On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.
The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping.
China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.
Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.
The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.
Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.
On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.
With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.
Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.