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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 10, 2021

With the Yuan Dynasty reduced to an ever shrinking area of land around Dadu in north China, to tell the story of the expulsion of the Mongol rulers in 1368 is to tell the story of Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant turned monk turned warlord turned emperor. Today, we give  you the rise to power of Ming Taizu, the Hongwu Emperor, his great victory at Lake Poyang and the Rise of the Ming Dynasty,  and the final Yuan efforts to hold onto their dynasty. I’m you host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Our last two episodes took us through the period of Mongol rule in China from Khubilai Khan’s death in 1294, through his many successors until the reign of Toghon Temur Khan, who took the throne in 1333. Toghon Temur was largely a puppet to his chancellors; first Bayan of the Merkit, and most notably Bayan’s nephew, Toghto. Though faced with a colossal economic and environmental crisis which spawned a series of uprisings in 1351, the Red Turbans, by the end of 1354 Toghto had nearly crushed the movement and restored order. But Toghon Temur Khan made the foolish decision to banish Toghto in January 1355, a decision which signalled the death blow to the Yuan Dynasty. Toghto was the last actor who could have arrested the fate of the Yuan or controled the dynasty’s resources. Within months of Toghto’s dismissal, the rebellion picked up with new energy, and the power of the Yuan court became restricted to the very north. The rest of the empire became subject to various warlords, some with nominal allegiance to the Yuan, and some seeking nothing but its utter destruction.


A few points should be emphasized. The lack of interest Toghon Temur had in governing ensured that there was no individual in the Yuan court who could step into the role of Toghto. The strengthening of the regional rulers during the chancellorship of Berke Bukha, followed by mass mobilization in Toghto’s last years left provincial, regional and local rulers newly empowered and at the heads of much stronger military forces. The famed Mongol army was one of conquest, not garrison duty: there were simply not enough Mongols to garrison all of China, leaving a light Mongol presence past even the Yellow River. Most actual Mongolian and Turkic cavalry were kept in a few strategic areas, largely centrered around the capital and the steppes. Southern China had been poorly integrated into the Yuan, where Song dynasty structures had often been hastily co-opted. With most of the Yuan government and armed forces in the north, in the south’s countryside banditry became a real problem, as years of flood, famine, locust plagues and other environmental catastrophy annihilated farmland, the local economies and regular support networks. Unable to rely on the Yuan army for protection, regional and local leaders organized local defense forces for protection against bandits, the Red Turbans or even the undisciplined newly mobilized Yuan troops, which militarized and armed the population. It must have seemed apparent that the Yuan had lost the Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule China.


In the years immediately after Toghto’s dismissal, three warlords emerged within the Red Turban movement as the most powerful, all along the Yangzi River: Zhang Shicheng, the former salt-worker who became a warlord, declared himself emperor and was nearly crushed by Toghto during the chancellor’s final campaign; Chen Youliang a former fisherman, then office clerk who became leader of the southern Red Turbans and declared his own Han Dynasty with himself as emperor; and a peasant, turned monk, turned warlord, Zhu Yuanzhang. 


Born into a destitute family of tenant-farmers in 1328, Zhu Yuanzhang grew up surrounded by famine and uncertainty in central Anhwei. His grandfather had fought against the Mongols for the Song Dynasty in its final years, and Zhu grew up listening to his exploits. In summer 1344, he lost most of his family to famine within three weeks. Unable to feed him, his surviving family gave him away to a Buddhist monastery for labour. With the monastery also unable to feed him, he spent a few years wandering before the twenty year old Zhu returned to the monastery, where he learned to read and write. There he may have happily stayed, until a local battle between Yuan forces and Red Turbans in 1352 resulted in some of the Chinese troops in the Yuan army sacking and looting Zhu’s temple. Once again having lost everything, Zhu went to the only place he could: he joined a nearby Red Turban group. For a starving peasant turned monk, Zhu showed a surprising aptitude for war and gained the attention of the local Red Turban leader, Kuo Tzu-Hsing. Under Kuo’s tutelage, Zhu rose in the ranks, and within a year was given his own command and married Kuo’s adopted daughter, the future Empress Ma. By the start of 1355 Zhu was leading an army of about 30,000 men and building his own staff of educated men around him, most notably the scholar Li  Shanchang, who encouraged Zhu’s ambitions, urging him to take the city of Nanjing on the Yangzi River. His first attempt in summer 1355 was a failure, but it resulted in the deaths of Kuo Tzu-Hsing’s sons and heirs, leaving Zhu Yuanzhang in sole command of the local Red Turbans.


