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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 13, 2022

Long Intro


China is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations, alongside Mesopotamia, the Indus valley and Egypt. It has a written history dating as far back as the Shang Dynasty, that's around 1600 BC, over 3000 years ago! Now as you can also imagine  you are not getting the full rundown of the entire history of China, it’s simply too immense for the overall story we are getting into. The story I want to tell has been termed by scholars, “the century of humiliation” dating 1839 until 1949. During this period China or better called the Qing Dynasty and later Republic of China faced terrible and humiliating subjugation by Western powers and the Empire of Japan.The story we are going to begin today is one of pain and hardship, but it is also a tale of endurance and resilience that created the China we see today. 


This is the Fall and Rise of China Podcast

I am going to let you in on a little secret, I myself am quite new to the vast history of China. As some of you listeners might already know, I am the writer and narrator of the Pacific War Podcast week by week. I specialize in the Pacific War and Japanese history and I ventured into a journey to explain everything that is the Pacific War of 1937-1945 when I began my personal Channel called the Pacific War Channel on Youtube. Yet when I sat down to begin writing about the history of Tokugawa Japan and how Japan would find itself on a path towards virtual oblivion, I thought to myself, well what about China? This is when I fell down a rabbit hole that is 19th century China. I immediately fell in love with it. I am a westerner, a Canadian, this was knowledge not usually told on my side of the world. So I thought, what are the most important events that made the China we see emerging during the Pacific War, or to be more accurate the Second Sino-Japanese War? I fell upon the first opium war, by the time I read a few books on that, it was the second opium war, then the Taiping Rebellion, the Nian Rebellion, the Boxer rebellion, the list goes on and on. 19th Century China is one of the most fascinating albeit traumatic episodes of human history and has everything to do with the formation of the China we see today. The term a century of humiliation or 100 years of humiliation is how many Chinese historians describe the time period between the First Opium War and the end of the Chinese Civil War. I do not speak the language nor have a full understanding of the culture, I am a lifelong learner and continue to educate myself on the history of one of the most ancient peoples of our world. This will be a long and honestly difficult story to tell, but I welcome you to join me on this journey.


Stating all that I want to begin our journey explaining how the Ming Dynasty fell and the Qing Dynasty rose up. 

This episode is the rise of Nurhaci

Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on world war two and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.


The Ming-Qing transition is a story filled with drama and corruption, heroes and villains, traitors and martyrs. Peasant rebellions, corrupt politicians and terrifying invaders would eventually collapse what was the Ming dynasty.


The Ming Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of China between 1368 and 1644. It would be the last dynasty to be ruled by Han Chinese. They had overthrown the Mongol led Yuan dynasty of 1271-1368 which fell for a plethora of reasons such as class conflict caused by heavy taxation and ethnic conflicts. During the entire history of China, there is always room for rebellions, and quite a number of Han revolts would occur such as the Red Turban rebellion beginning in 1351. Now amongst these many rebellions taking place there was Zhu Yuanzhang a man born into a impoverished peasant family in Zhongli county, present day Fengyang of Anhui Province. He had 7 older siblings, of which several were sold off by his parents because there was not enough food to go around. When he was 16, a severe drought ruined his family’s harvest and this was accompanied by a plague that took the lives of both his parents and all his siblings, save for one brother.  Around this time the Yellow River dykes had flooded causing a widespread famine. More than 7 million people would starve as a result of the drought and famine in central and northern China. The now orphan Zhu would then dedicate his life to become a buddhist monk at the Huangjue Monastery near Fenyang to avoid starvation, which was a common practice of the poor. Then the monastery where he lived was destroyed by an army suppressing a rebellion. I would say enough had been enough for Zhu because this prompted him in 1352 to join a local rebel group associated with the White Lotus Society against the Yuan Dynasty. So he began to live a life as a bandit, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor as it's said. The leader of the rebel group was a man named Guo Zixing who led an attack to capture Haozhou. Zuo became his second in command and took on the name Zhu Yuanzhang. Guo quickly began to see the rising star that was Zhu as a rival, but would eventually die in 1355, leaving Zhu to take leadership of the rebel army. Zhu attacked and captured towns and cities in eastern China and as Zhu did this he also found scholars who could educate him. This allowed Zhu to learn the principles of good governance and soon his abilities were beginning to show. This local rebel group in turn eventually joined the larger Red Turban Army rebels against the Yuan Dynasty. Eventually young Zhu rose through the ranks and would emerge the leader of the rebellion. Zhu early on ordered the scholars in his ranks to portray him as a national leader against the Mongols rathan that just a popular rebel.  In 1356 Zhu’s forces captured the strategic city of Nanjing which would become the future capital of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu would then emerge as the national leader against the Mongols, though he had rivals such as Chen Youliang based in Wuchang and Zhang Shicheng based in Pingjiang. Both rivals declared themselves leaders of new dynasties, Chen as emperor of the Han dynasty, Zhang as a prince of the Zhou dynasty. Zhu managed to defeat Chen’s naval forces at Lake Poyang in 1363 and Chen would die with the destruction of that fleet. With the conquest of Chen’s holdings at Wuhang, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi, Zhu soon proclaimed himself a Prince of Wu. Then Zhu was able to capture Zhang Shicheng who committed suicide, after this many rebel groups fell into submission. After continuing the fight against the Yuan and other warlords until 1368 when he then proclaimed himself emperor of the Ming Dynasty adopting the name Hongwu meaning “vastly martial”, though he is more correctly referred to as the Taizu emperor. 


