In 1644, Ming Dynasty’s last emperor Chongzhen 崇祯皇帝 killed his daughters and committed suicide when he realised that the capital city was overrun by rebels. Rebel leader Li Zi Cheng occupied the throne in Peking and proclaimed himself emperor of Great Shun 大顺.
Beyond the Great Wall, Jurchen khan of the Later Jin Dynasty 后金, Aisin Giro Huang Tai Ji was preparing to invade. His fearsome and well-organised banner army was actually a multiracial force comprising his own Jurchen banner, Mongol banner and Han banner.
However, Huang Tai Ji’s Mongolian and Han soldiers were neither foreign fighters nor mercenaries. Huang had offered them Jurchen brides and land which he already had or about to conquer and successfully assimilated them. In the final days of Ming, many starving peasants defected.
Realising the importance of a common identity, he changed the name of his dynasty from Later Jin to the Great Qing 大清. Regardless of race or origin, his people would be called Manchu 满州. The banners were thenceforth distinguished by colours. After he died, Huang Tai Ji’s brother Prince Aisin Giro Dorgon put Huang’s 5-year-old son Aisin Giro Fulin on the throne and acted as regent.
Meanwhile, rebel king Li Zi Cheng 李自成 forced his prisoner Wu Xiang 吴襄 to write to his son, General Wu San Gui 吴三桂 to hand over command of Shanhai Pass to Shun soldiers and return to his family in Peking. On his way back to the capital, Wu San Gui found out from an informant that Li had executed all 34 members of his household, sparing only his concubine Chen Yuan Yuan. It was a trap.
Wu returned to resume command of Shanhai Pass and the Shun soldiers welcomed him as they were struggling to hold the fort against the Manchus. This greatly annoyed Li Zi Cheng who would send more soldiers to attack Wu from the rear while the Manchus were attacking from the front.
In desperation, Wu San Gui wrote to Prince Dorgon, suggesting an alliance. Prince Dorgon must have laughed. Wu referred to himself as 亡国之孤臣, the lone subject of a fallen country. Yet, he was only expecting Dorgon to assist him in toppling Shun and restoring Ming. Dorgon could have all the land and riches he wanted once he had conquered Ming’s territories. Why would he need to help Wu San Gui restore Ming and get rewarded with just a few pieces of gold and a few wheat fields?
After having his terms rejected, Wu had only 2 options. He could either fight to his death holding the now meaningless Ming flag and leave his family’s death unavenged, or he could join the Manchus to liberate Peking and get his revenge on Li Zi Cheng. What would you have done in General Wu’s shoes, knowing that Prince Dorgon was a man of his word while Li Zi Cheng was a dishonourable monster? After successfully conquering China, Prince Dorgon even got the Qing emperor to promote Wu San Gui to a rank equivalent to his – at least on paper.
A poem by Qing poet 吴伟业 also failed to do justice to Wu San Gui, describing his defection as an impulsive act of 一怒为红颜。As it turned out, Wu had his revenge but didn’t get to kill Li Zi Cheng personally. There is of course, no evidence of him ever spending much time looking for Chen Yuan Yuan who was never found.
There is seldom pure good or evil in real life and history is real life. Those who sloppily dismiss Wu San Gui as a traitor must have stopped learning after secondary school.