Jul 11, 2022
Last time we spoke, Yang Sichang had enacted his “ten-sided net” plan and won a multitude of victories over rebels. However this plan proved to be a disaster overall and cost the Ming Dynasty more than it did any good. Now Li Zicheng had established himself as the de facto largest rebel leader amongst others who now held entire armies at their command. The Ming dynasty was rotting from within and its actions to prevent the rot simply delayed or sometimes even made it worse. With the allocation of so many resources to the northwest and center of China to deal with the rebels, the Ming northeastern frontier was weaker than ever. Seeing the absolute turmoil from within, the Qing soon realized they could allow the rebels to do much of the heavy lifting for them for now it was time for the Qing to overthrow one of the greatest dynasties in history.
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 fall of the Ming Dynasty
As things only worsened within the Ming dynasty, soon the Qing would make their move in one of the most decisive engagements fought between the 2 empires. Given the Ming's recent ability to withstand the Qing raids over the past few years, the Ming Court remained a bit more optimistic that the northeast could hold out. Hong Chengchou continuously argued they should remain defensive despite many in the Ming court pushing for offensive operations. Despite this, the Qing were making massive efforts at digging trenches for some upcoming sieges. By some estimates some trenches were 8 feet deep and 6 feet wide, dug in several rows. The siege efforts represented an evolution in Qing warfare, many differing groups were being employed and specialization was being seen. For example Koreans were manning many of the firearms and Mongols were used more for mobile warfare. At Jinzhou some Ming relief forces began to advance and upon hearing the firing of their guns, the defenders burst out of the south gate. The Ming engaged the Qing who had sent 7000 cavalry to hit them. A fierce battle was fought, but the Qing were able to move their cannons and used them to devastate the Ming. The defenders were badly hurt, having 738 dead and 793 wounded, but the Qing eventually turned away by nightfall. Despite this being a slight victory for the Ming, they had only months worth of supplies and were advised by Zu Dashou not to enter any battles lightly. But the Ming Court kept demanding more offensive operations, pushing Hong Chengchou to go forth with a force of 60,000 in July of 1641 to hit the Qing. The Qing forces were around Mount Rufeng, due south of Jinzhou. When Dorgon heard the report of 60,000 Ming incoming he urgently sent a message to Hung for aid. Hung told Dorgon to stand firm and sent him 3000 cavalry immediately to help out. Estimates vary, but its possible the Qing had up to 100,000 men in many elevated positions amongst all the siege works. When Hung arrived to the scene he stated “They say Hong Chengchou knows how to use troops. I can see that those aren’t empty claims. My generals should be concerned”. Some of Hong’s commanders advised a retreat, stating their supply was short, but Hong stated “now today we have this opportunity and although our food supplies are growing short, you should listen to the order of your officers. If you defend, you may die, but if you don’t fight, then you’ll still die, but only in battle do you have any hope of a favorable outcome”. Thus Hong led the attack personally against Hung’s forces. This is getting a big confusing eh with the Hung and Hong? Hong’s left and right flanks advanced haphazardly and were quickly routed by the Qing. The next day the Ming left flank panicked and fled, trampling into another and abandoning many weapons and supplies while falling victim to more Qing ambushes along the way. Over 50,000 Ming troops were lost, literally being driven into the sea. Of the left flank it is said barely 200 men survived, being ambushed all the way to Ningyuan. The left flank commander, Wang Pu would be executed for this terrible conduct. Hong Chengchou and the right flank made a fighting retreat all the way to Songshan with only 10,000 troops. Hong vowed to hold Songshan to the death with these forces, but now Jinzhou was more isolated and thus in grave danger. As the Ming dug in further, Hung told his forces all they had to do was sever the Ming supply lines and defend the coast, because the Ming were short on food and soon would fall apart. Hung returned to Shenyang and left the siege in the hands of his commanders, Dodo, Jirgalang an Abatai. Upon hearing the news, Chongzhen ordered Hong to fight to the death if necessary to protect Songshan. As the siege continued the defenders pleaded with the court to send supplies while they had only a single bowl of rice per day to survive on. Things did not fare much better for the besiegers who were also low on food supplies. It would actually be Songshan that turned itself over to the Qing before Jinzhou, in march of 1642. At Jinzhou the defenders eventually resorted to cannibalism and this finally prompted Zu Dashou to surrender the city to the Qing. Next Tashan fell with 7000 of its defenders being massacred. Xingshan fell afterwards peacefully. Many of the Ming commanders were brought to Shenyang. Eventually Hong Chengchou after refusing to eat for several days agreed to defect to the Qing, becoming the newest most prominent Ming to do so. Hong Chengchou joined the Yellow banner, working under Dorgon.
