Wu Sangui

From New World Encyclopedia

Wu Sangui (Chinese: 吳三桂; pinyin: Wú Sānguì; Wade–Giles: Wu San-kuei; styled Changbai or Changbo) (1612 – October 2, 1678) was a Ming Chinese general who was instrumental in the Qing Dynasty conquest of China proper in 1644. After the rebel leader Li Tzu'cheng took Peking and the Ming emperor was killed, Wu Sangui opened the gates of the Great Wall of China at the Shanhai Pass to let Manchu soldiers, under the leadership of Dorgon, into China proper. Popular legend relates that Li Tzu'cheng (Li Zicheng) had captured Wu’s concubine, the famous beauty Chen Yuanyuan, and that Wu asked the Manchu for assistance against his forces.

Later, in southwest China, he led the Revolt of the Three Feudatories against the Qing (Ch'ing). Wu declared himself Emperor of China as ruler of the Zhou Dynasty in 1678, but died of dysentery the same year. He was succeeded by his grandson, but the revolt was quelled by the Kangxi Emperor in 1681. Wu Sangui was considered by some of his contemporaries to be a traitor to both the Ming and the Qing dynasties.

Ming to Qing

Wu Sangui was born in 1612 in Gaoyou, Jiangsu Province, to Wu Xiang, a frontier general. Little is known about his childhood or his military career. It is known that Wu Sangui was the Ningyuan garrison commander and one of eight generals subordinate to Hong Chengchou in 1643, when the Ming court sent Hong to lift the Manchu siege of Jinzhou.

General Zu Dashou had held the forward fortress of Jinzhou against the Manchu for several years. In 1643 Huang Taiji, the second ruler of the Manchu, renewed his assault on Jinzhou. Huang Taiji had subdued all his rivals and given his people a new identity, proclaiming the establishment of the Qing dynasty and renaming them “Manchu.” He had added captured Chinese and European cannons to his weaponry, absorbed the Chahar Mongols and conquered Han Chinese into his military organization, and taken the Ming fortress of Dalinghe from Zu Dashou. In 1937 he had invaded Korea and made it a tributary state of the Qing. The Manchu had made numerous raids into China, following the circuitous route through the Inner Mongolian desert, but were unable to retain their territorial conquests because of logistical difficulties. In order to open a direct route into China, Huang would have to take the Ming garrisons of Shanhaiguan, Ningyuan, and Jinzhou along the Bohai littoral. The Ming court sent an army of over 130,000 men under Hong Chengchou to lift the siege and save the vital fortress at Jinzhou. Wu Sangui was one of the eight generals subordinate to Hong. The Manchu cavalry first raided Hong’s food supplies in the rear. When the Ming armies ran out of food and began to retreat, Huang Taiji’s forces ambushed and massacred them at night. In the Battle of Songshan alone, the Ming lost over fifty thousand troops and a large number of weapons. Jinzhou capitulated and General Hong Chengchou became Huang Taiji's special prisoner.

Wu Sangui and Tang Tong were in the rear and were among the few Ming commanders who were able to escape the Manchu ambush. They returned to their original stations in Ningyuan and Miyun, respectively. When the Imperial capital at Peking was threatened by the rebel bandit leader Li Tzu-ch'eng (Chuǎng Wáng, "The Roaming King"), the emperor ordered Wu Sangui and Tang Tong to save the capital. Tang Tong arrived in time to face Li Tzu-ch'eng, but was overwhelmed by the Shun forces. Wu Sangui did not reach the capital in time.

Historians have conflicting theories about why Wu Sangui did not arrive in time to save the capital. Some believe that he purposely slowed his advance. Others point out that, since Wu’s family was in Peking, he would not have deliberately allowed the city to fall. Instead they advance the theory that the Imperial Court did not alert Wu Sangui in time because they did not realize how quickly Li Tzu-ch'eng was approaching, and because the emperor was reluctant to re-deploy the troops who were protecting the Great Wall. Tang Tong was closer to the capital and able to reach it sooner. When Wu Sangui learned that Li Tzu-ch'eng had taken the city, Wu Sangui stopped in his march toward Beijing and bivouacked in Shanhaiguan. There, he contacted the Manchu and their leader Dorgon and opened the gates of the Great Wall of China at the Shanhai Pass to let Manchu soldiers, enemies of the Ming, into China proper. It is commonly believed that this act led to the ultimate destruction of the Ming Empire and the establishment of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty.

Wu Sanghui and the Manchu

Historians have also advanced various theories about Wu Sangui’s motivation for defecting to the Manchu and opposing Li Tzu-ch'eng. A popular legend says that Wu was about to join the rebel forces of Li, who had already sacked Beijing, when he heard that Li had captured his concubine Chen Yuanyuan. Enraged, he asked the Manchu and their leader Dorgon for assistance in overcoming Li Tzu-ch'eng, and opened the gates of the Great Wall of China. Historical records about the famous beauty Chen Yuanyuan are scarce; most of them came from either court writers or common legends. Ming loyalists may have preferred to blame one woman for the Manchu conquest than to admit that Ming officials and citizens willingly aided the Manchu. Whether the story of the concubine Chen Yuanyuan is true or not, it appears that in the spring of 1644, Wu Sangui's actions were probably motivated by his personal ambitions. Wu Sangui had two possibilities: surrender to either the Manchu or Li Tzu-ch'eng, or do nothing and possibly allow the two forces to ally against him.

