Wei Qing (simplified Chinese: 卫青; traditional Chinese: 衛青; pinyin: Wèi Qīng; Wade–Giles: Wei Ch'ing, died 106 BC), born Zheng Qing (鄭青) in Linfen, Shanxi, was a famous general during Han Dynasty of China, whose campaigns against the Xiongnu earned him great acclaim. He was the younger half-brother of Empress Wei Zifu and later the husband of Princess Pingyang, making him and Emperor Wu of Han really brothers-in-law to each other. He was also the uncle of the equally distinguished Han military tactician Huo Qubing.
Family background and early career
Wei Qing was born from humble means as an illegitimate child from an adulterous relationship. His father Zheng Ji (鄭季) was a low-level official for Pingyang County (平陽縣, in modern Linfen, Shanxi) and was commissioned to serve at the estate of Cao Shou (曹壽), the Marquess of Pingyang (平陽侯), and his wife Princess Pingyang (平陽公主, Emperor Wu's older sister). There, he met and had an extramarital affair with a female servant named Wei, and their relationship produced a son named Zheng Qing. The child was initially sent to live in his father's household as his serf mother could not afford to raise him in poverty. However due to the illegitimacy of his birth, the young boy was detested and mistreated by his stepmother, father and half-siblings, and was made to live as a lowly sheepherder. Unable to tolerate the abuse, Zheng Qing eventually ran away back to his mother's side during his early teenage years, and served as a stableboy in the marquess's estate of Pingyang. He then severed his paternal bond by adopting the surname Wei from his mother's family.
Legend says that Wei Qing once followed his master on a visit to Ganquan Palace (甘泉宮) and encountered a cangued prisoner, who foretold that it would be Wei Qing's fate to achieve nobility and marquisate, a prediction Wei Qing simply dismissed as a joke, citing that not getting caned would be fortunate enough for someone living the life of a serf.
After Princess Pingyang offered the singer-dancer Wei Zifu to Emperor Wu as a concubine circa 139 BC, Wei Qing followed as an accompanying gift and served as a horseman Jianzhang Camp (建章營, Emperor Wu's royal guards). However, as his sister gained the Emperor's love and fell pregnant, near-disaster would befall Wei Qing. The powerful Eldest Princess Guantao (館陶長公主) Liu Piao (劉嫖), the mother of Empress Chen, angry that Wei Zifu had siphoned off the imperial favor from her daughter, kidnapped Wei Qing and wanted to kill him privately as retaliation. However, Wei was rescued at the last moment by his friends, a group of fellow palace guards led by Gongsun Ao (公孫敖). In response to the incident and as a sign of annoyance towards Empress Chen and her mother, Emperor Wu appointed Wei Qing the triple role of Chief of Jianzhang Camp (建章監), Chief of Staff (侍中) and Chief Councillor (太中大夫), effectively making him one of Emperor Wu's closest lieutenants. He also publicly made Wei Zifu a consort (夫人), a concubine position lower only to the Empress), and awards other members of the Wei family.
Career as general
Great wealth would not be all Wei Qing would have. Emperor Wu saw qualities in him — brilliant horsemanship, archery, bravery, outstanding tactical intuition as well as excellent leadership skills. Over the next several years, Wei Qing would be entrusted as Emperor Wu's closest consul, as his sister also monopolized the Emperor's love.
In 129 BC, Xiongnu attacked the Shanggu Commandery (上谷郡, roughly modern-day Zhangjiakou, Hebei). Emperor Wu promoted Wei Qing as the General of Chariots and Cavalry (車騎將軍) and dispatched him with Gongsun Ao, Gongsun He (公孫賀) and Li Guang in four separate columns against Xiongnu, each leading 10,000 cavalries. Li Guang and Gongsun Ao suffered major losses at Xiongnu's hands, while Gongsun He failed to encounter and engage the enemy. Wei Qing, however, distinguished himself by raiding Xiongnu's holy site Longcheng (龍城), killing over 700 Xiongnu soldiers in the process. As a reward for the victory (the first proper victory against Xiongnu in Han history), Wei was promoted to a higher command and created an acting Marquess of Guannei (關內侯), with a march of several hundred households.
In 128 BC, Consort Wei Zifu gave birth to Emperor Wu's first son, Liu Ju, and was created Empress soon after. Later that year, Wei Qing, who was now officially a trusted member of Emperor's extended family, led 30,000 cavalries from Yanmen Commandery (雁門郡, modern-day Youyu County, Shanxi), killing thousands of Xiongnu soldiers.