Emperor Hongwu sent out his armies to conquer the north while provinces in China submitted to his rule. The northwest was first to fall, followed by the southwest and by 1382 unification would be complete. Under his rule, the Mongol bureaucracy that had dominated the Yuan dynasty were replaced with Han Chinese officials. He re-instituted the imperial Examination, something that had roots going as far back as the Three Kingdoms period. He began major projects such as a long city wall around Nanjing. Now Hongwu was a very paranoid, cruel and even irrational ruler and this would increase as he aged. Upon taking power he immediately transformed the palace guards into a quasi secret police force and began a massive campaign to root out anyone who might threaten his authority. Hongwu set his secret police to work which resulted in a 14 year campaign of terror. In 1380, the prime minister Hu Weiyong was found to be plotting a coup to take the throne, he would be executed alongside 30,000 or so officials. Hongwu would abolish the prime minister and chancellor roles in government. Yet this did not satisfy him and 2 subsequent campaigns would occur resulting in the killing of 70,000 other people ranging from government officials all the way down to servants, your typical new emperor stuff. 


Emperor Hongwu began a process of stationing members of his royal family all across the empire. He did after all have 26 sons, wow, and those who survived long enough became princes and were assigned a territory and military to rule. This system he built up would have some dire consequences down the road. Now just because Hongwu had overthrown the Mongol led Yuan dynasty and drove them up north, but this did not mean they were gone. Zhu envisioned early into his reign a border policy where mobile armies along the northern frontier would guard against the Mongol threat. Adding to this he wanted 8 outer garrisons near the steppe and a system of forts and other defensive structures. The inner line of this defense would end up being the  Ming Great Wall, part of the Great Wall of China. Manchuria and parts of outer mongolia remained under the control of Mongols and they held what is called the Northern Yuan dynasty. They too would be conquered by Hongwu’s forces and after the emperor's death would be “complacent”, though they would claim to still be the legitimate heirs to the throne. Speaking of heirs to the throne, Hongwu would eventually die and he was succeeded by his 15 year old grandson Zhu Yunwen who would take up the title Jianwen Emperor in 1398. 


Now Hongwu had chosen Zhu Yunwen to succeed him, but as is common throughout history, there would be someone else who would vie for the position. Now following somewhat in his grandfather's footsteps, the Jianwen Emperor began his emperorship by trying to limit the power of those who could threaten him, IE: his family. One of the first edicts he would make was for his uncles to remain in their respective territories, while he simultaneously began to effectively reduce their military capabilities. The first uncle he threw proposals at held the largest territory and most powerful military, he was Zhu Di the Prince of Yan and he simply refused the proposals. Then Jianwen arrested one uncle on treason charges, stripped his family of their royal status and exiled them. Jianwen followed this up by doing the same thing to 4 more uncles. Well as you can imagine a rift began to emerge between the families being targeted and that of Jianwen, so the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di who was the eldest surviving uncle and had the most formidable military assumed leadership amongst the targeted families. This prompted Jianwan to appoint several officials to go to current day Beijing where Zhu Di was stationed to stop his uncle from allegedly planning a coup. Zhu Di feinted being ill to illude the officials, but they reported back to the Emperor they thought a coup was about to occur. Thus the emperor gave the order to arrest his uncle at court, but a official at court leaked this information to Zhu Di.