These victories, now called the battle of Song-Jin allowed the Qing to acquire a ton of war equipment. They got their hands on 3683 cannons and 1515 various guns. Now it seemed the Qing had the necessary technological tools capable of toppling the Ming Dynasty. Hong Chongzhen just before the fall of Songshan and Jinzhou proposed opening up peace talks with the Qing. But knowing the emperor's temper, Hong had sent 2 envoys secretly and by the time they reached the Qing Songshan and Jinzhou had already fallen. Nonetheless the talks occurred and the Qing in a great position demanded territorial concessions, 1 million taels of silver per year in tribute and would pull their troops back away from Ningyuan as a gesture of good faith. The 2 states would be made equals and exchange ministers to conclude the agreements. All of this was relayed to Chongzhen who assembled his court who were deeply divided over the matter. On one hand agreeing to this would stabilize the frontier and allow the Ming to devote all their resources to deal with the rebels. But on the other hand, it was dangerous to publicly announce that the Ming dynasty was now treating with the Qing. The court decided not to go through with it and the envoys left Shenyang, thus from that point onwards no real peace talks would occur again between the 2 dynasties.
The Qing brushed this off, because now they understood how strong their position was. The conquest of the Ming dynasty was now a reality if they so desired it. Hung held a conference with his advisers who all came to the conclusion that peasant rebellion within the Ming Dynasty they had all had reports of could do much of the heavy lifting. Hung would continue his raids to plunder more supplies and booty, but he also ordered his men not to rape or plunder indiscriminately. In september of 1642, the Qing sent 50,000 troops hitting Ming defenses along the Great wall, winning a series of minor battles. Then they assaulted Dongchang but were repulsed by its defenders led by Liu Zeing. Despite the minor setback, they would eventually capture Dongchang 3 months later. It turned out the defenses of places in Shandong were oriented towards the sea and the defenders were equipped and trained to counter attacks from that direction, thus they were not as prepared for cavalry attacks. The Qing then attacked Jining, where Prince Lu courageously led the defense, but the city soon fell and Prince Lu commited suicide. Ming Grand secretary Zhou Yanru then told the emperor he would lead relief troops himself. He did, and they routed quickly and were defeated, though he would send reports back to Beijing stating he had won a great victory. Zhou also had not been in the actual battlefield, but rather dining at banquets with friends while simultaneously sending a stream of victory reports to the Ming court. He was not alone in this, many other Ming officials were lying or over exaggerating their war efforts, not wanting to face the wrath of the Emperor’s temper.
During the raids into Nan Zhili, Shandong and Henan in 1642-1643 the Ming records estimated the Qing had attacked 3 superior prefectures, 18 regular prefectures, 67 counties and 88 towns. They had captured almost 400,000 people, 321,000 livestock, 12,000 taels of gold and 2.2 million taels of silver, a colossal sum. Alongside all of this they of course got their hands on more firearms. Matters were even worse than the plundering however, as the Qing raided more and more starving refugees fled into Shandong and Liaodong burdening local officials. Just about nothing the Ming did could hinder the Qing, until one thing put a dent in the Qing attacks, Hung Taiji died in August of 1643. Historians think it was a stroke that killed the great ruler.
On the rebel front, in October of 1642, the great city of Kaifeng in Henan, once a former capital of China was completely destroyed by a man-made flood. The flood submerged the city and its estimated 80% of its population died, over 370,000 people. This would be a setback not only for the Ming, but also for Li Zicheng who had hoped to use its capture as a springboard for his ultimate goal, a thrust at Beijing. After the capture of Luoyang, Li had grown more aware of the necessity for a strategic base of operations so he could hit the capital. Kaifeng was not just a strategic place it also was a symbolic one, as mentioned it was a previous capital.
