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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 27, 2020

A desperate, starving crowd of thousands presses together, smothering each other in the narrow city streets; defenders clad it broken or hastily repaired lamellar armour hurry to and fro, responding to new alerts along the city walls; the constant thundering of stone slamming into the city walls; the loud cracks of bombs exploding, lobbed into houses by the enemy siege weapons and setting them alite. Screams, some ongoing and others cutting off suddenly, marking where a poor defender, foolish enough to stick his head over the ramparts, was struck by arrows. Outside the city, smoke billowed up enemy sieges machines set on fire by the defender. Beyond them, was the whinnying of tens of thousands of Mongol horses, with Chinese subjects and allies sharpening swords and preparing for the assault. Such was life in the nearly year-long siege of Kaifeng, capital of the Jin Empire and now the target of the Mongol war machine. Today, we look at the final collapse of the Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty, ending the twenty year long Mongol conquest of Northern China. Victory here laid the groundwork for Mongol war with the masters of southern China, the Song Dynasty, setting the stage for a conflict which would eventually leave the Mongols the rulers of the Middle Kingdom. I’m your host David and this is Ages of Conquest: The Mongol Invasions! 


    We’ve covered the early stages of the Mongol-Jin war in previous episodes but to give a quick recap. Mongol armies under Chinggis Khan had invaded the Jin Empire in 1211. The Jin, ruled by the Jurchen, hailing from Manchuria and ancestors of the later Manchu, controlled China north of the Huai river and had enjoyed a fearsome military reputation, renowned for their heavy cavalry and horse archers. But after nearly a century of their rule, the semi-nomadic Jurchen in China had adopted Chinese culture and language, losing their formidable military edge. Jin armies were routinely swept away in the field by the Mongols, and those Jurchen and Khitans who still lived as nomads or semi-nomads were soon allied with Chinggis Khan. In 1215, the Emperor Xuanzong of Jin fled south of the Yellow River, abandoning the capital of Zhongdu, now modern Beijing, and cutting ties to his Manchurian homeland. Formerly hardy horsemen, the final emperors of the Jin Dynasty, though still ethnically Jurchen, were now little different from the Chinese. Their armies were now made up of Chinese infantry, having lost most of their access to horse producing regions. Defections from the Jin army early on in the war brought the Mongols knowledge of Chinese siege weapons, and soon the fortifications of northern China were reduced one by one.  When Chinggis Khan moved against the Khwarezmian Empire in 1219, the Jin were granted no respite, as the talented commander Mukhali was left to continue pressure on the Jin. Only Mukhali’s death in 1223 granted the Jin a brief rest, with Mongol attacks for the next few years becoming decidedly more limited.


    The Jin had been in an unenviable position from 1215-1223. Mongol pressure in the north was unrelenting and of great concern, bringing the losses of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. In the west, the Tangut ruled Xi Xia, former Jin vassals, had submitted to the Mongols and joined them in attacking the Jin. In the east, the Shandong peninsula and surrounding coastline was lost to a local insurrection known as the Red Coats, an umbrella term for a collection of independent warlords, some of whom declared for the Mongols, some who declared for the Song Dynasty, and all hating the Jin. The Chinese Song Dynasty ruled almost all of China south of the Huai river,  and were a formidable economic power as well as being longtime foes of the Jin. Having lost their northern territories, and two emperors, to the Jurchen in the early 1100s, few tears were shed in the Song court for the Jin’s struggles. In 1217 the Jin invaded the Song- a shocking development considering their ongoing military issues, but one with the intention to essentially provide further room to retreat from the Mongols. Fighting continued until 1221, proving both indecisive and wasteful.


    1223-1224 provided an unexpected change of events. Beginning with Mukhali’s death, we have the already noted reduction in Mongol pressure. Though Mukhali’s son and brother continued to campaign, it was without Tangut military support, as their forces had abandoned Mukhali in his final days. Furthermore, Chinggis Khan was still absent in Central Asia, though making his return. This was the first real breathing room northern China had experienced in well over a decade. In the first days of 1224, the Emperor Xuanzong of Jin died, succeeded by his third son Ningjiasu (Ning-ji-asu), known also by his chosen Chinese personal name, Wanyan Shouxi (Wan-yan Shou-shi), Wanyan being the royal clan of the Jurchen Jin. 


