Aug 15, 2022
commander in charge of Huguang province, Prince Nikan. Meanwhile Qing princes Shang Kexi and Geng Jimao were dispatched to pacify Guangdong and Guangxi. Wu Sangui was ordered to pacify Sichuan, but was being tied down heavily in its northern sector, maybe he was fighting all the tigers.
Wu had discovered that Sichuan was so devastated it made things ruinous for military campaigns. He lacked the resources to do much against the countless bandits armies and the newly emerged forces of Sun Kewangs which he referred to as a “poison overrunning the province”. The entire situation as Wu put it “Chengdu was a devastated ruin and all was empty around it. The dead and starving were everywhere and for hundreds of li there were no cooking fires but bandit gangs roamed allying with the ming freely. All of Sichuan is in the hands of bandits and their strategic situation has already improved greatly since their emergence. Without men or materiel where will I get the resources to recover land and extirpate [the bandits]?”
Nonetheless in february of 1652, Wu and his subordinate Li Guohan made an offensive through the Jianmen “sword pass” all the way to Jiading. By april they captured Chongqing and by may northern Sichuan was considered fully pacified. Still Wu and Guohan had no illusions, the bandits and Ming defenses in the south remained dangerous, but the giddy young Qing Emperor assumed Sichuan as a whole was weakened and thought Wu would be able to assist Nikan in his mission. The young Qing emperor also sought to mass large armies to retake Yunnan and Guizhou after Sichuan was taken, quite a large order.
A grandson of Nurhaci, Prince Nikan served with Prince Haoge in western China and held an assortment of administrative posts in the capital before he was appointed “Ding yuan da Jiangjun”, generalissimo in charge of pacifying the distant regions, following Kong Youdes death. Nikan proceeded into Huguang at the head of his army of 100,000. Like most Qing commanders, Prince Nikan was given orders to accept the surrender of anyone who submitted without a fight and that it was paramount to protect the people. Strict military regulations were to be enforced, forbidding the rape and pillaging of whom were supposed to be their subjects. Understandable, you can't go around abusing the people you want to govern after all. Nikan’s army marched to Guangxi to do battle with Li Dingguo and he was promised aid from Xi’an. The Qing military operations were consuming more than half the Qing governments revenue and they knew they should be cautious and secure taxable lands before venturing deep into the southwest again. Nikans forces successfully defeated Li Dingguo’s subordinates Ma Jinzhong at Yuezhou and Zhang Honggong at Changsha. Nikan pursued them west and encountered Li Dingguo’s scouts near Hengzhou. Nikan defeated some of Li’s forces at Hengzhou sending him on the run, but then Li set up an ambush near Qiyang where Nikan’s army sustained heavy casualties. Nikan pushed forward, with his vanguard running into another ambush near Yongzhou. Li feigned a retreat and soon Nikans army was stretched out widely into 3 groupings. Li then personally led his forces brandishing a great sword on horseback into battle. Nikan fought bravely but was overwhelmed and speared off his mount. Li severed Nikans head from its corpse and paraded it around before falling back to Wugang.
The Qing were absolutely shocked, Emperor Shunzhi screamed “ “In our dynasty’s military history we’ve never suffered a loss like this!”. The Ming scholar and philosopher Huang Zongxi said of Li Dingguo’s victory “it was the most complete Ming victory since the Wanli reign.”. The prefect of Guilin said of Li’s victory ““The duke (Li) uses troops like a god. He’s a little Zhuge [Liang]. His laws and regulations are clear and strict without committing the slightest mistake, and he combines the strong and weak in his brigades with all knowing their roles. Thus the people practically fight to join him.” The Qing licked their wounds and now put the veteran collaborator Hong Chengchou in charge of all operations in the far south.
Even though Li had managed to kill Prince Nikan, he was unable to take advantage of the great victory because his subordinates Feng Shuangli and Ma Jinzhong were still working for Sun Kewang in secrecy, undermining him. Soon much of Huguang fell right back into the hands of the Qing and Feng sent word to Sun to stoke his jealousy “I fear that from now on, Dingguo will be hard to control”. Sun tried to remedy his relationship with Li by offering him the title of Prince of Xining, but Li refused stating “Investitures come from the Son of Heaven. How can one prince enfoeff another?” thus Li was making the argument that only Emperor Yongli could bestow someone as prince outraging Sun, kind of ironic also given the fact it was an argument Sun had made himself, haha. Sun was publicly praising Li’s victories, while privately trying to destroy him. Sun sent countless letters summoning Li to “discuss strategy” but instead Li camped in Baoqing and ignored them. It turns out Li was being tipped off by Liu Wenxiu’s son that Sun was probably trying to assassinate him. Li worried not just for his life, but for his family who were all in Yunnan.
Now it should be noted Li Dingguo’s armies success was primarily a result of his training programs and leadership. Li was an extremely capable military leader, he understood the limitations and strengths of his forces. For one thing he did not believe in sticking around in one place for too long, he knew the limitations of his logistics, such as a need for food. His experience as a bandit leader was of grave importance for the survival of his forces as most of their campaigns relied on moving into territories, securing resources and moving on. He also had a tendency to strike out fast without warning and leav before the Qing could consolidate on that position. Li made sure to build close ties with areas he led his forces into, trying to win over many, and this proved highly successful as unlike his former adoptive father, Li had always tried to limit atrocities. Li also heavily benefited from Yunnan specifically, he was running around with war elephants afterall, fearsome shock units, though very expensive to feed and maintain. It was said that the Qing feared Li and his “southern barbarian forces” as they were known.
