Jul 4, 2022
Last time we spoke, the death of Nurhaci led to the rise of his grandson Hung Taiji. The Sea King Mao Wenlong was finally caught lying about his military achievements and even secretly negotiating with the Jin. Mao’s rival Yuan Chonghuan took little time to get rid of Mao, thus riding himself of the man stealing his limelight. Unfortunately it was not long when Yuan would fall victim to a sneaky ploy of Hung Taiji and was executed under the false pretense that he was a turncoat like Mao. Hung managed to gain some very valuable Ming defectors and upgraded his military with new cannons and naval units. Then Hung proclaimed his people to be the Manchu under a brand new Qing dynasty as he conquered all of Korea. With the Koreans now giving him tribute, he soon turned his gaze towards the Ming, with some new toys in hand.
Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on world war two and much more so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.
This episode is The Rebellion of Li Zicheng
In early 1634, one man, Chen Qiyu, was instilled with an incredible amount of power. He was made Supreme commander of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Huguang and Sichuan. The Ming Court had realized the required authority necessary to coordinate operations against the wandering bandit menace. Droughts, famine, even cannibalism was seen all over, driving peasants to swell the ranks of bandits who soon became rebel armies. So many officials in numerous provinces complained they lacked the resources necessary to feed their troops, distribute relief or quell rebellions. In turn when they would fail, they would be dismissed, leading to a further shortage of competent men to manage the terrible situation. In the area between Shaanxi and Henan, over 200,000 rebels began taking smaller towns and killing local officials. The rebels would routinely attack smaller towns, usually in groups of 10,000 and perform atrocities against officials. They would avoid any open battles with Ming forces, always on the move. Then all the prominent rebel leaders got together for a meeting, which would be a rather dramatic turning point. The overarching leader amongst them was Li Zicheng who would make many key decisions for them all. They decided to divide their forces and strike out simultaneously in all directions. The most successful of these groups would be the Rebel leaders Zhang Xianzhong and Gao Yingxiang who hit Nan Zhili. Enroute to their target, their troops carried around banners declaring themselves followers of the True Primal Dragon Emperor and thus they were identifying themselves as something more than just mere bandits. They marched through Henan on their way into Nan Zhili, looting the town of Fengyang. There they killed over 4000 Ming officials and civilians performing some heinous atrocities, some stating they even ripped fetuses out of pregnant women. They razed everything to the ground and looted the place for days. Once they were done, Gao headed west and Zhang went east to attack Luzhou. Defending Luzhou was commander Wu Dapo who deployed peasants and troops to defend the town. He set up cannons atop walls and stockpiled large logs to be thrown at the rebels. Then as the bandits got close, his forces opened fire killing around a 1000 of them.Yet such local competent commanders were increasingly becoming rare and the Emperor continuously resorted to dispatching eunuchs wherever he could to resolve matters. These eunuchs of course were not military men and many had ulterior motives. The bandits were moving further south freaking out the Ming Court and Emperor. Drastic measures were enforced such as rushing 43,000 troops from other theaters, such as from the northeast where the Qing could strike at any moment. In the wake of the absolute disaster at Fengyang, Hong Chengchou was given the task to crush the rebels within 6 months time and the emperor followed this up by pledging almost 1 million taels worth of supplies for the task. Despite all these major efforts, Hong had far too few troops, too much ground to cover and far little time.
The rebels roamed freely, prompting one official in Henan to state “the villages are bereft of people, white bones fill the wilderness and at night the crying of ghosts can be heard everywhere”. Rice inflation was so high, it is alleged people were buying human flesh of the deceased in markets. The rebel groups were demonstrating more and more tactical awareness. They began burning crops in certain areas to deny food supplies to pursuing Ming forces. Gao Yinxiang besieged Guangzhou with a force of possibly 70,000 and used many heavy cannons. Gao followed this up by attacking Taozhou, dangerously close to the secondary capital of the Ming, Nanjing. His forces would crush a Ming army in Song and Henan before he returned to Shaanxi in 1636. The rebels and Ming officials would go back and forth with countless battles and one Ming official realized the rebellions now needed to be quelled as a first priority. The Minister of War Yang Sichang stated the rebels were a “disease of the heart” and that the capital region must be protected from the spreading poison of the rebels. The frontier war with the Manchu he deemed to be like the arms of a person, not necessary for survival, but the heart was. Yang saw the greatest danger being in Shaanxi, Henan, Huguang and Jiangbei. He thought the empire required a bold new strategy to restore state control of the central plains. Once this was achieved, then they could turn their attention towards the Manchu threat. Yang’s plan was to become known as “shi ian zhi wang” the Ten-sided net. Like most grand proposals during this time, it looked amazing on paper and would be a catastrophic failure.
