It is almost a conventionalism to attribute the fall of a Chinese dynasty to the malign influence of eunuchs. The Imperial court was undoubtedly at this date entirely in the hands of eunuchs, who occupied all kinds of lucrative posts for which they were quite unfitted, and even accompanied the army, nominally as officials, but really as spies upon the generals in command. One of the most notorious of these was Wei Chung-hsien, whose career may be taken as typical of his class. He was a native of Sun-ning in Chihli, of profligate character, who made himself a eunuch, and changed his name to Li Chin-chung. Entering the palace, he managed to get into the service of the mother of the future Emperor, posthumously canonised as Hsi Tsung, and became the paramour of that weak monarch's wet-nurse. The pair gained the Emperor's affection to an extraordinary degree, and Wei, an ignorant brute, was the real ruler of China during the reign of Hsi Tsung. He always took care to present memorials and other State papers when his Majesty was engrossed in carpentry, and the Emperor would pretend to know all about the question, and tell Wei to deal with it. Aided by unworthy censors, a body of officials who are supposed to be the "eyes and ears" of the monarch, and privileged to censure him for misgovernment, he gradually drove all loyal men from office, and put his opponents to cruel and ignominious deaths. He persuaded Hsi Tsung to enrol a division of eunuch troops, ten thousand strong, armed with muskets; while, by causing the Empress to have a miscarriage, his paramour cleared his way to the throne. Many officials espoused his cause, and the infatuated sovereign never wearied of loading him with favours. In 1626, temples were erected to him in all the provinces except Fuhkien, his image received Imperial honours, and he was styled Nine Thousand Years, i.e. only one thousand less than the Emperor himself, the Chinese term in the latter case being wan sui, which has been adopted by the Japanese as banzai. All successes were ascribed to his influence, a Grand Secretary declaring that his virtue had actually caused the appearance of a "unicorn" in Shantung. In 1627, he was likened in a memorial to Confucius, and it was decreed that he should be worshipped with the Sage in the Imperial Academy. His hopes were overthrown by the death of Hsi Tsung, whose successor promptly dismissed him. He hanged himself to escape trial, and his corpse was disembowelled. His paramour was executed, and in 1629, nearly three hundred persons were convicted and sentenced to varying penalties for being connected with his schemes.

Jobbery and corruption were rife; and at the present juncture these agencies were successfully employed to effect the recall of a really able general who had been sent from Peking to recover lost ground, and prevent further encroachments by the Manchus. For a time, Nurhachu had been held in check by his skilful dispositions of troops, Mukden was strongly fortified, and confidence generally was restored; but the fatal policy of the new general rapidly alienated the Chinese inhabitants, and caused them to enter secretly into communication with the Manchus. It was thus that in 1621 Nurhachu was in a position to advance upon Mukden. Encamping within a mile or two of the city, he sent forward a reconnoitring party, which was immediately attacked by the Chinese commandant at the head of a large force. The former fled, and the latter pursued, only to fall into the inevitable ambush; and the Chinese troops, on retiring in their turn, found that the bridge across the moat had been destroyed by traitors in their own camp, so that they were unable to re-enter the city. Thus Mukden fell, the prelude to a series of further victories, one of which was the rout of an army sent to retake Mukden, and the chief of which was the capture of Liao-yang, now remembered in connection with the Russo-Japanese war. In many of these engagements the Manchus, whose chief weapon was the long bow, which they used with deadly effect, found themselves opposed by artillery, the use of which had been taught to the Chinese by Adam Schaal, the Jesuit father. The supply of powder, however, had a way of running short, and at once the pronounced superiority of the Manchu archers prevailed.

Other cities now began to tender a voluntary submission, and many Chinese took to shaving the head and wearing the queue, in acknowledgment of their allegiance to the Manchus. All, however, was not yet over, for the growing Manchu power was still subjected to frequent attacks from Chinese arms in directions as far as possible removed from points where Manchu troops were concentrated. Meanwhile Nurhachu gradually extended his borders eastward, until in 1625, the year in which he placed his capital at Mukden, his frontiers reached to the sea on the east and to the river Amur on the north, the important city of Ning-yuan being almost the only possession remaining to the Chinese beyond the Great Wall. The explanation of this is as follows.

An incompetent general, as above mentioned, had been sent at the instance of the eunuchs to supersede an officer who had been holding his own with considerable success, but who was not a persona grata at court. The new general at once decided that no territory outside the Great Wall was to be held against the Manchus, and gave orders for the immediate retirement of all troops and Chinese residents generally. To this command the civil governor of Ning-yuan, and the military commandant, sent an indignant protest, writing out an oath with their blood that they would never surrender the city. Nurhachu seized the opportunity, and delivered a violent attack, with which he seemed to be making some progress, until at length artillery was brought into play. The havoc caused by the guns at close quarters was terrific, and the Manchus fled. This defeat was a blow from which Nurhachu never recovered; his chagrin brought on a serious illness, and he died in 1626, aged sixty-eight. Later on, when his descendants were sitting upon the throne of China, he was canonised as T`ai Tsu, the Great Ancestor, the representatives of the four preceding generations of his family being canonised as Princes.