Estimates for the total troops available for the South Ming regime are most likely inflated but some sources claim Sun Kewang to have 800,000 men, Li Dingguo 400,000 and Liu Wenxiu 140,000. There is a breakdown of organizational structure as well when it comes to the South Ming armies. For mobile brigades (youji), each with a commander, consisting of 2 brigades (ying), which held around 1750 troops. Then there are 5 vice commanders (dusi) each with 350 troops, divided into 5 separate units of 70, further divided into 5 squads of 13. Now for a regular brigade each held 3000 troops with 10 battalions of 300, subdivided into 2 companies of 150 each. Lt’s led platoons of 30 men, sergeants squads of 10.
The South Ming regime were bolstered heavily by minority troops which themselves brought a variety of differing weaponry and military tactics. Its hard to gauge, but some modern scholars estimate there was a ratio of 1 gun per 15 soldiers overall, but other scholars argue they had even more. As already mentioned we see a heavy use of Elephant cavalry amongst Li Dingguo’s forces, he also had unique firearms, repeating crossbows and specialized polearms. By the way if you ever have a chance to check out repeating crossbows going back to the ancient times of China, its worthwhile, they are awesome. There were the famous 3 eyed bird guns, western made cannons and much more. Li’s force particularly liked using cavalry, favoring the mobility, but horses were in short supply for Yunnan and Sichuan. The war elephants were typically in the frontlines with men firing guns atop their backs, which sounds absolutely awesome. Li Dingguo’s campaigns also came with horrifying consequences for the common folk, it is estimated up to a possibly million commoners were killed during the offensive in 1652 from war conditions and famine. Basically anywhere the Qing and Ming decided to do battle ruined the area, people were pressed into service, killed, pillaged, lost homes and farms and such leading to starvation, many refugees spread into other areas causing more and more problems.
While northern Sichuan was being secured by the forces of Li Guoying and Wu Sangui, Sun Kewang decided to expand into northern Sichuan and sent Liu Wenxiu. The Qing attempted to hold Liu’s forces back, but the elephant cavalry proved extremely effective and soon they were pushed back towards Baoning. A large reason the Elephant cavalry was so successful was because they simply spooked the Qing horses, though for anyone who knows their Mongol war history, you can already see how using war elephants might prove disastrous. While horses are indeed spooked by elephants, horses mounted archers can quite easily spook elephants back by pelting them with arrows and flanking them. Regardless from many of the sources I am reading, this seems to not become the case until later on. Liu Wenxiu soon took Chongqing, Chengdu with the aid of his elephants and heavy cannons, he now felt the time was right to march on the Qing stronghold of Baoning. Liu besieged Baoning with 50,000 troops while another Ming commander, Wang Fuchen built floating bridges to cross the Ling River to cut off the escape from Baoning. Wu Sangui argued with Li Guoying that they should retreat to Hanzhong, but Li felt abandoning Baoning would mean the loss of Sichuan completely and that was unacceptable. Li then instructed Wu to place his troops in a position from which they could not escape. This tactic is known as “deadly ground”, the idea was by putting the forces in a life or death situation they would perform at their best. Sure hate to be those forces. Wu Sangui was still looking to retreat, but his colleagues basically told him he would get executed for doing so in Beijing. Abandoning Baoning would set the Qing pacification back for years and thus it was imperative to make this stand.
Baoning was quite a defendable city, it held rivers on 3 sides and a mountain on its 4th. The Ming tried to use that mountain to fire muskets into the city but the range was too far. Liu kept up the pressure on 3 sides of the city while guarding against any relief forces incoming from the north. It was an overly aggressive stance leaving Liu’s forces thinly places about, but he had no choice but to take up an aggressive stance in the hopes of breaking the city faster since Liu did not have enough supplies for a long siege, neither did the Qing for that matter. It also seems Liu had his eyes fixated on the prize and may have been too eager. Afterall if he took Baoning it would mean he was the man who took all of Sichuan.
It seems in his efforts to envelope Baoning Liu had left some gaps in his formations and Wu saw this. Liu had arrayed his 13 war elephant cavalry units in the front of the formation intending to use them as shock troops and to protect his more unarmored troops in the formations center. The problem was because the war elephants were in the front like this, the troops behind them could not see what was past the elephants, and elephants unlike horses dont move fast, thus the enemy would be able to maneuver quickly and the troops would not know where they would be hit in time. What made maters even worse was the fact these unarmored troops in the middle had their backs to the Ling River. Lius army consisted mostly of pikemen with rattan shields and some harquebusiers. They were arrayed on the 3 sides of the city, 4 ranks deep with elephants in front followed by pikemen and harquebusiers in the rear. The formation reassembled a crescent moon, stretching some 5 miles around the city. For those of you war gamers you can probably visualize the setup and see some of the issues. For example Liu would employ his elephants into a charge to smash the enemy’s cavalry, then open the lines for pikemen to finish them off followed by harquebusiers to shoot straddlers, a good plan? Problem, elephants are quite slow, what if the cavalry simply run around them?