Li Zichengs forces had actually assaulted Kaifeng a few times between 1641-1642, but each time they were repulsed and decided to attack other cities and return. By mid july of 1642, famine was spreading with Kaifeng and Li’s forces had returned to try again. They expanded defensive moats around the city to siege and wait them out. Then they got the bright idea of utilizing the Yellow River to flood out the defenders. On july 29th, an impatient Li Zicheng killed a subordinate who proposed the idea of using the river, as his efforts to do so had not yet worked. The moats had only filled up with 5 inches of water. Then on August the 10th, the defenders of the city burst out to try and make a decisive victory against the rebels. The battle was ferocious and Li Zicheng fought in the very thick of it pushing the defenders back into the city. Kaifengs walls were beginning to crumble, food was scarce and no relief armies were able to come to its aid. The usual reports of people resorting to cannibalism began, thus things were quite dire. This got the defenders to think of anyway to escape this plight, one idea was to use the river. Water levels had risen to around 4 feet deep and heavy rains were adding to this. The defenders hoped that by diverting the river, it might provide them with fish and other food sources. The commander of kaifeng in desperation sent 3000 of his best troops out in the middle of the night to cut the dikes, but his men were caught and turned back. Then in the middle of the night on october 7th, the defenders were awakened by a great roar and the river suddenly came crashing right into the city. The rebels pulled back and watched the enormous power of the river doing all the work for them. Historians are not 100% sure if the rebels had ultimately cut down the dikes or perhaps heavy rains simply collapsed them. But in any case, the river smashed through the Cao gate in the north, sweeping everything before it and rushed out the south gate. People desperately climbed towers to avoid the raging waters or made rafts. The commander of the city built some 20 boats to evacuate, Prince Zhou and other high officials, as most commoners were forced to cling to tree branches and debris praying for rescue.By dawn of october 10th, the city was fully submerged. The rebels looted what was left of the city, but it was in such a sorry state there was no point trying to occupy it as a base of operations. Thus a disappointed Li Zicheng turned further south. It was a catastrophe for the Ming, Kaifeng was a base of operations used to coordinate defensive efforts for all of Henan and specifically to protect the southern approach to Beijing. Now as Li Zichengs forces moved south, also in august of 1642, Zhang Xianzhong was embarking on a new venture. His force had been camped in Lake Chao not too far from Luzhou where he began to recruit and train a naval force. Zhang planned to attack Nanjing via the Yangtze river. For Li Zicheng, he was turning his attention towards Nanyang where Sun Chuanting was leading Ming troops. Li and Sun’s forces clashed a few times, but Li was able to bait, ambush and eventually force Sun’s forces to retreat towards Shaanxi and the Tong Pass. This allowed Li to hit the last position of Ming strength left in Henan, Runing.
Runing was defended by commander Yang Wenyue with only 3000 troops. Yang also happened to be an old rival of Li’s who had fought him a few times outside Kaifeng. As soon as the rebels approached the city, the defenders began to break and fled. Apparently the defenders threw corpses over their walls into the moat in desperation. When Li Zicheng entered the city he faced the captured Yang and said to him “Master is an important official of the dynasty who will not submit to us. But now that we’ve caught you, what is your wish?” Yang replied “I myself, without any soldiers, only want to kill you. So today I’ll die at you hands. What else can I say?”.Yang was then executed in front of the Sanyi temple. Li Zicheng followed this all up by taking Xiangyang, De’an and Chentian in early 1643. At Xiangyang, Li took new steps to building up his new order. He took the residence of Prince Xiang and made the prince and his siblings earls. Prince Xiangyang was renamed Xiangjing and Li took the title of “Long Accumulated Worshiping Heaven Leading-in-Righteousness Generalissimo”, and thank god he decided to shorten that all down to commander in chief. His secondhand man, Luo Rucai took the title “generalissimo whose virtue and awe pacifies the people on behalf of heaven”, what is with these guys and these ridiculously long titles? At this point Li Zichengs force began taking all men they captured between the ages of 15-40 and enrolled them in the army, and soon they were a goliath 600,000 man strong force. A few months later, Li Zicheng adopted the title of Prince of Xinshun and began procedures for taking future cities. Now if defenders resisted for 1 day, 30% of them would be killed, if resistance lasted 2 days, 70% would be killed and if after 3 days all would die. When Chongzhen heard reports about this he was utterly disgusted. Zhang Xianzhong also upted his anty by renaming and reclassifying captured towns and prefectures in Central China even when he did even not hold them. To add to the Ming’s misery, some of Zuo Lingyu’s subordinates attempted a mutiny to take Nanjing, raising a ton of tension. Zuo was eventually able to quell the mutiny, but it distracted him and his forces from Zhang’s operations.
