I hadn’t thought about it, but my last post on Whites converting to Islam has a somewhat similar theme to a very famous episode in Chinese history. It’s been a while since I write another Chinese history tale, and this is one of my favorites. So let’s talk about Wu Sangui 吳三桂.
The year is 1644. The Ming Dynasty is in ruins. It is actually in ruins; a peasant rebellion led by a man called Li Zicheng 李自成 has been ravishing the country for a decade, conquering and utterly destroying much of the central and western areas of the country. The rebel leader had already conquered the largest city in the west, Xi’an 西安, and had proclaimed himself as the king of the Shun 順 Dynasty. The Shun army raced from Xi’An up through the province of Shanxi 山西, where most of the cities openly surrendered to him without bloodshed. In no time he crossed the western passes close to Beijing, and on May 26, the capital fell. The emperor of the Ming Dynasty stabbed his wives and daughters with his own hand, and then hanged himself on a nearby hill.
A resistance had formed in the south, where several imperial princes were proclaimed as emperors in different provinces. The north though was completely in control of the rebels of the Shun Dynasty. They felt safe, and spent 10 days sacking Beijing, raping the wives and daughters of the mandarins and merchants, and torturing them to extort untold quantities of gold and silver. Then one advisor to the rebel army came with news: we haven’t completely conquered the north. There is still Wu Sangui.
Most maps you can see of the Ming Dynasty are complete bullshit, because they throw in every place where the Ming ever had a garrison during its 270 years of life. And this guys had lots of garrisons around at first, but they soon abandoned most of them. For all purposes, the effective northern borders of the Ming Dynasty were the Great Wall, which they built. Here’s an accurate map of the north.
By this time, May 1644, mostly everything south of the wall and north of Yang-tze river has fallen to the Shun rebels, and most Ming generals in the area had surrendered and joined the fun. All except the most important. You’ll see in this map that there’s a weird discontinuous piece of wall up in the Northeast. That’s Liaodong 遼東. That used to be firm Ming territory, settled with Han farmers, but since the 1600s a nearby tribal people, the Manchus (Jurchens back then) had built a very strong state, and conquered most of the Ming settlements in the area. The Manchus were extremely good fighters, they had managed to beat the Mongols and put them in their army, and had been raiding inside China for decades, doing massive damage. By 1644 there was only one fortress left in Liaodong, the castle of Ningyuan 寧遠. And Wu Sangui was its commander.
Weeks before Beijing fell to the rebels, the Ming emperor had sent an edict to Wu Sangui, ordering him to abandon the fortress and come with his troops to defend the capital. He was actually on his way, not far from Beijing, when the city fell and the emperor killed himself. Unsure what to do, Wu Sangui got his army and moved back to the Northeast, and set camp at Shanhaiguan 山海關, the last fortress of the continuous Great Wall, where the wall meets the sea. The fortress was very strong, and he decided to hold up there.
Soon the rebels having fun at Beijing decided that all Ming generals had surrendered, surely this one would surrender too. What is he going to do, fight us? The conquerors of the capital? Good luck with that. The rebels soon found that Wu Sangui’s family was all in Beijing, 38 persons in all, led by his father, who had been chief of the capital’s garrison at the time. They… persuaded the man to write a letter to his son, saying how virtuous and sagely the rebels were, that the game was over, and his duty as a filial son was to obey and surrender to the rebels. He’ll be given a title of nobility and treated with all the honor he deserves.
The letter gets to the fortress, alongside shitloads of gold and silver for his soldiers. Wu Sangui sees that this is a pretty good deal, gets his army and marches towards Beijing in order to formally surrender to his new lord. On his second journey to Beijing in a few days, he suddenly bumps into two servants of his household. “What are you doing here?”
﹣Oh you have no idea, young lord.
– What happened? How is my father?
– They got him, my lord.
– Who got him? What happened to him?
– One rebel general came to father, and asked him for your concubine, Chen Yuan. Your father refused, said she wasn’t there, that she was with you, but they refused to believe, and they tortured him. They tortured all of us, it was awful, only we two were able to escape. Father Lord was tortured so badly that he’s likely to be dead by now. You should prepare yourself, young master.
Not good. Not good at all. These rebel bastards were scamming him. They didn’t want him to surrender and join their army as a general. No, they wanted to lure him to the capital to kill him and get rid of a problem. That they didn’t wait to steal my women and torture my father is proof that nothing good expected him at Beijing. Oh, this won’t do. Wu Sangui again got his army and led them back to the Great Wall fortress.
What could he do, though. His army was perhaps the best in the empire. Tough, hardly men from the Northeast frontier, seasoned by constant war with the fierce Manchus. He had a sizable army, but could he beat the rebels? All of them? Soon he heard that Li Zicheng, the rebel emperor himself was personally leading a 100k strong army to kill him. And behind his back, on the other side of the Great Wall, Dorgon, the effective king of the Manchus had departed from their capital with two thirds of the fierce Manchu army. He obviously knew that his Chinese enemies had collapsed and he wanted part of the fun.
So there he is, our famed general, holding the strongest fortress on the Chinese empire, facing a 100,000 rebel army on his front, and another 100,000 army of Manchu riders on his back. What can he do now? The Manchus are on his back. His uncle are with them; he was captured years ago, and had surrendered to the Manchus. He was now a very high status nobleman in the Manchu state, and he sent letters to his nephew to surrender. These are good people too, manly, virtuous, just men, not like the corrupt and decadent mandarins who used to rule over us. You cannot trust them, nephew. They maybe Chinese like you and us, share our culture and language. But they are evil, false men, and you know that. Join the Manchu army, they know of you, admire your martial skills, they’ll make you into a prince and give you untold riches and honor.
The rebel leader though has brought Wu Sangui’s father with him. He tells him it has all been a misunderstanding. One of the top rebel generals got a bit carried away. But the Shun emperor guarantees his safety, and he seems to mean it. He calls him to fulfill his duty towards his father and his country. The Mandate of Heaven has changed, the Shun now has it. His duty as a general is to follow him, and start a new glorious dynasty. Once the old corrupt mandarins of the Ming Dynasty are dealt with, the new, vigorous armies of the Chinese nation will come back north, where he can take part on the glorious retaking of the Northeast from the evil barbarians. Do the right thing, general. Your family and your nation need you.
Guess what he did? 2 days later his father alongside the 38 members of his family were killed. 2 days later he was made a prince. The Manchus ruled China until 1911.