Sun Chengzong — Exceptional Commander of the Late Ming Dynasty and His Heroic Sacrifice

Sun Chengzong (1563 — 1638), courtesy name Zhisheng, was a remarkable and loyal militarist, educator, poet, and strategist in the history of China.

He was a brilliant marshal in the late Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), who built a strong defense line for his empire, and saved his emperor from dangerous situations.

Scholars of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) believed that if Sun Chengzong was always trusted and in charge of Ming’s military, Qing would never have the chance to replace Ming.

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Intelligent Scholar and His Early Years Teaching in Borders

Sun Chengzong was born into an ordinary family and passed the local Imperial Examination when he was 15 years old.

Afterward, he had been teaching in many front-line cities of the Ming Empire in the north.

During those years, Sun Chengzong witnessed lots of wars, destruction, blood, and suffering; then he made up his mind to make a change, and try to bring people with stable lives.

So he participated in the National Imperial Examination and won second place when he was 41 years old. 

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

Brilliant Royal Teacher and Remarkable Marshal

A few years later, he was nominated as the teacher of the crown prince; Emperor Zhu Youjiao and his father both had been taught by Sun Chengzong for a long time.  

When Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao (1605 — 1627) ascended to the throne, the Ming Empire encountered some big military failures and had already lost many cities in northeast China to the nomadic regime Manchu.

Therefore, the emperor sent his trusted teacher Sun Chengzong to the northeast frontline to defend the empire. 

This turned out to be an excellent decision.

As soon as Sun Chengzong arrived there, he immediately promoted some exceptional generals, recruited many refugees, and trained them into a strong troop.

 

At the same time, he also expelled many incapable ones, which displeased many people.

Constructing Unbreakable Defensive Line and Strong Troops

Sun Chengzong also led his soldiers to finish many functional military constructions, promoted and trained his last student Yuan Chonghuan (1584 — 1630), another excellent but controversial general.

Many refugees, those who hold great hatred against the Manchu army, were trained into an extremely powerful and strong cavalry troop, which then made great contributions in defending the Ming Empire. 

Sun Chengzong was already in his 60s at that time, so he also selected and trained five other remarkably brave and strong generals to assist his apprentice Yuan.

Then he took back many lost cities and built a strong defensive line, which was consisted of several geographically important strongholds, military cities, vast farmland, as well as large numbers of advanced weapons and a professional, aggressive, well-trained troop.

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass in Qinhuangdao City, Part of the Defensive Line that Sun Chengzong Built.

This line of defense that Sun Chengzong designed and built was unbreakable; even after Ming’s last emperor committed suicide and the Ming Empire has perished, the aggressive Manchu soldiers were still fighting here and couldn’t break it.  

Under Sun’s excellent management, the Ming Empire kept expanding gradually and stably.

The regime Manchu initiated several attack wars, but all ended up with big failures.

With those excellent generals and loyal soldiers garrisoning there, the northeast borders back to peace, and everything looked perfect.  

Generals and Soldiers of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

Political Conspiracies and Retirement 

Later, the emperor's favorite and most powerful eunuch Wei eliminated the political party that Sun Chengzong belonged to and murdered many of their loyal officials, but Sun refused to comply with Wei.

Sun Chengzong wanted to go back and plead in front of the emperor, but Wei successfully persuaded the emperor to let him stay in the frontline city.

Then, eunuch Wei tried several times to frame up Sun Chengzong, under the charge of corruption.

The emperor still respected him as his teacher, so he just let Sun Chengzong retired with honor, and warned the Eunuch Wei not to assassinate Sun. 

Sun Chengzong went back to his hometown, lived a peaceful life there with his big family.

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Retreating of Ming Empire After Sun Chengzong's Leave

Eunuch Wei then nominated one of his followers, who turned out to be an absolute coward, to replace Sun's position.

This person commanded everyone to give up all the strongholds and cities that Sun had built and then retreated inside of the Great Wall, where he believed to be safer.

Tens of thousands of soldiers and large numbers of civilians had to move back to a narrow city, while hundreds of valuable military sites and several important cities were abandoned. 

At that time, only Sun Chengzong’s apprentice Yuan refused to retreat; he insisted to stay in an important city, together with his 10,000 soldiers, in the frontline to defend the empire.  

General Yuan claimed that he and his army would keep fighting until the last person. 

Colored Glaze Lion Renovated During Tianqi Emperor's Reign, Used As Mythical, Fortunate Animal Guarding in Front of Temples — Palace Museum

Inspiring Success of General Yuan Chonghuan 

The Manchu Lord Nurhachi (1559 — 1626) was a talented marshal, who used to lead about 50,000 cavalrymen defeated Ming’s 110,000 soldiers before.

After hearing that Sun Chengzong retired, he immediately occupied strongholds and cities that Sun built before, and led 60,000 of his elite warriors trying to attack Ming's troops guarding inside the Great Wall.

However, General Yuan’s isolated city with only 10,000 soldiers was standing in the way.

After intense battles, the lord Nurhachi with exceptional military skills, however, ended up with big failure; he was injured in this battle and soon passed away.

Then General Yuan got promoted and reestablished Sun Chengzong’s Line of Defense; he led his army kept winning and expanding, while the Manchu army encountered huge losses. 

