Lan Yu — An Extraordinary General of Ming Dynasty And A Victim of Politics

Lan Yu (? — 1393) was an accomplished general of the early Ming Dynasty, who led the Ming's army and successfully won the Battle of Buir Lake that perished the Northern Yuan's remaining forces and contributed significantly to Ming's expansion on the southwest and northwest of China. 

Besides his exceptional military success, Lan Yu was also a very close friend of the Ming's powerful crown prince and the father-in-law of another prince.

However, the early departure of the crown prince changed everything. Plus Lan Ye's personality, he ended up as a tragic victim of politics that had to be buried with his best friend. 

General Lan Yu of Ming Dynasty in History of China

Brilliant General Lan Yu and His Early Military Life

There were two most talented and contributive generals in Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s army, who started serving in his army when he only had few soldiers. They were quite brave and extraordinary and played important roles in the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).

One of them was famous General Chang Yuchun (1330 — 1369), and Lan Yu (? — 1393) was his brother-in-law. 

Therefore, Lan Yu started his military life in Chang’s army, when he impressed Chang soon with his extremely braveness and decisiveness.

Under Chang’s recommendation along with his remarkable military performance, Lan Yu then achieved more successes and had almost cooperated with all the amazing generals at that time.

He kept winning on battlefields and made great contributions to Ming's expansion. 

Besides Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, Lan Yu was widely considered as one of the top three marshals in the early Ming Dynasty (the other two were Xu Da and Chang Yuchun). 

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

Establishment of the Northern Yuan Dynasty


Among Lan Yu's invincible military accomplishments, the most noteworthy achievement was in Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s sixth Northern Expedition against the nomad government that was established by Genghis Khan’s Golden Family of the former Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368).

In the year 1368, when Zhu Yuanzhang's army was marching toward Yuan's capital city, Yuan's Emperor Toghon Temür (1320 — 1370) took his forces and fled northward, after having seriously read astrological signs. 

His escape lost Yuan's reign in the whole of the middle kingdom, but also retained Yuan's government and strong armies that supported him established the Northern Yuan Dynasty (1368 — 1402).

Hence, after the Ming Dynasty was established, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang organized several Northern Expeditions to eliminating Northern Yuan's forces. 

Toghon Temür the Emperor Shun of Yuan in Painting "Fo Lang Guo Xian Ma Tu",  By Artist Zhou Lang of the Yuan Dynasty

Toghon Temür the Emperor Shun of Yuan in Painting "Fo Lang Guo Xian Ma Tu",  By Artist Zhou Lang of the Yuan Dynasty — Palace Museum

Lan Yu's Most Remarkable Military Achievement

In the year 1388, Lan Yu was commanded as the chief commander of the Ming Empire's army in Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s sixth Northern Expedition. 

He led 150,000 soldiers and marched into Buir Lake, now named the Bell Lake.

Lan Yu's troops carried limited food and water, which was a huge challenge marching in the endless desert, let alone they also needed to search for their cavalry enemy and always stay prepared to fight.

Therefore, the ruling class and warriors of the Northern Yuan believed that the Ming’s army wouldn’t dare to go this far, because of the bad weather and limited water and food. 

On the other side, however, Lan Yu led his soldiers and conquered all of these difficulties, pinpointed Northern Yuan’s effective strengths, and defeated them out of a sudden with few losses.

Lan Yu captured over 80,000 of their people, including hundreds of their royal members, and obtained large numbers of their treasures and livestock.

After this war, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan’s honorable Golden Family lost their control over the Mongolian Plateau forever, and the rest of Mongolians then separated into three smaller regimes. 

This war was the Battle of Buir Lake in Chinese history.

Jade Horse of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Horse of the Ming Dynasty — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Lan Yu's Friendship with the Perfect Crown Prince Zhu Biao

Zhu Biao (1355 — 1392), Lan Yu’s best friend, was the first son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Empress Ma, and the crown prince of the Ming Dynasty.

Prince Zhu Biao was a very kind and talented person, who was highly appreciated and loved by his parents.

After the Ming Dynasty was established, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang immediately nominated Zhu Biao as the crown prince and sent the best marshals and ministers to teach and assist him. 

Zhu Biao participated in politics and governance very young and did an excellent job. He was respected and supported by everyone, important ministers, generals, other princes, let alone his beloved parents.

Moreover, he was a very good big brother, who always took care of his siblings and covered up for them when they made mistakes.

Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook of Ming Dynasty

Dragon Shaped Jade Belt Hook of Ming Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The perfect heir Zhu Biao married to a niece of General Lan Yu, and nominated her as his queen; this marriage made Lan Yu and Zhu Biao got even closer.

Lan Yu also suggested Zhu Biao eliminate his fourth younger brother Zhu Di, saying that Zhu Di was ambitious about the throne, and was quite possible to rebel in the future.

A few years later, Lan Yu was proved quite correct; however, Zhu Biao didn’t believe that his behaved younger brother would do things like that. 

Zhu Biao was a polite and loyal kid that was loved by his outstanding parents, and a brilliant and highly respected crown prince that obtained support from everyone. 

He would be a perfect emperor of the Ming Empire. 

Departing of the Crown Prince and the Dilemma of Lan Yu

Unfortunately, however, the crown prince Zhu Biao passed away because of sickness when he was only 36 years old.

After a long time of grief and serious consideration, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang decided to nominate his grandson Zhu Yunwen (1377 — ?), the oldest son of Zhu Biao, as the new crown prince. 

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang never doubted Lan Yu’s loyalty to Zhu Biao; however, his fidelity to Yunwen, no one could make sure.

Zhu Biao’s first son died very young; Zhu Yunwen, his second-oldest son, was given birth by another concubine, not Lan Yu’s niece.

That means Lan Yu was never close to this young heir Zhu Yunwen. 

However, Lan Yu's only daughter was the queen of the King of Shu, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s eleventh son.

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty

Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian), Unearthed From Tomb of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang  — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Lan Yu's Proudness and Arrogance

Besides his exceptional military talent, indifference to new heir, the closeness to King of Shu, Lan Yu's personality was an important reason that had made Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang considered him as a huge threat to Zhu Yunwen's reign in the future.

Lan Yu did occupy land illegally, and angrily expelled officials that were sent to investigate him. 

When he was marching back to Ming after the big success defeating Northern Yuan, a general of an important military pass refused to open the gate for him at night, just as the law regulated. However, Lan Yu led his soldiers and attacked this site and came in. 

In some gossips, Lan Yu also flirted, even slept with an imperial concubine of Northern Yuan. 

Lan Yu also showed unsatisfactory concerning his rewards; he believed that he deserved higher titles and positions, based on his military achievements and extraordinary contribution.

When the perfect crown prince Zhu Biao was alive, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang only demoted and warned Lan Yu. 

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty — Ningxia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A Controversial Rebellion that Buried Lan Yu

However, the next year after Zhu Biao’s departure, someone reported that Lan Yu was planning to rebel.

Soon, Lan Yu was put into prison, and then sentenced to death. Large numbers of people who had connections with Lan Yu were involved and executed as well. 

Some believed that Lan Yu did plan to rebel after Zhu Biao’s death, since he was unsatisfied with some of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang’s policies, and his title was not as noble as he had expected.

More people thought that Lan Yu was framed up, because of his potentiality to threaten the new heir. Indeed, Lan Yu had the reason and ability to overthrow Zhu Yunwen and make his son-in-law, the King of Shu as the new emperor. 

The truth about whether General Lan Yu had planned to rebel was still unclear, since every side of the story was possible.

Crystal Drum of the Ming Dynasty — Zhongxiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ironic Ending of the Competition Over the Throne

But, his friendship with crown prince Zhu Biao was sincere and genuine.

If Zhu Biao was alive, Lan Yu would stay alive and being a great and loyal marshal who could protect his best friend’s reign and assist him to keep the empire in peace; Zhu Di, the next emperor that snatched the throne from Zhu Yunwen, probably would always be a behaved younger brother and a lord that staying in his vassal state.

If Lan Yu hadn't sentenced to death and kept serving Emperor Zhu Yunwen, Zhu Di would never have the chance to win over the throne through the rebel war. 

But there were no ifs.

Lan Yu and many other excellent generals were executed soon after Zhu Biao’s death.

Prince Zhu Di that Lan Yu had always believed as a snatcher of the throne, did rebel, and then imprisoned or murdered most of Zhu Biao’s descendants. 

Stone Dragon Stigma of the Relic of The Forbidden City of Nanjing (Built in 1366 — 1392) that was Burnt Down After Zhu Di's Army Occupied Nanjing — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)