Rebellion of the Three Feudatories Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Three former Ming generals, who had sided with the Manchus when the Mings fell, desired to retain control of the lands they had been allowed to administer under the Qing Dynasty. They rebelled against their Manchu overlords in 1673, a rebellion that was finally crushed in 1681.

Summary of Event

In the early seventeenth century, the Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) (“bright”) Dynasty, which had ruled China from 1368, succumbed to an invasion by the non-Chinese Manchus Manchus from the north, establishing the Qing Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing, 1644-1911) (“pure”) Dynasty in 1644. The Ming collapse was largely due to internal weaknesses, and the Manchu invasion saw a number of Ming officials give support to the foreigners. The Ming general, Wu Sangui Wu Sangui , was one of those who sided with the Manchus at the time of the Ming disintegration instead of supporting Li Zicheng Li Zicheng , a native Chinese rebel claimant to the throne. Li was uneducated, and his followers pillaged the capital of Beijing, and although the Manchus had only a semi-civilized heritage, they had adopted a number of Chinese governing practices. [kw]Rebellion of the Three Feudatories (Dec., 1673-1681) [kw]Three Feudatories, Rebellion of the (Dec., 1673-1681) Government and politics;Dec., 1673-1681: Rebellion of the Three Feudatories[2540] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec., 1673-1681: Rebellion of the Three Feudatories[2540] China;Dec., 1673-1681: Rebellion of the Three Feudatories[2540] Three Feudatories, Rebellion of the (1673-1681)

Li’s defeat in 1644 and the death of another Chinese rebel opponent of the Ming, Zhang Xianzhong Zhang Xianzhong , in 1647 did not lead to an entirely peaceful Manchu takeover, as there were numerous other members of the Ming family who subsequently claimed the imperial throne. The last legitimate Ming claimant, the prince of Gui, fled into Burma but was turned over to Wu Sangui in 1661 and executed the following year.

In the seventeenth century, the population of China was approximately 120 million. In comparison, the Manchus numbered only a few million. Given the disparity in numbers, the Qing had little choice but to employ Chinese in both civil and military capacities. The Manchus adopted policies that would differentiate them from their Chinese subjects, including maintaining their own language and customs and expelling many native Chinese farmers from the area around Beijing, turning the land over to Manchus. In addition, male Chinese were forced to adopt the Manchu hairstyle, which required that the forehead be shaved and the hair on the back of the head be braided in a queue.

Intermarriage was effectively prevented between the two groups, inasmuch as the Manchus disapproved of the Chinese custom of female foot binding. Although there were Manchu garrisons throughout much of China, the limited Manchu population was centered in north China, near their original homelands, and around Beijing. By necessity, the Qing allowed much of southern and southwestern China to be administered by Chinese generals who had proved their loyalty to the new, foreign dynasty.

Far from Beijing, the vast area of southern China, with its varied semitropical and mountainous landscapes, was unsuited to the use of cavalry, the foremost element in the Manchu military tradition. During the last years before the seizure of the prince of Gui, three Chinese generals, Wu Sangui, Geng Jimao Geng Jimao , and Shang Kexi Shang Kexi , led the Qing campaigns in the south. The former had been crucial in the Manchu victory over the rebel Li Zicheng in 1644, and the latter two had sworn loyalty to the Qing as early as 1633, had been enrolled in the Manchu armies as “bannermen,” and had played significant roles in the triumph over the Ming. In recognition of their accomplishments and their proven loyalty, the three were made Manchu princes and their sons were married to daughters of Qing nobles.

Most significantly, the three generals were placed in charge of several provinces in the south of China. Geng ruled Fujian (Fukien) province in the southeast from the city of Fujian on the coast, Shang controlled Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Guangxi (Kwangsi) provinces from Guangzhou (Canton), and further west, Wu Sangui governed the provinces of Huizhou (Hui-chou) and Yunan and parts of Hunan and Sichuan (Szechuan). Known as the Three Feudatories, the three Chinese generals were responsible not only for military affairs but also for civil government, including the collection of taxes. They were not merely administrators or bureaucrats for the Qing emperors in Beijing; rather, they were given extensive subsidies and established trade monopolies in salt, gold, copper, and ginseng within their territories. Thus, they reaped considerable private profits. It is estimated that the private incomes of the Three Feudatories approximated the worth of 10 million ounces of silver each year.

