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THESE long years of misgovernment had allowed so plentiful a crop of private grievances and public misfortunes to accumulate in China that no difficulty was experienced by adventurers in attracting to their fortunes large numbers of followers under one plea or another. An individual had but to give out that he desired to redress any one of the many national evils, and forthwith he found himself at the head of an armed force, which, if not very formidable against trained battalions, more than sufficed to overcome the small, unpaid and semi-mutinous local garrisons. Several of these insurrectionary movements have already attracted passing notice while the Manchu danger seemed more pressing and immediate ; but, as a lull ensued in the bitterness of that contest after Taitsong's retreat from Pekin, the internal peril thrust itself more prominently into view, and assumed larger and more formidable proportions. There were, no doubt, many who thought that the worst consequences of Tartar invasion had been realized, and that, although the end of the Mings might be at hand, the Manchus would not be strong enough to usurp their inheritance. Such a conviction was a direct incentive to the ambitious to seize the golden opportunity for finishing the Mings out of hand, and so it seemed at all events, to Li Tseching, who now comes more prominently forward as one of the chief arbiters of China's destinies. Li Tseching was the son of a peasant of Yenan in the province of Shensi, and, at an early age, he betook himself
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to the practice of arms, being renowned both as a horseman and as an archer. As early as the year 1629 he appears on the scene as one of a band of robbers, but at that time the Emperor's lieutenants were able to assert their master's authority, and Li Tseching was fortunate to make his escape from an encounter in which most of his companions lost either their lives or their liberty. The very next year, however, found him high in the command of a large force of rebels which assumed almost the proportions of an army. After a few years' service as lieutenant he succeeded to the command in chief on the death of his leader. In this capacity he gained many advantages over the Imperialists, and a large extent of country was subject to his exactions. Sometimes he acted in concert with Chang Hienchong, a Mahomedan chief, whose career closely resembled his own; but more generally he carried on his operations without the assistance or the cognizance of those having similar objects to attain. For it was the characteristic mark of his system that while he resorted to violence to carry his ends he often turned danger aside and extricated himself from a perilous situation by simulating a desire to come to terms with the authorities. Other insurgents obtained marked successes, and then after an interval disappeared. But Li Tseching remained, and the growth of his power was steady and sure. The details of his career claim not our attention until, from the position of a robber chief in the mountains of Shensi, he raised his aspiring glance to the throne of Pekin itself. In the year 1640, when it was computed that nearly half a million of men obeyed his orders, he first began to turn his thoughts in the direction of ousting the Ming. With that object in view he undertook the siege of the important city of Kaifong, one of the principal places in Honan, and once the capital of China. Before he could attack Kaifong he had first to besiege and take Honanfoo, where he was received with resolution, and long kept in check by the valour of the governor. Treachery within at last opened the gates to him, and the town of Honan no longer constituted an obstacle in his path. The place appears to have been handed over to the soldiery, when horrors that cannot be described are reported to have been perpetrated. At Kaifong, which was at this period one of the strongest fortresses in China, he did not fare so well, for after laying siege to it during seven days he beat a retreat pursued by an army sent from Pekin to the succour of the central provinces.
Li Tseching does not appear to have been much awed by the extensive preparations made against him, and although the Emperor placed four armies in the field he boldly assumed the offensive. The Imperialists, in dealing with the rebels, resorted to the tactics which had proved so fatal to them in the case of the foreign invader; and the consequences were similar. Li Tseching met their armies in detail and overthrew them. Many thousands of the soldiers refused to fight, and joined the ranks of their opponent. After these decisive successes, Li Tseching again invested Kaifong, and so greatly had the terror of his name increased that he might have captured it had he not been compelled to suddenly raise the siege in consequence of a severe wound inflicted by an arrow.