Gathering his strength, in April 1356 Zhu finally took Nanjing, making it his capital. This brought him to the attention of the figureheads of the Red Turbans in the north, Liu Futong and his puppet “Song Emperor,”  Han Lin-erh. The young Han Lin-erh acted as a sort of symbol for the movement, a Manichean-Buddhist saviour in addition to apparently being a descendant of the Song Emperors. Together, they had redeclared the Song Dynasty, and soon after Zhu Yuanzhang took Nanjing he was appointed governor of Jiangxi province by Han Lin-erh. This placed Zhu at the forefront of the northern Red Turbans on the Yangzi, but Zhu was careful to maintain official subordinance to this ‘Song Emperor,’ who Zhu became the most powerful defender of. In this time Zhu began developing his administrative apparatus, and under the supervision of the scholar Li Shanchang, began cultivating a reputation as a refined, dignified ruler concerned for the safety of the common people. Always he sought to have his armies minimize the destruction they caused, in contrast to the Yuan government forces and the often wild damage caused by other Red Turbans. He gained valuable administrative experience as the governor of Jiangxi, and it is not hard to imagine he was drawing his eye already to the loftiest of aspirations.


All the while, Zhu was eyeing his two powerful neighbours: Zhang Shicheng to the east, who, after a nominal submission to the Yuan government was now happily expanding along the Yangzi River, and to Zhu’s west, the warlord Chen Youliang, the major figure of the southern Red Turbans. Zhu, Zhang and Chen had before even the end of the 1350s were among the most powerful men in China, the three Yangzi lords having wealth and resources beyond any of the minor warlords or Yuan loyalists south of the Yangzi river. To the north it was a slightly different story, where the major powers after the fall of Toghto were the Yuan aligned warlords Chaghan Temur and his nephew, Koko Temur.


Chaghan Temur was a fourth-generation Naiman commander based in eastern Honan, a region his great-grandfather had helped conquer in the early thirteenth century. Both Mongolized and sinicized, having sat for civil service examinations, since the late 1340s Chaghan Temur had been fighting rebel forces with his own army. His victories over them in the early 1350s brought him rewards and titles from the Yuan court, and his power began to expand. Within a few years he was the most powerful force serving the Yuan, doing his best to stay out of the court intrigues and defeat the rebels. In the latter, Chaghan Temur had more successes. In 1358 when Liu Futong and his Song Emperor Han Lin-erh rode triumphant into Kaifeng, once the capital of the Song Dynasty, it was Chaghan Temur who drove them and their armies back, bringing the city once more under Yuan control. By 1362, Chaghan Temur and his allies had managed to restore Yuan Rule from Shanxi to Shandong, and even former enemies like Zhang Shicheng and the pirate Fang Guozhen were sending a token yearly tribute of grain to the capital of Dadu.


Of course, it is difficult to amass such power without making enemies, and Chaghan Temur’s tendency to ignore court orders, make his own appointments and strengthen himself did him no favours. Chaghan Temur was challenged by a rival, Bolod Temur, another powerful commander and father of Toghon Temur Khan’s empress. The court intrigues between the two hamstrung the ability of the Yuan to resist the rebels, and Toghon Temur Khan, in typical fashion, was totally unable to control them. In 1362 officers claiming to be serving the dynasty assassinated Chaghan Temur while he besieged  a rebel city, apparently doubting his commitment to the dynasty- and promptly fled to the same rebels they had been campaigning against. The court then confirmed Chaghan Temur’s will, granting his military and civilian positions to his adopted son, Koko Temur.