At the beginning of 1643, Zhang remained the only rebel leader not directly subordinate to Li Zicheng. Zhang knew the danger posed by this and started to consolidate and legitimize his own power lest he be swallowed up by Li. Thus Zhang decided to attack Nanjing and as we mentioned he built some naval power to do so. In may Zhang’s force moved into eastern Huguang capturing several cities and he soon renamed himself Prince of Xin Shun. Then Zhang targeted the capital of Huguang, Wuchang. Many of Wuchangs forces were former mutineers under Zuo Lingyu’s. The city's defenses did not fare too well to say the least and fell by July the 15th. In the chaos of its capture, thousands were massacred by Zhang’s men and thousands more drowning in the local river. Prince of Chu himself was drowned in a bamboo cage by Zhang’s orders. The river was allegedly so full of corpses that the fish were unfit for consumption months after. Zhang took all the captured men between 15-20 enrolled them as soldiers and killed the rest in quite a grisly manner. He renamed the city Tianshoufu meaning “received from heaven” and the capital of his new Western Kingdom. Zhang then elevated the late Prince Chu’s younger brother to a position of nobility within his new order. Zhang went on to make all these proclamations and promises of restructuring so much, but he only really ended up occupying the city for barely a month before being chased off by Zuo Liangyu. As he withdrew he torched the city, I guess so long for all that? When Li Zicheng got report of all these ongoings he decided to place 1000 taels for Zhang's head, demonstrating the emerging rivalry. Zhang moved on to occupy Yezhou then used his boats to strike at Changsha. Like the poor souls of Wuchang, the defenders of Changsha did not take notice of the incoming rebel force and did not make any strong defensive points along the city's northern approach. When Zhang approached the city’s gates he demanded their surrender and a brief effort was made by the defenders to repel them. Knowing it was fruitless, the commander of Changsha asked if he could give his life in return for the sparing of the people. Zhang accepted this, it is said the commander's eyes remained clear and bright and he did not cry out as he was cut to pieces. The Ming Court was feeling helpless towards the declining situation, now both the frontier and interior were in utter chaos. Officials were being impeached left right and center and some executed. More and more officials poured into the imperial palace as the Emperor demanded solutions.
In spring of 1643, Li Zicheng began to consolidate his movement by eliminating rival subordinates. The first to go was Ge Guoyan after he secretly met with Luo Rucai which prompted suspicion from Li. Li then invited Ge to a banquet, got him very drunk and killed him, thus taking all of Ge’s forces as his own. Subordinates Zuo Jinwang and He Yilong were dispersed, in a similar fashion. And even Luo Rucai would face elimination, it seems he had grown to popular despite the fact, unlike Zhang he never expanded his political goals and prefered the life of a wandering bandit. There is some evidence to suggest Li took out Luo because rumor had it the Ming were trying to get Luo to kill Li and defect. Luo did not fall for the banquet affair, but later would be killed by a death squad sent by Li whom caught Luo asleep with his forces in camp. Luo’s forces would be taken by Li who continued his purge, which prompted some subordinates to defect to the Ming. The great purging did not go unnoticed prompting Zhang to send Li gifts, probably hoping to get on his good side, but Li sent nothing in return.
