End of the Ming Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A series of crises, internal and external, led to the downfall of the nearly three-hundred-year-old Ming Dynasty, leaving China vulnerable to the Manchu invasion that resulted in the creation of the Qing Dynasty and ushered in a new era in Chinese history.

Summary of Event

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), after extended periods of expansion and prosperity, entered its period of final decline in the first half of the seventeenth century, when the dynasty was confronted with a series of significant problems and challenges. These problems included a severe decline in governmental efficiency, a worsening financial situation, frequent popular uprisings, and the rapid deterioration of defenses on the northeastern frontier coupled with steady intrusions by the nomadic Juchen tribes into Chinese territory. Under the weight of these crises, the Ming Dynasty eventually crumbled in 1644. At the same time, the Juchens were becoming a unified, bureaucratic rather than nomadic, society. They eventually changed their name to the Manchus Manchus , conquered China, and founded a new dynasty, the Qing Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) . [kw]End of the Ming Dynasty (Apr. 25, 1644) [kw]Ming Dynasty, End of the (Apr. 25, 1644) Government and politics;Apr. 25, 1644: End of the Ming Dynasty[1540] China;Apr. 25, 1644: End of the Ming Dynasty[1540] Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

The Ming government in the early seventeenth century was notoriously inefficient. The emperors were inept, inattentive, and irresponsible, and the central government was dominated by endless and debilitating factional struggles. For different reasons in each case, the seventeenth century Ming emperors failed to engage in state affairs. Instead, they chose to live in seclusion in the deep recesses of the imperial palace, pursuing personal pleasures with their favorite women and hobbies. For nearly three decades beginning in the 1590’, the Wanli Wanli emperor suspended almost all public audiences with his bureaucrats, whom he detested and who constantly frustrated his plans and contradicted his decisions. Wanli’s inaction contributed significantly to the demoralization of the bureaucrats and the exacerbation of factionalism among them, and it left many official positions long unfilled.

The Tianqi Tianqi emperor was perhaps the most ineffective emperor of the Ming dynasty and was certainly most instrumental in creating the situation that led to its downfall. Only fifteen years old and poorly educated when he ascended the throne, Tianqi showed no interest in governmental affairs. Instead, he became obsessed with his favorite hobby of carpentry, leaving decisions on important governmental matters to his trusted personal attendants, especially eunuchs. Tianqi’s neglect of his imperial duties led to the rise of the most powerful and notorious eunuch Eunuchs, China of Ming times, Wei Zhongxian Wei Zhongxian . Wei was appointed to head the Chinese secret service (the Eastern Depot) in 1623, and for the next four years he dominated the central governmental bureaucracy so completely that he essentially functioned as the dictator of China, instituting a reign of terror.

Aside from the years of Wei’s dictatorship (1624-1627), the late Ming Dynasty was characterized by rampant factionalism, as various groups and individuals within the government, especially career civil officials and court eunuchs, struggled to amass power. Mostly, this factionalism involved the persons who were associated with the Donglin Clique Donglin Clique . This clique arose during Wanli’s reign and persisted until the end of the Ming Dynasty. It included incumbent and retired scholar-officials and scholars who claimed to follow the Confucian system of ethics.

Members of the Donglin Clique were particularly concerned with conducting moral evaluations of central government officials, with the proclaimed goal of removing officials of deficient moral character from office. The evaluations caused so many accusations and counteraccusations and such frequent changes in bureaucratic personnel that they helped paralyze the central Chinese bureaucracy. In the 1620’, the Donglin partisans came into conflict with the eunuch dictator Wei Zhongxian. The conflict proved disastrous for the Donglin Clique, as hundreds of its members were persecuted, imprisoned, or murdered. The factional struggle not only destabilized the civil administration but also had an adverse impact on the military. For example, in 1625, Xiong Tingbi Xiong Tingbi , the distinguished supreme commander of the Ming armies in the northeast, was first recalled and then beheaded by anti-Donglin forces for his alleged association with the Donglin Clique.

