Sun Kewang:



by John J. Hartwell



    Largely because he lacked Zhang's reputation for savage brutality, Sun Kewang has left a much smaller 'footprint' in the historical memory. But, actually, he achieved considerably more success, and was in a position to be far more influential than his adoptive 'father.' He was even able to claim a legal (if extorted) legitimacy as heir to the great Ming dynasty.


Sun had been one of Zhang's closest companions since the early days of the peasant rebellion (at least since 1628). The relationship seems to have been built on a real friendship. Sun's loyalty and military skills made him the chief lieutenant of the "Yellow Tiger".

The bond between the two men was already strong when, in the Fall of 1637, Sun's position as Zhang's favorite was doubly secured. At that time, Tao Liangyu, one of the best Ming generals, inflicted a number of severe defeats on Zheng's forces in southwest Hunnan. In one engagement, the two commanders, we are told, were fighting one another face to face when an arrow struck Zhang in the left eye. All seemed lost when a daring counter attack led by Sun personally broke through to rescue the rebel chief from certain capture or death.

    During the month following the 2 January 1647, death of Zhang Xinzhong, Sun was able to keep the surviving armies of the Great Western Kingdom largely together. He was the acknowledged "elder brother" of Zhang's four adopted sons, and the other three generals clearly accepted him as leader. The bond Zhang had somehow forged between these four pseudo-siblings was a strong one, and would survive some severe tests before it finally broke down. The loyalty of his generals to Zhang's memory and his patrimony is also noteworthy.

    Sun led the armies southwestward into the relative security of Guizhou, defeating the Ming loyalist warlord who held the region. While there, formulating plans for the future, Sun learned of a situation in neighboring Yunnan, which seemed to offer unique possibilities.

    Yunnan had a substantial aboriginal, non-Han population. Part of the Ming scheme for governing the Province included a sort of power-sharing between native leaders and the Mu family (descendants of the first Ming Emperor's favorite adoptive son, they had been enfoeffed as a hereditary military nobiliy). It had worked well until lately, when corruption and misgovernment among the Mu officials led to the rebellion of Sha Dingjiu, a native military leader. Driven out of most of Yunnan, Mu Dianpo, and his supporters barely managed to hold out in the extreme southwest corner of the province.

    So, in April and May 1647, Sun Kewang sent his armies south from Guizhou into Yunnan. With the extraordinary claim that he was acting in behalf of legitimate Ming interests, he swept everything before him, including the army of the local Southern Ming commander. Reaching the provincial capital of Yunnanfu, he opened negociations with the Mu Dianpo for recognition of his authority. Not unreasonably suspicious of Sun's sudden transformation from rebel to loyalist, Mu would only agree to lend his name to Sun's actions if the latter refrained from committing atrocities, and completely erradicated Sha Dingjiu's movement.

    It took nearly a year to stamp out all significant opposition, Sun rarely took the field himself, but spent most of his time in Yunnanfu creating a government.

He proclaimed himself Ping Tung Wang (East Pacifying Prince), clearly reflecting his continued loyalty to Zhang. He constructed at Yunnanfu a royal hall and palace, held examinations for civil service, & appointed officials, including the traditional Six Ministries of Imperial government. He began to levy taxes and redistribute lands near the capital (mostly taken from the Mu family) to provide "official fields", and siezed monopolies of the Province's leading resources. It was also during this time that he began minting Xing Chao (Rising Dynasty) tong bao coinage (note that Xing chao is not a reign title, but the name of the coinage).

Avoiding the horrendous excesses of Zhang Xinzhong, Sun was not arbitrarilly cruel and brutal, only rarely and with purpose. Nonetheless, he established a very autocratic state, demanding immediate and unquestioning obedience from all -- including his adoptive "brothers." At one point in the Spring of 1648, he even had Li Dingguo publicly flogged for insubordination (the two men tearfully embraced one another immediately afterwards). It is a testimony to the bond Zhang had forged between them that the three "younger brothers", Li included, remained loyal and obedient.

Late in 1647, Sun sent an embassy to the Southern Ming court in Xiaojing. He requested -- demanded actually -- to be appointed First Degree Prince (Jin Wang). It amounted to his elevation to Ming Prince of the Blood. The Ming loyalist cause desperately needed all the help it could get, and the Yongli Emperor -- neither wise nor brave -- was inclined to comply. But his leading officials adamantly refused to consider such an insulting proposal. Sun instead was confirmed in his role as Jun Wang (a Second Degree Prince).

In the Fall of 1650, Sun sent his armies back into Guizhou, which they quickly overran.He also siezed western Sichuan and parts of Huguang, forcing the army of Wu Sangui to retreat northward. In 1652, he dispatched Li Dingguo on a spectacular campaign from Huguang, through Guandong and Guangxi. The Qung forces were driven steadilly back on all fronts, entirely out of the Southwestern Provinces.

At Guiyang, the Provincial capital of Guizhong, Sun erected for himself an Ancestral Temple. In it were images of Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming Dynasty), flanked by Zhang Xinzhong and Sun's own grandfather (posthumously bestowed with Imperial name and titles). From 1652, Sun spent most of his time in Guiyang, building palaces, government buildings, and transforming it into his personal Capital.

