Yuán Chónghuàn (袁崇煥; style name: Yuánsù 元素 and Zìrú 自如; 6 June 1584 – 22 September 1630) was a famed patriot and military commander of the Ming Dynasty who battled the Manchus in Liaoning. He was known to have excelled in artillery warfare and successfully incorporated western tactics into the East. Yuan's military career reached its height when he defeated Nurhaci and the Manchurian army in the first Battle of Ningyuan. Nurhaci's son and successor, Huáng Táijí, was defeated by him in the second Battle of Ningyuan. However, Yuan was a tragic figure, and was executed by his emperor under false charges which Huang Taiji deliberately planted against him.
Yuan Chonghuan worked harmoniously with the commander-in-chief Sun Chengzong (孫承宗) and pushed the frontiers steadily northward, fortifying Ningyuan (寧遠) in 1623. The elderly Sun was an able commander with a good moral character and refused to bribe the Emperor's eunuch. Consequently, in 1625 Sun was recalled and replaced by Gao Di (高第), who ordered a general retreat to Shanhaiguan, but Yuan flatly refused to leave Ningyuan. Early in the next year, Nurhaci led the Manchus back across the Liao River. Yuan Chonghuan and his Deputies successfully held Ningyuan with the newly-mounted and modified "red-barbarian cannon" (紅衣大炮, 紅夷大炮) and wounded the Manchurian Emperor, Nurhaci. As a result of this victory, the Imperial Court at Beijing appointed Yuan on 27 February 1626 as the Governor of Liaodong, with full authority to handle all forces outside the passes. This battle was an amazing deed since Yuan had only 9000 soldiers (of whom many were simply militia), even though Nurhaci's men consisted of 130,000 strong men (some say 200,000). This battle prevented China from being conquered and boosted the hopes of Ming and its allies that the Manchurians were defeatable. It is noted that Yuan was said to have studied every aspect of the cannon for it to fire correctly at the position he wanted, and this is the reason why Nurhaci, even though well protected by his elite guards in a relatively safe position, was fatally wounded. This battle was remembered as the Battle of Ningyuan. It is said that after the battle, Yuan sent letters to ask the well-being of Nurhaci, as what traditionally Chinese generals would do, but Nurhaci returned an insult by calling him a faker.
During this time, he executed Máo Wénlóng (毛文龍), a somewhat talented commander but who had a terrible moral character. Various texts have different perspectives of his actions. Many stated this was a terrible mistake since Mao could still be used to defend against the Manchus. However, Yuan took in account of how Mao committed his battles. Mao's tactics usually involved using civilian settlements as a shield for his troops and during the occupation, civilians suffered tremendously. It is also Mao's fault for using Korea, Ming's ally, as a base to attack Manchuria, which resulted in Korea being conquered by Manchus as Mao ordered a general retreat when the Manchus entered Korea. This angered many merchants in the Beijing area since Mao had never dared to drag major cities into war even when there was a strategic advantage. In addition, Mao had bribe many eunuchs and corrupted officials. Thus, Yuan made enemies with the most influential and corrupted people in China.
Taking advantage of Nurhaci's death later in the year, Yuan reoccupied Jinzhou. The Manchus reappeared in June and withdrew after a series of indecisive battles. (Note: This is known as the Battle of Ningyuan-Jinzhou or the Second Battle of Ningyuan.) The campaign gave opportunity for Yuan to be criticised by the partisans of the eunuch official Wèi Zhōngxián, stating that he took too long to fight off the "Barbarian" Manchurians, in consequence of which he retired.
This time Yuan had to face again a larger Manchurian force (slightly above 200,000) under Huang Taiji. This time the Manchurians had incorporated many more men including the newly surrendered Mongols, rebel Ming army and the conquered Korea and various small states of the North. However, the Manchus were not confident to attack Jinzhou or Ningyuan again.
Th Manchus changed their strategy. They bypassed Jinzhou, Ningyuan and Shanhai Pass. They broke through the Great Hall west of Shanhai Pass and suddenly appeared north of Beijing in the winter of 1629. Yuan rushed back with an elite army from Ningyuan to defend the capital. He reached Beijing only one or two days before the Manchus arrived at Beijing. Outside the city wall of Beijing, he defeated the Manchurian "Eight Banners" (八旗) which numbered one hundred thousand. (Note: The Manchus failed to destroy the Imperial Ming army at the city wall of Beijing and thus failed to launch a direct assault on the city wall. Thus the Manchus failed in their main objective of launching a surprise attack on Beijing. Yuan's army was not strong enough to destroy the Manchu army. He only managed to make the Manchus fail in their main objective.) As he arrived in Beijing, instead of being welcome, he was heavily criticized. Some eunuchs even accused Yuan of collaborating with the enemy. In fact, they were actually tricked by Huang Taiji into thinking that Yuan had backstabbed them.
Without much evidence, the Chongzhen Emperor ordered his arrest during an interview with the Emperor on 13 January 1630. He was accused of collusion with the enemy and condemned to the "death by a thousand cuts" at Ganshiqiao (甘石橋) in Beijing. It is stated the merchants, eunuchs and corrupt officials rushed to buy his body parts so they could eat it. When Yuan was asked for last words before his execution, he produced the poem: "A life's work always ends up in vain; half of my career seems to be in dreams. I do not worry about lacking brave warriors after my death, for my loyal spirit will continue to guard Liaodong." (一生事業總成空，半世功名在夢中。死後不愁無將勇，忠魂依舊保遼東！) His family was also executed.
Mourning was given to the general's honor throughout most part of the country and even Korea; everyone regarded the fate of Ming and its allies was in boiling water with the death of Yuan. His head, the only recognizable part after the torture, was taken outside the Inner City Wall by a city guard, whose surname is She, and buried near Guanqu Men. The guard's family have guarded it from one generation to the next ever since. His tomb was recently renovated to become the Yuan Chonghuan Memorial .
Huang Taiji publicly stated that he would never be able to beat Yuan in a fair game, thus, making the Chongzhen Emperor kill him the only method to get rid of him. Just as the message of Yuan's death reach Huang Taiji's ears, he changed his state name from Jin to Qing and proclaimed himself Emperor Qing Taizong. Some historical information states that Huang Taiji feared Yuan's last word stating his soul will always guard Liaodong Peninsula: As the name Chonghuan, means Undying Flames, contains the element "Fire", he put the word Qing, meaning cleanse, which contains the element "Water", to overcome it; however, even if this is the case, the main reason is probably because the "Ming" of the Ming Dynasty contains the element "Fire" itself.
His name was conclusively cleared about 100 years after his death by the Qiánlóng Emperor, a descendant of his arch enemy, Huang Taiji, who plotted his death. This happened after people found conclusive evidence in old archives of the Imperial Qing court. The Manchu Qianlong Emperor tried to show off his unusual kindness by searching for Yuan's descendants for reward but none could be found. Then he rewarded some descendants of Yuan's brother.
Various books have been written on him. Various TV dramas or films have been made in his honor.