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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 the emperor from dangerous situations.

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

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty

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

Early Years Teaching on the Frontier

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

Afterward, he taught in many front-line cities of the Ming Empire in the north.

During those years, Sun Chengzong witnessed numerous wars, destruction, bloodshed, and suffering. It was then that he resolved to bring stability to people's lives and initiated efforts towards that goal.

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

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Ming Dynasty Great Wall in Jinshanling Section in Hebei Province, Photo by Gucheng.

Brilliant Royal Teacher and Remarkable Marshal

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

When Tianqi Emperor Zhu Youjiao (1605 — 1627) ascended to the throne, the Ming Empire encountered significant military failures and had already lost many cities in northeast China to the nomadic regime of 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, he immediately promoted some exceptional generals, recruited many refugees, and trained them into strong troops.


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

Construction of an Unbreakable Defensive Line and Formation of Strong Troops

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

Many refugees, those with great hatred against the Manchu army, were trained into extremely powerful and robust cavalry troops, contributing significantly to defending the Ming Empire. 

Sun Chengzong was already in his 60s then, so he also selected and trained five other courageous and strong generals to assist his apprentice Yuan.

Then he took back many lost cities and built a solid defensive line on the Great Wall, consisting of several geographically important strongholds, military cities, vast farmland, large numbers of advanced weapons, and professional, aggressive, well-trained troops.

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass of Great Wall, Part of the Defensive Line that Sun Chengzong Built.

The defensive line designed and built by Sun Chengzong was unbreakable.


Even after the last Ming emperor committed suicide and the Ming Empire had fallen, the aggressive Manchu soldiers continued to fight here but couldn't break through.

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

The Manchu regime initiated several attack wars, which ended with significant failures.

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

Generals and Soldiers of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu"

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 return and plead in front of the emperor, but Wei successfully persuaded the emperor to let him stay in the frontline city.

Then, Eunuch Wei made several attempts to frame Sun Chengzong on charges of corruption.

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

Sun Chengzong returned to his hometown and lived peacefully with his big family.

Exquisite Carved Lacquer Tray of the Ming Dynasty

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

Retreat of the Ming Empire Following Sun's Departure

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 Sun had built and retreat inside the Great Wall, which he believed would 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 on staying in an important city with his 10,000 soldiers on the frontline to defend the empire.  

General Yuan claimed he and his army would fight until the last person. 

Colored Glaze Lion Renovated During Tianqi Emperor's Reign

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 leader Nurhachi (1559 — 1626) was a skilled military commander who, with about 50,000 cavalrymen, defeated a force of 110,000 Ming soldiers previously.

After learning of Sun Chengzong's retirement, he promptly seized strongholds and cities previously built by Sun and mobilized 60,000 of his elite warriors in an attempt to attack the Ming troops guarding the inside of the Great Wall.

However, General Yuan's isolated city with only 10,000 soldiers stood in the way.

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

Then General Yuan was promoted and reestablished Sun Chengzong's Line of Defense; he led his army to keep winning and expanding, while the Manchu army encountered huge losses. 

After everything was stabilized, however, Eunuch Wei forced General Yuan to resign because Yuan was also considered 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. He spent several months eradicating Wei and his eunuch forces, then summoned General Yuan back to the battlefront city to fight against the 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. 

Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty

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 fight directly against the Manchu army; instead, Yuan followed them, marching around Beijing City and watching them robbing and burning nearby places down.

The reason why General Yuan did this was unclear; some said he had 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 waiting for an excellent opportunity to attack.  

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

Intense Wars in the End of the Ming Dynasty

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

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

Soon, Yuan was imprisoned because he had illegally murdered an important general before, and he should be responsible for the Manchu army besieging Beijing.

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

This was an important and controversial execution in which the Ming Empire might have lost an exceptional general capable of making a big difference or had eliminated a traitor.

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

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, now 66 years old, 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 and successfully defeated and expelled the Manchu army outside the Great Wall; Sun Chengzong took back the lost cities at the speed of one city per day. 

After that, he was again nominated as the chief commander to reinforce and expand the Line of Defense he had built before and led his troops 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" in construction and having implemented the wrong policies.

Sun Chengzong was forced to resign again.

Sun Chengzong's Epic Final Battle 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, or 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 whole family, five sons, six grandsons, and ten nephews, to climb 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.

Qing's army attacking cities

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

Again, the Manchu lord tried 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 in the direction where his emperor was and committed suicide.

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

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

Crystal Drum of the Ming Dynasty

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

Legacy of Sun Chengzong

This exceptional genius, knowledgeable enough to be the crown prince's teacher, brave and intelligent enough to gain such extraordinary military achievements and saved his kingdom several times, dedicated his entire life to protecting his country.

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

He, along with large numbers of other generals and soldiers, showed the world that there is a certain kind of people in the history of China; they always choose the path that they believe in, even if it is quite difficult or cruel, even when they know that they won't see what they expected in the end.

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

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

In the following decades, innumerable people kept fighting intensely, trying to recover the Ming; until 1683, when the last force in Taiwan was defeated and complied with the Qing Dynasty. 

Golden Box of the Qing Dynasty Decorated with Gems

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

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