Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 10: The Fall of the Ming Dynasty

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff chronicles how the fall of the penultimate Ming dynasty enabled the unexpected rise of the final Qing dynasty (1644-1912). 1644 might seem like a long time ago, but as we approach the Qing more and more history with relevance to the 20th century and today begins to reveal itself.

1644: The last Ming emperor hangs himself
Last post we discussed the two “good” early Ming emperors, Hongwu and Yongle, who consolidated the new dynasty and set China on a good footing. After Yongle (r. 1402-1424) the situation in China never improved further and eventually declined.

Yongle’s oldest son and successor, the Hongxi emperor, died at age 46 after just eight months on the throne, probably from a heartattack as he was morbidly obese. 

The post-Yongle era was not off to an auspicious start.

The Ming was also issuing fiat paper currency right from its start (the “baochao” notes, backed by nothing). Although initially successful, inevitable overissuance by the state already produced inflation by the end of Yongle’s reign. Chinese citizens turned to silver and copper coinage, openly defying Ming edicts banning the use of any currency but the baochaos, and by 1425 the government’s paper notes were circulating at only 0.014% of their original face value.

Future Ming emperors also showed little to no interest in governing, leaving state matters to imperial eunuchs who, consistent with their long reputation, transformed the halls of government into a giant machine of corruption to line their own pockets.

A few emperors tried to reform the empire in their early years, but all of them eventually lost interest or gave in to the formidable power of the eunuchs.

One of the more famous Ming emperors who “tried” to improve China was the Wanli emperor (r. 1572-1620). Like many of his predecessors, Wanli eventually retreated from responsible state administration into hedonistic diversions, but one notable deed was inviting Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci to Beijing, the first European to enter the Forbidden City.

Wanli relied on Ricci for scientific expertise in matters such as astronomy, mathematics, and mapmaking. Ricci, who admired Chinese culture, also founded the Chinese Catholic Church and translated Confucian classics into Latin for the first time, making them available for western reading.

When Ricci died in 1610 he was buried in Beijing and his cemetery remains an official historical site. Over the centuries monuments and statues to Ricci’s Chinese work and friendship were also erected throughout the country.

Unfortunately during the 1960's Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong’s woke teenage Red Guards stormed through the country and destroyed most of the Ricci statues and monuments, but his memory remained so revered that police guards were placed at his burial site to protect it from radicalized communist youths whose attempts to desecrate his resting place were mostly thwarted. What damage they did to the headstones was repaired and restored by Deng Xiaoping after Mao died.

Ricci’s collaboration with the Wanli emperor was and remains a symbol of past Sino-western cooperation, and the Economics Correspondent understands that even today most college-educated Chinese are aware of who Matteo Ricci was and what he did during his years in China.


Throughout the 16th century imperial corruption and apathy within the Forbidden City ushered steady decline of the empire, but two events sealed the dynasty’s fate.

The first was the Little Ice Age, an episode of planetary cooling that scientists believe began in the 16th century, ended in the early 19th century, and which some (non-government patronized) scientists believe the world is still coming out of. Although the Little Ice Age lowered temperatures around the world, it hit China hardest in the early 1600’s, producing drought and a major famine in the 1630’s.

The final nail in the coffin was a huge outbreak of bubonic plague that started in 1633, reaching its peak in the early 1640’s (uncoincidentally the Ming was overthrown in 1644).

The corruption, inflation, natural disasters, and plague gave rise to a major insurrection led by peasant general Li Zicheng. By the mid-1630’s Li had rallied tens of thousands of peasants to the cause of overthrowing the Ming, and his armies had sacked government offices and killed many officials in the rebellion’s epicenter: the northern provinces of Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi.

Ineffective and corrupt, the Ming was unable to defeat Li’s armies as the rebellion spread. However, before we get to the end of the dynasty we must devote one last diversion to a subject where things get really interesting: the role of the Manchurians.


As things fell apart in early 17th century Ming China, Manchurian tribes to the northeast were growing as an outside force to be reckoned with.

Centuries prior the Manchurians had conquered the northern half of China during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), establishing their own “Jin” dynasty north of the Huai river. Shortly after they themselves were invaded and conquered by the Mongols. Then for centuries they were disunited and their tribes scattered across Manchuria, Mongolia, and southeast Siberia, but in 1599 the tribal leader Nurhaci began a campaign to reunite all Manchus.

Much like Genghis Khan did with the Mongols, by 1616 Nurhaci had defeated his tribal rivals and he declared a new Jin dynasty which became belligerent to the Chinese Ming.