By 1637 the scope of the rebellions had expanded greatly and the center of its activity was shifting from south and east closer to the capital and the agricultural heartland of the Ming dynasty. Thus Yang proscribed the construction of more defenses along the frontier, hoping to bolster everything aside from troops. He wanted to keep around just 50,000 troops outside the Great Wall, thinking it would be a sufficient deterrent against the Manchu. The idea was, if the 50,000 were attacked by Manchu invaders, they could buy enough time for reinforcements to come. In the meantime they could even open up peace talks with the Manchu simply to buy more time for what he really wanted to do, quell the rebellions once and force all. There was quite an uproar in the Ming Court over the idea of opening peace talks with the Manchu, but it would begrudgingly be done. Some others in the court advised opening up trade markets with their Mongol allies to procure horses, hoping to drive a wedge between the Manchu and their Mongol allies. Ming intelligence at the time suggested the Mongolia frontier situation was a hot spot not just between the Ming and Manchu, but also between the Manchu and certain Mongol groups. The idea as stated by one official was “to use barbarians to control barbarians”.
Yang believed given adequate supplies, how many times have I stated that one at this point, given adequate supplies the soldiers could be fed and would fight, and in turn would be able to depend on the populace accordingly. Once the populace felt safe, they would direct their allegiance to the Ming government and be less inclined to join rebel groups. Then with the populace, they could form militias and finally cut off, isolate and stave out the rebel groups. Yang then prescribed punishment and even execution for Ming officials who were derelict in their duties. This was the “ten-sided net” strategy. Yang said Shaanxi, Henan, Huguang and Jiangbei would have 4 lines of defense, each with a pacification commissioner assigned. At Yansui, Shaanxi, Shandong, Jiangnan, Jiangxi and Sichuan would be 6 auxiliary lines of defense, each also assigned pacification commissioners. Those commissioners would be directing both defensive and offensive operations. Through their efforts they would gradually close in around rebel positions until all were trapped, then killed or captured. Defense was the primary function of it all. Once the net closed in on the rebels, the Ming would employ “clearing the fields and strengthening the walls” as a general strategy. Thus with heavily defended cities and no supplies available to them, the rebels would eventually be forced to surrender. 2 supreme commanders, the Zongli and Zongdu would smash the enemy wherever possible, while the rest of the officials would act more locally. The Zongli and Zongdu’s troops would be elite troops with better mobility. Yang estimated they would need 10,000 troops in key defensive posts and around 30,000 for each supreme commander. In total they would require 120,000 troops, of which 36,000 would be mounted. Overall, the problem should be resolved in a matter of just 6 months, sure. Now to equip and supply all these troops it was estimated to cost 2.8 million taels. How were they going to pay for all this, taxes taxes taxes. Yang argued they could increase the land tax by about 12 ounces of grain to bring in an extra 1.9 million taels and get another 400,000 via special taxes on surplus lands. 200,000 from postal revenues and the rest perhaps by raising the sales tax a bit. There was a ton of debate in the Court over all this, but Yang got his way. The plan was a go though it certainly had its critics. One major critic against Yang and his plan was Sun Chuanting, the Grand coordinator of Shaanxi. Sun argued countless problems with the ten-sided net plan. First he argued the funds and manpower for it were highly unrealistic “how can the state raise an extra 2.8 million tales when they’ve already spent more than 1 million taels in extra revenues”. Sun re-iterated this argument asking where the troops would even come from and how the hell would he manage to do all this in just 6 months. Sun also stated the seasons when this would take place were not the same seasons the bandits usually were at large. There was also the issue of terrain, the rebels could still flee to mountains and forests, which large Ming armies would lose them in. Sun said many more troops would actually be required for this plan and those officials appointed needed to not only be competent, but also very knowledgeable at the local levels. Sun characterized the plan to be more of an “empty net strategy”. But like most critics, hell the majority of our politicians today to boot, Sun had no alternative plan. I am sure any of you in the audience can already see one of the largest issues with this plan, that of taxation. The peasants are rebelling because there is no food or funds in their regions, so the plan is to further tax them to stop them from rebelling? This issue did not go unnoticed, the Emperor stated himself “leadership and money needs to come from the gentry, not the masses. Suppressing the bandits requires a big campaign which requires lots of troops. The money can’t come from the people, but should come from the treasury, but the treasury is empty”.
