Wei Qing

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Wei Qing
Born Zheng Qing (鄭青)
Linfen, Shanxi
Died 106 BC
Xi'an, Shaanxi
Other names
  • Zhongqing (仲卿)
  • Marquis Lie of Changping (長平烈侯)
Occupation General
Spouse(s) Princess Pingyang
  • Wei Kang
  • Wei Buyi
  • Wei Deng
  • Zheng Ji (father)
  • Lady Wei (mother)

Wei Qing (died 106 BC), courtesy name Zhongqing, born Zheng Qing in Linfen, Shanxi, was a military general of the Western Han dynasty whose campaigns against the Xiongnu earned him great acclaim. He was a relative of Emperor Wu of Han because he was the younger half-brother of Empress Wei Zifu (Emperor Wu's wife) and the husband of Princess Pingyang. He was also the uncle of Huo Qubing, another notable Han general who participated in the campaigns against the Xiongnu.

Early life[edit]

Wei Qing was born from humble means as an illegitimate child from an adulterous relationship. His father Zheng Ji (鄭季) was a low-level official for Pingyang County (平陽縣, in modern Linfen, Shanxi) and was commissioned to serve at the estate of Cao Shou (曹壽), the Marquess of Pingyang (平陽侯), and his wife Princess Pingyang (平陽公主, Emperor Wu's older sister). There, he met and had an extramarital affair with a lowly female servant known as Wei Ao (衛媪, literally means "the Wei woman"), and their relationship produced a son named Zheng Qing. The child was initially sent to live in his father's household as his serf mother could not afford to raise him in poverty. However, due to the illegitimacy of his birth, the young boy was detested and mistreated by his father, stepmother and half-siblings, and was made to live as a lowly sheepherder.[1] Unable to tolerate the abuse, Zheng Qing eventually ran away back to his mother's side during his early teenage years, and served as a stableboy in the marquess's estate of Pingyang.[2] He then severed his paternal bond by adopting the surname Wei from his mother's family.[3]

Early career[edit]

Legend says that Wei Qing once followed his master on a visit to Ganquan Palace (甘泉宮) and encountered a cangued prisoner, who foretold that it would be Wei Qing's fate to achieve nobility and marquisate, a prediction Wei Qing simply dismissed as a joke, citing that not getting caned would be fortunate enough for someone living the life of a serf.

After Princess Pingyang offered the singer-dancer Wei Zifu to Emperor Wu as a concubine c. 139 BC, Wei Qing followed as an accompanying gift and served as a horseman Jianzhang Camp (建章營, Emperor Wu's royal guards). However, as his sister gained the Emperor's love and fell pregnant, near-disaster would befall Wei Qing. The powerful Eldest Princess Guantao (館陶長公主) Liu Piao (劉嫖), the mother of Empress Chen, angry that Wei Zifu had siphoned off the imperial favor from her daughter, kidnapped Wei Qing and wanted to kill him privately as retaliation.[4] However, Wei was rescued at the last moment by his friends, a group of fellow palace guards led by Gongsun Ao (公孫敖).[5] In response to the incident and as a sign of annoyance towards Empress Chen and her mother, Emperor Wu appointed Wei Qing the triple role of Chief of Jianzhang Camp (建章監), Chief of Staff (侍中) and Chief Councillor (太中大夫), effectively making him one of Emperor Wu's closest lieutenants.[6] He also publicly made Wei Zifu a consort (夫人, a concubine position lower only to the Empress), and awarded other members of her family. This marked the beginning of the rise of one of the most influential clan in the political history of Western Han — the Wei/Huo family.

The gold-plated hill censer bestowed upon Wei Qing by Emperor Wu, in Shaanxi History Museum

Great wealth would not be all Wei Qing would have. Emperor Wu saw qualities in him — brilliant horsemanship, archery, bravery, outstanding tactical intuition as well as excellent leadership skills. Over the next several years, Wei Qing would be entrusted as Emperor Wu's most loyal consul, as his sister also monopolized the Emperor's love for the next decade.

Military campaigns[edit]

Expansion of Han dynasty. Wei Qing's campaigns against Xiongnu is shown in red arrows.