Wu told Zhang that if they could open a gap in the enemy's lines they might be able to win. Liu commanded an attack and Wu feigned a retreat near the Guanyin Temple which drew the Ming in pursuit. The pursuit separated some of the formation exposing the unarmored troops in the middle of Liu’s formation and Wu circled around the flanks concentrating fire up the weak middle. Next Wu’s cavalry smashed into some Pikemen formations pushing the enemy closer to the Ling River. Then Wu led his force against Liu Wenxiu, charging at the elephants, but they did not break. So Wu feigned another retreat, goading Liu into a chaotic pursuit. As Liu charged, Wu’s forces wheeled back around and hit them with a crossfire of arrows, remember what I said about Mongolian tactics. To make matters worse, Liu’s hasty pursuit saw him leaving behind many of the shield bearers, and thus they had no counter to the arrow fire. Liu’s forces began to rout and Liu himself was forced to escape by cutting a floating bridge at the head of nearly half his original force of 50,000. Now 10,000 of his men were on the other side of the Ling river, scrambling to get across and they were quickly slaughtered. The Elephants eventually panicked and scattered in their own right. Wu Sangui went on to claim his forces killed and captured more than 40,000 troops during the battle. Li Guoying claimed that no more than 1000 men managed to escape and that they had captured seals of authority, 3 elephants, over 2000 horses and a mountain of firearms. Liu would retreat all the way to Yunnan and be lambasted by Sun and demoted. Liu from then on would resent Sun and fell more into the fold of Li Dingguo. After the battle both Li Guoying and Wu Sangui sent forces wheeling around to pursue the Ming as they withdrew. Wu Sangui’s forces eventually stopped at Chengdu wrecking multiple Ming armies. Li Guoying began to consolidate his power in Sichuan, defeating and cornering Ming loyalist forces across the north and west of Sichuan. Li would go as far as to claim north and western Sichuan were fully pacified to Beijing.
Meanwhile the Ming court was still fawning over Li Dingguo like fangirls of a Kpop band and gave him the title of Prince of Xining, really pissing off Sun Kewang. This pushed Sun Kewang to begin a military campaign going east in autumn of 1652 seeking to raise his military profile, but at the same time Hong Chengchou was sent to Hunan to pacify it. Hong did not take an aggressive stance and opted instead to restore the prosperity of the region. Sun’s campaign began with the capture of Chenzhou, where he smashed its east gate with his war elephants allowing his infantry to swarm into the city fighting bloody street to street warfare. Sun followed up the massacre, by executing tons of Qing officials and erecting piles of severed limbs to showcase it, so some old fashion Zhang Xianzhong stuff. Sun Kewang afterwards personally commanded his army to attack Baoqing alongside Feng Shuangli and Bai Wenxuan to his left and right. A veteran Qing commander named Tong Tulai held the city and upon seeing the banners of Sun Kewang in the middle formation order the concentration of his forces fire upon the center units. Both sides took equal and heavy casualties, but soon Sun Kewangs army broke and fled with Tong Tulai choosing not to pursue, probably learning a lesson from Prince Nikan’s demise.
Sun’s defeat at Baoqing and Liu Wenxiu’s defeat at Baoning convinced many that Sun Kewang was an incompetant military leader and that he had wasted over 3 years training his forces for nothing. Thus ironically Sun Kewangs efforts to eclipse his rival, Li Dingguo had resulted in the exact opposite, making Li look even better. Sun then began to see the Ming royal family and its ties to Li Dingguo as a threat and he would take a course of action that would effectively doom the South Ming regime.
Despite the setbacks to the strategic position of the South Ming regime in 1653 not all was entirely lost. Emperor Yongli was in a secure and stable position for once and the regime held Yunnan, Guizhou and southern Sichuan firmly. Sun Kewang had brought many Dashun,Da Xi and other bandit groups under their sphere of influence and more importantly under the control of one leader. There was even the possibility that the South Ming regime could eventually link up with the naval resistance led by Koxinga in the southeast coast, someone we will talk about later. The military successes of Li Dingguo gave the South Ming regime a huge morale boost and shocked the hell out of the Qing. But beneath the surface of all of this, things were not well internally for the Ming loyalists. As we saw countless times with the bickering amongst different factions in the South Ming regime, here again it will occur.
Sun was ambitious and jealous of his colleagues, he also shared grotesque traits of his former master Zhang Xianzhong. Emperor Yongli on the other hand was weak willed and a coward who consistently sought his personal safety over all other concerns. He was a mere puppet, content with just being a symbol. Li Dingguo had risen from a peasant leader to become a genuine Ming loyalist who was both brave and charismatic, earning the hearts of many. He did not have the administrative skill like Sun Kewang, but he was a capable military leader who could take territory. In essence the 3 men together made a formidable team, each having something of use, administrative skill for Sun, military capability for Li and a symbol of authenticity in Yongli. But this would never come into reality and the real losers of this game of thrones, would as always be the common people.
Sun Kewang from the early days of just being a bandit leader showed a very notable tendency to be sensitive to any criticism and would attack anyone who he thought slighted him. Li Dingguo was well aware that Sun planned to kill him as early as 1652, yet despite this Li tried to get Sun to work together but it only made Sun more angry and dangerous. Thus by 1653 Li began to move his forces further away from Sun before he might be enveloped. Li left Yongzhou with less than 50,000 loyal troops to Longhu Pass which allowed the Qing quickly snatch up Yongzhou as a result. From there Li went east, skirmishing sometimes with Sun troops and attacking Qing controlled cities. Li’s hope was if he managed to get closer to the eastern coast he might be able to join forces with Koxinga whom for his own part was open to the idea and trying his best to join up as well.
In march of 1653, Li besieged Zhaoqing for weeks and despite heavy bombardments failed to take the city and was forced to move on and raid Guangxi. He attacked Guilin where he was wounded and forced to retreat when Qing relief forces came. As Li fought Qing forces in Guangdong and Guangxi throughout 1653, Sun Kewang dispatched Feng Shuangli to attack Li at Liuzhou. Li however, managed to ambush Feng’s forces and sent him fleeing. There is a story that as Feng tried to ford a river fleeing, Li supposedly saved him from drowning and thus Feng gave his loyalty to Li and returned to Sun’s camp waiting for the right moment to help Li defeat him. Li would take Guilin in late 1653 and the more actions he took the more Emperor Yongli’s court saw him as a better alternative to Sun as a military protector. Soon Emperor Yongli offered Li the same rank as Sun Kewang if he could rescue him from Sun’s house arrest situation. Li responded that he would be open to the idea of “escorting” Yongli to safety if he successfully took Guangdong. However, Ma Jixiang discovered these messages between Li and Yongli and gave word to Sun Kewang in January of 1654. Sun then accused Yongli of conspiring against him and initiated a plan to redistribute Li Dingguo’s wives and concubines in Yunnan among the other high ranking officers, but there was general dissatisfaction amongst his ranks. Almost a full blown mutiny had occurred at one point and thus his devious plan never came to fruition.