Xiong Wencan, a man who gained a reputation for quelling rebels was appointed as one of the supreme commanders, alongside Hong Chengchou. Out in the field, Xiong and Hong managed to achieve many victories against the rebels, Hong even managed to defeat Li Zicheng, one of the biggest rebel leaders at large. But these victories did not amount to peace for the populace. Many of the pacifications armies would loot and rape as they drove the rebels into the mountains. As is expected, Ming commanders would not venture deep into mountains, fearing rebel ambushes. Ming forces won numerous battles, claiming the lives of thousands of rebels, but were never able to eliminate the enemy entirely from any given region. At one point, the rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong was defeated in battle and had to surrender. This prompted some Ming officials to discuss the idea of using Zhang Xianzhong to kill other rebel leaders. Most officials deemed the idea completely insane and it was soon disregarded. While the discussions were going on however, Xiong Wencan allegedly gave Zhang 20,000 men to help maintain local order. This eye opening moment prompted Yang Sichang to become more more personally involved in the campaign, not liking how his subordinates were simply doing things on their own and some not even following direct orders. Yang also vowed to the emperor it would all be done by the winter of 1638. Yang then berated field commanders to obey the authority of the Ming officials. Winter of 1638 came with no significant results, and Yang asked the emperor to replace him, but was refused. This prompted Yang to make a list of officials who he deemed deserved punishment for lack of action during the campaign, one of the most notable was Hong Chengchou who seemed to be making no ground. Many officials were punished, except for Hong who the emperor personally liked and protected.
There were many unforeseen problems, such as local officials hiding resources and bribing the tax agents who came looking for funds. Natural disasters plagued China as well. Locust plagues hit and caused more famines in Henan, Suzhou and Shandong forcing more and more peasants to scrounge for food and many Earthquakes hit Sichuan. More and more the strong joined the rebels and the weak starved to death. Yang himself seemed to not even be following the ten-sided net strategy anymore by 1638. Yang began to prioritize certain regions over others, rather than keeping the net closing overall and when the Emperor questioned him, Yang would argue it was too difficult to coordinate the officials. As I mentioned many of the sub commanders and other officials were beginning to not heed orders and it was becoming a noticeable problem. And of course Yang gave the old, lack of troops, lack of supplies speech. All in all, rebels were certainly being killed or captured and many of their leaders were falling, its not like the Ming were not making headway. Yang was even beginning to feel some confidence that the plan was working and proposed grabbing another million taels for the plan and famine relief. Then disaster would strike.
As I previously mentioned, part of the plan was to open up peace talks with the Qing, to bide more time to finish off the rebels. In 1638, the Ming were not looking so good and the Manchu’s were coming off multiple war victories making them not too willing to talk about peace. Some in the Ming Court thought they should negotiate making Hung Tiaji a tributary prince, Yang Sichang pushed for this heavily. Yuan Chongzhen held a meeting with many officials over the state of the frontier defenses. They lacked firepower and many competent commanders were busy with the rebels. In the end as a result of the circumstances the Emperor ruled in favor of offering to make Hung Taiji a tributary prince. Meanwhile Qing nobles such as Dorgon, Kong, Geng and Shang began raiding Ming territroy outside the great wall. Then Dorgon had a lucky encounter at a large redoubt near the Great Wall and annihilated the force in it and proceeded across the border and approached the Yellow River. Zu Dashou alerted the capital and demanded relief forces to rush over. The Ming Court debated on what action to take, Yang Sichang advocated for negotiations, while others urged for battle. One commander Lu Xiangsheng argued with Yang “If you discard war but talk of negotiations,you nourish disaster and bring disgrace to the country. Who doesn’t know this? What’s the point of my receiving the double-edged sword from the emperor if I don’t exert myself in battle”. Yang’s rebuttal to this was to sneakily transfer troops from Lu Xiangsheng to another commander named Gao Qiqian, leaving Lu with only 20,000 men. The Emperor for his part was outraged by the Qing threat to his capital yet again and yelled at Yang in front of the Court. It seemed the Emperor was most angry about the idea that those around him thought he personally believed peace talks were the best choice of action, as he did not think they were. The Emperor then ordered Lu Xiangsheng to pursue the enemy and for Gao Qiqian to defend Shanhaiguan. The Emperor sent 40,000 taels to Lu as a reward and stated “Peace talks were the idea of the outer court officials. The Emperor personally favors wars”.
