Long years of misgovernment in China produced their natural result. Evils stalked abroad while worthless emperors spent their days in luxury at home. The land ceased to be governed, local rebellions broke out in a dozen quarters, and the Manchu invasion was but one event in the series of difficulties that environed the weakened throne. From the midst of these small rebellions emerged a large one before which the Ming dynasty trembled to its fall. Its leader, Li Tseching, was a peasant's son, who had chosen the military career and quickly gained renown as a daring horseman and skilful archer. In 1629 he appeared as a member of a band of robbers, who were defeated by the troops, Li being one of the few to escape. A year afterwards we hear of him as high in rank in a rebel band almost large enough to be called an army. The leader dying after a few years, Li succeeded him in command.
His progress to power was rapid, cunning and duplicity aiding him, for often when in a situation he escaped by pretending a desire to come to terms with the authorities. Other rebels rose, won victories, and sank again; but Li held his own and steadily grew stronger, until, in 1640, he was at the head of an army of nearly half a million of men and in a position to aspire to the throne of Peking itself. Town after town fell into his hands, frightful outrages being perpetrated in each, for Li was a brigand in grain and merciless at heart. The efforts of the emperor to overthrow him proved futile, the imperial army being sent against him in four divisions, which he attacked and defeated in detail. The court had learned nothing from the failure of similar tactics in the war with Noorhachu. After this pronounced success Li laid siege to Kaifong, an important city which had once been the capital of China. He was twice repulsed, but a third time returned to the siege, finally succeeding through a rise in the Hoang-ho, which washed away the defences of the city, drowned thousands of its people, and left it at the mercy of the besieging troops.
Li's next effort was made against the city of Tunkwan, the most formidable of Chinese fortresses. Situated in the mountains between the provinces of Ronan and Shensi, it was strong by position, while the labor of centuries had added enormously to its strength. Here fortune aided him, his army following into the city a fugitive force which had been beaten outside. By this time the rebel chief had made himself so dreadful a record by the massacres and outrages committed in conquered cities that terror began to fill the minds of garrisons, and towns and cities opened their gates to him without venturing resistance.
No longer a mere rebel chief, but master of more than a third of China, and feared through all the rest, Li now assumed the title of emperor, and, capturing every stronghold as he advanced, began his march upon Peking, then a scene of unimaginable terror and confusion. The emperor, who had hesitated to flee, found flight impossible when Li's great army invested the capital. Defence was equally impossible, and the unhappy weakling, after slaying all the women of the palace, ended the career of the Ming dynasty by hanging himself. Li was quickly master of the city, where the ancestral temple of the Mings was plundered and levelled with the ground, and all the kinsmen of the royal family he could seize were summarily put to death. Thus was completed the first phase of a remarkable career, in which in a few years the member of a band of robbers became master of the most populous empire of the earth. The second phase was to be one of a decline in fortune still more rapid than had been the growth of the first. And with it is connected the story of the Manchu invasion and conquest of China.
We have seen in the preceding tale how the heroic Chungwan held the fortress of Ningyuen against all the efforts of Noorhachu, the Manchu chief. After his death Wou Sankwei, a man of equal valor and skill, repelled Taitsong and his Manchus from its walls. This city, with the surrounding territory, was all of Northern China that had not submitted to Li, who now made earnest efforts by lavish promises to win Wou over to his side. But in the latter he had to deal with a man who neither feared nor trusted him, and to whose mind it seemed preferable that even the Tartars should become lords of the empire than that it should be left to the mercy of a brutal robber like Li Tseching.
Wou's position was a delicate and difficult one. The old dynasty was at an end. Those loyal to it were powerless. He had no means of his own enabling him to contend against the great force of Li. He must surrender or call in foreigners to his aid. In this dilemma he made overtures to the Manchus, asking their aid to put down the rebellion and restore tranquillity to the empire,—seemingly with the thought that they might be dispensed with when no longer of use.
Not for a moment did the Manchu leaders hesitate to avail themselves of the promising offer. The man who for years had stood resolutely in the way of their invasion of China was now voluntarily stepping from their path, and even offering them his aid to accomplish their cherished project. The powerful fortresses which had defied their strength, the Great Wall which in Wou's hands might have checked their progress, had suddenly ceased to be obstacles to their advance, and throughout the camps and towns of the Tartars an enthusiastic response was made to the inspiriting cry of "On to Peking!"
Wou Sankwei did not wait for their coming. Li had sent a strong force to meet him, with instructions either to negotiate or to fight. Wou chose the latter, and delivered battle with such energy and success that more than twenty thousand of the opposing force were laid in death upon the field, no quarter being given to the flying host. News of this perilous reverse roused Li to vigorous action. Knowing nothing of the approach of a Tartar army, he imagined that he had only Wou with whom to deal, and marched against him in person with sixty thousand men, the pick of his victorious army.
