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Yuan Chonghuan (Yüan Ch'ung-huan; 6 June 1584 – 22 September 1630), courtesy name Yuánsù (元素) or Zìrú (自如), was a famed patriot and military commander of the Ming Dynasty who battled the Manchus in Liaoning. Yuan Chonghuan was known to have excelled in artillery warfare and successfully incorporated Western tactics with those of the East. Yuan's military career reached its height when he defeated Nurhaci and the Manchu army in the first Battle of Ningyuan. Later, Yuan also managed to defeat Nurhaci's son and successor, Huang Taiji, and his 200,000 mostly Mongol soldiers. However, Yuan was eventually tortured and executed by the Chongzhen Emperor under false charges which Huang Taiji was believed to have deliberately planted against him.
Yuan Chonghuan was born in Dongguan, Guangdong. During his adolescence, Yuan spent time traveling from town to town, and befriended many Jesuits and foreigners along the way. Although he took the imperial examinations repeatedly with little success, he saw and experienced much on his journeys to the capital. It is said that he befriended several westerners during this time and spent much time modifying European cannons.
Early military career
He passed the imperial examinations in 1619 and was appointed to the minor post of magistrate in a remote place. In 1619, the imperial Ming army was defeated by the Manchus in the Battle of Sarhu. The Chinese armies suffered successive defeats and in 1622 they were forced to retreat to Shanhaiguan, abandoning all of Liaoning to the Manchus. After a visit to the front, Yuan was appointed second-class secretary on the Board of War, then promoted almost immediately to secretary and supplied with funds for enlisting troops. (Yuan's rapid promotion was quite notable as he did not have any formal military training at all, save for studying the Confucian classics in order to pass the imperial examinations.)
Yuan Chonghuan worked harmoniously with the commander-in-chief Sun Chengzong and pushed the frontiers steadily northward, fortifying Ningyuan in 1623. The elderly Sun was an able commander but refused to bribe the Emperor's eunuch. Consequently,Sun was recalled in 1625 and replaced by Gao Di (高第), who ordered a general retreat to Shanhaiguan. However, Yuan flatly refused to leave Ningyuan.
Early in the next year, Nurhaci led the Manchus back across the Liao River. Yuan Chonghuan and his deputies successfully held Ningyuan with the newly mounted and modified "red-barbarian cannon" (紅衣大炮, 紅夷大炮), and only 9,000 soldiers (mostly militia) against Nurhaci's 130,000 (some estimates say 200,000). The victory at Ningyuan prevented China from being conquered and boosted the hopes of Ming and its allies that the Manchus might be defeated.
It is noted that Yuan was said to have studied every aspect of the cannon for it to fire accurately at the position he wanted, and this is given as the reason why the Manchu ruler Nurhaci, although well-protected by his elite guards in a safe position, was wounded by cannon fire. It is said that after the battle, Yuan sent letters to ask the well-being of Nurhaci, as traditionally done by Chinese generals, but Nurhaci returned an insult by calling him duplicitous.
As a result of this victory, the Imperial Court at Beijing appointed Yuan as the Governor of Liaodong on 27 February 1626, with full authority to handle all forces outside the passes.
During this time, he executed Mao Wenlong, a Ming commander regarded as ruthless but talented. Various texts have different opinions of his actions. Many stated this was a mistake since Mao could still be used against the Manchus. However, Yuan took into account how Mao ran his battles: Mao's tactics usually involved using civilian settlements as a shield for his troops, and during the occupation the civilians suffered tremendously. Mao also used Korea — Ming's ally — as a base to launch expeditions against Manchuria. When the Manchus entered Korea, Mao ordered a general retreat of Ming forces. This angered many merchants in the Beijing area who traded in the Korean Peninsula. In addition, Mao was known to bribe many corrupt eunuchs and officials. Consequently, by executing Mao, Yuan made enemies with some of the most influential and corrupt people in China.
Taking advantage of Nurhaci's death later in the year, Yuan reoccupied Jinzhou. The Manchus reappeared in June and withdrew after a series of indecisive battles. (Note: This is known as the Battle of Ningyuan-Jinzhou or the Second Battle of Ningyuan.) Yuan was criticised by the partisans of the eunuch official Wèi Zhōngxián, who stated that he took too long to fight off the "barbarian" Manchus. Shortly thereafter Yuan was forced into retirement.