Several times after this second withdrawal Li returned to lay siege to Kaifong, and at last, towards the end of the year 1642, an accident placed it in his possession. The governor who had defended the town with such intrepidity had, among other precautions, flooded the moat by means of a canal from the Hoangho, and this extra barrier of defence had no doubt greatly contributed to the discomfiture of Li Tseching. But in the result it was to prove fatal to the Imperialists. The Hoangho, at all times capricious in its movements, and the source of as much trouble as benefit to the provinces it waters, rose suddenly to the dimensions of a flood, and, overflowing its banks, spread over the country. Li's camp was speedily under water, and many of his soldiers were drowned; but most escaped to a neighbouring eminence. The garrison was not so fortunate. The waters of the river bore down the walls and flooded the streets. Thousands perished at the time, and thousands more were slain by the rebels outside. The formidable defences of the city were levelled by the shock of nature, and of the once famous Kaifong there remained only the ruins left by this deluge.
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The loss of Kaifong entailed the collapse of the Emperor's authority throughout the great province of Honan, for the prefectural city of Nanyang made no attempt at a resistance which it was seen would be futile. Numerous other successes followed, and recruits flocked in in thousands to join the great rebel leader. But some of these new allies were men whose support was of doubtful advantage, and who were actuated by ambitious motives of their own. Quarrels ensued from petty jealousies and rivalry; and, as might be expected from the character of the society in which they occurred, they ended as a rule in bloodshed. Li Tseching was not above suspecting the good faith of those in his service, and to incur his suspicion was tantamount to receiving one's death-warrant. Those he marked as his victims were always men whom he had reason to fear, and he issued from each trial of strength and authority with increased reputation and a more unquestioned command.
The first stage in his career closed with the capture of Kaifong; the second began with his attack on Tunkwan, the most famous of all Chinese fortresses. His fortune here stood him in good stead, for he might have been delayed by this fortress a much longer time than he had been kept at Kaifong, had he not succeeded in making his way into the city at the same time with a fugitive army which he had defeated outside. The fall of Tunkwan naturally produced great confusion and trepidation among the Imperialists, who then found themselves obliged to confine their operations to the defence of Singan, the metropolis of the West. The garrison wished to defend the place, but the inhabitants, terrified at the severity which Li had shown elsewhere, refused to stand a siege; and when the officers manifested an intention to hold out they rose and massacred them. Singan thus easily shared the fate of Tunkwan and passed into the possession of Li Tseching. The whole of Shensi soon succumbed to the attack of this determined chief, and even the distant Ninghia on the remote north-western marches surrendered to the terror of his arms.
Thus secure in his rear, and with several strong places at his disposal, Li Tseching was able to turn his attention to the east, where the Ming Emperor was fast succumbing under an accumulation of difficulties. Before turning his face towards the yet unsubdued province of Shansi and the capital, Li Tseching took the final and extreme step of proclaiming himself Emperor. Master of more than one-third of China, and feared throughout the rest, the leader of the biggest battalions in the realm felt justified in assuming the style of Emperor, which, but for the Manchus, he might have maintained as the founder of a dynasty. The invasion of Shansi proved a promenade of bloodless and easy victory. Town after town opened its gates without attempting any resistance to the terrible invader, and the city of Taiyuen alone arrested for a few days the onward progress of the conqueror. The governor of Taiyuen stood to his post bravely, but he could do little without assistance from outside, and there was none to come to him. One body of troops under the minister Likintai had indeed been despatched from Pekin, but the principal hope of its commander had been to raise an army on his own private estate, and to organise a defence among the people of Shansi. Long before his arrival on the scene of action he learnt how affairs stood in that province. His family had been massacred, his property was destroyed, the people of Shansi and their country were both at the feet of the rebel, and Taiyuen itself was on the eve of capture. Likintai had no choice left save to make a discreet retreat on the near approach of Li Tseching. From Taiyuen Li Tseching, acting on the sound principle of making both his rear and flanks secure, proceeded to attack Taitong and the other fortified towns on the northern border of Shansi before marching on the capital. At Ningwoukwan fortune hung for a moment in suspense, and it was only by the lavish expenditure of some of his best men that Li Tseching found himself able to carry the place by storm. But one determined defence meant half a dozen voluntary surrenders. The fortress of Taitong was handed over to the victor of Ningwoukwan by a garrison more anxious for the safety of their lives than for the performance of their duty. With Taitong in his possession there remained no further