While Koko Temur’s name means ‘blue iron,’ in Mongolian, it may surprise you to learn that the final effective figure of the Yuan Dynasty was not a Mongol, but a Chinese. Born to a Chinese father and Koko Temur’s sister, his birth name was Wang Baobao, but he had been officially adopted by Chaghan Temur and in 1361 awarded his Mongolian name by the Great Khan.  Recognized as a true and loyal servant of the dynasty, Koko Temur seems to have preferred the ideals of steppe life more than his Confucian education, and carried himself in the image of a Mongol ba’atar, and had fought valiantly beside his stepfather. Immediately assuming his late stepfather’s command post, Koko Temur completed the siege, caught the men who had assassinated Chaghan Temur, and in a decidedly un-Chinese ceremony,  cut the assassins’ hearts out and sacrificed them to the spirit of Chaghan Temur.


Under the efforts of Chaghan Temur and Koko Temur, most of China north of the Yangzi was secured by the 1363, the Yuan having managed to survive a few serious scares. Rebel forces sent by Liu Futong and Han Lin-erh had raided as far as Liaodong and Shangdu, burning it in 1358, but since then the situation had somewhat stabilized. Bolod Temur continued to denounce Koko Temur, and the court intrigues did not stop. Toghon Temur Khan’s son and heir, Ayushiridara, seems to have wanted his father to abdicate the throne, as the Khan had shown utter incompetence and no leadership throughout the crisis. In alliance with his mother, Toghon Temur’s Korean empress Ki, and the chancellor, they sought to undermine Toghon Temur by convincing him to dismiss one of his chief ministers. The minister fled to Bolod Temur, who was then declared a rebel for housing the minister. Tension raised, Bolod Temur attacked Koko Temur, was defeated and fled to Dadu. At Dadu, Bolod took control of the capital in 1364, putting the chancellor to death and nearly got his hands on Ayushiridara, who fled to Koko Temur. Ayushiridara stayed there under Koko Temur’s protection until Bolod Temur’s  cruel treatment of the court resulted in his assassination in August 1365, and Koko Temur marched Ayushiridara back to Dadu.


Koko Temur was rewarded with royal titles, and ignored Ayushirirdara’s efforts to have him remove Toghon Temur. Koko Temur was by then by far the most powerful man in the north, but had no love for court politics and wanted to continue the war against the rebels. Given overall command and a large army, Koko Temur finally set out in 1366 to clear the rebels off the Yangzi, only to find that some of the Chinese commanders and former allies of Bolod Temur in his service resented this upstart and attacked him. Forced to waste time in a pointless civil war, the final chance for the Yuan to even retain the north was lost as Zhu Yuanzhang unified the south.


China’s future was decided with the opening of hostilities between Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang. While Chaghan Temur rose and fell, the Yangzi warlords quickly moved past any pretenses of ‘peasant uprising to expel the Mongols.’ By the end of the 1350s, it was a battle for imperial power between the three most likely claimants to succeed the Yuan, or at least establish a regional kingdom: Chen Youliang, Zhu Yuanzhang and Zhang Shicheng. By 1357, Chen Youliang had taken control of the Red Turbans south of the Yangzi, Zhu Yuanzhang was the preeminent member of the northern Red Turbans and the protector of the puppet Song Emperor Han Lin-Erh, and Zhang Shicheng nominally recognized Yuna overlordship, though he was clearly building his own kingdom along the coast. Chen Youliang’s state had expanded dramatically, but his eastern expansion down the Yangzi was blocked by Zhu Yuanzhang, and to the north by the effective armies of Chaghan Temur and Koko Temur. Needing more strength before he faced then, and not trusting his Yangzi rivals, Chen decided to deal with the Yangzi foes first. In summer 1360, Chen Youliang sailed down the Yangzi with 100,000 men aboard a great navy. Armies of the early 1360s were built upon peasant troops, but since the 1350s had become operationally much more sophisticated and experienced, with river warfare a key component. Since the early years of the uprisings city walls had been repaired, forcing combatants to resort to lengthy blockades or costly assaults. There is little evidence to suggest Mongol military techniques of the thirteenth century were adopted by the Chinese, cavalry taking only a minor role in these battles.


