He betrayed two dynasties and made the fateful decision to allow the Manchus through the Great Wall. And it’s possible he did it all for the love of a 20-year old concubine.
General Wu Sangui (1612-1678) remains one of the most controversial figures in Chinese history. Was he a great general willing to make the hard choice? A tragic romantic who would sacrifice everything to save his beloved? Or should he be remembered as one of the most notorious turncoats in Chinese history?
Wu Sangui was born beyond the wall, a child of the frontier. His father Wu Xiang, a native of Jiangsu, was a Ming imperial officer, one of many charged with patrolling and defending the northern march of the Ming Empire. They faced a new threat from the north. The chieftain Nurhaci had formed a confederation of the people who would one day be known as the Manchus.
Wu Sangui’s father had a checkered military career. When Wu Sangui was still a boy, his father was dismissed from his military posts for failing to come to the aid of a fellow general who was besieged by the forces of Nurhaci’s son and successor, Hong Taiji. It wasn’t until Wu Sangui was of an age to join the father in battle that the family name was finally restored.
Wu Xiang and Wu Sangui fought side by side against bandit armies in Shandong, winning back the favor of the throne. The younger man’s reputation as a military strategist grew. By the time Wu Sangui turned 30, he was a general in charge of his own brigade and once again back beyond the wall to face his father’s old foe.
But his greatest enemy was not to be found beyond the wall, but rather fomenting rebellion in the dusty and famine-stricken western regions of the empire.
Li Zicheng, a rebel from Shaanxi Province, led an army of nearly 100,000 disaffected soldiers and commoners in a revolt against the Ming government. Wu Sangui’s father was called out of retirement to assist in the defense of the capital. As Li Zicheng prepared to attack Beijing, the emperor sent a dispatch to Wu Sangui, ordering Wu’s army to return to Beijing to come to the city’s aid. But the letter arrived too late.
Before Wu Sangui and his troops could reach Beijing, he received word that the city had fallen, and the Ming emperor had committed suicide. Wu Sangui’s father was also being held hostage by Li Zicheng. Despondent, Wu turned his troops back to the wall, to renew their guard at Shanhaiguan, the important strategic pass between the Great Wall and the sea.
It is likely that Wu Sangui might have even considered surrendering to Li Zicheng. But rumors reached Shanhaiguan that Li had executed Wu Xiang and other members of Wu Sangui’s family. To make matters worse, there were rumors that Li Zicheng had taken Wu Sangui’s favorite concubine, the 20-year old beauty Chen Yuanyuan, as his own. As Wu Sangui considered his options, runners arrived at his headquarters with ominous news: Li was moving his armies east toward Shanhaiguan.
Wu Sangui faced a fateful decision. With little to lose, he sent a letter to Dorgon, the brother of Wu’s old nemesis Hung Taiji. Dorgon was the regent for Hong Taiji’s son, the young emperor Fulin. Wu agreed to surrender to Dorgon in exchange for the latter’s help in destroying Li Zicheng’s army and restoring order in the capital. Dorgon readily agreed.
When Dorgon had heard about Li Zicheng’s sack of Beijing and the death of the Ming emperor, he immediately sensed the opportunity. Chinese officials in his employ urged Dorgon to take advantage of the power vacuum to invade China and claim Mandate of Heaven on behalf of his young nephew. Now, the last obstacle in his path, Wu Sangui and his army, had not only stood down but offered an alliance. There would be no turning back.
On May 27, 1644, the armies of Li Zicheng and Wu Sangui met just east of Shanhaiguan. According to one account, the Chinese armies of Li and Wu fought all day until in the late afternoon a North China sandstorm temporarily blinded the combatants. It was at the moment that Dorgon led the Manchus through the Shanhaiguan Pass and onto the field of battle. The sight of the Manchu infantry and cavalry riding hard into the fray threw Li Zicheng and his troops into a panic, and they retreated to Beijing. A week later, Li left the capital, but not before ordering the execution of Wu Sangui’s father.
A few days later, Dorgon and his armies entered Beijing and declared that the price of their intervention would be the throne.
Legend has it that Chen Yuanyuan, whose capture by Li Zicheng may have been the deciding factor in Wu Sangui turning his coat, survived the pillage of Beijing and the retreat by Li Zicheng’s forces. It has long been rumored that she eventually met Wu Sangui again to join him on his next adventure: as the King of the West and Lord of Yunnan.
Cover image from 2009jsqq