Concubine with a heart of gold decides China’s fate

Jonathan Porter

This is a tale of love, war, betrayal, redemption and most importantly, cold beer.

In the hills outside Beijing is the spot where Ming general Wu Sangui decided the fate of China and millions of Chinese for centuries to follow.

It is the spring of 1644 and he has just rushed back from Shanghai Pass, at the Great Wall, where he had been fighting off the invading Manchus.

He makes it back to Beijing just in time to watch a rebel army take the Forbidden City. Which naturally enough is in flames.
The story goes that a lieutenant rides up from the Forbidden City and informs him that inside, the rebel general Li Zicheng is “even now, slaking his lust” on Wu’s favourite concubine, Chen Yuanyuan.

Wu makes his decision. He turns his mighty war horse around, rides back to the border and allows in the invading Manchu armies. “Just let me get first crack at that bastard Li,” he tells the invading Manchus.

Just one of the facts, I happened to pick up during my visit to the Forbidden City in the centre of Beijing, the official imperial household of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1420 until 1924.
Inside there is also the tree that Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, used to hang himself. Yuanyuan, or Moneypenny as I call her, obligingly giving him a hand with the noose (think the last days in the Bunker).

Beijing’s pleasures reach beyond its incredible history. For starters, there are great restaurants and some of the coolest bars in Asia.

There is a chance to climb a piece of the Great Wall, and put yourself in Wu’s shoes, a mere two hours’ drive north of the capital.

It’s a fair hike in pretty thin air: do what I did and just keep aiming for the next guard tower, and think of Edmund Hillary.

On this trip to Beijing I stay at the Beijing Hilton, a five-star hotel opened in 1994 in the heart of the capital’s new commercial and diplomatic district.

It has a retro-style bar with bright colours replete with Bauhaus chairs and Chinese-inspired metal birdcages above the crescent-shaped bar.

You can sip on cocktails and snack on tapas beside the Hilton Beijing hotel’s glass spiral staircase.

The hotel is a refreshing retreat from an intensive day of meetings, shopping or sightseeing. Offering 340 rooms and suites, it has the cozy atmosphere of a boutique hotel and serves the finest selection of food in town.

Go to the Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant, one of the most popular restaurants in town for serving up the signature Beijing entree of Peking duck.

The next day, feeling slightly blurry, it’s off to the Silk Markets, where I go berserk with my Amex.

The market is government controlled, which means no haggling, which saves a lot of time but takes a bit of juice out of the experience. I picked up a silk duvet and cover for about $100 and silk jim-jams and naturally a smoking jacket for about the same price.

The prize was a strand of blue South Sea pearls, complete with authenticity certificate for under $800.

The yarn about Wu and Yuanyuan is a classic Chinese love story by the way, and has been compared the Helen of Troy epic. Could her face have launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Well she certainly played a part in torching the Forbidden City and changed China forever.

Some loose ends: Li got away from the Manchus, who ruled China until 1912 give or take some Tennessee windage. Wu devoted the rest of his life to hunting down the despoiler of his love, but never found him. Although some legends say he did manage to make him pay. I’d like to think he did.

And what of Yuanyuan? You can read about her fate here.

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