Way Back When:
Jeremiah Jenne takes a look at the General with an infamous war cry…
On a cold February day in 1626, Dongguan native Yuan Chonghuan is far from home. He is waiting on the stone ramparts of Ningyuan, a Chinese stronghold on the shores of Liaoning Bay, a two-day march north of the Great Wall. It is the last stronghold in the North. The rest of the region belongs to Nurhaci, who has united most of the tribes in the region under his command and declared his own state in opposition to the emperor in Beijing. Yuan’s commander-in-chief, Gao Di, earlier ordered a general retreat of Chinese forces back south behind the Wall. Yuan alone has decided to stay.
1626 is a cold winter during an era when the Northern Hemisphere experienced several years of long, bitter winters and short growing seasons. In China, poor harvests and corrupt officials force farmers off their land, swelling the ranks of bandit armies which roam almost at will. In the north, the cold weather is putting pressure on Nurhaci to secure more hospitable lands to the south. The Chinese government, mired in the last years of a declining Ming Dynasty, is fighting — and losing — wars on two fronts. The rot of political intrigue consumes the court. Good men are in short supply. Yuan’s mentor, Sun Chengzong fell victim to the machinations of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian, leaving command of the north in the hands of the cowardly Gao Di. Yuan is risking everything.
Yuan only has 10,000 men under his command. Nurhaci is bringing an army. Perhaps 100,000. Maybe 200,000. To prepare, Yuan orders all the lands around Ningyuan scorched. If there is to be a siege, Nurhaci’s troops will find few supplies and little to pillage.
Defiant against Nurhaci and his own commanders, Yuan writes an essay using his blood, announcing his plan to defend Ningyuan at all costs.
In the frigid lands of the North, the southern fires burn hot in this son of Dongguan. Defiant against Nurhaci and his own commanders, Yuan writes an essay using his blood, announcing his plan to defend Ningyuan at all costs. Any soldier deserting his post will be caught and executed.
On February 10, 1626, as Nurhaci’s armies arrive outside the walls of Ningyuan, Yuan Chonghuan addresses his soldiers with a rousing battle cry in his native Cantonese: 掉哪媽! 頂硬上! Motherf*cker! Let’s give it all we’ve got!”
For a week, the battle raged. Ningyuan’s defenders held the line and protected the wall. It was then that Yuan Chonghuan unleashed his secret weapon: cannons. The “foreign guns” mounted on the ramparts played havoc with the enemy ranks, and one lucky shot severely wounded Nurhaci himself. Mortally injured, his forces in disarray, Nurhaci ordered his troops to retreat to their capital at Shenyang.
When Nurhaci died a few months later, Yuan Chonghuan, gracious in victory, sent 34 of his men to Nurhaci’s capital to show their respects and to congratulate Nurhaci’s heir, Huang Taiji, on his ascension to the throne. Yuan’s victory paved the way for China to re-establish its power north of the wall and along Liaoning Bay and Yuan was curious to see if Huang Taiji might be interested in negotiating a truce. Ultimately, Yuan’s conciliatory policy angered hardliners at the Ming court who while too cowardly to fight themselves were wary of the threat posed by Nurhaci and his successors. Yuan made even more enemies when he ordered the execution of a rival general, Mao Wenlong, who Yuan claimed had gone rogue and set up a private fiefdom off of the coast of Korea. Mao had become a Ming-era Colonel Kurtz, but nobody at court authorized Yuan’s Apocalypse Mao operation.
Yuan’s fate was sealed in the winter of 1628-1629. Huang Taiji decided to change tactics, ironically as a result of the success of Yuan’s military policies in the Northeast. Huang Taiji bypassed the area around Ningyuan and the eastern sections of the Great Wall, and instead broke through at less well-defended stretches further to the west. In the early months of 1629, with Huang Taiji’s armies ready to strike Beijing, Yuan Chonghuan mustered his troops at Ningyuan and began a 400 km forced march to defend the capital. Once again, Yuan emerged victorious but despite having saved the Emperor, he was impeached by his political enemies who convinced the throne that Yuan’s past policies of appeasement were evidence that Yuan had been complicit in allowing Huang Taiji to enter the realm. It’s possible that Huang Taiji, attempting through subterfuge what he could not on the battlefield, had his spies manufacture evidence further implicating Yuan in a treasonous conspiracy.
In September of 1630, Yuan, the southern hero who gave his life to defend the northern frontier, was executed by slow slicing at the execution grounds in Southern Beijing. Today, there is a memorial in Dongguan to this son of the city, and Yuan’s famously profane war cry has become a rallying slogan for the Cantonese spirit down to the present day.
Jeremiah Jenne is a rogue Sinoligist and free range historian; he has lived in China 13 years and runs the Chinese history, culture, and travel blog, Jottings from a Granite Studio.