Nurhaci died in 1626 and by 1644 his six-year old grandson’s regent, Prince Dorgon, was running Manchu affairs. The dynasty’s name had also been changed to the Qing—pronounced “ching,” meaning “clear” or “pure.”

Which brings us up-to-date with the Ming’s final tumultuous days.

In early 1644 rebel general Li Zicheng was marching on Beijing. The last Ming emperor Chongzhen, who had initially tried to revitalize the dynasty, was dealt a losing hand from the start as the collapsing empire was already hopelessly corrupt and ineffective.

A famous story recounts as peasant armies breached Beijing’s exterior walls and closed in on the Forbidden City, Chongzhen knew the game was up. He slayed his concubines to preserve their honor, and on the morning of April 25th he walked atop Meishan Hill just north of the Forbidden City where he hanged himself from a tree.

Li’s armies, weakened but victorious, marched into the Forbidden City where Li declared the founding of the new Shun Dynasty (it would last less than two months).


Qing forces in the northeast, who were watching the fighting from afar, saw an opportunity to exploit and moved south towards Beijing. Qing regent Dorgon (meaning literally "badger") declared his armies were only marching to “save the Ming from the rebels.” This message resonated with Ming generals who couldn’t stand the idea of peasant armies ruling China and some defected to the Qing. One famous defector, the general Wu Sangui, is regarded as a traitor in modern Chinese history books.

On a side note, a very interesting modern-day discussion over which Qing-era figures are considered traitors and which are considered heroes will resurface in upcoming chapters on the Qing dynasty.

Rebel leader Li Zicheng got to Beijing first, but his armies were weakened from years of fighting Ming forces. This was precisely the window of opportunity that Qing armies, fresh and unscathed from fewer battles, took advantage of. One month later their army, joined by Ming general Wu Sangui’s troops, soundly defeated the dilapidated rebel forces at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. Li fled the scene and set fire to the Forbidden City before abandoning Beijing. He died a year later.

In a 20th century reference, when the victorious Mao Zedong entered Beijing to declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he turned to his closest confidant Zhou Enlai and joked “Today we’re heading to the capital… under no circumstances can we be like Li Zicheng.”

With Li's defeat Qing armies walked unopposed into Beijing in 1644. Having seen the rebels flee, local residents expected Ming troops to reclaim the capital but were shocked instead to see the victorious army of Manchus led by Qing regent Dorgon. Dorgon declared the Qing dynasty as new rulers of China and enthroned the six-year old monarch Shunzhi as Chinese emperor on November 8, 1644.

The vow of “we're only marching on Beijing to save the Ming," much like "we’re only persecuting political opponents and removing them from the ballot to save democracy,” belied Qing ulterior motives. It was all calculated lies, for the Qing had plotted to exploit the internal rebellion and seize total power for themselves from the beginning.

In the next post we’ll begin a mini-series on 268 years of Qing dynasty rule (1644-1912) which, in the Correspondent’s opinion, is more interesting than all the other dynasties combined.

But before we go there’s one last 20th century reference that relates directly to the 1644 peasant rebellion and Qing conquest.

When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Manchuria in 1931, Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek was busy fighting communist rebels led by Mao Zedong. Chiang, knowing China’s armies were not yet a match for modernized Japanese forces, tried appeasement to buy time—both to rout out the last of Mao’s rebels and modernize his own army.

This policy of fighting Chinese communists while appeasing Japanese, named “first internal pacification, then external resistance,” was unpopular with the public who urged combatting Japanese invaders.

Chiang tried to convince the Chinese people that his strategy was right, repeatedly alluding to the Qing conquest of 1644. That is, when the Ming dynasty could not control the rebels it left the country vulnerable to outside Qing invaders. The lesson to be learned from history, according to Chiang, was to rid the country of the rebels first so that a united China can then focus on fighting its external enemy without worry of being stabbed in the back by its own people.

Chiang’s famous adage was “The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The communists are a disease of the heart.”

Chiang didn’t get the chance to realize his plan to the end, and we don’t know how history may have changed had he been able to. The key event that prevented his stamping out the communists before confronting the Japanese occurred in 1936: a story we will save for when we get to the 20th century.

Correspondent's note: Anyone who has seen "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" may recall Harrison Ford trading the cremated remains of Qing emperor Nurhaci for a large diamond from Chinese henchman Lao Che. The movie correctly describes Nurhaci as "first emperor of Manchu dynasty." (5:24)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.