I agree that there are no "what-ifs" to history, but my guess would be that we would have been worse off if Ming came after the Qing. The queue, footbinding, the triad are just minor details, "反清复明", "驱逐鞑虏" are just revoluntionary slogans. The main state policies of isolationism would still be in place. The Ming and Qing are very similar, however, of the two the Qing was far superior. The Qing was expansionist and maintained effective rule over today's frontier regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Inner Tibet, and Inner Manchuria, and had some sort of central government presence in Outer Tibet and Outer Mongolia. Although the Manchus and bannermen (which included Mongolian, Han, and other ethnicities) were at the top end of the social hierarchy, the Qing Empire during and after Qianlong's reign was effectively a true multiethnic empire. Many Qing-era monuments in Beijing have the five languages of the empire inscribed in parallel (Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur), there's also the pentaglot dictionary, support for Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism, and the likes. Without the Qing, I think not only would the modern area of China be much smaller (composing of only core Han Chinese areas "China proper"), the state agenda of multiethnic harmony that's so prevalent in today's People's Republic would give way to a more narrow Han Chinese nationalistic agenda. The frontier regions could have been much more daunting, with Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan, Tibet, and other new nation-states, prone to foreign dominance and annexation, bordering so closely to the Han Chinese heartland (with little natural boundaries to help containment). China could haven been easily carved up and colonized in the vein of India or perhaps opened up similar to Japan or the late Qing, with concessions and port cities made into colonies.
Overall, although corruption was a big problem during the late Qing, I think this was always the natural order for the dynasties of China. There would be one or two highly respectable emperors reigning early or in the middle of the dynasty. Wars would be raged and territories would be expanded, causing a temporary suppression of popular discontent through iron-fisted rule, and a depletion of funds from the imperial treasury (eg, Han's Wudi, Tang's Wu Zetian, Qing's Qianlong). After the emperor's death, popular discontent that was suppressed would ignite once more, and the problems that will eventually cause the fall of the empire would take shape. The Qing fared quite well, lasting more than a hundred years after Qianlong, having to put down waves after waves of internal rebellions and fighting with the foreigners, and even the beginnings of a modern society (military and education) and constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Things would have been better if the young reformist Guangxu had more power rather than the conservative Cixi. From the viewpoint of the entirety of Imperial China's history, the Qing was an empire that was the most centralized and effectively governed the greatest amount of territory (a full 13 million km^2, the largest in China's history), and the first after the Northern Song dynasty to have finally surpassed its GDP. Speaking of which, before rampant industrialization, GDP was mostly a measure of 1) the lack of war and 2) the population, of which both China and India had the most since almost the beginnings of recorded history. But alas, human flesh is no match for the productivity of machines. I think neither the Qing nor the Ming would have "stayed ahead of the curve" in the field of industrialization. Tang's cosmopolitanism is a double-edged sword, I think in the end, their empire became too big to effectively govern (with the methods of the day), and collapsed. Tolerating and accepting foreigners settling in the land is fine and dandy when the empire is strong, but when it is weak, the widely diverging agendas of the regions' rebellion leaders can wreak havoc. The Han dynasty was too early an empire for me to consider placing into so modern a situation (it'd be akin to considering how the Roman Empire's state policies and structures would have fared against Napoleon or Bismarck). The Song, (of which I am a fan), I believe would have been the best to deal with Western imperialism, and would have had the best economy (indeed, their GDP wasn't surpassed until the Qing). Song's bureaucracy was the most decentralized allowing for effective governance in the regions. The market was relatively free, (it was the beginning of mercantilism in China), and many went on (private and commercial) trades in the South China Sea (whereas with early Ming's Zheng He, while indeed grand, was only a one-time stint to "扬威", at most, getting some subsequent tributes from minor nations, nothing substantive as continued trade or true colonies). Of course, the Song would also have had lesser territories, probably more akin to Southern Song than Northern, not even the entire Han Chinese heartland. It seems my conclusion would be that Qing was indeed the best out of the choices available (provided Guangxu had real power in court rather than Cixi).
Edited by shibo77, 22 December 2010 - 09:42 PM.