Chen Yuanyuan (陈圆圆，1624–1681) was a courtesan who lived during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. She was the concubine of Wu Sangui, the Ming dynasty general who surrendered Shanhai Pass to the Manchu Qing dynasty, and later rebelled in the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Chen’s life and relationship to Wu later became the subject of a number of popular stories and legends, many of them focusing on her supposed role in Wu’s fateful decision to defect to the Qing, thereby sealing the fate of the Ming dynasty.
Chen Yuanyuan was born to a peasant family in Jiangsu province, and on the death of her father, she became a courtesan. Chen became a leading figure in the Suzhou opera scene. In 1642, she became the lover of the scholar and poet Mao Xiang. Subsequently, Chen was bought by the family of Tian Hongyu, father of one of the Chongzhen Emperor’s concubines. She was then either purchased for Wu Sangui by his father, or given to Wu as a gift by Tian.
She is one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai (秦淮八艳) described by late Qing officials.
In April 1644, the rebel army of Li Zicheng captured the Ming capital of Beijing, and the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. Knowing that Wu Sangui’s formidable army at Ningyuan posed a serious threat, Li immediately made overtures to gain Wu’s allegiance. Li sent two letters to Wu, including one in the name of Wu’s father, then held captive in Beijing. Before Wu Sangui could respond, he received word that his entire household had been slaughtered. Wu then wrote to the Qing regent, Dorgon, indicating his willingness to combine forces to oust the rebels from Beijing, thus setting the stage for the Qing conquest of China proper.
In popular lore, however, Chen Yuanyuan takes a more dramatic and romanticized role in these pivotal events. According to stories that emerged in the Kangxi era, Wu Sangui’s motivation for joining forces with the Qing to attack Li Zicheng was that Li had abducted and (by some accounts) raped Chen, Wu’s beloved concubine. This version of the tale was made famous by Wu Weiye’s qu, the Song of Yuanyuan:
In that time when the emperor abandoned the human world,
Wu crushed the enemy and captured the capital, bearing down from Jade Pass.
The six armies, wailing and grieving, were uniformly clad in the white of mourning,
One wave of headgear-lifting anger propelled him, all for the sake of the fair-faced one.
The fair-faced one, drifting, and fallen, was not what I longed for.
The offending bandits, smote by heaven, wallowed in wanton pleasures.
Lightning swept the Yellow Turbans, the Black Mountain troops were quelled.
Having wailed for ruler and kin, I met her again.— Wu Weiye, excerpt from Song of Yuanyuan
Although such stories tying the downfall of the dynasty to the relationship between Wu and Chen proved popular, modern historians generally regard them as having been later products of popular fiction, not historical fact. By some accounts, Chen Yuanyuan survived the fall of Beijing and was subsequently reunited with Wu Sangui. One story claims that later in life, she changed her name and became a nun in Kunming after Wu Sangui’s failed rebellion against the Qing. This story may also be a later fabrication, or popular folklore.