A death on Coal Hill

Society & Culture

By 1644, the Ming dynasty's Chongzhen emperor faced multiple pandemics, invasion, two internal rebellions, persistent drought, widespread famine, and economic collapse. On Coal Hill that April, he surveyed what had become of his empire one last time.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: April 25, 1644

The Ming and Qing dynasties were big. The Ming evokes images of the Great Wall or Zhèng Hé’s 郑和 voyages; the Qing ruled more territory than any other dynasty with its capital in Beijing. Each spanned centuries. In one of its last events, The Bookworm — Beijing’s great, lamented bookstore — hosted a debate over which dynasty was best (the event feels a bit like a time capsule now, happening just weeks before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, when mask mandates and lockdowns were just speculative fiction and not daily debates).

The transition between the two dynasties was on a grand scale too. Civil war, invasion, rebellion, massacres. If anything was bigger than the Ming and the Qing themselves, it might have been the move from one to the other. A contemporary observer characterized the era — made famous as the title of Lynn Struve’s book — as “China in tigers’ jaws.”

But the moment that the Ming fell was not the arrival of Manchu troops or the burning of the Forbidden City, though these were certainly part of the cataclysm. On the date that corresponds to April 25, 1644, a man ascended the pile of fill just north of the Forbidden City and took his life, alone.

That man was of course the last ruler of the Ming, born Zhū Yóujiǎn 朱由檢 and reigning as the Chongzhen emperor.

The Ming dynasty fits nicely into the notion of a dynastic cycle: strong, competent emperors define the start of the dynasty, but as time goes on rulers become complacent and distracted until, the theory goes, the later emperors neglect their duties to the peril of their domain. Powerful rulers like the Hongwu and Yongle emperors defined the early Ming, while its later years were typified by the dissipated Wanli or short-lived Taichang.

Of course, the dynastic cycle is a predetermined pattern, with the facts adapted to fit the needs of the formula. Aside from the very reasonable (and not very profound) assertion that people who establish dynasties tend to be better at their jobs than those who lose them, the key to understanding the cycle is to know that in imperial China history was, literally, written by the winners: each dynasty was expected to compile a history of the preceding dynasty. Unsurprisingly, one of the main conclusions of these histories tended to be that the previous dynasty had failed in its duty to the people, justifying the rise of the new dynasty — the people writing the history — to replace it. Those dynastic histories form a master narrative that can be hard to combat.

So it’s no surprise that the Chongzhen emperor and his immediate predecessors come in for criticism. Corrupt, weak, vain, distracted, or just simply incompetent, the last few Ming emperors are the prime example of dynastic decline.

Surely they deserve some blame. But just some.

As historian Tim Brook puts it in his history of the Yuan and Ming, The Troubled Empire, we need to distinguish “the actors on the Chongzhen stage [from] the stage itself: the environment. No emperor of the Yuan or Ming faced climatic conditions as abnormal or severe as Chongzhen had the misfortune of doing.” Brook characterizes this last emperor’s reign as a “slough” — one of nine in the Yuan and Ming dynasties — defined by climatic challenges and their effects. The 1620s and 1630s were times of severe cold, widespread famine, and economic despair. The 1640s were the coldest decade in Russian history for half a millennium; Brook contends this bitter cold not only shriveled the Ming economy, but pushed its eventual scourge, the Manchus, south in search of milder temperatures.

The scale of disaster is hard to imagine, even in today’s difficult times. A famine in 1632. An epidemic (smallpox?) in 1633, and again in 1635. That same year locusts decimated crops. Another epidemic in 1636. Drought began in 1637 and would outlast the Ming. Cannibalism was reported across north China. Disease broke out again in 1639. Brook describes the era as the most prolonged series of disasters in more than 300 years.

The natural catastrophes were interwoven with human ones. The Jurchens — renamed Manchus in 1635 — waged war against the Ming from the northeast, further straining both the population and the government’s resources. The military expenditures drained the treasury, and in response the government increased demands for taxes, but no one had money to give. Revenues cratered: Brook records that 80% of the counties in China had stopped remitting any revenue to the central government at all.

With little to lose, people rose up in rebellion. Two rebel armies — one led by Lǐ Zìchéng 李自成 and the other Zhāng Xiànzhōng 张献忠 — threatened to bring down the dynasty. Ming armies defeated the rebels, but without the resources to end the rebellions for good, the insurgencies reemerged.

By 1644, the Chongzhen emperor faced multiple pandemics, invasion, two internal rebellions, persistent drought, widespread famine, and economic collapse. But, apparently, the dynasty fell because (checks notes) he was a bad emperor.

Anything as complex as the Ming collapse has many causes. In both the long- and short-term, the Ming faced internal and external pressures that can hardly be attributed to a single cause, let alone a single person. And for all the flaws of the dynastic cycle, it is certainly true that the late Ming had its share of weak leaders. Chongzhen was far from the worst, but he may have been dealt the worst hand.

But let’s not paint him as a tragic hero. He was indecisive when time was of the essence to counter the latest Manchu advance in the spring of 1644. He dismissed the rebels as beneath negotiation, badly underestimating the threat they posed. After Li Zicheng’s forces had breached the capital, he fell into despair, and began killing his daughters and consorts rather than risk them falling into the hands of the insurgents.

On April 25, he left the Forbidden City from the rear entrance, where, in pre-pandemic contemporary times, rows of tour buses wait for their passengers. He climbed Coal Hill inside what is now Jingshan Park. Just a few hundred feet high, created from dredging the moats and lakes around the Forbidden City, the hill is still the best vantage point onto the center of Beijing, and would have given Chongzhen a chance to survey his dominion as it unraveled. It must have been a sobering sight, to see the grandeur of the imperial capital that his family had ruled for three centuries, recognizing that he would be the last to reign.

Chongzhen’s state of mind was clearly desperate. He had slain members of his family and seen his empire collapse. Resolving to end his life, he wrote a last sentiment (translated by historian Frederick Wakeman in his essential record of the era, The Great Enterprise): “I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the rebels dismember my corpse and slaughter my officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of our people.”

He was alone, so we don’t know exactly what happened next. Chongzhen may have strangled himself with a silk sash, but it is commonly recorded that he hanged himself from a scholar tree. In some accounts, he scratched the characters Son of Heaven (天子 tiānzǐ) beneath the tree.

In a bold seizing of the narrative, the Manchus used the emperor’s suicide while rebels sacked the city to justify their conquest. Claiming to avenge the emperor, the Manchus defeated the rebellious armies and solicited the support of Ming loyalists (with mixed results) by presenting their Qing dynasty as the rightful heir to the Ming. Rightful heir or not, the Qing would wage war for decades to solidify their rule.

But on Coal Hill that April, all that came before and all that would follow balanced for one moment on the shoulders of the Chongzhen emperor. It was more than he could bear.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.