Yu Qian (1398-1457) was a famous politician and military straight of the Ming Dynasty. In 1449, he repulsed the invasion of the Oyrats (a general name used during the Ming Dynasty for the Mongolian tribes occupying the western part of China), safeguarded the city of Beijing and rescued the Ming Dynasty from subjugation. Later, however, he was put to death as a result of plots against him by the Ming court. To commemorate his service to the country, a shrine was constructed at the site of his old home.
Yu Qian was born in 1398 during the reign of the Ming Emperor Hongwu to a family from Qiantang (present-day Hangzhou) in Zhejiang Province, and from his earliest youth was an avid student. The young Yu greatly admired the conduct of the patriotic statesman Wen Tianxiang and wrote a eulogy in praise of him, which he hung beside his desk. Two lines from this eulogy read: "He would rather die in righteousness than live in corruption." Years later these words would tell Yu Qian's own story.
After working his way up through the local and provincial imperial examinations, Yu Qian passed the national palace examination and was assigned to a succession of administrative posts in Shanxi, Jiangxi and other places. His outstanding achievements in office won him the deep affection of the people whom he governed.
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.
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 a 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.
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