Yu Qian — Savior of the Ming Dynasty

Yu Qian (1398 — 1457) was one of the most exceptional and honest heroes in the history of China.

When the Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen failed in the Tumu Fortress and buried Ming’s crack force and almost perished the empire, Yu Qian saved the Ming Dynasty from this life-and-death crisis and prevented his country from being perished or forced to cede large territory. 

He led Ming’s remaining soldiers successfully defended the capital city Beijing and had defeated their enemies utterly. 

However, in the end, he was executed in the city that he had dedicated his life to protecting, because of political conspiracies. 

A Brilliant Genius, and A Righteous Official

Yu Qian was born into a rich family; he was a well-educated genius who achieved a good score in the Imperial Examination. 

Then he was assigned a political occupation, and started to serve the Ming Empire as a civil officer.

After the Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji having successfully defeated his rebelled uncle and commanded Yu Qian to criticize his uncle about his crimes, surprisingly, Yu Qian was quite a great lecturer who made the rebel king weeping and trembling on the ground and immediately pleaded guilty.

Yu Qian’s eloquence and integrity impressed the emperor and got promoted very soon.

No matter what position Yu Qian was assigned to, he always did an excellent job and stayed honest and fearless. Hence, through his talent and decency, he obtained respect from large numbers of civilians and officials. 

Calligraphy of Yu Qian "Ti Gong Zhong Ta Tu Zan" — Palace Museum

Years later, Zhu Qizhen (1427 — 1464), the Zhengtong Emperor or Emperor Yingzong of Ming, ascended to the throne, and his favorite eunuch Wang Zhen achieved more authority. 

This vicious, but powerful eunuch put Yu Qian into prison and sentenced him to death under a fake and stupid charge, but the real reason was that Yu Qian never tried to bribe his eunuch groups and always showed them with contempt.

Large numbers of civilians and officials, included some very powerful prime ministers and princes, were quite furious and submitted a joint letter showing that Yu Qian was innocent. 

Therefore, a few months later, Yu Qian was released, and even got promoted.

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

Life and Death Tumu Fortress Crisis of the Ming Empire 

In the year 1449, Yexian, lord of Oriats Mongols, led his troop and invaded Ming’s border. 

Emperor Zhu Qizhen personally led Ming’s 250,000 soldiers marched northward, under the suggestion of eunuch Wang Zhen. They planned to achieve big military success, despite all other officers and generals were all strongly opposed to this idea. 

Having many intelligent generals in the army, however, Emperor Zhu Qizhen only listened to eunuch Wang Zhen, who knew nothing about the military, but only commanded Ming’s soldiers kept marching, like a parade.

In the end, because of their stupid, absurd commands, Ming’s troops encountered an ambush in Tumu Fortress. 

Tens of thousands of first-class warriors were slaughtered without a decent fight, large numbers of brilliant officials and exceptional generals sacrificed, and the Emperor Zhu Qizhen himself was captured by Lord Yexian.

With the emperor as a hostage, the nomadic army kept winning and marching toward Ming’s capital city Beijing. 

Inside the Beijing city, the Ming Empire had very few soldiers, lots of scared people, and without an emperor; a similar situation that happened in the Song Dynasty, when emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan were captured by nomad Regime Jin.

Every one of the Ming Empire was shocked, sad, angry, shameful, and helpless.

Several days ago, their kingdom was still strong, powerful, and prosperous; their aggressive troop had been chasing their nomadic enemy in the desert for decades.

But out of a sudden, they lost their main force in such a stupid and shameful way and had their emperor captured. 

Court Portrait of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Taipei Palace Museum

Savior Yu Qian and Ming Empire’s Final Decision

Under that circumstance, many officials suggested that the Ming Empire should move its capital city to southern China to save some resources, and then try to fight back. 

They were afraid that if they lost Beijing city, the entire royal family and government would have perished, and thus so would the Ming Dynasty.

They pointed out that Emperor Zhu Qizhen’s army that has over 250,000 first-class soldiers already had been defeated by less than 50,000 nomadic cavalrymen, they wondered how the remaining less than 100,000 third class soldiers (old, retired and much younger people with no military experiences and poor weapons) could protect the big capital city from the same, maybe much enlarged, powerful nomadic troop. 

But Yu Qian insisted on staying in Beijing and fighting back.

The Royal Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty in Beijing

He believed that the Ming Empire could not follow the Song Dynasty’s path and lose half of their realm; whoever wanted to escape to the south should be sentenced to death.

More officials supported Yu Qian and nominated him as the chief commander of Beijing’s army because they didn’t want to lose half of their territory and dignity as the Song Dynasty did before.

Therefore, the Ming Empire refused to pay more ransom money or negotiate with the nomadic enemy; instead, they immediately started to prepare for the upcoming war. 

Most importantly, they supported Zhu Qizhen’s younger brother Zhu Qiyu to be the new emperor.

By doing that, the nomadic regime couldn’t get any more advantages from holding their previous emperor as the hostage.

Court Portrait of Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu

From A Civil Officer to the Chief Commander 

As a bookish man with zero military experiences, Yu Qian now became the chief commander to protect the capital city of the Ming Dynasty.

He reorganized those remaining soldiers from the former lost war in Tumu Fortress, summoned reserve forces from other nearby cities, and started to have them trained. 

He selected some qualified and brave generals to assist him, also stocked enough food, and encouraged civilians inside the capital city. 