In autumn of 1643, the Ming made a large offensive against Li Zicheng. The emperor ordered Sun Chuanting to conduct an operation in Henan towards the east to crush Li once and for all. The problem for a long time though was most military strength was in the northeast thwarting off the Qing, but now it seems the court decided to divert considerable resources from the northeast in the hopes of destroying Li Zicheng in Henan. Sun Chuanting was not loved by the local gentry in Shaanxi because he raised many taxes to pay for local defenses, despite them being successful. These gentry thought if they allowed Sun to lead Ming armies away from his defensive positions, he would no longer bother them with more taxation, so they supported the idea. Sun opposed the operation for many reasons, firstmost he thought his defensive plans were bearing fruit in Shaanxi. If Li’s army swelled, their supply lines would become problematic and with winter on everyone's heels, Sun figured Li’s army's morale would eventually break and they would have to go west, falling upon Sun’s defenses. Sun was also concerned with supplying his force in the event of an offensive operation as in the past this proved to be fatal. He advised waiting until the following spring, but was completely ignored as all the gentry were now pushing for the operation. Sun eventually had to bow to local gentry and court pressures to lead the offensive, remarking “this is the path to ruin” as he did so. Sun marched down the yellow river valley gathering Ming remnant forces in Luoyang. Sun then ordered Zuo Liangyu to take a force and advance from Jiangxi and strike south upon Runing, hoping they could perform a pincer attack. However Zuo’s force was still recovering from being smashed the year earlier and had to refuse this order, something increasingly being done by commanders in the field. So Sun had to advance alone and managed to smash a rebel force at Ruzhou to the utter delight of the Ming court. They were all jubilant, except for the Vice minister of War, Zhng Fengyi who reminded them the rebels might be feinting an illusion of weakness to lure Sun into a trap. Well Sun soon won victories at Baofeng and Jia pushing the rebels further towards Xiangcheng. Despite the victories, Sun was facing the very problems he had foreseen. His troops were running low on supplies, and years upon years of scorched earth tactics had devastated the agriculture of Henan. Thus Sun’s troops were at the mercy of neighboring provinces for food supplies but the officials in those regions were either unable or unwilling to send the provisions. At that point Sun’s 2 subordinate commanders argued if they should go back on the defensive or continue with the offense. Sun had a spy within Li Zichengs camp telling him that Li force was on the ropes, thus Sun decided they would continue. As November hit, things got really bad, supplies worsened and Sun troops began to raid local towns or eat their own horses. The rearguard of his army then got cut off by forces under Li who spread rumors to them that Ming relief forces were not coming to their aid. This all panicked the men and the rear began to rout. Upon seeing the chaos, Sun ordered a general retreat and told his subordinates Gao Jie to protect their rear and for Bai Guang’en to lay ambushes to cover the retreat. Bai took his forces and simply bolted for the Tong Pass. Unfortunately for his almost complete infantry force, do remember they began eating all their horses afterall, well Li’s cavalry found them and smashed them to pieces. Sun’s army was soon routed losing 40,000 men and abandoning an incredible amount of weaponry to the rebels. Sun tried to make a stand at the Tong Pass but his forces crumbled to the rebels. Bai Guang’en not only got his force smashed, but he ended up defecting to Li and became a commander for him. Sun proceeded to retreat up the Weir River valley where he would fight a final battle at Weinan and he would die with his men. Gao Jie took his remaining forces and fled north, leaving Beijing completely open to attack. All of this convinced Li that the time was ripe to declare his intent to overthrow the Ming dynasty and formally establish his own regime which would be at Xi’an.
While that was going down, Zuo Liangyu was fighting Zhang Xianzhong’s forces further south. Although Zuo’s men managed to recapture Xiangyang and Nanyang, Zhang as we mentioned had taken Changsha and now fortified it. The fighting between Zuo and Zhang would continue and before long Zhang found himself setting up in Sichuan where he established his Great Kingdom of the West. It was there as I mentioned that he took Yang Sichang’s corpse and desecrated it. Back in Beijing, the court now made Yu Yingui supreme commander of Shaanxi. And Yu was very skeptical about any effort to turn the tide at this point, well no duh.
With Sun Chuanting dead, Li Zicheng had several options laid bare to him. One of his subordinates advised him to take Hebei’s capital next, another said they should loop around Jinling to get supplies and hit Beijing, others suggested taking a position in Henan and capturing further cities to draw more troops then go across Shanxi to hit Beijing. In the end Li liked the last plan which was advised by his subordinate Gu Junen. Yet before Li would set out to do all of this he wanted to create his own administration in Xi’an. He also decided the attack on Beijing would be done from 2 directions. Li and his subordinate Liu Zongmin would advance on Beijing from the northwest, first heading from Xi’an and seizing Ming garrisons along the way through Shaanxi and the Great Wall at Juyong pass. His other subordinate Liu Fanglian would advance from the south, crossing through Henan to hit Beijing.
