The Manchu Conquest & Kangxi’s Consolidation
Ming/Qing: 1600-1722
Link to Video of the Ming-Qing Transition
Qing Dynasty Icon
Li Zicheng

Wu Sangui
The Collapse of the Ming Dynasty
Li Zicheng & Wu Sangui
In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the Ming court slowly lost control of its rural bureaucracy and, as a result, of its tax structure. Pressed at the same time for more money to pay and supply the troops needed to counter the attacks of the Jürchen tribesmen who were growing in power and seizing great areas of land in Manchuria, the court both increased extra levies on those populated areas that it still controlled and laid off many employees in the northwest, where the danger to the state seemed less pressing. One of those laid off in this economy move was a post-station attendant from a rural family named Li Zicheng. (SMC, 21)
Map of the 1644 Battle of Shanhaiguan with the forces of Li Zicheng, Wusangui and Dorgon
With the Manchu armies to his east and Li Zicheng’s forces to his west, General Wu Sangui was in a desperate situation. His only hope to survive was by allying with one of his opponents. Among arguments for joining Li were the fact that he was Chinese, that he seemed to have the support of the local people, that he promised to end the abuses that had marked the late Ming state, and that he held Wu’s father as a hostage. Otherwise, Li was an unknown quantity, violent and uneducated; moreover, the behavior of his army in Peking after he had seized the city in April 1644 was not encouraging to a wealthy and cultured official like General Wu. Li’s troops had looted and ravaged the city, attacking and pillaging the homes of senior officials, seizing their relatives for ransom, or demanding enormous payoffs in “protection money.” Even though Li had declared the formal founding of a new dynasty, he was unable to control his own generals in Peking, and Wu might well have wondered how effective Li would be in unifying China.
Li Zicheng's Army Burning Down Peking
Chinese Style Court of the Early Qing State
As for allying with the Manchus, there was the disadvantage that they were ethnically non-Chinese, and their Jürchen background included them in a history of semicivilized frontier people whom the Chinese had traditionally despised; furthermore, they had terrorized parts of north China in their earlier raids and had virtually wiped out some of the cities they had occupied. Yet in their favor was the early development of their embryonic regime, the Qing, which offered a promise of order: the six ministries, the examination system, the formation of the Chinese banners, the large numbers of Chinese advisers in senior positions — all were encouraging signs to Wu. And their treatment of senior Chinese officials who surrendered had been good. (SMC, 32)
Qing Dynasty Icon
Wu Sangui

A Letter from Wu Sangui to Dorgon
Renshen Day, 4th Moon, 1644
Our country has had good relations with your northern dynasty for more than two hundred years. Now, for no reason, we face this national catastrophe. Your northern dynasty should consider our plight with compassion. Moreover, these mutinous officials and bandits also cannot be tolerated by your northern dynasty. To be rid of this violent evil will be greatly favorable to you. ... Moreover, it is impossible to calculate how much wealth or the number of women the roving bandits have already accumulated; when your righteous army arrives all this will be yours and this shall be a great profit. As the world’s greatest hero, your majesty has this opportunity to rip down what is withered and rotten: certainly there will never be a second chance!