25 years old on his ascension, Ningjiasu (Ning-ji-asu) was the closest the Jin came to a competent monarch since the death of Shizong of Jin in 1189. More evenhanded and thoughtful than Xuanzong (shuan-zong) of Jin, and more competent than the arrogant and inept Wei Shao Wang, had Ningjiasu taken the throne at any other time, he may have enjoyed a fine reputation. However, he was unable to arrest the collapse of his state, and would die only a few hours before the end of his dynasty. In life, rulers of Chinese-style dynasties are simply known as ‘the Emperor,’ and prior to the Ming Dynasty, would take era titles to delineate certain years of their reign. After their deaths, they are all given posthumous temple names, such as ‘Taizu’ for dynastic founders. Xuanzong of Jin was the posthumous title for Ningjiasa’s father, whose personal name had been Wudubu. Wudubu’s predecessor was so hated he was posthumously demoted from emperor to prince, and hence known as the Prince of Wei, or Wei Shao Wang. The posthumous temple name given to Ningjisau was Aizong, meaning, ‘pitiable ancestor.’ His Chinese personal name, Shouxu (Shou-szhu), was also turned into a pun by the Mongols, as it sounded similar to “little slave.” 


    Aizong of Jin, as we’ll call him had a promising start to his reign. Both the Tangut and Song emperors died in similar time, and Aizong quickly set about organizing peace between them, though no military cooperation came of this. Able to redistribute troops against the Mongols and Red Coats, the Jin also began to receive horses in trade from the Tangut. Seeking to inprove relations with the Mongols, on Chinggis Khan’s death Aizong even sent envoys bearing formal condolences to the Mongols, though they were turned away. Jin forces were able to reoccupy some territory and strengthen fortifications. As we mentioned earlier, Xuanzong of Jin had moved the capital from Zhongdu to Kaifeng in 1215. Though a foolhardy decision which brought Mongol armies back into China, it wasn’t strategically awful. Kaifeng, in the central Henan province, had been the capital of the Song Dynasty before captured by the Jurchen in the early 12th century. With massive walls, a large population and rich hinterland, the city itself was difficult to siege. Unlike Zhongdu, which was situated comparatively close to Mongolia, Kaifeng was sheltered behind the Yellow River, fordable only at select, and guarded, points. Any passage directly over the river could prove highly costly. The Mongols would thus be more inclined to ford the river further along its great bend towards the Ordos, allowing them to make an approach to the west of the city. This would bring them into mountainous territory in Shaanxi (Shaan-shi) province to Henan’s west, the passage between these provinces guarded by the fortress of Tongguan. Bordered by mountains and possessing a strong garrison, either Tongguan would have to be forced by a costly siege, or bypassed entirely by cutting south through the territory of the now neutral Song Dynasty. Indeed, this was advice Chinggis Khan was said to have given his sons on his deathbed. But since peace had now been reached between Jin and Song, it was impossible to say if they would allow Mongol troops through their country unimpeded.


    Such was the problem Ogedai faced when he became Khan in 1229. Ogedai was not the military equal of his father or brothers, and to quiet questions of how fit he was to succeed his famous father, he needed to complete the conquest of the Jin. Growing bolder through the recapture of their cities, defeats of small Mongol parties and absence of any major offensives for some years, the Jin would be a test of worthiness for the new Khan. Weeks after becoming Khan, Ogedai sent an army against the Jin, perhaps to test the waters. A Mongol army of  8,000 under Doqulqu (do-khul-khu) entered Shaanxi (Shaan-shi) at the end of 1229, besieging Qingyangfu (Ching-yang-foo). After a failed Jin peace embassy, a relief force was raised under the commander Pu’a with a vanguard of the “Loyal and Filial Army.” Pu’a was a bit of a rapscallion who had led raids into Mongol occupied territory for several years, looting and carrying off captured horses and provisions, then withdrawing before Mongol forces could catch him. Through his habit of playing up minor skirmishes like they were great victories, he had earned a reputation for skill against the Mongols, though whether it was deserved was another matter. The ‘Loyal and Filial Army,’ which Pu’a had been associated with for years also had an unsavoury, though effective, reputation. Made up of deserters and captives from the Mongols it included northern Chinese, Uighurs, Naiman, Tanguts and the odd Qipchaq, these were mounted units specializing in Mongol tactics. Paid three times that of normal soldiers, to encourage defections from the diverse Mongol armies, by the 1230s this was a crack force of 7,000. Often undisciplined and unruly, they proved effective at plundering and were fine horse archers- one of Pu’a commanders, Chenheshang (Chen-hae-shang) commanded a 1,000 strong vanguard of these men. 