Xi’an was protected by some of the largest walls in all of China and would fall without a single fight as one of its leading officials was working with the rebels. At Xi’an Li made the Prince of Qin an administrator and renamed the city Chang’an, recalling its Tang dynasty name. Li followed this up by adopting many Tang Dynasty names for office positions and cities to add legitimacy to his own name and movement. Li also began wearing dragon robes and began to distribute wealth to the people. Li’s armies fanned out and conquered numerous places renaming them. One place they took was his hometown of Mizhi which he renamed Tianbao “protected by Heaven” and he began to construct a palace there. On New Years day of 1644, Li Zicheng declared his rival Shun Dynasty within the city of Xi’an, now called Chang’an. Li took the reign title, Yongchang meaning “eternal prosperity”. Li then attacked the last remaining Ming stronghold in Shaanxi, that of Yulin. The fighting was fierce, but Li’s cannons broke its walls. Next to fall was Ningxia, and Qingyang where Liu Zongmin suffered an astounding 30,000 casualties but took the city. Guyuan was handed over to Bai Guang’en without a fight and soon the rebels were marching towards Gansu. Meanwhile Beijing was in full panic, some even advising a retreat to the second capital of Nanjing. In response to Li's march, the court dispatched commanders to various routes going to the capital to hinder Li. Li Mingrui the Hanlin Academy lecturer advised the emperor in front of the court that he should have a quote “southern tour to Nanjing wherein by virtue of the monarch leaving the capital like a dragon rising or a tiger leaping the masses would spontaneously rise to quell the rebels”. Emperor Chongzhen made no note of this at court, but in private told Li he agreed but feared what would befall the Ming subjects if they learnt the Emperor was fleeing to Nanjing. They then secretly went over the logistics of how to get the Emperor to Nanjing safely. Li suggested taking men from the 8 prefectures around the capital rather than any from the northeast which would look like they are abandoning territory to the Qing. In the midst of these plans another advisor came forward, Grand Secretary Li Jiantai who argued they should raise 1 million taels of silver to recruit and fund an army to take Shanxi back. The Emperor pressed him on this and Li stated he would work with the scholar Shi Long to gather supporters from all over the northwest. The Emperor in absolute desperation liked this plan and gave the go, giving Li the double edged sword of authority. It is claimed the force that was sent out was 100,000 strong. The problem was all these men was that they were in the words of a modern scholar “dandies, spoiled rich kids, space fillers and incompetents”. Around half the force deserted after marching only 30 miles and returned to Beijing. Before any serious fighting ever occurred most of the force simply scattered. Just 3 days after the army left Beijing, the Emperor asked his Minister of War about Li’s whereabouts and the official had no idea prompting Chongzhen to exclaim “how can my Minister of War not know this?”. At this point the Emperor sat down with an official to look at the numbers. The officials told him the rebels claimed to have a 1 million man strong army, but reassured him it was probably around 100,000. Then he gave the emperor a sobering account that the Ming forces around Beijing were around 80,000 strong, but only around 30,000 of them could be somewhat trusted and of that only 3000 really trusted. It was at this point the emperor revisited the southern tour idea in private while putting on a face in public that he would not leave Beijing.
News from the front indicated Shun forces had just captured Taiyuan and Datong where they killed another Ming prince. Then the Shun took Xuanfu whose defenders simply turned the city over and the populace welcomed the Shun with cheers and burning incense. Then Changping fell in March without much of a fight. When the Emperor received news of Changping’s capture he got up during a court meeting and simply walked out. It is alleged he paced around the forbidden city screaming out “my minister have failed me! Failed me!”. Li Zicheng sent envoys to Beijing asking for the city to be handed over without a fight and offering a deal with the emperor whereby he would be recognized as a prince and together they would face the Qing. This offer would mean that Li would be formally be made a Prince of Shun and all territory in the northwest would be his. Second the Shun would receive a tribute of 1 million taels. Third the Shun would not take orders from Chongzhen, but would help fight the Qing and assist in quelling other rebels. Emperor Chongzhen did not accept the proposal. Chongzhen ordered many of his children to flee south and issued a directive for all his civil officials to kill themselves since they had failed to save the dynasty.
When the rebels began to attack the gates of Beijing, the defenders fired powder shots as they had all reached an agreement with rebel agents. Li Zicheng made great efforts to break the will of the defenders at Beijing before his approach. On the afternoon of April the 24th, one of Emperor Chongzhen’s eunuchs gave the orders to open the city gates. Li promised the people of Beijing amnesty to all those who surrendered. Emperor Chongzhen appointed Liu Wenbing in charge of rallying the populace to defend the city to which Liu replied “If your majesty cannot do it, then how can I?”. The Emperor then went to the Qianqing palace in the forbidden city and told the empress “All is lost. As you are the Mother of All Under Heaven, you should die” she replied “I have followed your highness for 18 years and I will die without a word; today we die together with the altars of state and we will have no more regrets”. The emperor ordered the royal family remaining in Beijing to commit suicide and for the younger ones to try and escape. The empress and many other members were able to commit suicide, but Chongzhens youngest daughter Zhaowang he had to kill himself with a sword. Allegedly, Chongzhen by this point was so utterly drunk, he accidentally cut Zhaowang’s arm off in the process and left her to die in a pool of her own blood. It is also furthermore rumored she would survive the wound and would live out the rest of her life as a buddhist nun. Chongzhen and his faithful eunuch servant, Wang Cheng’en went to the base of Coal Hill and hung themselves from a tree. The Emperor left a suicide note reading in part “My inadequate virtues and weak flesh have invited punishment from Heaven. Now the treacherous rebels are invading the capital. My officials have caused all this! I must die but I am ashamed to face my ancestors. Therefore I take off my crown and cover my face with my hair. Rebels! You can dismember my body, but do not harm the common people!”.