In 129 BC, Xiongnu attacked the Shanggu Commandery (上谷郡, roughly modern-day Zhangjiakou, Hebei). Emperor Wu promoted Wei Qing as the General of Chariots and Cavalry (車騎將軍) and dispatched him with Gongsun Ao, Gongsun He (公孫賀) and Li Guang in four separate columns against Xiongnu, each leading 10,000 cavalries.[7] Li Guang (the most seasoned commander out of the four) and Gongsun Ao suffered major losses at Xiongnu's hands, while Gongsun He failed to encounter and engage any enemy. Wei Qing, the least experienced out of the four, however distinguished himself with a successful long-distance raid of Xiongnu's holy site Longcheng (龍城), killing over 700 Xiongnu soldiers in the process.[8] As a reward for the victory (the first proper victory against Xiongnu in Han history), Wei Qing was promoted to a higher command and created an acting Marquess of Guannei (關內侯),[9] with a march of several hundred households.

In 128 BC, Consort Wei Zifu gave birth to Emperor Wu's first son, Liu Ju, and was created Empress very soon after. Later that year, Wei Qing, who was now officially a trusted member of Emperor's extended family, led 30,000 cavalries from Yanmen Commandery (雁門郡, modern-day Youyu County, Shanxi), killing thousands of Xiongnu soldiers.[10]

In 127 BC, Wei Qing led a 40,000-strong cavalry from Yunzhong Commandery (雲中郡, modern-day Togtoh County, Inner Mongolia), then maneuver to Gaoque (高闕, modern-day Urad Rear Banner) to Longxi region (modern-day Gansu), and totally outflanking and surrounding the forces of Xiongnu's Princes of Loufan (樓煩王) and Baiyang (白羊王), killing 2,300 and capturing 3,017 Xiongnu soldiers as well as over a million cattle.[11] According to record from Shiji and Hanshu, the battle was so swift and one-sided that the Han forces "returned with all warriors intact" (全甲兵而還), implying a near-zero casualty rate.[12] This earned Wei Qing a further promotion to the Marquess of Changping (長平侯), with a march of 3,800 households.[13] His subordinates Su Jian (蘇建, father of the great Han patriot Su Wu) and Zhang Cigong (張次公) were also created marquesses.[14] The Han recapture of this territory forced the two Xiongnu tribes to withdraw from the fertile Hetao region (the Ordos steppe), and dealt devastating blow to their economy. The city of Shuofang (朔方城) was built, and later became a key stronghold for offensive and defensive campaigns against Xiongnu.

In 124 BC, Wei Qing would be the vital part of the greatest Han victory over Xiongnu to date. When Xiongnu's Right Worthy Prince (右賢王) made harassing raids against outskirts of Shuofang, Wei Qing launched a crushing long-distance night assault from Gaoque with 30,000 cavalrymen, completely surprising and surrounding the Worthy Prince's main camp.[15] Not only did the Han forces send the Worthy Prince running for his life from his drunken slumber (with only his own concubine following),[16] they also took about 15,000 captives, among them a dozen Xiongnu nobles, and millions of cattle.[17] For this victory, Wei Qing was made the Generalissimo (大將軍) of All Armed Forces, and his march was enlarged by 8,700 households.[18] His three young sons Wei Kang (衛伉), Wei Buyi (衛不疑), and Wei Deng (衛登) were also made marquesses (an offer later refused by Wei Qing), as well as seven generals under his command.[19]

In 123 BC, Wei Qing set off from Dingxiang (定襄) and returned with several thousand enemy kills. A month later, Wei Qing again launched from Dingxiang, but would fight a relatively inconclusive battle. Although he was able to kill/capture more than 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers, part of his vanguard forces, a 3,000-strong regiment commanded by generals Su Jian and Zhao Xin (a surrendered Xiongnu prince), encountered a Xiongnu force led by Chanyu Yizhixie (伊稚斜單于), and was outnumbered and annihilated.[20] Zhao Xin defected on the field with his 800 ethnic Xiongnu subordinates, while Su Jian escaped after losing all his men in the desperate fighting.[21] Showing compassion on Su Jian, Wei Qing spared him even though some advocates advised him to execute Su on the spot after court martial to enforce his commanding authority.[22] Due to the loss of Su's detachment, Wei Qing troops did not earn any promotion, even though they scored more gains than losses. At this campaign, his nephew Huo Qubing distinguished himself in battle and was given his own command.

The Battle of Mobei and the Li Gan incident[edit]

After Huo Qubing's successful campaigns in the Hexi Corridor, Xiongnu strategically retreated to north of the Gobi Desert, as the barren lands would serve as a natural barrier that was very difficult to overcome for the Han forces. However, in 119 BC, Emperor Wu decided to defy the odds and launched a massive expeditionary campaign across the desert. In this engagement, Emperor Wu broke the normal pattern of reaction against Xiongnu attacks by making a major excursion against Xiongnu's headquarters in the north of the Gobi Desert.[23] This is known to history as the Mobei Campaign ("campaign of the desert's north"). Wei Qing and Huo Qubing were in command of the two main corps,[24] each with 50,000 cavalrymen and 100,000 infantrymen/charioteers.