The Qing attacked Gaoyang, where the now 76 year old and retired Sun Chenzong was. He, alongside his whole family participated in the defense of the city. The city fell after 3 days, poor Chenzong and 19 of his family members perished. Lu Xiangsheng pushed for a counter attack, but Gao Qiqian argued they would be better to take up defensive positions. Lu’s forces were fighting the enemy at Baoding, but had no rations left. Lu pleaded with his men to continue fighting “you and I have all received the blessings of the state. In this calamity we may not avoid death, but there is no calamity in which we might not attain life!”. His men resolved to fight on to delay the enemy, praying for relief forces to come. Gao’s forces were only 15 miles away when they received a plea from Lu to come help, Gao did not reply. Lu’s force was surrounded near the Gaoshui bridge outside Jiazhuang, they then engaged the enemy. The battle lasted 6 hours with cannons, guns and arrows flying off. Lu’s sub commanders pleaded to try and break out of the encirclement, but Lu demanded they all make a last stand. Lu would die from 4 arrows and 3 sword blows, allegedly after taking 10 men with him. The Qing took Changping, Jizhou, Pinggu and reached the outskirts of Jinan by January of 1639. Jinan city would fall and be razed to the ground, and the Ming Prince Zhang Bingwen would die from arrow fire in street fighting as the defenders fled. Dorgon then raided some territory around Tianjin before heading back east. By the time any significant Ming relief forces came to bear down on the Qing they were already making a withdrawal. The Qing raids had lasted 5 months, they hit 53 cities of which they captured 8. They fought 57 battles defeating 33 Ming divisions and captured an incredible 473,000 Ming, 4000 taels of gold and nearly a million taels of silver. Over 100 Ming officers were killed and sadly 150,000 civilians. The Ming Court responded first with the execution of 32 officials deemed to have allowed the situation to get out of hand. Yang Sichang was impeached, but managed to avoid execution. Competent commanders who were quelling the rebels were transferred to the northeast to prepare new defenses against future Qing attacks leaving the northwest to fester with more rebellions.
A little while back I mentioned the talk of using the surrendered rebel leader Zhang Xianzhong to help kill other rebel leaders. Well this whole time he was in Gucheng training a so-called militia and making promises to the Ming that he would help pacify all of Huguang. He had erected customs houses on the Han river to collect transit taxes, under the guise they were to help defend Gucheng. He was also bribing officials and local administrators left right and center, effectively having them firmly in his hands. Meanwhile Xiong Wencan was still performing offensive operations against the rebels, while the Ming Court in late 1638 falsely believed the rebels were largely quelled. Then Zhang Xinazhong, to the surprise of no one, began rebelling with that so-called militia group he had been training. It should come to no surprise, Zhang’s efforts the whole time were in preparation for future rebelling. He had extorted money through the transit tax schemes and used the funds to reinforce the walls of the town where he settled his garrison. On top of bribing so many officials to turn an blind eye to his actions, upon re-commencing with the rebellion, he sent a release of records of all the corrupt officials who dealt with him and made it public, leading to more and more executions. Zhang’s force joined up with another rebel leader's force namd Luo Rucai and they soon began to attack Fangxian which fought them for over a week before its gates were opened. The rebels plundered Fangxian and then casually moved into the mountains near the Shaanxi border. The man who had captured Zhang in the first place, Xiong Wencan was berated for all of this of course. Xiong sent Zuo Liangyu to pursue the rebels, but Zuo’s force would be ambushed in the mountains, taking 10,000 casualties and having to retreat. It was one of the greatest rebel victories, they had not only killed a large number of Ming soldiers, his force also got their hands on a ton of war supplies and Zuo’s official seals of authority.
