Li Tianba (1614-1686): Trading through the Ming-Qing Transition

Struhl AdamLi Tianba was born in August of 1614 to a peasant family in a small coastal village some distance south of Yangzhou.  His parents ran a small seafood shop that had been in the family for generations, and decided to give him a name that meant ‘Conqueror of the Heavens’ with the hope that he would end up doing something great with his life.  Because of the small nature of their business, there was no real need for young Tianba to help out at the shop, so he had plenty of time to wander around the town as a child.  He started to hang out with a group of other youths by the docks, who turned out to be a part of the local criminal element, the Hand of Taotie.

The group made most of their money through smuggling weapons and spices with a ship that would dock by the outskirts the town in the middle of the night.  During these interactions, Tianba learnt the basics of bartering and business exchanges and realized that he had a talent for it.  By the time he turned 16, he had learnt how to manage products and supply networks, as well as how to negotiate with people so that they thought that they were taking advantage of him by accepting his offers, a skill that would prove invaluable later in life.

However, just while everything seemed to be going well for Tianba, he was met with a great tragedy.  His parents both passed away due to an illness brought on by a bad batch of shellfish.  Tianba mourned their passing, but was unable to grieve for too long.  He now had to rely only on himself for financial support, so he bid farewell to the Hand and his life of illicit trading and took over the family fish shop.  However, after a year of selling fish, Tianba realized that this was not the life for him.  He could not be satisfied with simply living the same insignificant life that all his ancestors had lived before him, and decided that he would rise above his current position by becoming a successful merchant.  Following this decision, Tianba sold the family shop in the summer of 1631 and bought two carts which he filled with a large quantity of rice and other foodstuffs, as well as some tools and pottery.   He had heard that there was a famine in the western Shaanxi region and intended to use the situation to fill both his wallet and the people’s stomachs.  As a precaution against outlaws, he recruited two of his brothers from the Hand of Taotie to accompany him on the journey as bodyguards.

The initial trip was very successful, and Tianba made a good profit selling his tools at the various rural villages they encountered on their journey in addition to what he made selling food in the famine struck areas.  Over the next few years, he established several small shops throughout the areas that he traveled through, and became well known for the quality of his goods and the relief he brought to the starving citizens of Shaanxi.  His charismatic nature allowed him to get along with customers, who could not stop themselves from visiting his cart whenever he was in town.  He made a good deal of money during this time, and was even able to buy back his family shop and the land around it, which became his warehouse and base of operations.

But while Tianba experienced a great deal of success as a regular merchant, his fate was forever changed when he encountered Li Zicheng in the autumn of 1635.  Tian was delivering a large shipment of rice to Li’s rebel group, who he did not know were rebels at the time, when he requested permission to spend the night so that he could repair a broken cart wheel.  Li accepted his request, and the two men spent the night drinking together after the repairs were complete.  As the evening wore on, Tian learnt more about Li, who revealed the true nature of his group after the two had shared several bottles of rice wine.  Tianba heard about the struggle between him and the Ming forces, and realized that this chance encounter was a blessing in disguise.  He offered Li Zicheng a deal: he would supply Li with the weapons and information he needed to defeat the Ming armies in exchange for financial compensation.  Li agreed to his terms, but only if Tian could prove that he could actually hold up his end of the bargain.

Upon returning home from the trip, Tianba quickly made contact with his old friends from the Hand of Taotie, who were now the leaders of the gang.  He told them that if they agreed to work for him and supply him with weapons then he would make them all rich.  His old companions agreed, remembering Tianba’s acumen for business and the success of his current enterprise.  Tian returned to Li Zicheng with a cart full of swords and arrows, and the two of men cemented their agreement with a toast of rice wine.

Tianba set members of the Hand of Taotie along his trade routes, where they would gather information about the Ming army’s movements.  This information would be passed onto his wagons when they came by, the encoded secrets joining the weapons hidden in the rice bales on their journey into Li Zicheng’s waiting hands.  Armed with Tianba’s weapons, Li Zicheng’s army of rebels was able to push back the Ming forces.  “By 1644 he had gained full control of the rebel forces, and occupied Sichuan, Hebei, and Shaanxi,”[i], and on April 25th of that year, his troops entered Beijing, bringing an end to the Ming dynasty.

