Wu Sangui

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Wu Sangui (Chinese: 吳三桂; pinyin: Wú Sānguì; Wade–Giles: Wu San-kuei; courtesy name Changbai (長白) or Changbo (長伯); 1612 – 2 October 1678) was a Chinese military general who was instrumental in the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Considered by traditional scholars as a traitor to both Ming, and ultimately, Qing, Wu in 1678 declared himself Emperor of China and ruler of the "Great Zhou", but his revolt was eventually quelled by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Wu Sangui
Wu Sangui
Emperor of the Great Zhou Dynasty
Reign March 1678 – August 1678
Predecessor None, Kangxi Emperor as Emperor of the Qing Dynasty
Successor Wu Shifan
Prince of Zhou
Reign 1674-1678
All-Supreme-Military Generalissimo
Reign 1673-1674
Prince Who Pacifies the West
Reign 1644-1678
Born 1612
Gaoyou, Jiangsu, China
Died 2 October 1678 (aged 65-66)
Hengyang, Hunan, China
Spouse Chen Yuanyuan
Issue Wu Yingxiong
Full name
Wu Sangui
Posthumous name
Emperor Kaitiandadaotongrenjiyuntongwenshenwugao
Temple name
Emperor Taizu of Zhou
House Great Zhou dynasty
Father Wu Xiang
Mother Lady Zu

Early life and service under Ming

Wu was born in Gaoyou, Jiangsu province to Wu Xiang and Lady Zu. Under the patronage of his father Wu Xiang and maternal uncle Zu Dashou, he quickly rose to the rank of full General (Zong Bing) at the young age of 27.

Wu was one of the generals in 1640 at the Battle of Songjin, in which Qing forces defeated the Ming armies, but he escaped capture.

Defection to Qing

Wu Sangui did not side with the Qing Dynasty until after the defensive capability of the Ming Dynasty had been greatly weakened and its political apparatus virtually destroyed by the rebel armies of Li Zicheng's Shun dynasty. At the time of Beijing's fall to Li Zicheng on 25 April 1644, Wu Sangui controlled the largest fighting force under the Ming in northern China. Wu Sangui and his 40,000-man strong army were on the way to Beijing to come to the Chongzhen Emperor's aid but had received word of the emperor's suicide, so they garrisoned the Shanhai Pass, the eastern terminus of the main Great Wall line. He and his men were now caught between the rebels within the Great Wall and the Manchus without.[1]

Battle of Shanhai Pass
Battle of Shanhai Pass in which Wu Sangui surrendered to Qing dynasty

After capturing the Ming capital Beijing and taking Wu's family there into custody, Li Zicheng sent a message to negotiate Wu's defection. When Wu took too long to reply, however, Li interpreted his lack of response as a refusal to surrender. Li then executed thirty-eight members of the Wu household, including Wu's father, whose head was displayed from the city wall. Enraged, Wu Sangui hardened his resolve to resist the new Shun regime, and twice defeated the Shun vanguard led by Tang Tong on May 3 and May 10,[2] but he knew that his force alone was insufficient to fight Li Zicheng's main army.[3] Wu Sangui wrote to the Manchus for help, promising "great profits" if they assisted him in defeating the rebels.[4] The Manchu prince-regent Dorgon determined that this was the opportunity to claim the Mandate of Heaven for the Qing.[5] Dorgon made clear in his reply that the Manchus would help Wu Sangui, but Wu would have to submit to the Qing; Wu had little choice but to accept.[6]

On 27 May 1644, Wu opened the gates of the Great Wall of China at Shanhai Pass to let Qing forces into China proper, forming an alliance with the Manchus.[7] Wu ordered his soldiers to wear a white cloth attached to their armor, to distinguish them from Li Zicheng's forces.[8] Together, Wu's army and the Qing forces defeated the Shun rebels. Having defeated Li's main army, the Qing marched into Beijing unopposed and enthroned the young Shunzhi Emperor in the Forbidden City.[9]