Chen Youliang’s 1360 attack utilized ships with high sterns which allowed his men to climb onto city walls. This brought him some initial success, and made him so overconfident he had a puppet emperor he had been controlling beaten to death, and had himself proclaimed Emperor of a new Han Dynasty. Chen urged Zhang Shicheng to open another front against Zhu, then sailed for Nanjing. Tricking Chen into disembarking much of his fleet north of Nanjing, Zhu Yuanzhang ambushed Chen’s army and captured much of his navy, forcing Chen to retreat. Due to conflict with Zhang Shicheng, Zhu struggled to immediately exploit this victory. The next year, 1361, Zhu Yuanzhang finally led a naval assault on Chen Youliang’s territory, but was only marginally successful, as rebellion forced him to return to his territory in early 1362. Before he departed, Zhu’s forces took Nanchang near Lake Poyang. 


While Zhu struggled with treason and rebellion in his territory, Chen Youliang built another armada. The sources indicate this was a  massive effort, totalling 300,000-600,000 men, with large, red painted ships with iron covered turrets for archers and high sterns to once again climb over city walls- the same tactic which had worked so well for him in 1360. In June 1363 his fleet was outside the walls of Nanchang, and Chen believed its fall would lead to the submission of other nearby cities. Unfortunately for Chen, the walls of Nanchang had been reinforced, and his boarding tactic was unsuccessful. Chen was forced into a siege, ruining his plans and taking away his element of surprise. His forces suffered heavy losses, and as the siege dragged into summer the water levels began to lower, risking the large ships which made up the core of his fleet. 


Zhu Yuanzhang did not appear to learn of this until August 1363, during which time much of his forces were occupied near the border with Zhang Shicheng. Rapidly reassembling his forces at Nanjing, he sent an army overland to relieve Nanchang, while he prepared a fleet to confront Chen Youliang. Zhu was outnumbered, with perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 men aboard much smaller ships. Further, he risked opening his flank to Zhang Shicheng and rebellion as had happened in 1361. This operation was a great risk, yet he threw all of his weight against Chen Youliang. 


His fleet departed Nanjing on the 15th of August 1363, arriving at the entrance to Lake Poyang on the 24th. There he constructed fortified positions to prevent Chen’s fleet from breaking out of the lake. On the 28th, Zhu’s fleet entered the lake, and a startled Chen was forced to lift his 85 day long siege of Nanchang, suddenly realizing he had been trapped. Late on the 29th, the two fleets met off the island of Kanglang shan, where they waited until sunrise the next day. So started the battle of Lake Poyang, the most famous, and largest, naval battle in Chinese history.


On the morning of August 30th, Zhu deployed his fleet into 11 groups, taking the center with his heaviest ships and stationing his lighter vessels on the wings, likely mirrored by Chen’s larger fleet. Zhu’s wing commanders were experienced and had the wind on their side, and their catapults wreaked havoc on the enemy wings, setting ships and men aflame. In the center Chen’s larger ships pushed back Zhu, his own flagship coming under threat. Zhu was forced to retreat to shallower water where Chen’s fleet could not follow, grounding several of Zhu’s ships in the process.