As the Emperor lay dead, several eunuchs of the Ming Court, alongside the Minister of War, Zhang Jinyan welcomed Li Zicheng into the city. Li Zicheng initially prohibited his men from plundering Beijing, but it was not too long until the populace was subjected to rape and looting. Afterall how could Li Zicheng stop his men from the ultimate prize that was Beijing. The Shun Dynasty was beginning to be established, but unfortunately for Li Zicheng there loomed a rather large problem at hand. That problem was in the form of the Qing empires forces at the doorstep of the now dead Ming dynasty.
Li Zicheng had a major problem, the Qing had bided their time waiting for a moment to strike and it was coming any minute now. Li Zicheng’s only hope to hold them off would be to try and rush to the northeast and win over as many of the Ming defenders in the area as possible and bolster them up. In May Li Zicheng had to set forth from Beijing to meet the enemy in the northeast, leaving his subordinate Niu Jinxing in command of Beijing. Over in Shanhaiguan was commander Wu Sangui who was very unsure what to do. Then Wu learnt that the forces of Li Zicheng had abused members of his family back home and decided he would defect to the Qing. Li Zicheng heard reports of Wu’s resolve and begrudgingly sent a small force quickly to attack Wu who engaged that said force around Yongping. Wu smashed the force to pieces and fled back to Shanhaiguan. Now enraged, Li and Liu went forth with an army of around 100,000 to crush Wu. Now Wu realized the Qing military were most likely better off than the rebels and after some lengthy negotiations with Prince Dorgon, Wu arranged to allow the Qing to enter China proper through Shanhaiguan unmolested in exchange for their assistance in defeating the treacherous Li Zicheng. It seems Wu believed he might be able to score himself as the next ruler of the Ming state or atleast become a Prince under the Qing. Dorgon was quite suspicious of Wu however. The offer suited the Qing of course, it would allow them to look like they were avenging the Ming Dynasty against the rebels. Before Wu had come forward, Dorgon had been planning an attack on Beijing by coming through inner mongolia, but now the alliance solved that problem entirely.
A Qing force of 140,000 came to Shanhaiguan and joined forces with Wu’s. Dorgon ordered Wu to take his army as a vanguard for their combined force. Dorgon’s thinking was by doing so Wu’s men would take the brunt of the hard fighting and this would ensure after their victory that his forces would not be strong enough to stand up to them if he had a change of heart. Li Zicheng had set out with 100,000 men, but many of his commanders were recent turncoats such as Tang Tong and Bai Guang’en. Also for many of the rebels, the ultimate goal had been achieved, they looted Beijing, many did not have the mind to continue fighting. Li Zicheng’s ultimate mistake however was not that he was engaging in combat with Wu or the Qing, but that it never occurred to him that they would join forces.
In late May the Wu/Qing and Shun forces would do battle on a field just outside Shanhaiguan. Shanhaiguan had 3 outlying castles guarding the interior approach and Wu had prepared his main defensive line at the west bank of Shihe. 40,000 Shun troops crashed into Wu’s main defensive line and Wu motioned his forces back into the main castle while simultaneously sending 20,000 men to the north and west to cut off the Shun’s escape routes. In the initial clashes the battle was fairly even, with both Wu and the Shun losing considerable amounts of men. Wu grew concerned that the Qing were merely going to allow his force to be smashed to pieces and then sweep in afterwards, and he had every right to think this, they most likely were doing just that. Despite the odds, Wu’s force seemed to be turning the tide somewhat and this prompted Dorgon to send 2 waves of 20,000 cavalry to envelop the Shun. The next day, Wu led a charge against the Shun formation but they repulsed him right back into the castle pass. Then the Qing cavalry of the White banner led by Ajige and Dodo smashed into the Shun. Wu’s men saw the Shun morale crumble and charged upon them again, bursting out of the castle. Li Zicheng was directing the battle from a high tower position and upon seeing the cavalry, he simply assumed them to be Wu’s forces. dust clouds made by the charging cavalry made it very hard to see what was going on, but as the battle heated up more, Li began to see swarms of arrows raining down on his men and he realized these were Manchu people, he screamed out “the tartars have come!”. The Shun force collapsed, many were driven towards the sea and drowned. The Shun force retreated scattered, with many running back to Beijing. Li and his forces then fled as fast as they could for Beijing where they staged a very quick enthronement ceremony for Li where as he declared himself emperor. Then Li and his army plundered Beijing and most of the rebel left the city the day after, carrying off their loot.