The disgraced and severely deranked Yang Sichang demanded to be allowed to deal with the problem and was reappointed minister of war, Grand secretary, Supreme Commander of Bandit pacification and bestowed the double edged sword of authority in 1639, wow talk about the kitchen sink of appointments. The Emperor agreed to give Yang 5 million taels to wipe the rebels out once and for all and pretty much gave Yang carte blanche for how to operate. Apparently the Emperor even personally served Yang wine at a later banquet and gave him a handwritten poem, what a fall and rise moment. Xiong was impeached of course for his incompetence and even being accused of taking bribes from Zhang Xianzhong. Yang had a 6 step plan now to stop the spread of the rebels. First, taxes would be used to raise local troops with military farms established to feed them. Second, town walls would be improved, Third mercenaries would be hired to help train local militias. Fourth all cities would have firearms mounted on their walls. Fifth the government needed to improve famine relief efforts. And sixth they needed river forces to stop rebel boats and advocated for bringing troops from neighboring regions to help encircle the rebels. As you can imagine, the funding for all of this came from what else, new taxes. Surprisingly, Zuo Liangyu was appointed Bandit Pacifying General despite his enormous defeat to Zhang. Zuo from the offset would also believe he was being held back by Yang, who kept him in a defensive position and denying him any opportunity to get revenge upon Zhang.
Despite the efforts, the rebels remained on the rise, now Luo Rucai and Zhang Xianzhong commanded a force of 100,000 by the fall of 1639. Yang decided to surround Zhang’s stronghold of Gucheng, as Chongzhen berated him demanding to know how long this would all take. Throughout 1639-1640 the Ming seemed to be piling up victories over the rebels and even Zhang Xianzhong had fled into Sichuan being pursued by a very angry Zuo Liangyu. Yang ordered Zuo to stop pursuing him, but Zuo ignored the order and managed to encircle Zhang near Mount Manao. There he made a major victory, inflicting 3500 casualties, captured several commanders and also Zhang’s wives and concubines. Zuo seemingly exonerated himself, but Zhang managed to escape further west into Sichuan, not to mention Yang was not too happy he disobeyed orders. Yang, as was typical of Ming officials, sought to limit those he saw as a rising rival such as Zuo. So Yang recommended another general, He Renlong to be invested with Zuo’s title, which would prove to be a serious mistake. Yang’s recommendation fell dead, and now he had alienated both Zuo and He. Zuo then turned to pursue Zhang who was beginning a rampage throughout Sichuan. Many Ming soldiers began deserting at this time, prompting Yang to more desperate acts, such as recruiting Shaolin monks at the Temple in Henan. Soon all of Sichuan was in trouble as tons of cities were taken by rebels or simply abandoned. Famines forced peasants to cannibalism and thus many joined the rebels, soon Yang yet again asked to be relieved of his post, but the emperor responded by sending 200,000 taels for famine relief instead.
Because of Yang’s strategy to coordinate regional defenses, many local communities were left largely to fend for themselves against the wandering rebels. Zhang and Luo’s combined forces struck several cities in Sichuan. Yang was pushed to relocate his HQ to Chongqing where he could be closer to the fighting. He then began to place a bounty on Zhang’s head and announced clemency for other rebels if they brought him Zhang's head. To make matters worse, the Ming court increasingly became frustrated with Yang’s inability to achieve results with his numerous disputes with his subordinates whom all were rallying against him, stating he was incompetent and should be replaced. To all of this Zhng Xianzhong wrote a poem mocking Yang “Before we had coordinator Shao Who often came forth and danced with me Then came the armies who would not fight But followed me around But now we have good commander Yang Who graciously leaves me a three day road!”. The rebels took Luzhou in December of 1640 and fled at the first sight of Ming troops trying to encircle them. Yang was desperate and ordered all his commanders to assemble at Yunyang and to mount one more campaign to crush the rebels once and for all. Yet by this point many of the commanders were simply ignoring Yang’s orders. For example Zuo Liangyu headed east trying to stop rebels from escaping into Shaanxi and He Renglong had gone west doing a similar operation. Yang was lashing out at the commanders arguing with so much terrain to cover it was now better to go on the offense than defense, but all the commanders ignored him. Then Yang’s fears were realized when Zhang Xianzhong managed to capture Ming Prince Xiang at Xiangyang. Zhang’s men had plundered some seals of office from Ming forces and used them to get into the town. Now Zhang occupied the prince's seat in his palace. Zhang allegedly poured the prince some wine at the palace and demanded of Xiang “I wish to have the head of Yang Sichang, but he is far away in Laikou, so now I’ll have to borrow the prince’s head in his stead. This will cause Sichang to suffer the full penalty of the law for having lost his princely fief. Now the prince should use all his strength to finish his wine”. Zhang then tied prince Xiang to the palace wall and lit him and his concubines on fire. Zhang then distributed some 150,000 taels from the prince’s treasury to the people, but it should be noted his men also performed horrible atrocities upon the people as well. They cut several hands, feet, ears and noses from random civilians when they captured towns in the area. Now the rebel army moved east taking even more towns, even Guangzhou.
