Li Zicheng: the Dashing Prince

by John J. Hartwell



    Early in his career as a rebel leader, Li Zicheng went by the nickname "the Dashing Prince" (Chung Wang). The Chinese character for the word 'chung' is said to be based on a stylized picture of a horse entering a gate. In later years a popular folk rhyme would be recalled which went, in part, "a horse brought disorder to the Empire." By that time, of course, people knew that this Dashing Prince would be the fel horse that entered the gates of Beijing, bringing to an end the 276 year span of the great Ming Dynasty. To many people it seemed as if the Ming had been inviting the inevitable -- didn't the last Ming emperor issue the "running horse" cash? This Hongguang tong bao coin, unique in Chinese numismatics, bore that image on its reverse, below the central hole (S.#1277 & 1278)


Li Zicheng was born in 1606 at Mi-chih, a county seat in northern Shensi. Of fairly well to do peasant background, he attended school until the age of fourteen, though it is said that he was far more interested in riding and shooting than in scholarship. He was married at an early age to a young woman of great beauty and dubious reputation. When he interrupted her and her lover one day, a fight ensued in which the paramour, a local official, was killed.

At about the age of twenty we find him engaged as an attendant at a post station in his native northern Shensi. He is said to have soon thereafter been appointed a community head (Lichang). That position didn't last long, though exactly why is uncertain. One story is that he was dismissed for misappropriating funds; another that it was because he refused to collect the new, increased tax levies from the poor farmers. This kind or conflicting testimony recurs throughout all the accounts of Li Zicheng's life: violent bully or Robin Hood.

We next find Li in western Kansu, where he enlisted in the army. With him was his nephew, Li Guo, who would be his constant companion through most of his life. By 1629, Li was serving as a minor officer under a commander named Wang Guo in western Shensi. The famine had barely ended, and bands of hungry peasants, driven to rebellion, swarmed over the countryside. Corruption and incompetence in the government frequently deprived the soldiers of pay or proper food. When, on one occasion, a local magistrate refused to issue his men supplies, Li Zicheng led them in a muntiny, in which the commander Wang Guo was killed (one tradition says the men did the killing, as Li tried to restrain them).

Himself now the leader of this small band of mutineers, Li took them to join Kao Yingxiang, ringleader and main organizer of the anti-Ming rebel movement. Before long, Li Zicheng was Kao's chief lieutenant. He proved himself an able general and was very popular with his troops.

Rebel bands large and small swarmed over the provinces of Shensi, Shaanxi, Honan, and Western Pei Chihli. But their activities were uncoordinated, and the leaders frequently quarrelled amongst themselves. Kao Yingxiang"s great ambition was to unite all the leading rebel factions into a single, organized movement. In early 1635, at Jung-yung in central Honan, a great convocation of the fifteen principal rebel leaders was held. Acting as Kao's agent, Li Zicheng is said to have had a leading role as mediator between mutually hostile commanders. As a result of this meeting, Kuo Yingxiang became the movement's recognized leader, and Central China was divided up into spheres of operations for the fifteen rebel armies.

But, rebel unity was to be short-lived. In ther late summer of 1636, after a particularly successful campaign, Kao Yingxiang was captured by government troops in central Shensi, and sent to Beijing for execution. Li Zicheng succeeded to the command of Ying's surviving forces and also to his nickname of Chung Wang (the Dashing Prince).

The ensuing decade saw a gradual consolodation of the major rebel bands. Two leaders arose to dominate the movement, men of very different character: Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong. A memorial presented to the Emperor late in 1643, accurately assessed the situation: "Presently Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong are both committing high treason. To control Zhang is easy but to control Li is difficult. This is because people fear Zhang Xianzhong while people are siding with Li Zicheng."

The government tried repeatedly to surpress them, sending out large armies ubder experienced officers. But the soldiers, chronically ill-disciplined, rarely paid and poorly supplied, did not distinguish between armed rebels and law-abiding citizens. They raped and pillaged their way through the districts they were supposed to pacify and protect. Their commanders, when they cared enough to try, were usually unable to restrain them. They won some battles, but lost more, and succeeded only in utterly alienating the people. It was through its own actions that the Ming Dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven.

