Thanks to the Yongle Emperor’s efforts, the Ming Empire enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace, stability, and prosperity. Yet it seems you really can have too much of a good thing! Having inherited such a powerful empire, the later Ming emperors swiftly became complacent. Their most formidable enemy, the Mongolians, may have fractured into three antagonistic groups known as the Oirats, the Tatars, and the Urianghad tribes, but this didn’t mean they no longer represented a significant threat. In 1449, this era of peace came to an end when the Oirat leader Esen Tayisi launched an invasion into China.
The reigning Zhengtong Emperor, who was inexperienced in the art of governance, misguidedly heeded the advice of his chief eunuch Wang Zhen. Wang advised him to personally face the Oirats head on and so, leaving his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge as temporary regent, he embarked on his military campaign. On September 8th of the same year, Esen successfully ambushed Zhengtong’s army, captured him, and held him for ransom in a situation known as the Tumu Crisis.
However, Esen’s scheme was foiled when Zhu Qiyu assumed the throne as the Jingtai Emperor. When the Oirats attempted to besiege the imperial capital of Beijing, they were repelled thanks to the concerted efforts of the defence minister Yu Qian. Esen soon realised that the Zhengtong Emperor represented a useless bargaining chip and so released him back into China. Although he was initially held under house arrest, he eventually reclaimed the throne under the name of the Tianshun Emperor when his half-brother was overthrown during a coup in 1457. The Tianshun Emperor has since been celebrated as one of the most benevolent emperors of the Ming Dynasty, in particular for his abolishment of the regal tradition that saw concubines and palace maids buried alive or sealed in the imperial tomb after the death of the Emperor.
From 1449 onwards, the trauma of the Tumu Crisis prompted the Ming emperors to continually rebuild, repair, and fortify the Great Wall. Many sections of the wall that you see today are the result of these efforts. Yet a strong defence is nothing without strong leadership! Subsequent emperors failed to halt the corruption that threatened to cripple the imperial court, and this reached a peak during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521-1567).
Under the vigorous new leadership of Altan Khan, the Oirats had become a constant threat on the northern frontiers and even ransacked the suburbs of Beijing in 1550. At the same time, settlements along the southeastern coast were repeatedly raided and terrorised by Japanese pirates. Tragedy struck yet again in 1556, when the deadliest earthquake of all time took place in Shaanxi province, killing approximately 830,000 people. Rather than deal with these mounting problems, for 20 years the Jiajing Emperor withdrew from political affairs and left the country in the hands of an unpopular grand secretary named Yan Song.
It wasn’t until the late 1560s that coastal raiding was finally brought under control, and Altan Khan wasn’t formally dealt with until 1571. For the next decade, during the reign of the Longqing Emperor and the early years of the Wanli Emperor, the country enjoyed relative stability thanks to the work of an outstanding grand secretary named Zhang Juzheng. However, when Zhang tragically died in 1582, there was no one skilled enough to maintain the delicate balance of alliances that he had so effectively built up. Disagreements caused government officials to fracture into a number of opposing factions.
As time went on, the Wanli Emperor grew tired of the constant political squabbling in his court and preferred to secrete himself behind the walls of the Forbidden City. In a foolish move, Wanli granted excessive political powers to imperial eunuchs. They soon became the only intermediaries between officials and the emperor, and demanded hefty bribes for their services.
Meanwhile, Ming China continued to support the Koreans in the on-going Imjin War with the Japanese, which was proving to be a significant financial drain. This war, coupled with the extravagances of the Wanli Emperor and the military costs of defending the northern border, eventually bankrupted the central government. This fiscal and bureaucratic decline continued under the reign of the Taichang Emperor, who ruled for just one short month before suddenly passing away. Perhaps the stress proved to be too much for him!
In 1620, the Tianqi Emperor took the throne, but he was too young to effectively lead the fractured government. Unable to deal with political affairs, he granted almost totalitarian powers to his favourite eunuch, Wei Zhongxian, in 1624. By cruelly purging hundreds of officials and staffing the government with corrupt sycophants, Wei became one of the most notorious figures in Chinese history. So great was his arrogance that he even ordered the construction of temples dedicated to him throughout the Ming Empire!
With the court thus wracked by instability, it was in no place to deal with the calamities that lay on the horizon. When the Chongzhen Emperor took the throne in 1627, he had Wei immediately dismissed, but the damage had already been done. During his reign, a major economic crisis developed regarding China’s dependence on silver. Many of the country’s peasants paid taxes in silver, but sold their crops and conducted local trade in copper. During the 1630s, Spain cracked down on illegal smuggling of silver to China, and Japan shut down most of its foreign trade with Europe, meaning the country had lost two of its major suppliers in one fell swoop.
This caused a dramatic spike in the value of silver, which in turn forced the ratio of the value of copper to silver into steep decline. This spelled disaster for China’s peasants, as the copper they earned was no longer enough to buy the silver they needed to pay their taxes. Yet it seems the worse was still to come! During the early 17th century, a climactic phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age caused unusually cold and dry weather in the north of China. This in turn shortened the growing season, decimated crops, and caused large-scale flooding. By this point, the central government was so financially weak that it could not provide its people with aid.
Famine, poverty, and natural disasters led to widespread loss of life throughout China. As was typical during times of crisis, rebellions sprang up across the country. In 1644, a rebel leader named Li Zicheng captured the imperial capital of Beijing and the last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, tragically hung himself on a tree outside of the Forbidden City. Meanwhile, in the northeastern region of Manchuria, an ambitious Jurchen leader named Nurhaci had been amassing power. By 1621, he already controlled the northeastern segment of the Ming Empire near the Great Wall’s Shanhai Pass. In 1635, Nurhaci’s son Hong Taiji took over and changed the ethnic name of his people from the Jurchens to the Manchu.
In a desperate attempt to restore the dynasty, a Ming commander named Wu Sangui forged an alliance with the Manchu people and allowed them through the gates of Shanhai Pass in the hopes that they would defeat Li Zicheng. They did just that, but seized the imperial throne in the process! In 1644, Hong Taiji’s son formally took control of China as the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). However, it wasn’t until 1683 that the Manchu were finally able to quash the last of the Ming loyalists, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), who had formed a stronghold in Taiwan.