Li Zicheng’s Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thriving in an environment marked by despair and famine, Li Zicheng became a powerful rebel leader who eventually captured Beijing, leading to the suicide of the Chongzhen emperor. This event hastened the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, which asked its enemies, the Manchus, to help it fight Li; soon, the Manchus both defeated Li and overthrew the Ming, establishing their own Qing Dynasty in China.

Summary of Event

In the 1620’, China’s Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) faced a series of military and economic challenges that led to a deteriorating living situation for the population. The Manchus Manchus threatened in the northeast. China’s silver supply via the Spanish Philippines was disrupted. Continuous tax increases, official corruption, and inertia did not help to overcome the crisis. The situation was particularly hard on the peasants of China’s northwestern provinces. Two years of bad harvests in 1627 and 1628 created famine conditions. Famine;China Many desperate peasants became bandits. [kw]Li Zicheng’s Revolt (1631-1645) [kw]Revolt, Li Zicheng’s (1631-1645) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1631-1645: Li Zicheng’s Revolt[1130] Government and politics;1631-1645: Li Zicheng’s Revolt[1130] China;1631-1645: Li Zicheng’s Revolt[1130] Li Zicheng’s Revolt (1631-1645)[Li Zichengs Revolt (1631-1645)]

Li Zicheng Li Zicheng was one of the young rural men who became outlaws. Born in northern Shaanxi (Shensi) province, just south of the Great Wall, probably in 1605, Li had worked in a wine shop and at an ironworker’s and had gotten laid off as a post-station messenger before joining the military in 1630. He had a reputation as a skilled cavalry archer and as a violent man. In 1631, the government did not resupply Li’s unit, and he deserted with his troops. Crossing into Shanxi (Shansi) province, Li joined his bandit uncle Gao Ying Xian Gao Ying Xian (d. 1636) and quickly became an outlaw leader.

Li called his fellows Chuang Zei Chuang Zei , “dashing bandits,” and himself Chuang Chiang, “dashing general.” The Ming government struck back in response to their raids, and by the end of 1633, Li had to retreat south. In 1634, he was captured, but through either bribery or a false promise to leave Shaanxi province, Li was freed. He soon resumed his raids.

In 1635, Li and twelve other bandit leaders met to coordinate their operations, but the meeting ended inconclusively. Defeated by Ming troops, Li moved into Henan (Honan) and joined forces with fellow outlaw Zhang Xianzhong Zhang Xianzhong . The government captured his uncle Gao in 1636 and had him beheaded. Li assumed his uncle’s title of Chuang Wang, “Dashing King.” Li and Zhang moved into Sichuan (Szechuan) province in 1637. Defeat in 1638 had them retreat into a remote borderland.

When drought and famine struck Henan in 1639, the peasants became desperate, and the scholar Li Yen Li Yen joined Li Zicheng. Under Li Yen’s intellectual influence, Li Zicheng styled his movement as a peasant revolt and called for tax relief and land reform. As bandits turned into rebels, Li Zicheng forbade them to harm ordinary people and restricted pillaging to the wealthy and government officials.

When a Manchu invasion weakened the Ming government, Li Zicheng struck. In March, 1641, he captured Luoyang (Lo-yang), a historically important city in Henan province. To impress the people, Li ordered a hated prince executed, slaughtered, and eaten. In 1642, Li continued his conquest of Henan. Cities that surrendered were spared; others were savagely pillaged. Li’s old bandit comrade Zhang established himself in Chengdu (Ch’eng-tu) in Sichuan. Severe natural catastrophes such as droughts, floods, and epidemics continued to plague northwestern China, increasing Li’s alternative appeal as a savior. Li captured Xi’an (Hsi-an), capital of his native province of Shaanxi, in November, 1643.

By early 1644, Li Zicheng had founded his kingdom, named Da Shun Gao Da Shun Gao (great Shun state), calling himself King Li Sheng, and tried to establish a Shun dynasty. He issued his own coins and royal proclamations. In Chengdu, Zhang Xianzhong followed this example, founding Da Xi Guo Da Xi Guo (great western state). Li continued his conquests, capturing Shanxi province by March, 1644. To conquer Beijing (Peking; then called Jingchen, “capital city”), Li divided his army. Most troops went north, capturing Datong (Ta-t’ung). A smaller army went south, capturing Baoding (Pao-ting) in April, 1644. Beijing was encircled on April 23, 1644.

Faced by Li’s rebel army, the Chongzhen Chongzhen emperor despaired. He took leave of Princess Chang and walked into the imperial Jingshan Park, where he hanged himself on a tree in the first hour of April 25, 1644, ending the Ming Dynasty. Li Zicheng entered Beijing unopposed later that day. Initially, Li’s army showed restraint. Discovering an empty imperial treasury, Li agreed on May 1 to confiscate the fortunes of high-ranking Ming officials. His soldiers tortured captive Ming officers, killing many. Horrified by the murders, on May 12 Li ordered the release of the prisoners. Now his soldiers turned against the merchants and engaged in widespread looting and pillaging, which aroused the hatred of the people.

