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Sun Kewang: East Pacifying Prince

                                              by John J. Hartwell

     Of the many rebels who rose up against the Ming during the second quarter of the 17th century, three stand out above the others. Li Zicheng's great peasant movement would sweep him into Beijing itself, and bring about the downfall of the great Ming Dynasty. Zhang Xianzhong, whose unutterable savagery garnered him an unenviable reputation as the cruellest, most bloodthirsty bully in all Chinese history (though I understand he has been somewhat rehabilitated in the PRC). Less well known, but in some ways more able and every bit as audacious as the others is Sun Kewang.
      Little is known with certainty of the origin and background of Sun Kewang. He was born about the year 1606, at Mizhi in the mountains of northeast Shaanxi. Orphaned as a child, he was raised by his grandfather, of whom he always spoke warmly, though never speaking of his father. It seems likely that very early in their relationship, Zhang Xianzhong came to take the place of that missing father in Sun's life.
      Some sources say that his was a minor gentry family -- but given Zhang's ferocious hatred of the gentry class that would seem unlikely. Others claim Sun's family background was military, or even scholarly. We do know that Sun was literate and could discuss the Chinese Classics with some intelligence, and that he was a gifted military strategist.
     Sun Kewang had been one of Zhang Xianzhong's closest companions since the earliest days of the peasant rebellion (at least since 1628). Their relationship seems to have been bases in part upon a real friendship. Sun's loyalty and remarkable military skills made him the "Yellow Tiger's" chief lieutenant.
     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 ablest Ming generals, inflicted a number of severe defeats on Zhang's forces in southwestern Hunan. In one engagement, we are told, an arrow struck Zhang in the left eye. His capture or death seemed inevitable, as Tao and his personal guard closed in. But Sun Kewang personally led a daring counter-attack, breaking throuigh to rescue the rebel chief and slay the Ming commander.
     Shortly after establishing his Great Western Kingdom in Chengdu in the fall of 1644, Zhang Xianzhong adopted his four principal generals, giving each a particular title and charge. Li Dingguo, Liu Wenxiu, and Ai Nengqi were appointed to lead Zhang's forces towards the North, South, and West. Sun Kewang was declared "elder brother" in this military family, and the others swore allegiance to him as Zhang's heir and eventual successor. Sun was designated "General who Pacifies the East." His assignment was the conquest of Eastern China, including Beijing, of Manchuria, Korea, and Japan. [Zhang's ambitions were anything but humble -- he once discused with some Jesuits his intention of one day siezing Rome! When it was pointed out that Rome was a very long ways away, Zhang allowed that he would have to conquer India and Persia first!]
     Zhang Xianzhong's brutality and paranoia caused him to order wholesale and almost arbitrary slaughter throughout his realm. Sun Kewang determined to secure his position by encouraging his adoptive "father's" paranoid brutality, while at the same time working to obstruct the actual execution of the slaughter. Late in 1646, for instance, Sun duly reported that he had killed some 300 million people in Sichuan alone. Zhang was delighted with his most loyal and beloved eldest son -- apparently not noticing that the figure Sun reported exceeds the total population of China at the time. In fact, economic and demographic evidence suggest no exceptional decline in population in Sichuan during the period, over and above the drastic population loss in China as a whole. Sun had simply lied -- and Zhang was so far gone in his dementia that he never realized it.
     During the month following the 2 January 1647, death of Zhang at the hand of Manchu forces under the command of Prince Hooge, Sun was able to keep the surviving armies of the Great Western Kingdom largely together. As the acknowledged "eldest brother", the other three generals clearly accepted him as their new 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 to his patrimony is remarkable. In fact, Sun Kewang's entire subsequent carreer appears to be an affirmation of Zhang's legacy.  
     Sun Kewang led the armies southwestward into the relative safety of Guizhou, defeating the Ming loyalist general 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, or "tu-si," and the Mu family (descendants of the first Ming emperor's favorite adoptive son, the Mus had been enfoeffed as a heriditary military nobility). It had worked rather well until lately, when corruption and misgovernment among Mu officials led to the rebellion of Sha Dingjiu, a native leader. Driven out of most of Yunnan, the current head of the clan, Mu Dianpo and his supporters barely managed to hold out in the extreme southwest corner of the province.