    At Dachangyuan (da-chang-yuan) in January-February 1230, Pu’a drew Doqulqu’s (Do-hool-hoo’s) force up for battle. Chenheshang led the Loyal and Filial Army as vanguard, and for the first time in the nearly 20 years of war, the Jin defeated the Mongols in open battle. After the battle, Pu’a released a captured Mongol envoy, and sent him to Ogedai with a simple message: “We’ve got all our soldiers and horses ready- come on over and fight!” Soon afterwards, Pu’a, Chanheshang and the general Hada defeated  a Mongol army investing Weizhou on the northern bank of the Yellow River in Henan. 


    Ogedai was furious and frightened. Doqolqu (do-khul-khu) was removed from command  and possibly poisoned. Pu’a’s boast, followed by actual Jin victories coupled with peace between Jin and Song, made the new Khan very nervous. Naysayers within his own court who whispered how the more militaristic Tolui, Ogedai’s younger brother, should have been Khan, saw this as signs of Heaven’s displeasure. Ogedai tried to quiet these whispers by saying this was like the candle flaring up before it goes out, while at the same time raising a large army to personally lead against the Jin. It should be noted that details of this campaign are often contradictory, with later authors hiding details due to the Mongol defeats suffered in the campaign. The reconstruction which will follow is based on the work of historian Dr. Christopher Atwood, and his fantastic article on Doqulqu’s death. 


    Ogedai set out in early 1231, praying for nine days to Eternal Blue Heaven for victory. His solution to the described defenses of the Jin- the wide and fast moving Yellow River guarding the north, the neutral Song border to the south and the fortress of Tongguan protecting the west, was to bring the full might of his army against Tongguan, to force it or bypass it.


    Up to 100,000 men in Ogedai’s army, including his brother Tolui, the general Subutai freshly recalled from the western steppe, and Mongols, Khitans, Uighurs and subject Chinese, marched into Shaanxi province, already suffering from a severe famine. With such a large army and limited resource available, Ogedai needed to find a way through Tongguan quickly. The Jin commanders, Pu’a and Hada, pulled all their available troops out of Shaanxi before the Mongol advance in order to reinforce Tongguan, and it quickly became apparent that an assault on the fort would be costly and lengthy. 


An attempt by Ogedai’s adopted brother Shigi Qutuqu (shi-gi hoo-too-hoo) to draw the Jin defenders into a feigned retreat resulted in heavy Mongol losses, the Jin refusing to leave the safety of their fortifications. Subutai for his part, was able to find a route through the hills south of Tongguan, and seemed likely to outflank the fort. However, his forces became spread too thin during the rough voyage, and a counterattack led by Chenheshang and 1,000 of the Loyal and Filial Troops defeated Subutai at Daohuigu (dao-hui-goo). Subutai and part of his force returned, humbled, to Ogedai, who was so furious he threatened to totally remove him from command, and was only restrained by Tolui. The Mongols withdrew from Tongguan, besieging the large city of Fenxiangfu. The city fell in May 1231, 400 catapults concentrating on one corner of the walls. Despite this victory, Ogedai’s mood was little improved, and lambasted his generals, saying “If Mukhali were alive, I would not have had to come here myself!”


    Struggling to support the large army in famine stricken Shaanxi, Ogedai ordered a withdrawal to Inner Mongolia for summer 1231 and replan the assault. There, Tolui suggested a plan which their father had discussed in his final days, bypassing Tongguan by going through Song territory and arriving deep behind Jin defenses. Ogedai agreed, ordering Tolui and Subutai to take their tumens on this flanking maneuver. Meanwhile, Ogedai and the main army would attempt a crossing of the Yellow River, while a smaller force under Ochin Noyan was to try the end of the Yellow River in Shandong, guarding Ogedai from encirclement. The plan was for their armies to act as a giant pincer, striking Kaifeng from the north and southwest simultaneously, Tolui coming up behind enemy lines and preventing the Jin from marshalling all of their forces on a single army.  


    Nothing started off to plan. While Ogedai’s force was held up by a long siege at Hezhongfu (Hay-zhong-foo) in their effort to cross the Yellow River, early indications were that the Song would not cooperate with Tolui. At the start of 1231 the Song had killed Li Quan, the Mongol’s Red Coat ally in Shandong. Also, the envoy sent at the end of summer to request passage through Song territory had disappeared. Entering into the Song empire without their approval could mean Tolui would face resistance or an army. If Tolui was bogged down fighting Song troops, he would be unable to rendezvous with Ogedai, leaving his brother isolated. Much of Tolui’s army had been in famine stricken Shaanxi, or relocated to the barren Qinling mountains during summer 1231- lacking resources to feed perhaps 20-30,000 men, medieval authors speak of cannibalism occurring here. They could hardly eat the horses they needed for war, afterall. These starving men faced a difficult ride through hostile territory, beyond which  they needed to return to the Jin realm with strength and numbers to fight. 


