Historica Wiki
Historica Wiki

The Manchu conquest of China occurred from 1618 to 1683 when the Manchu people of Manchuria conquered the Han Chinese Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty. The Manchu sauntered into Beijing, seizing power as the Ming administration imploded. They faced a tougher challenge than they had expected: more than 25 million may have been killed in their fight to enforce their authority across the empire. This task was to take them 40 years.


The Ming emperors had come to power in 1368 at the expense of the Mongols. But Kublai Khan's successors had shown little of his wisdom or - increasingly - his strength. the Ming had hardly established themselves when, in the early 15th century, a new surge of Mongol attacks were launched under the leadership of Esen Tayisi. The menace was eventually lifted, but the Ming emperors, ever mindful of the threat, plowed resources into renewing the Great Wall of China.

The 16th century brought the Portuguese to China, along with their modern cannon. Europe now led the way in a field the Chinese had pioneered. Under the Wanli Emperor, China fell into decline, drained by its support for Korea against Japanese aggression. The Jurchen (Manchu) nomads to the north were also unnerving the Chinese. Their Jin dynasty had been in power once before, taking up swathes of the north in the 12th century until Genghis Khan swept it away.


Manchu history is said to have started with Nurhaci, a Jurchen warlord, at the end of the 16th century. Not only did Nurhaci encourage the creation of a written script of the Manchu language, but he brought together the warring nomad groups of the eastern steppe. In 1616 he had himself elected "Great Khan".

There are many similarities with the reign of Genghis Khan. Four centuries before, the Mongol ruler had trampled the Jurchen's last bid for ascendancy. Their Jin dynasty had extended its dominion across swathes of northern China, but Genghis Khan had reduced it to dust and smoke. Forced since then into vassal status, the Jurchen people pledged their duty to China's Ming emperors. However, Nurhaci's unifying efforts gave them the strength to assert themselves and - from 1618 - their independence. They attacked the northern provinces of China, setting up a capital for their leader's "Later Jin dynasty" on land taken from the Ming, at Mukden (present-day Shenyang). From here, the Jurchen continued their raids and expansion into both China and the Choson dynasty's Korea.

A raft of rebellions

However, Nurhaci was among those killed at Ningyuan in 1626. Just 10,000 Ming soldiers, under the inspirational leader, Yuan Chonghuan, defeated a Manchu army 120,000-strong. Yuan's study of modern Western artillery weapons and techniques was crucial - Nurhaci was wounded by a cannonball from which he never recovered. The shock of their leader's death distressed the Manchu, but the late Khan's sons, Dodo and Dorgon, quickly took control. By 1638 they had captured Korea, an important conquest in its own right but crucial too as an ally of the Ming.

In another era, the rise of the Manchu might have represented a crisis for the Ming rulers, but one that they could have met. As it was, they faced many other difficulties - floods and famines, economic chaos, and political corruption - and rebellion in the empire was rife. Agrarian dissension and mulitary mutiny were endemic. Li Zicheng's revolt during the 1630s in Shaanxi, north-central China, began as a simple uprising by soldiers who felt they had been left unpaid and unfed for far too long. A heavy-handed crackdown by the Ming only fanned the flames. A mutiny led by Zhang Xiangzhong broke out in the 1640s in Sichuan; hundreds of thousands of people were killed in this self-proclaimed emperor's reign of terror. the whole empire seemed to be spiralling into anarchy. Desperate times brought desperate measures: in 1642, Ming forces trying to head off Li Zicheng's rebels diverted the Huang He (Yellow River) in order to flood the city of Kaifeng. Over 300,000 people died. By 1644 the situation was growing increasingly hopeless and, on 26 May, Li Zicheng's troops entered Beijing.

Zhu Youjian, the Chongzhen emperor and the Ming dynasty's last, committed suicide. His military commander, General Wu Sangui, fought on but was soon cornered by Li Zicheng's advancing forces. Turning to the Manchu (his old archenemy), Wu Sangui enlisted help. With their assistance, the general won a crushing victory over the rebels at Shanhaiguan. But he had effectively invited an invasion by the Manchu. Their forces fanned out through China, extending their dominions far to the south under the pretense of mopping up the rebels and re-establishing order.

A new dynasty

Wu Sangui's hopes that the Chongzhen Emperor's son would succeed to the throne were soon dashed. Dorgon proclaime his young nephew, Shunzhi, emperor with himself as regent. The Jin dynasty, now renamed the Qing, henceforth governed China. The country's new rulers took control with no compassion; Ming supporters and rebels melded into one. The Manchu felt little sympathy for a Han Chinese population whose agricultural traditions and settled ways they despised. They made their new subjects shave their hair at the front and wear a long pigtail behind in the Jurchen style - a profound humiliation for the Han. Any resistance was ruthlessly crushed. Over ten days in 1645, the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu was the scene of a massacre: thousands died at the hands of Prince Dodo's men.

Such atrocities appear only to have encouraged opposition, and fighting continued across the country. In the south-eastern coastal region of Fujian, General Zheng Chenggong - also known as "Koxinga" - established his own state as a center of resistance. Starting from Amoy (present-day Xiamen), Koxinga's armies thrust deep into Manchu territory, forming alliances with other nearby powers, including the Portuguese in Macau and the Spanish in the Philippines. Despite a series of victories against the Qing, the general gradually lost ground and in 1662 was finally forced back to the coast. From there he invaded Taiwan - then a Dutch colony - and made it his offshore base for the campaign against the Qing. The general's death from malaria later that year ended any hope of a Ming restoration, but the Manchu rulers still faced oppositions from other quarters. The Kangxi Emperor, who ascended the throne in 1661, faced a revolt by his "Three Feudatories". These Chinese generals, who included the one-time Ming commander, Wu Sangui, had been charmed by the invaders with the promise of power and wealth, and had been given provinces in southern China. The idea had been to extend the reach of an invasion force that was in danger of spreading itself thin and to afford the Manchu an important source of information. For a while this strategy worked. However, the Feudatories became wayward; by 1674 they had risen up against the Qing dynasty, but the rebels defeated themselves with their disunity. Confidence was high; the emperor sent an invading fleet of 300 ships to take Taiwan in 1683.


China was now united under the Qing dynasty, but this unification came at a dreadful price - up to 25 million lives are believed to have been lost. Peace was not forthcoming under the Qing regime. The Kangxi emperor extended his empire and strengthened his hold at home by undertaking military campaigns beyond his frontiers. To the west, against the Tibetans; to the north, against the Dzunghars; and, in the far east of Siberia, Russian colonists. From 1736, when his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, ascended the throne, the Chinese empire realized its greatest extent.

Resistance still flared up from time to time - the end of the 18th century brought the White Lotus Rebellion, and the 19th century witnessed the extensive Taiping Rebellion. Like the ruling powers of Japan, the Qing had fostered a splendid isolations. However, the outside world soon pressed in. The colonial period brought its own battles, such as the devastating Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60. The Qing regime was finally removed from power during the Nationalist Revolution of 1911.