Did climate change cause the fall of the Ming dynasty?

The accounts are chilling. In the summary of his course on the history of modern China at the College de France, Pierre-Etienne Will looked at the journals held by various personalities, often part of the Chinese administration, during the last years of the dynasty. Ming. These autobiographical writings have almost always been kept secret, but they allow us to immerse ourselves in the daily life of the first half of 17th century China.

In the Jiangnan region, close to Shanghai and generally considered a land of plenty, the 1640s did not bode well. The decade that has just ended is characterized by an abnormally cold and dry climate and poor harvests. The price of agricultural products has continued to rise, pushing social tension to its climax.

Pierre-Etienne Will writes that in the city of Suzhou, a scholar named Ye Shaoyuan described starving peasants, some of whom scaled the walls of the houses of the wealthy, while others broke in “after breaking down their doors with axes”. 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 turns to drama. Droughts followed one another in 1641 and 1642, and “for the first time, there is mention of the corpses of starving people lying on the sides of the roads” while “the price of rice exploded”.

In early 1642, some even reported tales of cannibalism in the region. Not far from there, Songjiang offered the nightmarish spectacle of a “campaign strewn with the corpses of people who died of starvation, people trying to feed themselves with the bark of trees, troops of abandoned children”. Starving populations wandered desperately and the few soup kitchens provided were far from sufficient to remedy the ongoing disaster.

Teenager 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 kind of canopy in front of his house where starving people came to die every night. Cannibalism, again, is mentioned, including on “young victims”, which triggered legal sanctions of boundless brutality, acclaimed by the crowds.

“All this shows a complete collapse of the natural order, which is reflected in the social order by the aberrant crimes mentioned above,” writes the sinologist.

Regime-disrupting weather conditions

In addition to droughts, floods have ravaged the country, particularly the Yellow River basin. Pandemics have wiped out part of the population and unprecedented locust invasions have destroyed some crops. In a China where the emperor was supposed to hold his power from a “heavenly mandate”, the upheaval of the world and the outbreak of natural disasters do not only have concrete consequences. They are also heavy with symbolic meaning. These elements seem to have played an important role 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 last century of the Ming dynasty was characterized by an abnormally cold climate and by a high frequency of extreme climatic 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 have become more intense. Other Chinese scholars believe that, in the period from 1627 to 1642, eastern China “quite possibly experienced the most persistent drought since 500 AD”. Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, paid the political price for these disasters. For historian Tim Brook, author of The troubled empiree, 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 through climate and economic data of the time to come to a conclusion. The climatic disturbances observed at that time accelerated the collapse of a regime already subject to strong internal and external pressures.

A budget crisis

The drop in agricultural production led to famines. From the 1570s, the amount of grain per capita rose from 20% to 50% by the end of the period.

At the end of the Ming dynasty, tax collection became increasingly crucial.

Above all, the effects induced by this situation have been particularly harmful politically. One of these effects is fiscal. As climatic conditions became increasingly harsh, the system of military farms which fed part of the army deteriorated rapidly. While, according to scholars, military effort accounted for 64% of central government expenditure between 1548 and 1569, this figure rose to 76% between 1570 and 1589.

These averages only point to a trend which subsequently became more pronounced. With the end of the Ming dynasty, the collection of taxes became increasingly crucial, especially in the form of the grain tribute that the provinces had to send to Beijing. Faced with deteriorating living conditions, the provinces pleaded for tax relief and instead came up against the increasingly harsh inflexibility of a desperate central government.

Rebellions fueled by grievances

Then it was the appearance of local rebellions, more and more 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 the Chongzhen Emperor’s decision to cut funding for this service, or people who suffered from the government’s incapacity to help them during natural disasters. The rebel troops called in large numbers exasperated by state neglect, and they eventually grew large enough to bring down the system.

One of these troops managed to capture Beijing and put an end to the regime in 1644. Its leader, Li Zicheng, had himself been a postman for a time. He advocates an egalitarian doctrine and promises to distribute the land equitably among all and to abolish the tax on agricultural production. Victorious in Beijing, Li Zicheng proclaimed himself king then founder of the short-lived Shun dynasty which was quickly overthrown.

System collapse

Was climate change the cause of the fall of the Ming dynasty? This theory is indeed compelling, but there are some caveats. In all of the above events, natural disasters have aggravated trends that were already at work. And the fiscal crisis? Perhaps he didn’t need the help of the climate to perform in a political system gradually eroded by corruption.

In this worn-out political system, the landlord class had invented mechanisms to evade taxation.

As José Frèches explains in his book on the history of China, the decline of Chinese finances accelerated “at a vertiginous pace” from 1580, and also owed much to the “colossal life annuities that the members of the imperial family had arrogated to themselves over the years. He adds, “The backbone of the state was not enough to deal with the general chaos and corruption that plagued the country from top to bottom.

In this worn-out political system, the landlord class had invented mechanisms to evade taxation. “A large number of private individuals have even sought the protection of the rich to avoid paying taxes by selling them their land in a more or less fictitious way”, explains Pierre-Etienne Will, describing a “quite massive” phenomenon. A form of tax evasion feeding on the collapse of the state apparatus can therefore be added to the list of factors that led to the implosion of the system.

The Manchurian Offensive

As for the increasingly unsustainable increase in military spending, it ultimately also owes a great deal to the pressure exerted by the Manchus, those barbarians from the North who defeated Li Zicheng in 1645 and who would reign over China under the name of “Qing”. until their loss in 1911 and the advent of the Republic.

As the Ming dynasty descended into internal crisis, the Manchus managed to unite and shape an ambitious imperial project. As a result, the Ming had to fight internal armies and repel the attacks of these outstanding 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 heavily on about Chinese fighters who had defected from the Ming army.

The natural disasters that China faced during the last decades of the Ming dynasty thus accelerated the sinking of a ship that was already taking on water. And if the “heavenly mandate” finally seemed to be withdrawn from the Chongzhen Emperor, it was also because the state he headed was too paralyzed by internal clan struggles and the corruption of the elites to find the means to fight effectively against the calamities that befell him. his country.

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