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Stuck in the Middle With Wu: Part II

For nearly two decades, Wu Sangui and the Manchu armies roamed Southern China in a high stakes game of “Whack-a-Ming.”


Stuck in the Middle With Wu: Part II

For nearly two decades, Wu Sangui and the Manchu armies roamed Southern China in a high stakes game of “Whack-a-Ming.”


This is the second and final half of a feature on arguably China’s most famous turncoat Wu Sangui. Part one can be found here.

In 1644, General Wu Sangui allied with the Qing Regent Dorgon to expel a bandit army from Beijing. The cost for the intercession of the Manchu forces was the throne. In October 1644, the young Qing Emperor Fulin left his old capital in what is today Shenyang and relocated to the Forbidden City in Beijing with Dorgon and his brother Dodo continuing to act as regents.

Wu Sangui was granted the title “Prince who Pacifies the West” and the Manchus had a job in mind for the turncoat general. Nanjing had been the original capital of the Ming Empire. Even after the Yongle Emperor moved his government to Beijing in the early 15th century, Nanjing remained the empire’s second city, an alternate capital to the one built in the north. With Beijing in the hands of the Manchu invaders, loyalists of the Ming rallied in Nanjing. Led by the Ming Minister of War, Shi Kefa, they supported the Prince of Fu, Zhu Yousong, a cousin of the Emperor Chongzhen last seen hanging from a tree in the garden behind the Forbidden City.

Zhu Yousong and his allies also reached out to Wu Sangui, forgiving him for his trespasses, and enfeoffing him as the Duke of Ji. Wu declined to join the Ming loyalist cause and instead led the campaign to destroy the last claimants to the Ming throne.

The Ming emperors had made it a policy to stash male relatives in nominal fiefdoms far from Beijing. Now it seemed that every minor noble with the Zhu surname was standing up and declaring that he was the rightful heir to a dying dynasty. For nearly two decades, Wu Sangui and the Manchu armies roamed Southern China in a high stakes game of “Whack-a-Ming.”

By 1661, Wu Sangui had pursued the last claimant to the Ming throne out of Yunnan and across the border into Burma. Zhu Yousong, yet another cousin and now known as the Yongli Emperor, prevailed upon the Burmese king to grant his court asylum. Unfortunately, he soon fell out of favor with his hosts, opening the door for Wu Sangui to make the Burmese an offer they couldn’t refuse. He marched an army of nearly 20,000 troops to the outskirts of the Burmese capital at Mandalay and demanded the king hand over the fugitive Ming prince. Wu escorted Zhu Yousong back to Yunnan and there the last Ming emperor was executed by strangling. According to some accounts, Wu Sangui personally carried out the sentence.

For his efforts on behalf of the Manchus, Wu Sangui was given almost total dominion over Yunnan and Guizhou. The energetic military man led his troops in campaigns in the highlands of the region to bring local leaders and non-Han groups under his control, often confiscating lands and assigning his officers as magistrates over newly conquered valleys. Yunnan became a more peaceful — or at least pacified — region and Wu and his cronies grew rich from their realm. They established monopolies on salt and ginseng, opened gold and copper mines, and kept up a lively trade with the Tibetans, who had yet to be brought under Qing authority.

Wu Sangui also bilked the Qing court for millions of ounces of silver annually. Every attempt to shut down the spending or decommission Wu’s troops was met with a new excuse. The local tribes are getting restless. Those Burmese sure are a surly bunch. There’s gold in them hills.

While the Manchus were grateful to Wu for his role in consolidating their new empire, he was an expensive friend. Adding to the burden for the court was that they had also established three other “feudatories” in Fujian, Guangdong, and Guangxi. The southern border provinces of the empire were doled out to generals, like Wu Sangui, who had assisted the Manchus. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: rewarding military men for their service and outsourcing the administration of the remote and troublesome South.  These private fiefdoms cost the state dearly.

The issue came to a head in 1673, when the feudatory in Guangdong was abolished, and command of the soldiers there returned to the central government. There was a new emperor on the throne in Beijing. The precocious sovereign Hiowan Yei was only 13 and had succeeded his father just five years earlier. Reigning as the Kangxi Emperor, he pressured the remaining feudatories to disband. The generals were old. Their sons not up to the task. Why not return their domains and retire?

Feeling the cool winds blowing from the north and underestimating his youthful foe, Wu Sangui once again turned against the emperor. He raised his own banner and prepared to march his armies northward.  He sent a memorial to the throne declaring his intention to restore Ming rule to China and, by the way, would it be possible for the Qing court to retreat beyond the wall? In exchange, Wu promised, he would grant the Qing the peninsula of Korea as a lovely parting gift.

Young as he was, the Kangxi Emperor was unimpressed. History does not record his exact words, but speculation suggests it was the Manchu language equivalent of: “The balls on this guy…” The emperor then ordered the execution of Wu Sangui’s son, who had been living in Beijing as a guest/hostage of the court. Once again, as had been the case in 1644, Wu’s actions had resulted in the death of a loved one.

The forces of Wu Sangui and the other three feudatories scored some early successes, but as the armies of the government began to press steadily southward, Wu’s allies abandoned him and surrendered to the emperor. Even Wu’s attempt in 1678 to establish a new dynasty could not reverse his fortunes.  He died later that year, leaving what was left of his lands to his eldest grandson, Wu Shifan. Wu Shifan fought on for another three years, but the cause was lost. He committed suicide in 1681 bringing an end  to the “Rebellion of the Three Feudatories.”

Wu Sangui was a complicated man who had to navigate the potentially lethal political and military landscape of dynastic transition. Often reviled in China as a traitor, his decisions nevertheless changed the course of China’s history. The Manchus ruled from Beijing until 1912, and it was their state which established the current borders of the country. Wu’s choice to rebel rather than submit to the Kangxi Emperor in 1673 was a test of the adolescent monarch’s political will and leadership. It also tested the will of the Manchus to hold onto their new empire.

Had Wu and the other three feudatories succeeded, China might well have faced another split empire, with northern and southern dynasties existing in an uneasy detente. In the end, the Qing consolidated their control and used a unified China proper to build their empire, an empire which might never have happened but for that fateful day in 1644. With bandits to the left of him and Manchus to the right, there, stuck in the middle, was Wu.


Read Part 1 here.

Cover image from 2009jsqq