    It is testament to Tolui’s military ability that he kept his men together through this hard ride through mountainous territory. Once they reached the Song border in November 1231, Tolui allowed his men a month of pillaging across Sichuan. This Song province was rich, fertile and untouched by the two decades of Mongol-Jin warfare, a chance for Tolui’s men to regain strength, morale and fatten their horses. It also showcased a noted weakness of the Song border defenses- Tolui’s troops travelled over 290 kilometres into Song territory before turning back. This was not the first occasion of Mongol-Song warfare: a brief clash had occurred in 1227 during the destruction of the Tangut Kingdom when Mongol forces attacking the western edge of the Jin empire had gone over the border and raided Song prefectures. The Chief Councillor of the Song Dynasty, Shih Mi-yuan, in power since 1208, was as cautious and pragmatic as he was unpopular in the empire, and he was very unpopular. Neither clash was enough for him to send Song Chinese to die at Mongol hands, and he didn’t let Tolui’s raid escalate into a full military response. Tolui was thus able to enter the southern flank of Jin ruled Henan province in January 1232.


    The Jin were panicking now, and Pu’a and Hada rapidly withdrew the garrisons of Tongguan to catch Tolui. At Sanfeng mountain, Tolui and Subutai found themselves surrounded by multiple converging Jin forces under Pu’a and Hada. Pu’a sent a message to Tolui which, in the words of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din, the Jin threatened to “do this and that to their women folk.” The actual message was certainly not so polite, and Tolui bristled at this. Surrounded, the Mongols were in a tough position. Aid came from an unexpected direction, as it suddenly began to snow forcefully, a blizzard mixed with hail. Subutai reminded Tolui that they were facing soft men from cities and small villages- the Mongols, used to harsh winters on the open steppe, put on their winter coats and waited on their horses. The Jin troops were unprepared for the early February storm, and for four days they froze and suffered. On the fourth day, deciding their enemy was suitably weakened, Tolui ordered the assault. Racing down the mountain side, the Mongols cut into the Jin and obliterated them, Pu’a and Hada both captured. As punishment for their threat to rape the Mongol women, we are told the Mongols sodomized the captured Jin troops, and made a huge mound of severed ears from the slain. 


The defeat at Sanfang mountain and capture of their best generals marked the end of the Jin Dynasty’s offensive capabilities. Ogedai pushed through the northern defenses, and was soon reunited with his brother. Subutai was given overall command of the army while Ogedai and Tolui returned to Mongolia,  possibly because Ogedai had fallen quite ill.  In April 1232, Subutai began the siege of Kaifeng, a noose which took almost a year to tighten.


Ogedai  and Tolui returned to Mongolia. Precisely what occurred is unclear, but by the end of 1232 Tolui was dead. The ‘official’ verison in the Secret History of the Mongols had Ogedai fall deathly ill, and Tolui urges the spirits to take him instead, sacrificing himself for his brother- but mention of him drinking  a ‘special  brew’ prepared for him have fueled rumours that Ogedai in fact had his brother poisoned. The problem with this theory is that it relies too strongly on later antagonism between the heirs of Ogedai and Tolui. By all accounts the two brothers were extremely close, and later editing to what became the Secret History of the Mongols by Tolui’s sons may have chosen to portray their father more heroically, and by villianizing Ogedai, helped justify their eventual ascension to the throne. Other writers like Juvaini say Tolui drank himself to death. Since this was the fate Ogedai, and numerous other Mongolian princes, shared, this is rather likely. Ogedai Khaan lost his closest companion late in 1232, a loss from which he never recovered.


Back at Kaifeng, Subutai led a brutal siege. The city, so flooded with refugees that it held over 1 million people, was totally blockaded, starvation and pandemic setting in over the summer of 1232. Gunpowder weapons were used by both sides in the form of bombs lobbed by catapults, and in fire-lances by the Jin. Essentially a flame thrower, fire-lances shot a jet of fire three metres long, burning men to death horrifically and were used to effectively block breaches in the walls. You can see this in action in episode 10, season 1, of Netflix’s Marco Polo. Subutai tried various means to breach the walls of Kaifeng, but the city was skillfully defended. Sappers would approach the walls under mobile shelters, with the intention to physically dig through them. Jin defenders dropped bombs onto them, destroying both shelter and attackers. Dykes on the Yellow River were broken, flooding the plain and the city. 


