In 1644, faced with a rebel army that had captured Beijing (Peking), and the last Ming emperor dead from suicide, he opened the pass and welcomed the Manchu army under Prince Dorgon into northern China; together they freed Beijing of the rebels. The result was the creation of the Qing (Ch’ing) (Manchu) dynasty in China.
Wu Sangui was raised in Liaoxi (Liaohsi) in Manchuria, the son of a general. In 1644, his retired father and family were living in Beijing while he was stationed in southern Manchuria at the head of 80,000 troops.
In April, he received orders to move his troops 100 miles south to Shanhaiguan (Shan-hai Kuan), the easternmost pass of the Great Wall that separated northeastern China from Manchuria, so that he could be in better position to relieve Beijing from threatening rebels.
This move left all Manchuria, to the rapidly expanding Manchus. At the end of April, he received further orders to march to defend Beijing against the rebel forces of Li Zicheng (Li Tzu-ch’eng), but the city had fallen before he could reach it and he retreated to Sanhaiguan to await further orders.
Meanwhile the last Ming emperor had committed suicide, and Wu’s family had been taken prisoner. The rebel leader then forced the elder Wu to persuade his son to surrender, and when he refused, all the Wu family were tortured and killed.
Trapped between two dangers, the rebel army advancing from the south and the Manchus moving in the north, Wu negotiated with the Manchus, who had been Ming vassals for over 200 years. Prince Dorgon, regent for the boy Manchu ruler Fulin (Fu-lin), accepted Wu’s offer jointly to rid the rebels.
Li Zicheng’s army was no match for the coalition, and he fled Beijing for Sha’anxi (Shensi) province after an orgy of killing, burning, and looting. While the people of Beijing expected Wu to restore the Ming dynasty, what they got was Prince Dorgon, who promptly announced the Manchus as saviors of the people against the bandits and proclaimed the establishment of the Qing dynasty on behalf of his young nephew.
Wu’s forces destroyed the remnant rebels in 1645 and he was rewarded with the title Prince Pacifier of the West and after serving in Shaanxi and Sichuan (Szechuan) for several years, he was sent to Yunnan province as hereditary governor with full civil and military powers.
One of his sons was married to a daughter of Manchu emperor Shunzi (Shun-chih). A Ming pretender had earlier established himself in Yunnan in 1656. Wu set out to destroy his power in Yunnan, finally chasing him into Burma, capturing him and his court, and killing him and his son.
Fearing the power and ambition of three Chinese generals who had helped establish Manchu power in 1644 (called the Three Feudatories because they had been granted hereditary fiefs in southern China) and suspicious of Wu, Emperor Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) ordered all three to resign in 1673.
Wu responded by declaring himself emperor of a new Zhou (Chou) dynasty in 1674 and began an offensive that pushed northward to the Yangzi (Yangtze) valley, winning many adherents. The tide turned in 1677, when the other two feudatories surrendered. Wu died of dysentery in 1678, leaving his throne to a young grandson who committed suicide in 1681 as his movement crumbled.
Wu Sangui left a mixed legacy. Ming loyalists regard him as a traitor because the Manchus could not have captured power in 1644 without him. His motivation was personal, and probably he did not understand the consequences of his action. By the time he rebelled, he was old and Qing power was established under a vigorous young Kangxi emperor.