In the mid-17th century, the weather in China got colder. The frequency of droughts and floods increased while some regions were wiped out by tragic famines. And the once-unstoppable Ming dynasty began to lose power.
The accounts are chilling. In the summary of his course on modern Chinese history at the Collège de France, Pierre-Etienne Will examined journals held by various individuals, often part of the Chinese administration, during the final years of the Ming dynasty. These autobiographical writings were almost always kept secret, but they allow us to immerse ourselves in the everyday life of the first half of 17th-century China.
In the Jiangnan region, close to Shanghai and generally considered as a land of plenty, the 1640s did not bode well. The decade that had just ended was characterized by an abnormally cold and dry climate and poor harvests. The price of agricultural goods kept rising, pushing social tension to bursting points.
Pierre-Etienne Will writes that in the town of Suzhou, a scholar named Ye Shaoyuan described starving peasants, some of whom climbed the walls of the homes of the wealthy, while others broke in “after smashing their gates with axes”. Some wealthy people were murdered before the intervention of the army put an end to the violence.
Breakdown of the natural order
The beginning of the decade then turned into a tragedy. Droughts followed one another in 1641 and 1642, and “for the first time, there is mention of the bodies of people starved to death lying on the sides of the roads” while “the price of rice went through the roof.”
In early 1642, some even reported accounts of cannibalism in the region. Not far from there, Songjiang offered the nightmarish sights of “countryside strewn with the corpses of people who died of hunger, people trying to feed themselves with the bark of trees, troops of abandoned children.” The starving populations wandered hopelessly and the few soup kitchens arranged were nowhere near sufficient to remedy the ongoing disaster.
The teenage Yao Tinglin described the surroundings of Shanghai where “death was everywhere”. Pierre-Etienne Will writes: “Yao mentions refugees who suddenly collapsed in the middle of the street; there was also a sort of canopy in front of his house where starving people came to die every night.” Cannibalism, again, is alluded to, including on “young victims”, which triggered judiciary sanctions of a boundless brutality, which were cheered by crowds.
“All this shows a complete breakdown of the natural order, which is reflected in the social order by the aberrant crimes mentioned above,” the Sinologist writes.
Weather patterns disrupting a regime
In addition to droughts, floods ravaged the country, particularly the Yellow River’s basin. Pandemics wiped out a part of the population and unprecedented locust invasions destroyed some harvests. In a China where the emperor was believed to hold his power from a “celestial mandate,” the disruption of the world and the unleashing of natural disasters do not only have real-world consequences. They are also heavy with symbolic significance. It seems these elements were an important factor in the fall of the Ming dynasty, which came to power in 1368 and ended in 1644 when its last ruler committed suicide following a military defeat.
All studies agree on one certainty: the final century of the Ming dynasty was characterized by an abnormally cold climate and by a high frequency of extreme weather events. Is this the manifestation of the “little ice age” described in Europe? In northern China, the average temperature dropped by 1.18 °C (33.8 °F) between the 1610s and 1650s, according to Chinese scholars.
Droughts became more intense. Other Chinese scholars believe that, in the period from 1627 to 1642, eastern China “very likely experienced the most persistent drought since 500 A.D.” Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, paid the political price for these disasters. For historian Tim Brook, author of The Troubled Empire, a seminal book on the subject, "no emperor of the Yuan or Ming dynasties faced such abnormal or severe climatic conditions as Chongzhen.”
In their study on the “impact of climate change on the fall of the Ming dynasty,” Chinese scholars led by Zheng Jingyun combed the climatic and economic data of the era to reach a conclusion. The climate disruptions observed at that time accelerated the collapse of a regime that was already subjected to strong internal and external pressure.
A fiscal crisis
The decline in agricultural production led to famines. Starting in the 1570s, the amount of grain per capita fell from 20% to 50% towards the end of the period.
As the Ming dynasty came to an end, tax collection became more and more crucial.
Above all, the effects induced by this situation were especially politically harmful. One of those effects is fiscal. As weather conditions became increasingly harsh, the system of military farms that provided food for a part of the army quickly deteriorated. While, according to researchers, the military effort accounted for 64% of the central government’s spendings between 1548 and 1569, this figure rose to 76% between 1570 and 1589.
These averages only provide a glimpse of a trend that became even more pronounced thereafter. As the Ming dynasty came to an end, tax collection became more and more crucial, particularly in the form of the grain tribute that the provinces had to send to Beijing. Faced with worsening living conditions, the provinces begged for tax relief and were instead met with the increasingly harsh inflexibility of a desperate central government.
Tourists wearing face masks visit the Forbidden City in Beijing after a snowfall
Rebellions fueled by grievances
Then there was the appearance of local rebellions, increasingly structured and massive, fighting the Ming army. Such rebellions were dismissed by the doctrine of Communist China as mere conflicts involving starving peasants against landowners.
In fact, they were fueled by multiple grievances, including against the regime. Among the fighters were soldiers furious at being demobilized, but also postal workers who lost their jobs following Emperor Chongzhen’s decision to cut this service’s funding, or people who suffered from the government’s inability to help them when natural disasters struck. Rebel troops appealed to a large number of people who were exasperated by the State’s negligence, and they eventually reached a size sufficient to bring down the system.
One of those troops managed to capture Beijing and to end the regime in 1644. Its leader, Li Zicheng, had himself been a postal worker for a time. He advocated for an egalitarian doctrine and promised to distribute land equally between all and to abolish the tax on agricultural production. Victorious in Beijing, Li Zicheng proclaimed himself king and then founder of the short-lived Shun dynasty that would quickly be overturned.
Implosion of a system
Was climate change the cause for the doom of the Ming dynasty? This theory is indeed convincing, but there are some caveats. In all the aforementioned events, natural disasters aggravated trends that were already at work. And the fiscal crisis? Perhaps it did not need the help of the climate to occur in a political system progressively eroded by corruption.
In this worn-out political system, the landowner class had invented mechanisms to evade tax.
As José Frèches explains in his book on the history of China, the decline of Chinese finances accelerated “at a dizzying pace” from 1580 on, and also owed much to ”colossal life annuities that the members of the imperial family had arrogated to themselves over the years." He adds: "The State's backbone was not sufficient enough to face the general mayhem and corruption that undermined the country from top down."
In this worn-out political system, the landowner class had invented mechanisms to evade tax. “A large number of simple individuals even sought the protection of the wealthy to avoid paying taxes by selling them their lands more or less fictionally,” Pierre-Etienne Will says, describing a “fairly massive” phenomenon. A form of tax avoidance thriving on the breakdown of the State apparatus can therefore be added to the list of factors that led to the implosion of the system.
The Manchu offensive
As for the increasingly unbearable rise in military expenditure, in the end it also owed much to the pressure exerted by the Manchus, the barbarians from the North who defeated Li Zicheng in 1645 and who would rule over China under the name of “Qing” until their doom in 1911 and the advent of the Republic.
As the Ming dynasty sank into internal crisis, the Manchus managed to unite and shape an ambitious imperial project. All at once, the Ming had to fight internal armies and to push back the attacks of these unparalleled fighters who made their first incursions into the national territory as early as 1618 before intensifying their offensive in the 1640s. This increasingly unstoppable offensive relied massively on Chinese fighters who had defected from the Ming army.
The natural disasters that China faced during the final decades of the Ming dynasty thus accelerated the sinking of a ship that was already taking on water. And if the “celestial mandate” eventually seemed to be taken away from Emperor Chongzhen, it is also because the State he was in charge of was too paralyzed by internal clan struggles and the elite’s corruption to find the means to fight effectively against the calamities befalling its country.