Zhu Di soon began a rebellion against his nephew which led to a 3 year civil war (also known as the Jingnan Rebellion). This all cultivated in the end with Zhu Di personally leading his forces to take the imperial palace in Nanjing. Allegedly, Emperor Jianwen set the imperial palace on fire in his own despair. His body was never located and it is alleged he may have made an escape and went into exile. Zhu Di regardless held a imperial funeral for his nephew and was crowned the new Yongle Emperor which means “perpetual happiness”. 


The Reign of Yongle is considered a second founding of the Ming Dynasty because of the enormous amount of achievements made. Nanjing was demoted to a secondary capital and now Beijing was made the main one. Yongle began the construction of the Imperial City and Forbidden City employing hundreds of thousands of workers. He decided to build a treasure fleet in 1403 and from 1405 to 1433 there were 7 maritime expeditions undertaken by the Ming treasure fleet. The ambitious project resulted in the construction of upto almost 3000 ships and expanded the Chinese tributary system to other countries as far as India, the Persian Gulf and east coast of Africa. An entire podcast could be dedicated to the Ming treasure voyages alone.


Yongle would stage 5 giant campaigns against the Mongols and Oirats north of the Great Wall which in turn would lead to more building up of the Great Wall of China throughout the 15th to 16th century. Indeed Emperor Yongle's efforts allowed the empire to be stable and prosperous for a century before it began to weaken. After Yongle the 6th & 8th Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhengtong and yes you heard that right 6th and 8th allow me to explain. Emperor Zhengtong was encouraged by an influential court eunuch named Wang Zhen to lead a force personally to face off against the Oirats of the Northern Yuan dynasty leaving his half-brother Zhu Qiyu in charge temporarily. The Oirats had begun a 3 pronged invasion of the Ming dynasty At the age of 21, Emperor Zhengtong personally led the battle of Tumu Fortress against the Oirat leader, Esen Taishi. He lost one of the most humiliating battles in Chinese history, some rather ridiculous sources state half a million Ming forces fell to a Oirat cavalry force of just 20,000. Zhengtong was captured by Esen Taishi and held for ransom leading to what is called the Tumu Crisis. In the meantime his brother took the throne as the Jingtai Emperor. Zhengtong would eventually be released in the year of 1450 and return home, only to be put under immediate house arrest by the Jingtai Emperor for 7 years. Jingtai would be succeeded by Zhengtons son as the Chenghua Emperor, but Jingtai stripped him of his royal title and installed his own son as heir. That son died and the Jingtai Emperor would follow soon as the former Zhengtong Emperor led a palace coup against him. The Zhengtong emperor seized the throne and changed his regnal name to Tianshun meaning “obedience to Heaven”, then he demoted Jingtai to the status of a Prince and ruled for around 7 years. So yeah that's how you become Emperor twice apparently. 


The Ming Dynasty was a very impressive empire and would be one of the most stable and longest ruling periods in Chinese history. Many enormous achievements were made by the Ming, as I mentioned they built up a large part of the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and led 7 massive voyages with the treasure fleet, but there was much much more. They created woodblock color printing and China’s first metal movable type printing created by the Ming scholar Hua Sui in 1490. The first book printed using the technique was Zhu Chen Zou Yi. Alongside that the most comprehensible medical book ever written by Li Shizhen in 1578 about traditional Chinese Medicine, Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu). Another book was published during the Ming period and was called “Journey to the West” in 1592 by Wu Cheng’en and is considered one of the 4 great classical novels of Chinese literature. It built upon the accounts of the pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty’s Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent searching for sutras.


