Hidden History

The Refugee Emperor7 min read

How the Yongli Emperor was strangled in Kunming by a turncoat general – Jeremiah Jenne

A stele memorial to the Yongli Emperor in downtown Kunming, executed on that spot in 1662 (image courtesy of the author)

Even researching a column titled Hidden History, this was getting to be a bit much.

Our impromptu guide in Kunming, capital of China’s mountainous southwest province of Yunnan, led us past a police guard post, into an underground garage, up three flights of stairs, through a pediatric hospital, and then out the lobby of what looked like the emergency room. “Turn left; it’s right there.”

And there it was: A stone tablet set slightly back in a small urban park, complete with exercise equipment and a signboard reminding us to “Learn from Lei Feng.” Inscribed on the stone in slightly faded red letters: “The site where Emperor Yongli of the Ming (1623-1668) gave his life for his country.” It was on this spot in 1661 that the last claimant to the throne of the Ming Dynasty was strangled to death by his captor, Wu Sangui (1612-1678).

Known in China as “the Man who let in the Manchus,” Wu Sangui had been a frontier general in the service of the Ming Dynasty until 1644, serving mostly in the northeast along the Great Wall. On April 25th of that year, a massive army led by the rebels Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong crashed through the gates of Beijing, seizing the city. The reigning emperor, Chongzhen, was so distraught by his predicament that he hanged himself from a tree in the park just behind his palace.

Wu Sangui faced a dilemma: return to save Beijing, or remain where he was. The Great Wall at that time separated the Ming Empire from its main rival, a state named the Great Qing, founded by a people known as the Manchus, whom Wu had fought for over a decade. It was the family business: Wu Sangui’s father Wu Xiang (d. 1644) had also been a military officer in charge of guarding the northeastern frontier.

Instead, Wu Sangui chose a third course of action. He allied with the Manchus, letting their armies through the wall, and with them launched a joint attack against the rebels holding Beijing. The combined forces of Wu Sangui and the Qing prevailed, and the insurgents were forced to relinquish the capital. The problem was that the Manchus had no intention of ever leaving. They moved the capital of the Qing state to Beijing, and over the next 268 years made China the center of an expanding empire which ultimately stretched from the jungles of Taiwan to the deserts of Xinjiang, before the Qing were brought low by the Xinhai Revolution of 1911.

But that’s not the end of the story of Wu Sangui and the Ming Dynasty.

The Qing court granted Wu Sangui the title of “Prince Who Pacifies the West” to thank him for his service. They also had a job in mind for the newly enfeoffed Ming turncoat: he would hunt down the remaining members of the Ming royal family. Many of the Ming imperial clan were based outside of the capital, as a way to prevent family squabbles over who gets the last dumpling from escalating into bloody tanistry over who sits on the Dragon Throne. While this strategy did little to curtail political infighting among family factions, it did mean that when the last Ming emperor died in Beijing, he had plenty of cousins and other relatives all too eager to step up and take his place.

For the next decade, rival Ming claimants fought against the advancing forces of the Qing Empire and each other. Finally, in 1658, one of the last claimants, Zhu Youlang, or the Yongli Emperor, fled west from his base in Guangdong into Yunnan. Pursued by the forces of the Qing Empire and Wu Sangui, the Yongli Emperor and his rump court crossed the mountains of southwestern Yunnan and descended into the Irrawaddy Valley, where they promptly sought asylum from a somewhat surprised Pindale Min (1608-1661), king of the Toungoo Dynasty in modern-day Myanmar, then still loosely known as Burma. Pindale Min allowed the Chinese fugitives to settle in the Toungoo capital at Ava, but the decision was unpopular. In particular, Pindale Min’s brother and rival Pye Min (1619-1672) was suspicious of the newcomers.

In 1661, three years after the Yongli Emperor arrived in Burma, Pye Min launched a coup and took the throne. The new king demanded the Yongli Emperor and his entourage swear their loyalty to him. There is evidence that Pye Min’s fears were not unfounded. In a precursor to similar events in the 19th and 20th centuries, when defeated Chinese armies crossed into Southeast Asia and attempted to set up fiefdoms, it appears that the Yongli Emperor had aspirations to use the Irrawaddy Valley as a base for building his power, with an eye to reconquering parts of the old Ming Empire. Whatever the refugee emperor’s plan, the Burmese king Pye Min made those aspirations moot when his troops slaughtered most of the Yongli Emperor’s court and remaining troops.

Soon after, Wu Sangui marched on Ava with nearly 20,000 troops and demanded the return of the Yongli Emperor. Pye Min, having tired of his royal houseguest, handed him over to Wu Sangui. The unfortunate Ming claimant, with nowhere left to run, pleaded with his captor for his life. In a letter which Wu Sangui later forwarded to the Qing court in Beijing, the Yongli Emperor implored Wu Sangui to think of his country and his legacy:

Your Excellency is the descendant of a family long honored with appointments; even if you cannot pity your servant, can you not think of the late Emperor? If you have no consideration for the late Emperor, can you not recall the Ming ancestors? If you do not recall the Ming ancestors, can you not remember your own father and grandfather? I cannot understand what sort of grace the great Qing has bestowed you or what sort of grievance your servant has given to your Excellency. Your Excellency considers himself clever but is actually foolish. You believe yourself to be generous, but you are mean. After some time has passed, there will be biographies and historical accounts; what sort of person will future generations consider your excellency to have been?

Wu Sangui brought his prisoner back to Yunnan. On a hill in the provincial capital of Kunming, the turncoat general personally strangled to death the last claimant of the dynasty he once served.

Over 250 years after Wu Sangui executed the Yongli Emperor, Cai E (1882-1916), a military officer who participated in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution and served as military governor of Yunnan from 1911 until 1913, ordered the tablet inscribed to honor the fallen Ming monarch. For Cai E and the Republican revolutionaries, Yongli was a martyr who led a defiant resistance against the occupation of China by the Manchus. In the popular zeitgeist, Wu Sangui became one of history’s most famous traitors. Even Wu’s own uprising against the Qing, in the 1670s, couldn’t save the general from his ignominious place in Chinese history.

Over the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to turn Kunming into a hub for Southeast Asia, a node to spread Chinese power into the ASEAN region. Yet the countries which border China have long harbored suspicions – as did King Pye Min centuries earlier – that Chinese intentions in the area are not always benign or mutually beneficial. A century after Pye Min handed the Yongli Emperor over to Wu Sangui, Qing troops were back launching a series of expensive and unsuccessful invasions in Burma and Vietnam. In the 19th century, remnant forces from the failed Taiping and Panthay Rebellions pillaged cities and villages in what is today northern Myanmar and Laos. And in the 20th century, retreating Kuomintang soldiers carved out jungle kingdoms in Burma and Northern Thailand on the spoils of the opium trade.

The commemorative tablet in Kunming is more than just a patriotic celebration of a fallen dynasty; it is a silent reminder of a history which looks entirely different depending on which side of the border you stand. ∎

Header: The stele memorial to the Yongli Emperor in Kunming (Wikicommons).

Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.