While Li Zicheng’s rebellion was gaining ground against the Ming, Tianba’s mercantile empire continued to grow.  Using the profits he was making selling weapons to the rebels he spread his trade routes deeper and deeper into China, gaining footholds in many of the provinces, often before the news of the rebellion even arrived there.  The legal side of his business also continued to grow, and he and his friends in the Hand of Taotie were thriving.  Tianba was intensely aware of all the aspects of his business, and kept an ear to the ground for anything that could threaten the trade empire he had worked so hard to build.

So when he heard that the Manchus, “descendants of the Jurchen who had ruled north China as the Jin dynasty from 1125 to 1234, [had] proclaimed an independent empire and began to take and hold Chinese border towns”[ii], he took the news quite seriously.  He realized that while Li Zicheng could potentially overthrow the Ming dynasty, neither the rebels or the weakened empire would be able to stand against the northern hordes.   Deciding that it was against his best interests to back a doomed movement, Tianba set out for the northern border in mid April of 1644, under the guise of accompanying a shipment of rice to the garrison at the Shantai pass.  There he met with Wu Sangui, the general in charge of the gate, who invited Tian to spend the night.  Tian learned that Wu Sangui was a dedicated general of the Ming army, who was “obliged to fight any threat to the dynasty, including Li Zicheng’s rebel army.”[iii], which put him at odds with Tianba’s less ‘dedicated’ faith in the empire.

However, Tianba had a shocking piece of news at his disposal thanks to the rapid nature of his information network: news that the emperor had committed suicide, and that he done so without leaving any heirs.  Wu Sangui was shocked by this news, and realized that the Ming dynasty was finished.  Tianba then discussed with him the imminent Manchu invasion, and over the course of an evening of drink and discourse, convinced him that the best thing that he could do, would be to give in to the Manchus.  He pointed out how neither the remnants of the Ming nor the rebels would be able oppose them, so it would be better to side with the invaders than die a dog’s death trying to oppose them.  Eventually Tianba brought him over to his way of thinking, and was allowed to pass through the wall so that he could negotiate with the Manchus and gain favorable terms of surrender for Wu Sangui and his men.

Tianba was quickly captured by the Manchu hordes, and was brought before Dorgon, the new regent of the future Shunzhi emperor.  Dorgon was suspicious of him at first, as there was no reason for a supposedly ‘humble merchant’ to be seeking out the leader of a group that was poised to invade his homeland.  However when he heard Tianba’s offer, he was intrigued.  He knew that Wu Sangui’s offer to open the Shantai pass would be a boon for the Manchu’s invasion plans, as they could avoid wasting a good deal of their fighting force attempting to break through the Great Wall.  However he was much less certain about Tianba’s offer to provide supplies to him and his men during the invasion.  ‘Why should we agree to pay you for supplies,’ he demanded, ‘when we could simply take as we please from the villages that we will encounter.’

Tianba responded to this with the words of Sun Tzu, reminding him that any invading army was only as strong as its supply lines. ‘Without food your army will come to a halt, and your men will starve when the people burn their fields to spite you,’ he replied. ‘I can supply you with food wherever you need, as well as arrows and information on your enemy’s movements.’

Dorgon asked what price he wanted for such assistance, did he perhaps want a place in his army, or maybe a title and land when he conquered China?

‘None of that’, Tianba had replied, ‘all I ask is that I am well paid for my goods and services.  And that when you conquer China, you will show favor to my business.’  Dorgon agreed to Tianba’s condition, and when he finally marched his troops through the Shantai Pass, he was met by Tianba with 5 carts of rice, 2 carts of arrows, and a map marked with the locations of Li Zicheng’s men.

In the following invasion, Tianba’s supplies contributed significantly to the success of the Manchu’s conquest of China.  Thanks to his information the Manchu’s were able to outmaneuver the Chinese resistance, and never lacked the supplies needed to keep their army going.  Even after the Manchu’s conquered China, Tianba’s information network was of great benefit to the newly established Qing dynasty, helping them track down remnants of the Ming court who “tried to organize resistance, [by] setting up a series of princes of the Ming imperial house as emperors claiming the legitimate succession.”[iv].