Loyalty and revolt

Three Feudatories
Map showing the Revolt of the Three Feudatories

After he defeated remnant forces consisting of Ming loyalists in southwestern China, he was rewarded with the title of Pingxi Wang (平西王; translated as "Prince Who Pacifies the West" or "King Who Pacifies the West") with a fief in Yunnan by the Qing imperial court. It had been extremely rare for someone outside of the imperial clan, especially a non-Manchu, to be granted the title of wang. Those awarded the title who were not members of the imperial clan were called Yixing Wang ( literally meaning "kings with other family names") or known as "vassal kings". It was believed that these vassal kings usually came to a bad end, largely because they were not trusted by emperors as members of his own clan were.

Wu was not trusted by the Qing imperial court, but he was still able to rule Yunnan with little or no interference. This was because the Manchus, an ethnic minority, needed time after their prolonged conquest to figure out how to impose the rule of a dynasty of a very small minority on the vast Han-Chinese society they held in their hands. In fact, as a semi-independent ruler in the distant southwest, he was seen as an asset to the Qing court, and for much of his rule he received massive annual subsidies from the central government. This money, as well as the long period of stability, was spent by Wu in bolstering his army in the southwest, in preparation for an eventual clash with the Qing Dynasty.

In 1673, the Kangxi Emperor decided to make Wu Sangui and two other princes who had been rewarded with large fiefs in southern and western China move from their lands to resettle in Manchuria.[10] As a result, the three revolted and thus began the eight-year-long civil war known as the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, with Wu Sangui declaring himself the "All-Supreme-Military Generalissimo". In 1678, he went further and declared himself emperor of the "Great Zhou Dynasty", with the era name of Zhaowu. He established his capital at Hengzhou (present-day Hengyang, Hunan). When he died in October 1678, Wu's grandson Wu Shifan took over command of his forces and continued the struggle. The remnants of Wu's armies were defeated soon thereafter in December 1681 and Wu Shifan committed suicide; Wu Sangui's son-in-law was sent to Beijing with Wu Shifan's head.[11] The Kangxi Emperor had Wu Sangui's corpse scattered across the provinces of China.[12]

Wu Sangui's son, Wu Yingxiong (Wu Shifan's father), married Princess Jianning, the 14th daughter of the Kangxi Emperor's grandfather Hong Taiji. She was Fulin's (the Shunzhi Emperor's) sister.[13]

In popular culture

In contemporary China, Wu has often been regarded as a traitor and opportunist, due to his betrayal of both the Ming and Qing dynasties. However more sympathetic characterisations are sometimes voiced, and it is clear that Wu's romance with and love for his concubine Chen Yuanyuan remains one of the classic love stories in Chinese history.[14]

Wu's early life and military career are portrayed in a more positive light in the CCTV television series The Affaire in the Swing Age, in which he is shown to be forced into making the fateful decisions which have made him famous.

Wuxia writer Louis Cha's novel The Deer and the Cauldron portrays Wu as a powerful nemesis to the Kangxi Emperor, who sends the protagonist of the novel, Wei Xiaobao, to scout out Wu's forces in Yunnan.

Great 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. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 295.
  2. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 266.
  3. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 294.
  4. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 301.
  5. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 303.
  6. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 309.
  7. ^ Julia Lovell (1 December 2007). The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - Ad 2000. Grove. p. 254. ISBN 978-1-55584-832-3.
  8. ^ Mark C. Elliott (2001). The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford University Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0-8047-4684-7.
  9. ^ Wakeman 1985, p. 318.
  10. ^ Jonathan Spence, Emperor of China, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, p. xvii
  11. ^ Spence, Emperor of China, p. 37
  12. ^ Spence, Emperor of China, p. 31
  13. ^ Crossley 1999, p. 107.
  14. ^ Frederic Wakeman (1 January 1977). Fall of Imperial China. Simon and Schuster. pp. 84–. ISBN 978-0-02-933680-9.

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