Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Li Tzŭ-ch'êng
LI Tzŭ-ch'êng 李自成 (original ming 鴻基, later changed to 自晟), Oct. 3, 1605?–1645, notorious free-booter, who took Peking and helped to bring the Ming dynasty to an end, was a native of Mi-chih, Shensi. In his youth he was a post-station messenger, skilled in horsemanship and archery, and fond of quarrels and combat. Toward the end of the Ming dynasty, particularly during the period when the eunuch, Wei Chung-hsien [q. v.], was in power, officials were corrupt and administration in both the central and local governments was debased. These conditions led to general economic depression, and lack of faith in the government on the part of the people sowed the seeds of bandit uprising. To make matters worse a great famine occurred in the province of Shensi in 1628 and brigands gathered everywhere—among them Kao Ying-hsiang 高迎祥 (d. 1636), uncle of Li Tzŭ-ch'êng, a prominent bandit leader who styled himself "Dashing King" (Ch'uang Wang 闖王). Before long the neighboring province of Shansi was affected by anarchy, and by 1631 there were in those two provinces thirty-six bands (營) with more than 200,000 adherents engaged in bandit activities. It was in this year that Li Tzŭ-ch'êng and his nephew, Li Kuo 李過 (b. c. 1605), whose name was later changed to Li Chin 李錦, joined Kao Ying-hsiang—Li Tzŭ-ch'êng styling himself "Dashing General" (Ch'uang Chiang 闖將). When pressed in 1633 by government troops of south Shansi this group feigned surrender, but with the approach of winter and freezing weather they crossed the Yellow River at Mien-ch'ih and so escaped into Honan.
Up to this time Li Tzŭ-ch'êng had been in alliance with Kao Ying-hsiang whose forces were stronger, but henceforth he worked independently. During the rainy season of 1634 he was caught in the valley known as Ch'ê-hsiang-chia 車箱峽 near Hsing-an-fu in southern Shensi. By resorting to bribery he effected another false surrender to Ch'ên Ch'i-yü [q. v.] who was then in charge of bandit suppression in Shensi, but as soon as he was out of danger he struck out more violently than ever. Early in the year 1635 thirteen bandit leaders commanding seventy-two bands of followers held a conference at Jung-yang, Honan, after which Li Tzŭ-ch'êng operated westward into Shensi again. Defeated soon after by Hung Ch'êng-ch'ou [q. v.], he joined Chang Hsien-chung [q. v.] in Honan for a short time. In 1636 he entered Anhwei, then went westward into Honan, and back again to Shensi. In the autumn of that year Kao Ying-hsiang was captured by government forces at Chou-chih, Shensi, and decapitated. After Kao's death Li Tzŭ-ch'êng was chosen by his followers to succeed to the title of Ch'uang Wang. In 1637 he moved his base of operations from Shensi to Szechwan, and after a decisive defeat at Tzŭ-t'ung, Szechwan, in 1638 he remained inactive for a time. Hearing in the following year that Chang Hsien-chung had broken away from his feigned allegiance to the government forces at Ku-ch'êng, Hupeh, he decided to enlarge his sphere of conquest. A terrible drought that afflicted Honan in 1639 induced thousands of people to follow him, among them two well-educated men, Li Yen 李儼 (original ming 信, d. 1644, chü-jên of 1627) and Niu Chin-hsing 牛金星 who became his mentors. Li Yen took advantage of the situation to use the slogan, "Welcome Ch'uang Wang and you will be free from taxes" (迎闖王,不納糧), and advised Li Tzŭ-ch'êng not to injure the people but to win their support by kindness.
In the following two years Li Tzŭ-ch'êng occupied place after place in Honan, finally (early in 1641) taking Honan-fu and killing the Prince of Fu (Chu Ch'ang-hsün, see under Chu Yu-sung) whose son, Chu Yu-sung [q. v.], later was enthroned at Nanking after the fall of the northern capital in 1644. The prince's property was confiscated and distributed as relief to the hungry, and people joined the ranks of the insurgents. Li now became so strong that at one time (1641) Chang Hsien-chung sought his protection. At this time the Ming Court at Peking was occupied with resisting the southward advance of the Manchus and was unable to devote much attention to bandit problems. In 1643 Li went into Hupeh, renamed Hsiang-yang as Hsiang-ching 襄京, and styled himself Generalissimo (奉天倡義大元帥). In this new capital the machinery of government was set up, officials were appointed and all the bandits in Honan and Hu-kuang submitted to Li's orders. Finally he styled himself "Hsin Shun Wang" 新順王. By the end of the year he completed the conquest of Shensi; designated Sian as his "western capital"; changed the name of his native prefecture, Yen-an-fu, to T'ien-pao-fu 天保府 and the name of his district, Mi-chih-hsien, to T'ien-pao-hsien, both meaning "Heaven Protected." Early in the spring of 1644, he named his kingdom Ta-shun 大順, changed his personal name to Tzŭ-shêng 自晟 and took the reign-title, Yung-ch'ang 永昌, issuing coins with this inscription. He then turned his forces northward. Taking Shansi with little resistance, he reached Ch'ang-p'ing, Chihli, on April 19, 1644, surrounded Peking on the 23rd, and entered the city on the 25th. About a month later he, with 200,000 troops, was defeated in a fierce conflict near Shanhaikuan by the combined forces of Wu San-kuei [q. v.] and the Manchus. Then he hastened back to Peking, melted down all the silver he could find in the Palace, and early in June entered the Wu-ying-tien 武英殿 where he proclaimed himself Emperor. On the evening of June 3 he burned part of the Palaces, and the towers of the nine gates of the city, and at dawn of the following day departed westward.
The Ch'ing forces took possession of Peking on June 6, and in the second moon of 1645 they occupied T'ung-kuan, the strategic pass into Shensi. Li Tzŭ-ch'êng abandoned Sian and retreated to Hupeh, then to Mt. Chiu-kung (九宮山) in the district of T'ung-shan in the southeastern part of the province. In June or July of that year he is said to have been killed by villagers while making a raid in search of food. Sources differ as to the date of his death. One states that he did not die in 1645 but escaped to a monastery. At any rate he ceased after that date to be a factor in history. His nephew, Li Chin, and his widow (née Kao 高) surrendered with their remnant forces to Ho T'êng-chiao [q. v.] of the southern Ming government. The Prince of T'ang (see under Chu Yu-chien) bestowed upon Li Chin the name, Ch'ih-hsin 赤心 "Loyal Heart"; upon Li Tzŭ-ch'êng's widow, the name Chung-i fu-jên 忠義夫人 "Loyal and Dutiful Lady" and upon their army, the name Chung-chên-ying 忠貞營 "Loyal and True Battalion."
[M.1/309/2b; M.41/1/3b; Hauer, Erich, "Li Tzŭ-ch'êng und Chang Hsien-chung, ein Beitrag zum Ende der Ming dynastie," Asia Major, v. II; China Review, vol. XVI, 1887–88, pp. 267–76; Chao Tsung-fu 趙宗復, 李自成叛亂史略 in Historical Annual, vol. II, no. 4; Fêng Su 馮甦, 見聞隨筆 Chien-wên sui-pi; T'ung Shu-yeh 童書業, 李自成死事考異 in 史學集刊 Shih-hsüeh chi-k'an, vol. 3 (1937), pp. 247–65.]