On May 6, Sun executed what he called the 18 gentlemen of Anlong for allegedly conspiring against him. Their ringleader, Wu Zhenmin strangled himself while the others were publicly flayed and decapitated. Its been awhile since we had this gruesome stuff eh? It turns out when Yongli was accused he denied the conspiracy and threw all the 18 gentlemen under the bus to save himself. In spring of 1654, Sun with 370,000 troops prepared for another eastern campaign while Li Dingguo had launched his own into Guangdong hoping as always to link up with the infamous Koxinga. Li managed to push all the way to Gaozhou, located in the southeast of the province. Next he besieged Xinhui just a bit south of Guangzhou. While he besieged Xinhui he asked Koxinga for assistance, but this never came to fruition and thus the siege lagged into 1655. Li’s situation became very desperate, his men were soon reduced to eating their own horses. Then Qing reinforcements commanded by Shang Kexi arrived and despite Li having arrayed his cannons and elephants for defense the cannons allegedly were not working properly during the battle, allowing the Qing to take some high ground against him. Shang Kexi and his colleague Geng Jimao from the vantage point were able to outflank Li and cause his elephants to rout running through his own army causing massive chaos. Li had already lost countless thousand during the siege and the Qing attack simply broke them, they soon fled for their lives. Shang Kexi boasted “they scattered like rats before the might of the Qing”.
Li fled back southwest with the remnants of his forces, around 10,000 men, with just 3 war elephants left and a possible 60-70 thousand refugees as he was pursued by the Qing. He was finally able to breathe when he destroyed a bridge behind himself stranding the Qing and managing to escape to Nanning. The Qing quickly grabbed up multiple cities and Li’s eastern campaign had ended in complete failure. With just a single battle at Xinhui, over 3 years of Ming victories had been swept away.
Meanwhile Sun had launched an assault on Changde in the summer of 1655, bringing with him Liu Wenxiu who had tried to retire in dismay from his major defeat, but Sun would not allow this. When his forces got close to Changde they were ambushed by Qing forces and had to make a fighting retreat, losing 6 subsequent battles to them. Many of Sun’s forces fell to the Qing, starvation and disease. Feng Shuangli was wounded and some other 40 generals simply surrendered to the Qing in what became a catastrophic campaign. One thing made Hong Chengchou uneasy despite the great victories, the Ming forces under Sun seemed to be using riverine units to great effect. Thus Chengchou began to pressure the Qing to put more funding into naval capabilities. You see Sun and Li both had mastered using boats to move units quicker through river systems, as cavalry was scarce and their operations required fast mobility. The use of these riverine units alluded the Qing countless times as the Qing did not possess a great number of boats themselves nor plan to build too many.
Throughout 1655 the Qing pushed through Guangxi defeating multiple bandit groups. Li Dingguo in the meantime was returning to Nanning in late 1655, but would soon flee when the Qing attacked the city in February of 1656. It became evident that Li Dingguo was edging closer and closer to Anlong to attempt a rescue of Emperor Yongli, prompting Sun Kewang to order the forceful movement of the emperor. He appointed his subordinate Bai Wenxuan for the task of moving the emperor, completely unaware that Bai was secretly working with Li Dingguo to relocate Emperor Yongli to Yunnan where Li had a powerbase. As Sun continued to campaign in eastern Sichuan, Li dingguo and Bai Wenxuan sent word to Emperor Yongli to try and convince the him to move to Yunnan. It was a major risk as Li only had 6000 troops under his control at the time and Sun had more than 50,000 garrisoning various places, many of which were in Yunnan. Li then tried to appeal to the Ming loyalism of the commanders scattered about, accusing Sun Kewang of quote “sinking to a depth from which he could not return to allegiance”. He also bribed the hell out of them. In turn Liu Wenxiu turned his back on Sun and made his way to join Li dingguo. Li then dispatched his subordinate Jin Tongwu to take Emperor Yongli to Yunnan in early 1656, but Sun Kewang sent some agents of his own to retrieve the emperor. So basically we are seeing a situation in which Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang are both trying to win the Ming loyalists to their respective side and portraying themselves as being the true savior of the Emperor. By the way if most of this story sounds oddly familiar to parts of the 3 Kingdoms stories its not a coincidence, all the characters were avid readers of those stories and were actively portraying the events as such.
What ends up winning the day, was the cunning and deceptive alliance between Li dingguo and Bai Wenxuan, because despite all that was going on, it seems Sun still thought Bai Wenxuan was his loyal man helping move the emperor for him. At a crucial moment, Sun Kewang sent an army to apprehend the emperor and Bai Wenxuan stopped the force saying “The Son of Heaven is here. Kewang wants to be a murderous traitor. If you wish to do that which is right, how can you follow the commands of an evil murderer and thus counter the Way of Heaven?”.
Meanwhile he was sending letters to Sun Kewang explaining that he would be delivering the Emperor to Guiyang in a few days and not to worry. This deception bought enough time for Li Dingguo and his smaller army to sneak into Anlong and convince 2 Ming commanders, Pang Tianshou and Ma Jixiang (yup Sun’s spy loyal man) to switch their allegiances to him. Li dingguo consolidated the forces with those of Ben Wenxuan and they began to escort Emperor Yongli out of Anlong on February 20th.
