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The Battle that Decided the Qing Dynasty
The video is below if you want to watch it first
This is a bit different from my ordinary stuff, but I was thinking about this story recently and wanted to bring it back up.
It is May 1644 and the Ming Dynasty has fallen. The Chongzhen Emperor would be the last in a 276-year line. He died alone in Beijing as his city fell to a massive popular rebellion.
To the north, his best general hurried towards Beijing but it would be too late. Behind him, a new force to be reckoned with.
The Battle at Shanhaiguan (山海關）crowned the Qing Dynasty and kicked off the Qing-Ming transition. It assured that the next Emperor of China would not be Han. The battles and wars that make up the Qing conquest of the Ming dynasty would cost over 25 million lives over the span of 75 years.
The Decline of the Ming Dynasty
The Ming Dynasty began with a peasant - the singularly unique Zhu Yuanzhang. It ended with an emperor at the foot of a tree.
Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty. He was a brilliant, brutal man - but the traits that defined him - paranoia, indulgence, and ruthlessness - would be the fall of his lineage. The Ming Dynasty stagnated after a fresh start with its emperors disengaged and caught up in palace politics.
The last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen emperor, hoarded power, gold and executed good men because he could not tolerate anyone sharing power with him.
One famous example is the brilliant Ming general Yuan Chonghuan, who defeated the Manchu chieftain Nurhaci at the Battle of Ningyuan. General Yuan then was outnumbered 130,000 to 27,000, but he combined tactical cunning with technological superiority - his army acquired guns and cannons supplied from Portugal while Nurhaci had just bows and arrows.
Thousands of the enemy were slaughtered - Nurhaci's first serious military loss. The chieftain himself was injured by those cannons and died 8 months later.
His successor and son Hong Taiji tried again the following year with similar failure.
Rather than appreciating a loyal, brilliant general who twice dealt crippling blows to the northern tribesmen, the Chongzhen emperor fell prey to his own paranoia and cruelly executed the Yuan Chonghuan for "conspiring" with the northern tribes. Quite painfully too.
So for decades, the Ming Dynasty declined, beset by enemies everywhere. Its early years were bright and promising, but now the sun was setting. To the north, the Mongol tribes were flourishing and making raids into Chinese territory. To the south, popular uprisings once more swept across the nation.
The Dashing King to the South
The biggest such army was led by a peasant named Li Zicheng. Like the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, he was born to an impoverished family of peasants. Unable to pay his bills due to the famine of 1627, he rebelled and joined a peasant army led by a man named Gao Yingxiang.
He quickly rose through the ranks with an austere, disciplined manner and a foreboding appearance. His proto-Communist credo - equality between the ruler and the ruled, land reform, and abolishing grain taxes - quickly gained him many followers.
Gao's rebel army at the time was just one of several such marauding across what is now Xi'an, Henan and Shaanxi. In 1636, the Ming government armies stepped up their efforts in suppressing rebellion and in August of that year captured and executed Gao. Li inherited the remnants of Gao's army and the man's nickname: "The Dashing King".
The Ming armies continued their expedition, suppressing several other rebel armies including Li's. One such defeat in 1638 forced Li to retreat into the Qinling mountains. But the droughts and poverty persisted, draining the government coffers. Li re-emerged from the mountains to rebuild his army, crossed the Yangtze River, and returned to the Henan province in the 1640-41 time period.
The deeply indebted government - having recently been spending up to 90% of its budget on military campaigns - essentially went bankrupt and collapsed. Five decisive battles in Henan throughout 1641 to 1643 annihilated the Ming armies of the South and gave Li credible claim to being the next emperor.
He declares himself the head of a new dynasty, the Shun Dynasty, and marches towards Beijing to claim the Mandate of Heaven and reunify the splintered country.
Wu Sangui and the Manchu to the North
The Great Wall of China stretches thousands of miles, protecting the Chinese people from threats coming from the north. There we find the army of Wu Sangui, seen as the most talented and competent of the Ming generals.
With the Ming armies of the south annihilated, his force stands as the government's last great hope. Yet it too was retreating, rapidly, having lost four of the eight vital fortress cities beyond the wall.
The Manchu force once defeated by the executed general Yuan at the earlier Battle of Ningyuan had by now regathered their men, learned about the weapons that dealt them their early losses, and were making deep forays into Ming territory.
In 1636, Hong Taiji, the son of Nurhaci and his successor, successfully subdued the Koreans - deeply traumatizing the Confucian society and moved towards Beijing himself.
Like any other self-respecting pretender to the Mandate of Heaven, Hong Taiji began to style himself as a Chinese emperor, crowning a new dynasty of the Manchu people. This dynasty, would name after "purity" - Qing, the Great Pure Dynasty.
Wu's army retreats to the final fortress city of Ningyuan, where the esteemed General Chang twice turned back the Manchu horde. The Qing attempt to persuade him to turn against the collapsing Ming Dynasty and support their bid for the throne. It would be easier than annihilating the remnants of their army.
But then Wu suddenly received urgent news. Beijing needed his help at once. He left Ningyuan, leaving it to the Qing, and marched towards the capital, passing through a small but critical military fort at the eastern end of the Great Wall of China, shanhaiguan or 山海關, where the wall meets the sea.
The Sack of Beijing
April 22nd 1644, the Chongzhen Emperor was holding an everyday morning meeting in the Forbidden City, discussing military logistics, when a runner came in with news. Li Zicheng's army has crossed the critical Juyong pass, just 31 miles south of Beijing.
