- Chinese: 吳三桂 (Wú Sānguì)
Wu Sangui was a high-ranking Ming Dynasty general, charged with the defense of the northeast and of the Shanhaiguan pass in particular. He is known for having joined up with the Manchu armies of the Qing Dynasty, allowing them to pass through the Pass to Beijing, in order to oust the rebel Li Zicheng; this led directly to the Qing taking Beijing, and terminating the Ming Dynasty. He later led Manchu forces in hunting down the last of the Ming claimants to the throne, and was rewarded with a fief, becoming one of the leaders of the Revolt of Three Feudatories.
Though a more basic simplification of the events of 1644 might make Wu appear a traitor who aided the Manchus to fell a Chinese dynasty, historian Jonathan Spence represents him as a more upright and practically-minded general who was caught between two difficult options. Li Zicheng took Beijing in April of 1644, and the last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, killed himself mere days later, as Li's men ransacked the city. The Ming military quickly fragmented, with each of several hundred imperial princes drawing followers to himself, to attempt to be the one who would restore the Ming and claim the throne for himself. Wu thus found himself caught between a Han Chinese rebel group that had already shown its violent, destructive, and chaotic character, beyond even the control of Li himself, and a non-Han, "barbarian" group which was well-consolidated, well-organized, and boasted at least some of the central features of "civilized" Chinese government. If he were to lead his men to Beijing to combat the rebels, it would leave the Great Wall undefended, allowing the Manchus to flow through the pass; if he stood his post and defended the Wall against the Manchus, however, there would soon be no Ming left to defend (and which of the hundreds of claimants would he support, in such a situation?).
Some stories also suggest that Li Zicheng had captured Wu's father, giving him reason to hold off on opposing Li (for fear his father might be killed, as he later was), and/or that Li had captured and had his way with Wu's favorite concubine, thus giving Wu reason to have anger and a desire for vengeance against Li. In the end, whatever his reasons may have been, Wu chose to side with the Manchus. Wu commanded one of the largest and best-equipped forces in the entire empire, even before the fragmentation of the army; with perhaps as many as 100,000 men, armed with some number of the best artillery weapons in all of East Asia, Wu fought off a detachment Li sent against him, and allowed the Manchus through the Shanhaiguan Pass and led them to Beijing.
Li declared himself to be of imperial status on June 3, 1644, but abandoned the city the following day, taking most if not all of his men, and a vast wealth of loot, off to the west. The Manchus entered the city two days later, and placed the young son of Hong Taiji on the throne, naming him the Shunzhi Emperor, and in so doing claiming themselves the legitimate ruling imperial dynasty of China.
Following the Qing conquest of Beijing, Wu continued to lead armies in support of their conquest of the remainder of China. In 1662, he pursued the last claimant to the Ming throne, the Prince of Gui, into Burma; after the Prince was taken hostage by the Burmese king, he was turned over to Wu, who brought the Prince into Yunnan province, where he executed the Prince and his son, bringing an end to any potential restoration of the Ming Dynasty. Once the Qing subjugated the southeast, Wu was given a significant swath of land - all of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, as well as parts of Hunan and Sichuan - to hold as his personal fiefdom, while two other prominent pro-Manchu former-Ming generals, Shang Kexi and Geng Jimao, were given similar fiefs in Guangdong and Fujian provinces.
Wu, Shang, and Geng enjoyed considerable autonomy in their fiefdoms, keeping tax revenue for themselves, controlling trade, and so forth. They began to think about pushing for truer independence, even as the Qing Court began to worry about that eventuality, and began to consider trying to bring these provinces back under more direct central control. In 1671, Geng Jimao died and Shang Kexi fell ill, and both passed on their fiefs to their sons; whether the Qing originally intended these fiefs to be hereditary is unclear, but this development certainly worried them. Wu and the other two generals tested the waters of the Qing position in 1673 by petitioning to be permitted to give up their fiefs and to retire to Manchuria; they took the Court's enthusiastic response as an indication that the Court wanted to take away their lands, and so all three declared their independence and rose in revolt. Wu moved deeper into Hunan province, where he declared a new state, the Great Zhou, though he did not name himself emperor initially, earning much popular support among southern Chinese by leaving that space open for any surviving Ming Imperial Prince to claim.
Scholars generally agree that, at the outset, the Revolt of the Three Feudatories had the potential to successfully separate southern China from the Qing Empire, or perhaps to even recapture the whole of China for the Han Chinese, ending Manchu leadership only decades after it began. However, for a variety of reasons including the fact that Wu, Shang, and Geng fought separately and did not coordinate their efforts with one another, the Revolt ended fairly quickly. Geng Jingzhong and Shang Zhixin surrendered in 1676 and 1677 respectively, and Wu Sangui died the following year, shortly after declaring himself emperor of his Great Zhou state. His grandson continued to fight for the Grand Zhou for three more years, before finally being cornered by Manchu forces and committing suicide in Kunming in 1681.
- Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 32-33.
- Spence, 42.
- Spence, 49-53.