It is said the populace lined up the roads and wept for joy as Emperor Yongli entered Yunnan alongside Li Dingguo. The emperor quickly occupied Sun Kewangs former residence in Kunming and once he felt safe and comfortable he began to distribute new titles and office to all those who aided his escape. Li Dingguo and Liu Wenxiu were named the Princes of Jin and Shu. Despite all of the craziness, Li Dingguo still hoped to bring Sun Kewang back into the fold and sent Liu Wenxiu back to Guiyang as an envoy. However Emperor Yongli advised Liu not to go in person, remembering the execution of the 18 gentlemen of Anlong, so instead Liu wrote a letter in blood to Sun Kewang. Li even sent out Sun’s servants and concubines and the deceptive Bai Wenxuan back to him in a show of good faith. Sun responded as you might guess, angrily, so he sent his own envoys in return as a sign of good faith. In truth he had sent spies such as Wang Ziqi and Zhang Hu, who to his delight sent back word quickly that Li Dingguo only had 20,000 troops. Thus Sun Kewang eagerly prepared for war against Li, not realizing many of his top commanders had changed their allegiances such as his subordinate, Zhang Hu, I guess he can be called a double agent. Bai Wenxuan for his part notified Li that peace was assuredly not an option. On top of this Sun had sent some agents throughout Guizhou and Yunnan to garrison positions and prepare for war which really tipped Li off. Li Dingguo and Liu Wenxiu each sent letters from Kunming to Koxinga hoping for cooperation but no responses came.
During all of this, the Qing were consolidating their empire, especially in Sichuan. The skirmishes between Sun and Li had enabled the Qing to grab most of Southwest China. Yet Southern Sichuan was still extremely chaotic. Maimed people walked everywhere, corpses littered the fields, cannibalism was rampant and people were paying taxes to differing authorities. Sun Kewang still held considerable authority in Southern Sichuan. Li Guoying was promoted to governor general of Shaanxi and Sichuan in 1657 and the Qing hoped some martial law might speed up the pacification and end the nightmare that had reigned for over a decade at this point. Li Guoying pointing out that Sichuan contained a mishmash of refugees from all the ongoing wars. There were Eight banner troops, bandits, Ming loyalists, Dashun and Daxi remnants and all these groups made it very difficult to determine reliability and suitability for service under the Qing. Li Guoying thought increasing agricultural productivity would win over most and set to work doing so. Meanwhile Hong Chengchou was gathering forces and supplies in Huguang while promoting agricultural productivity. Thus both Li and Hong were running similar programs trying to win the hearts of the populace to their side.
Now as I mentioned, the Qing took Nanning in 1656 and soon realized that Li Dingguo had slipped away to Anlong. The Qing commanders worried that their supply lines were stretched too thin and Hong Chengchou favored using Guilin as a main base of operations for enclosing the southwest. To Hong Chengchou the main threat was Emperor Yongli and his entourage because he held the most significant challenge to the Qing that of legitimacy. The Qing had word of the growing war between Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang and chose to allow Hong Chengchou to build up his forces and supplies for the time being and let the enemy rot a bit from within. The entire time the Ming were bickering, the Qing were amping up agricultural production in multiple provinces winning over more and more of the populace.
In the summer of 1657 Sun and Li finally came after another. Sun with a 140,000 strong army marched upon Yunnan leaving Feng Shuangli to hold Guiyang. Li and Liu had around 50,000 troops and took up a position at Qujing building up wooden defenses there. By this point Li and Liu had persuaded many of Sun’s subordinates to turncoat using every means possible, but despite this they still feared the upcoming clash. Sun arrayed his force into 36 brigades once he hit the Yunnan border and made his way to the nearest city, Jiaoshui. When the 2 armies came 10 miles from each other, Sun placed Bai Wenxuan in his vanguard which would prove a disastrous mistake. Turns out Sun’s spies finally told him Bai Wenxuan was a turncoat, so Sun rightfully threw him in front, but unbeknownst to him Bai knew Sun knew and planned for this. Oh how the turntables? At the critical start of the battle Bai sent a signal and his troops wheeled around smashing into Sun’s other commanders, aided by another turncoat general. Before Sun could respond, the turncoat units were eliminating his loyal units 1 by 1. Sun panicked and sought to withdraw, but 2 of his loyal subordinates Ma Bao and Ma Weixing both promised they would capture Bai and Liu vowing to quote “eat Bai’s flesh for his betrayal. We outnumber them 10 to 1, when one person advances, we retreat. Are there no men among us?”. Thus Sun sent Mao Bao and another subordinate Zhang Sheng with 4000 troops to make a flanking maneuver while he drove straight into the vanguard himself. The outcome was catastrophic. Ma Weixing simply bolted away, Zhang fled towards Kunming hoping to switch sides and Ma Bao did not follow through because it turned out he was also a turncoat. There are even accounts that Ma Bao’s men were firing blanks to look like they were helping. To make matters worse, Li Dingguo was fed intel provided by Bai Wenxuan and personally led his units to hit Sun’s weakest spot. When Liu Wenxiu advanced, many of Sun’s subordinate began to chant “Welcome, Prince Jin! Welcome Prince Jin!” as they cast off their uniforms and defected. Soon banners of Li and Liu were filling the battleground, Sun was being undone by his own army. Even though Sun’s loyal forces still outnumbered the enemy 3-1 they quickly collapsed and Sun was forced to flee.
