Zhang Xianzhong was a rebel leader of the late Ming Dynasty. He is known for his incredible cruelty, and contributions to the destabilizing or weakening of the Ming, which helped lead to the dynasty's fall.
By the 1630s, a number of powerful rebel groups had emerged in provincial China. Zhang rose to be leader of one of the more powerful groups, controlling a fair portion of territory in southern China by the early 1640s. For the next several years, Zhang clashed with rebel leader Li Zicheng and with other rebel groups a number of times, as well as temporarily allying with them on several occasions. After Li seized Beijing in 1644 and was then driven out by the combined forces of Wu Sangui and the Manchu leader Dorgon, Zhang fled west along the Yangtze to Sichuan province, where he made Chengdu his capital. In December 1644, he declared a new Great Western Kingdom, and began organizing a bureaucracy, minting coins, and so forth. His kingdom lasted only about three years, during which it was constantly beset by other rebel groups; Zhang sketched out plans for an eventual conquest of not only all of China, but of Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines as well. Paranoid about dissent or rebellion from within his kingdom, Zhang visited cruel punishments upon anyone he suspected of betraying his leadership.
Pressured by Manchu forces in late 1646, Zhang burned Chengdu to the ground, and began moving eastward, destroying everything in his way. In January 1647, Zhang was defeated and killed by the Manchus, but he left behind a Sichuan province so severely depopulated that the Qing Dynasty made explicit campaigns to promote migration and settlement into the province.
- Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 22, 31-35.