Upon hearing the news Yang was livid with the commanders, who all defended themselves stating they were guarding against raids from Li Zicheng’s rebel army from the north. To add insult to injury, Li Zichengs forces did strike from the north hitting Luoyang and managed to capture the extraordinary fat Prince Fu and his grandson. By contemporary accounts, its estimated Prine Fu may have been over 400 pounds and was quite reviled by the local populace. Prince Fu kowtowed before Li, begging for his life. Li of course killed him and then distributed a lot of his wealth to the people of Luoyang stating to them “the prince and the wealthy stripped away the flesh of the people and had no regard for the life or death of the common folk. I've killed him on your behalf”. Allegedly, Li and his sub commanders then stripped flesh from Prince Fu and consumed it with wine as a cruel pun. For taking Luoyang, Li became the foremost rebel leader and the term “dashing Prince” began to be associated with him. Luo Rucai similarly held the title “generalissimo chosen by heaven to pacify the people”.
Yang fell into despair believing all was lost, now he sent a letter to the emperor asking for his own execution. Yang eventually stopped eating and died in march of 1641. Zhang Xianzhong would later capture Yang’s ancestral home of Wuling and dig up his grave and desecrate Yang’s corpse. Yang’s demise truly illustrates the many problems of the late Ming politics and Military situation. All too often, sweeping authority was bestowed on civil officials who lacked military experience. The ten-sided net strategy was doomed from the beginning. The main problem with it was that of resource allocation. If perhaps the Manchu threat had been contained in the northeast, then maybe Yang ould have mustered the forces and resources necessary to beat the rebels. But the entire time there was a fight over resources between the Manchu problem or the Rebel problem, and many in the Court did not know which one was the largest threat. The numerous natural disasters that led to wide scale famines did not help at all and were only made worse by Yang’s lack of military experience. While the Ming forces pretty much always bested the Rebels during battle, the rebels enjoyed superior mobility and easily disappeared when needed.
For the remainder of 1641 the Ming tried to fight off the rebels in central China. Ding Qirui replaced Yang Sichang and Fu Zonglong was appointed Vice Minister of War and Supreme commander of Shaanxi. Li Zicheng had risen to be the most powerful rebel leader with Zhang Xianzhong and Luo Rucai beneath him, but all held significant reputations and status. As a result of all the battles to destroy the rebels, now the rebels had earned significant battle experience, technological expertise and a ton of weapons. The Ming were losing their technological edge in war against the rebels.
After the Qing raid into Shandong, the Qing launched a probe attack on Songshan in March of 1639. A Qing force of 30,000 approached Songshan and were met with 37 heavy cannon fire which repulsed the invaders quite quickly. Hung realized the Ming were not yet ready to abandon their defenses outside the Great Wall so easily. Plans for defending the Liaodong region continued, but at this point Ming officials feared to advance any plan for war in fear of failing and being punished for it. It goes without saying the Emperor’s temper was pretty high at this point and one was likely to be executed or atleast lose significant status for such ventures if they did not pan out. As the war against the rebels intensified in western and central China, the Qing began to make more noise in Liaodong. Ningyuan remained a thorn in Hung Taiji’s side, alongside Songshan and Jinzhou for over a decade now. Since early 1640, the Qing began setting up military farms in preparation for future attacks on Ming territory. The Joseon dynasty was now also helping the war effort by sending food supplies by ship to Xiaolinghe and Dalinghe. Many war plans were brought to Hung by his commanders, and eventually one would be approved. The plan was to capture Songshan and Jinzhou which were thought to be the key to take Shanhaiguan. The war planners argued that previous raids had failed against Shonghan and Jinzhou because the Ming held Shanhai-son jin corridor, but if that was severed, the Qing could consolidate all Liaodong and then hit China proper. Now the Ming were not sitting by idle, they saw the Qing build up and knew a massive invasion was incoming. The Ming also rightfully deduced an attack would be made on Songshan and Jinzhou so both were heavily fortified and prepared for sieges.