Later military career and death
In 1628, under the new government, Yuan Chonghuan was reinstated as field marshal of all the forces of the Northeast. He embarked on an ambitious five-year plan for the complete recovery of Liaodong. The Chongzhen Emperor had begun his reign in 1627 at the age of 16, and in 1629 (at the age of 18) he appointed Yuan Chonghuan. In 1629 Yuan was granted the title of "Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent". The Chongzhen Emperor gave him his Imperial Sword and stated that he would fully support Yuan's decisions.
This time Yuan had to face again a larger Manchu force of over 200,000 troops under Huang Taiji. The Manchus had incorporated more men in their army, including the newly surrendered Mongols, Ming rebels, conquered Korea, and various small tribes of the North. However, the Manchus were reluctant to attack Jinzhou or Ningyuan and never did so again.
The Manchus changed their strategy. Bypassing Jinzhou, Ningyuan and Shanhai Pass, they broke through the Great Wall west of Shanhai Pass and reached north of Beijing in the winter of 1629. Yuan rushed back with an elite army from Ningyuan to defend the capital. He reached Beijing just days before the Manchus. Outside the city wall of Beijing, he defeated the Manchurian "Eight Banners" which numbered around 100,000 men, but failed to destroy the Manchu army. The Manchus' surprise attack on Beijing was foiled. Despite the fact that Yuan prevented the Manchus from even reaching the city wall, Yuan was heavily criticized when he arrived in Beijing, and some eunuchs even accused Yuan of collaborating with the enemy. In fact, they were actually tricked by Huang Taiji into thinking that Yuan had betrayed them.
The Chongzhen Emperor ordered Yuan's arrest during an audience with the Emperor on 13 January 1630. Despite little evidence, he was accused of collusion with the enemy and condemned to death by "slow slicing" at Ganshiqiao (甘石橋) in Beijing. When Yuan was asked for last words before his execution, he produced the poem: "A life's work always ends up in vain; half of my career seems to be in dreams. I do not worry about lacking brave warriors after my death, for my loyal spirit will continue to guard Liaodong." (一生事業總成空，半世功名在夢中。死後不愁無將勇，忠魂依舊保遼東！) Imperial records show he took half a day to die.
It was said that upon hearing of his apparent "betrayal", many Beijing residents hated him so much that they rushed to buy his body parts so they could eat them. He was left there after the torture, shouting for half a day before stopping. His head, the only recognizable part after the torture, was taken outside the Inner City Wall by a city guard, whose surname is She, and buried in Huashi near Guangqumen. The guard's family have guarded it for generations since. His tomb was recently renovated to become the Yuan Chonghuan Memorial.
Huang Taiji publicly stated that he would never be able to beat Yuan in a fair game, thus having the Chongzhen Emperor kill him was the only method to get rid of him. Just as the message of Yuan's death reach Huang Taiji's ears, he changed his dynasty's name from Jin to Qing and proclaimed himself Emperor Qing Taizong. Historical records state that Huang Taiji feared Yuan's last words that his soul would always guard Liaodong Peninsula. Some say to overcome Yuan Chonghuan, whose name means "Undying Flames" (which contains the element of Fire), he had his dynasty name changed to Qing, meaning "to cleanse", which contains the Chinese element of "Water".
Yuan Chonghuan's name was cleared nearly a century later by the Qianlong Emperor, after conclusive evidence was found in old archives of the Imperial Qing court supporting his innocence. Qianlong tried to express his kindness by searching and rewarding for Yuan's direct descendants, but failed to find any.
In popular culture
In Jin Yong's wuxia novel Sword Stained with Royal Blood, Yuan Chonghuan was survived by his son, Yuan Chengzhi. As the protagonist of the novel, Yuan learns martial arts on Mount Hua and vows to avenge his father's death.
Celebrated as a Cantonese hero, during a 2010 rally, protesters chanted an obscene chant that had been general Yuan's battle cry against his Manchu enemies in the Battle of Ningyuan: 掉哪妈! 顶硬上! (trad: 掉哪媽! 頂硬上!) - "Fuck his mom! Hit them hard!"