This mountain pass route had just been recently renovated and reinforced with critical funds from the near-empty Ming Dynasty treasury. Li's army turned traitor the emperor's favored eunuch (the dynasty's grand secretary himself!), added their army to his, and marched through without missing a beat.
Li's army was coming faster and harder than anyone could have ever thought. Beijing itself was meagerly guarded with just one soldier every 30 feet along the Beijing walls. The city is lost.
And unlike another famous army leader many centuries later, the emperor had earlier refused to move the capital out of Beijing. He and his administration would stay put, giving any would-be conquerer access to the vast Ming bureaucracy governing the country.
The next day, April 23rd, the Chongzhen Emperor held his last audience with the imperial court. Li's army had by then already begun to reach Beijing's western suburbs. The garrison army surrendered without putting up a fight.
But Li did not want a bloodbath. Instead he sent ahead the favored eunuch to make the emperor an offer: Make Li the king of Shaanxi and Shanxi and give him a million ounces of silver. And in return Li will pacify the other rebel armies marauding China and defend the north from the Qing. And he will do it on behalf of the Ming Dynasty. The Ming can continue to rule as emperor, if only in name.
The Chongzhen emperor forcefully rejected this godfather offer. The next day, April 24th, Li gave the order to invade Beijing. They bribed the gatekeeper to open the city gates and swept into the Forbidden City without resistance.
Upon reaching the palace though, they found the dead bodies of the emperor's consorts - murdered by sword - but the emperor himself was gone.
Three days later, the Chongzhen emperor was found hanging under a pine tree by a palace servant. There goes a story of a dramatic suicide note found on his person:
I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the bandits dismember my corpse and slaughter by officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of my people!
This was probably added later for dramatic effect. Contemporary accounts say that the only written thing left by the disheveled corpse, dressed in a blue silk robe and red trousers, were the words 天子, the son of heaven.
The Ming emperor's death immensely damaged Li's attempts to consolidate control over the country. He would spend the next few days attempting to do this. Desperate to pay his army as well, he would imprison and torture the Ming higher classes, squeezing them for funds.
General Wu Sangui received news of the sack of Beijing and the death of the Ming emperor halfway to the capital. He stopped his journey and retreated to the Shanhaiguan fortifications.
Li realized that he needed to overcome this final obstacle to cement his new dynasty. After a few failed attacks, he led an army of 60,000 people to bring General Wu over to his side.
Li wanted Wu to surrender the northern Ming army to his own. Part of his efforts to get Wu to switch sides was a letter signed by Wu's father - pleading for his son to save his father's life. To juice things along, Li added 10,000 ounces of silver and 1,000 ounces of gold. Wu rejected this offer wholesale.
But unbeknownst to the unfortunate Li Zicheng, General Wu was writing to the Qing prince Dorgon (which literally means "badger") - requesting his help to crush these "bandits" and restore the Ming.
But Dorgon knew the stakes. He knew that Wu detested Li and that the Ming will never return to power. Any alliance between Wu and Dorgon would be totally on Qing terms. But, the Qing will make it worth his while:
Now if [Wu Sangui] were to lead his army and surrender to us, we would by all means invest you with a princedom and fief ... you and your family will be protected. Generation after generation of your sons and grandsons will perpetually enjoy wealth and nobility for as long as the mountains and rivers last.
With Li's forces already starting to appear on the horizon, Wu decided to join with Dorgon.
The Qing forces reached the fortress of Shanhaiguan and accepted the surrender of the Wu's Ming forces. Wu's men shaved their heads in the Qing style and affixed white flags to themselves so not to be confused by the Qing. As it turns out, Wu's forces would make up the first wave - essentially cannon fodder for Li's attacks.
As expected of such a disciplined force, Li's army unleashed a monstrous attack with casualties so heavy that Wu's army would have lost the battle had it been fighting alone.
But at just the right moment, the Qing attacked Li on his left flank. Li's commanders cried out at the surprise appearance of the "Tatars", fierce on their horses with their shaved heads.
Li's troops fled to Beijing and forced him to follow along with them. The battle was won by Dorgon and Wu Sangui. A few days later, Li left Beijing itself after sacking the city and setting the palace ablaze. He had occupied the city for a mere 42 days.
The people of Beijing were delighted at the news of Li Zicheng's loss and to see him leave, expecting the restoration of the Ming dynasty once the victorious General Wu comes back. Instead, they saw the enthronement of Shunzhi Emperor, son of Hong Taiji, and the creation of the Qing Dynasty.
With Beijing conquered, Wu and Dorgon would embark on the Qing conquest of China - crushing resistance to the dynasty's rule. The conquest would take nearly seventy years and span several emperors. All Chinese men under Qing rule would be forced to cut their hair, wear the queue and adopt Manchu clothing.
Li Zicheng lingered and tried to rebuild his armies, but he vanished into the mists of history. Some say he was killed during a village raid. Others say he became a monk and died an old man. General Wu would be rewarded for his new loyalty ... until he himself rose up in rebellion a few years later. But that story is for another video.
The Battle of Shanhaiguan today is well known in Chinese history and its stories echo through the centuries. Their actions are fiercely debated even to this day. Wu Sangui depending on who you ask is a villain, traitor, and nationalist hero (What do you think?).
When Mao Zedong first set off to Beijing upon the completion of the Communist Liberation, he nervously joked to Zhou Enlai, "Today we’re going to Beijing for the civil service exam. We can’t be like Li Zicheng!" Luckily for them, it wasn't as such.