Under Wei Qing's command were four other generals, namely Gongsun He, Zhao Yiji (趙食其), Cao Xiang (曹襄) and an elderly but very enthusiastic Li Guang. Contrary to the arrangements promised to Li Guang by Emperor Wu (where he would command the vanguard), Emperor Wu secretly told Wei Qing not to assign Li Guang to crucial missions due to Li's infamous history of "bad lucks".[25] Wei Qing, after the army had already departed, merged Li Guang's forces with Zhao Yiji's and ordered them to take an eastern flanking route through a barren region. According to the historian Sima Qian, Wei Qing had done this to give his old friend Gongsun Ao, who had recently been stripped of his title, a chance to win a major battle and be re-promoted. However, it should be noted that sending Generals of Front (前將軍, namely Li Guang) and Right (右將軍, namely Zhao Yiji) on flanking maneuvers was one of Wei Qing's typical tactical arrangements. This was evidenced by his previous deployment of Zhao Xin and Su Jian, who were Generals of Front and Right respectively,[26] during the less successful 123 BC campaign.

After crossing the desert, Wei Qing's army unexpectedly encountered Chanyu Yizhixie's main forces, who was waiting in anticipation of ambushing the Han army. Despite being significantly outnumbered as well as fatigued after the long journey, Wei Qing was able to counter Xiongnu's cavalry charge with archery defense created by heavy-armored chariots arranged in ring formations, which was reinforced with cavalry counteroffensives.[27] (This defense would be evaluated as one of the most effective against cavalry by many later Chinese tacticians, including Yue Fei.) The Han forces successfully enforced a stalemate that lasted until dusk, when a sandstorm descended upon the battlefield. Seizing the moment of poor visibility provided by the dust, Wei Qing broke the stalemate and launched bilateral flanking attacks with his cavalries.[28] Already exhausted after a day of unsuccessful attacks against Han positions, the sudden sight of incoming Han soldiers in the darkness further broke the Xiongnu's morale, routing them. This decisive pincer attack shattered the Chanyu's line, nearly capturing him and completely overrunning his forces, killing over 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers in the process.[29] The Han army pursued all the way to the modern Ulan Bator region, destroying the Xiongnu stronghold Zhao Xin Castle (趙信城)[30] before returning in triumph[31] with a total of about 19,000 enemy kills. Chanyu Yizhixie was forced to escape with very few men, lost communication with his tribe for days, and did not return until his clan presumed his death and installed a new Chanyu.[32] This was a narrow but critically significant victory for the Han empire. Xiongnu was greatly weakened to the point that they would huddle up into the barren northern Gobi desert (leading to decline of their population), and unable to raid south for the next decade. The next major Xiongnu invasion did not occur until after the Han dynasty collapsed, some 400 years later during the Jin Dynasty.

Meanwhile, Li Guang and Zhao Yiji got lost in the desert and failed to reach the battlefield in time[33] despite meeting little Xiongnu resistance. As the battle ended, both men were both summoned for court martial on the charge of failure to accomplish orders and jeopardizing the whole campaign. Feeling humiliated over the charges against him and frustrated over missing his final chance at martial glory, Li Guang committed suicide rather than to face the court.[34] Many people blamed Wei Qing for causing Li Guang's death, including historian Sima Qian as well as Li's youngest son Li Gan (李敢), who was a subordinate of Huo Qubing at the time. Li Gan later went to Wei Qing's home and assaulted him.[35] Though Wei Qing decided to cool the heat and mercifully let the matter slide, Huo Qubing was greatly angered that his subordinate had the temerity to insult his uncle. He personally shot dead Li Gan during a hunting trip.[36]

Late career and death[edit]

Tomb of Wei Qing in Xingping, Shaanxi

After the 119 BC campaign, Wei Qing would see little combat action himself, largely remaining in the capital Chang'an to advise on military and sometimes political matters as the dual-role of Chief Defense Minister/Generalissimo (大司馬大將軍). He also assisted his nephew, Crown Prince-regent Liu Ju, when Emperor Wu was away on official tours.

