Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Wei Chung-hsien

WEI Chung-hsien 魏忠賢, 1568–1627, one of the most powerful eunuchs in Chinese history, was a native of Su-ning, in present Hopei. As a youth he got into difficulties over gambling debts, to extricate himself from which he made himself a eunuch. Sources differ on the question as to whether his original surname was Wei 魏 or Li 李, but in any case it was as Li Chin-chung 李進忠. that he first became known in the Palace, and it was only later that he was given the name Chung-hsien. After several years of employment in minor capacities, he saw an opportunity for furthering his interests and asked for the position of supervisor of food (典膳) to the chief concubine of the Heir Apparent, Chu Ch'ang-lo [q. v.], who had given birth in 1605 to the first imperial grandson, who later became Emperor Hsi-tsung (i.e. Chu Yu-chiao, q.v.). By judicious flattery and, some writers imply, by secretly leading the boy into dissolute pleasures, Wei Chung-hsien prepared the way for his mastery over the latter when he should ascend the throne, as he did in 1620. At the same time, by an intrigue with the child's nurse, surnamed K'o (see under Chu Yu-chiao), he extended his influence and succeeded in putting all rivals out of the way. Less than a month after his accession to the throne Emperor Hsi-tsung conferred lucrative posts on a brother of the eunuch and a brother and son of the nurse, and from this time on the pair ruled virtually unchallenged in the Palace. The remonstrances of the ministers were unavailing and some of them, notably Ku Ping-ch'ien 顧秉謙 (1550–1629?, chin-shih of 1595), decided to throw in their lot with the eunuchs.

Thus strengthened, Wei Chung-hsien met the determined opposition of the Tung-lin party with sternly repressive measures, among which the "trial of the six heroes" (see under Yang Lien) was the most spectacular. Under his direction, also, the San-ch'ao yao-tien was compiled to discredit his political opponents (see under Fêng Ch'üan). His persecution of the able generals, Hsiung T'ing-pi and Sun Ch'êng-tsung [qq. v.], weakened the Chinese defense against the Manchus in Liaotung, and during the period of his power all the territory east of the Liao river was lost to the invaders. At the height of his glory Wei Chung-hsien instigated a movement to have temples honoring his image established throughout the empire. The first petition, from the governor of Chekiang in 1626, asked that a temple be erected at West Lake, Hangchow, and thereafter similar petitions poured in from all sides. Later in the same year Wei Chung-hsien was given the rank of "exalted duke" (上公 shang-kung), while during this and the following year titles of nobility were conferred on two of his nephews and on one grand-nephew. On September 30, 1627 Emperor Hsi-tsung died. Wei Chung-hsien's fall from power was rapid. On December 8, he was sent into retirement, and five days later a proclamation was made branding him as a criminal and ordering his arrest. Hearing of this, he committed suicide by hanging. His nephews and many of his associates were executed, the temples erected to him were destroyed, the engraved blocks of the San-ch'ao yao-tien were burned, and Wei Chung-hsien remained in the records of China only as a symbol of infamy.

[M.1/305/1a; Ming-shih chi-shih pên-mo (see under Ku Ying-t'ai), chüan 71; 酌中志 Cho-chung chih, chüan 14, in Hai-shan hsien-kuan ts'ung-shu (see under P'an Chên-ch'êng); Chung-kuo t'ung-su hsiao-shuo shu-mu (see bibl. under Ch'ên Chi-ju), pp., 82–84, lists four novels based on the life of Wei Chung-hsien; Chuan, T. K., "Wei Chung-hsien", T'ien Hsia Monthly, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 330–40.]

George A. Kennedy