Revolt of the Three Feudatories

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The Revolt of Three Feudatories was a major revolt of Han Chinese generals against Manchu rule in the late 17th century. Through its suppression, the Qing Dynasty solidified its hold over southern China.


Though the last pretender claimants to the Ming throne were defeated by 1662, and the last Ming loyalist forces pushed to Taiwan in the 1640s-1650s, as of the 1670s the Qing still did not have a solid hold on much of southern China. Manchu forces, traditionally at least, were heavily dependent on cavalry and heavily accustomed to fighting on wide open steppes; the wide rivers and many canals, dikes, and rice paddies of southern China had blocked out Jurchens and other horseriding steppe groups for centuries. Further, the south was inhabited not only by Han Chinese, Hakka, and Min Nan peoples, but also by a multitude of other ethnic and tribal minorities. Thus, much of southern China was left to the three Han Chinese generals who had led the pacification of those regions.

One of these men was Wu Sangui, Ming commander of the northeast, who played perhaps the most crucial role of any Ming general in enabling the Manchu conquest of China, by permitting Dorgon's forces past the Great Wall in 1644, leading them into Beijing and aiding them in destroying Li Zicheng. Wu had also later pursued the Prince of Gui, the last claimant to the Ming throne, into Burma, and saw to the Prince's execution. The other two generals, Shang Kexi and Geng Jimao, had joined the Manchus early on, in 1633 when the group still considered itself the Jurchen Later Jin Dynasty, and had proven themselves loyal and valuable leaders. In 1650, Shang and Geng played key roles in capturing Canton from Ming loyalists. All three were named "princes" by the Qing court, had their sons married to Manchu noble daughters, and were granted considerable fiefs in southern China. Wu's fief consisted of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, as well as parts of Hunan and Sichuan, while Shang controlled Guangdong province and parts of Guangxi. Geng, based at Fuzhou, held Fujian province as his fief. Within these rather extensive lands, the three princes enjoyed near complete autonomy, commanding both civil and military authority, collecting taxes and paying little if anything to the Qing, effecting considerable control over trade, and largely sidelining the Manchu officials who were nominally appointed to their territories. They even demanded subsidies from the Qing Court in exchange for their continued loyalty.


When Shang Kexi fell ill in 1671, he passed control of his territory to his son, Shang Zhixin. Geng Jimao died that same year, and his son Geng Jingzhong took over the management of Fujian. In 1673, Shang, Wu, and the younger Geng all inquired with the Qing Court as to the possibility of retiring back to Manchuria. The Kangxi Emperor responded in the affirmative, but having thus made clear his desire to abolish and reabsorb the Three Feudatories, the three then rose up in revolt. In December 1673 Wu Sangui moved deeper into Hunan province and declared his independence from the Qing, establishing a new state he called the Great Zhou. Geng Jingzhong declared his independence in 1674, consolidating his hold on Fujian and also moving north into Zhejiang province. With the help of Yang Ying, a key retainer to Zheng Chenggong, Geng was able to secure shipments of sulfur from the Japanese.[1] Shang Kexi remained loyal to the Qing, but was imprisoned by his son Shang Zhixin, who then declared his independence as well, consolidating his power base in Canton and moving north into Jiangxi province.

The people of southern China had only recently settled into accepting Qing rule, and were now asked to reconsider and to turn once again to their loyalty to the Ming. Wu Sangui did not declare himself emperor immediately, but left the position open if a legitimate Ming Imperial prince could be found to restore the dynasty. He also presented to Beijing demands that the Qing retreat from China, establishing their Manchu state in Manchuria and Korea, a suggestion Kangxi of course refused, killing Wu's son who had been held hostage in Beijing as well.

The Revolt was quite strong at first, and is generally seen by historians as having had a real possibility of severing southern China from Qing control on a long-term or permanent basis, if not reconquering all of China. However, two of the feudatories - those controlled by Geng and Shang - surrendered in 1676 and 1677 respectively, quite soon after rising up, leaving that of Wu Sangui as the only remaining feudatory in revolt, and Wu died of dysentery the following year shortly after finally declaring himself emperor of the Great Zhou. His grandson took up his banner and fought for another three years before finally committing suicide in 1681 when cornered by Manchu forces in Kunming, in Yunnan province. Geng and Shang, whose princely titles had been restored after their surrender, were now executed, along with a number of Wu's followers, in order to squash the rebellion entirely.

Assessment and Aftermath

Historian Jonathan Spence summarizes the failings of the Revolt into five points or aspects:

  1. Wu Sangui's indecisiveness and failure to take advantage of the initiative when he had it, to push further north
  2. the ability of the Kangxi Emperor to effectively and strategically coordinate the reconquest
  3. the ability of the young Qing generals who commanded the Qing armies
  4. the failure of the Three Feudatories to work together
  5. the fact that while the rebels enjoyed the support of most southern Chinese, the staunchest of Ming supporters did not support the revolt, as they recognized Wu, Shang, and Geng for their crucial role in aiding the Qing in conquering the south and hunting down the Ming imperial princes in the first place.

Those among Kangxi's senior advisors who showed support for the rebels were dealt with harshly, but Kangxi was more compassionate with others who supported the rebels (especially those resident in the south), noting that they had little choice but to act in the interests of their own survival. Those among Kangxi's advisors who advised strongly opposing the rebels, meanwhile, were rewarded with promotions and the like. The defeat of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories left the Qing Dynasty with a firmer control over the entirety of China, and thus over a stronger state as a whole, than ever before.

New governors and governors-general were appointed to oversee the southern provinces; most of these were loyal Chinese bannermen. The Qing reinstituted the civil service exams in the south and southwest, and began collecting taxes and recruiting officials from those regions. However, it would take some time for separatist loyalties or resentments to fully disappear, and for the remainder of Kangxi's reign, as late as the 1720s, the emperor, despite going on a number of tours of the empire, never ventured much past the Yangtze River. The Jiangnan area around Hangzhou and Suzhou (and, today, Shanghai) continued to be regarded as "the South," with the vast areas further south of that being considered more distant, a separate concern.


  • Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 49-53.
  1. Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 159.