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Thursday, November 21, 2002 - 19:30

1449: Beijing Saved!

Philip de Heer, Sinologist; Ambassador of The Netherlands

Embassy of the Netherlands

Many Beijing residents have visited historical sites in and around Beijing: such as the Forbidden City, Puduosi (also known as Mahakala Miao), Deshengmen, Zhihuasi, Yuling at the Ming tombs and Zhuyongguan on the way to Badaling. Some may have noticed to the left of the road not too far from Yanqing, as you drive out to Xuanfu and Datong, the remains of walls encircling a village called Tumu. Very few will have gone all the way to Hangzhou to visit the grave of Yu Qian, a famous mid-fifteenth century Minister of War. Yet he, and all the places just mentioned played an important role in keeping Beijing the capital of the Ming-empire.

In the summer of 1449 the Mongols invaded China on a scale not seen since the days of the Yuan Dynasty. The Emperor was persuaded by his chief-eunuch to lead the army against the intruders. What had been planned as a glorious campaign ended in utter defeat, with the Emperor falling into the enemies' hands. Political turmoil in the capital ensued, with the end of the dynasty and the loss of Northern China, once again, to the Mongols looming large. The brave resistance led by Yu Qian prevented the fall of Beijing.

This episode is more than just a thrilling story of which there are many in the Dynastic Histories. It was a turning point in Chinese late-imperial history fixing the attention of its rulers, once and for all, on the Northern frontier. It squashed any further debate of moving the capital to the South. The Qingtai reign, as these crisis-years are known, illustrate furthermore the way China was ruled and what role that all important, yet hidden away in the Forbidden City, figure of the Emperor played in governing the Ming state.

Philip de Heer, sinologist by academic training, and presently The Netherlands’ Ambassador in Beijing, wrote his doctoral thesis on this subject. The idea to learn more about this remarkable period, was born during his first posting to China (1976-78), when the Ming-tombs were one of the very few outings for foreign residents and Yuling, the then already wonderfully decayed grave of the once captured Emperor, had been the favourite picnic place for him and his family.