Sun and just a few dozen followers fled through thick forests making their way to the nearest town which was named Puding…haha Puding, anyways of all people Ma Jinzhong was holding the town and he closed the gates on them. When Sun screamed at the gates he was the ruler of the realm, Ma retorted “The ruler of the realm left with an army of 160,000. Now there are only a few thousand. You are certainly bandits.” Next Sun and his followers ran to Guiyang with Liu hot on their heels. When Sun approached the gates of his old capital he found them barred by Feng Shuangli. Feng did however allow Sun to take his family and continue running and Sun also secretly ordered his followers to rape and kill the wife of Bai Wenxuan who was in Guiyangat the time. Soon Sun ran into an underling of Li Dingguo named Li Bengao. He said to Bengao “Bengao, is that my old companion? You’ve received my favor, but now you want to kill you ruler huh?” Bengao replied “As a court officer it is simple to know the duties of a lord and minister. Bengao does not kill his lord; I’ve come to kill the leader of bandits.”. But before Bengao could kill Sun, one of Sun’s followers snuck up and shot Bengao dead with an arrow. Sun decided enough was enough and to defect to the Qing and did so at Baoqing on December 19th of 1657. He cut his hair in the Manchu fashion and was invested as the Prince of Yi, but would not live too much longer as he died of illness in 1660, some allege he was executed secretly for having dealings with the Koxinga regime in Taiwan.
Speaking of Koxinga, fresh from his victory over Sun, Li Dingguo yet again sent another letter to Koxinga asking if they could join forces and attack Nanjing, but this never came to be. Li Dingguo had a short lived victory as he soon had to perform mop up operations against Sun’s loyalists in Yunnan. Li reportedly lost upto 90% of his best commanders and troops simply cleaning up the remnants of Sun, leaving him with a terribly green force to resist the inevitable Qing invasion to come. To make matters worse Liu Wenxiu died of illness in late 1658. Li distrusted most of the commanders at his side as they had been Sun’s former commanders and without Liu he simply had too much to do by himself. Remember how Li kept trying to bring Sun Kewang back into the fold, despite the man was trying to kill him? Well you can see why here, despite Li being an incredible military leader, when it came to governance and state building, he simply was not very good at it. He was used to mobile armies, wandering the provinces and plundering while on the move. Sitting idle and trying to build up forces, taxation, production, even defenses works was sort of not his forte. Before L iu had died, on his deathbed he told Li he should flee and establish a new base of operations in Shaanxi or maybe sail down the Yangtze to join Koxinga. The loss of Liu was a hard one, as Li trusted pretty much no other former commanders under Sun, apart from Bai Wenxuan who proved quite helpful. Regardless Li strove on preparing what defenses he could.
3 Qing armies advanced on Yunnan from 3 directions, planning to converge upon Kunming. Wu Sangui marched from Sichuan, Loto would march from Huguang, Jobeti from Guangxi and Hong Chengchou held overall command. At this time Hong Chengchou was quite old and his health was failing him so he could not take a field command. Just because he was old and ill did not mean he did not have some sneaky tricks however. Hong Chengchou sent a number of spies into Yunnan to gather intel and perform a misinformation campaign to lead Li Dingguo’s forces to believe the Qing were much further away than they were.
Wu Sangui’s force departed Baoning and first came upon Chengdu which he described to be “a den of tigers, leopards, and bears”. The city was still a wasteland and it is estimated only 2% of the population was alive. Things proved to be just as bad in Chongqing, when Wu and his colleague Li Guohan approached the first things they saw were corpses and bones littering the roads. Unlike Chengdu, Wu’s force was hampered at Chongqing by bandit armies, but the Qing artillery proved enough to break them after several battles. It is said the Qing artillery blasted from shorelines filling the river with the bodies of bandits.
The Qing armies advanced through Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou battling bandit armies everywhere they went. The more they advanced however, the more easily bandits surrendered and defections began to pour in. Loto captured Guiyang from Ma Jingzhong and within 3 months nearly all of Guizhou fell to the Qing. By 1658 most of the Ming resistance in Huguang and Jiangxi had been smashed with only some large bandit groups holding out. Thus it was decided in 1658 to finally march on Yunnan. Despite the field commanders eagerness, Hong Chengchou advised them all that they had thus far taken mostly empty or under armed cities and they only had a month or so supplies left. He cautioned them that they should advance slowly. Emperor Shunzhi received reports from Hong Chengchou and likewise ordered them to delay their advances so they could recover somewhat and supply up. Alongside this Emperor Shunzhi stressed the necessity to win over the populace as they conquered ““establish order out of chaos and rescue the people.”. Despite these orders, many scholars point out that this stage of the war was quite bloody on the side of the Qing and many commoners suffered.
Meanwhile Li Dingguo had sent Bai Wenxuan to guard the Qixing Pass with 40,000 troops, Wu Zisheng to guard the route from Anlong and other units to the Pan River in the east where he planned to make a base of operations. Li was looking for a place to break away, considering Sichuan or even Vietnam, but the Qing had taken their time to envelop Yunnan forcing him into a corner. Li mobilized the army to go east to defend the approaches to Yunnan and won a few minor battles killing more than 10,000 Qing troops. Despite the victories, the Qing numerical superiority simply overwhelmed Li’s forces quickly and they soon had to pull back further into Yunnan.
Li brought his forces to Shuanghekou and Jobtei climbed a nearby mountain to study Li’s army formation, searching for signs of weakness. When the battle commenced, Li’s forces launched a cannonade, but the wind suddenly blew all the smoke from the cannonade into his battle lines faces. On Top of the blinding effect the smoke lit tall grass on fire all amongst his army. His army had to pull back and in the disarray, allowing Jobtei to outflank Li catching him in a pincer forcing Li to flee. Li’s army fled to Kunming destroying bridges as they did to delay the Qing forces. Meanwhile Wu Sangui had intel on an alternate route to get past Bai Wenxuans forces at Qixing Pass and managed to get behind him forcing Bai’s force to flee to Zhanyi. The initial campaign to defend Yunnan was a colossal failure. Li lost an estimated 30-40 thousand men, most of them his few surviving veterans with whom held more than 10 years of experience fighting battles from Sichuan to Guangdong. 30 officers were gone, most of his war elephants were also gone and the Qing were now marching on Qujing. Li sent words back to Kunming urging Emperor Yongli to flee. Li would make it back to Kunming by January 5th 1659 and the court of Yongli began to plan their next place to make a stand. Li favored a retreat into Sichuan in the hope of joining some large bandit armies they had friendly connections with. Others in the court argued it was too dangerous and that there was little offensive potential in Sichuan. Many argued they should flee west through Yunnan into Burma. Others said they should flee into Vietnam and perhaps sail out to join Koxinga. But as they debated it turned out the Qing foresaw some of their actions and blocked the way into Vietnam and in the end the decision was made to flee west into Burma.
