Thursday, October 26, 2006

General Yuan's Shrine

As a history buff, I finally visited General Yuan Chonghuan's shrine. I've always wanted to make a pilgrimage there after reading about the shrine's story on the net. A patriot and wily general, Yuan was executed by the Ming emperor who was duped by the invading barbarian Manchus that Yuan was a traitor. It was remarkable that Yuan was a confucian scholar rather than a soldier to begin with. But Yuan managed to defend against the Manchu in Northeast provinces when he was the commander there. Yuan was an expert with artillery and constructed his defences around his imported long-range Portugese cannons. Yuan was able to defeat the Manchu in a key battle and even wounded Nurhaci, who later died from his wounds.

In 1629, Yuan had to divert his forces to relief the capital Beijing under seige by the Manchu armies. Against all odds, Yuan led the outnumbered Ming cavalry to defeat the Manchus, one of the rare times that Manchu cavalry was defeated in open engagements. The battle was so tough that Yuan was fighting with his back against the city walls at Guangqu Men (gate) and his armour was reportedly studded with arrows that he resembled a porcupine.
Having fought off the Manchus, Yuan was executed by the idiot Ming emperor on trumped up charges of treason. The Manchu duped some captured Ming eunuchs that Yuan was selling out the Ming. Yuan was ordered to be flayed alive and the Beijing people was baying for his blood since everyone believed that Yuan was a traitor. A loyal soldier under Yuan, surnamed She, secretly stole Yuan's head (the only part of his body left intact) and buried it in his house near Guangqu Men. Since then the She family had guarded Yuan's tomb for over 370 years. Yuan's loyalty and maligned charges only came to light in 1782 when the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong recognised Yuan's loyalty and his innocence.
I was very impressed when I read about Madam She Youchi's (the 17th generation of the She family) quest for decades to plead with the city authorities to preserve Yuan's tomb and shrine. The shrine was finally accorded heritage status in the 1990s. It was poignant that the shrine was located near Guangqu Men, the very place where Yuan had fought so desperately to fend off the Manchus. Now the old neighbourhood was unrecognisable with so many highrise projects surrounding the shrine.
When I visited the simple shrine, I was amazed by Yuan's loyalty and the poignancy of his death. It was not surprising that the Ming dynasty fell not long after Yuan's death at the hands of peasant revolts and the Manchu invasion. I was also impressed by the loyalty of the original She ancestor (now buried next to Yuan) and his descendants. As a fellow Cantonese (Yuan and She were Cantonese), I share some of this pride. Madam She has a small office at the shrine. I was told by the staff there that she comes in very often but she was not there on the day I visited.


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