Ming China

The Decline of the Ming Empire


   There are numerous causes for the decline and fall of the Ming despite the auspicious start of the dynasty under the Hong Wu emperor. The most immediate and direct cause of the fall of the Ming were the rebellions that racked the country in the seventeenth century and the aggressive military expansion of the Manchus. The decline of the dynasty, however, began much sooner; history works more often in long patterns, and the decline of the Ming can be dated as far back as the establishment of the dynasty.

   Chinese historians largely believe that the Ming dynasty declined because the virtue and the competence of the emperors gradually declined. The key issue in this decline was the Ming political innovation of concentrating all power in the hands of the emperor. Western historians also argue that the quality of the emperors declined and this was exacerbated by the centralization of authority.

Political Decline at Court

   There's little question that Hong Wu's centralization of government produced disastrous results. Hong Wu himself was a dynamic and brilliant administrator who dedicated himself to a grueling work schedule. He was succeeded by his son, but his son was soon usurped by Cheng-tsu, who ruled as the Yung-lo emperor from 1403 to 1424 (Yung-lo was responsible for moving the capital back to Beijing). The Yung-lo emperor was also very active and very competent as an administrator, but two problems immediately surfaced. Because he had been opposed by the government ministers in his usurpation of the throne, he reversed the Hong Wu emperor's insistence that the court eunuchs be kept out of government. He also brought to the foreground everyone's deepest fear about an absolutist imperiate: the emperor could do whatever he pleased. The Yung-lo emperor, competent as he was, was perhaps the cruellest emperor in the history of China. When he seized the throne, he executed all the families of the men who opposed him, and throughout his reign he executed thousands arbitrarily.

   The major problem with an absolute emperor had been recognized long before the Ming dynasty: concentrating power in the hands of the emperor would spell disaster if the emperor were incompetent or disinterested in government. When the emperorship became hereditary, the Chinese recognized this and established the office of prime or chief minister. While incompetent emperors could come and go, the prime minister could guarantee a level of continuity and competence in the government. The Hong Wu emperor, wishing to concentrate absolute authority in his own hands, abolished the office of prime minister and so removed the only insurance against incompetent emperors.

   After the Yung-lo emperor, the Ming dynasty was one uninterrupted series of unremarkable and frequently mediocre emperors. Raised in luxury, they did not have the will or the mettle to administer the government with the same zeal and concern that the founder of the dynasty had. They increasingly neglected state affairs until, by the time of Shih-tsung, the Chia-ching Emperor (ruled 1522-1566), the Emperor had completely retreated into concerning himself solely with his pleasure and the life of his family. Power at court vacillated between officials and the eunuchs. Power eventually concentrated in the hands of the Grand Secretary who, although it was illegal to assume the title, had become the equivalent of the prime minister. Under the Chia-ching emperor, who took no interest whatsoever in government, the Chinese government fell into an abyss of corruption and abuse under the Grand Secretary, Yen Sung (1480-1568).

   So base were the public scandals that grew up around Yen Sung and later his son and successor, Yen Shih-fan, that the scholars in government banded together to fight corrupt officials and the eunuchs for control of the government. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the government split up into four factions fighting each other for control; eventually one party, the Tung-lin, prevailed. But the Tung-lin party still had to contend with the eunuchs, and the latter half of the rule of the Wan-li emperor (1572-1619) was characterized by this struggle. The eunuchs eventually prevailed, but the government had been torn to pieces in the process.

   The Wan-li emperor was followed by the T'ien-ch'i emperor (1621-1627) who spent all day playing with carpentry. Content to allow the young man to play away, the eunuchs effectively ran the government for their own profit. By the time the Ch'ung-chen emperor (1628-1644) took over, the government had been decimated by the eunuchs. Ch'ung-chen was determined to avoid any more problems by running the government all by himself; both Chinese and European historians have been both fascinated and perplexed by this nearly insane decision. During his seventeen year reign, the Ch'ung-chen emperor appointed more than fifty Grand Secretaries.

Rebellion

   The political decline of the Ming dynasty began as early as the fifteenth century, but rebellions did not break out in the empire until the seventeenth century. Largely to pay for extravagances at court and military expeditions against the Mongols and ever-increasingly aggressive Manchus, the imperial government exacted increasingly burdensome taxes on the common people. As these taxes inspired rebellion, the quelling of these rebellions by military force required more taxes; seeing the rebellions in China, the Manchus pressed their advantage—in order to check the Manchus, the imperial government had to—you guessed it—raise more taxes. It was a treadmill the waning dynasty could not get off. Despite this, the constant rebellions and fighting against the Manchus depleted the resources of the Ming so that by 1643 there was no money anywhere: all the treasuries in the country were bare.

The Manchus

   The greatest threat to the Ming, however, were the Manchus in the north. The Manchus were a stock of the Jurched tribe who lived in Manchuria. In the twelfth century, they founded a dynasty in Manchuria called the Chin ("Gold") dynasty; they were conquered a century later by the Mongols but became semi-independent during the Ming.

   Led by the dynamic and brilliant leader, Nurhaci (1559-1626), the Jurched slowly became consolidated through a series of raids into a single political unit. In 1607, he had become so powerful in the north that the Mongols gave him the title, Kundulen Han, or "Respected Emperor." In 1616, with the Jurched tribes consolidated under his rule, he declared a new state, the Chin, to have been established with himself as emperor. He claimed the Mandate of Heaven and set his sights on the whole of China, but died in 1626.

   He was succeeded by Abahai (1592-1643), his second son, who first attacked Korea and then marched on China. After looting Beijing, Abahai set up a civil administration modelled after that of China; this administration, however, was slightly different from the Chinese model. Each ministry (or board) was not administered by a president and vice-president, but rather by a Manchurian prince. Beneath Manchurian prince were five assistants of which at least one was Mongol and one was Chinese. This, called by historians the Manchu-Mongol-Chinese rule, became the model for Ch'ing government until 1911.

   Abahai also renamed his people, "Manchu," rather than "Jurched," and renamed the dynasty from "Chin," which had bad connotations in China, to "Ch'ing," meaning "Pure." When Abahai died in 1643, the crown fell to his son, Fu-lin, who was only six years old. The government, then, fell into the hands of the regents, Jirgalang and Dorgan.

   In the late 1630's, Abahai attacked North China; by this time, China wsa falling apart with rebellion. The major rebel leader was Li Tzu-ch'eng (1605-1645); he attacked Beijing in late April of 1644. Without much resistance, he entered the city on April 25 and the last Ming emperor, the Ch'ung-chen emperor, hanged himself. The glorious Ming dynasty, so promising at its start, died on that afternoon.

   Dorgan, meanwhile, proceeded towards Peking at the head of an army, presumably to aid the Ming. Li burned part of the forbidden city down and fled. Dorgan made a big show of burying the Ch'ung-chen emperor, but his real scheme was to place Fu-lin on the throne of China. Li was eventually hunted down and killed in 1645, but before then, Dorgan placed Fu-lin on the throne. Thus began the last imperial dynasty in Chinese history: the Ch'ing or Manchu dynasty.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97