Unlike Zhang Xianzhang, Sun Kewang saw the futility of trying to combat both the Qing and the Southern Ming forces. The latter were scattered and without effective leadership, but still strong in numbers. Lacking the intense hatred of the Ming that Zhang always exhibited, it occurred to Sun that he might throw his support behind this embattled and disorganized Nan Ming resistance. But, characteristically, Sun Kewang was not about to humbly offer his help -- he fully intended to force his support on the Yongli court, on his own terms.
       So, in April and May 1647, Sun Kewang sent his armies south from Guizhou into Yunnan. Claiming that he was acting on behalf of legitimate Ming interests, he swept everything before him -- including the army of the local Southern Ming commander, who happened to get in his way. Reaching the provincial capital of Yunnanfu, he opened negotiations with Mu Dianpo for recognition of his authority. Fully aware of Sun's loyalty to the brutal Zhang Xianzhong, and not unreasonably suspicious of his sudden transformation from Ming rebel to Ming patriot, 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, but Sun succeeded in stamping out all significant non-Han opposition. He then turned around and began to recruit heavilly among the xxxxxxxxxn and other aboriginal peoples. Offering fair treatment and promising special privileges, he won over their support.
      He proclaimed himself Ping Tong wang (East Pacifying Prince), a clear reference to the title Zhang had bestowed upon him three years earlier. He constructed at Yunnanfu a royal hall and palace, held examinations for civil service, and appointed officials, including the traditional Six Ministries of Imperial government. Where Li Zicheng or Zhang Xianzhong, lacked both the aptitude or the real interest in state-building, Sun Kewang worked hard at crafting his administration. He began to levy taxes, redistribute lands near the capital to firm up his peasant power base (most of this land was siezed from the Mu family), and took monopolies of the province's leading resources. It was also during this time that he began minting Xing Chiao (Rising Dynasty) coinage.
     Avoiding the extreme excesses of Zhang Xianzhong, Sun was not arbitrarilly cruel or brutal, only occasionally and with purpose. Nonetheless, he established a very autocratic state, ruthlessly demanding immediate and unquestioning obedience from all, even his adoptice brothers, who remained his leading generals. At one point in the Spring of 1648, he even had "second brother" Li Dingguo publicly flogged for insubordination (we are told that the two men tearfully embraced one-another immediately thereafter). It is a testimony to the extraordinary bond Zhang had forged between them that the three "younger brothers", Li included, remained loyal and obedient for so long.
      Late in 1647, Sun had sent an embassy to the Southern Ming Court, then located  in Xiaojing. He requested -- demanded actually -- to be appointed First Degree Prince (Qin Wang). This amounted to his elevation to Ming Prince of the Blood. The Ming loyalist cause desperately needed the support of proven generals, 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 as Jun Wang (a Second Degree Prince) and thanked for his loyal support.
      In the Fall of 1650, Sun sent his armies back into Guizhou from Yunnan. At the same time, he charged "younger brother" Liu Wenxiu with the reconquest of Sichuan, which at the time was near chaos, with rebel warlords, Ming-loyalist generals, and Qing armies all fighting eachother. In a 2-pronged attack, the Da-Xi Jun (Great Western Army) captured Zunyi and Fuzhou, and subdued much of the province. Many of the opposing commanders (including some Nan Ming elements) fled Sichuan and submitted to the Manchu.
      The following year, he dispatched Li Dingguo on a spectacular campaign from Huguang all the way to the coast. Heavy fighting inGuangxi and Guandong took the lives of two Manchu Princes, Konge Youde and Nikan Wailang. Armies under Shang Kexi and Zhong Zhongming were also defeated and forced to withdraw.
      All the while, Sun was continuing his effort to subvert the Yongli Court. In December 1650, he had sent a select body of men to join the Southern Ming Imperial Guard. The Yongli Emperor was too fearful to refuse their services, and then stood impotently by as his new "guardians" brazenly murdered the officials who had earlier 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. Soon Sun began to speak of himself openly as the legitimate heir to the great Ming Dynasty.
      Establishing his new capital at Guiyang, Sun Kewang began to exhibit a  truly audacious megalomania. He erected for himself at Guiyang an Ancestral Temple. In it were images of Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming Dynasty), flanked by none other than Zhang Xianzhong and Sun's own grandfather (posthumously endowed with Imperial name and title). From 1652, Sun spent most of his time in his capital, building palaces, pavillions, and government buildings.
