Ming Decline and Collapse

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Ming Decline and Collapse



Mongol Offensive. The Mongol attacks on China between 1483 and 1489 signaled the end of Chinese expansion in the North. Beginning in 1540 the Mongols were making good progress toward unification, posing a serious threat to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Jiajing emperor had to deal with the rise of a new Mongol empire under Altan Khan, who raided Chinese territory in an effort to get supplies for his campaigns against his enemies. In 1550 the Mongolian army beleaguered Beijing for three days and looted the surrounding areas. In 1552 Altan Khan occupied part of Shanxi province. To extend his influence in Central Asia, he invaded Qinghai in 1559 and Tibet in 1570. The Ming court attempted to bribe the Mongols and to strengthen the Great Wall, but these raids continued until Altan Khan reached a temporary peace agreement with the Chinese in 1572. The Mongols, however, continued to threaten Ming’s northern borders until a new threat from the Manchus in the seventeenth century. Mongolian raids on the Ming empire indicated a decline in that dynasty’s military power.

Japanese Piracy. Beginning in the 1540s, the Ming empire confronted another grave danger: the attacks of Japanese pirates, known as wokou. Japanese traders and pirates appeared along the southeast coast of China and built their bases in 1550 on the coast of Zhejiang province, threatening the whole region. In 1554, the Japanese raiders

attacked Songjiang, the center of the cotton industry, and killed the magistrate. Large-scale raids from the sea by Japanese pirates revealed the inadequacy of the coastal defenses and the ineffectiveness of the Ming regular army. Thereafter, Qi Jiguang, an unconventional Chinese commander, trained a volunteer force and used firearms as well as traditional weapons to resist the attacks of the Japanese pirates. Peace was not restored until the Ming court lifted the ban in 1567 on Chinese participation in overseas trade. Ming failure to maintain frontier policies further exposed the weaknesses of the dynasty.

Incompetent Emperors. In the late Ming dynasty there was a lack of able emperors. The Jiajing emperor, becoming obsessed with Daoism and the search for the elixirs of immortality, withdrew from the active supervision of the government for many years. His search for eternal life led to his death by poisoning in 1566. Between 1589 and 1615 Emperor Shenzong did not hold a single general audience, and from 1590 to 1620 he conducted only a few personal interviews with grand secretaries. The eunuch dictator Wei Zhongxian rose to power during the reign of the incompetent Tianqi emperor (1621—1627). Although the following Chongzhen emperor, a man who was active and well-intentioned, tried to carry out reforms to save the empire, he was hampered by the service of untrust-worthy officials and lacked a consistent policy.

Power of the Gentry. The gentry came to believe that the competition for examination success had become more severe and the risks associated with a bureaucratic career had increased. This view brought about a change in their orientation: from a state-centered vision of gentry life, which stressed engagement with worldly affairs, to a Buddhism-centered philosophy, which implied withdrawal from public life. In addition the gentry grew more abusive in their local power by removing many of their fields from the tax rolls. Large landlords were able to find tax shelters through various manipulations, and only small peasants remained to pay taxes. The increasing power of the local gentry weakened the authority of the central government, and the delicate balance between the central government and the local elite was upset.

Donglin Movement. In the late sixteenth century several private academies were founded, where scholars and former officials complained about the decline of Confucian standards and the political immorality of the dynasty. In 1577 the scholars criticized Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng for failing to observe the period of mourning after his father’s death. As a result Zhang ordered a personnel evaluation, which resulted in discharging some officials from the government. Dismissed officials then joined the academies, the most famous being the Donglin academy. Donglin sympathizers were kept out of government until 1620. In 1621, when the new emperor came to the throne, eunuch Wei Zhongxian was put in charge of the imperial tombs. The members of the Donglin returned to power at the beginning of the Tianqi era, but their influence did not last for a long time. Wei organized a network of accomplices and soon controlled the whole administration. From 1625 until the death of Tianqi, there was a terrible repression of the seven hundred members and supporters of the Donglin, many of whom were sentenced to death. The academies that served as centers for the opposition were closed. The serious conflict between civil intellectuals and the eunuchs at court in the crisis of 1625-1627 had a pro-found negative impact on late Ming government. This Donglin movement represented the interests of a landowning class resentful of the Ming court, and factionalism deriving from the Donglin movement further weakened the Ming central government.

