The Southern Ming dynasty 南明 (1644-1661) was a continuation of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) after northern China had fallen into the hands of the Manchus, founders of the Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911). Because the last ruler of the Ming, Emperor Sizong (r. 1627-1644, the Chongzhen Emperor 崇禎), had no heir, a handful of princes assumed the title of emperor. They controlled only small parts of the former Ming empire and experienced short reigns because southern China was step by step conquered by the Manchus. The most important of the Southern Ming rulers were the Hongguang Emperor 弘光 (see Prince of Fu 福王), the Longwu Emperor 隆武 (see Prince of Tang 唐王 (1)), the Prince of Lu 魯王, the Shaowu Emperor 紹武 (see Prince of Tang 唐王 (2)), and the Yongli Emperor 永曆 (see Prince of Gui 桂王). All of these pretenders to the throne of the Ming together ruled no longer than 18 years.
Zhu Yousong 朱由崧, Prince of Fu 福王, was the first of the Southern Ming rulers. He was urged by Ma Shiying 馬士英 and Shi Kefa 史可法 to adopt the title of emperor, and on the 15th day of the 5th month in 1644 proclaimed the reign motto Hongguang 弘光 "Broad Radiance" in Nanjing, the southern capital of the Ming empire. He was a grandson of Zhu Yijun 朱翊鈞, Emperor Shenzong 明神宗 (r. 1572-1619, the Wanli Emperor 萬曆), and the oldest son of Zhu Changxun 朱長洵, the Prince of Fu. As a young man he had been made prince of Dechang 德昌王 and later inherited from his father the princedom of Fu in 1642. During the disturbances a year later the members of the house of the Ming fled northern China, and Zhu Yousong also left his residence. In Nanjing, the rest of the Ming troops gathered, and it was decided to use them for a stabilization of southern China, with the long-term project to reconquer the north that had been invaded by the Manchus. There rose a fight between the adherents of the Prince of Fu and the Prince of Lu 潞王, Zhu Changfang 朱常淓, but the supporters of Zhu Yousong proved to be stronger. He could rely on experienced generals and high civil officials that had fled to Nanjing, but Ma Shiying continued the notorious struggles between the court factions of the Donglin Faction 東林黨 and the "Eunuch Faction" (yandang 閹黨), so that it was impossible to concentrate on politics. In early summer 1645 Zuo Liangyu 左良玉, commander of Wuchang 武昌, Hubei, suggested in a secret memorial to name a heir apparent and to purge the eunuch faction under Ma Shiying. He rose weapons and marched towards Nanjing. At that time the Manchu armies pressed towards the south. They conquered Xuzhou 徐州, crossed the River Huai 淮河, and massacred the population of Yangzhou 揚州. Shortly thereafter they crossed the Yangtze and occupied Zhenjang 鎮江. The Hongwu Emperor fled to Wuhu 蕪湖. Exactly one year after his accession to the throne, the defenders of Nanjing, Zhao Zhilong 趙之龍, Wang Feng 王鋒 and Qian Qianyi 錢謙益 submitted to the Manchus. A week later the emperor was captured and brought to Beijing, where he was executed.
A month later, on the 27th day of the 6th intercalary month in 1645 Zhu Yujian 朱聿鍵 proclaimed himself emperor in Fuzhou 福州, Fujian. He adopted the reign motto Longwu 隆武 "Abundant Martiality". His enthronement had been made possible by a group of valiant officials, namely grand coordinator (xunfu 巡撫) Zhang Kentang 張肯堂, Minister of Rites (libu shangshu 禮部尚書) Huang Daozhou 黃道周, the Earl of Nan'an 南安伯 Zheng Zhilong 鄭芝龍 and the Earl of Jinglu 靖虜伯 Zheng Hongkui 鄭鴻逵. Zhu Yujian was a ninth-generation descendant of the founder of the Ming dynasty and a grandson of Zhu Shuohuang 朱碩熿, Prince of Duan 端王. His father had died early, and in 1641 he was given the title of Prince of Tang 唐王. When the Manchus crossed the Great Wall in 1636 he ignored the Chongzhen Emperor's order and assumed the title of "rescuing king" (qinwang 勤王), fielding an army towards the north. He was arrested and deprived of this title, but was pardoned during the Hongguang reign. In the 5th month of 1645, after the fall of Nanjing, he fled to Hangzhou 杭州, and then entered the province of Fujian, where he made himself emperor of the (Southern) Ming. He decidedly assembled all available troops to resist the Manchu conquerors, and announced to personally command the campaign. A huge number of volunteers crowded together to fight against the Qing, but the Longwu Emperor was unable to bring order into the chaos of local units, so that that he had to rely on Zheng Zhilong, who was the only person to handle the chaos. In early autumn 1646 the Qing armies invaded the southern parts of Zhejiang and threatened to push forwards into Fujian. Yet Zheng Zhilong, instead of organizing a counter-attack, fled to Pucheng 浦城 in the mountains of Fujian and began to negotiate with the Qing. In the consequence he disbanded his troops and returned to Anping 安平鎮. The door to Fujian stood open, and the Qing took this chance. The Longwu Emperor fled to Dingzhou 汀州 at the border to Guangdong. On the 28th day of the 8th month he was killed by the Qing.
