When the Rains Stop, the Emperors Fall

How Changes in the Monsoons Brought Down the Tang, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties

Reed Flute Cave, Guilin, China
Stalactites and stalagmites decorate a cave in China. Digital Vision / Getty Images

Historians have always debated the questions, "What caused the great dynasties of the world to fall?" and more specifically, "What brought down the Tang, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties in China?"

Sometimes, the causes seem to be obvious: a neighboring kingdom invades and conquers the state, a king dies without leaving an heir, or the military turns upon the ruler and ousts him. Recently, however, evidence from the natural world shows that there may be underlying environmental reasons for the decline and fall of empires.

Evidence from Wangxiang Cave, China

A joint Chinese and American team of researchers examined a 118 mm (4.65 inch) section of a stalagmite from the Wangxiang Cave in Gansu Province, China. Chemical analysis of the stalagmite revealed the relative strength of the monsoon rains over a period of 1,810 years.

Stalagmites form from the slow dripping of rainwater through limestone caves. Scientists can determine how rainy the weather was in a particular year by looking at the isotopes, or different types, of oxygen that were deposited in the stone that makes up a stalagmite.

The rock's age is revealed by uranium and thorium dating, allowing chemists to compare their scientific record with the historical record of China's dynastic cycle. What they found is quite amazing.

The "Mandate of Heaven" is Shown in Rainfall

Chinese philosophers since the Zhou Dynasty (1122–256 B.C.) have theorized that emperors receive the "Mandate of Heaven," or support from the gods, if they rule wisely and justly.

When an emperor becomes a tyrant, the Mandate is revoked and the dynasty falls.

This theory kept emperors from wielding unlimited power, and provided a handy rationalization for any army general or nobleman who sought to overthrow the emperor and establish a new dynasty of his own.

Now, it seems, scientific evidence indicates that the Mandate of Heaven literally fell from the sky - in the form of rainfall.

Cycles of Dryness

The stalagmite reveals that the monsoon rains fell off substantially between about 860 and 930 A.D. Another decades-long dry spell hit between 1340 and 1380 A.D., and a third from 1580 to 1640 A.D.

Monsoon rains that had moved north from the Indian Ocean no longer made it to much of central and northern China, and the land grew parched. This spelled big trouble for the emperors.

Fall of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty was established in 618 A.D. It is still considered to be one of the pinnacles of Chinese civilization, a sort of golden age.

Throughout the ninth century, however, the dynasty began to lose its grip. Tang power was dealt a death-blow in the year 873 A.D., when a horrific drought and famine swept China. Agricultural production, already decreased in recent years by the lack of rain, fell by more than half. People and livestock starved.

Clearly, the Tang Dynasty was losing the Mandate of Heaven.

The following year, the decade-long Huang Chao Rebellion began. Huang Chao was an illegal salt-trader, one of a multitude driven into criminal activity by the drought and famine. He organized the starving people of his region into a remarkably successful guerrilla army.

In 880, Huang Chao's army even captured the capital city of Chang'an (now called "Xi'an").

Huang Chao seized the throne, but he ruled from Chang'an for just one year before being driven out by Emperor Xizong's forces. Huang Chao committed suicide in 884, and the rebellion ended, but not before the Tang Dynasty had been terribly weakened by this uprising of the starving peasantry.

In 907, with the weakness of the monsoon rains still in force, the last Tang emperor Ai was deposed by an army general. China plunged into the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, a time of chaos and violent political fragmentation that lasted until the establishment of the Song Dynasty in 960.

It is worth noting that a particularly strong monsoon rain peak also began in 960, and lasted until 1020.

The Fall of the Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty was founded in 1271 by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan.

Despite the best efforts of the ethnic-Mongolian Yuan Emperors, this dynasty lasted only until 1368. The culprit? You guessed it. According to the evidence from Wanxiang Cave, the monsoons failed.

As with the rulers of the late Tang Dynasty, the late Yuan emperors were beset by drought, famine, rampant crime, and civil unrest. The ethnic-Han Chinese rose up in 1351 in the "Red Turban Rebellion."

Meanwhile, another rebel allied with the Red Turbans named Zhu Yuanzhang led his peasant army against the Yuan, capturing Jainkang (Nanjing) in 1356. His power grew as the rains stayed away. In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang defeated the Yuan emperor Toghun Temur, and founded the Ming Dynasty.

By 1380, monsoon rainfall had spiked impressively.

The Fall of the Ming Dynasty

The new Ming rulers of China had a much longer run than their predecessors, the Yuan, but in the end, they were laid low by the same force that did in the Mongols.

Trouble began for the Ming during the reign of the Wanli Emperor, who ruled from 1572 to 1620 (a span that includes much of the driest period). China was beset by the same cold, dry weather that afflicted Europe; this was known as the "Little Ice Age."

Between 1580 and 1640, monsoon rains in China dropped to their lowest point ever in the 1,810-year period under study, resulting once more in famine and the break-down of civil society. Ming China's starving people also suffered from several horrific epidemics of as-yet-unidentified diseases.

Sensing the weakness of the Wanli Emperor, the Manchu people of northern China (Manchuria) broke away from the Empire in 1610.

Eight years later, they declared war on the Ming state. The Manchus went on to gradually conquer northern China, piece by piece, over the next 25 years. They also defeated Korea's Joseon Dynasty in 1638, cutting off one of the Ming Dynasty's staunchest allies.

Further south, other problems were cropping up for the Ming. A peasant uprising in Shaanxi Province broke out in 1630, led by Li Zicheng, the "Roaming King."

Li's force included 20,000 famine-striken farmers, and his army grew with each cold, dry year. The rebels moved through Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi Provinces; the Ming Army was too weak to stop the peasants, some armed only with sticks.

In April of 1644, Li Zicheng led his rebels into the capital city of Beijing. When the capital fell to the peasants, the last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in the Forbidden City.

Li declared himself the founding emperor of the new Shun Dynasty, but he was driven out of Beijing after just one month by the advancing Manchus.

The Manchus took power as the Qing Dynasty, China's last. Li Zicheng died later that same year in his home province of Shaanxi.

In this case, the rains actually returned before the final death-throes of the Ming Dynasty. 1640 was a very wet year, in fact. However, it was not enough to save the Ming from the advancing armies of the Manchus and the Shaanxi peasants.

Conclusion

The historical and environmental records are aligned to a truly remarkable degree in China.

The country suffered three lengthy failures of the rains, from 860 to 930, 1340 to 1380, and 1580 to 1640. Rainfall varied throughout the rest of the nearly 2,000 years of stalagmite records examined in the study, but it never fell so low as at those three periods.

Each time the monsoons failed, China's people began to starve. After all, rice is the staple food of China, and it is a very water-dependent crop.

Soon, the peasants rose up, marched on and seized the capital, and brought the ruling emperors down. In most cases, though, military leaders from the aristocracy founded the next dynasty, not the leaders of the peasant armies.

In any case, the "Mandate of Heaven" had been revoked.


Sources

Pingzhong Zhang, Hai Cheng, et al. "A Test of Climate, Sun, and Culture Relationships from an 1810-Year Chinese Cave Record," Science 322 (November 7, 2008). Subscription required.

"Monsoon link to fall of dynasties," BBC News (November 6, 2008).

Buckley Ebrey, Patricia and Kwang-ching Liu. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1999.