Chen Yuanyuan

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Chen Yuanyuan
Portrait of Chen Yuanyuan.jpg
A 17th-century portrait of Chen Yuanyuan
BornXing Yuan
1624 (1624)
Jiangsu, Ming Empire
Died1681 (aged 56–57)
Qing Empire
SpouseWu Sangui
Chen Yuanyuan
Traditional Chinese陳圓圓
Simplified Chinese陈圆圆
Xing Yuan
(birth name)
(courtesy name)

Chen Yuanyuan (1624–1681)[1] was a Chinese courtesan who lived during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. She was the concubine of Wu Sangui, the Ming dynasty general who surrendered Shanhai Pass to the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and later rebelled in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Chen's life and relationship to Wu later became the subject of a number of popular stories and legends, many of them focusing on her supposed role in Wu's fateful decision to defect to the Qing, thereby sealing the fate of the Ming dynasty.

In one story popularized during the Kangxi era, when the peasant Li Zicheng rebelled against the Ming dynasty, he captured Chen Yuanyuan. This enraged Wu Sangui and made him side with the Qing dynasty to crush Li Zicheng's forces.


Chen Yuanyuan was born to a peasant family in Jiangsu province, and on the death of her father, she became a courtesan. Chen became a leading figure in the Suzhou kunqu scene.[2] An account praised her performance as the maid Hongniang in Romance of the Western Chamber.[3] In 1642, she became the lover of the scholar and poet Mao Xiang,[4] who became infatuated with her after watching her in The Story of the Red Plum, sung in the yiyangqiang style.[5] Subsequently, Chen was bought by the family of Tian Hongyu, father of one of the Chongzhen Emperor's concubines. She was then either purchased for Wu Sangui by his father,[6] or given to Wu as a gift by Tian.[7]

She is one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai described by late Qing officials. The other famed courtesans of this group are Ma Xianglan, Bian Yujing [zh], Li Xiangjun, Dong Xiaowan, Gu Mei, Kou Baimen [zh], and Liu Rushi.[8]

After failing to deter Wu Sangui's rebellion, Chen asked General Ma Bao to escort her and her son with Wu Sangui, Wu Qihua, to what is now known as the Majia Zhai village in Guizhou, where they would hide amongst the ethnic minorities who were hostile to Qing rule.[4] Seen as a connection to a failed uprising, this knowledge was subsequently only passed down by oral history until the 20th century, when it was published by historian Huang Tousong.[4] The inscription on the tombstones were intentionally cryptic to deter detection throughout the years but has been confirmed by government historians in 2005.[4] Locals believe that she retired as a nun later in life.[4]

In fiction[edit]

Statue of Chen Yuanyuan in Gold Hall Park in Kunming

In April 1644, the rebel army of Li Zicheng captured the Ming capital of Beijing, and the Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide. Knowing that Wu Sangui's formidable army at Ningyuan posed a serious threat, Li immediately made overtures to gain Wu's allegiance. Li sent two letters to Wu, including one in the name of Wu's father, then held captive in Beijing. Before Wu Sangui could respond, he received word that his entire household had been slaughtered.[9] Wu then wrote to the Qing regent, Dorgon, indicating his willingness to combine forces to oust the rebels from Beijing, thus setting the stage for the Qing conquest of Ming.[10]

In popular lore, however, Chen Yuanyuan takes a more dramatic and romanticized role in these pivotal events. According to stories that emerged in the Kangxi era, Wu Sangui's motivation for joining forces with the Qing to attack Li Zicheng was that Li had abducted and (by some accounts) raped Chen, Wu's beloved concubine. This version of the tale was made famous by Wu Weiye's qu, the Song of Yuanyuan:[11]

In that time when the emperor abandoned the human world,
Wu crushed the enemy and captured the capital, bearing down from Jade Pass.
The six armies, wailing and grieving, were uniformly clad in the white of mourning,
One wave of headgear-lifting anger propelled him, all for the sake of the fair-faced one.
The fair-faced one, drifting, and fallen, was not what I longed for.
The offending bandits, smote by heaven, wallowed in wanton pleasures.
Lightning swept the Yellow Turbans, the Black Mountain troops were quelled.
Having wailed for ruler and kin, I met her again.

— Wu Weiye, excerpt from Song of Yuanyuan[12]

Although such stories tying the downfall of the dynasty to the relationship between Wu and Chen proved popular, some historians regard them as products of popular fiction.[13][14][15][16] By some accounts, Chen Yuanyuan was raped and killed in the fall of Beijing. But, by other accounts, it is believed that she was subsequently reunited with Wu Sangui. One story claims that later in life, she changed her name and became a nun in Kunming after Wu Sangui's failed rebellion against the Qing.[17] This story may also be a later fabrication, or popular folklore.[18][19]


  1. ^ Peterson 2000
  2. ^ Lee & Stephanowska 1998
  3. ^ Lee, Wai-yee. "Women as Emblems of Dynastic Fall in Qing Literature". In Wang, David Der-wei; Wei, Shang (eds.). Dynastic Crisis and Cultural Innovation: From the Late Ming to the Late Qing and Beyond. Brill. p. 95.
  4. ^ a b c d e "The Chinese village that kept a courtesan's secret for centuries". South China Morning Post. 2019-05-10. Retrieved 2019-12-14.
  5. ^ Lee & Stephanowska 1998
  6. ^ Lee & Stephanowska 1998
  7. ^ Peterson 2000
  8. ^ Xie & Shi (2014), p. 181.
  9. ^ Wakeman 1986, pp. 291, 295
  10. ^ Wakeman 1986, p. 300
  11. ^ Wakeman 1986, pp. 292–294
  12. ^ Chang & Owen 2010, p. 179
  13. ^ Wakeman 1986, pp. 292–294
  14. ^ Spence 1990, p. 33
  15. ^ Huang 1997, p. 205
  16. ^ Lovell 2006, p. 252
  17. ^ Peterson 2000
  18. ^ Lee & Stephanowska 1998, p. 25
  19. ^ Wakeman 2009, p. 123


  • Xie 谢, Yongfang 永芳; Shi 施, Qin 琴 (2014). "像传题咏与经典重构———以《秦淮八艳图咏》为中心" [Acclaim for portraits and classical reconstruction: 'Qinhuai bayan tuyong' as the centre]. Zhongguo Wenhua Yanjiu (2): 180–188.

See also[edit]