In the north of Zhejiang, another Ming regime had been founded. This was Zhu Yuhai 朱以海, the Prince of Lu 魯王. On the 28th day of the 6th month of 1645 he was made regent (jianguo 監國) in the region of Yuyao 余姚, Guijia 會稽 and Yinxian 鄞縣. He was the fifth son of Zhu Shouyong 朱壽鏞, Prince of Lu and tenth-generation descendant of the Ming founder Emperor Taizu. He controlled the coast line of Zhejiang down to the border of Fujian. He, too, raised voluntary armies that were to reinforce surviving Ming troops under Fang Guo'an 方國安 and Wang Zhiren 王之仁. These contingents attacked Hangzhou but had no success against the Qing. The Prince of Lu also found no competent supporters at his court. In summer 1646 the Qing army crossed the Qiantang River 錢塘江 and occupied Shaoxing 紹興. Totally threatened by the Manchus, the army under Fang Guo'an did not even dare to fight. The Prince of Lu thereupon fled to the island of Zhoushan 舟山 after his only loyal supporters, Zhang Guowei 張國維, Zhu Dadian 朱大典, Sun Jiaji 孫嘉績 and Wang Zhiren had died for their lord. Fang Guo'an, Ma Shiying 馬士英 and Ruan Dayue 阮大鋮 defected to the Qing.
Late in the same year (on the 2nd day of the 11th month), the younger brother of the Longwu Emperor and Prince of Tang 唐王, Zhu Yuyue 朱聿𨮁, was made emperor in Guangzhou 廣州 (Canton), Guangdong. His enthronement had been realized by Grand Academician (daxueshi 大學士) Su Guansheng 蘇觀生 and He Wuchu 何吾騶, a loyal supporter of the late Longwu Emperor. The reign motto of Zhu Yuyue was Shaowu 紹武. Yet only six weeks later the Qing general Li Chengdong 李成棟 invaded Guangzhou and had the Shaowu emperor executed.
In late 1646 the dynastic line of the Ming had split into two. While Zhu Yuyue assumed the title of emperor in Guangzhou, Zhu Youlang 朱由榔 was made emperor in Zhaoqing 肇慶 in the northwest of Guangdong. On the 18th day of the 11th month in 1646 Ding Kuichu 丁魁楚, supreme commander (zongdu 總督) of Liang-Guang 兩廣, and Qu Shilei 瞿式耜, grand coordinator of Guangxi 廣西, urged Zhu Youlang, youngest son of Zhu Changying 朱常瀛, Prince Gong of Gui 桂恭王, and grandson of Emperor Shenzong, to become emperor. He adopted the reign motto Yongli 永歷 "Everlasting Calendar (i.e. Reign)". Zhu Youlang had formerly been Prince of Yongming 永明王. He was known as a weak and indecisive person, so that his regime was only able to survive because he could count on such able fighters as He Tengjiao 何騰蛟, Qu Shilei, Du Yinxi 堵胤錫 or Zheng Chenggong 鄭成功, the son of Zheng Zhilong who had withdrawn to the island of Taiwan after the conquest by the Manchus of Fujian. Modern Chinese historians also credit the peasant uprisings of Dashun 大順 and Daxi 大西 as stabilizing components for the Southern Ming because they fought against the Qing armies, too. The cooperation of the Ming troops with local volunteers indeed resulted in a victory over the Qing in late 1647 at Quanzhou 全州, Guangxi. The Qing thereupon withdrew from the regions of Hunan and Jiangxi. In 1651 the Yongli Emperor had assembled all surviving units of the Great Western Army (daxijun 大西軍) to push back the invaders. Under the command of Li Dingguo 李定國 the Southern Ming troops conquered Guilin 桂林, and the Qing general Kong Youde 孔有德 killed himself. Li Dingguo then marched northwards and liberated Changsha 長沙, Hunan, and cleared the province of Jiangxi from Qing troops. In the battle of Hengzhou 衡州 the Manchu prince Nikan 尼堪 was killed. Although this was a promising sign for the Southern Ming empire, the court of the Yongli Emperor was never at peace. Generals quarreled with civilians, and court factions tore apart everything that might be useful to stabilize the reconquered regions. There was the Hunan faction 楚黨 (the "Five Tigers" 五虎 Jin Bao 金堡, Yuan Pengnian 袁彭年, Ding Shikui 丁時时魁, Meng Zhengfa 蒙正發 and Liu Xiangke 劉湘客) crowded around Li Chengdong 李成棟 and the Zhejiang faction 吳黨 (Zhu Tianlin 朱天麟 and Wu Zhenmin 吳貞毓). Also within the army itself, rifts opened between Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang 孫可望. The Qing military commissioner (jinglüe 經略) of the southern region, Hong Chengchou 洪承疇, who had defected to the Qing in 1645, knew of these contradictions and suggested some tactics to conquer southern China. In 1654 Li Dingguo's army was already in great distress, and in the following Spring Guangdong and Guangxi fell into the hands of the Qing. Li withdrew to Nanning 南寧, Guangxi. Yet he still displayed some resistance until 1656, when he suggested to the Yongli Emperor to move his residence to Kunming 昆明, Yunnan. Sun Kewang defected to the Qing and invaded Yunnan. In the fourth month of 1658 the Qing invaded Guizhou from three sides, and at the end of the year, took Yunnan. The Great Western Army of the Ming disintegrated, and the Yongli Emperor fled into the hills of northern Myanmar in early 1658. Two years later, therefore, general Wu Sangui 吳三桂 made an excursion into the hills in search for the last pretender of the Ming throne, and at the end of the year he was captured. In the next spring he was strangled to death, together with his son. The imperial house of the Ming was extinguished.