The Qing first made their attack on Jinzhou in may of 1640. The Qing began to dig trenches around the city preparing for a very long siege. By March of 1641, Zu Dashous sent a messenger outside the walls of Jinzhou stating to the Qing forces “we’ve got enough food to last 2-3 years. It will be a long siege; will you be able to hold out that long to outlast us?”. The Qing replied “we aren’t lifting the siege, whether it lasts 2-3 or even 4-5 years. How are you going to keep getting food?”. The back and forth talk seemed to unsettle the Ming’s Mongol allies at Jinzhou who began to negotiate with the Qing separately. This drove Zu to panic somewhat and go out and strike up a battle with the Qing, but was beaten back into the city. The Qing began to hack their way through the first layers of the city defenses as the Ming continuously sent relief forces from Xingshan, but all were being ambushed and defeated. Then in April of 1641, the Qing assaulted the outpost of Chayeshan. The Qing bombarded it with large cannons and arquebuses. The soldiers and a small force of monks there fought back as best they could using spears, boulders and incendiaries. Soon the Qing overwhelmed the outpost with firepower and razed it to the ground. Then in May of 1641 the Ming engaged a Qing force just outside Xingshan led by Wu Sangui. Wu’s force was outmaneuvered despite having a lot of cavalry and encircled by the Qing commanders Dodo and Jirgalang. The Ming lost a few thousand men and several commanders fled, only to then get caught up in another engagement around Liangmashan just a few miles from Jinzhou. At Liangmashan the Ming dug in and tried to bait a force of 3000 Qing into a fight, but the Qing did not take the bait. More fighting occurred outside various outposts and the Ming kept driving off Qing raiders who in turn would just wait until night time to hit walls with siege ladders. Songshan resisted a 37 day long siege under heavy Qing fire, until a Ming relief force arrived. The Qing were camped a few miles due east of Songshan and had to fend off multiple Ming strikes against them. It seemed all the outposts and major walled cities were managing to hold off the Qing. The Qing strategy of bombarding them and trying to draw them out into decisive battles in the field was not working. It seemed the Ming still enjoyed the edge when it came to firepower, but Ming scouts were sending concerning reports that the Qing were busy building a ton of weapon carts and ships at Shenyang. It was clear that a purely defensive war would not be enough. The Ming commanders began to analyze the situation and they discussed the importance of trying to force a decisive battle that might allow them to retake Liaodong. They believed if they could dictate the place and style of combat then they might stand a chance. The Ming also began to get reports that Korean ships were transporting Qing soldiers in the Bohai Gulf which raised the concern the Qing might sever their sea supply lines. This all accumulated into a major war planning session in april of 1641. The Ming commanders held a conference at Ningyuan and decided they needed to break the Qing encirclement of Songshan and Jinzhou. Wu Sangui would lead an initial attack followed up by Zu Dashou from Jinzhou. They ended up clashing with a Qing cavalry force of about 8000, sending the Qing fleeing with their superior cannons. The battle was embarrassing for the Qing, and the commander of the force, Jirgalang was replaced by Hung’s brother Dorgon from that point on. It was also around this time the rebels armies had captured and killed the 2 Ming princes and Yang Sichang suicide. All the northeast outposts and cities were demanding further relief forces and supplies, but the Ming court decided to focus on the increasing rebel problem and thus the northeast would just have to rely on what had on hand.
In the summer of 1641, Hung renewed the efforts against Jinzhou and Songshan. The Qing erected their siege weapons, dug moats and trenches around the cities to thwart any relief or supply efforts and dispatched mobile forces to hit anyone outside walls. Chongzhen did not want to send any significant force against the Qing, believing by autumn the Qing would become weakened through attrition. The Emperor did not agree with this plan however and sent the Minister of War Chen Xinjia and Zhang Ruoqi to goad Chongzhen into action. Chen began attacking Chongzhen for what he argued was his lack of faith in the Ming forces. The same factionalism that had plagued the Ming for decades was soon going to force a catastrophe.