Ming loyalists looked to General Wu Sangui Wu Sangui . Wu held the strategic Ningyuan garrison, defending the easternmost part of the Great Wall against the Manchus. The isolated Wu could either ally himself with Li and support the new regime or ask the Manchus to help him defeat Li. In Beijing, Li held hostage the general’s father, Wu Xiang Wu Xiang . According to popular history, Li also captured Wu Sangui’s favorite concubine, Chen Yuanyuan Chen Yuanyuan , and made her his own. Traditionally, it was this act that persuaded Wu to ally with Manchu prince Dorgon Dorgon to defeat Li. Contemporary historians speculate that Wu may have hoped to use the Manchus to defeat Li, restore the Mings to power, and secure a high position for himself in a restored Ming government. The excesses of Li’s army may also have persuaded Wu that alliance with the Manchus was the better of his two options.

On May 18, 1644, Li left Beijing to confront Wu, and their forces clashed at Shanhaiguan (Shan-hai-kuan) Shanhaiguan, Battle of (1644) . Contemporary historians assume that about eighty thousand men of infantry, cavalry, and artillery participated in the battle on Li’s side, opposed by thirty thousand of Wu’s soldiers and sixty thousand Manchus, Han Chinese, and Mongols under Prince Dorgon, including cavalry and artillery. While some historians argue that Wu defeated Li only to have to surrender to Dorgon when the latter took Wu’s base at Shanhaiguan, most scholars believe that Li and Wu fought an inconclusive pitched battle until Dorgon led his forces around the combatants and, aided by a sandstorm, attacked Li’s left flank. Caught by surprise, Li’s forces were defeated and fled back to Beijing. Exactly when Wu Sangui shaved his forehead and submitted to the Manchus is debated, but this took place around the time of this battle.

Defeated, Li returned to Beijing. He executed Wu Xiang, and he crowned himself emperor on June 3, 1644. His troops left Beijing on June 4, and by June 6, Prince Dorgon had taken control of the city. Dorgon placed on the imperial throne the six-year old Fulin, who took the reign name of Shunzhi Shunzhi (obedient ruler), formally founding the Qing Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) Dynasty.

Dorgon sent his brother Dodo Dodo to hunt down Li Zicheng, who fled to Xi’an. In January, 1645, under pressure from the Manchu armies, Li abandoned Xi’an and fled into the mountains of northwestern Jiangxi (Kiangsi) province. Li’s end remains uncertain, however. Some sources state that villagers whom he tried to rob in June, 1645, beat him to death. Others tell that he committed suicide around the same time. A third, more romantic narrative states that Li escaped to a monastery, where he died peacefully. In January, 1647, Manchu forces killed Li’s former ally Zhang Xianzhong in Chengdu, eliminating the last remnants of the former rebel army.


Li Zicheng’s rise from bandit to rebel leader to conqueror of Beijing had a vast impact on modern Chinese history. Li’s revolt effectively ended the Ming Dynasty, which had ruled China since 1368. It allowed the northern Manchus, a people of two million, to conquer one hundred million Chinese and establish a dynasty that would last until 1912.

If Li’s early years were marked by banditry, the influence of Li Yen transformed him into a popular hero whose avowed goal was to better the lot of the peasants. As such, Li can be seen in a long tradition of peasant rebel leaders, even foreshadowing the victory of the Chinese Communists in the twentieth century. As people were starving and the government did not help, desperate peasants and anguished scholars flocked to Li Zicheng.

Many contemporary historians hold that Li Zicheng’s inability to control his looting and murdering soldiers in Beijing demonstrated a lack of leadership. Certainly, the excesses of his army cost him the sympathies of the Chinese people. His treatment of Wu Sangui and his family alienated the powerful Ming general and drove him into the arms of the Manchu leader Dorgon. In the end, Li Zicheng failed to rule successfully the nation he had conquered.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David A. “State Making and State Breaking.” In A Military History of China, edited by David A. Graff et al. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Discusses Li Zicheng’s role in the downfall of the Ming Dynasty and Li’s failure to establish a dynasty of his own. Maps, chronology, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsu, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Places Li’s revolt in the context of the fall of the Manchu dynasty and focuses on Li’s end. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parsons, James Bunyan. Peasant Rebellions of the Late Ming Dynasty. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970. Thorough discussions of causes and history of Li Zicheng’s revolt. Maps, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1999. Most widely available book in English on modern Chinese history. The chapter “Conquest and Consolidation” discusses Li Zicheng’s revolt. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wakeman, Frederic, Jr. “The Shun Interregnum of 1644.” In From Ming to Ch’ing, edited by Jonathan Spence and John Wills, Jr. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Vivid description of the brief reign of Li Zicheng as self-proclaimed emperor. Notes.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Chongzhen; Dorgon; Shunzhi. Li Zicheng’s Revolt (1631-1645)[Li Zichengs Revolt (1631-1645)]

Categories: History