Parallel to the decline in governmental efficiency was the increasing deterioration of the dynasty’s finances. During the early seventeenth century, powerful Chinese landowners found ways to avoid paying taxes, small farmers went bankrupt because of poor harvests, production and trade were generally disrupted by recurring popular unrest, and the flow of bullion from the New World to the Old was reduced. As a result, there was a significant decrease in state revenues. At the same time that the imperial government’s income diminished, however, its expenditures continued to rise. The higher expenditures were necessary to meet the increasingly extravagant lifestyle of the imperial household, to sustain the empire’s costly northeastern frontier defenses against the Juchens, and to pay for internal military operations to repress the various peasant rebellions. Poverty;China

For the Ming rulers, those peasant rebellions represented the most immediate threat to their power. The most significant rebellion against the Ming was Li Zicheng’s Li Zicheng’s Revolt (1631-1645)[Li Zichengs Revolt (1631-1645)] Li Zicheng revolt, which broke out in the northwestern province of Shaanxi (Shensi) in 1631 following a severe drought and famine. Within a little more than a decade, Li’s rebel forces had defeated the government’s forces, and Li’s influence and control had expanded eastward to the vast areas between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Finally, the rebels advanced toward the Ming capital, Beijing, and on April 25, 1644, they entered the capital without encountering any resistance. Knowing his reign was at an end, the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen Chongzhen , had already committed suicide earlier that same day. Li Zicheng and his forces, however, ultimately fared no better. They were driven out of Beijing on June 4, 1644, by another Ming enemy, the Manchus.

The Manchus, who had lived in Manchuria, beyond the northeastern frontier, had become a powerful force under Nurhaci Nurhaci (r. 1586-1629), and they began to challenge the Ming Dynasty militarily in 1618. For the next twenty-six years, the Manchus and Ming troops were at constant war with each other, and the Manchus almost always had the upper hand. This war proved devastating to the Ming Dynasty: Large numbers of the dynasty’s troops were annihilated, large areas of its territory were lost, and a significant portion of its financial resources was drained. By contrast, the Manchus steadily strengthened themselves in the war, so when the government fell to Li Zicheng, they were in a perfect position to exploit the situation, defeat Li’s forces, and establish themselves as China’s ruling class.

The many problems that dominated Chinese politics in the first four decades of the seventeenth century were both signs and causes of the decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty. Although the dynasty fell and was replaced by foreign conquerors, however, Chinese culture survived and continued to develop.

Significance

The decline and end of the Ming Dynasty revealed once again that the hereditary monarchical system based on the principle of primogeniture was an ineffective political system in the long run. This system dictated that the eldest son of an emperor must also be emperor and that all important decision-making powers be concentrated in his hands, no matter whether he had interest in politics or had the ability to run the government.

Such a rigid system certainly could not always produce qualified occupants of the imperial throne and guarantee the making and implementation of sound state policies. As late Ming history proved, the opposite was often the case. Almost all the major problems the dynasty faced during its last years resulted from the ill functioning of this imperial system, a system of which even the emperors themselves were ultimately victims.

The demise of the Ming Dynasty and the foundation of the Manchu Qing Dynasty marked the beginning of another era of foreign rule in China—a bitter humiliation that many Chinese subjects would never forget and that would ultimately inspire modern Chinese nationalism. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian), the leader of the 1911 revolution, for example, put forward the slogan of “expelling the barbarians (the Manchus) and reviving the Chinese rule,” and he made nationalism one of his Three Principles of the People.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brook, Timothy. The Confusion of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. An account of the impact of commercialization on social and cultural life during the Ming Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cass, Victoria Baldwin. Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies, and Geishas of the Ming. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Contains valuable information about official attitudes toward women and women’s situation in Ming times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, Frederick W., and Denis Twitchett, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1. Vol. 7 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An account of the political history of the Ming Dynasty, including chapters on Wanli’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mungello, David E. Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Contains information about the Jesuits’ experiences in late Ming China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parsons, James Bunyan. The Peasant Rebellions of the Late Ming Dynasty. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1970. Examines the rise and fall of the peasant rebellions under Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tong, James W. Disorder Under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. A study of various kinds of collective violence, ranging from banditry to popular rebellions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twitchett, Denis, and Frederick W. Mote, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 2. Vol. 8 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Concerned with the Ming Dynasty’s governmental structure, fiscal and legal systems, socioeconomic situations, and intellectual trends.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Abahai; Chongzhen; Dorgon; Shunzhi; Tianqi; Zheng Chenggong. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

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