The economy of the Ming Dynasty was the largest in the world, following in the steps of the Han and Song periods to become known as one of China’s 3 golden ages. With a massive agricultural surplus, porcelain goods and silk led to silver pouring into China. Speaking of porcelain it was one of the most loved exports of the Ming as they had perfected the technique built up during the Tang Dynasty. The blue and white porcelain became extremely popular in Europe. Speaking of Europe, while the Ming made such incredible achievements, one department they did less well in seems to be in terms of scientific discovery. The Ming Dynasty was characterized to be generally conservative and very inward looking, hard to blame them though when they were basically one of if not the pillars of the world. The west and east were not as isolated as one would think and the Ming by no means opened any relatively new relations with the west. For example there is evidence to support that Roman merchants during the reign of Marcus Aurelius had ventured as far as the Han capital city of Luoyang. Yet it would only be much later in history when one particular group made some waves in Ming China and that would be the Portuguese in the 16th century. The first to land on Lintin Island in May of 1513 was the Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares which was the first time Europeans made contact with China via the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope. Then in 1516, the cousin of the famous Christopher Columbus, Rafael Perestrello became the first known European explorer to land by sea and trade in Guangzhou. The Portuguese would follow this up by attempting an inland delegation in the name of Manuel 1st of Portugal to the court of the Zhengde Emperor. Unfortunately for them the Zhengde Emperor would die in 1521 as they awaited an audience and they ended up being quasi blamed for the Emperor's death and would all be imprisoned for life. Rather hilariously one Simao de Andrade, the brother to the ambassador sent as a delegation, began to rile up the Chinese belief that the Portuguese were trying to kidnap Chinese children, allegedly to cook and eat them. There has been speculations this was all based on the idea Simao was purchasing and or kidnapping chinese children to take them as slaves. Well one thing led to another and the Ming Dynasty found itself enveloped in a small naval battle with the Portuguese naval force of Diogo Calvoin 1521. The Naval battle of Tunmen was the result of the Portuguese sailing up the river to Guangzhou without permission. Allegedly the Portuguese gave a cannon salute when they reached Guangzhou and this friendly gesture was quite alarming to the locals. Well while things were pretty cool for a bit, but then the delegation situation had gone sour at roughly and an edict was made to evict the Portuguese too which the Portuguese refused to comply with. The Portuguese cannons had superior range, but they were easily surrounded by a hoard of ships and the 5 Caravels were forced to use some bad weather to their advantage to flee the scene. By the way the slave purchasing / child kidnapper Simao continued for decades to do business in Xiamen and Ningbo. Eventually he ran into some trouble when he did what he did best, steal children and the locals banded together to slaughter him and those working with him.


Despite this, let's call it minor setback, the Portuguese continued to do limited trade along the Fujian coastline with the help of some rather corrupt local Ming merchants. By 1529 the Portuguese were sending annual trade missions to Shangchuan Island and by the 1550’s the Portuguese established firmer feat in Macau where they established a trade colony. The Portuguese even began to help the Chinese fight off the hundreds of pirate ships running havok in the area. They then followed this up by fighting off the Dutch later in the 17th century. This of course would not stop the great Dutch maritime empire from eventually taking over, though the Portuguese found a very lucrative business in becoming middle men when the Japanese were banned from trade with China. The Portuguese would take Chinese silk, hock it for Japanese silver and presto, quite a good hussle. 


Things were looking good for the Ming dynasty, but troubles loomed around every corner. One of those corners we hinted to just a bit, that being the Japanese. Japan had stopped sending tribute missions to China in 838 when it was the Tang Dynasty. 6 centuries later, between 1403-1547 the Ming Dynasty was quite powerful and the Japanese shogunate was relatively weak. The founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang demanded Japan resume its tributary relationship with China if Japan wanted to trade with China. Japan agreed to recommence the tributary relationship with China believing that the trade would be beneficial and that China’s recognition of the shogun as a partner would help to strengthen the shogunate. Thus the tributary relationship continued as of 1403 and it would be almost a century until Japan abandoned it again.


Speaking of Japan, by 1590, Japan's Warring states struggles came to an end when Toyotomi Hideoyosih emerged victorious and unified the nation. Yet soon the ailing leader of Japan, for a platitude of reasons decided to try and invade the Ming Dynasty, but to do so he would need to go through Korea. Historians argue one of the main reasons for the invasion of Korea was so Hideyoshi could keep his troops occupied as he may have feared them returning home would result in another domestic conflict. Hideyoshi did not study his enemy nor the territory his forces would be fighting upon. It really seemed Hideyoshi was in afit of egomania after unifying Japan and became convinced he would be able to conquer China. Now I cannot go into what is collectively known as the Imjin War of 1592-1598, but if you are interested you can check out King’s and Generals over at Youtube where they have a few episodes on the event including: Imjin War: Beginning of the Japanese invasion of Korea / Imjin War: Rise of admiral Yi Sun-sin / Noryang Straits 1598. 