By surrendering to Li Tzu-ch'eng, Wu would probably have become only a subordinate general to Li Tzu-ch'eng, like Tang Tong or Bai Guangen, who had joined Li Tzu-ch'eng when Li overran Shaanxi. The Manchu, however, had already bestowed hereditary office on many former Ming officers who had joined them, including Li Yongfang, Kong Youde, Shang Kexi, and Geng Jimao. Li Tzu-ch'eng was responsible for the death of the Ming emperor, and it seemed that the subjects of Ming hated Li Tzu-ch'eng more than they hated the Manchu. Wu decided to lead his army against Li Tzu-ch'eng. At the same time, a Manchu force under the command of Prince Regent Dorgon was advancing toward Ningyuan. Caught between two large forces, Wu proposed to surrender to the Manchu in order to eliminate Li Tzu-ch'eng.

Loyalty and Revolt

In 1659 Wu was put in charge of eliminating the remnants of Ming resistance in the southwest. After Wu conquered the region, the Qing imperial court rewarded him with the position of Pingxi Wang in Yunnan. It was extremely rare for someone outside of the royal family, especially a non-Manchu, to be granted the title of Wang (king). Those being awarded the title of Wang who were not members of the royal family were called Yixing Wang (literally meaning "kings whose surnames are different from that of the emperor"). It was believed that Yixing Wangs did not usually meet a good end, because they were not trusted by emperors as members of the emperors' own families were.

Wu Sangui was not trusted by the Qing imperial court, but he was able to rule with little or no interference because the Manchu, an ethnic minority, were preoccupied after their prolonged conquest in organizing their rule over a vast Han Chinese society. Wu Sangui, from his outpost in faraway Kunming, had foreseen an eventual clash with the imperial court, so he spent the years of peace consolidating his power in Yunnan and neighboring Kweichow Province, and building up his armies. Two other commanders set up similar independent domains in the neighboring southern provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien, and South China became an independent power rivaling the Qing government in the north.

In 1673, when the Qing dynasty tried to check these southern kingdoms, Wu led them in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, declaring himself the "All-Supreme-Military Generalissimo" (Tiānxià Dōuzhāotǎo Bīngmǎ Dàyuánshuài). In 1678 he went further and declared himself the emperor of a new Zhou Dynasty, with the era name of Zhaowu. He made his capital at Hengzhou, which is now Hengyang, Hunan. He advanced into central China but then hesitated, possibly because the Manchu were holding his son hostage. The Manchu then took the initiative, and, soon afterward, with the battle turning against him, Wu died of dysentery. He was succeeded by his grandson Wu Shifan who continued the rebellion until the remnants of his armies were defeated in 1681.

Wu Sangui's son, Wu Yingxiong, married the 14 daughter of Manchu emperor Hung Taiji.

Legend of Chen Yuanyuan

Yuanyuan was a courtesan famous for her beauty. Wu Sangui fell in love with her, but when he went to buy her freedom from the owner of the brothel where she worked, he learned that Tianwan, the 60-year-old father of one of the emperor’s concubines, had already purchased her. Yuanyuan was very unhappy about this.

The Qing armies were attacking outside of the Great Wall, and rebellions were raging inside China. The Emperor Huaizong entrusted Wu Sangui, who was then a general of the Ming imperial court, with the protection of Shanhai Fortress. Wealthy families were concerned that their enemies might take all their property, and sought protection from those in powerful positions, such as Wu Sangui. Tianwan sought protection from General Wu and invited him to his house. After some food and entertainment, as Wu was about to leave, Tianwan led him to a room where Yuanyuan poured wine for them. Tianwan soon recognized that General Wu was in love with her. Wu offered protection to the Tian family only if Tianwan would give Yuanyuan to him. Tianwan consented, and Wu sent the girl to safety at his father’s house in Peking.

Soon, the rebel leader Li Tzu-ch'eng captured Peking and the emperor, Ming Huaizong, was killed. The rebels searched all the treasures inside the palace. Li Tzu-ch'eng heard about the beauty of Yuanyuan, and immediately went to Wu’s father’s house and forced him to give up the girl. He also commanded him to write to his son and tell him to surrender to Li’s army. Wu’s father wrote to him telling him everything that had happened, and urging him to surrender to the Qing armies. Since the Ming emperor was already dead, and Li Tzu-ch'eng had killed over 30 of his family members, Wu opened the gate of Shanhai Fortress and led the Qing armies to the capital, where he was finally united with Yuanyuan.[1]

In Modern Culture

In contemporary China, Wu Sangui was regarded as a traitor and opportunist, due to his betrayal of both the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty.

His early life and military career were portrayed in the China Central Television show Jiangshan Fengyuqing (which could be loosely translated as "Turmoil and love stories of the late Ming Dynasty").

Zhou Dynasty (1678–1681)

Convention: use personal name
Temple names Family name and first name Period of reign Era name
Tai Zu Wú Sānguì March 1678–August 1678 Zhāowǔ
Wú Shìfán August 1678–1681 Hónghuà


  1. Thinkquest.org. Wu Sangui and Chen Yuanyuan. Retrieved October 1, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crossley, Pamela Kyle, Siu, Helen F., and Sutton, Donald S. “Empire at the Margins Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China.” Studies on China. 28. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. ISBN 1423745426
  • Elliott, Mark C. The Manchu Way; the Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. 2001. ISBN 0804736065
  • Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2005. ISBN 067401684X
  • Rawski, Evelyn Sakakida. The Last Emperors a Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1998. ISBN 0585131864
  • Stary, Giovanni. A Dictionary of Manchu Names: A Name Index to the Manchu Version of the "Complete Genealogies of the Manchu Clans and Families of the Eight Banners." Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz in K. 2000. ISBN 3447042176
  • Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Culture of War in China Empire and the Military Under the Qing Dynasty. International library of war studies, 7. London: I.B. Tauris. 2006.


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