The first day of battle was disappointing, and Zhu sent his top commander Xu Da back to Nanjing with the damaged ships. The next morning Zhu executed some of his officers to get them to line up for battle, but once again the fight went poorly, Chen’s numbers, larger ships and densely packed fleet proving superior in close combat.  High ranking officers were lost, and by midday Zhu had to pull back, aware that they were playing to Chen’s strengths. Finding inspiration from the fire used by his lieutenants the previous day, Zhu filled some smaller vessels with reeds and gunpowder, and with the wind shift in the afternoon sent these fireships into the densely packed enemy fleet. 


Chen Youliang lost several hundred ships, 60,000 men, several squadrons and two of his brothers in the ensuing conflagration, while Zhu Yuanzhang only lost 7,000 men for the two days. The outcome was still undecided however, as Chen stil outnumbered Zhu greatly. September 1st was spent repairing and resting the fleets, and fighting resumed on the 2nd. Chen put his forces into a more open formation as defense against fireships, which allowed Zhu’s smaller vessels to isolate Chen’s ships, even sailing through Chen’s line at one point. However, Chen’s numbers were telling, and by noon Zhu withdrew, under pressure to depart from the lake by his commanders. The army he had sent by land had now relieved Nanchang, the goal of the campaign achieved. That night Zhu sailed out of  Lake Poyang, Chen following the next morning only to find himself confronted with the fortifications Zhu had constructed. 


It was clear to everyone that Chen Youliang had been outmaneuvered, and several of his generals defected to Zhu. For nearly a month, Chen waited before the fortifications, trying to determine the best course of action, while Zhu goaded him with antagonizing letters and his food supplies ran lower and lower.


Finding a weak position, Chen ordered his fleet to storm it and take it. But this was part of Zhu’s plan. As Chen was making his way onto the Yangzi  river with his tightly packed fleet he sailed into another trap. Zhu was positioned upstream of Chen with more fireships, which were once more sent into Chen’s fleet. The ships that weren’t destroyed fled back down stream, and with order lost Zhu’s ships chased and captured them. Groups of ships locked in combat sailed down river, where forces Zhu had stationed also joined in. In this chaos Chen Youliang attempted to cross between ships in a smaller vessel, when he was killed by an arrow in the eye. News spread rapidly, and with it the last vestiges of resistance collapse. The following morning around 50,000 men and most of the fleet surrendered to Zhu Yuanzhang. 


The victory at Lake Poyang was greater than Zhu could ever have hoped. With the death of his main rival and absorption of much of his army and fleet, he quickly annexed Chen’s former territory. By 1364, Zhu was the strongest single power in China, with double the manpower and resources of his next greatest rival, Zhang Shicheng. Zhang had failed to take advantage of Zhu’s war with Chen Youliang, and despite throwing off the pretense of submission to the Yuan Dynastyand  proclaiming himself the Prince of Wu in February 1364, his domain was easily swallowed by Zhu’s forces. Zhang was captured in 1367, and later died in prison. Zhang’s defeat freed Zhu to commit to conquering the rest of China and crush the Yuan, while the deaths of Liu Futong in 1363 and the Song Emperor Han Lin-erh in 1366 left Zhu to assume supreme command.


In January 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed the Ming Dynasty with himself as emperor, taking the era name Hongwu, meaning “overflowing martial accomplishment,” and began the campaign to push the remnants of the Yuan from China. The Hongwu Emperor did not take part himself, sending his skilled general and boyhood friend Xu Da to do it for him. Victory had already been determined; the Hongwu Emperoe had merely to stretch his hand and seize it for himself.


The Yuan failed to react to the rise of the Ming. The strongest warlord aligned with the Yuan, Koko Temur, had spent the last years battling other Yuan warlords. When Ming armies began to advance in 1368, Koko Temur refused an order from the court to repel them due to regional concerns, and for this was declared a foe of the court, open for all to attack. Koko Temur soundly defeated all of the foes sent against him until he was finally reinstated to his position, but by then it was simply too late. The Yuan could offer no counter offensive as Ming armies crossed the Yellow River in August, general Xu Da approaching Dadu in September. Toghon Temur Khan and his heir Ayushiridara fled the city to Mongolia only days before the arrival of the Ming armies, and on the 20th of September, 1368, Dadu came into Chinese rule for the first time in over 400 years. The city fell without a fight, only a few holdouts being executed. The Hongwu Emperor renamed the city to Beiping, meaning ‘pacified north.’ In time the city became the capital of the Ming Dynasty and was renamed to Beijing, the name it holds today.