What you need to know is that Hideyoshi asked, or rather ordered the Joseon Dynasty to allow his forces safe passage to go and invade their allies and protector, the Ming Dynasty. The Koreans gave a prompt no and did not stop Hideyoshi from transporting around 160,000 warriors to Pusan with the intention of marching them through Korea, then Manchuria and straight towards Beijing. This all would see Japan invading and fighting against the Joseon and Ming forces in 2 separate campaigns. Now initially the war went quite well for the Japanese, the Koreans were not prepared and the few thousand Chinese troops dispatched to help them, got stomped around the Yalu river. Well the Ming Emperor Wanli, surprised by the failure of his forces, decided to toss a much larger number of men, very much to the shock of the Japanese. The combined forces of the Ming and Joseon dynasty managed to push the Japanese out of the Korean peninsula. A cool fact of this war by the way was how the Koreans designed these armored warships known as turtle ships which held a ton of firepower. The turtle ships under the command of Admiral Yi Sun-sin out maneuvered the Japanese ships and decimated them, thus thwarting the Japanese from sending anymore troopships over to Korea. In the end the Ming Dynasty had quelled the Japanese challenge at their status as the supreme military power in East Asia and also affirmed that the Ming were willing to protect their tributary states like the Joseon Dynasty.  The Japanese by some estimates lost ⅓ their troops during the first year of the war. The cost of the war came at a steep price, it is estimated around 250-300 thousand died, perhaps 100,000 Japanese, 185,000 Koreans and 29,000 Chinese. And while that is truly horrible, the monetary costs were also quite steep, estimates put it in the range of up to 26,000,000 ounces of silver for the Ming Dynasty. Overall the war was a lose-lose situation for Japan, China and Korea. Yet it seems this war had a side effect that would prove to be one of the many nails that would be smashed into what was to become the Ming Dynasty’s coffin. For while this venture played out down south in Korea, its effects rippled back all the way up to the Ming Dynasty’s northern realm.


During this time period there were 3 major Jurchen tribes, the Wild Jurchens who lived in the most northern part of Manchuria. The Haixi Jurchens, who lived along the Haixi river and the Jianzhou Jurchen, who lives along the Mudan River in the region of Changbaishan. Jerchen by the way is something like a collective name for these people, their ancestors went by another name, the Manchu. They were semi-nomadic people and  heavily influenced by their neighboring Mongols. A Jianzhou Jurchen named Nurhaci had lost both his father Taksi and grandfather Giocangga, when a rival Jurchen chieftain named Nikan Wailan attacked them at Gure in 1582. Nurhaci demanded that the Ming hand over Nikan Wailan to him for execution, but they refused and went as far as considering to declare Nikan Wailan as new Khan of all the Jurchens, believing this would keep them all divided. It goes without saying Nikan Wailan forces were supported by the Ming. The Ming were utilizing the same strategy that had been done since the ancient times to deal with the peoples of the steppe, foster rivalries amongst the tribes and keep them disunified. 


It is said that Nurhaci was a gifted mounted archer from youth, could speak multiple languages, and loved to read Chinese literature such as Shuihu Zhuan “water margin” and Sanguo Yanyi “romance of the 3 kingdoms”.  At the age of 25 Nurhaci avenged his father and grandfather’s deaths by defeating Nikan Wailan in battle in 1587 sending him fleeing to the Ming for protection. The Ming would eventually execute him years later, but this would not satisfy Nurhaci. In 1589 the Ming Dynasty appointed Nurhaci as the Paramount Chieftain of the Yalu Region. It seems the Ming Dynasty believed that Nurhaci’s tribe was too weak to unify the other tribes and become a threat to them, thus fulfilling their strategy of keeping them disunified.  Then Nurhaci managed to defeat a coalition of over 9 rival tribes, one of which was the Yehe tribe during the battle of Gure. In 1591, Nurhaci had consolidated a large swathe of territory stretching from Fushun to the Yalu River and this provoked the Yehe tribes who sent a force of over 30,000 against him. Nurhaci’s men were able to turn back the Yehe menace and while Nurhaci continued to rally tribes under his command,  the Imjin War began.