Despite his great honor and power, Wei Qing remained humble in many ways. Because of the great favor Emperor Wu showed him, all of the other officials at court flattered him, except for Ji An (汲黯), who treated him as an equal. Wei was impressed by Ji's integrity in face of pressure and respected Ji greatly, often requesting Ji's opinion on important matters. Throughout his career, he refused to hire scholars to praise him and create favorable public opinions,[37] and tried to maintain a relatively low profile. Despite his humble way of life, Wei's status in the Han army made him a distinguished figure in the country, attracting admiration, jealousy and hostility alike.[38] Emperor Wu's uncle, the Prince of Huainan Liu An, who had been conspiring a military coup for a long time, saw Wei Qing as his prime political obstacle that must be removed.[39]

Wei Qing died in 106 BC and was buried in a large tomb built to the model of Mount Lu (盧山, a mountain previously in Xiongnu-occupied territory).[40] The tomb was connected to that of his nephew Huo Qubing, who had died in 117 BC, and the future tomb for Emperor Wu. Wei Qing would not live to see the destruction of his clan — nobody survived except his youngest son Wei Deng (衛登) and his great grandnephew Liu Bingyi, as well as the tragic fate of his sister Empress Wei and nephew Liu Ju, during the political turmoil in 91 BC.


  • Mother
    • Madam Wei (衛媪)
  • Father
    • Zheng Ji (鄭季)
  • Siblings
    • Wei Zhangjun (衛長君), eldest half-brother
    • Wei Junru (衛君孺), also known as Wei Ru (衛孺), eldest half-sister, later wife of Gongsun He (公孫賀)
    • Wei Shaoer (衛少兒), mother of Huo Qubing, older half-sister, later wife of Chen Zhang (陳掌, a great-grandson of Emperor Gaozu's adviser Chen Ping)
    • Wei Zifu (衛子夫), mother of Liu Ju, youngest older half-sister, empress to Emperor Wu of Han, committed suicide 91 BC, posthumously Wei Si Hou (衛思後)
    • Wei Bu (衛步), younger half-brother
    • Wei Guang (衛廣), younger half-brother
  • Wife
  • Children
    • Wei Kang (衛伉), Marquess of Changping (長平侯), executed in 91 BC
    • Wei Buyi (衛不疑), Marquess of Yin'an (陰安侯)
    • Wei Deng (衛登), Marquess of Fagan (發乾侯)
  • Nephews
    • Gongsun Jingsheng (公孫敬聲), son of Wei Junru, executed in 91 BC
    • Huo Qubing (霍去病), son of Wei Shaoer
    • Liu Ju (劉據), son of Wei Zifu, eldest son and heir apparent to Emperor Wu, committed suicide 91 BC after failed uprising
  • Nieces
    • Eldest Princess Wei (衛長公主), also known as Princess Dangli (當利公主)
    • Princess Zhuyi (諸邑公主, executed 91 BC)
    • Princess Shiyi (石邑公主)


