Battle of Shanhaiguan

Battle of Shanhaiguan

The Battle of Shanhaiguan (Shanhaikuan, or the Battle of Shanhai Pass) on May 28, 1644, pitted Manzhu (Manchu) and imperial Chinese troops against a force of rebel Chinese. It was the decisive event in the replacement of the Ming dynasty by that of the Qing (Ch’ing). The Ming period (1368–1644) saw major military and administrative accomplishments and a great flowering in the arts, but by the 17th century the dynasty was under increasing pressure from the Japanese and the Dutch and from rebellions within China, especially by the Manzhu. Descended from the Mongols who had invaded China in the l2th century, the Manzhu in Manchuria had become tributaries to the Ming dynasty.

In 1616 Manzhu leader Nurhachi, after uniting the Jurchen (Nüzhen, Nü-chen) Mongolian tribes, proclaimed a new dynasty, the Later Jin (Chin), at his capital of Liaoyang. For the next decade he waged war against the Ming dynasty, capturing most of southern Manchuria and much of Mongolia. Nurhachi, known by his successors as Emperor Taizu (Ch’ing T’ai-tsu), died in 1626. He was succeeded by his son Huang Taiji (Hung Taiji, sometimes erroneously known in Western literature as Abahai). Huang Taiji ruled during 1626–1643. A highly effective administrator who was also respected for his military abilities, he was also determined to expand the empire.

Huang Taiji established a base in Korea and repeatedly raided into China. He also improved his army’s weapons, adding significant numbers of gunpowder artillery to counter that of the Ming; his cavalry came to be regarded as the best in Asia. In 1634 the Manzhus conquered inner (southern) Mongolia and absorbed large numbers of the inhabitants into their forces.

At the same time, using the justification of nonpayment of tribute and the failure of the Koreans to contribute troops against the Ming, in 1636 Emperor Huang Taiji sent a large army into Korea and the next year compelled the Joseon dynasty to formally renounce the Ming dynasty. During 1636–1644 a series of expeditions established Manzhu control over the Amur River region. In 1636 at Mukden, Huang Taiji proclaimed the establishment of a new imperial dynasty, the Qing, which was merely a renaming of the Later Jin proclaimed by Nurhachi earlier. In 1643, however, Huang Taiji died, possibly at the hands of one of his officials. His five-year-old son Shunzhi (Shun-chih) became emperor (r. 1643–1661), although real authority was exercised by his uncle, Prince Dorgon, as regent.

Meanwhile, from 1635 the Ming dynasty had been further weakened by a number of internal rebellions. The greatest threat came from rebel chieftain Li Zicheng (Li Tzu-ch’eng). In 1640 Li seized control of Henan (Honan) and Shaanxi (Shensi) provinces south and southwest of Beijing, respectively. In 1644 Li moved against the imperial capital of Beijing. Ming emperor Chongzhen (Chu’ung-chen) then recalled two of his frontier armies, including the one at Shanhaiguan commanded by Wu Sangui (Wu San-kuei). Sources differ as to whether Wu refused to come to the aid of the emperor or his forces simply arrived too late; in any case, Li seized control of Beijing on April 25, 1644. Just before the rebel troops took Beijing, Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide.

Wu learned of Emperor Chongzhen’s death while on his way to Beijing and evidently considered surrendering to Li, in part because the rebel had taken Wu’s father hostage. Nevertheless, Wu returned to Shanhaiguan. After pillaging Beijing, on May 18 Li set out after Wu. Wu meanwhile had decided that he would rather treat with the Manzhus than with Li, so he called on Prince Dorgon to assist him in overthrowing the rebel regime.

Li passed his army of some 100,000 men through Yongping (Yang-p’ing) and almost to Shanhaiguan. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but apparently on May 25, 1644, Wu appealed to Dorgon for immediate assistance. Dorgon promptly responded, arriving at the strategic Shanhai Pass at Shanhaiguan at the eastern end of the Great Wall on the next day with 100,000 men. Li may not have known the true strength of the forces against him until the actual battle on May 28. Had he known that he was confronted by a much larger and more experienced force, he probably would have refused battle. The allies were also aided by a large sandstorm that morning that masked their deployment. The Sino-Manzhu forces probably numbered 50,000 Manzhus and 40,000 Chinese. Wu may have been able to raise upwards of another 80,000 men in local Chinese militia, but there is no proof that they participated in the battle. Li probably commanded something on the order of 60,000 men.

The allies turned the battle when Wu’s veterans attacked the rebel left. Sheer numbers told. Li’s army then fled the field. The allies broke off the pursuit after a dozen miles. Li withdrew to Beijing but had neither the supplies nor the forces to resist a siege. He had himself hastily proclaimed as emperor on June 3 and then executed Wu’s father. Li stripped Beijing bare of supply animals and anything of value and then withdrew the next day, leaving behind a city in flames.

Wu hoped to establish himself as viceroy in a continuation of the Ming dynasty, but Dorgon’s force was simply too powerful. Wu bowed to the inevitable, agreeing to serve the Manzhus. Dorgon gave him the assignment of hunting down Li, which Wu accomplished in 1645, executing Li.

Dorgon moved the Manzhu capital to Beijing and there established the new dynasty of the Qing (1644–1911). The Manzhus adopted most of the Ming administrative system and culture, and the new dynasty became one of the greatest in Chinese history.


Hsu, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Parsons, James Bunyan. Peasant Rebellions of the Late Ming Dynasty. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970.