      A Qing offensive at the end of 1651, forced the Yongli Court out of Naning. Through the following winter, the Imperial party, often hard pressed, fled north towards the dubious security of Sun's domain. They were intercepted by one of Sun's generals, who conducted them to Anlong, an obscure military outpost in extreme southwest Guizhou. There, it was promised, the Court would be safe and protected, as Sun Kewang directed the fight against the Manchu invader. In reality, the Yongli court, reduced to barely fifty members, would remain at Anlong for four years under degrading conditions: provided only coarse food, denied menial servants, and being treated "like so many livestock."
       The Southern Ming resistance to the Manchu conquest was now, indeed, in the hands of Sun Kewang. Ming civil administration, which had hitherto underlain, at least in theory, the Yongli effort, ceased to exist. Sun's role as "protector" of the Emperor, and position as commander in chief or Generalissimo ("Shuai"), gained him a strong reinforcement from loyal Ming elements, and he posessed the ability and military organization to put it to good use. During the next few years, Han military fortunes seemed to revive, and, as we have seen, the Qing forces were pushed back on many fronts.
       But Sun's high and mighty pretensions and overwheening pride had also begun to undermine 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 at last the fraternal solidarity that had thus far remained so strong. Especially alienated was Li Dingguo who, as we have seen, also had personal reason for resentment. Li's loyalty would be a serious loss, for he was a skillfull generall, perhaps moreso than Sun himself, and also very popular with the troops.
      As isolated as the Southern Ming court was at 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 Commander in Chief in Sun's place. At the time fighting off an energetic Qing offensive, Li rejected the offer -- but significantly he did not inform Sun of it.
      But, Sun's spies had done their work well, and soon he was informed of the whole affair. Although now aware that Li's loyalty was in serious doubt, Sun still dared not move openly against him. But, he sent a special commission to Anlong to conduct an inquisition. As a result eighteen court officials were charged with treason. With typical lack of courage, the Emperor denied any knowledge of the plot, and did nothing to defend the men, who suffered a terrible death. Today, in Anlong, the Tomb of the Eighteen Righteous Officials, who gave their lives for their unworthy master, 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 was able to give his attention elsewhere. Sun Kewang's popularity among his followers had by now fallen drasitcally. As Li moved towards Anlong, Sun first sent messengers ordering him to withdraw. Then he sent officers, old comrades of both, to try to persuade him, and then to hinder or oppose his advance. But more and more of the officials he sent joined Li's growing insurrection, or held back, doing nothing to oppose it.
      On February 16, 1657, Li Dingguo entered Anlong, and four days later, he escorted the Southern Ming 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 the Yongli Emperor entered the city, which was now renamed the Tien Capital.
      There followed some months of relative inactivity, with neither side willing to move decisively against the other. Li tried on several of occasions to effect a reconciliation with his erstwhile "elder brother." Li even handed over to Sun members of his family and his bodyguard, who had been 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 persuaded by 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, with significantly superior forces, planned an elaborate encircling movement, and was confident of victory. But, at the last moment, his two remaining "younger brothers, Liu Wenxiu and Ai Nengqi (the same who had been most vocal in persuading Sun to march) withdrew their troops from the line of battle, and led them across to join the enemy.
      Betrayed and now hopelessly outnumbered, Sun had no choice but to retreat. The withdrawl turned into a rout as Li's forces followed closely. He fled all the way across Guizhou without any attempt at pausing to reorganize his supporters -- he probably realized it was hopeless. By the time Sun crossed into Huguang, he had barely 600 men with him. On December 19, 1657, Sun Kewang surrendered to the Manchu authorities at Baojing.
      Not yet entirely humbled, Sun raged at the ingratitude of his "younger brothers", calling upon the Qing to give him troops with which he would "take revenge and dispell my shame." But, the Manchus were far wiser than to put Sun Kewang at the head of another army. Instead, they heaped him with rewards and the rather ironic title of "Patriotic Prince", and shuffled him off into a comfortable but closely monitored retirement in Beijing. There he died, peacefully in his sleep on {{dt}}.
     Unlike Sun's, Li Dingguo's newfound allegiance to the Southern Ming cause turned out to be genuine. He continued to defend the Yongli Court during its long, desperate withdrawl westward. After the Emperor's capture in Burma, and subsequent execution at the hands of Wu Sangui, Li Dingguo continued to resist the inevitable Manchu conquest, and died fighting heroically even when all hope had gone.


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