After everything was stabilized, however, the Eunuch Wei forced General Yuan to resign, because Yuan was also considered as his political enemy.

General Yuan Chonghuan's Ambition and Fault

Years later, the emperor passed away and gave the throne to his younger brother, the Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian (1611 — 1644).

The new emperor Zhu Youjian was an ambitious monarch, who used several months perished Wei and his eunuch forces and then summoned General Yuan back to the battlefront city to fight against Manchu. 

General Yuan finally had the opportunity to rebuild and strengthen the Line of Defense that Sun Chengzong constructed before.

But unlike his teacher, Yuan was more proud and arrogant.

He wrongly executed another contributive and loyal general; then, when Manchu's new lord made a long detour, avoided his Line of Defense, and marched toward the capital city Beijing, Yuan didn’t react well and put Beijing in danger again, because of his wrong judgment. 

Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Intense War of Defending Beijing City 

Under that circumstance, Sun Chengzong was summoned back to defend the Ming Empire.

This time, Yuan didn’t listen to Sun’s order to directly fight against the Manchu army; instead, Yuan followed them marching around the Beijing City, and watched them robing and burning many nearby places down.

The reason why General Yuan did this was unclear; some said he already secretly surrendered to Manchu, some believed that he was better at defending a city, and others thought he was afraid to lose because he had fewer soldiers than Manchu, or he was just waiting for a good opportunity to attack.  

Anyway, Yuan didn’t ambush the Manchu army in other places that Sun Chengzong had planned; this made Manchu troop soon arrived outside of Beijing City.  

After a series of intense battles, the Manchu army still couldn’t get inside of the Ming's capital, and the Ming Empire also lost many good soldiers and brave generals.

Therefore, the Manchu army occupied four other cities surrounding Beijing, waiting for other opportunities to attack this capital.

Soon, Yuan was put into prison, because he illegally murdered an important general before, and he should be responsible for the Manchu army besieging of Beijing.

Yuan was executed, under the name of treason, and his entire family was banished far away. 

This was an important and controversial execution, which Ming Empire might have had lost an exceptional general that was capable to make a big difference, or just eliminated a traitor.

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

Invincible Sun Chengzong - the Savior of the Ming Empire

Sun Chengzong, who was now already 66 years old, then led only 27 people and rushed into the battlefront city near Beijing.

He used a few months to comfort and organize his former aggressive generals and cavalry troops that only listened to Yuan and Sun, and then started to prepare to fight back.

He led Ming's troops, successfully defeated and expelled the Manchu army back outside of the Great Wall; Sun Chengzong took back the lost cities with the speed of one city per day. 

After that, Sun Chengzong was nominated as the chief commander again, to reinforce and expand the Line of Defense that he built before, and led his troop to defend the empire. 

Later, another military site that Sun Chengzong constructed was attacked and defeated by Manchu; then, some people blamed Sun Chengzong for being "radical" on constructions and having implemented wrong policies.

Sun Chengzong was forced to resign again.

Sun Chengzong's Epic Final War and Honorable Sacrifice 

In the next few years, the new Manchu Lord Hong Taiji or Huang Taiji (1592 — 1643) again, detoured and tried to attack Beijing city.

This time, the Manchu troop also surrounded a very small town that had no soldiers nor enough food nor any military weapons, the city where the retired Sun Chengzong was living.

The Manchu lord sent many people to persuade Sun Chengzong to comply and promised him countless treasures and power, but he refused.  

Then, Sun Chengzong led his entire family, five sons, six grandsons, and ten nephews, climbed onto the city wall to fight against Manchu.

 

Around 1000 civilians inside the city were highly moved by Sun Chengzong and all followed his commands.

This 76-year-old general led his entire family members and those civilians bravely fought with the strong Manchu cavalry army for a few days but failed.

Again, the Manchu lord started to try to make Sun Chengzong surrender, and he refused as always. 

The lord regarded Sun Chengzong as their most threatening enemy, so they gave Sun the dignity to choose the way he left the world. Sun then bowed to the direction where his emperor was and committed suicide.

Another version was that the lord tied Sun Chengzong on a horse, dragged and tortured him to death cruelly, but they then hid the truth in historical documents.

Sun Chengzong's entire family sacrificed in that battle, except a very old lady and a five-year-old toddler. 

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

Legacy of Sun Chengzong

This exceptional genius, who was knowledgeable enough to be the crown princes’ teacher, who was brave and intelligent to gain such extraordinary military achievements and saved his kingdom for several times, dedicated his entire life to protecting his country.

Sun Chengzong was a brave general, a great militarist, an insightful strategist, talented literature, and a genuine patriot.

He and large numbers of other generals and soldiers, together, they showed the world that there is a certain kind of people in the history of China, they always would choose the path that they believe in, even it is quite difficult or cruel, even when they knew that they wouldn’t see what they had expected in the end. 

Six years later Sun Chengzong's death, the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide and the Ming Dynasty was ended. 

General Wu Sangui surrendered, opened the gate of the defense line, and let the Manchu army marched inside the Great Wall.

In the next decades, a large number of people kept fighting intensely, trying to recover Ming; until 1683, the last force in Taiwan was defeated and complied with the Qing Dynasty. 

Golden Box of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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