       I beg you to consider the loyal and righteous words of this solitary official of a destroyed kingdom and immediately summon crack troops to enter the central and western zones. I, Sangui, will lead my command to arrive at the gates of the capital. We can then destroy the roving bandits who have taken the court and make manifest great righteousness in China. Then will our dynasty repay your northern dynasty merely with wealth? We will give land as a reward and absolutely shall never betray our word. ... (
DC, 22-23)
Chinese Calligraphy Set
Dorgon’s Reply
Guiyu Day, 4th Moon, 1644
We always wanted to cultivate a good relationship with the Ming and often sent you letters; however, the Emperor and officials of the Ming did not consider the chaos afflicting the state or the death of its troops and people and you never replied. Therefore, on three occasions our state launched campaigns to show your officials, troops, and common people that we wanted the Ming Emperor to make careful plans and befriend us. We shall do this no longer. We seek only to pacify the nation and give the people rest. ... When your excellence dispatched an envoy with your letter, I was enormously happy and, therefore, am leading my army forward. Your excellence thought to repay your [Ming] lord’s graciousness toward you and refused to share the same sky with the roving bandits. This is certainly the righteousness of a loyal subject! ... If your excellence is willing to lead your troops to us, we will enfeoff you with a domain and ennoble you as a prince. Your state will then be avenged and you and your family will be protected. Your posterity will enjoy wealth and nobility as eternal as the mountains and rivers. (DC, 23-24)
Jonahtan Spence's "Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang-hsi"
For a combination of [the reasons cited above] and, according to popular tales, because Li had seized one of Wu’s favorite concubines and had made her his own, General Wu Sangui threw in his lot with the Manchus, fought off the army that Li sent against him, and invited Dorgon to join him in recapturing Peking. Li retaliated by executing Wu’s father and displaying his head on the walls of Peking. But the morale of Li’s troops was fading fast, and not even his formal assumption of imperial rank on June 3, 1644, could shore him up. The next day he and his troops, weighed down by booty, fled to the west. On the sixth of June, the Manchus and Wu entered the capital, and the boy emperor was enthroned in the Forbidden City with the reign title of Shunzhi, meaning “obedience in rule.” The adopting of such a traditional Chinese title by the young emperor showed that the Manchus now formally claimed the mandate of heaven to rule China. (SMC, 32-33)
Qing emperors had to grow up fast if they were to grow up at all. Shunzhi had been thirteen when, taking advantage of Dorgon’s sudden death, he put himself in power. Shunzhi’s son, Kangxi, was also thirteen when he first moved to oust the regent Oboi; and he was fifteen when, with the help of his grandmother and a group of Manchu guard officers, he managed to arrange for Oboi’s arrest in 1669 on charges of arrogance and dishonesty. Oboi soon died in prison, and Kangxi began a reign that was to last until 1722 and make him one of the most admired rulers in China’s history. (SMC, 48)
Qing Dynasty Icon
Map of China with Burma, Yunnan and Guangxi highlighted
Ending the Resistance
The Execution of the Prince of Gui
The prince of Gui (Emperor Yongli) was the most prominent of several Ming pretenders in the decades after the conquest. He was enthroned by Ming local officials in November 1646 in Wuzhou, Guangxi. ... In 1659, with the Qing army in pursuit, Yongli crossed the border into Burma, where he was placed under virtual house arrest but was not mistreated. Two years later, following a coup that brought to power a new Burmese king eager to mollify the Qing state, the last Ming pretender was turned over to Wu Sangui, the celebrated turncoat. As the following document suggests, Wu had no compunction about putting Yongli to death. This 1662 memorial, sent to the court by Wu Sangui and Aixing, includes a copy of a letter from Yongli imploring Wu for mercy (DC, 33)
Map showing the route by which the Prince of Gui (Emperor Yongli) fled to Burma
Letter from Yongli to Wu Sangui

Your excellency has already ruined my family and you now seek to take away my posterity. This is like reading the poem in the Shijing about the owl that devours its own young. Can you not feel moved? Your excellency is the descendant of a family long honored with appointments; even if you cannot pity your servant, can you not think of the late Emperor? If you have no consideration for the late Emperor, can you not recall the Ming ancestors? If you do not recall the Ming ancestors, can you not remember your own father and grandfather? I cannot understand what sort of grace the great Qing has bestowed you or what sort of grievance your servant has given to your excellency. Your excellency considers himself clever but is actually foolish. You believe yourself to be generous but you are mean. After some time has passed, there will be biographies and historical accounts; what sort of person will future generations consider your excellency to have been? (DC, 34-35)
What is the basis of the Yongli Emperor's appeal?
bubble page divider
How should we judge Wu Sangui?
