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11.18: Fall of the Ming Dynasty

  • Page ID
    72277
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    Learning Objective

    • Explain why the Ming dynasty eventually fell from power

    Key Points

    • During the last years of the Wanli Emperor’s reign and the reigns of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire’s chief medium of exchange: silver.
    • In this early half of the 17th century, famines became common in northern China, and the central government did little to relieve the populations, leading to widespread discontent among the people.
    • The Manchu, formerly called the Jurchen people, rose to power under the leadership of a tribal leader named Nurhaci, who commissioned a document titled the Seven Grievances, essentially a declaration of war against the Ming.
    • Peasant and soldier uprising under the leadership of Li Zicheng weakened the government and army of the Ming.
    • The last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City.
    • Li Zicheng, who had attempted to start a new Shun dynasty, was eventually defeated by the Manchu army, who founded the Qing dynasty.

    Terms

    Forbidden City

    The Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912—in Beijing.

    Wanli Emperor

    The 13th emperor of the Ming dynasty of China; his reign of forty-eight years (1572–1620) was the longest of the Ming dynasty, and it witnessed the steady decline of the dynasty.

    Manchu

    A Chinese ethnic minority, formerly the Jurchen people, who founded the Qing dynasty.

    Economic Breakdown

    During the last years of the Wanli Emperor’s reign and the reigns of his two successors, an economic crisis developed that was centered around a sudden widespread lack of the empire’s chief medium of exchange: silver. The Protestant powers of the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of England were staging frequent raids and acts of piracy against the Catholic-based empires of Spain and Portugal in order to weaken their global economic power. Meanwhile, Philip IV of Spain (r. 1621–1665) began cracking down on illegal smuggling of silver from Mexico and Peru across the Pacific towards China, in favor of shipping American-mined silver directly from Spain to Manila. In 1639, the new Tokugawa regime of Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with European powers, causing a halt of yet another source of silver coming into China. However, while Japanese silver still came into China in limited amounts, the greatest stunt to the flow of silver came from the Americas.

    These events occurring at roughly the same time caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver and made paying taxes nearly impossible for most provinces. People began hoarding precious silver, forcing the ratio of the value of copper to silver into a steep decline. In the 1630s, a string of one thousand copper coins was worth an ounce of silver; by 1640 it was reduced to the value of half an ounce; by 1643 it was worth roughly one-third of an ounce. For peasants this was an economic disaster, since they paid taxes in silver while conducting local trade and selling their crops with copper coins.

    Natural Disasters

    In this early half of the 17th century, famines became common in northern China because of unusual dry and cold weather that shortened the growing season; these were effects of a larger ecological event now known as the Little Ice Age. Famine, alongside tax increases, widespread military desertions, a declining relief system, natural disasters such as flooding, and the inability of the government to properly manage irrigation and flood-control projects, caused widespread loss of life and normal civility. The central government was starved of resources and could do very little to mitigate the effects of these calamities. Making matters worse, a widespread epidemic spread across China from Zhejiang to Henan, killing a large but unknown number of people. The famine and drought in the late 1620s and the 1630s contributed to the rebellions that broke out in Shaanxi led by rebel leaders such as Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong.

    The Qing Conquest of Ming: Rebellion, Invasion, Collapse

    The Qing conquest of the Ming was a period of conflict between the Qing dynasty, established by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro in Manchuria (contemporary Northeastern China), and the ruling Ming dynasty of China. The Manchu, formerly called the Jurchen people, had risen to power under the leadership of a tribal leader named Nurhaci. Leading up to the Qing conquest, in 1618 Nurhaci commissioned a document titled the Seven Grievances, which enumerated resentments against the Ming and bespoke rebellion against their domination. Many of the grievances dealt with conflicts against Yehe, which was a major Manchu clan, and Ming favoritism of Yehe. Nurhaci’s demand that the Ming pay tribute to him to redress the Seven Grievances was effectively a declaration of war, as the Ming were not willing to pay money to a former tributary. Shortly afterwards, Nurhaci began to force the Ming out of Liaoning in southern Manchuria.

    image
    Nurhaci of the Manchu. Nurhaci’s conquest of Ming China’s northeastern Liaoning province laid the groundwork for the conquest of the rest of China by his descendants, who founded the Qing dynasty in 1644.

    At the same time, the Ming dynasty was fighting for its survival against fiscal turmoil and peasant rebellions. In 1640, masses of Chinese peasants who were starving, unable to pay their taxes, and no longer in fear of the frequently defeated Chinese army, began to form into huge bands of rebels. The Chinese military, caught between fruitless efforts to defeat the Manchu raiders from the north and huge peasant revolts in the provinces, essentially fell apart. On April 24, 1644, Beijing fell to a rebel army led by Li Zicheng, a former minor Ming official who became the leader of the peasant revolt and then proclaimed the Shun dynasty. The last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself on a tree in the imperial garden outside the Forbidden City. When Li Zicheng moved against him, the Ming general Wu Sangui shifted his alliance to the Manchus. Li Zicheng was defeated at the Battle of Shanhai Pass by the joint forces of Wu Sangui and the Manchu Prince Dorgon. On June 6, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital and proclaimed the young Shunzhi Emperor as Emperor of China.

    image
    A drawing of the mountainous battlegrounds of the decisive Battle of Shanhai Pass.

    The Kangxi Emperor ascended the throne in 1661, and in 1662 his regents launched the Great Clearance to defeat the resistance of Ming loyalists in South China. He fought off several rebellions, such as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories led by Wu Sangui in southern China starting in 1673, and then countered by launching a series of campaigns that expanded his empire. In 1662, Zheng Chenggong founded the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan, a pro-Ming dynasty state with a goal of reconquering China. However, the Kingdom of Tungning was defeated in the Battle of Penghu by Han Chinese admiral Shi Lang, who had also served under the Ming.

    The fall of the Ming dynasty was caused by a combination of factors. Kenneth Swope argues that one key factor was deteriorating relations between Ming royalty and the Ming empire’s military leadership. Other factors include repeated military expeditions to the North, inflationary pressures caused by spending too much from the imperial treasury, natural disasters, and epidemics of disease. Contributing further to the chaos was the peasant rebellion in Beijing in 1644 and a series of weak emperors. Ming power would hold out in what is now southern China for years, but eventually would be overtaken by the Manchus.

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