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Wei Qing of the Han Dynasty — From Slave to Great Marshal

Wei Qing (? — 106 BC), courtesy name Zhongqing, posthumous name Lie, was one of the most extraordinary, accomplished generals in the history of China and a great hero of the Han Dynasty.


Starting from a humble slave, Wei Qing grew into an exceptional marshal who led Han’s troops to defeat the main force of the Xiongnu (Huns) several times and broadly extended Han’s territory. 


Because of his remarkable achievement and talent, he consolidated his sister Wei Zifu’s queen’s crown, married the honorable Princess Pingyang, and gained Emperor Wudi of Han’s trust and respect.

Great marshal Wei Qing of Han Dynasty

Difficult Early Years As A Slave

Wei Qing, a bastard child of an affair, had been poorly treated by his birth father. When he was about ten years old, he couldn't stand the heavy work and inhuman abuse in his father's place, and he traveled a long distance to seek his birth mother. 

Then, he changed his family name to his mother's "Wei" and cut off his father for good.

Later, along with his half-sister, they became slaves in Princess Pingyang's palace. While his sister Wei Zifu served as a singer, Wei Qing was tasked with caring for horses.

One day, Liu Che, Emperor Wudi of Han, visited this princess' palace. He liked Wei Zifu and took her back to his royal palace. 

Emperor Wudi Liu Che of Han Dynasty

Seeing that Wei Qing was tall and handsome, the emperor took him along and asked him to work as an imperial guard.

One year later, his sister Wei Zifu got pregnant with the emperor’s first child, which made the current queen jealous.

This queen and her powerful mother kidnapped Wei Qing and beat him almost to death until one of his friends rescued him.

Hearing about this crime, the emperor promoted Wei Zifu, rewarded Wei’s family, and assigned Wei Qing as his bodyguard. 

Afterward, Wei Qing got more chances to impress the emperor with his exceptional archery and riding skills and his calm personality. 

The Exceptional Success of Wei Qing's First Expeditionary Campaign

Since the ending of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), the Xiongnu regime kept expanding up in the north.


Their aggressive, invincible cavalry troops had frequently invaded other regimes and occupied large numbers of land.

Since it was established in 202 BC, the Han Empire had never won on battlefields against Xiongnu.

On the contrary, the Han Empire had to tribute to the Xiongnu with money and princesses and endure the Xiongnu's constant robbery and occupation of the border areas. 

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Hence, after a few years of preparations, Emperor Wudi decided to fight back against Xiongnu.

Four independent same-scale troops were sent to the northern borders of the Han Dynasty, and Wei Qing was the commander of one of them.

Commanders of the other three armies were well-established, highly respected generals, while Wei Qing had no battle experience. 

In many people's eyes, he was just the brother of the emperor's favorite concubine. 

In the end, two troops encountered significant failures, and one returned without accomplishing anything. 

Wei Qing, however, achieved considerable success. He led his army and occupied Xiongnu's sacred city, where they worshiped their gods.

For the first time being a general, he proved his outstanding ability and talent using a big victory.

Unearthed Cavalry Figurines of the Western Han Dynasty — Xianyang Museum

Unearthed Cavalry Figurines of the Western Han Dynasty — Xianyang Museum 

Establishment of Han Dynasty's Formidable Cavalry Troops

This was the first time in the Han Dynasty that the army of Han achieved big military success in fighting against the Xiongnu, who were no longer invincible.

Emperor Wudi was quite happy with this unparalleled military success and promoted Wei Qing to the chief commander.

Then, Wei Qing built a substantial, aggressive, advanced cavalry troop and implemented many military tactics that were incredibly efficient in wars against the Xiongnu.

Afterward, Wei Qing led this troop, defeated the Xiongnu several times, and kept winning and expanding. 

Large numbers of territories were occupied by the Han Empire, while many of the Xiongnu’s people and livestock were captured.

Since then, people within borders no longer need to worry about being invaded or robbed.

Ruins of Han Great Wall

Ruins of Han Dynasty Great Wall in Gansu, Photo by Gucheng.

Another Remarkable and Invincible General Huo Qubing

Soon, Wei Qing's nephew, another genius commander Huo Qubing, started achieving great military success.

Huo Qubing (140 BC — 117 BC), another bastard boy, was appreciated by the emperor and raised in the royal palace since he was the nephew of Wei Qing. 

Unexpectedly, Huo Qubing led his 800 guards to capture over 3000 Xiongnu's well-trained warriors and one of their noble lords without informing his uncle Wei Qing. 

Seeing Huo Qubing's extraordinary talent, the emperor and Wei Qing trusted him with more armies and powers. As expected, this genius had won all the wars he had ever participated in.

Wei Qing and Huo Qubing were great cavalry commanders who were excellent at marching deep into the enemy's territory and effectively perishing enemies.


They had never failed at war.

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Paramount Power and Honor of the Wei Clan

After Wei Qing achieved such great success, his three toddler sons were rewarded with honorable titles.

The emperor set two new positions for Wei Qing and Huo Qubing as the most potent and honorable officials of the Han Empire.

At that time, his sister Wei Zifu was already the queen. But as time went by, other young, beautiful concubines obtained the emperor's attention; Zifu got older and wasn't as appreciated by the emperor as she used to be. 

Because of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing's achievements and contributions, the emperor kept promising them that Wei Zifu would be the most honorable queen forever and that her son would stay as the crown prince safely. 

Meanwhile, Princess Pingyang, the master he and his sister used to serve, married Wei Qing.