This large force, perhaps three times the number that the loyal leader could put in the field, reached Wou's station on the river Lanho before the vanguard of the Manchus had appeared. It was obviously Wou's policy to defer the action, but Li gave him no opportunity, making at once an impetuous attack, his line being formed in the shape of a crescent, with the design of overlapping the flanks of the foe. Skilled and experienced as Wou was, the smallness of his force made him unable to avoid this movement of his enemy, who, from a hill where he had taken his station to overlook the battle, had the satisfaction of seeing the opposing army completely surrounded by his numerous battalions. Wou and his men fought with desperate courage, but it was evident that they could not long hold out against such odds. Fortunately for them, at this critical moment a strong Manchu corps reached the field, and at once made a furious charge upon the nearly victorious troops. This diversion caused a complete change in the situation. Li's troops, filled with terror at the vigorous and unexpected assault, broke and fled, pursued by their foes with such bloodthirsty fury that thirty thousand of them were slain. Li escaped with a few hundred horsemen from the disastrous field which was to prove the turning-point in his career.
The delayed Manchus soon after appeared in numbers, and Wou lost no time in following up his signal success. Peking was quickly reached, and there, on the eastern ramparts, the victor was greeted with the spectacle of his father's head on the wall, Li having thus wreaked what vengeance he could upon his foe. It was an unwise act of ferocity, since it rendered impossible any future reconciliation with his opponent.
Li made no effort to defend the city, but fled precipitately with all the plunder he could convey. Wou, marching round its walls, pressed hard upon his track, attacking his rear-guard in charge of the bulky baggage-train, and defeating it with the slaughter of ten thousand troops. Li continued to retreat, collecting the garrisons he had left in various cities as he fled, until, feeling strong enough to hazard another battle, he took his stand near the city of Chingtung. Wou did not hesitate to attack. Eighty thousand Manchus had joined him, and abundant Chinese levies had raised his forces to two hundred thousand men. The battle was fierce and obstinate, Li fighting with his old skill and courage, and night closed without giving either party the victory. But under cover of the darkness the rebel leader, having lost forty thousand men, including some of his ablest officers, deemed it necessary to resume his retreat.
The remainder of Li's career may be briefly told. Wou followed him with unyielding persistency, fighting at every opportunity and being always the victor in these encounters. This rapid flight, these repeated defeats, at length so discouraged the rebel troops that on Li's making a final stand they refused to fight, and insisted on coming to terms with their pursuer. Finding that all was at an end, Li fled to the neighboring mountain region with a small body of men, and there returned to the robber state from which he had emerged. But his foe was implacable; pursuit was kept up, his band lost heavily in various encounters, and at length, while on a foraging trip in search of food, he was surprised in a village by a superior force. A sharp combat followed, in which Li was the first to fall, and his head was carried in triumph to the nearest mandarin.
Thus ended the career of a remarkable man. Whatever the Chinese thought of the Manchus, they could not but detest the cruel bandit whom they supplanted, and who, but for their aid and the courage of a single opponent, would have placed himself upon the throne of China.
Wou Sankwei, having rid himself of his great enemy, now became anxious for the departure of his allies. But he soon found that they had no intention of leaving Peking, of which they were then in full control. At their head was Taitsong's young son, still a child, yet already giving evidence of much sagacity. His uncle, Prince Dorgan or Ama Wang (Father Prince), as his nephew called him; was made regent, and hastened to proclaim the youth emperor of China, under the name of Chuntche. Every effort was made to obtain the support of Wou Sankwei: honors and titles were conferred upon him, and the new government showed such moderation and sound judgment in dealing with the people as to win him to its support,—especially as no Chinese candidate for the throne appeared whose ability promised to equal that of the young Manchu prince.
The Manchus, indeed, were far from being rulers of the kingdom as yet. They held only a few provinces of the north, and a prince of the late native dynasty had been set up in the south, with his capital at Nanking. Had he been a capable ruler, with qualities suited to call Wou Sankwei to his support and enlist the energies of the people, the tide of Manchu conquest would very probably have been stayed. But he proved worthless, and Nanking was soon in the hands of his foes, its officials being spared, but required to shave their heads,—the shaved head and the pigtail of the modern Chinaman being the badge of submission to Tartar supremacy.
A succession of new emperors was set up, but all met the same fate, and in the end the millions of China fell under the Manchu yoke, and the ancient empire was once more subjected to Tartar rule. The emperor Chuntche died young, and his son, Kanghi, came to the throne when but nine years of age. He was destined to reign for more than sixty years and to prove himself one of the best and greatest of the emperors of China.
We cannot close without a mention of the final events in the career of Wou Sankwei, to whom China owed her Manchu dynasty. Thirty years after he had invited the Manchus into the country, and while he was lord of a large principality in the south, he was invited by the emperor to visit Peking, an invitation which he declined on the plea of old age, though really because he feared that Tartar jealousy of his position and influence lay behind it.
Envoys were sent to him, whom be treated with princely courtesy, though he still declined to visit the court, and plainly stated his reasons. The persistence of the emperor at length drove him into rebellion, in which he was joined by others of the Chinese leaders, and for a time the unwisdom of Kanghi in not letting well enough alone threatened his throne with disaster. One by one, however, Wou's allies were put down, until he was left alone to keep up the war. The Manchus hesitated, however, to attack him, knowing well his great military skill. But disunion in his ranks did what the Tartar sword could not effect. Many of his adherents deserted him, and the Chinese warrior who had never known defeat was brought to the brink of irretrievable disaster. From this dilemma death extricated him, he passing away at the head of his men without the stigma of defeat on his long career of victory. In the end his body was taken from the tomb and his ashes were scattered through the eighteen provinces of China, to testify that no trace remained of the man whom alone the Manchus had wooed and feared.