Over the next two decades, the Ming incorporated the rest of China. In distant Yunnan, the Mongol prince Basalawarmi held out against the Ming until 1382. The fleeing Toghon Temur Khan and Koko Temur were pursued into the steppes and pushed from Inner Mongolia in 1370 after a humiliating defeat, where Ayushiridara’s son Maidiribala and 50,000 Mongols were captured by the Ming forces. Khan Toghon Temur died soon after, a man broken and humilated, lamenting the loss of his capitals, his empire, yet never understanding how it had happened. Ayushiridara finally became Khan and escaped with the remainder of Yuan forces across the Gobi desert into their ancestral homeland, almost exactly a century after Khubilai Khan had declared the Yuan Dynasty. The Ming continued to probe the border, looking to hunt down the new Khan who had not  abandoned claims on China, despite Ming diplomats urging their submission. Threats, promises of support, using Ayushiridara’s son as leverage, to a rapid completion of a  dynastic history of the Yuan with its glowing portrayal of Chaghan Temur in an attempt to persuade Koko Temur, did nothing to assuage the defiance of the Mongols. This dynastic history, by the way, is the Yuan shi we have referred to so many times over this series, and its rapid completion by the start of the 1370s is part of the reason it’s full of so many errors and even repeated entries.


With Ayushiridara refusing to submit, the Ming pressed the advance. Xu Da inflicted a major defeat on Koko Temur in the Gansu corridor  which assisted Ming expansion in Sichuan and the west. In 1372 Xu Da marched with a massive army into the steppes, well over 150,000 men and torched the old capital of Karakorum, but Xu Da learned how dangerous the Mongols were in their homeland. Koko Temur simply manuevered around Xu Da for a month, exhausting the Ming army in marches into seeming nothingness, before falling upon his disillusioned foe. Xu Da’s army was annihilated, the great general forced to flee, and the impetus for Ming advance into Mongolia was broken. The Ming would never be able to conquer Mongolia, and were forced to step back to a defensive position along their borders. The only exceptions were raids and a brief period of Ming aggression during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, the Hongwu Emperor’s  son, who led a number of campaigns into the steppe. Over time, this border became entrenched and fortified, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, into the Great Wall of China as we know it today. Though border walls had existed prior in much earlier dynasties, it took for the Ming Dynasty for them to develop into a single connected fortification across China’s northern border, and the famous brick structure we know it as today. The Yuan did not relinquish their claims on China, though we generally call the exiled court the Northern Yuan. Confined to Mongolia, aside from raids it would not be until the 1450s and the Tumu crisis that  the Mongols would again form an existential threat to the Ming. After the death of Koko Temur in 1375 and Ayushiridara in 1378,  the northern Yuan lost their unity, falling into infighting with the Chinggisid Khans becoming puppet rulers for non-Oirat Chinggisids. It would be many years before Chinggisid unity would be reformed, albeit only briefly, in Mongolia.


So the Nothern Yuan and the Ming would form uneasy neighbours for the next centuries, sometimes at war, often conducting trade, each taking advantage of the other at various times. So would be the relationship until the 1600s, when both Ming and the northern Yuan were finally subsumed by a new enemy-  the Manchu Qing Dynasty, the descendants of the enemies of both the Mongols and the Chinese, the Jurchen. But that’s  a story for another day.


    So ends the period of Mongol rule in China. We will return to the later history of Chinggisid Mongolia, but our next episodes bring out attention westwards, to the fates of the Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate, and Golden Horde, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.