As in similar feudal situations elsewhere, Geng, Shang, and Wu assumed that their feudatories would be made hereditary and that they would pass their territories on to their sons. In 1671, Shang Zhixin Shang Zhixin took over military responsibilities in Guangdong as the result of the illness of his father, Shang Kexi, and Geng Jingzhong Geng Jingzhong seized control of Fujian province when his father, Geng Jimao, died the same year. In 1673, Shang Kexi asked the emperor if he could retire because of his illness, with the implication that his son would replace him as the new feudatory. Geng Jingzhong and Wu Sangui had also made inquiries about making their feudatories permanent. If that was allowed to occur, it could well have resulted in the dismemberment of China between the several feudatories in the south, with Manchu rule restricted to the area north of the Yangtze River. It was thus a crucial moment for Chinese national identity and for the Qing Dynasty.

The decision rested with the Kangxi Kangxi emperor. Born in 1654, he had ascended the throne in 1661 as a young boy. Discussion regarding the future of the feudatories had been ongoing for several years by this time, and ultimately Kangxi, unlike some of his advisers, believed that centralized rule necessitated that the feudatories not be allowed to become hereditary and thus possibly independent. When the emperor indicated that he would not surrender to the demands of the feudatories, Wu Sangui rebelled against the Qing in December, 1673, seizing much of Hunan province, and established a new dynasty, the Zhou, a conscious historical reference to one of China’s earliest dynasties. In Fujian, Geng Jingzhong joined the rebellion in 1674 and invaded Zhejiang province to the north. The third of the original feudatories, Shang Kexi, remained loyal to the Qing, but his son, Shang Zhixin, seized power from his elderly and ill father and joined the uprising in 1676.

With their significant military and financial resources, the Three Feudatories were formidable foes for the Qing. Wu Sangui appealed to Chinese patriotism by ordering the abolishment of the Manchu queue and implying that a Ming descendant might become the first emperor of a new dynasty. Wu urged Kangxi to leave China and return to Manchuria, but in retaliation, the emperor ordered the execution of Wu’s hostage son. Many native Chinese gave support to the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories, some because the Manchus were perceived as foreigners, others because they were intimidated by the military forces of the rebels. Many others undoubtedly attempted not to take sides in what was a bloody civil war.

In spite of obvious advantages, the Three Feudatories were never able to act together in opposing the Qing armies sent by Kangxi to end the rebellion. Wu Sangui declared himself emperor of the Zhou in 1678, but he died later that year. His grandson and heir, Wu Shifan Wu Shifan , committed suicide in 1681 when besieged by Qing forces. Geng Jingzhong had abandoned the rebellion in 1676, and Shang Zhixin surrendered to the Manchus in 1677, in part because he was at odds with Wu Sangui. Even though Kangxi had supposedly restored their princely rank after their submission, Geng and Shang were subsequently executed.


It was Kangxi, who reigned until 1722 and became the very model of a Chinese emperor in spite of his Manchu heritage, who made the ultimate decision to no longer tolerate the separatist ambitions of the Three Feudatories. The economic costs were too great in subsidizing the feudatories, but so was the threat to Qing rule and the unity of China. Although the rebellious provinces remained areas of concern for decades and were not entirely incorporated into China until the eighteenth century, instead of a politically divided China under the control of military warlords, Kangxi created a centralized government under civilian control, a system that lasted largely unchanged until the Revolution of 1911.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crossley, Pamela Kyle. The Manchus. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1997. A modern study that surveys the establishment of the Qing and the challenge of the feudatories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, F. W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. An excellent recent work that includes an extensive discussion of the reign of Kangxi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. Emperor of China. New York: Random House, 1974. A brilliant reconstruction of the ideas, policies, and personality of Emperor Kangxi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. The best one-volume survey of China from the end of the Ming to the present.
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