Museums of Beijing: Yuan Chonghuan Memorial
Location: It doesn’t really have an address per se. The Yuan Chonghuan Memorial is in the small park behind the apartment building that fronts onto Guangqumen Inner Street where it meets the smaller Baiqiao Street (which goes north). There is an Agricultiral Bank of China at the corner of the apartment buld’s row of shops. Walk behind the building from here. Nearest Subway Station is Guangqumennei – about 400m walk away
Opening: 09:00 – 15:00 Tues – Sun (closed on Mondays)
Cost: 2 RMB!
Quite tricky to locate (it is in the public park area between some apartment buildings and is not at all obvious!), but home to a fascinating and gruesome story, so ideal for history buffs and those looking to experience one of the more obscure museum sites in Beijing. The Yuan Chonghuan Memorial is small and simple but has an incredible backstory.
Yuan Chonghuan himself was a politician and military general in the late Ming Dynasty. He lived from 1584 – 1630 and achieved fame and renown in his lifetime when he led imperial forces into battle against Jurchen invaders threatening Liaoning (their former power base). He specialised in cannons which put him ahead of his time in the far east, and this may have been the edge that the Ming forces had over their powerful enemies.
General Yuan defeated both the famed Jurchen leader Nurhaci and his son and successor Hong Taiji in two major confrontations involving possibly hundreds of thousands of troops. This rightly made him a hero to many back in the capital city, but also earned him rivals too and he was absurdly accused of collaborating with the enemy (the ones he had just soundly defeated) and as a result of these accusations, plus a bit of good old-fashioned eunuch intrigue, was condemned to death. No ordinary execution would do though, it had to be the horrific ‘death by a thousand cuts’ (it is worse than it sounds, Google it if you have the stomach for it).
After the execution the only remaining part of his body was the head (told you it was a horrible way to go) and this was buried by a city guard outside the walls of Beijing. The guard was named She (a Chinese family name), and his family was to be assigned to tend the tomb for generations to come.
Nearly a hundred years passed and the Ming dynasty fell. Replaced by the Qing. Emperor Qianlong (considered one of China’s greatest rulers) was shown evidence that Yuan has been framed and set up for execution and so ordered that his reputation be restored and that his name be cleared. A search was made for Yuan’s descendants for them to be compensated and rehabilitated too, but none could be found.
Yuan Chonghuan’s tomb was then tended by the She family for centuries. On my visit (March 2021) I was informed by the administrator that the last caretaker had died, in her 80s, just the year before. That she had been the 17th generation to tend the site and that prior to 2002 it had been both larger than it is now and also a place that had been used for simple apartments as well as containing the tomb of a war hero and martyr.
The Yuan Chonghuan Memorial itself is a fairly simple courtyard with the front rooms reserved for the administration, and the main room at the rear of the courtyard containing a portrait, some poetry about General Yuan, and a timeline of his exploits (in Chinese only) on the walls, along with pictures showing some of his more noble deeds. To the east and west of this hall there are smaller rooms that deal with his origins in Guangdong (the far south of China, very far from Beijing, a statue of him stands in his hometown of Dongguan), and his use of cannon and advanced weapons defending Beijing from Jurchen invasions.
At the rear of the main room there is a door that leads out to a small courtyard that contains the actual grave and marker for Yuan Chonghuan. It is basic, but it is the reason for this site to be here in the first place. Being in this spot surrounded by towering apartment buildings is an odd feeling, and it doesn’t really help to transport oneself back to the days of the late Ming Dynasty in one’s mind, but it is a relief for those interested in Chinese history that this site has been saved at all and not subjected to demolition or indeed to have been forgotten about!
That said visitor numbers seem very low. At the time of writing there is a maximum of 25 people allowed per day at the Yuan Chonghuan Memorial, and no booking ahead is necessary. Considering that it costs only 2 RMB for an entry ticket that means the daily income from this site is pretty low, so it obviously isn’t maintained for financial reasons.
The Yuan Chonghuan Memorial is unlikely to be high on the list for visitors to Beijing, unless you are a Ming Dynasty military buff, or really enjoy hunting for obscure tombs to visit, but it is worth a look and is certainly somewhere the vast majority of people in Beijing have never heard of too. So, impress your friends, learn something, and get all that for a mere 2 RMB when you find yourself with the time to spare. Half an hour is more than enough time to completely visit this site, even if you spend time chatting with the administrator about its history.
Bonus: If you wish to learn about General Yuan's famously profane battle cry (yes, it involves suggesting a certain act with someone's mother) then read more here!