This resistance was valiant, but ultimately doomed. The Jin leadership was chaotic, with individuals promoted, then demoted and executed within days for perceived slights or on suspicion of treachery. Finally, in February 1233 Aizong of Jin abandoned the city with some loyal guards, leaving it to its fate. One commander left in Kaifeng, Cui Li (Tsui Li),  assassinated those still loyal to Aizong, leaving himself in control. Realizing the only way to spare the population was a voluntary surrender, on 29 May 1233 Cui Li (Tzui Li) opened the gates to Subutai. Ogedai was urged to mercy by the protests of his adviser Yelu Chucai, and Subutai was restricted to plundering, killing only 500 members of the royal Wanyan clan who were still in the city. Cui Li for his efforts was assassinated by another Jin officer, in response for an offense Cui Li had committed to the man’s wife.


By August 1233, Aizong of Jin and his ever decreasing retinue fled to Caizhou (Tsai-zhou), only 64  kilometres from the Song border. Aizong’s messages to the Song for aid, warning them they would be the next target of the Mongols, fell on deaf ears. The Song agreed to cooperate with the Mongols against the Jin, closing off Aizong’s route of escape. By November 1233, a Song army joined Subutai outside Caizhou. Caizhou was reduced to starvation, but its defenders fought tooth and nail, inflicting heavy casualties. But there could be no other end now.


As Mongol-Song forces filled in a nearby lake with bundles of reeds and sticks to gain access to the city in February 1234, Aizong declared he would not be remembered as the last Jin Emperor. He abdicated for a distant relation, a man in better shape who Aizong faintly hoped would escape and continue to resist. Barely had Aizong hanged himself and the new emperor been enthroned when the Mongols had broken through the walls. On the 9th of February, 1234, the final emperor of the Jin Dynasty died fighting in the streets alongside his men, having reigned only a few hours. So ended the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, controlling north China for a little over a century. Despite defections, defeats and numerous other setbacks, both Jurchen and Chinese alike showed loyalty to the Dynasty to the very end. Few other kingdoms had suffered the full might of the Mongols as the Jin had, and it was not an easy conquest. In 400 years, the descendants of the Jurchen, the Manchu, would come to rule both the Mongols and the Chinese, but that’s quite another story.


The Mongol-Song alliance barely outlasted the Jin. Subutai moved north with his armies not long afterwards, eager for discussions on where to take them next. The Song commander in the region, Meng Gung, withdrew as well, the devastated Henan province no place to keep an army fed. Aside from a few sites, most of the area, including Kaifeng, stayed in Mongol hands. 


As we’ve noted earlier, Kaifeng had once been a capital of the Song Dynasty before it fell to the Jurchen. Long had voices in the Song clamoured to reclaim the north. Chief Councillor Shih Mi-yuan had kept these hawks in check during his long administration, but his death in late 1233 left a vacuum, one the feeble Emperor Lizong of Song could not fill. Those Song officials and commanders who had firsthand experience of conditions in the north and against the Mongols knew what a foolhardy thought a campaign there would be, and understood the limits of the Song army, an army which had never performed well offensively against either the Khitan Liao or Jurchen Jin. However, Song generals who had won battles against the Red Coats and had been uninvolved with the Caizhou campaign were ecstatic at news of the destruction of the Jin, and immediately urged war. 


Assuming the local Chinese would happily rise up and supply them, two Song armies marched into Henan in summer 1234, walking into the undefended Kaifeng and Loyang, the birthplace of the founder of the Song Dynasty- and found a population hardly able to feed itself, let alone an entire army. So expectant of a gracious local population, the Song armies had brought provisions for only two weeks. Their men refused to advance further, and a retreat began… just as Mongol forces returned to deal with the incursion. The Song army at Loyang was ambushed and almost totally destroyed. For a campaign that had lasted barely a month, the Song had unwittingly began what was to be a 40 year long war resulting in the destruction of their own Dynasty.


Rather inconclusive Mongol-Song warfare continued for the rest of Ogedai’s reign- much of the Mongol armies freed up from the fall of the Jin were sent to conquer the far west. This early Mongol-Song conflict did cost the life of one of Ogedai’s sons and designated heir, Kochu, in 1236. This was perhaps the final blow to Ogedai’s interest in anything other than alcoholism, which consumed his final years even as his armies under Subutai blazed into Europe. But we’ll return to those years of Ogedai’s  reign in future episodes. Our next episode will discuss the  continued Mongol expansion into the Middle East in the 1230s, led by Chormaqun Noyan (chor-ma-huun Noyan) against the Khwarezmian prince Jalal al-Din Mingburnu, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Positive reviews on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or any other podcast catcher of your choice are also greatly appreciated. Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!