The Fall of the Ming Dynasty in China, 1644

People react in shock to the last Ming emperor's suicide, Beijing, 1644.
The last emperor of Ming China hangs himself behind the Forbidden City, 1644. Print Collector / Getty Images

By the beginning of 1644, all of China was in chaos. The severely weakened Ming Dynasty was desperately trying to hold on to power, while a rebel leader called Li Zicheng declared his own new dynasty after capturing the capital city of Beijing. In these dire circumstances, a Ming general decided to issue an invitation for the ethnic Manchus of north-eastern China to come to the country's aid, and retake the capital city.

 This would prove be a fatal mistake for the Ming...

The Ming general Wu Sangui probably should have known better than to ask the Manchus for help. They had been fighting one another for the previous 20 years; at the Battle of Ningyuan in 1626, the Manchu leader Nurhaci had received his fatal injury fighting against the Ming. In the years that followed, the Manchus repeated raided Ming China, capturing key northern cities, and defeating the crucial Ming ally Joseon Korea in 1627 and again in 1636. In both 1642 and 1643, Manchu bannermen drove deep into China, seizing territory and loot.

Chaos

Meanwhile, in other parts of China, a cycle of catastrophic floods on the Yellow River, followed by wide-spread famine, convinced ordinary Chinese people that their rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven. China needed a new dynasty.

Beginning in the 1630s in the northern Shaanxi province, a minor Ming official called Li Zicheng gathered followers from the disenchanted peasantry.

In February of 1644, Li captured the old capital of Xi'an and declared himself the first emperor of the Shun Dynasty.  His armies marched east, capturing Taiyuan and heading toward Beijing.

Meanwhile, further south, another rebellion led by the army deserter Zhang Xianzhong unleashed a reign of terror that included capturing and killing several Ming imperial princes and thousands of civilians.

He set himself up as the first emperor of the Xi Dynasty based in Sichuan Province in southwest China later in 1644.

Beijing Falls

With growing alarm, the Chongzhen Emperor of Ming watched the rebel troops under Li Zicheng advance toward Beijing. His most effective general, Wu Sangui, was far away, north of the Great Wall. The emperor sent for Wu, and also issued a general summons on April 5 for any available military commander in the Ming Empire to come to Beijing's rescue. It was no use - on April 24, Li's army broke through the city walls and captured Beijing.  The Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself from a tree behind the Forbidden City.

Wu Sangui and his Ming army were on their way to Beijing, marching through the Shanhai Pass at the eastern end of the Great Wall of China.  Wu received word that he was too late, and the capital had already fallen. He retreated to Shanhai.  Li Zicheng sent his armies to confront Wu, who handily defeated them in two battles. Frustrated, Li marched out in person at the head of a 60,000-strong force to take on Wu. It was at this point that Wu appealed to the closest large army nearby - the Qing leader Dorgon and his Manchus.

Curtains for the Ming

Dorgon had no interest in restoring the Ming Dynasty, his old rivals.

He agreed to attack Li's army, but only if Wu and the Ming army would serve under him instead. On May 27, Wu agreed. Dorgon sent him and his troops to attack Li's rebel army repeatedly; once both sides in this Han Chinese civil battle were worn out, Dorgon sent his riders around the flank of Wu's army. The Manchu set upon the rebels, quickly overcoming them and sending them flying back toward Beijing.

Li Zicheng himself returned to the Forbidden City and grabbed all the valuables he could carry. His troops looted the capital for a couple of days, and then scampered west on June 4, 1644 ahead of the advancing Manchus. Li would only survive until September of the following year, when he was killed after a series of battles with Qing imperial troops.

Ming pretenders to the throne continued to try to rally Chinese support for a restoration for several decades after the fall of Beijing, but none gained much support.

The Manchu leaders quickly reorganized Chinese government, adopting some aspects of Han Chinese rule such as the civil service exam system, while also imposing Manchu customs such as the queue hairstyle on their Han Chinese subjects. In the end, the Manchus' Qing Dynasty would rule China right up to the end of the imperial era, in 1911.

Causes of Ming Collapse

One major cause of the Ming collapse was a succession of relatively weak and disconnected emperors. Early in the Ming period, the emperors were active administrators and military leaders. By the end of the Ming era, however, the emperors had retreated into the Forbidden City, never venturing out at the head of their armies, and seldom even meeting in person with their ministers.

A second reason for the collapse of the Ming was the huge expense in money and men of defending China from its northern and western neighbors. This has been a constant in Chinese history, but the Ming were particularly concerned because they had only just won China back from Mongol rule under the Yuan Dynasty.  As it turned out, they were right to worry about invasions from the north, although this time it was the Manchus who took power.

A final, huge cause was the shifting climate, and disruptions to the monsoon cycle of rains. Heavy rains brought devastating floods, particularly of the Yellow River, which swamped farmers' land and drowned livestock and people alike. With crops and stock destroyed, the people went hungry, a sure-fire prescription for peasant uprisings. Indeed, the fall of the Ming Dynasty was the sixth time in Chinese history that a long-standing empire was brought down by peasant rebellion following famine.