Meanwhile, Sun continued his plans to subvert the Yongli Court. In December 1650, he had sent a select body of men to join the Southern Ming Imperial Guard at Nanning. The Yongli Emperor fearfully accepted their service, and then stood by impotently as his new "guardians" brazenly murdered the officials who had opposed Sun's elevation to First Degree Prince. Sun was promptly granted the title he desired, together with the Imperial surname and a new given name as well.

A Qing offensive in the Fall of 1651, forced the Yongli Court out of Naning. Thtough the following winter, the Imperial party, often hard pressed, fled north towards the dubious security of Sun's domains. They were intercepted by one of Sun's generals, who conducted them to Anlong, an obscure military post in extreme southwest Guizhou. There the Imperial Court, reduced to only fifty members, would remain for four years under degrading conditions, provided only coarse food, denied menial servants, and being treated by Sun's agents "like so many head of livestock."

The Chinese resistence to the Manchu conquest was now essentially in the hands of Sun Kewang. And the Ming civil administration, which had hitherto underlain, at least in theory, the Yongli effort, ceased to exist. His role as "protector" of the Emperor, and position as Commander in Chief, gained him a strong reinforcement from loyal Ming elements. He was at the height of his power.

But, Sun's high and mighty pretensions and overwheening pride harmed his popularity. And, as rumor spread of his mistreatment of the Yongli Emperor, hostility began to grow. Worst of all, Sun's complete exclusion of his three "younger brothers" from his dynastic plans fractured the fraternal solidarity that had until now remained so strong. Especially alienated was Li Dingguo who, as we have seen, had personal reason for resentment. Li's loyalty would be a serious loss, for he was a skillful general, perhaps moreso than Sun himself, and also very popular with the troops

As isolated as the Southern Ming court was in Anlong, the growing disenchantment among Sun's followers soon became known. In early 1654, the Emperor was prevailed upon to send an emissary in secret to Li Dingguo, who was then campaigning in the East. If he would come and rescue the Emperor from his captivity, Li would be elevated to First Degree Prince and made Supreme Commander. At that time Li, reeling before a Qing offensive, rejected the offer -- but significantly did not inform Sun of it.

But, Sun's spies did their work well, and he was soon informed of the whole affair. He dared not move openly against Li. But, he sent a special commission to Anlong to conduct an inquisition. As a result, eighteen Court Officials were accused of treason. With typical lack of courage, the Emperor denued ant knowledge of the plot, and did nothing to defend the men. Today in Anlong The Tomb of the Eighteen Righteous Officials, who gave their lives as their unworthy master's scapegoats is a leading tourist site.

The following winter, Li felt he was in a position to act. The Manchu offensive had come to a halt as they paused to consolodate their gains, and Li, though he had been badly beaten, was able to give his attention elsewhere. Sun's populrity among his followers had also fallen drastically. As Li moved towards Anlung, Sun first sent messengers ordering him to withdraw. Then he sent officers, old comrades of both, to try to persuade him, then to hinder him, finally to oppose his advance. But more and more of the officers he sent joined Li's growing insurrection, or held back, doing nothing to oppose it.

On February 16, 1657, Li Dingguo entered Anlung, and four days later, he escorted the Imperial party out of captivity and towards Yunnanfu. The general Sun sent to oppose Li's advance upon the provincial capital was quickly cowed by a show of force, and Yongli entered the city, now renamed the Tien Capital.

There followed a long period of inactivity, with neither side willing to move decicively against the other. Li tried on several occasions to effect a reconciliation with his erstwhile "elder brother." On one occasion he sent to Sun his family members and personal guard whom Li had captured at Yunnanfu. Even at this extreme, it seems, something of the old bond continued to move Li. But Sun, enraged by Li's betrayal, bitterly rejected all advances.

In late summer, Sun Kewang was persuadewd by some of his generals that it was time to act. He crossed western Guizhou into Yunnan at the end of September. Three weeks later, the two armies met at Jiaoshui. Sun planned an elaborate encircling movement, and was confident of victory. But, at the last minute, several of his leading lieutenants (the same ones who had persuaded him to march) withdrew their troops from the line of battle, and led them across to join the enemy.

Now hopelessly outnumbered, Sun had no choice but to retreat. The retreat turned into a rout as Li's forces persued him closely. He fled all the way across Guizhou, apparently without any attempt at pausing to reorganize his support. By that time he probably realized it was hopeless. By the time he crossed into Huguang, he had barely 600 men with him. On December 19, 1657, Sun Kewang surrendered to the Manchu authorities at Baojing.

Raging at the ingratitude of his former lieutenants, Sun called upon the Qing to give him troops, with which he would "take revenge and dispell my shame." But, the Manchus were wiser than to put Sun Kewang at the head of an army. Instead, they heaped him with rewards, including the rather ironic title "Patriotic Prince" (I Wang), and shuffled him off into a comfortable but closely monitored retirement in Beijing. He died there, peacefully in his sleep,