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Yu Qian — The Savior of the Ming Dynasty

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

When the Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen failed to defend the Tumu Fortress, resulting in the defeat of Ming's elite forces and endangering the empire, Yu Qian emerged as a savior.


His actions prevented the Ming Dynasty from succumbing to this life-and-death crisis and avoided the loss of significant territory.

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

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

Yu Qian of the Savior of the Ming Dynasty

A Brilliant Genius and A Righteous Official

Yu Qian was born into a wealthy family; he was a well-educated genius who scored well in the Imperial Examination. 

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

After the Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji had successfully defeated his rebelled uncle, he commanded Yu Qian to criticize his uncle for his crimes. 


Surprisingly, Yu Qian was a great lecturer who made the rebel king weep, tremble on the ground, and immediately plead guilty.

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

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Hunting Activity (Ming Xuanzong Xing Le Tu), Painted By Shang Xi the Commander of Court Secret Agency (Jin Yi Wei)

Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Hunting Activity (Ming Xuanzong Xing Le Tu), Painted By Shang Xi the Commander of Court Secret Agency (Jin Yi Wei) — Palace Museum

No matter what position Yu Qian was assigned, he always did an excellent job and stayed honest and fearless.


Hence, his talent and decency earned him respect from innumerable civilians and officials. 


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 absurd charge, but the real reason was that Yu Qian never tried to bribe his eunuch groups and always showed them contempt.

Many civilians and officials, including some mighty prime ministers and princes, were furious and submitted a joint letter showing that Yu Qian was innocent. 

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

Calligraphy of Yu Qian "Ti Gong Zhong Ta Tu Zan"

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

The Life-and-Death Crisis at Tumu Fortress

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

Emperor Zhu Qizhen personally led Ming’s 250,000 soldiers and marched northward, under the suggestion of eunuch Wang Zhen, despite all other officials and generals vehemently opposed to this risky 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 to keep marching like a parade.

Ultimately, Ming’s troops encountered an ambush at Tumu Fortress because of their stupid, absurd commands. 

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

Tumu Fortress Crisis of the Ming Empire 

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

In Beijing, the Ming Empire had very few soldiers, countless scared people, and no emperor; a similar situation happened in the Song Dynasty when emperors Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan were captured by the nomadic Regime Jin.

Everyone in 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 chased their nomadic enemy in the desert for decades.

However, in a sudden and humiliating turn of events, they lost their main force in a foolish manner, leading to the capture of their emperor.

Court Portrait of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen

Court Portrait of Zhengtong Emperor Zhu Qizhen — Taipei Palace Museum

Savior Yu Qian and the Ming Empire's Ultimate Choice

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, comprising over 250,000 first-class soldiers, had been defeated by less than 50,000 nomadic cavalrymen.


They questioned how the remaining less than 100,000 third-class soldiers, consisting of the elderly, retired individuals, and inexperienced youths armed with inferior weapons, could possibly defend the capital city from a potentially larger and more formidable nomadic force.

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

Forbidden City the Royal Palace of the Ming Dynasty

The Royal Forbidden City of the Ming Dynasty in Beijing

He insisted 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; 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 nor 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 hostage.

Court Portrait of Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu

Court Portrait of Jingtai Emperor Zhu Qiyu

From Civil Official to Chief Commander

As a civil official with zero military experience, Yu Qian 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 qualified and brave generals to assist him, stocked enough food, and encouraged civilians inside the capital city. 

Meanwhile, he supported Zhu Qiyu (1428 — 1457), the 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 a strong will to revenge for their lost soldiers and dignity.

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced in 1450 to Protect Ming

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

The Epic Battle for the Defense of Beijing

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

Commander Yu Qian didn’t stay inside the city wall to defend the city as long as possible.


With no other reinforcements available, they were left entirely on their own.

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

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 final order was clear: no one would retreat into the city unless they emerged victorious. Any sign of fear or desire to retreat would result in immediate execution. Everyone must fight bravely, as this is a life-and-death, decisive battle.

General Yu Qian of Ming Dynasty in History of China Training Army

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

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

Then, another general who escaped from the Tumu Fortress battle but was nominated by Yu Qian organized his one-month-trained cavalry troop to actively attack the lord's main army and successfully defeat them.

Immediately, his vengeance army chased 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 of Beijing was finally successfully defended. 

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

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

Upon witnessing the significant failure, Lord Yexian swiftly led his army out of Beijing city, intending 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, making it an icy wall that was very difficult to climb.


Then the general actively attacked the lord several times, out of a sudden in the cold weather.

After a significant 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 complete success.


They protected their kingdom and people, regained dignity, and avenged those buried soldiers in the Tumu Fortress.

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Ming Dynasty Great Wall and Beacon Towers in Jinshanling Section, Photo by Gucheng.

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

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 from outside the country.

Consequently, Zhu Qizhen returned 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 stable and wealthy lives. 

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

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

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

Immediately, Yu Qian was framed by his political enemies.

Soon, he was sentenced to death in the city he had fought bravely to protect; 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 was left with little money when he passed away. 

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

Meanwhile, Yu Qian's reputation and influence enabled him to support another prince as the new emperor.

Ivory Tablet (Hu Ban) that Higher Rank Officials Hold When they Met with the Emperors in the Ming Dynasty

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

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

Meanwhile, many major officials who had supported the Jingtai Emperor were also executed or abolished.

Ironically, Emperor Zhu Qizhen didn’t admit who had caused those tragedies in the first place before he commanded the execution of 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. 

Gate of Memorial Temple of Hero Yu Qian of Ming Dynasty

Memorial Temple of Hero Yu Qian

Commemoration of the Hero Yu Qian

The Ming Dynasty would be different without Yu Qian.

He was an epic savior, brave and loyal marshal, great person, and talented scholar.

He dedicated his life to protecting his country and people and bringing them peace and dignity.


However, his remarkable achievement and honorable intention were defeated by political conspiracies and contention for power. 

Jade Board of Ming Dynasty Decorated with Mountains and Rivers' Pattern

Jade Board of Ming Dynasty Decorated with Mountains and Rivers' Pattern — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

As time passes, people may develop different perspectives and understandings of certain things.


However, certain qualities are consistently eulogized and honored across every epoch.

Yu Qian showed the world that there is a type of hero who is 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 tourist site.

Beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou City

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

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