The royal entourage was around 4300 men that departed Kunming. Li ordered everything that could not be carried to be torched, but the people lamented him for this and he soon changed his mind about the torching. Before leaving he told the people of Kunming “We have stayed in Yunnan for many years and we regard you people as a father regards his sons. But now national affairs have reached dire proportions and the court must move. You may share our hardships together. For I fear that when the Qing troops arrive, they will kill, loot, and rape, and it will be difficult to escape. If you do not flee with his majesty, you should each get far away quickly. Those who don’t have only themselves to blame”. This drove the city's populace to abandon the city while weeping for the doom that was brought upon them. The march was a rough one, food became scarce and many died of starvation and disease. They eventually made it to Yongchang in early 1659 as the Qing hit Kunming and to their great surprise found it was fully intact and supplies were everywhere to be found. Li’s change of heart on the torching would cost him greatly as the Qing forces recovered several months of supplies in Kunming. Meanwhile some of the Emperors entourage did not want to go west such as Ai Chengye who instead sought to establish ambushes for the Qing, hoping to join Li and the emperor later. Bai Wenxuan began to establish defenses between Dali and Yongchang to delay the Qing as well. It was decided to cover Emperor Yongli’s flight, Bai would hold the rearguard while Li rode with the Emperors entourage.
The Qing continued their advance as Bai Wenxuan tried to delay them but suffered multiple defeats and lost countless soldiers, officers and elephants. Meanwhile Li destroyed the bridge at Lancang River hoping to further delay the Qing, but the Qing were very efficient at building rafts and crossed each river with ease. The Qing would reach Yongchang in March of 1659 and proceed to plunder it heavily. Li and Bai held a council of war and Li argued they should try to fight a decisive battle in Yunnan, but Bai argued that Emperor Yongli’s safety was more important.
Regardless Li was adamant about fighting and set up multiple ambushes along the mountain range of Mount Mopan west of the Nu River. With only 6000 troops against around 12,000 of a Qing vanguard, Li felt he could do some damage. He split his forces into 3 groups stationed them in ambush sites to hit the vanguard of Wu Sangui. Wu Sangui’s vanguard had been having a few easy days with no real excitement so he was marching with a loose formation into the mountain range not expecting an attack. The ambush signal was triggered and Wu immediately ordered a retreat as all hell broke loose and cannons and arrows rained down upon his men. Combat raged all over the mountain range and Li Dingguo got shrapnel into his face as he directed the battle. The fighting went on for half a day seeing corpses pill up on both sides like mountains. In the end Li made a fighting withdrawal. The Ming forces ended up losing a third of their total numbers while inflicting upto 10,000 casualties upon the Qing. After the battle Wu Sangui remarked that Li Dingguo and Bai Wenxuan were indeed great military commanders and they should tread lightly.
The carnage in the mountains bought more time for Emperor Yongli to continue to move into Burma. Li and a few thousand troops fled south camping at Menggen inside Burma and Bai Wenxuan camped at Mubang. When Li and Bai entered Burma they took care not to attack any Burmese forces they were with the Emperor afterall. As for Emperor Yongli when the entourage entered the Burmese border, the royal party was disarmed by local border guards and apprehended. They were taken by boat over the Irrawaddy river to the capital city of Ava. By this time their entourage was nothing more than 1478 members of which only 600 or so were allowed to be on the boats, the rest had to walk it through thick jungle. Hundreds died to disease while trekking the jungles, some went south to Siam instead, others ended up being captured as slaves. Emperor Yongli’s party made it to Ava, completely unaware Li and Bai were trying to find them and one of his court officials was sending word to them that Emperor Yongli had instead fled to Fujian. Over the next 2 years, Li and Bai under the believe that Emperor Yongli was kidnapped, and perhaps he was for all intensive purposes, began to make repeated rescue efforts.
Meanwhile the Qing consolidated their position in Yunnan and their enormous occupational force was exacerbating the province, soon famine spread. For both the populace of Yunnan and the Qing forces the situation was growing quite dire. The costs for garrisoning Yunnan was estimated to exceed the entire military revenue for the empire, over 9 million taels of silver. The situation grew worse when Li Dingguo began to work with local chieftains to form rebellions against the Qing menace. The trouble of banditry and rebellions would plague the Qing in Yunnan for months far into 1661. While some Qing commanders like Wu Sangui pushed for apprehending Emperor Yongli as soon as possible, Hong Chengchou favored a gradual pacification of Yunnan before campaigning. Hong had seen the countless failures in Guangxi, Sichuan and Guizhou and understood the need to win the hearts of the populace so that victory would be less costly.
