Lecture Twenty-Five

The Rise of the Manchus

Scope: The late 16th century once again saw a small group of people on China’s northern frontier begin to build their power and prepare to challenge China militarily. Nurhaci was a Jurchen, a descendant of the people who had ruled north China in the 12th and early 13th centuries. He built a multi-ethnic alliance he named the Manchus and led them to dominance in the area that is today called Manchuria. Under his son and grandsons, the Manchus launched a campaign to overthrow the Ming and conquer China. As China faced internal rebellion in the early 1640s, the Manchus seized the moment and were able to gain control of Beijing in June 1644. After further campaigns in central and southern China, their Qing dynasty consolidated its rule over China proper and went on to expand the empire in Inner Asia.


I. The Manchus were a creation of Nurhaci in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

A. Nurhaci was Jurchen who dreamed of reviving the Jin dynasty.

1. Born in 1559, he conceived the ambition of uniting the peoples of the northeast and challenging China’s dominance.

2. He first gained leadership over the Jurchen in the late 16th century.

3. He then created a new “super-ethnic” group by allying with neighboring groups.

B. Nurhaci forged a shared identity for these people and shared his vision of expansion with them.

1. In the first quarter of the 17th century, the name Manchu was invented, perhaps based on the Buddhist figure Manjusri.

2. A written script for Manchu was created.

3. A putative history of the Manchus was developed and began to be written down.

4. Links were established with other peoples on the northern frontier of China, especially the Mongols to the west.

II. From 1626, the Manchus began to challenge the Ming for power.

A. A revived Jin dynasty was proclaimed in 1626.

1. This was meant to signal the Manchus’ imperial ambitions.

2. They established a capital city at Mukden, modern Shenyang, based on the design of Beijing.

3. In 1635, the Manchu language was made the official court language.

B. The Qing dynasty was established in 1636.

1. The new name recognized the fact that the Manchus were more than successors to the Jurchen.

2. Qing means pure and symbolized the Manchu ambition to cleanse China of what they claimed was the decadent corruption of Ming rule.

C. Military campaigns against the Ming began in the late 1630s.

1. The siege of Jinzhou in 1641 was a major victory for the Manchus.

2. Some defeated Ming generals brought their troops over to the Manchu side.

3. By early 1644, the Manchus controlled all the territory outside the Great Wall to China’s northeast.

III. In 1644, the Ming faced twin crises that toppled the dynasty.

A. The internal woes that had plagued China since the Wanli era led to massive rebellions.

1. Fiscal problems and factional conflicts weakened the government and impeded its ability to deal with floods and bad harvests.

2. By the time a new emperor came to the throne in 1628 and began reforms, it was too little, too late.

3. Peasant rebellions broke out in the northwest and southwest.

B. By the early 1640s, the rebels threatened the survival of the dynasty.

1. The biggest force was led by Li Zicheng in Shanxi province west of the capital.

2. In the spring of 1644, Li led his forces in an attack on Beijing and, in April, was able to enter the city.

3. The last Ming emperor hanged himself, and remnants of the court fled south to Nanjing.

4. Li Zicheng proclaimed his own dynasty and set out to create a new government.

C. The Manchus took advantage of this chaos in China to effect their own conquest.

1. A Chinese general named Wu Sangui was guarding the pass in the Great Wall where the wall reaches the ocean.

2. He was worried about the situation in Beijing, perhaps because his mistress was there and he thought she might be forced to become a concubine of Li Zicheng.

3. Wu allowed the Manchus through the Wall to aid in chasing the rebels out of Beijing.

4. After Li’s army was destroyed, the Manchus refused to depart and, instead, announced that their Qing dynasty would now rule China.

IV. The Qing conquered all of China over the next 20 years.

A. Most of the fighting took place between 1644 and 1646.

1. The greatest resistance came in the Jiangnan region.

2. The siege of Yangzhou and the massacre of its citizens after their surrender was a message to all not to resist too long.

3. The Ming court fled south, and the last Ming prince was eventually captured and executed in 1660.

B. Some resistance continued until the 1680s.

1. Ming loyalists withdrew to Taiwan and created a fortified retreat there.

2. Coastal raiders and pirates allied with the Ming exiles.

3. Finally, in 1683, the last of the challengers to Qing power was suppressed.

4. The new dynasty entered on a great age of expansion and prosperity, which we will examine in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Pamela Kyle Crossley, A Translucent Mirror.

Supplemental Reading:

Frederick Wakeman, The Great Enterprise.

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did Nurhaci feel the need to include other ethnic groups in his quest for a new power to challenge China? Why did he not simply seek to revive the Jurchen and restore the Jin dynasty?

2. Why would Chinese commanders have gone over to the Manchu side rather than remain loyal to the Ming dynasty?

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