Tianba’s relationship with the new Qing rulers was not without benefits, and he was often the first to know about changes in trade regulations, and was notified about the Manchu’s more violent ‘domestic policies’ in advance so that his associates could avoid being caught up in them.  This was particularly helpful in 1645, when he was able to evacuate the members of the Hand of Taotie and their families from the Yangzhou area weeks before the Manchu destroyed the seaside town.

After 1650, Tianba’s life began to slow down.  The Qing dynasty was very firmly established, and his business was now mostly focused on selling legal goods instead of supplying information and weapons to militant organizations.  In 1651, he married Yan Lingsha, the daughter of a minor noble, and settled down somewhere in Guangdong.  Two years later, in the spring of 1653, his wife gave birth to his son, who he named Ren (meaning person), because he did not want to be like his parents and burden his son with an overtly grandiose name.  Three years after that, he received an invitation from Wu Sangui, who offered him land and a minor noble title in his newly granted Feudatory as thanks for his help negotiating with the Manchus years ago.  He gladly accepted the offer, and his family immediately moved to Guizhou where he began to take some time out of running his business to try and raise his son.

Tianba taught his son the ropes of running the merchant business, but made a point not to let him know about the darker side of the business.  He did not want his son to get involved in the dangerous world of weapons smuggling and information trafficking, especially now that his business was finally able to be immensely profitable without dabbling in such morally dubious actions.  Tianba wanted to ensure that Ren grew to be someone worth of inheriting the business, and believed that ensuring he grew up as a man of virtue was an important part of achieving that goal.  However, this proved to be his undoing when, in 1673, “the Kangxi emperor requested that Wu Sangui and the other two Feudatories voluntarily give up their lands in the southwest and return to Manchuria.”[v].  The leaders of the Feudatories refused, and war broke out between them and the Qing.

Ren decided to join Wu Sangui’s army, believing that it was his duty to repay the former general for the position that he had granted to his father.  Tianba desperately tried to convince him not to go, but it was to no avail.  Ren believed the story that Wu Sangui had granted his father the land and title as a reward for saving his life in battle (a falsehood told by Tianba), and there was no way for him to reveal the truth to Ren without also destroying his son’s faith in him.  He spent several nights debating whether or not to tell his son the truth, but in the end Ren decided for him by setting out to join Wu Sangui in the dead of night.

Tianba spent every day after his son’s departure praying for his safe return, until a message arrived for him in February of 1764.  The letter simply stated that his son had died in battle, and contained the jade necklace that he had given Ren on his 7th birthday, the once beautiful stone now covered in blood.  Tianba cried when he saw this, and after 5 months of mourning, fell into a deep depression.  He regretted not telling his son about his dark past, believing that if he had he would never have tried to teach his son something as foolish as virtue.  Cunning and guile were what he should have taught him, as honor and nobility only served to blind him to the harsh truths of reality.  If only his son had understood that one’s life was more valuable then one’s principles.

Tianba’s mental state began to deteriorate after the death of his son, and things only got worse when his wife died of an unknown disease in 1679.  By this time his business had begun to fall apart, as he was unable to bring himself to care about running it properly.  Around this time period he also began to drink heavily, and started to develop the delusion that he was the reincarnation of Zhuge Liang.

He convinced himself that he was the inheritor of the famous ‘three inches of limber tongue’, and began to act like the legendary strategist, and believed that the formation of the Qing dynasty was all thanks to his wit and charisma. He even began to act like Zhuge Liang, borrowing his mannerisms from “the supreme portrayals of Zhuge Liang as a master of the forces of nature and uncanny trickster”[vi] contained within the Romance of Three Kingdoms.  He continued to spiral deeper into madness for almost a decade, living off the remnants of his once great business until his untimely demise one summer night in 1686.  Late one July night, Tianba got excessively drunk and decided to try and steal feathers from a crane to fashion a fan.  He slipped and fell in the river catching the angry bird, and drowned when he was unable to raise his head above the water.


[i] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. page 382
[ii] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. Second Edition ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2000. Print. page 219
[iii] Hansen, 394
[iv] Wills, 220
[v] Hansen, 396
[vi] Wills, 108

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ADAM STRUHL is currently a sophmore intent on double-majoring in Digital Media Studies and Creative Writing.  His hobbies include reading fantasy novels and doing freelance graphics work.  He likes using chopsticks to eat snacks so his fingers don’t get greasy. More by Adam