Li Tzu-Ch'eng (ca. 1606-1645) was a Chinese bandit whose rebellion was the last major popular uprising in imperial China. It also caused the downfall of the Ming dynasty, the last Chinese ruling house of the Middle Kingdom.
A native of Shensi, Li Tzu-Ch'eng spent his youth as a post-station messenger, skilled in horsemanship and archery and fond of quarrels and combats. Toward the end of the Ming dynasty, official corruption and maladministration caused general economic breakdown and sowed the seeds of popular uprisings. In 1628 a great famine occurred in Shensi, and bandits became rampant. One band was led by Li's uncle Kao Ying-hsiang, who styled himself Ch'uang-wang, or "Dashing Prince." By 1631 more than 200, 000 people in Shensi and the neighboring Shensi provinces were engaged in bandit activities. In this year Li joined the band, styling himself "Dashing General, " and soon commanded an independent force. In mid-1634, after plundering Honan, Li was caught by government troops in southern Shensi; he pretended surrender but soon rebelled.
Late in 1635 Li suffered another defeat by the government, and he temporarily joined another bandit leader, Chang Hsien-Chung. In 1636 Li entered Anhwei, then went westward into Honan and back again to Shensi. That fall Li succeeded his uncle, assumed the title Ch'uang-wang, and moved his base from Shensi to Szechwan, where in 1638 he suffered a decisive defeat. In 1639 Li moved into the drought-stricken Honan and attracted thousands of disaffected villagers, including two educated men, Li Yen and Niu Chin-hsing. Li Yen devised the slogan "Welcome Ch'uang-wang and pay no taxes" and advised Li not to injure the people but to win them by kindness.
Early in 1641 Li captured Honan-fu, killing the father of Chu Yu-sung, who was enthroned at Nanking in 1644. Li won the support of the displaced peasants by his promise of equal distribution of land, but his destruction alienated the scholar-gentry class. In time Li became so strong and popular that his former comrade-in-arms Chang Hsien-chung came to seek his protection. The Ming court, then preoccupied with resistance against the Manchus, was unable to halt the bandits.
In 1643 Li moved into Hupei, founded a new capital, self-styled himself generalissimo, and then called himself Hsin Shun Wang (New Pacification Prince). By the end of the year Li named his kingdom Ta-shun (Great Pacification), took the reign title Yung-ch'ang (Ever-prospering), issuing coins with this inscription, and then turned his forces northward. On April 25, 1644, he captured Peking, and Emperor Ch'ung-chen (Chu Yu-chien) hanged himself.
About a month later Li and his 200, 000 troops were defeated near Shanhaikuan by the combined forces of Wu San-kuei and the Manchus, who came to Wu's assistance. Li then hastened back to Peking and proclaimed himself emperor. On the evening of June 3 he burned part of the palaces and departed westward.
The Manchu forces took possession of Peking on June 6 and in March 1645 occupied the strategic pass into Shensi. Li Tzu-Ch'eng abandoned Sian and retreated to Hupei. In June/July of that year he was killed by villagers while making a raid in search of food.
Further Reading on Li Tzu-Ch'eng
A recent scholarly monograph on Li Tzu-ch'eng and his fellow rebels is James B. Parsons, Peasant Rebellions of the Late Ming Dynasty (1970). A concise but scholarly biography of him is in the U.S. Library of Congress, Orientalia Division, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, vol. 1, edited by Arthur W. Hummel (1942). Recommended for general historical background are Charles P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History (1935; 3d ed. 1965), and Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, A History of East Asian Civilization vol. 1: East Asia: The Great Tradition (1960).