End of Ming Dynasty
The collapse of the Ming Dynasty was a protracted affair, its roots beginning as early as 1600 with the emergence of the Manchu under Nurhaci.
Originally a vassal of the Ming emperors, Nurhaci in 1582 embarked on an inter-tribal feud that escalated into a campaign to unify the Jianzhou Jurchen tribes. Later Nurhaci announced Seven Grievances and openly renounced the sovereignty of Ming overlordship in order to complete the unification of those Jurchen tribes still allied with the Ming emperor. With superior artillery the Ming were able to repeatedly fight off the Manchus, notably in 1623 and in 1628. However, they were not able to recapture their rule over the Manchus and the region. From 1629 onwards the Míng were wearied by a combination of internal strife and constant harassment of Northern China by the Manchu; who had turned to raiding tactics so as to avoid facing the Míng armies in open battle.
Unable to attack the heart of Míng directly, the Manchu instead bided their time, developing their own artillery and gathering allies. They were able to enlist Míng government officials as their strategic advisors. In 1633 they completed a conquest of Inner Mongolia, resulting in a large scale recruitment of Mongol troops under the Manchu banner and the securing of an additional route into the Míng heartland.
By 1636 the Manchu ruler Huang Taiji was confident enough to proclaim the Imperial Qing Dynasty at Shenyang, which had fallen to the Manchu by treachery in 1621, taking the Imperial title Chongde. The end of 1637 saw the defeat and conquest of Míng's traditional ally Korea by a 100,000 strong Manchu army, and the Korean renunciation of the Míng Dynasty.
On May 26, 1644, Beijing was sacked by a coalition of rebel forces led by Li Zicheng, a minor Ming official turned leader of the peasant revolt. The last Ming, Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide when the city fell, marking the official end of the dynasty. The Manchu Qing dynasty then allied with Ming Dynasty general Wu Sangui and seized control of Beijing and quickly overthrew Li's short-lived Shun Dynasty. Despite the loss of Beijing (whose weakness as an Imperial capital had been foreseen by Zhu Yuanzhang) and the death of the Chongzhen Emperor, Míng power was by no means destroyed. Nanjing, Fujian, Guangdong, Shanxi and Yunnan could all have been and were in fact strongholds of Míng resistance. However, the loss of central authority saw multiple pretenders for the Míng throne, unable to work together. Each bastion of resistance was individually defeated by the Qing until 1662, when the last real hopes of a Ming revival died with the Yongli emperor Zhu Youlang.
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.
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.
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 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.