Wei Qing

Wei Qing (simplified Chinese: 卫青; traditional Chinese: 衛青; pinyin: Wèi Qīng; Wade–Giles: Wei Ch'ing, died 106 BC), born Zheng Qing (鄭青) in Linfen, Shanxi , was a famous general during han dynasty of China, whose campaigns against the Xiongnu earned him great acclaim. He was the younger half-brother of Empress Wei Zifu, making him the Emperor Wu's brother-in-law. He was also the uncle of Huo Qubing.

Family background and early career

Wei was born from humble means, as an illegitimate child from an adulterous relationship. His father Zheng Ji (鄭季) was a low level official for Pingyang County (平陽縣, in modern Linfen, Shanxi ) and was commissioned to serve at the estate of Cao Shou (曹壽), the Marquess of Pingyang (平陽侯), and his wife Princess Pingyang. There, he met and had a relationship with a female servant named Wei, and their relationship produced a son, Wei Qing, who took his mother's family name because of the illegitimacy (Wei Zifu was similarly born in illegitimacy, but of a different father). As an illegitimate child, the young Wei Qing was detested by his stepmother, father and half-siblings, and was made to live the life of lowly servants. Unable to tolerate the maltreatment, Wei Qing eventually ran away back to his mother's side during his early teenage years, and served as a horsekeeper in the marquess's estate of Pingyang. It was then he severed his paternal bond by adopting the surname Wei from his mother's family.

After Princess Pingyang offered the singer-dancer Wei Zifu to Emperor Wu as a concubine circa 139 BC, Wei Qing followed as an accompanying gift to serve as a palace horsekeeper. However, as his sister gained the emperor's love, near disaster would befall Wei. The powerful Grand Princess Liu Piao (劉嫖), the mother of Empress Chen Jiao, angry that Consort Wei had siphoned off the imperial favor that her daughter had previously enjoyed, kidnapped Wei Qing, and wanted to kill him privately as retaliation. However, Wei was rescued at the last moment by his friends, a group of fellow palace horseman led by Gongsun Ao (公孫敖). In response to the incident, and as a show of his own annoyance towards Empress Chen and Grand Princess Liu, Emperor Wu made Wei Qing the head official of the household at Jianzhang Palace (建章宮), away from where the princess might be able to harm him, and awarded Wei Qing with great wealth.

Career as general

Great wealth would not be all that Wei would have. Emperor Wu saw qualities in him that he believed would make a great general—brilliant horsemanship, archery, bravery, as well as excellent leadership qualities including the ability to sympathize with his soldiers and obtain their loyalty. Emperor Wu would promote Wei Qing to be his closest consul and lieutenant for the next few years, until he had secured all the power of his throne.

In 129 BC, when Xiongnu attacked the commandery of Shanggu (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei ), Emperor Wu dispatched Wei Qing (with the title General of the Chariots and Cavalry 車騎將軍), Gongsun Ao, Gongsun He (公孫賀) and Li Guang against Xiongnu, each leading 10,000 cavalries. Li Guang and Gongsun Ao suffered major losses at Xiongnu's hands, while Gongsun He failed to encounter and engage the enemy. Wei, however, distinguished himself by raiding Xiongnu's holy site Longcheng (龍城), killing over 700 Xiongnu soldiers guarding the place in the process. As a reward for the victory (the first proper victory against Xiongnu in Han history), Wei was promoted to a higher command and created an acting marquess (關內侯).

In 128 BC, Wei would have a larger victory against Xiongnu, killing thousands of Xiongnu soldiers.

In 127 BC, Wei had a major victory against Xiongnu's Princes of Loufan (樓煩王) and Baiyang (白羊王) after totally outmaneuvering and surrounding the Xiongnu forces, killing thousands of Xiongnu soldiers and capturing over a million Xiongnu cattle. The Han recapture of the territory forced the two Xiongnu clans to withdraw from the fertile Hetao region (modern western central Inner Mongolia centered on Ordos), and dealt devastating blow to the economy of these Xiongnu tribes. The city of Shuofang (朔方城) was built, and would later become a key stronghold from which offensive and defensive campaigns against Xiongnu would be launched. For his achievement, Wei was created the Marquess of Changping (長平侯), and his subordinates Su Jian (蘇建, father of the great Han patriot Su Wu) and Zhang Cigong (張次公) were also created marquesses.

In 124 BC, Wei would be the vital part of the greatest Han victory over Xiongnu to date. When Xiongnu's Worthy Prince of the Right (右賢王, literally meaning "Wise King of the Right") made harassing raids against Shuofang, Wei and his other generals surprised them by launching a crushing night assault on Xiongnu's main camp, surrounding them from the rear. Not only did they send the Worthy Prince running for his life from his drunken slumber (with only his own concubine following), they also took about 15,000 captives, including large numbers of Xiongnu princes and nobles, and great herds of cattle. At this campaign, his nephew Huo Qubing distinguished himself in battle and was given his own command. For this victory, Wei was made the Grand General of All Armed Forces (大將軍, the Han equivalent of chief Generalissimo), and his march was enlarged. His three young sons Wei Kang (衛伉), Wei Buyi (衛不疑), and Wei Deng (衛登) were also made marquesses (an offer later refused by Wei Qing), as were seven generals under Wei's command.