As the Japanese were invading Korea, the rising Jurchen leader had some limited engagements against the Japanese along the border of Korea and Manchuria. This led Nurhaci to offer assistance to the Ming and Joseon dynasties for the Imjin War effort. But both the Ming and Joseon dynasty’s would refuse his offer however, especially the Joseon who stated “to accept such assistance from northern barbarians would be disgraceful”. Now the Imjin War indirectly weakened the Ming Dynasty’s position in Manchuria and gave the now rather insulted Jurchen leader Nurhaci an opportunity to expand his influence and territory. Nurhaci began to conquer and consolidate the unrelated tribes surrounding Manchuria. In 1599 Nurhaci had his trusted scholar Erdeni create a system of writing using the traditional Mongolian alphabet that laid out the foundation of what would become the Manchu alphabet. The Manchu as a people by the way are hard to really define and have been referred to as simply Jurchens, Tatars given who is speaking about them and what time period it is. In reality the Manchu is a rather broad umbrella for a few different groups of people in the large area of Manchuria and the term Manchu was chosen specially to create a sort of legitimate ancestry by those who eventually would bear its name.


In 1601 Nurhaci began to develop the Manchu military which became the banner system later on seen in the Qing dynasty. The banners derived from the niru “arrow” , a designation for a small Jurchen hunting band. This led to the organization of cavalry and infantry companies of around 300 men with subdivisions of 75. These units eventually evolved into differing banners, yellow, white, red and blue at first, then this increased to a total of 8 later on. If you have never seen the 8 banner army uniforms from the late Qing Dynasty, I highly recommend googling it. Absolutely awesome to see, unique colors for the armor and everything. Now the banner system was not purely military, it also became the established social hierarchy of what was to be a new state. Its important to note during his unifying efforts, Nurhaci also acquired a vast amount of Han Chinese defectors and with them Ming knowledge and technology such as firearms. A lot of these Han Chinese  would be married to Manchu women to form marriage alliances.The idea behind it was to take the tribe system and use it as building blocks for a military bureaucracy. This in turn also acted as a method of creating an administrative structure of the future Manchu people. Nurhaci built up his new empire's economy via mining and trade and managed to accumulate a lot of silver from tributary missions to the Ming Dynasty. 


In 1607 Nurhaci declared himself the Kundulun Khan over what he proclaimed to be the Jin State, named after the former Jurchen led Great Jin Dynasty. Now this was also done to assert divine lineage to the Jin Dynasty of the 12th century and in some ways was an implied challenge towards the Ming Dynasty. Indeed, Nurhaci even began to publicly refer to the Ming Dynasty as merely the “Southern Dynasty”, implying equality with his new state. So it seems the Ming Dynasty had greatly miscalculated Nurhaci and now they had quite a threat bearing down upon them. In 1610 Nurhaci broke relations with the Ming imperial court and in 1618 he demanded they pay him tribute and sent them what is legendary known as the “seven grievances”. This was a list of 7 terrible acts the Ming Dynasty had performed against Nurhaci personally and that of the Manchu people, basically a highlight reel of everything they did to try and stop the tribes from unifying. Smack dab as number 1 by the way was supporting the man who killed Nurhaci’s father and grandfather. The seven grievances also acted as a formal declaration of war against the Ming Dynasty. To think one day your financing the murder of some small tribal leaders, next thing you know their offspring has raised a new national peoples to take you out? 


A confederacy of Jurchen tribes referred to as the Hulun tribes gradually began to recognize Nurhaci’s authority, but some took more convincing so to say. The Jurchen tribes of the Hada, Hoifa, Ula were all defeated and assimilated by 1613, but then there remained one last Jurchen tribe that would not submit and it was one of the most formidable, the Yehe. In 1618 the Yehe leader Gintaisi united with the Ming Dynasty to combat the newly emerged threat that was Nurhaci. 


As it would turn out, the flashpoint for the conflict that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty would occur at a frontier town in the northeast. The town held one of the 18 key fortresses established by the founder of the Ming, Emperor Hongwu. The first official battle with the Ming Dynasty would occur in Fushun. Fushun was located on the Hun River just east of Shenyang. Nurhaci sent a letter to the Yehe at Fushun stating “If there is a battle then the arrows shot by our soldiers will strike all in sight. If you are hit, you will surely die. Your strength cannot withstand. Even though you die in battle, there is no profit. If you come out and surrender, our soldiers will not enter the city. The soldiers attached to you will be given complete protection. But suppose our soldiers do attack and enter. The old and young inside the city will surely be in jeopardy, your official salaries will be taken away and your ranks will soon be reduced [for losing the battle]... If you submit without fighting I will not change your great doro (guiding principles; Ch., li yi) at all. I will let you live just as you did before. I will promote not only the people with great knowledge and foresight but also many other people, give them daughters in marriage and care for them. I will give you a higher position than you have and treat you like one of my officials of the first degree”