And Li Zicheng knew full well how to win the support of the people. The same memorial quoted above went on to report: "The bandits knew of the bitterness the people felt in their hearts and used the extermination of the army and the security of the people as slogans. To consolidate support for themselves, the bandits began spreading wealth and helping the poor; they opened the granaries and gave food to relieve hunger. In the end, the people looked upon the bandits as their benefactors. Everyone forgot loyalty and righteousness."

Li promised relief from the oppression of the government, peace, prosperity. But, he was still essentially a roving bandit. His armies would sweep through an area, drive out the Ming officials and displace the local gentry, "liberate" the people, and then move on, leaving behind no systematic government or organizational structure.

At what point Li Zicheng began to develop serious dynastic ambitions is uncertain. It was not until late 1641 that he came under the influence of certainly members of the gentry and scholarly elite, who attached themselves to his movement. Most important of these was one Li Yen, member of a prominent and wealthy Henan family, and holder of the 'chu-jen' degree.

Hitherto Li had always exhibited extreme hostility to the gentry and officials, and treated both these classes with considerable harshness as collaborators in the oppression of the people. But now, these men began to impress on him the importance of some kind of secure administration for the areas no longer under the immediate occupation of his army. A surviving broadsheet distributed in advance of Li's approach to Huangzhou frankly addresses the main points of discontent with the Ming regime, promising redress. He now tries to win over local officials by reassurances, but makes it clear that any opposition would be dealt with harshly:


"For the calming and pacification of the people: The fatuous and self-indulgent Emperor of the Ming dynasty is not benevolent. He spoiled his eunuchs, over emphasizes family background in matters of promotion, is greedy for taxes and levies, uses harsh punishments as a means of ruling. He cannot not save the people from calamities. The necessities of life are being exhausted. Every day the army robs the people of their wealth, rapes their wives and daughters, and saps from them their very sinews, strips from their very skins.. Our army is made up of good peasants who have worked the fields for ten generations; we formed this army of benevolence and righteousness in great anxiety to rescue the people from suffering. We have pacified Chengtian and De'an [in Hubei] and now are now coming in person to Huangzhou. A notification board been dispatched to tell you all not to be alarmed. Everyone should quietly go about his daily affairs. If anyone in one of our battalions arbitrarilly kills good and innocent people, the entire batallion will be executed to the last man. Those of you people who happily welcome our royal army with cheering, horns and bugles will establish your merit and be rewarded with weighty positions. The rest of you should not wear arms or uniforms, because it is hard to distinguish stone from jade.


The Imperial government was well aware of the discontent of the people, and of Li Zicheng's rising popularity. The memorial to the Emperor quoted above frankly asses the situation, making the government's failure to act effectively yet more egregious:

"They (the people) do not want to side with Li Zicheng but do so because of the suffering caused by the government's troops. The people first suffered from General Yang Sichang's army and could not defend their own cities. Then they suffered from General Song Yihe's army and could not protect their families or households. Next they suffered from General Zuo Liangyu's army and residents and travelers could not even defend their own lives.

"In fact, how was it possible for the bandits to capture so many cities and counties? It was because the counties willingly followed the bandits. Therefore, the best strategy at present is to win over the people's hearts again. Winning their hearts should begin with causing the governors and generals to control their troops. Order the army not to abuse the people and the people will not suffer from the army."

But, such was the ineptitude of the Imperial officials and the paralysis of the administration, that no effective steps were taken. The generals, under orders from the government to treat the people justly, were in no position to restrain the depredations of their own men, who were often near starvation themselves. The massive corruption and selfish political manoeuvering among eunuchs and officials continued unabated -- even the best of them remained adamantly unwilling to compromise with their political opponents for the common good. Only a heroic personal effort by the Emperor himself might have turned the tide. And Chong Zhen was not a heroic figure.