In 123 BC, Wei would fight a relatively inconclusive battle. Although he was able to kill or capture more than 19,000 of Xiongnu soldiers, part of his vanguard forces, a 3,000-strong regiment commanded by Generals Su Jian and Zhao Xin, was surprised and surrounded by the forces led by Xiongnu's Chanyu Yizhixie (伊稚斜單于), and was almost annihilated. Zhao defected, while Su escaped after losing all his men in the desperate fighting. Showing compassion on Su, Wei spared him even though some advocates advised that Su be executed on the spot after court martial to enforce Wei's commanding authority.

Despite his great honor and power, Wei remained humble in many ways. Because of the great favor Emperor Wu showed him, all of the other officials at court flattered him, except for Ji An (汲黯), who treated him as an equal. Wei was impressed by Ji's integrity in face of pressure and respected Ji greatly, often requesting Ji's opinion on important matters. Throughout his career, he refused to hire scholars to praise him and create favorable public opinions, and tried to maintain a relatively low profile. Despite his humble way of life, Wei's status in the Han army made him a distinguished figure in the country, attracting admiration, jealousy and hostility alike. Emperor Wu's uncle, the Prince of Huainan Liu An, who had been conspiring a military coup for a long time, saw Wei as his prime political obstacle that must be removed.

The Battle of Mobei and Involvement in Li Guang's death

In 119 BC, Wei, as the Grand Commander of the armed forces, would be involved in a battle controversially leading to the death of another famous general, Li Guang. In this engagement, Emperor Wu broke the normal pattern of reaction against Xiongnu attacks by making a major excursion against Xiongnu's headquarters in the north of the Gobi Desert. This is known to history as the Mobei Campaign ("campaign of the desert's north"). Wei and Huo were in command of the two main armies. Under Wei's command were four other generals Li, Gongsun He, Zhao Yiji (趙食其) and Cao Xiang (曹襄). Contrary to the arrangements promised to Li by Emperor Wu, where he would command the advance division, Emperor Wu secretly told Wei not to assign Li to important missions due to Li's history of "bad lucks". Wei, after the army had already departed, merged Li's forces with Zhao's and ordered them to take an eastern side route through a barren region. According to the historian Sima Qian, Wei had done this to give his old friend Gongsun Ao, who had recently been stripped of his title, a chance to win a major battle and be re-promoted. However, it should be noted that sending Generals of Front (前將軍, namely Li) and Right (右將軍, namely Zhao) on flanking routes was Wei's typical tactical arrangement. This was evidenced by his deployment of Zhao Xin and Su Jian, who were Generals of Front and Right respectively during the less-than-successful 123 BC campaign.

Wei's army unexpectedly encountered Chanyu Yizhixie's main forces, who was waiting in anticipation of ambushing the Han army. Despite being significantly outnumbered and fatigued after the long journey, Wei was able to counter Xiongnu's cavalry charge with archery defence created by heavy-armored chariots arranged in ring formations, which was reinforced with cavalry counteroffensives. (This defence would be evaluated as one of the most effective against cavalry by many Chinese tacticians later, including Yue Fei.) Late into the battle, seizing the moment of a sandstorm (with poor visibility), Wei broke the stalemate and launched bilateral flanking attacks with his cavalries. This decisive move shattered the Chanyu's line, nearly capturing him and completely overrunning his forces, killing over 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers in the process. The Han army pursued all the way to the modern Ulan Bator region, destroying the Xiongnu stronghold Zhao Xin Castle (趙信城) before returning in triumph with a total of about 19,000 enemy kills. Chanyu Yizhixie was forced to escape with very few men, lost communication with his tribe for days, and did not return until his clan presumed his death and installed a new Chanyu. This was a narrow but critically significant victory for the Han empire. Xiongnu was greatly weakened to the point that they would huddle up into the barren northern Gobi desert (leading to decline of their population), and unable to raid south for the next few decades. The next major Xiongnu invasion did not occur until after the han dynasty collapsed, some 400 years later during the jin dynasty.

Meanwhile, Li and Zhao got lost in the desert and failed to arrive in time for battle, despite meeting little Xiongnu resistance. As the battle ended, Li and Zhao were both summoned for court martial on the charge of failure to accomplish orders. Feeling humiliated over the charges against him and frustrated over missing his final chance at martial glory, Li committed suicide rather than to face the court. Many people blamed Wei for causing Li's death, including historian Sima Qian as well as Li's youngest son Li Gan (李敢), who was a subordinate of Huo Qubing at the time. Li Gan later went to Wei's home and assaulted him. Wei decided to let the matter slide, but Huo was greatly angered that his subordinate had the temerity to attack his uncle. Huo thus shot and killed Li Gan during a hunting trip.

Late career and death

After the 119 BC battle, Wei would see little combat action himself. He largely remained at the capital Chang'an to advise Emperor Wu on military and sometimes political matters as the Chief Defense Minister (大司馬大將軍), and also assisted his nephew the Crown Prince Liu Ju in governing the state when Emperor Wu was away on official tours.

Wei died in 106 BC and was buried in a large tomb built to be a model of Mount Lu (盧山, a mountain previously in Xiongnu-occupied territory). The tomb was connected to that of his nephew Huo Qubing, who had died in 117 BC, and the future tomb for Emperor Wu. Wei would not live to see the destruction of his clan (nobody survived except his youngest son Wei Deng (衛登) and his great grandnephew Liu Bingyi), as well as the tragic fate of his sister Empress Wei and his nephew Crown Prince Liu, during the political turmoil in 91 BC.

Last update 16-06-2012

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