Qing Dynasty Icon
Kangxi: Unifying the Empire
Unifying the Empire
The War of the Three Feudatories, 1673-1681

The most important of the many problems facing the young ruler [i.e. the Kangxi Emperor] was that of unifying China under Manchu control. Although in 1662 Wu Sangui had eliminated the last Ming pretender in the southwest, the region had not been fully integrated into Peking’s administrative structure. ... Instead, the whole of south and southwest China was left under the control of the three Chinese generals who had directed most of the fighting there in the late 1650s.
       These three were named as princes by the Manchu court and honored by having their sons married to the daughters of Manchu nobles; each of the three was granted what amounted to an almost independent domain, and in Western histories they are named the “Three Feudatories.” The first, Wu Sangui himself, controlled the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou as well as sections of Hunan and Sichuan; the second [Shang Zhixin] ruled Guangdong and parts of Guangxi from his base in Canton; and the third [Geng Jingzhong] controlled Fujian from the coastal city of Fuzhou.
Map of the Three Feudatories
Together the three men were virtual masters over a region equivalent in size to France and Spain combined, or to America’s southern states from the Georgia coast to Texas. Within these areas, despite the nominal presence of Qing bureaucrats, the Three Feudatories supervised all aspects of military and civil government, the examination systems, relations with the indigenous peoples, and the collection of taxes. Not only did they keep local revenues for themselves and control lucrative trade monopolies, they also constantly demanded lavish subsidies from the Qing court as the price of their continued loyalty. By the 1660s, they were receiving more than 10 million ounces of silver every year. ... Despite an attempt by some of Kangxi’s most trusted confidants to persuade Wu Sangui to leave his base peacefully [and retire in Manchuria], Wu threw off his allegiance to the Qing in December 1673, declaring the formation of a new dynasty, and driving his armies deep into Hunan. The other two generals joined the fray in 1674 and 1676 respectively. (SMC, 48-9)
Was this war inevitable ... and if not, who was to blame — Kangxi or the Feudatories?
bubble page divider
Given the strength of the Feudatories, why didn't they succeed?
With their huge standing armies and sound administrative and economic base, Wu and his supporters had a better chance of success than the Ming loyalist princes of Fu and Gui before them. ... [and indeed] the rebellion almost succeeded in destroying the Qing. At the very least, it looked as if the Manchus would lose control of all of China south of the Yangzi River, and that permanent partition of the kingdom would be the result.
       China remained a unified country (with all the significance that has for later world history) as the result of five crucial factors. One was Wu Sangui’s indecisiveness in not driving across the Hunan border and up to the north when he first held the initiative in 1674. A second was Kangxi’s ability, despite his youth, to rally his court behind him and to develop a long-range strategy for conquest and retrenchment. A third was the courage and tenacity of a number of Manchu generals — some also young and untried in battle — who spearheaded the Qing counterattacks. ... A fourth was the inability of the Three Feudatories to coordinate their endeavors and to mount a sustained campaign against the Qing on any one front. A fifth was their inability to appeal to the most loyal of the Ming supporters, who were fully aware that the Three Feudatories had previously been active collaborators with the Manchus.
(SMC, 50)
Qing Dynasty Icon
Map showing area controlled and/or influenced by Zheng Chenggong
Expanding the Empire
The Annexation of Taiwan
In the later years of the Ming dynasty, Taiwan was still largely unknown. ... In the 1620s Taiwan began to feature in global politics [with the arrival of the Portuguese, the Spanish, and finally the Dutch]. ... The Dutch stayed largely aloof from the fighting by the Ming loyalists in the 1640s and 1650s, but the development of the coastal war and its interconnections with Ming loyalists eventually made Dutch isolation impossible. The fighting escalated when the leader of the powerful and wealthy Zheng family, a pirate and trader who plied the waters between Fujian, Taiwan, and southern Japan, was finally made an official by the desperate Ming. Although he went over to the Qing court in 1646, his impetuous son, Zheng Chenggong, refused to do so. Instead he made his troops and ships available to the fleeing Ming, and continued to support them in name and deed even after they had been driven inland.