>><<     In December 1643, Li made a special journey to his native district of Mi-chih in northern Shaanxi. It was an important step in the establishment of his dynastic claims. There he restored his family tombs, which had been desecrated by government officials. He bestowed Imperial titles posthumously on his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather -- declaring their names taboo. His mother (living) he proclaimed Empress Dowager, his principal wife became Empress, and his secondary wife Precious Concubine.

    He was back in Xian by the end of the month, continuing the consolidation of his control of the province. He took his next step on the Lunar New Year (Feb. 8, 1644), when he proclaimed himself Prince of Shun. Naming his dynasty Da Shun (Great Compliance), Li designated his reign title Yong Chang (Everlasting Prosperity). Why he didn't proclaim himself Emperor at that time is something of a mystery. To have a new dynasty and reign period, without an Emperor is unheard of in Chinese history. He was probably unprepared to take that final fatal step, which might make coming to terms impossible should the course of events turn against him.

    Li undertook three other important steps in establishing the legitimacy of his dynasty. He ordered the preparation of a new calendar, he held official examinations for public service, and he initiated his Yong chang tong bao coinage. He further bestowed titles of nobility upon his most prominent longtime supporters., creating 8 marquises, 72 earls, 30 viscounts, and 50 barons.

    He named officials to the traditional Six Ministries and Five Military Commissions of Imperial administration, and filled scores of other posts. These were, by and large, heads without bodies. Most of the bureaus and departments these officials were to oversee did not yet exist, even in the most rudimentary forms.


One gets the impression that Li was painfully aware that he was not entirely his own master. The demands and expectations placed upon him by his followers were emense, and fundamentally at odds with the responsibilities of Imperial rule. His own talents were wholly inadequate to the task before him. So we find him, propelled foreward by the dynamic of his own success, yet desperately trying to leave doors open that would allow compromise. When that failed, and the Empire was dropped into his lap by the suicide of the Emperor, Li tried urgently to win over the former Ming bureaucrats and officials who had the skills necessary to govern China. He was unsuccessful due as much to his own ineptitude as to the opposition of his followers, who were distrustful of anything and anyone connected with the old regime.


Li's armies pushed across Pei-Chili in two columns. They passed through the Ku Pass on March 31, and siezed Hsuan-fu-wei on April 17. They took the last obstacle, Chun-Yung Pass on the 21st. The next day Li camped at Ch'ang Ping, only 40 miles from Beijing.

The defense of the capital was traditionally the responsibility of the Three Great Camps, an organization as undermanned, unpaid, and thoroughly demoralized as any in the army. It was, in fact, militarilly useless. On April 23d, on the outskirts of the city, the Three Great Camps surrendered en-masse to Li Zicheng.

As Li's forces approached, the Ming government frantically tried to organize some sort of resistance -- but it was no use. A wise plan for the Emperor's escape and make his way to the still-loyal South was put off until it was too late. The Chong Zhen Emperor bewailed his own incapacity, and the injustice that he should be "forced to preside" over the collapse of the Dynasty.

A Marquis' title and generous reward was offered to anyone who would bring in the head of Li Zicheng. Huge bounties were offered to private individuals who raised armed forces for the defense of the capital. Still existing armies in the provinces were either beyond reach, or their disloyal or demoralized commanders ignored orders to come.

    Whether Li Zicheng would eventually have put into effect the full range of reforms as promised we can never know, for his time was too brief. As soon as he had secured Beijing, he began organizing a government, utilizing many of the mid and lower level bureaucrats who had served the old dynasty. This was of course, inevitable, for they were the men who knew how the apparatus of government worked. Without their expertise the collapse of society could have been total. But, seeing so many men intimately connected in the popular mind with Ming corruption being apparently honored by the rebel regime, Li's popularity with the common people began to waver. And, when it was made clear that the promised land and tax reforms could not be as immediate nor as sweeping as they expected, the people's dissolutionment increased.

