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Li Zicheng
Emperor of China
Personal details
Born September 22, 1606
Died 1645

Li Zicheng (Chinese: 李自成; pinyin: Lĭ Zìchéng; Wade–Giles: Li Tzu-ch'eng); 1606–1645?), born Li Hongji (李鴻基), was a Chinese rebel leader who overthrew the Ming Dynasty and ruled over China briefly as emperor of the short-lived Shun Dynasty.


Early Years

Li was born in Mizhi County, Shaanxi Province, during the late Ming Dynasty. Initially a shepherd, Li started to learn horse riding and archery at the age of 20, and had also worked in a wine shop and as an ironworker'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 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 of Gao Yingxiang

At the same time, the Shaanxi region was hit by a famine, and the common people resented the Ming government. Li joined Gao Yingxiang's (the "Dashing King" (闖王)) rebel army. After Gao's death, Li inherited the title "Dashing King" and became the commander of Gao's army.

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

  • Battle of Chexiang Pass
  • Battle of Fengyang

From Gao's death to Battle of Tongguan Nanyuan

Battles of Luoyang, Nanyang, 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 Taifeng), caused by breaches of the Yellow River dykes by both sides,[1] ended the siege of Kaifeng and killed over 300,000 of its 378,000 residents.[2] 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 Manchurians in the north. Li declared himself King of Shun Dynasty in Xi'an, Shaanxi.[citation needed]

From Battle of Xiangyang to the Creation of Shun Dynasty

In 1642, Li captured Xiangyang, also called Xiangfan city, and proclaimed himself King Xinshun.

Battle of Beijing and Battle of Shanhai Pass

In April 1644, Li's rebels sacked the Ming capital of Beijing, and the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. Li proclaimed himself as the Emperor of 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 Manchurians, Li fled from Beijing towards his base in Shaanxi.

The Decline and Death of Li

After a number of defeats Li Zicheng disappeared. In the long term, it led to the development of myths and legends concerning Li. The principal one being that he was a great hope. Some folk tales 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. It is thought that in 1645, Li Zicheng was killed in battle at Mount Jiugong. He fled into the south, in present-day Hubei Province.


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Although the success of the Manchurian conquest of China was attributed to the weakening of the Ming Dynasty (exacerbated by Li Zicheng's rebellion), ironically, official historiography during the Qing Dynasty period 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 is featured as a character in some of the works of Hong Kong Wuxia writer Jin Yong. Li's rebellion against the Ming Dynasty is featured in Sword Stained with Royal Blood and his personality is analyzed 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 Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain and Other Tales of the Flying Fox.

Li is the main character of the historical epic novel Li Zicheng authored by Yao Xueyin.[3]


  1. Lorge, Peter Allan War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900–1795 Routledge; 1 edition (27 Oct 2005) ISBN 978-0-415-31691-0 p.147
  2. Xu, Xin The Jews of Kaifeng, China: history, culture, and religion Ktav Pub Inc (Feb 2003) ISBN 978-0-88125-791-5 p.47
  3. Martinsen, Joel (17 January 2008). "A tragic peasant rebellion, abridged for today's readers". Danwei. 

External links

Dashing King
House of Li
Born: 22 September 1606 Died: 1645
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Chongzhen Emperor of Ming
Emperor of China
Shun Dynasty
Succeeded by
Shunzhi Emperor of Qing

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