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Home History & Culture Hangzhou History Yu Qian Biography

Yu Qian Biography and His Memorial Temple


Yu Qian(于谦, literally meant the modesty of life, 1398-1457) with a courtesy name Tingyi, and alternative name Jie’an was a famous official of Ming Dynasty and the state’s hero of defending against the invasion of Mongolian troop’s invasion. He was a native of Hangzhou and historically known as “Three Greatness of the West Lake”(西湖三杰) together with Yue Fei and Zhang Huangyan.

The achievements of Yu Qian benefited Ming Empire too much

The ancestral home of Yu Qian was in Minquan County, Henan province. Due to his great-grandfather Yu Jiusi governing Hangzhou in Yuan Dynasty and moved the whole family to Hangzhou, Yu Qian became the native of Hangzhou. At the age of 7, a monk surprised at his look and foretold that this child would be the premier saving and handling the political situation. Yu Qian was succeed in national imperial examination in 1421.

In 1426, Zhu Gaoxu(朱高煦), crowned the King of the Han, rebelled in Le’an Prefecture, a place in today’s Shandong province. Emperor Xuanzong, whose name was Zhu Zhanji(朱瞻基) , led the troop by himself for the punitive expedition. Yu Qian was appointed as the imperial historical official in charge of recording the big events and facts. After Zhu Gaoxu was defeated, Yu Qian on behalf of the central government scolded him by enumerating his wrongdoings, and his voice and countenance were so serious and the condemnation was so powerful and infective that Zhu Gaoxu did not dare to raise his head and lay on his stomach and shuddered, and repeated the words that he deserved tens of thousands of deaths. Emperor Xuanzong was quite satisfied and assigned Yu Qian as the governor of Jiangxi province and inspected the whole region. Yu Qian released several hundred prisoners who undeserved the jail life

The Portrait of Yu Qian of Ming Dynasty
The Portrait of Yu Qian Wearing the Official Uniform in Ming Dynasty(1368 A.D.-1644 A.D.)

Inspections in Shanxi and Henan provinces

Yu Qian once wrote a long written statement to the central government to impeach many military officers for their harassing doings to the local civilians, and the emperor published the order to arrest these officers. Emperor Yingzong knew that Yu Qian was qualified to be his trusted officials, and wrote a letter to the ministry of official personnel affairs, and Yu Qian was dramatically promoted to be an deputy minister of defense and inspected the provinces of Henan and Shanxi.

Yu Qian on the horseback went around the administrative regions and visited the located people to learn more about the affairs that the government should do and implement. And he submitted the central government several work and summary reports every year. If the flood and drought happened, more reports would be submitted.

In 1441, in one of his reports, he said:” Now, there have been tens of thousands of tons of food reserved in Henan and Shanxi provinces, so please in March every year notify the prefectural and county government report the inferior residents who are short of food, and they will be given some in accordance with the realistic situation, and the beans and sorghum will be given firstly and then the wheat and millet, and finally the rice, and they will give all back after autumn harvest. The old, the silk and the poor that can not give back can be exempted. If the preparatory food is insufficient but the local official’s tenure will be completed, the local official will not be allowed to leave. Additionally, the local inspective officials must take responsibility for inspections ”. all of his advises were all allowed and implemented.

The waterfront of Yellow River in Henan was quiet easily broken by the flood, and Yu Qian ordered to consolidate the dams, and there must be an agent in charge of managing the dam-reinforcement project. He also demanded the local civilians to plant the trees and dig the wells.

Datong, today known as a famous tourist destination in China, was solitarily located outside the Military Pass, and even the local governor never been there for inspection. Yu Qian had another inspection official to govern this area, and confiscated all the private farmland of the local officers and generals as the troops’ farming land to fund the financial expenditure of the border defense . Yu Qian established his great influence to Shanxi province, and even the robbers who used to tyrannize the local people did not dare to appear in the public occasions.