Prince Dorgon, serving as a regent for the child Emperor of the Qing, Shunzhi, entered Beijing in May of 1644 seeing all the rebel armies flee before his men. He announced to the populace they were now under Qing rule as Li Zicheng fled west to Xi’an. Over the next 6 months, Li’s authority would disintegrate throughout all the territories he had conquered. Ming loyalists, some semi-independent warlords and the Qing swallowed up everything in sight. Eventually Li found himself in the summer of 1645 being pursued by the Qing prince Ajige to the vicinity of Mount Jiugong. How Li died is not exactly known, some say he hung himself after being surrounded by some angry peasants. Others say peasants beat him to death looking for food. What is known is that his corpse was badly mutilated when it was found. Li Zichengs body was sent south to Ming authorities who decaptitied it. Our old friend Zhang Xianzhong was in Sichuan and would hold out until 1647. Ming loyalists in the south would hold out on the mainland until 1662, ironically many of Zhang Xianzhong’s subordinates would be their commanders. Some Ming loyalists famously would hold out in Taiwan until 1683 still trying to reclaim the dragon throne for the Ming.
History marks the fall of the Ming dynasty to be in 1644 with the death of Emperor Chongzhen. Many historians argue various reasons for why the Ming Dynasty ultimately fell. One history stated quote “could no longer manage its resources, utilize its strengths, and maintain its focus.”.
And indeed the Ming Dynasty fell as a result of gradual political, strategic and tactical errors that simply grew so large they could not be overcome. Given proper leadership, delegation of authority and allocation of resources, the Ming Dynasty most likely could have survived. The fall of the Ming dynasty has captivated people for centuries, for it was one of the wealthiest, most powerful and prosperous empire in the world, yet it fell to peasant rebels and some unified tribal peoples of the steppe, how? As is seen with most of China’s history, the fall of the Ming is seen in terms of a dynastic cycle, whereby a dynasty eventually becomes so corrupt it simply collapses upon itself and another more diligent government thats over. It is of course not as so simple as that as any of you who lasted this long can already imagine. There are various reasons for its downfall. Take for example the unbelievable factionalism of the Ming bureaucracy which in turn politicized just about every aspect of the government. By the end of its rule it certainly seemed the politics were trumping the military when it came to defending themselves. Then these problems were only made worse when more and more competent officials were jailed or executed and more and more incompetent officials were the only ones left to fill roles. The last emperor Chongzhen certainly did not make things any easier, such as when he forced Sun Chuanting to go out into the field against Li Zicheng. Also the issue of climate was striking, during the 17th century the world was witnessing what we call the last of the little ice ages. The era was marked by less solar activity and tons of volcanic eruptions that shot into the atmosphere darkened the skies. The global temperatures got cooler by around 1.-2 degrees right around 1640 in the midst of many violent upheavals. Hell remember that story about the island of Juehua being attacked because the waters had frozen allowing Nurhaci’s men to cross them? It was much to the shock of the defenders and for good reason, sometimes climate can have an incredible effect on such events. The amount of natural disasters and droughts which led to wide scale famines had an enormous effect on producing the sort of situation that allowed such a large rebellion to take place. Personally having studied quite a bit about the Taiping Rebellion that will occur in the 19th century, its all quite fascinatingly similar. And trust me the fall of the Ming dynasty is quite foreshadowing.
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So at long last the Ming dynasty has fallen and now we have the Qing dynasty taking its seat upon the dragon throne. I thought it to be very important to explain how the Ming fell, because in many ways it will mirror how the next dynasty will fall. Stating that the Qing dynasty certainly took note of what befell the Ming and made their primary endeavor to root out corruption. But ironically it would be just that which would destroy them as well.