 1900. (Note 4) China for example faced the Malthusian Trap – where income per capita fell as population grew faster than food production. (11-1) Equally dramatic were the inequalities and dislocations caused by penetration of capitalist-industrial economy. Social grievance generated by the expansion of railroad-linked cotton frontier in the Gangetic Plain in India caused the Mutiny (11-3) would likewise appeared in Russia as it built its railroads. China faced addition social problems caused by opium imports, (10-4) and its Taiping Rebellion would leave 20-30 million dead. (10-4) From this perspective, the fact that Qing, Romanov and Ottoman did not collapse during the 19th century were signs of their resilience.
Finally, let us compare these three dynasties with other major Eurasian regimes in the 19th and early 20th century. Napoleonic France collapsed after defeat, and France would see more regime changes. Japan’s Tokugawa Shogunate did not survive the coup d’etat in 1868. (12-3) Neither German’s constitutional monarchy nor the Austro-Hungarian Empire survived defeat in WWI. The British state survived, but British India would only last 90 years after the Mutiny under the pressure of nationalism. In conclusion, the demise of Qing, Romanov and Ottoman dynasties were caused more by massive global social transformations than by their inherent political structures or their ineffective reforms.
All references other than those marked by "Notes" are taken from the course's lectures and global dialogues. For example, (12-3) refers to Lecture 12, Segment 3 while (GD-5) refers to Global Dialogue 5.
Note 1: p.214, Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin (2006), by Philip Longworth
Note 2: p.284 of Professor Ben Elman’s article in the following link (retrieved Nov 19, 2012) http://www.princeton.edu/~elman/documents/Naval_Warfare_and_the_Refraction_of_China's_Self-Strengthening_Reforms.pdf
Note 3: p.236, Longworth
Note 4: p.2 of Jean-Noel Biraben’s 2003 article in the following link (retrived Nov 20, 2012) http://www.ined.fr/fichier/t_publication/534/publi_pdf2_pop_and_soc_english_394.pdf