In 1448, Yu Qian was summoned back to Beijing and raised to be the superior deputy minister of National Defense Ministry.

A Clean-Handed and Honest Official of Ming Dynasty

During the early Zhengtong reign (1436-1449) of Emperor Zhu Qizhen, the whole central administration was maintained by Three Yangs, namely Yang Shiqi, Yang Rong and Yang Pu. All of them took much count of Yu Qian. All the suggestions that Yu Qian gave were always approved. However, Every time, Yu Qian came back to the capital without any treasured gift, and the authoritative guys were disappointed and dissatisfied. After Three Yangs passed away, eunuch Wang Zhen controlled the administration and unscrupulously abused the power and took bribes. Many officials struggled to offer him a great bribe except Yu Qian. Some one reminded him of doing something good to improve the relationship with the current authorities. Yu Qian always smiled and responded:” What I can present them is only the clean wind(an idiom to express the clean-handed situation of an official ) ”. To formally reply to this corruptive phenomenon and his personal decision, he wrote a poem entitled Go to the Capital:

绢帕蘑菇及线香 – quality silk fabrics, the rare mushrooms and the joss-stick incense
本资民用反为殃 – originally serving the mass but now become a misfortune
清风两袖朝天去 – I go to the capital Beijing with fine breezes in two sleeves
免得闾阎话短长 – to avoid the negative comments from those authorities.

During his stay in Beijing, he recommended Wang Lai and Sun Yuanzhen to work in the government. But Li Xifeng instigated by Wang Zhen impeached Yu Qian with an excuse of the dissatisfaction with long-term non-promotion and recommending someone instead of himself without any authorization. Yu Qian was imprisoned for three months and sentenced to death. And the people heard of this piece of news and quite angry, and they jointly submitted the written statement to save Yu Qian. Wang Zhen was scared and justified himself like this: he mistook Yu Qian as his former foe. Yu Qian got free but was degraded to be an official in charge of the judiciary judgment in the central Ministry of Punishments. But the local officials of Shanxi and Henan provinces as well as thousands of local people presented a petition in the front of the Forbidden City and requested to remain the position of Yu Qian, even the local kings also submitted the report to the central government and requested to reassign Yu Qian to be the prefectural governor. At the time, lots of refugees of Shandong and Shaanxi provinces moved to Henan for surviving, approximately more than 200,000 people, and Yu Qian requested to save them with the stored food in the prefectures of Henan and Huaiqing. He recommended Nian Fu, a provincial administrative commissioner to summon and comfort these refugees, and gave them the farmland, seeds and ox(for cultivating the farmland) and the local superior and respected men managed and supervised their works. He work as the local governors for 19 years in total. When his parents passed away, he returned to hometown for funeral arrangement. Soon after, he regained the original position in the central government.

In the autumn of 1449, the Oyrats took advantage of the seizure of power by the eunuch Wang Zhen and the resulting political chaos and military corruption to mount a large-scale invasion. Urged on by Wang Zhen, Emperor Zhengtong (reigned 1436-1449 and 1457-1464) gave orders to mount a defensive campaign despite a glaring lack of preparations, and naturally numerous battles were lost. After retreating to Tumubao, the emperor was finally besieged by the Oyrats and taken prisoner by the enemy. The defeat at Tumubao threw the Ming Dynasty into unprecedented peril and set off a general panic at the capital.

At this critical juncture, Yu Qian took upon himself the task of restoring peace and safety to China. He began by instigating a purge of the government and exposing how Wang Zhen had brought disaster to the country. Next, he took several steps protect the capital, bringing together military units from all over the country, recruiting a people' s militia and arranging the transport of grain for the army. Military materiel was repaired; new men were propositioned in outlying regions. In addition, the ordinary people were mobilized to resist the invaders.