Gilt Silver Incense Burner that Emperor Wudi Awarded to His Sister Princess Pingyang and Wei Qing

Gilt Silver Incense Burner that Emperor Wudi Awarded to Princess Pingyang and Wei Qing — Shaanxi History Museum

The Large-scale, Decisive Final War Against the Xiongnu

After years of Han’s military successes, many aristocrats of the Xiongnu and their population were captured or surrendered. 

The rest, including the King of Xiongnu and his main force, escaped to the desert deep in the north, who, however, still would harass the Han Empire whenever they had the chance.

Hence, Emperor Wudi commanded Wei Qing and Huo Qubing to lead 50,000 cavalrymen each, march across the vast desert on the Mongolian Plateau, and defeat the rest of the forces of the Xiongnu. 

This was the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC, one of the most important and influential wars in the history of China. 

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Since Huo Qubing was younger and quite ambitious, he got the best soldiers, horses, and weapons and was assigned the task of perishing the main force of the King of Xiongnu.

Some people also believed that the emperor needed to restrain Wei Qing’s clan, which involved the queen, crown prince, and a powerful princess, so Huo Qubing was allowed to accomplish more. 

At last, Wei Qing unexpectedly encountered the well-prepared, the strongest main force of the King of Xiongnu. 

At that time, two generals that were supposed to lead their armies to join and support Wei Qing got lost.

Facing the outnumbered strong enemy, with two generals and many soldiers missing, Wei Qing immediately changed his plan.

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Nanyang Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

He built a solid military base in the desert using chariots and sent his cavalry troop to fight bravely. Soon, when a fresh gale stormed, he separated his army and commanded them to besiege the King of Xiongnu from two wings.

After seeing the enormous losses of his main force, the King of Xiongnu escaped.

In the end, Wei Qing led his second-class soldiers and won this decisive battle after long and intense fights.

Huo Qubing conquered other lords and troops of the Xiongnu and held a big worship ceremony on their holy mountain.

Together, they perished over 90,000 Xiongnu soldiers and captured large numbers of livestock; these two great marshals completely solved the border issues.

Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guesthouse Along with the Silk Road

Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guest House Along the Silk Road that was opened up after Wei Qing and Huo Qubing's Military Success — Dunhuang, Gansu Province 

Assassination and Forgiveness

Those two generals, who were supposed to lead their troops to support Wei Qing, got lost in the desert and did not meet him as they had planned.

This made Wei Qing have to lead much fewer second-class soldiers to fight against Xiongnu’s best cavalry troops in the final battle in the severe desert and made the King of Xiongnu successfully flee. 

So, Wei Qing sent people to inquire about those two generals and reported this incident to the emperor.

But one of them, General Li Guang (? — 119 BC), was old and proud. He didn’t want to go through with all the interrogations, so he committed suicide.

Later, this general’s son Li Gan (? — 118 BC), another victorious general, ambushed and injured Wei Qing. He thought Wei Qing’s partial command made his father lose in the desert. 

Though Wei Qing did nothing wrong but got beaten, he tried to hide this assassination and forgave Li Gan. 

But later, Huo Qubing heard about this incident that happened to his uncle. Then he killed Li Gan, who had subordinated to him as a general in the wars against Xiongnu for a long time. 

Then, Huo Qubing reported everything, but the emperor did not blame him and covered him.

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Paramount Power and Benevolent Virtue

Wei Qing was a brilliant hero who protected his country and people and a wise person with a virtuous personality. 

According to historical documents, everyone in the government, civil and military officials, highly respected Wei Qing. 

He was always polite and kind to his colleagues, no matter how powerful he was or how much he had accomplished. He frequently shared his rewards with others and forgave those who offended or hurt him.

Even though Huo Qubing was as powerful as Wei Qing and more appreciated by the emperor, their uncle-nephew relationship was always very close.

Huo Qubing also tried to consolidate and assist Wei Qing's nephew, the crown prince. 

Mythical Animal Chihu Shaped Jade Decoration of the Han Dynasty

Mythical Animal Chihu Shaped Jade Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Dabaotai Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum in Beijing (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Departure of Great Marshals Huo Qubing and Wei Qing

Huo Qubing departed when he was only 23 years old. His life was glorious, short, and simple; after having accomplished several remarkable military achievements, he passed away suddenly. 

Wei Qing passed away 11 years after Huo's departure.

The emperor commanded to bury them on each side of his imperial mausoleum, the highest honor for officials of a feudal empire in Chinese culture.

After Wei Qing passed, Emperor Wudi immediately published another announcement to recruit talented people.


Soon, his other favorite imperial concubine's brother was nominated as the commander of Han's army. 

But these people ended up with a series of military failures and betrayals.

After powerful Wei Qing and Huo Qubing departed, more people began to cast greedy eyes on the crown prince Liu Ju and implemented a series of schemes to replace him.  

A few years after Wei Qing's departure, the crown prince was framed up and committed suicide after failing in an intense, decisive battle. 

Wei Qing's sister, Queen Wei Zifu, then suicide as well.  

Wei Qing's first son was implicated and sentenced to death later.

His two other sons and grandsons lived in low profile afterward until decades later, Liu Ju's grandson Liu Xun (the Emperor Xuan of Han) ascended to the throne and rewarded Wei Qing's clan.

From that time on, Wei Qing's descendants, though honored and rewarded several times, gradually disappeared from the public.  

 Mausoleum of Wei Qing

 Mausoleum of Wei Qing, Next to Emperor Wudi's Maoling in Xingping City, Shaanxi Province. 

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