Yuan Chonghuan

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Yuan Chonghuan
Yuan Chonghuan.jpg
Portrait of Yuan Chonghuan
General of the Ming dynasty
Born 6 June 1584
Died 22 September 1630(1630-09-22) (aged 46)
Traditional Chinese 袁崇煥
Simplified Chinese 袁崇焕
Pinyin Yuán Chónghuàn
Wade–Giles Yüan Ch'ung-huan
Courtesy name
Other names Yun4 Sung4-wun6 ("Yuan Chonghuan" in Jyutping)
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Yuan.

Yuan Chonghuan (6 June 1584 – 22 September 1630), courtesy name Yuansu or Ziru, was a Chinese 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 Manchu invaders during the Qing invasion of the Ming Empire. 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 the Manchu ruler, Nurhaci, and his army in the first Battle of Ningyuan. Later on, he also managed to defeat Nurhaci's son and successor, Huangtaiji, and his 200,000 mostly Mongol soldiers at the second Battle of Ningyuan. However, Yuan was eventually 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 Manchus.

Early life[edit]

Yuan was born in Dongguan, Guangdong.[1] During his adolescence, he spent time traveling from town to town, and befriended many Jesuits and foreigners along the way. Although he took the imperial examination 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[edit]

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 Manchus in the Battle of Sarhu. The Ming forces suffered successive defeats and in 1622 they were forced to retreat to Shanhai Pass, abandoning all of Liaoning to the Manchus. 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 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 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 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 Manchus back across the Liao River. Yuan and his deputies successfully held Ningyuan with the newly mounted and modified "red-barbarian cannon" and only 9,000 soldiers (mostly militia) against Nurhaci's 130,000 (some estimates[which?] say 200,000). The victory at Ningyuan prevented China from being conquered and boosted the hopes of the Ming Empire 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 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 Manchus. 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 Korean kingdom Joseon, the Ming Empire'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 Wei Zhongxian, who stated that he took too long to fight off the Manchus. Shortly thereafter Yuan was forced into retirement.

Later military career and death[edit]

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 Manchu force of over 200,000 troops under Nurhaci's successor, Huangtaiji. The Manchus had incorporated more men in their army, including the newly surrendered Mongols, Ming rebels, conquered Korea, and various small tribes in northern China. 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 the 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 Manchu 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 criticised 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 condemned 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 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.[2]

Yuan Chonghuan's tomb in the Huashi neighborhood, near Guangqumen, in Dongcheng District, Beijing.

Yuan was mourned throughout most of the country outside Beijing and even in the Korean kingdom Joseon. After his death, many regarded the Ming Empire and their allies as extremely vulnerable to Manchu invasion.[3]

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 the body parts were sliced off from his body. He was left there after the torture, shouting for half a day before stopping.[4] His head, the only recognisable part after the lingchi 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.[5] His tomb was recently renovated to become the Yuan Chonghuan Memorial.


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 and rewarding for Yuan's direct descendants, but failed to find any.

In popular culture[edit]

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 is executed, and taken to the Mount Hua Sect, where he learnt martial arts. Several years later, when he is grown up, he leaves Mount Hua and travels around in search of adventure and to seek redress for his father.

Celebrated as a Cantonese hero,[6] during a 2010 rally, protesters in Guangzhou chanted an obscene chant that had been Yuan's battle cry against his Manchu enemies in the Battle of Ningyuan: "Fuck his mom! Hit them hard!" (掉哪媽!頂硬上!; 掉哪妈!顶硬上!)[7]


  1. ^ "Cantonese cultural warriors fight back". Asia Times Online. Retrieved 2016-05-18. 
  2. ^ 計六奇. 明季北略, vol.5
  3. ^ 程本直墓記修廣東新義園碑記
  4. ^ 計六奇. 明季北略, vol.5
  5. ^ 372年守墓史曲終人散
  6. ^ "Cantonese cultural warriors fight back". Asia Times. 2010-08-04. Retrieved 2010-08-08. 
  7. ^ The obscene battle-cry of a Ming Dynasty war hero

See also[edit]