Beijing Deshengmen Tower, the site that Yu Qian organized the defending war to protect Beijing
Beijing Deshengmen Tower, the site that Yu Qian organized the defending war to protect Beijing

On October 11, 1449, the Oyrats, holding Emperor Zhengtong as hostage, advanced on Beijing. Yu Qian engaged them in a fierce battle and, after several days of fighting, repulsed the invading army and saved Beijing from falling into enemy hands.

After the victory, Yu Qian was given the honorary title of Shaobao and continued to supervise military affairs as Minister of the Army. He reorganized border defenses and eliminated the threat of enemy troops marauding the outlying areas. The Oyrats suffered heavy losses on several occasions and in 1450 were forced to return the emperor to the Ming court.

After his release, the emperor, along with Shi Heng, Xu Youzhen, Cao Jixiang and others, formed a conspiracy, and on the 17th day of the first lunar month in 1457 overthrew Emperor Jingtai (reigned 1450-1456) and regained the throne. In order to eliminate the hall to carry out the enthronement ceremonies, his supporters issued a memorial for Yu Qian' s arrest. Claiming that Yu had planned to enthrone the son of one of the emperor' s brother, they accused him of being a traitor and sentenced him to death along with General Fan Guang. When Yu' s property was confiscated it was discovered that his wealth consisted mainly of a large collection of books, as well as s number of gifts from Emperor Jingtai, which demonstrated his loyalty to the court.

Yu Qian died on February 16, 1457. It is said that when the news of his death became known "every single woman and child in the capital was moved to tears." Before long, a children' s rhyme became popular in the city:

In the capital rice is expensive;
Where can we obtain rice in plenty?
The egret walks through the waters,
Seeking everywhere for fish.

The last two words of the second and fourth lines are homophones for Fan Guang and Yu Qian respectively.

In 1466, nine years after his death, Yu Qian was posthumously restored to his former posts by special imperial decree and the site of his old home renamed the Shrine to Loyalty and Integrity. In 1590, during the reign of Emperor Wanli, a statue of Yu Qian was placed inside the shrine in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. The Yu Qian Memorial Temple was constructed in the Guangxu period, but all the objects placed in the temple at the time have long since disappeared. A commemorative altar to Yu Qian, a horizontal tablet that reads, "His blood burns for a thousand years," and several other memorial inscriptions are now on display on the second floor of the Kuiguang Pavilion.

The Memorial Temple of Yu Qian in Hangzhou

The memorial temple of Yu Qian(于谦祠) is an important cultural and historic building cluster or some are archaized in modern times. The highlights of the whole memorial temple is the mausoleum of Yu Qian, in particular the sculptures on both sides of the sacred road. Historically speaking, it was unfortunately the tomb of Yu Qian was destroyed in 1966, and some hearsay released that it was broken down by the extreme political movement, but it can not be verified today .

The Tomb of Yu Qian in Hangzhou
The tomb of Yu Qian in his memorial temple cluster in the west zone of West Lake Scenic Area

In 1982, the tomb was restored. The initial one consisting of seven separate tombs was changed to be one tomb with a height of 2 meters, and built around with the black bricks. If you are able to read or recognize the Chinese characters, please read the huge stele in front of the tomb, on which several vivid scripts are carved:” 大明少保兼兵部尚书赠太傅谥忠肃于公墓” , which could be explained professionally by your guide. Generally, it is a summary of the honors and achievements that Yu Qian got in his career of politics.

In 1998, on the anniversary in memory of his 600th birthday, some big stone figures, beasts and archways were specially made and stood on the both sides of the road. In the several reconstruction or protection protects of the West Lake, the memorial temple was well preserved and restored. Today, it is a must-visit site in the huge West Lake Scenic Area, and in 2006, it was approved to be one of key cultural sites under the national protection.

If you want to go there, Sightseeing Bus Y6 is your first option, and then No.4, No.308 and No.588 are also the alternatives.

More information of history timeline of Hangzhou - The Chronology of Hangzhou & China >>>
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