In 127 BC, Wei Qing led a 40,000-strong cavalry from Yunzhong Commandery (雲中郡, modern-day Togtoh County, Inner Mongolia), then maneuver to Gaoque (高闕, modern-day Urad Rear Banner) to Longxi region (modern-day Gansu), and totally outflanking and surrounding the forces of Xiongnu's Princes of Loufan (樓煩王) and Baiyang (白羊王), killing 2,300 and capturing 3,017 Xiongnu soldiers as well as over a million cattle. According to record from Shiji and Hanshu, the battle was so swift and one-sided that the Han forces "returned with all warriors intact" (全甲兵而還), implying a near-zero casualty rate. This earned Wei Qing a further promotion to the Marquess of Changping (長平侯), with a march of 3,800 households. His subordinates Su Jian (蘇建, father of the great Han patriot Su Wu) and Zhang Cigong (張次公) were also created marquesses. The Han recapture of this territory forced the two Xiongnu tribes to withdraw from the fertile Hetao region (the Ordos steppe), and dealt devastating blow to their economy. The city of Shuofang (朔方城) was built, and later became a key stronghold for offensive and defensive campaigns against Xiongnu.
In 124 BC, Wei Qing would be the vital part of the greatest Han victory over Xiongnu to date. When Xiongnu's Worthy Prince of the Right (右賢王) made harassing raids against Shuofang, Wei Qing launched a crushing long-distance night assault from Gaoque with 30,000 men, completely surprising and surrounding the Worthy Prince's main camp. Not only did the Han forces send the Worthy Prince running for his life from his drunken slumber (with only his own concubine following), they also took about 15,000 captives including a dozen Xiongnu nobles, and millions of cattle. For this victory, Wei Qing was made the Generalissimo (大將軍) of All Armed Forces, and his march was enlarged by 8,700 households. His three young sons Wei Kang (衛伉), Wei Buyi (衛不疑), and Wei Deng (衛登) were also made marquesses (an offer later refused by Wei Qing), as well as seven generals under his command.
In 123 BC, Wei Qing set off from Dingxiang (定襄) and returned with several thousand enemy kills. A month later, Wei Qing again launched from Dingxiang, but would fight a relatively inconclusive battle. Although he was able to kill or capture more than 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers, part of his vanguard forces, a 3,000-strong regiment commanded by generals Su Jian and Zhao Xin, encountered a Xiongnu force led by Chanyu Yizhixie (伊稚斜單于), and was outnumbered and annihilated. Zhao Xin defected on the field with his 800 ethnic Xiongnu subordinates, while Su Jian escaped after losing all his men in the desperate fighting. Showing compassion on Su, Wei Qing spared him even though some advocates advised him to execute Su on the spot after court martial to enforce his commanding authority. Due to the loss of Su's detachment, Wei Qing troops did not earn any promotion, even though they scored more gains than losses. At this campaign, his nephew Huo Qubing distinguished himself in battle and was given his own command.
The Battle of Mobei and the Li Gan incident
In 119 BC, Wei Qing, as the Grand Commander of the armed forces, would be involved in a battle controversially leading to the death of another famous general, Li Guang. In this engagement, Emperor Wu broke the normal pattern of reaction against Xiongnu attacks by making a major excursion against Xiongnu's headquarters in the north of the Gobi Desert. This is known to history as the Mobei Campaign ("campaign of the desert's north"). Wei and Huo were in command of the two main armies. Under Wei Qing's command were four other generals Li, Gongsun He, Zhao Yiji (趙食其) and Cao Xiang (曹襄). Contrary to the arrangements promised to Li Guang by Emperor Wu, where he would command the advance division, Emperor Wu secretly told Wei Qing not to assign Li to vanguard missions due to Li's history of "bad lucks". Wei Qing, after the army had already departed, merged Li's forces with Zhao's and ordered them to take an eastern flanking route through a barren region. According to the historian Sima Qian, Wei Qing had done this to give his old friend Gongsun Ao, who had recently been stripped of his title, a chance to win a major battle and be re-promoted. However, it should be noted that sending Generals of Front (前將軍, namely Li) and Right (右將軍, namely Zhao) on flanking routes was Wei's typical tactical arrangement. This was evidenced by his previous deployment of Zhao Xin and Su Jian, who were Generals of Front and Right respectively, during the less successful 123 BC campaign.