Financial Crisis. The late imperial court spent much money. The military campaigns against the Japanese from 1595 to 1598 and the Koreans from 1593 to 1598 exhausted the empire’s treasury. The numbers of the imperial nobility increased from generation to generation so fast that by the end of the Ming dynasty the government had difficulty paying allowances to these aristocrats. The allowances paid to relatives of the imperial family also contributed to the financial deficit. To maintain a healthy financial situation, the Ming court raised commercial taxes by building custom posts on the Yangzi and the Grand Canal and levied heavy taxes on the peasantry. The new taxes and duties provoked anger and discontent, which was aggravated by the poor economy and the dismissal of state employees, and finally resulted in insurrections (1627-1644).


The Chinese regarded earthquakes and other natural catastrophes as signs of Heaven’s anger. Many times people interpreted them as warnings of other things to come. In 1626, eighteen years before the Ming empire collapsed, a strong earthquake hit the area around Beijing. The following is a description of the event:

When the . . . partisians [palace eunuchs] were secretly plotting in the palace, there was a sudden earthquake. A roof ornament over the place where they were sitting fell without any apparent reason and two eunuchs were crushed to death. In a moment there was a sound like thunder rising from the northwest. It shook heaven and earth, and black clouds flowed over confusedly. Peoples’ dwellings were destroyed to such an extent that for several miles nothing remained.

The reason why the earth growls is that throughout the empire troops arise to attack one another, and that palace women and eunuchs have brought great disorder.

Source: Donald F. Lach and Carol Flaumenhaft, eds., Asia on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965).

Peasant Discontent. A peasant rebellion precipitated the collapse of the dynasty. The rebellion began in 1628 in

northern Shaanxi and then spread throughout the empire. As revolts grew in size and strength, they progressed from disorganized raiding to more ambitious political objectives. The Ming court put down the largest insurrection, but the survivors scattered. At that time there were two powerful rebellions, one led by Zhang Xianzhong in Sichuan, the other led by Li Zicheng in central China. Li Zicheng’s troops successfully seized Beijing on 24 April 1644 and forced the Ming emperor to commit suicide. Li, however, proved unable to found a new dynasty because he had never won the support of the scholar-official elite.

Manchu Invasion. The Jianzhou Jurchen were living in the vicinity of the Changbai mountains and founded the Manchu state under the leadership of Nurhaci. In 1599 the entire Jurchen population were organized into “banners.” Groups of three hundred households formed one company, and fifty companies composed one banner. The four initial banners eventually increased to eight Manchu banners and eight Chinese banners. As a tribute state ruler, Nurhaci continued to send gifts to Beijing until 1609. However, when he became powerful enough, he began to defy the Chinese empire. In 1616 he declared himself emperor of the Late Jin. By the end of 1621 Nurhaci completely controlled the whole of Liaodong in Manchuria. Nurhaci established his capital at Shengyuan in 1625 but died the next year. The new ruler, Abahai, then began to invade the Ming empire. In 1629, in a spectacular raid, Abahai successfully crossed the walls of Beijing. Seven years later Abahai changed the dynastic name of/zrc to Qing, signifying “clear” or “pure.” In 1643 Abahai died, and his five-year-old son inherited the throne, assisted by the new emperor’s uncle Dorgon. The Manchurians never gave up their dream to occupy all of China and continued to attack it. When the Ming general Wu Sangui, who controlled access to Beijing, decided to cooperate with the Manchus, the Qing troops quickly occupied Beijing in June 1644, driving Li Zicheng’s troops out of North China. When the last Ming emperor hanged himself, the Ming dynasty collapsed.


Ray Huang, 158 7, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Charles O. Hucker, The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978).

Hucker, The Traditional Chinese State in Ming Times (1368-1644) (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1961).

James B. Parsons, The Peasant Rebellion of the Late Ming Dynasty (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970).