In addition to being the first official military challenge to the Ming Authority, Fushun was connected to Nurhaci’s strategy of assimilating the remaining rival Jurchen tribes such as the Haixi. Fushun also happened to be quite isolated and not as well-protected as the other great fortress cities. Commanding the defenses of Fushun was Li Yong Fang who had around 1200 men under him. Nurhaci would throw 20,000 at the city, but before he did this he sent around 50 men disguised as horse traders into the city. These 50 infiltrators opened the gates to Nurhaci’s men who soon poured in. Li Yongfangs was horrified by the scene as several of his subordinates rushed to give their lives facing the invaders. Li Yongfang was captured and brought before Nurhaci who said to him “I know you are a man of many talents and have had many experiences and my state is in search of talent, as we are lacking in capable officials and are looking to employ capable generals. What purpose will your death serve? But if you surrender, you and all you soldiers will be safe”.

Li Yong fang agreed to surrender if the people would be spared. Nurhaci honored this promise, in the end around 590 Ming soldiers died during the attack. Li Yongfang soon became a general under Nurhaci and even married one of his granddaughters. Li Yongfang became the first prominent Ming commander to defect and this would set a precedent for many many more. A large reason Ming officials like Li Yongfang defected was because they were not going to be forced to give up their own culture and customs.


After capturing the Fortress of Fushun, Nurhaci left 4000 men to guard it and now turned his attention to another fortress in Qinghecheng or known simply as Qinghe. The outraged Ming Court did not waste any time sending a counter attack to take back Fushun. The Ming dispatched commander Zhang Chengyin with 10,000 men to recapture the city. Zhang led the men and besieged the city, digging trenches and raining hell upon its walls using cannon and firearms. Nurhaci’s sons Hung Taiji and Daisan took the force of 4000 men outside the city and to the shock of the besiegers charged directly upon them. It is estimated only 20% of the Ming force survived this devastating attack, and the rest fled or were captured.


The Ming Court was stunned by the loss of Fushun and knew it was not the only Fortress that would be attacked. Thus they dispatched an expeditionary force of 5000 men with 2 commanders, Li Rubai, the commander of Liaodong and Yang Hao the Military affairs commissioner to support the region, beginning with Qinghe. Both men were personally liked by Emperor Wanli, but both also had undergone scandals during the Imjin War when they messed up during a siege battle. With the new reinforcements brought over by the 2 commanders, Qinghe now had a garrison 6400 strong. Before leaving to help other areas, Yang Hao advised the commander of the Qinghe fortress, Zou Chuxian that he should lay an ambush out for the invaders, perhaps in the mountain pass nearby where they could take advantage of Ming firearms. Zou did not heed this and opted instead to remain within the fortress.


The reinforcing of the Qinghe fortress would prove to be fruitless. The defenders fired their cannons, hurled large boulders and logs and tossed hot oil all inflicting heavy casualties upon Nurhaci’s men, but despite all of this the besiegers were able to take a corner wall as the defenders were busy loading their cannons. The siege quickly turned into bloody street to street fighting and with it the complete slaughter of the city’s forces. Zou and his subordinates perished alongside most within the city. This prompted the Ming court to place a price over Nurhaci’s head, 10,000 taels of silver. It is apparent, the Ming were not prepared to face the challenge pressed upon them by someone like Nurhaci. They had failed to anticipate Nurhaci’s state-building efforts and now the fruits of his work were bearing witness.


With the fall of Qinghe and the surrounding towns, the Ming Court now dispatched a large force of 100,000 men to attack Nurhaci’s forces. Yang Hao formulated the strategy for the grand operation, they would divide into 4 groups of around 30,000 men each and approach Nurhaci’s stronghold of Hetu Ala from 4 different directions and surround it. Ma Lin would lead the northern group coming from Kaiyuan. Du Song from the west coming from Fushun. Li Rubo would come from southwest through the Yau Pass. Last, Liu Ting (also known as Big Sword Liu) would come from the Southeast from Kuandian supported by a 13,000 strong Joseon Dynasty Expeditionary force commanded by Gang Hong-rip. Despite all the planning, Yang Hao did not believe their forces had adequate training nor the supplies for the venture. 