Meanwhile back in Burma, Bai Wenxuan advanced towards Ava trying to rescue Emperor Yongli who he assumed had been kidnapped. This led the Burmese forces to treat both Bai and Li’s small armies as threats. Bai and Li consolidated their armies and defeated a Burmese force killing several thousand. After defeating the Burmese force they negotiated a 3 day truce asking for the Burmese to hand over the emperor. After 3 days instead of handing him over the Burmese sent another army to attack them and they were swiftly defeated. When they demanded the Emperor be handed over again the Burmese commander said “Now how can we send [Yongli] to you? You have the temerity to attack our city, but the land and water [i.e., terrain] don’t favor you. We can hold out for two to three years without fear.”. Thus they continued to march on Ava and besieged it, prompting the king of Burma to amass over 150,000 troops with 100 war elephants to defend the capital. The entire time Li and Bai both tried to write countless letters to the emperor failing countless times, but then one letter got through in 1661 and Yongli responded ““Use unorthodox troops to rescue me.”. Thus they did just that, they made a direct attack on the city preparing to cross the Irrawaddy to hit the walls of Ava. That night they opened fire with their heavy cannons and began building floating bridges.
As you can imagine the Ming forces were outnumbered by something like 10 to 1 and certainly outgunned or better said out elephanted. Regardless of their numbers the Burmese using the cover of night, to cut the bridges to Ava forcing the Ming forces to pull back. Then in april of 1661 a Burmese army of 150,000 with apparently 1000 war elephants showed up and gave battle, that number has to be inflated, 1000 war elephants what is this the siege of Minas Tirith? Anyways it is said, Li Dingguo went forth to the front of battle with a large sword and grabbed an elephants tusk as he hacked its trunk off. The elephant fled afterwards making Li the largest bad ass I’ve ever heard of, and that poor elephant. It is also said Bai Wenxuan managed to perform a rear flank attack killing thousands and drove the Burmese army back, which must of been incredible given the disparity of numbers, 10,000 guys managed to defeat an army of 150,000 and 1000 elephants, yeah. The Ming proceeded to continue building the fleet of boats and rafts after the battle and besieged Ava yet again. The Burmese sent word they would release Yongli if the siege was lifted, I am pretty confused writing about this one, its as if the Burmese army was a paper army or something. I mean this Ming force is 10,000 or less how are they managing to defeat the capital of Burma?. Regardless the Burmese did not hand over the emperor and instead began to construct more defenses in Ava.
Meanwhile the Qing sent letters to Li and Bai to defect to the Qing as they were mobilizing their own assault on Burma to grab Yongli. In june of 1661 the King of Burma, Pindale was executed and replaced by his brother, Pye Min who assumed a more aggressive stance against the Ming forces. For his enthronement there was a “water spirit” ceremony and an official of Yongli’s court, Mu Tianbo was chosen to be sacrificed. Mu Tianbo fought ferociously, killing a few guards before being executed. After this Emperor Yongli lost all hope and lamented “The Dowager Empress is sick again and it looks like I will be unable to go back [to China] because the Tartars are coming to kill me. So please return the Dowager Empress’s bones to her old home. Now it’s obvious that I’ve been duped by traitorous ministers. If only I had invested Bai Wenxuan as a Prince of the Blood and Ma Bao as a secondary prince and followed the counsel of the meritorious officials, then I wouldn’t have these regrets. Still playing the part of the Son of Heaven, he also expressed regret at the fate of his loyal subjects in Yunnan, who were reportedly suffering at the hands of Wu Sangui and Hong Chengchou.”
When Bai and Li heard of the execution they panicked and launched one final attack on Ava. This time they tried to use their 16 boats to get across to the city, but their force was driven back after only 3 days of combat and they lost 11 boats in the process. Now Li and Bai lamented in despair for their situation was very dire. Since the Ming had entered Burma the Burmese government began opening up talks with the Qing hoping to curry favor. This facilitated the Qing march into Burma with a 100,000 strong force in 1661. The Qing immediately sought to separate the forces of Li and Bai as they advanced towards Ava. The Qing had already sent word to the Burmese King that if Yongli was not handed over immediately, Ava would be besieged. As the Qing closed in, Emperor Yongli sent a letter to Wu Sangui begging for his life, but Wu ignored it. When the Qing arrived at Ava, the Burmese told Emperor Yongli Li Dingguo was taking him away to safety as they delivered the emperor straight into the hands of the Qing. Emperor Yongli was brought to Kunming and executed on may 19th 1662 on a small hill overlooking Green Lake. Yongli and his wife were strangled and their ashes were poured around the Lotus Pond in Kunming. Wu Sangui allegedly felt remorse for not trying to save Emperor Yongli, though his story is not quite done.
Li Dingguo and Bai Wenxuan fled north trying to decide their next move, but they knew they stood no chance against the Qing force. Wu Sangui surrounded their camp and Bai lamented “I’ve disappointed my emperor, and I’ve let down Prince Jin.”. Bai then surrendered to Wu Sangui’s subordinate Ma Bao who happened to be an old friend of his. Li Dingguo was given false word that Emperor Yongli escaped, but required him for rescue. By this point Li had only 5000 or so men and could do little to nothing. Li fled east, hoping as you guessed it, to jin Koxinga, the man I keep naming but never speak much about. Li tried to flee to Vietnam and slipped past the Qing who were much more preoccupied moving Emperor Yongli back to Kunming. Despite the fact Li Dingguo evaded the Qing menace, as he fled through the thick Burmese jungles he was stricken, as were his men with disease. On his death bed just as he got word that Emperor Yongli had been executed, Li Dingguo died on August 10th 1662.
He died telling his remaining son to never submit to the Qing and he would be remembered as one of the great loyalist heroes in Chinese history.
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The last pretender to the Dragon throne, Emperor Yongli has been executed and adoptive offspring of Zhang Xianzhong have fallen likewise. Yunnan and the rest of south China is being consolidated into the Qing empire, all that remains is a few bandit groups, or was that all? I’ve mentioned his name countless times, but one problem still remains for the Qing, Koxinga over in Taiwan.