Chongzhen was susceptible to court intrigues and his use of talent was questionable. After ascending the throne when his brother Tianqi emperor (the carpenter emperor) died, Chongzhen set out to oust chief eunuch Wei Chongxian and his clique. Chongzhen lived a life of caution and trepidation during Wei Chongxian's tenure as the de facto power behind a recluse Tianqi. He had to, in order to survive and deflect any suspicion from Wei (being a royal scion who could pose a potential threat to Wei). As soon as he became emperor, he brought down Wei and assumed the reign of government. Perhaps this episode of his princely years inculcated in him a deep distrust of the people around him, especially talented people who were invested with power, the prime example being Yuan Chonghuan.
Yuan Chonghuan, with a civil official background, was able to defend Ningyuan (one of the few Ming controlled cities in Liaodong area after the fall of Fushun, Shengyang and Liaoyang) from Nurhaci, who was elder and more experienced in military warfare. Nurhaci's 40 over years of success in the battlefields ended in the failure to capture a small city of Ningyuan. Nurhaci died due to the injuries he sustained as much as profound regret and wounded pride. Huangtaiji who succeeded Nurhaci further his father's conquest but while he subdued Korea and was able to breach the Great Wall 5 times raiding, looting and pillaging around Beijing, Hebei (Zhili) and Shandong areas, he hit a blank wall in trying to capture Ming-held Ningyuan with his father nemesis Yuan rooted as an obstacle in Manchu's advance into China proper. However, Huangtaiji, with advice from his Chinese counsel Fan Wencheng was able to remove Yuan in a ruse.
Chongzhen emperor was informed of Yuan's likely betrayal by two eunuchs who were captured by Huangtaiji. Huangtaiji allowed 2 of his men to "leak" out news of Yuan impending betrayal with the two eunuches locked up behind bars but in ear's reach. The eunuches were able (really allowed) to "escape" and they quickly despatched this news to Chongzhen. Chongzhen was outraged and immediately summoned Yuan to Beijing. Yuan was duly apprehended and after a short interrogation, was ordered to be "sliced by a thousand knives", an ultimate inglorious way to die for people who committed high treason. To add insult to injury (excruciating pain really), the crowd watching the execution bid for pieces of Yuan's fresh as they came off his body, eating it with wine, everyone was baying for his blood (and fresh), Yuan the treacherous traitor, so they thought.
Thus ended the life of perhaps the only Ming general that was able to hinder Nurhaci and Huangtaiji, and defended what was left of Ming Liaodong territories north of the Great Wall. What painful irony! In perspective, the Ming was also facing peasant rebellions in the west (Li Zicheng et al) beside the imposing threat of Manchu Qing and their allies the Mongols. Despite the difficulties facing the Ming, Chongzhen killed Yuan, arguably his most loyal and able, and a high-ranking offical and general at that time. We have to mention that when Ming generals were despatched off to military expedition, they were accompanied by court eunuchs whose roles were not to fight but to be the emperor's eyes and ears. As mentioned before, Chongzhen was highly suspicious especially those who were vested with powers by him, and these eunuchs assisted him in keeping these powerful generals in check. How ironic that it was Chongzhen who himself removed the "Great Wall" (Yuan) and gifted the advantage to the Qing...and Huangtaiji was able to remove Yuan, a great stumbling block, without the loss of a drop of blood or a strand of hair (exaggerated, but nonetheless literal)
Huangtaiji, on the other hand, was a military strategist and had great respect for talents. Instead of killing Chinese generals whom he captured, he first tried to seek their surrender. Although there were Ming generals who were willing to die (for Ming and their emperor), considerable number of them did surrender. Huangtaiji knew very well that in order to conquer China, he would have to utilise the Han Chinese too. How shrewd, as this policy reaped success. For example, when Zu Dashou tricked Huangtaiji that he was willing to surrender, Zu managed to escaped to Jinzhou. This enraged Huangtaiji. And when Jinzhou was being seiged, Hong Chengchou was sent to relief Zu but were also besieged at Songshan. Hong was betrayed by one of his men who opened the city gate for the Manchus to enter, and Hong was captured. Zu also surrendered subsequently in neighbouring Jinzhou (after they had to eat death soldiers and horses, and used their bones for firewood). Instead of killing Zu, Huangtaiji went against the Manchu princes and beiles who were aghast that he let the man who humiliated him live. Huangtaiji persuaded Hong to surrender, when Hong eventually did, he also managed to bring Zu's brothers who were under Hong to the Qing side. Zu then duly surrendered. This is the brilliance of Huangtaiji. He kept alive Hong and Zu, and they were instrumental in Qing's subsequent conquest of China. Wu Sangui, who was under Hong, was later persuaded by Dorgon to surrender and opened Shanhai Pass. What was most ironic was when Songshan fell, the assumed death of Hong Chengchou was reported to Chongzhen who lamented his death and loss, and actually directed a temple to be inaugurated to commemorate Hong's "death"! Looking at the fate of Yuan and Hong, we could catergorically tell what Chongzhen really was as an emperor under the micoscope of historic appraisal of his reign.
While Chongzhen put to death Yuan Chonghuan, Huangtaiji was able to use his enemies-turned-subjects to assist him in the building of the empire. This cannot be more important. While Huangtaiji was an able leader, he was also enlightened, benevolent and charismatic. Being a Manchu, he managed to have Han Chinese working for him, this showed that racial and cultural differences were not hindrance or barriers to the brilliance and greatness of Huangtaiji. Whereas Chongzhen, being a Han, could not even trust his loyal and able Han generals, how could he even imagine to turn his empire around facing local and external threats? How aptly he was to die a tragic death, committing suicide. Perhaps this was the best outcome for such a short-sighted and narrow-minded emperor. This actually also implied the integrity of Hong Chengchou and Wu Sangui, were they traitors? While some were willing to die for King and country (nothwithstanding the how good or not the king was) others were prepared to live and serve in other ways. Blind loyalty and patroitism does not pay everytime, as Yuan Chonghuan could testify. Wu Sangui would surely had profoundly appraised the fate of both his superiors before him, Yuan Chonghuan and Hong Chengchou, the fate of Ming and Qing (and also Shun), between death and life, before he made the difficult decision to surrender to the Manchus.
The fortunes of the Ming and Qing dynasties can really be manifested in their respective leaders.
Edited by Prince of the South, 13 August 2007 - 11:25 PM.