Li Zicheng (22 September 1606 – 1645), born Li Hongji, nicknamed “Dashing King”, was a Chinese rebel leader who overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644 and ruled over China briefly as the emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty before his death a year later.
Li was born in Mizhi County, Yulin, Shaanxi in the late Ming dynasty. Initially a shepherd, he started learning horse riding and archery at the age of 20, and had also worked in a wine shop and as a blacksmith’s apprentice.
According to folklore, in 1630, Li was put on public display in an iron collar and shackles for his failure to repay loans to a usurious magistrate, Ai. Ai struck a guard who offered shade and water to Li, whence a group of peasants friendly to Li tore apart Li’s shackles, spirited him to a nearby hill, and proclaimed him their leader. Although they were only armed with wooden sticks, Li and his band managed to ambush a group of government soldiers sent to arrest them, and obtained their first real weapons.
As a general under Gao Yingxiang
At the same time, the Shaanxi region was hit by a famine, and the common people resented the Ming government. Li joined a rebel army led by Gao Yingxiang, who was nicknamed “Dashing King”. He inherited Gao’s nickname and command of the rebel army after Gao’s death.
Within three years, Li succeeded in rallying more than 20,000 men to form a rebel army. They attacked and killed prominent government officials, such as Sun Chuanting, in Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces.
Some battles Li fought in this period were the Battle of Chexiang Pass and the Battle of Fengyang.
Battles of Luoyang, Nanyang and Kaifeng
Li advocated the slogan of “dividing land equally and abolishing the grain taxes payment system” which won great support of peasants. The song of “killing cattle and sheep, preparing tasty wine and opening the city gate to welcome the Dashing King” was widely spread at that time.
The 1642 Kaifeng flood (during the 3rd Battle of Kaifeng), caused by breaches of the Yellow River dikes by both sides, ended the siege of Kaifeng and killed over 300,000 of its 378,000 residents. After the battles of Luoyang and Kaifeng, the Ming government was unable to stop Li’s rebellion, as most of its military force was involved in the battle against the Manchus in the north. Li declared himself the King of the Shun dynasty in Xi’an, Shaanxi.
From the Battle of Xiangyang to the creation of the Shun dynasty
In 1642, Li captured Xiangyang and proclaimed himself “King Xinshun”.
In April 1644, Li’s rebels sacked the Ming capital of Beijing, and the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. Li proclaimed himself the Emperor of the Shun dynasty.
After Li’s army was defeated on 27 May 1644 at the Battle of Shanhai Pass by the combined forces of the defecting Ming general Wu Sangui and the Manchus, Li fled from Beijing towards his base in Shaanxi.
The decline and death of Li
After a number of defeats Li Zicheng disappeared. Some folktales hold that Li survived after his defeats and became a monk for the rest of his life. Li mysteriously disappeared and there were different theories about his death too, at the age of 40. Some suggested that he committed suicide by hanging himself on a lotus tree, while others thought that he was killed by pro-Ming militia during his escape in 1645.
Although the success of the Manchu conquest of China was attributed to the weakening of the Ming dynasty (exacerbated by Li Zicheng’s rebellion), official historiography during the Qing dynasty regarded Li as an illegitimate usurper and outlaw. This view sought to discourage and demonize notions of rebellion against the Qing government, by propagating that the Manchus put an end to Li’s illegitimate rule and restore peace to the empire, thus receiving the Mandate of Heaven to rule China. In 20th century China, the anti-Confucian and radical inclinations of the Communist Party of China viewed Li favourably, portraying him as an early revolutionary against feudalism.
In popular culture
Li appears as a bandit in Baifa Monü Zhuan, a wuxia novel by Liang Yusheng, where the heroine comments he is worthy of being a king. Li is featured as a character in some of the works of Hong Kong wuxia writer Jin Yong (Louis Cha). Li’s rebellion against the Ming dynasty is featured in Sword Stained with Royal Blood and his personality is analysed from the point of view of Yuan Chengzhi, the protagonist. In The Deer and the Cauldron, set in the Qing dynasty during the early reign of the Kangxi Emperor, Li is revealed to have survived and fathered a daughter, A’ke, with Chen Yuanyuan. Li is also briefly mentioned by name in Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain and The Young Flying Fox.
Li is the main character of the historical epic novel Li Zicheng by Yao Xueyin.