Wei's army unexpectedly encountered Chanyu Yizhixie's main forces, who was waiting in anticipation of ambushing the Han army. Despite being significantly outnumbered and fatigued after the long journey, Wei was able to counter Xiongnu's cavalry charge with archery defence created by heavy-armored chariots arranged in ring formations, which was reinforced with cavalry counteroffensives. (This defence would be evaluated as one of the most effective against cavalry by many Chinese tacticians later, including Yue Fei.) Late into the battle, seizing the moment of a sandstorm (with poor visibility), Wei broke the stalemate and launched bilateral flanking attacks with his cavalries. This decisive move shattered the Chanyu's line, nearly capturing him and completely overrunning his forces, killing over 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers in the process. The Han army pursued all the way to the modern Ulan Bator region, destroying the Xiongnu stronghold Zhao Xin Castle (趙信城) before returning in triumph with a total of about 19,000 enemy kills. Chanyu Yizhixie was forced to escape with very few men, lost communication with his tribe for days, and did not return until his clan presumed his death and installed a new Chanyu. This was a narrow but critically significant victory for the Han empire. Xiongnu was greatly weakened to the point that they would huddle up into the barren northern Gobi desert (leading to decline of their population), and unable to raid south for the next few decades. The next major Xiongnu invasion did not occur until after the Han dynasty collapsed, some 400 years later during the Jin Dynasty.
Meanwhile, Li and Zhao got lost in the desert and failed to arrive in time for battle, despite meeting little Xiongnu resistance. As the battle ended, Li and Zhao were both summoned for court martial on the charge of failure to accomplish orders. Feeling humiliated over the charges against him and frustrated over missing his final chance at martial glory, Li committed suicide rather than to face the court. Many people blamed Wei for causing Li's death, including historian Sima Qian as well as Li's youngest son Li Gan (李敢), who was a subordinate of Huo Qubing at the time. Li Gan later went to Wei's home and assaulted him. Wei Qing decided to cool the heat and let the matter slide, but Huo Qubing was greatly angered that his subordinate had the temerity to insult his uncle and personally shot dead Li Gan during a hunting trip.
Late career and death
After the 119 BC campaign, Wei Qing would see little combat action himself, largely remaining in the capital Chang'an to advise on military and sometimes political matters as the dual-role of Chief Defense Minister/Generalissimo (大司馬大將軍). He also assisted his nephew, Crown Prince-regent Liu Ju, when Emperor Wu was away on official tours.
Despite his great honor and power, Wei remained humble in many ways. Because of the great favor Emperor Wu showed him, all of the other officials at court flattered him, except for Ji An (汲黯), who treated him as an equal. Wei was impressed by Ji's integrity in face of pressure and respected Ji greatly, often requesting Ji's opinion on important matters. Throughout his career, he refused to hire scholars to praise him and create favorable public opinions, and tried to maintain a relatively low profile. Despite his humble way of life, Wei's status in the Han army made him a distinguished figure in the country, attracting admiration, jealousy and hostility alike. Emperor Wu's uncle, the Prince of Huainan Liu An, who had been conspiring a military coup for a long time, saw Wei as his prime political obstacle that must be removed.
Wei Qing died in 106 BC and was buried in a large tomb built to the model of Mount Lu (盧山, a mountain previously in Xiongnu-occupied territory). The tomb was connected to that of his nephew Huo Qubing, who had died in 117 BC, and the future tomb for Emperor Wu. Wei would not live to see the destruction of his clan — nobody survived except his youngest son Wei Deng (衛登) and his great grandnephew Liu Bingyi, as well as the tragic fate of his sister Empress Wei and nephew Liu Ju, during the political turmoil in 91 BC.
- Madam Wei (衛媪)
- Zheng Ji (鄭季)
- Wei Zhangjun (衛長君), eldest half-brother
- Wei Junru (衛君孺), also known as Wei Ru (衛孺), eldest half-sister, later wife of Gongsun He (公孫賀)
- Wei Shaoer (衛少兒), mother of Huo Qubing, older half-sister, later wife of Chen Zhang (陳掌, a great-grandson of Emperor Gaozu's adviser Chen Ping)
- Wei Zifu (衛子夫), mother of Liu Ju, youngest older half-sister, empress to Emperor Wu of Han, committed suicide 91 BC, posthumously Wei Si Hou (衛思後)
- Wei Bu (衛步), younger half-brother
- Wei Guang (衛廣), younger half-brother
- Princess Pingyang (平陽公主), eldest sister of Emperor Wu
- Wei Kang (衛伉), Marquess of Changping (長平侯), executed in 91 BC
- Wei Buyi (衛不疑), Marquess of Yin'an (陰安侯)
- Wei Deng (衛登), Marquess of Fagan (發乾侯)
- Eldest Princess Wei (衛長公主), also known as Princess Dangli (當利公主)
- Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主, executed 91 BC)
- Princess Shiyi (石邑公主)
- Joseph P Yap Wars With The Xiongnu - A Translation From Zizhi tongjian. Chapters 4-6. AuthorHouse (2009) ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4