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Portrait of Yuan Chonghuan
|General of the Ming dynasty|
|Born||6 June 1584|
|Died||22 September 1630(aged 46)|
|Other names||Yun4 Sung4-wun6 ("Yuan Chonghuan" in Jyutping)|
Yuan Chonghuan (6 June 1584 – 22 September 1630), courtesy name Yuansu or Ziru, was a politician, military general and writer who served under the Ming dynasty. Widely regarded as a patriot in Chinese culture, he is best known for defending Liaoning from Jurchen invaders during the Later Jin invasion of the Ming. As a general, Yuan Chonghuan excelled as a cannoneer and sought to incorporate European cannon designs into the Ming arsenal.
Yuan's military career reached its height when he defeated the Jurchen ruler, Nurhaci, and his army in the first Battle of Ningyuan. Later on, Yuan also defeated Nurhaci's son and successor, Hong Taiji, and his 200,000-strong army composed of mostly Mongol soldiers at the second Battle of Ningyuan. Yuan met his end when he was arrested and executed by lingchi ("slow slicing") on the order of the Chongzhen Emperor under false charges of treason, which were believed to have been planted against him by the Jurchens.
Yuan was born in Dongguan, Guangdong. During his adolescence, he spent time traveling from town to town. Although he took the imperial examination repeatedly with little success, he gained a lot of practical experience during his travels to the capital. It is said that he befriended several Jesuits during this time and spent much time working on modifying European cannons.
Early military career
Yuan passed the imperial examination in 1619 and was appointed as the magistrate of a remote county. In 1619, the Ming imperial army was defeated by the Jurchens in the Battle of Sarhu. Ming forces suffered successive defeats and in 1622 they were forced to retreat to Shanhai Pass, abandoning all of Liaoning to the Jurchens. After a visit to the front, Yuan was appointed as a second-class secretary in the Ministry of War, then promoted almost immediately to full secretary and supplied with funds for enlisting troops. Yuan's rapid promotion was quite notable at the time as he did not have any formal military training at all, save for studying the Confucian classics in order to pass the imperial examination.
Yuan cooperated with the commander-in-chief Sun Chengzong in pushing the frontiers steadily northward, fortifying Ningyuan in 1623. The elderly Sun was an able commander but refused to bribe Wei Zhongxian, an influential court eunuch under the Tianqi Emperor. Consequently, Sun was recalled in 1625 and replaced by Gao Di (高第), who ordered a general retreat to Shanhai Pass. However, Yuan flatly refused to leave Ningyuan.
Early in the next year, Nurhaci led the Jurchens back across the Liao River. Yuan and his deputies successfully held Ningyuan with the newly mounted and modified "hongyipao" and only 9,000 militiamen against Nurhaci's 130,000-strong army. The victory at Ningyuan prevented immediate advances by the Jurchens.
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 Nurhaci, although well-protected by his elite guards in a safe position, was wounded by cannon fire. 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 Ming imperial court in 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, Yuan executed Mao Wenlong, a Ming general 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 Jurchens. However, Yuan took into account how Mao conducted 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 the Joseon kingdom, Ming's ally, as a base to launch expeditions against the Jurchens. When the Jurchens entered Joseon, 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 have bribed many corrupt eunuchs and officials. Consequently, by executing Mao, Yuan made enemies with some of the most influential people in China.
Taking advantage of Nurhaci's death later in the year, Yuan reoccupied Jinzhou. The Jurchens reappeared in June and withdrew after a series of indecisive battles. Yuan was criticised by the partisans of Wei Zhongxian, who stated that he took too long to fight off the Jurchens. Shortly thereafter Yuan was forced into retirement.
Later military career and death
In 1628, under the reign of the Chongzhen Emperor, Yuan was reinstated as the field marshal of all the Ming forces in 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. In 1629, Yuan was granted the title of "Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent". The emperor gave Yuan his Imperial Sword and stated that he would fully support Yuan's decisions.
This time Yuan had to face again a larger Jurchen force of over 200,000 troops under Nurhaci's successor, Hong Taiji. The Jurchens had incorporated more men into their army, including the newly surrendered Mongols and Ming rebels. They conquered Joseon and various small tribes in northern China. However, the Jurchens never attacked Jinzhou or Ningyuan again. Instead, they bypassed Jinzhou, Ningyuan and Shanhai Pass altogether. They broke through the Great Wall west of Shanhai Pass and reached the north of Beijing in the winter of 1629. Yuan rushed back with a selected veteran force from Ningyuan to defend the capital. He reached Beijing just days before the Jurchens. Outside the city wall of Beijing, he defeated the Jurchen Eight Banners which numbered around 100,000 men, but failed to destroy the Jurchen army. The Jurchens' surprise attack on Beijing was foiled. Despite the fact that Yuan prevented the Jurchens 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.
The Chongzhen Emperor ordered Yuan's arrest during an audience on 13 January 1630. Despite little evidence, Yuan was accused of collusion with the enemy and sentenced to death by lingchi ("slow slicing") at Ganshiqiao (甘石橋) in Beijing. When Yuan was asked for last words before his execution, he produced the following 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 showed he took half a day to die.
Yuan was mourned throughout most of the country outside Beijing and even in the kingdom of Joseon. After his death, many took note of the Ming and their allies's weak position as favorable conditions for another Jurchen invasion.
It was said that upon hearing of his apparent "betrayal", many Beijing residents hated Yuan so much that they rushed to buy his body parts so they could eat them as soon as they were sliced off his body. He was left there after the torture, shouting for half a day before stopping. His head, the only recognisable part after the execution, was taken outside the Inner City Wall by a city guard, whose surname was She (佘), and buried in Huashi near Guangqumen. The guard's family have guarded it for generations since. His tomb was recently renovated and renamed the Yuan Chonghuan Memorial, located at Longtan Park.
Yuan's name was cleared nearly a century later by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, after conclusive evidence was found in old archives of the Qing imperial court supporting his innocence. The Qianlong Emperor tried to express his kindness by searching for and rewarding Yuan's direct descendants, but failed to find any.
In popular culture
In the wuxia novel Sword Stained with Royal Blood by Jin Yong, Yuan is survived by a fictional son, Yuan Chengzhi, the protagonist of the novel. Yuan Chengzhi was saved by his father's subordinates after his father was executed and taken to the Mount Hua Sect, where he learnt martial arts. Several years later, when he had grown up, he left Mount Hua and traveled around in search of adventure and to redress his father's legacy.
Celebrated as a Cantonese hero, during a 2010 rally, protesters in Guangzhou used Yuan's battle cry against his Jurchen enemies during the Battle of Ningyuan: "Fuck his mom! Hit them hard!" (掉哪媽! 頂硬上!) as a chant.