Nurhachu was succeeded by his fourth son, Abkhai, then thirty-four years of age, and a tried warrior. His reign began with a correspondence between himself and the governor who had been the successful defender of Ning-yuan, in which some attempt was made to conclude a treaty of peace. The Chinese on their side demanded the return of all captured cities and territory; while the Manchus, who refused to consider any such terms, suggested that China should pay them a huge subsidy in money, silk, etc., in return for which they offered but a moderate supply of furs, and something over half a ton of ginseng (Panax repens), the famous forked root said to resemble the human body, and much valued by the Chinese as a strengthening medicine. This, of course, was a case of "giving too little and asking too much," and the negotiations came to nothing. In 1629, Abkhai, who by this time was master of Korea, marched upon Peking, at the head of a large army, and encamped within a few miles from its walls; but he was unable to capture the city, and had finally to retire. The next few years were devoted by the Manchus, who now began to possess artillery of their own casting, to the conquest of Mongolia, in the hope of thus securing an easy passage for their armies into China. An offer of peace was now made by the Chinese Emperor, for reasons shortly to be stated; but the Manchu terms were too severe, and hostilities were resumed, the Manchus chiefly occupying themselves in devastating the country round Peking, their numbers being constantly swelled by a stream of deserters from the Chinese ranks. In 1643, Abkhai died; he was succeeded by his ninth son, a boy of five, and was later on canonised as T`ai Tsung, the Great Forefather. By 1635, he had already begun to style himself Emperor of China, and had established a system of public examinations. The name of the dynasty had been "Manchu" ever since 1616; twenty years later he translated this term into the Chinese word Ch`ing (or Ts`ing), which means "pure"; and as the Great Pure Dynasty it will be remembered in history. Other important enactments of his reign were prohibitions against the use of tobacco, which had been recently introduced into Manchuria from Japan, through Korea; against the Chinese fashion of dress and of wearing the hair; and against the practice of binding the feet of girls. All except the first of these were directed towards the complete denationalisation of the Chinese who had accepted his rule, and whose numbers were increasing daily.

So far, the Manchus seem to have been little influenced by religious beliefs or scruples, except of a very primitive kind; but when they came into closer contact with the Chinese, Buddhism began to spread its charms, and not in vain, though strongly opposed by Abkhai himself.

In 1635 the Manchus had effected the conquest of Mongolia, aided to a great extent by frequent defections of large bodies of Mongols who had been exasperated by their own ill-treatment at the hands of the Chinese. Among some ancient Mongolian archives there has recently been discovered a document, dated 1636, under which the Mongol chiefs recognised the suzerainty of the Manchu Emperor. It was, however, stipulated that, in the event of the fall of the dynasty, all the laws existing previously to this date should again come into force.

A brief review of Chinese history during the later years of Manchu progress, as described above, discloses a state of things such as will always be found to prevail towards the close of an outworn dynasty. Almost from the day when, in 1628, the last Emperor of the Ming Dynasty ascended the throne, national grievances began to pass from a simmering and more or less latent condition to a state of open and acute hostility. The exactions and tyranny of the eunuchs had led to increased taxation and general discontent; and the horrors of famine now enhanced the gravity of the situation. Local outbreaks were common, and were with difficulty suppressed. The most capable among Chinese generals of the period, Wu San-kuei, shortly to play a leading part in the dynastic drama, was far away, employed in resisting the invasions of the Manchus, when a very serious rebellion, which had been in preparation for some years, at length burst violently forth.

Li Tz{u}-ch`eng was a native of Shensi, who, before he was twenty years old, had succeeded his father as village beadle. The famine of 1627 had brought him into trouble over the land-tax, and in 1629 he turned brigand, but without conspicuous success during the following ten years. In 1640, he headed a small gang of desperadoes, and overrunning parts of Hupeh and Honan, was soon in command of a large army. He was joined by a female bandit, formerly a courtesan, who advised him to avoid slaughter and to try to win the hearts of the people. In 1642, after several attempts to capture the city of K`ai- feng, during one of which his left eye was destroyed by an arrow, he at length succeeded, chiefly in consequence of a sudden rise of the Yellow River, the waters of which rushed through a canal originally intended to fill the city moat and flood out the rebels. The rise of the river, however, was so rapid and so unusually high that the city itself was flooded, and an enormous number of the inhabitants perished, the rest seeking safety in flight to higher ground.

By 1744, Li Tz{u}-ch`eng had reduced the whole of the province of Shensi; whereupon he began to advance on Peking, proclaiming himself first Emperor of the Great Shun Dynasty, the term shun implying harmony between rulers and ruled. Terror reigned at the Chinese court, especially as meteorological and other portents appeared in unusually large numbers, as though to justify the panic. The Emperor was in despair; the exchequer was empty, and there was no money to pay the troops, who, in any case, were too few to man the city walls. Each of the Ministers of State was anxious only to secure his own safety. Li Tz{u}-ch`eng's advance was scarcely opposed, the eunuch commanders of cities and passes hastening to surrender them and save their own lives. For, in case of immediate surrender, no injury was done by Li to life or property, and even after a short resistance only a few lives were exacted as penalty; but a more obstinate defence was punished by burning and looting and universal slaughter.