Meanwhile, he supported Zhu Qiyu (1428 — 1457), respected as Jingtai Emperor or Emperor Daizong of Ming, eliminated eunuch Wang Zhen’s evil forces, and stabilized the new government. 

Yu Qian successfully gave sufficient faith, hope, and courage to everyone in the city, as well as strong wills, to revenge for their lost soldiers and dignity.

Firearm (Huo Chong) of Ming that Produced During this Period — National Museum of China

Epic War Protecting the City of Beijing

Soon, Lord Yexuan, who had defeated Ming Empire’s over 250,000 good soldiers, arrived outside of Beijing, and dreamt to occupy the city, and to recover the former Yuan Dynasty here.

Commander Yu Qian didn’t stay inside the city wall to defend the city as long as he can. Because there would be no other reinforcements anymore, and they were all on their own.

He knew that if they lost this war, their country would perish for good.  

Prime Minister Yu Qian, for the first time, put on the armor and took a sword, led all of his soldiers came outside of the city wall of Beijing, and closed all the nine gates behind them.

His last command was that no one would go back into the city unless they won; whoever got scared or wanted to retreat would be executed immediately; everyone should fight bravely, because this was the life and death, final decisive battle.

From a bookish civil minister with no military experience to a decisive and firm marshal, Yu Qian used only a month. 

Ming’s army firstly ambushed and perished a cavalry troop with about 10,000 warriors, which was one of the most powerful main forces of the nomadic regime. One of the Lord Yexian’s brothers was killed in that battle as well.

Then, Ming’s another general that was escaped from the Tumu Fortress battle, but was nominated by Yu Qian, organized his one-month-trained cavalry troop actively attacked the lord’s main army, and successfully defeated them.

Immediately, his vengeance army chased the Lord Yexian and his 60,000 soldiers around, trying to perish all of them.

After a series of epic, heroic, and intense battles, the capital city Beijing was finally, and successfully defended. 

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

Remarkable Success of Hero Yu Qian

Seeing such a big failure, Lord Yexian led his army and left Beijing city quickly and planned to occupy another important military site nearby.

But he failed again, because the chief general of that site had already poured water on the city wall, and made it an icy wall that was very difficult to climb; then the general actively attacked the lord for several times out of a sudden in the cold weather.

After a big bombardment in the middle of the night, Lord Yexian had to lead his army to escape northward to his realm. 

Till now, Yu Qian led Ming’s people and achieved a complete success. They protected their kingdom and people, regained dignity, and revenged for those buried soldiers in the Tumu Fortress.

One year later, the nomadic regime wanted to send their captured Emperor Zhu Qizhen back.

But the new Jingtai Emperor didn’t want to give back the throne, so he tried to refuse. 

Then, Yu Qian persuaded him that Zhu Qizhen could be respected as the overlord, who wouldn't be a threat to the throne. Besides, morally, the emperor should not exclude his big brother outside of the country.

Consequently, Zhu Qizhen came back but was imprisoned by the new Jingtai Emperor.

Since then, with the assistance of Yu Qian, the Ming Empire gradually got its prosperity back, when people lived in stable and wealthy lives. 

Cloisonne (Jingtai Lan) Bowl, Produced in the Reign of and Named after the Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu — National Museum of China

Unjust Sentence to the Great Savior Yu Qian

Seven years later, Zhu Qizhen got his throne back through a coup, when the Jingtai Emperor was sick in bed.

Immediately, Yu Qian got framed up by his political enemies.

Soon, he was sentenced to death in the city that he had fought bravely protecting; his son was later banished.

Yu Qian’s body was buried in his hometown by his adoptive son. As the most powerful prime minister of the Ming Empire, Yu Qian left with no money when he passed away. 

An important reason for Yu Qian’s death was that he was the biggest supporter and most trusted minister of the Jingtai Emperor that had imprisoned Zhu Qizhen for seven years.

Meanwhile, Yu Qian’s reputation and power made him possible to support another prince as the new emperor. 

Hence, Yu Qian was executed, because of things that he did to save the Ming Empire and the great reputation that he earned through his talent, decency, and accomplishment. 

Meanwhile, many major officials that had supported the Jingtai Emperor, were executed or abolished as well.

Ironically, Emperor Zhu Qizhen didn’t admit that who had caused those series of tragedies in the first place, before he commanded to execute the great hero Yu Qian, and other contributive officials and generals.  

Zhu Qizhen’s son, however, resurrected Yu Qian’s reputation and summoned Yu Qian’s son back to the government some years later in 1464. 

Memorial Temple of Hero Yu Qian

Commemoration of the Hero Yu Qian

The Ming Dynasty in the history of China would be different without Yu Qian.

He was an epic savior, a brave and loyal marshal, a great person, and also talented literature.

He dedicated his life to protecting his country and people, and brought them peace and dignity; however, his remarkable achievement and the honorable intention were defeated by the political conspiracies and contention over the power. 

As time goes by, people would have different perspectives and cognitions to certain things, however, some qualities are permanently eulogized and honored at every epoch.

Yu Qian showed the world that there is a kind of people, who were pure, honest, decent, firm, courageous, altruistic, and faithful. They were and always are perfect, no matter which era they are living in. 

Some small but exquisite memorial temples of Yu Qian were built when his name was rehabilitated, the biggest one was in his hometown Hangzhou, next to the beautiful West Lake.

Nowadays, this temple is still a famous tourism site.

Beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou City, Where the Mausoleum and Memorial Temple of Hero Yu Qian is Located.

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