Wen T'ien-hsiang

The Chinese statesman Wen T'ien-hsiang (1236-1283) served the Sung dynasty in its closing years. For later Chinese he was the ideal model of the loyal minister.

Wen T'ien-hsiang was born on June 6, 1236, in Chi-an, Kiangsi. He grew into a tall man of imposing physique with a clear complexion and bushy brows setting off flashing eyes. He performed brilliantly on his chin-shih examination in 1256, placing first, but since his father died 4 days later, Wen T'ien-hsiang did not begin his official career until after the completion of the prescribed period of mourning. In 1259 he was appointed an assistant to the Ning-hai regional commander and soon attracted considerable attention by calling for the decapitation of an official who had suggested moving the capital because a strong Mongol attack seemed imminent. Wen's request was not granted, and the Sung dynasty was given a respite when, still in 1259, Kublai Khan, on the death of Möngke (Mangu) Khan, turned north to claim the Mongol throne.

When the Mongols in 1274 again embarked on a major offensive under General Bayan, Wen T'ien-hsiang was in charge of a prefecture in Kiangsi. In 1275 in response to an imperial edict, he recruited loyalist soldiers and, paying them out of his own pocket, led them to the capital, where he was ordered to proceed to Wu-hsien in Kiangsu. His advice to organize South China into four armies, each to advance north, and to use local inhabitants to combat the Mongols was rejected. When the Sung lost an important prefecture in northwestern Kiangsu, Wen fell back to a position near the capital and then was placed in charge of the capital itself. Promoted to right grand councilor, he was sent to negotiate with General Bayan in 1276, but his recalcitrant attitude and evident determination to save the dynasty led the Mongol general to keep him a prisoner and send him north. Wen, however, managed to escape on the way and was able to rejoin the Sung court, which had fled to Fukien.

In 1277 Wen T'ien-hsiang was able to retake a number of prefectures in Kiangsi before being defeated and forced to retreat. Confronted by the superior Mongol armies, Wen was unable to reverse the military situation and early in 1279 suffered a final defeat in Kwantung. Unsuccessful in attempting suicide by poison, he was captured and taken to the Yüan capital, Peking, where in prison he composed his most famous poem, "Song of the Upright Spirit." Even after the death of the last Sung prince and the end of armed resistance, and despite Kublai Khan's offers of high office, Wen T'ien-hsiang refused to submit to the Yüan dynasty and asked only for death. On Jan. 9, 1283, his wish was granted.

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Further Reading on Wen T'ien-hsiang

There are no works in English on Wen T'ien-hsiang. Recommended for background on the Southern Sung and the Mongol conquest of China are: L. Carrington Goodrich, A Short History of the Chinese People (1943; 3d ed. 1959); Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China (trans. 1960); Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, East Asia, The Great Tradition (1960); Kenneth Scott Latourette, The Chinese, Their History and Culture (1964); and René Grousset, The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire (1968).