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

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

 

Started from a humble slave, Wei Qing grew into an exceptional marshal that led Han’s troops to defeat the main force of the Xiongnu (Huns) several times, and largely 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.

Difficult Early Years As A Slave

Wei Qing, a bastard child of an affair, had been treated badly by his birth father. When he was about 10 years old, he couldn’t stand those heavy works and inhuman abuse in his father’s place, 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.

Afterward, together with his half-sister, they were all slaves in Princess Pingyang’s palace, where his sister Wei Zifu was a singer and Wei Qing looked after horses. 

One day, Liu Che, Emperor Wudi of Han paid a visit to this princess’ palace. He liked Wei Zifu and decided to take her back to his royal palace. 

Seeing Wei Qing was tall and handsome, the emperor took him along as well 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 very jealous.

This queen and her powerful mother kidnapped Wei Qing, beaten him hard, and 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 by his exceptional archery and riding skills, as well as his calm personality. 

Exceptional Success of Wei Qing's First Expedition War

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.

The Han Empire, since it was established in 202 BC, however, had never won on battlefields against Xiongnu. 

On the contrary, the Han Empire had to tribute Xiongnu with money, princess, and endure Xiongnu’s constant robbery and occupation on borders. 

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 was the only one with no battle experiences. 

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

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

Wei Qing, however, achieved big success. He led his army 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 

Establishment of Strong Cavalry Troop of the Han Dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Remarkable, Invincible General Huo Qubing

Soon, Wei Qing’s nephew, another genius commander named Huo Qubing, started to achieve 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. 

Unexpected, Huo Qubing led his 800 guards, without informing his uncle Wei Qing, captured over 3000 Xiongnu’s well-trained warriors and one of their noble lords. 

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

Wei Qing and Huo Qubing were both great cavalry commanders who were excellent at marching deep into the enemy's territory and effectively perish enemies, and they had never failed at war.

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 successes, his three toddler sons were all rewarded with honorable titles.

The emperor set two new positions for Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, as the most powerful 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 achievement and contribution, the emperor kept promising them that Wei Zifu would be the most honorable queen forever, her son would stay as the crown prince safely. 

Meanwhile, Princess Pingyang, the master that he and his sister used to serve, married to 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 Xiongnu

After years of Han’s military successes, many aristocrats of 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 huge desert on the Mongolian Plateau, and to defeat the rest 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. 

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 encountered the well prepared, the strongest main force of the King of Xiongnu, unexpectedly. 

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 so many soldiers missing, Wei Qing immediately changed his plan.

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

He quickly built a solid military base in the desert using chariots and then 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 huge 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 perished other lords and troops of Xiongnu and held a big worship ceremony on their holy mountain.

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

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 planned.

This made Wei Qing had to use much fewer numbers of second class soldiers to fight against Xiongnu’s best cavalry troop in the final battle in the severe desert and made the King of Xiongnu successfully fled. 

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 successful general, ambushed and injured Wei Qing. He thought that Wei Qing’s biased command made his father lost 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 and covered for him.

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 also a wise person with virtue personality. 

According to historical documents, everyone in the government, both civil and military officials, all 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 people 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 his best to consolidate and assist Wei Qing's nephew, the crown prince. 

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 a series of remarkable military achievements, he departed suddenly. 

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

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

After Wei Qing passed away, 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 betrayal.

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 failed in a decisive intense battle. 

Wei Qing’s sister, the 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 for several times, gradually disappeared from the public.  

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

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