  1. ^ 青為侯家人,少時歸其父,父使牧羊。民母之子皆奴畜之,不以為兄弟數
  2. ^ 青壯,為侯家騎,從平陽主
  3. ^ 青有同母兄衛長君及姊子夫,子夫自平陽公主家得幸武帝,故青冒姓為衛氏
  4. ^ 建元二年春,青姊子夫得入宮幸上。皇后,大長公主女也,無子,妒。大長公主聞衛子夫幸,有身,妒之,乃使人捕青。青時給事建章,未知名。大長公主執囚青,欲殺之
  5. ^ 其友騎郎公孫敖与壯士往篡之,故得不死
  6. ^ 上聞,乃召青為建章監,侍中
  7. ^ 元光六年,拜為車騎將軍,擊匈奴,出上谷;公孫賀為輕年將軍,出云中;太中大夫公孫敖為騎將軍,出代郡;衛尉李廣為驍騎將軍,出雁門。軍各万騎
  8. ^ 將軍衛青出上谷,至龍城,得胡首虜七百人。公孫賀出云中,無所得。公孫敖出代郡,為胡所敗七千。李廣出雁門,為胡所敗,匈奴生得廣,廣道亡歸
  9. ^ 唯青賜爵關內侯。
  10. ^ 青复將三万騎出雁門,李息出代郡。青斬首虜數千
  11. ^ 青复出云中,西至高闕,遂至于隴西,捕首虜數千,畜百余万,走白羊、樓煩王。遂取河南地為朔方郡
  12. ^ 今車騎將軍青度西河至高闕,獲首虜二千三百級,車輜畜產畢收為鹵,已封為列侯,遂西定河南地,按榆谿舊塞,絕梓領,梁北河,討蒲泥,破符離,斬輕銳之卒,捕伏聽者三千七十一級,執訊獲丑,驅馬牛羊百有餘萬,全甲兵而還
  13. ^ 以三千八百戶封青為長平侯。
  14. ^ 青校尉蘇建為平陵侯,張次公為岸頭侯。
  15. ^ 漢兵出塞六七百里,夜圍右賢王
  16. ^ 右賢王惊,夜逃,獨与其愛妾一人騎數百馳,潰圍北去
  17. ^ 得右賢裨王十余人,眾男女万五千余人,畜數十百万
  18. ^ 益封青八千七百戶。
  19. ^ 護軍都尉公孫敖三從大將軍擊匈奴,常護軍,傅校獲王,以千五百戶封敖為合騎侯。都尉韓說從大將軍出窳渾,至匈奴右賢王庭,為麾下搏戰獲王,以千三百戶封說為龍頟侯。騎將軍公孫賀從大將軍獲王,以千三百戶封賀為南窌侯。輕車將軍李蔡再從大將軍獲王,以千六百戶封蔡為樂安侯。校尉李朔,校尉趙不虞,校尉公孫戎奴,各三從大將軍獲王,以千三百戶封朔為涉軹侯,以千三百戶封不虞為隨成侯,以千三百戶封戎奴為從平侯。將軍李沮、李息及校尉豆如意有功,賜爵關內侯,食邑各三百戶。
  20. ^ 其明年春,汉复遣大将军卫青将六将军,十余万骑,仍再出定襄数百里击匈奴,得首虏前后万九千余级,而汉亦亡两将军,三千余骑。右将军建得以身脱,而前将军翕侯赵信兵不利,降匈奴。赵信者,故胡小王,降汉,汉封为翕侯,以前将军与右将军并军,介独遇单于兵,故尽没。
  21. ^ 信故胡人,降為翕侯,見急,匈奴誘之,遂將其余騎可八百奔降單于。蘇建盡亡其軍,獨以身得亡去,自歸青
  22. ^ 青問其罪正閎、長史安、議郎周霸等:“建當云何?”霸曰:“自大將軍出,未嘗斬裨將,今建棄軍,可斬,以明將軍之威。”閎、安曰:“不然。兵法‘小敵之堅,大敵之禽也。’今建以數千當單于數万,力戰一日余,士皆不敢有二心。自歸而斬之,是示后無反意也。不當斬。”青曰:“青幸得以肺附待罪行間,不患無威,而霸說我以明威,甚失臣意。且使臣職雖當斬將,以臣之尊寵而不敢自擅專誅于境外,其歸天子,天子自裁之,于以風為人臣不敢專權,不亦可乎?”官吏皆曰“善”。遂囚建行在所。
  23. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 34–35. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9. 
  24. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9. 
  25. ^ 大將軍陰受上指,以為李廣數奇,毋令當單于,恐不得所欲
  26. ^ 翕侯趙信為前將軍,衛尉蘇建為右將軍
  27. ^ 而适直青軍出塞千余里,見單于兵陳而待。于是青令武剛車自環為營,而縱五千騎往當匈奴,匈奴亦縱万騎
  28. ^ 大風起,沙礫擊面,兩軍不相見,漢益縱左右翼繞單于
  29. ^ 会明,行二百余里,不得单于,颇捕斩首虏万余级
  30. ^ 遂至窴顏山趙信城,得匈奴積粟食軍。軍留一日而還,悉燒其城余粟以歸
  31. ^ 青軍入塞,凡斬首虜万九千級
  32. ^ 單于久不与其大眾相得,右谷蠡王以為單于死,乃自立為單于。真單于复得其眾,右谷蠡乃去號,复其故位
  33. ^ 前將軍廣、右將軍食其軍別從東道,或失道
  34. ^ 青欲使使歸報,令長史簿責廣,廣自殺
  35. ^ 怨大將軍青之恨其父,乃擊傷大將軍,大將軍匿諱之
  36. ^ 票騎將軍去病怨敢傷青,射殺敢
  37. ^ 蘇建嘗說責:“大將軍至尊重,而天下之賢士大夫無稱焉,愿將軍觀古名將所招選者,勉之哉!”青謝曰:“自魏其、武安之厚賓客,天子常切齒。彼親待士大夫,招賢黜不肖者,人主之柄也。人臣奉法遵職而已,何与招士!”
  38. ^ 青仁,喜士退讓,以和柔自媚于上,然于天下未有稱也
  39. ^ 一日發兵,使人即刺殺大將軍青
  40. ^ 起冢象盧山云


  • Joseph P Yap Wars With The Xiongnu - A Translation From Zizhi tongjian. Chapters 4-6. AuthorHouse (2009) ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4