    Still more ominously, Li arrived in Beijing only to find the Imperial Treasury all but empty. The rich rewards he had promised his generals and the whole army would have to be delayed. Li's forces had followed him loyally for years, maintaining an admirable discipline When they had siezed Beijing, he had forbidden them to plunder or extort anything from the people -- and by and large they had obeyed. But, with promised rewards not forthcoming, the army's patience ran out, and robberies and extortions spread rapidly. To those who had welcomed the rebels as liberators this was a discouraging shock. Li tried to control it, and threatened the punishment of transgressors; but it was no use. On one occasion some of his officers confronted Li, telling him that:


    Just how tenuous Li Zicheng's control of his revolution was was becoming ominously clear.

    Nor was Li's attempt at setting up a viable Imperial administration working out. The former Ming bureaucrats, as much as they were resented by the prople, their own lot was far from a happy one. Many were unwilling servants of the new regime, virtual prisoners, working under durress. And all, even the willing, were threatened with the most dire consequences if there were even the suspicion of corrupt practices. What's more, of Li's longtime supporters, who were given the highest posts, many were abysmally incompetant. Li Zicheng himself, lacked the education, the temperament, and the interest to oversee the organizational work necessary to formulate a viable governmental system.

    While Li's position was begining to deteriorate from within,  it was other, externmal events that were to bring about his downfall.

    Li Zicheng never came close to siezing all of China. Most of the North, with the exception of Hukuang, (then in the hands of rival rebel leader Zhang Xiianzhong), was under the control of forces loyal to Li. But, the whole of South China, including the wealthiest and most populous provinces, were firmly controlled by elements loyal to the Ming. But for now, the real threat lay to the North.

    Wu Sangui was one of the most highly regarded of the Ming generals. For several years he had been in command of the Northeastern frontier, holding at bay the Manchu armies beyond the Great wall. It was said that no army under his personal command had ever suffered defeat, despite sometimes heavy odds against them. The Chongzhen Emperor had delayed too long in summoning Wu to the defense of the capital, and the northern army was enroute when word was received of the fall of Beijing and the death of the emperor. Unprepared to lay siege to the city, and conscious of the Manchu threat to his rear, Wu withdrew back to Shanhaiguan (prov).

    Well aware of Wu's reputation and also of the threat posed by the Manchu, Li Zicheng sent emissaries to Wu to try to win his support. The Ming Dynasty was dead, they said, and rightfully so. The new regime would bring China peace, prosperity, and good government. They offered Wu high office, including the title Marquis, and rich rewards if he would swear allegiance to Li, and continue to defend the frontier against the foreigners. The emissaries brought one million taels of silver to be distributed among Wu's troops. They also brought a letter from his father, Wu Xiang, beseeching Wu to accept Li's offer.

    Accepting all of Li's gifts, Wu Sangui appeared to be tempted by the proposition. But, just what motivated him to the decision he made is unknown. reflecting the Chinese love of romantic stories, some histories tell of the beautiful Ch'en Yuan, Wu's favorite concubine, with whom Li had become madly infatuated. The would-be emperor swore the girl would be his, whomsoever else claimed her. Enraged over this insult, Wu rejected Li's advances, and approaced the Manchus with a proposal of alliance.

    It's a pretty story, but more likely the ultimate weakness of Li's position was simply too obvious. Besides, Wu was offended by the fact that his family was clearly being held hostage to his allegiance. Some scholars even suggest that Wu had been treacherously negotiating with the Manchus since before the fall of Beijing -- butthere is no real evidence of this.

    On May 18, 1644, Li Zicheng mustered his army and moved north. His force numbered probably between 60,000 and 100,000 well-armed veterans (some sources say 200,000, surely an exaggeration). Wu Sangui's frontier force consisted of some 40,000 regular troops. Li could expect to outnumber his opponent substantially.