Meanwhile, since the death of Yang Sichang, the rebel leader Li Zicheng’s ambitions were growing each day. He was now recognized as a charismatic leader and quite the military genius. The way in which he dealt with Prince Fu had gained him a lot of notoriety with the populace since he was handing out money and food. Li then gained the attention of some gentry, one notable one was named Li Yan. Li Yan joined Li and advised him “you must take capturing the hearts of all the people under heaven as the root. If you don’t kill people, then you’ll win their hearts”. This seems to have had a profound effect on Li as he began to do just that. Li also began a program of making popular slogans for his rebel movement, one went like this “Kill your oxen and sheep. And prepare your wine and spirits.Open your gates and welcome the Dashing Prince. When the Dashing Prince comes. You won’t be paying taxes”. A man after my own heart and wallet, if I must say. Shortly after Li Zicheng began changing how his force rebelled, more gentry joined him such as Niu Jinxing and a midget sorcerer named Song Xiance. Yes a Midget sorcerer. Song Xiance was a native of Guide in Henan. He walked with a limp because of a bad right foot and was known by locals as Son the Child. His reputation as a sorcerer came from the fact he went around telling fortunes and casting divinations, which was something seen throughout Chinese history for midgets. Well one of these fortunes he told was that of Li Zicheng who he predicted would have his 18th grandson assuming the imperial throne and that his name would also be Li. So as Li Zicheng enjoyed popular support and expanded his movement, other rebel leaders continued to rampage throughout western and central China. Widespread famine and more people resorting to cannibalism swelled the rebel armies ranks. The situation dramatically changed in august of 1641 when Luo Rucai broke off from Zhang Xianzhong and joined up with Li Zicheng in Henan. Alongside Luo other smaller rebel leaders also joined Li and Li took this newfound force to attack Xincai along the Henan - Nan Zhili border. The commander at Xincai was Fu Zonlong who managed to beat back the rebels with cannons, but the rebel hoards kept coming. Fu then sent word to He Renlong and Li Quoqi asking the 2 commanders for help, but both complained it was not possible to cut through the rebel lines to get to Xincai. Li began to step up the siege and Fu’s defenders were soon running low on food. It is alleged, Fu’s forces were forced to eat the corpses of slain rebels. When the gunpowder ran out Fu had no other choice but to attack the rebels. Fu led 6000 men out at night to attack the rebels and managed to kill an estimated 1000 rebels before breaking out of the encirclement. They fled for their lives being chased by rebel forces and Fu was eventually captured. The rebels then tried to use Fu to open the gates of Xincai. When he was marched in front of the gate he screamed out “I am the commander of Shaanxi and though I have fallen into rebel hands and there are rebels on all sides of me, I will never serve you. I am a high official. If you wish to kill me, then kill me. How can I not sacrifice my life rather than help you bandits deceive those in the city?”. With all of that said, the rebels beat him to the ground, cut off his nose and Fu would die from his wounds, Xincai would soon after.
Zuo Liangyu would attack Li and Luo’s force, driving them in the direction of Henan. From there the rebels would target Nanyang in November of 1641. Nanyang was defended by Meng Ruhu who died trying to defend the city. When Nanyang fell, Li burnt down the residence of Prince Tang furthering his personal war against the Ming monarchy. After this Li began to occupy towns in southwestern Henan much to the dismay of the Ming Court. The Ming Court appointed Sun Chuanting straight out of jail, to be the new Supreme Commander of the 3 Frontiers. By the way I have not made much mention of it, but so many officials were jailed for failing their jobs, only to later be reappointed to that same job or another job and taken out of jail, it really was chaotic.
At this time the Ming official Wang Qiaonian decided to attack Xiangcheng in central Henan which had recently fallen to rebels. Wang led 10,000 well trained troops to take the city and found it relatively undefended, little did he know the rebels had moved on early. Unfortunately, once the rebels heard of Wang taking Xiangcheng they soon returned and surrounded the city. Wang along with many of his men would be killed in street fighting over the city. Zhang Xianzhong made an assault on Shucheng in southwestern Nan Zhili in march of 1642 which fell quite easily after a 3 day siege. Zhang changed the city’s name to Desheng meaning “attained victory”. Over the next few months, Li Zicheng and Luo Rucai continued to raise hell in Henan, he rebel forces were rotting the Ming Dynasty to its core.
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The Ming dynasty was like a roast beef rotting from the inside while being carved up from the outside. Droughts, famines and terrible administration led so many starving and wartorn peasants to join rebel groups and now Li Zicheng emerged the largest rebel leader amongst others who now held entire armies at their command. Yang Sichang began the disastrous “ten sided net plan” which resulted in many victories over the rebels, but at terrible costs. The more the Ming allocated resources towards quelling the rebels in the northwest and center of China, the weaker their northeastern frontier became, ripe for the plucking for Hung Taiji. Now Hung focused his attention on long term sieges of major Ming held fortresses outside the Great Walls, but once those fell he could attack China proper.