The Fall of the Ming Dynasty – April 24, 1644

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– Guest Post by Robert Campbell

These preliminaries settled, he did not care to put off any longer the execution of his design, urged on to it by the thought of all the world was losing by his delay, seeing what wrongs he intended to right, grievances to redress, injustices to repair, abuses to remove, and duties to discharge.

I think if you were to ask people in the West to name one Chinese dynasty, the one they would likely come up with would be the Ming. Much of the reason for this could be linked to the global infatuation with porcelain, primarily in blue and white design, millions of pieces of which were exported from China into Europe and elsewhere during this period – perhaps the first global consumer product. Of course, it could just as easily be linked to the completely unrelated fictional character Ming the Merciless, who first appeared in Flash Gordon comic strips in 1934.

The Great Ming (1368-1644) was the last of the native Han Chinese led dynasties, sandwiched between the relatively short-lived Mongol led Yuan (1271-1368) and the nation’s final dynasty, the Manchu led Qing (1644-1912). The founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, was an orphaned peasant who transitioned from novice Buddhist monk to rebel leader, demonstrating exceptional tactical skill in defeating Mongol forces, but also in eliminating his rival rebel leaders. He took the reign name, Hongwu (Vastly Martial), and devoted much of his thirty-year reign to political reform, including the establishment of a new law code, eliminating corruption, and curtailing the power of the wealthy aristocracy.  

Over the Ming’s three-hundred-year history, some remarkable things were accomplished. Perhaps the best known of these would be the construction of the Forbidden City, a complex of nearly one thousand buildings, which would be home to 24 emperors. Much of what we would now recognize as the Great Wall was also completed during this time. The Muslim eunuch Zheng He undertook seven voyages of discovery, visiting as far as India and the west coast of Africa. Spanish traders introduced corn, potatoes, and chili peppers to China, the latter of which would become a key ingredient in Sichuan cuisine. Silver imported from South America, and to a lesser extent from Japan, led to the establishment of a coin-based currency structure, replacing the paper-based system. There was a tremendous expansion in the writing, distribution, and appreciation of vernacular literature, as perhaps best exemplified by the still popular Journey to the West (c. 1592). The Yongle Encyclopedia (c. 1408), consisting of over 900,000 pages, held the record as the largest encyclopedia ever produced until 2007, when it was finally outdone by Wikipedia.  

The early seventeenth century presented several challenges for the Ming, not least of which was the incompetence of its emperors. During the final twenty years of his reign, the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620) entirely abandoned his administrative duties and focused all his energy on the construction of his tomb. His successor, the Taichang Emperor (r. 1620), ruled for a mere month before succumbing to illness, or possibly poisoning. The illiterate Tianqi Emperor (r. 1620-1627) spent his time making furniture, at which he was apparently quite proficient, turning over control of the empire to his wet nurse and his chief eunuch.

The dynasty’s final emperor, Zhu Youjian (r. 1627-1644) was born in 1611 to the Taichang Emperor and one of his low-ranking concubines, Lady Liu, who was executed by the emperor for reasons unknown when Youjian was only four. At the age of sixteen, following the death of his older brother, Youjian took the throne and adopted the reign name Chongzhen (Honorable and Auspicious). Historians refer to him alternately as the sixteenth or seventeenth emperor of the dynasty. The confusion arises from the fact that Zhu Qizhen ruled twice, first (r. 1435-1449) as the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1435-1449), and then as the Tianshun Emperor (r. 1457-1464).

The Chongzhen Emperor was perhaps a better administrator than his immediate predecessors, but he had a stubborn and suspicious character, which led to him dismissing, and often killing, scores of senior government officials and military officers. However, he also inherited two problems that had been brewing for decades – one internal and one external.

To the northeast of the Great Wall, in the territory known as Liaodong, the Jurchen leader Nurhaci (1559-1626) consolidated Jurchen and Mongol forces and adopted the new ethnic name Manchu. Following the efforts started by his father, Nurhaci’s son Hong Taiji (1592-1643) launched a series of attacks aimed at eliminating Chinese rule over Liaodong, as well as making inroads south of the Wall. His success in these ventures led him, in 1636, to establish the Qing dynasty and declare himself emperor. He then set out to bring an end to the Ming, but he died before accomplishing his dream. Control of the Manchu forces passed to his brother Dorgon (1612-1650).

During the same period, China suffered from extended periods of drought, famine, and disease. With the bulk of imperial revenue being expended on fighting the Manchu forces, less and less was allocated to provide grain and other aid to the provinces. As a result, various rebel groups emerged that proceeded to raid government warehouses and murder government officials. The most successful of these rebel bands was led by a former postal worker and disgraced soldier, Li Zicheng (1605-1645), who was able to consolidate the rebel forces and launch a series of devastating attacks against Ming army units in several key cities, including the ancient capitals of Xi’an and Kaifeng. Like Hong Taiji before him, Li Zicheng was sufficiently enamored of his success that, while in Xi’an, he inaugurated the Shun dynasty and set his sights on conquering Beijing.

After a few weeks of fighting, Beijing fell to Li Zicheng’s forces on April 24, 1644. In response, the emperor first ordered Empress Zhou to commit suicide, which she dutifully carried out by hanging in the Palace of Earthly Tranquility. He then killed Consort Yuan and Princess Zhaoren with a sword and sliced off the left arm of Princess Changping, who miraculously survived the injury, only to die in 1647 from a miscarriage at age seventeen. He did not harm his sons. The next day, he made his way to Jingshan Park, north of the palace, and hung himself from a tree.

When the news reached the Ming general Wu Sangui, who was holding back the Manchu forces northeast of the capital, he approached Dorgon and proposed that they work together to drive out the rebel forces. The combined forces reclaimed the Forbidden City in early June, but Li Zicheng had already fled. The Manchus quickly established Qing rule over China, with many of the Ming military officers and government officials accepting the new leadership.

The remnants of the Ming court made their way south to Nanjing and established the Southern Ming, which lasted in ever diminishing form until 1662, but which accomplished little beyond maintaining hope in the never to be realized reestablishment of Han Ming rule. The Manchu Qing would rule China until 1912.

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Robert Campbell is a sociologist teaching in the MBA program at Cape Breton University and writing historical fiction set in China.

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