    The armies met at Shanhaiguan ten days later. Li took up position atop a small hill, from which he could personally direct the course of the battle. He was apparently unaware that Manchu Prince Dorgon had joined Wu with 50,000 bannermen, or that Wu had raised some 75,000 local militia. The fight lasted only a few hours, as the combined Sino-Manchu army dealt the rebels an overwhelming defeat. Still maintaining discipline, Li withdrew the core of his army to Yongping. There he gathered his scattered survivors before continuing on towords Beijing. Attacked again, Li finally agreed to Wu's terms: he would hand over the Ming heir-apparent, promise not to destroy the Ming ancestral temple, and evacuate Beijing. Taking advantage of the respite thus obtained, he reached the capital on May 31.

    When Wu's army appeared before Beijing, he saw his father, Wu Xiang standing atop the wall, bound. Li threatened to kill the old man unless Wu withdrew. Wu responded by having his archers riddle the two rebel soldiers guarding his father with arrows. Enraged, Li had Wu's entire family, 38 people, executed.

    The next few days were spent by Li in frantic preparations to evacuate Beijing. He had hoped to be enthroned with all due ceremony after having defeated Wu Sangui. But now the matter could wait no longer. On June 3rd, his court gathered, and with at least some attempt at proper ritual and etiquette, Li Zicheng was formally enthroned as Emperor.

    Only hours later, in the middle of the night, he left Beijing for the last time. When the last of his troops quitted the city, they left behind no garrison, no hint of the Imperial administration he had tried to establish, no civil government at all. Li left behind a hastilly sacked city -- much of it in flames.

    Li's army, still under discipline, marched off in good order, escorting thousands carts, tens of thousands of horses, donkeys, mules, and camels, all loaded with the plunder of the Imperial capital. Still a formidable fighting force, experienced, hard-bitten veterans under proven officers, the rebel army, had been reinforced by thousands of men pressed into service in Beijing, and once again numbered over 100,000. But it was also a troubled army. At the height of its achievements, just when all the rebels had fought so long for seemed within grasp, they had been handed a brutal defeat. Disappointment and a growing dissillusionment with their commander, their cause, their prospects for success, had begun to sap their spirit. Now, as they trudged along, each man loaded down with all he could carry of the wealth and plunder of a great city, many wanted nothing so much as to go home, to settle down and enjoy the fruits of their years of continuous campaigning.

    Wu Sangui, with his combined Chinese-Manchu army, had pulled back from Beijing, and was now awaiting along Li's line of march. Dividing his force into several fast-moving columns, Wu struck again and again at the periphery of the rebel column. Every time Li tried to bring his opponent to battle, Wu's elusive forces melted away, only to strike once again as soon as the rebels had returned to the line of march. Soon, the road from Beijing to the Ku Pass was littered with weapons, furniture, women, bolts of rare silk, and other valuables, the abandonned loot of the capital. Among the booty recovered, we are told, was Wu's beloved Ch'en Yuan, whom he shortly thereafter married.

    Before long, the retreat became flight, then headlong rout. When Wu Sangui was finally ready to stand and fight, at Ting-chou, the rebels were crushed. Twelve thousand of Li's men were slain, and another ten thousand surrendered. Soon thereafter, at Chien-ting, Li was defeated again, struck by an arrow and knocked from his horse. He took refuge in a nearby house, only to have its own occupants set it on fire to force him out. Accompanied only by a small band of loyal followers,

The newly enthroned Yong Chang emperor fled rapidly as possible through the Ku Pass to the safety of Shaanxi.

    Wu sangui did not follow Li into Shansi, but broke off persuit at the Ku Pass. He needed to regroup his own troops, to many of hom had been busy 'liberating' the rebels' abandonned booty. It was also time for him to clarify the status of his Northern allies. The Manchus had occupied Beijing on June 7th, just three days after the rebels had withdrawn. Wu can have been under no delusions that they would simply pack up and leave China to the Chinese. The Manchu claim to the Imperial title had been open and unequivocal since MMYY. Still, there were details to be worked out, parameters to be negotiated, rewards to be collected.