This remarkable naval warrior, known to history as Koxinga, ... [took Taiwan from the Dutch in February 1662, allowing him to] trade goods and cash estimated to be worth over 1 million ounces of silver. ... Even after the war of the Three Feudatories was over, Kangxi still found it hard to assemble the necessary forces to capture the island from the Zheng family [though they ultimately surrendered in 1683]. ... Kangxi decided to incorporate Taiwan into his empire. It became a prefecture of Fujian province, with a capital at Tainan, and was divided into three counties, each under a civilian magistrate. (SMC, 51-55)
Statue of Zheng Chenggong in Xiamen
Qing Dynasty Icon
Legitimizing the Empire
Converting the Chinese
The protracted resistance of the Ming claimants, the support given to Koxinga and his descendants, the swift spread and near success of the Three Feudatories: all these pointed to a lack of support for the Qing among the Chinese. From the beginning of his reign, Emperor Kangxi addressed himself to this problem by trying to strike a balance in which he reassured the Manchu nobles as to his martial vigor and political firmness on the one hand, and tried to convince the Chinese of his respect for their traditional culture on the other. (SMC, 56)

The teachings of Confucius had an undisputed place in Chinese society. ... In essence, during the fifth century B.C. Confucius had been the spokesman in China for the values of morality and dignity in private life and in government. He had argued for the importance of righteousness and loyalty, reinforced by correct rituals that would place a given individual in proper relationship with the cosmos and with his contemporaries. He had stated that worthy men should not serve unworthy rulers and must be ready to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, in the defense of principle. He argued further that humans should concentrate on the problems of this world and, while paying proper respect to the memory of their own deceased ancestors, should not seek to understand the forces of heaven and the realm of the spirits. ...
The Kangxi Emperor as a young scholar
From the moment he imprisoned the regent Oboi, Kangxi showed the utmost respect for this complex legacy. In 1670 he issued to the nation a series of sixteen maxims that were designed to be a summation of Confucian moral values. ... Kangxi subsequently named a team of Manchu and Chinese tutors, with whom he read meticulously through the Four Books and then the Five Classics [i.e. the essential texts of the Confucian tradition]. ... Judiciously “leaked” to the court, the news of these studies, along with Kangxi’s intensive work on Chinese calligraphy, gave the young monarch the aura of a “sage ruler.” (SMC, 57-58)
The Kangxi Emperor as an older scholar
Kangxi's Imperial Seal
Emperor presiding over Imperial Exam
One of the great powers of the Chinese state lay in its control of the examination system. Shunzhi had revived this system, and Kangxi continued to hold the exams every three years — even during the civil-war period. But he was vexed at the number of accomplished scholars who refused even to sit for the examinations on the grounds that to do so would be to betray the memory of the Ming dynasty under which they had grown up. As an ingenious solution to this predicament, Kangxi, in 1679, ordered that nominations be sent from the provinces for a special examination — separate from the triennial national exams — to be held for men of outstanding talent. Although some austere scholars still refused to come to Peking for this exam, and others would not permit themselves to be nominated, the venture was a success. Fifty special degrees were awarded, mostly to scholars from the Yangzi delta provinces; and, in a tactful gesture to their past loyalties, these scholars were put to work helping compile the official history of the defunct Ming dynasty. (SMC, 58-59)
The Kangxi Dictionary
Those who would not serve in administrative office and would not take the examinations could still be lured by the promise of good company and hard cash. Literary compilations especially proved a fine focus for their energies. Kangxi assembled several groups of scholars and hired them to write dictionaries, encyclopedias, records of imperial tours, and collections of classical prose and poetry. Other senior ministers sponsored massive geographical studies and local histories, which enabled restless scholars to travel the country in search of material and then to return to a comfortable home base to write it down. Yet other officials gave promising writers jobs as private secretaries with light duties, which allowed them ample time for pursuing their own creative paths, whether as novelists, short-story writers, poets, or dramatists. The result was a flowering of Chinese culture in the later seventeenth century, despite the recent bloody imposition of alien rule. (SMC, 61)
Qing Dynasty Icon