The Emperor was now advised to send for Wu San-kuei; but that step meant the end of further resistance to the invading Manchus on the east, and for some time he would not consent. Meanwhile, he issued an Imperial proclamation, such as is usual on these occasions, announcing that all the troubles which had come upon the empire were due to his own incompetence and unworthiness, as confirmed by the droughts, famines, and other signs of divine wrath, of recent occurrence; that the administration was to be reformed, and only virtuous and capable officials would be employed. The near approach, however, of Li's army at length caused the Emperor to realise that it was Wu San-kuei or nothing, and belated messengers were dispatched to summon him to the defence of the capital. Long before he could possibly arrive, a gate of the southern city of Peking was treacherously opened by the eunuch in charge of it, and the next thing the Emperor saw was his capital in flames. He then summoned the Empress and the court ladies, and bade them each provide for her own safety. He sent his three sons into hiding, and actually killed with his own hand several of his favourites, rather than let them fall into the hands of the One-Eyed Rebel. He attempted the same by his daughter, a young girl, covering his face with the sleeve of his robe; but in his agony of mind he failed in his blow, and only succeeded in cutting off an arm, leaving the unfortunate princess to be dispatched later on by the Empress. After this, in concert with a trusted eunuch and a few attendants, he disguised himself, and made an attempt to escape from the city by night; but they found the gates closed, and the guard refused to allow them to pass. Returning to the palace in the early morning, the Emperor caused the great bell to be rung as usual to summon the officers of government to audience; but no one came. He then retired, with his faithful eunuch, to a kiosque, on what is known as the Coal Hill, in the palace grounds, and there wrote a last decree on the lapel of his coat:--"I, poor in virtue and of contemptible personality, have incurred the wrath of God on high. My Ministers have deceived me. I am ashamed to meet my ancestors; and therefore I myself take off my crown, and with my hair covering my face, await dismemberment at the hands of the rebels. Do not hurt a single one of my people!" Emperor and eunuch then committed suicide by hanging themselves, and the Great Ming Dynasty was brought to an end.

Li Tz{u}-ch`eng made a grand official entry into Peking, upon which many of the palace ladies committed suicide. The bodies of the two Empresses were discovered, and the late Emperor's sons were captured and kindly treated; but of the Emperor himself there was for some time no trace. At length his body was found, and was encoffined, together with those of the Empresses, by order of Li Tz{u}-ch`eng, by-and-by to receive fit and proper burial at the hands of the Manchus.

Li Tz{u}-ch`eng further possessed himself of the persons of Wu San- kuei's father and affianced bride, the latter of whom, a very beautiful girl, he intended to keep for himself. He next sent off a letter to Wu San-kuei, offering an alliance against the Manchus, which was fortified by another letter from Wu San-kuei's father, urging his son to fall in which Li's wishes, especially as his own life would be dependent upon the success of the missions. Wu San-kuei had already started on his way to relieve the capital when he heard of the events above recorded; and it seems probable that he would have yielded to circumstances and persuasion but for the fact that Li had seized the girl he intended to marry. This decided him; he retraced his steps, shaved his head after the required style, and joined the Manchus.

It was not very long before Li Tz{u}-ch`eng's army was in full pursuit, with the twofold object of destroying Wu San-kuei and recovering Chinese territory already occupied by the Manchus. In the battle which ensued, all these hopes were dashed; Li sustained a crushing defeat, and fled to Peking. There he put to death the Ming princes who were in his hands, and completely exterminated Wu San- kuei's family, with the exception of the girl above mentioned, whom he carried off after having looted and burnt the palace and other public buildings. Now was the opportunity of the Manchus; and with the connivance and loyal aid of Wu San-kuei, the Great Ch`ing Dynasty was established.

Li Tz{u}-ch`eng, who had officially mounted the Dragon Throne as Emperor of China nine days after his capture of Peking, was now hotly pursued by Wu San-kuei, who had the good fortune to recover from the rebels the girl, who had been taken with them in their flight, and whom he then married. Li Tz{u}-ch`eng retreated westwards; and after two vain attempts to check his pursuers, his army began to melt away. Driven south, he held Wu-ch`ang for a time; but ultimately he fled down the Yang-tsze, and was slain by local militia in Hupeh.

Li was a born soldier. Even hostile writers admit that his army was wonderfully well disciplined, and that he put a stop to the hideous atrocities which had made his name a terror in the empire, just so soon as he found that he could accomplish his ends by milder means. His men were obliged to march light, very little baggage being allowed; his horses were most carefully looked after. He himself was by nature calm and cold, and his manner of life was frugal and abstemious.

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