Li Zicheng

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  • Chinese: 自成 (Lǐ Zìchéng)

Li Zicheng was a rebel leader whose rebellion against the Ming Dynasty played a key role in that dynasty's collapse.

Often described as a postal or post-station attendant, Li had also previously worked as an apprentice to an ironworker, and in a wine shop in Shaanxi province, among, presumably, other jobs. In 1630, he joined the Ming military, but after promised supplies failed to show up, his company mutinied, and by 1634, Li emerged as the leader of some several thousand similarly disgruntled or unattached men. He and some number of his men were captured in that year by Ming forces, but after Li promised to take his men back to the relatively uninhabited northern parts of Shaanxi and to quit their rebellion, he was released; a local magistrate then executed 36 of Li's men, however, leading the rebels to rise up once again. They killed a number of local officials, and fled into the hills.

By the following year, Li Zicheng had gained in power even further, and served as the rebels' representative at a conclave of various rebel groups, who met at Rongyang in Henan province. The various rebel groups formed agreements respecting each group's territorial claims, and worked together to coordinate a series of attacks on imperial tombs. Before they could execute a coordinated attack on Beijing, however, the alliance began to fall apart.

By the early 1640s, Li and one other figure, Zhang Xianzhong, had emerged as the dominant rebel leaders. Li controlled much of Shaanxi, Henan, and Hubei provinces, while Zhang was to the south. The two fought alongside each other at times, but mostly against one another as they vied for territory and power. The various rebel conflicts, and the disorder they created, combined with a series of plagues & pestilences to have devastating effects on the population; according to some sources, the population of certain regions may have dropped by as much as half between 1600 and the 1640s.

In 1644, Li led hundreds of thousands of rebels across northern China, gathering much popular support along the way by accusing the Ming of corruption and promising to bring greater prosperity to these rural areas, even as he ransacked and burned villages. Many warriors who his forces defeated then joined up, adding to his forces. As his forces approached Beijing, rebel allies arranged to have the gates to the city opened; Li's men thus were able to enter the city with a minimum of resistance. It is said that the Chongzhen Emperor rang a bell to call his ministers to him, but when none came, he walked to a hill in the Imperial Gardens, and hanged himself from a tree.

Li's men entered the city in April 1644, and began ransacking it, looting and destroying homes, capturing and ransoming officials' relatives, and demanding "protection money" from others. He sent a detachment against Wu Sangui, Ming commander of the defense of the northeast, the last notable Ming threat to his rule, but Wu fought them off.

On June 3, 1644, Li claimed imperial rank, but left the city the following day with most if not all of his men, carrying their vast loot to the west. Two days after that, Manchu forces led by the Qing regent Dorgon and assisted by Wu Sangui entered Beijing, placing Dorgon's six-year-old nephew on the throne and declaring him the Shunzhi Emperor, claiming for themselves the title of Emperor as the legitimate dynasty now ruling over China.

The Manchus then pursued Li to Xi'an, in Shaanxi, closing in on him there in spring 1645. Li fled once again, with a smaller group of men, to the southeast, crossing the Yangtze River, where he was finally cornered by the Manchus in the mountains to the north of Jiangxi province. Before the Manchus could get to him, however, he was killed - either, according to some sources, by suicide, or according to others, by peasants from whom he tried to loot food.


  • Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 21-25, 33.