It is estimated that Nurhaci had around 60,000 men at this time. Nurhaci also had amazing scouts that provided him with great intelligence of the Ming plans and he decided the best course of action was to concentrate all of his forces together and pick off each Ming group one by one. Thus he sent small detachments of around 500 men each to intercept Liu Tin, Ma Lin and Li Rubo to misdirect them, while he would take the main force and smash Du Song, whom he deemed the greatest threat out of the 4 groups. To beat Du Song, Nurhaci snuck 15,000 of his men in the forested mountains near Sarhu for an ambush.


Du Song’s force of around 30,000 set forth from Fushun which they had recently recaptured with ease as it was left undefended. Du Song was frustrated by this and wanted to face the enemy and finally found them when he came across the Hun River and saw a Jin force on the other side. 


Du Song took 10,000 of his men to cross the river and attack, so that a beachhead could be formed and thus providing adequate room for a safe transfer of the rest of his forces and equipment. So he left behind the other 20,000 men with the war equipment who would follow them once the Jin force were pushed back. When Du Song’s men were halfway across the river, Nurhaci sprung a trap. It turns out Nurhaci had ordered his forces to prepare the breaking of dams, and at the moment Du Song’s 10,000 men got half way in, well they broke them. The Ming forces in disarray had to flee back from the raging water, abandoning a ton of their equipment. Now Du Song’s force had to go from offense to defense, erecting 2 camps on the opposite side of the river frantically.  Those troops Nurhaci snuck in the forested mountains then came down upon the camp that held Du Song  and Nurhaci himself personally led 6 banners to attack the camp as well.


Nurhaci’s forces much like that of Ghenghis Khan’s, came in with horse backed archers to pelt the defenders. The Ming Musketeers divided themselves into 2-3 rows, taking turns to fire their guns and reload, known as “repeated fire”, basically a more rustic version of what you see during something like the revolutionary wars of America. Some of theses guns by the way are known as Zhuifeng Qiang “windchasing” guns. They are around 5 feet long and shoot fairly large lead bullets. With one of these you can probably hit something within 40 feet away effectively. So you must be thinking, well the Ming Musketeers must have shot the Jin cavalry up like a turkey shoot, but you would be wrong. Interesting little side note here, the bow and arrow historically has trumped firearms honestly until the invention of the repeating rifle and revolver. If you know something about the Aboriginal wars in the America’s, it was this innovation that finally allowed militaries to defeat peoples like the Comanche. Until those were invented, horseback archers would be able to get off far too many shots by the time people using firearms could shoot and reload. And thats basically what happened, Nurhaci’s horseback archers pelted the Ming Musketeers and began flanking them, until they began to break formation and soon fled. After this Nurhaci besieged the other camp at Jilin Cliff. Soon the Jin’s had surrounded the force there and Du Song alongside 2 other generals were killed during the slaughter. It was said that “corpses piled up like a mountain and the fields were drenched in blood”.


Upon hearing that Nurhaci had annihilated the force under Du Song, the inbound force led by Ma Lin coming from a northern position chose to be much more cautious. Ma Lin’s 30,000 men soon found the fleeing remnants of Du Song’s force and quickly incorporated them into his own force. He then formed 3 camps at Xiangjiayan and fortified them with trenches and cannons. Nurhaci’s sent a 1000 men to prod the defenses of the main camp that held Ma Lin’s command and also to draw its attention. The 1000 men dismounted and moved forward cautiously, drawing the Ming gunfire their way.


Once Nurhaci had a good idea of the layout of their defenses, he sent in a joint infantry-cavalry assault to make a swift attack upon a weakest point on Ma Lin’s camp. The Ming Musketeers could barely get off more than a single volley before the Jin horse riding warriors descended upon them. The front lines were being cut to pieces and soon the entire army’s morale broke and several men were routed. Commander Ma Lin barely escaped with his life and many of his officers died in a nearby river turning it quote “crimson with their blood”.  The other 2 camps fell in a similar fashion. Thus Nurhaci had just annihilated 2 out of the 4 incoming armies and took some 4000 of his forces to Hetu Ala to recuperate their strength. 


Yang Hao saw the absolute mayhem occurring and ordered the remaining forces to retreat and regroup, but the force coming in from the east led by Big Sword Liu Ting never got the orders. Now unlike his colleagues, Liu Ting was actually having some success against some Jin expeditionary parties. The 13,000 Joseon Expeditionary force was with Liu Ting consisting of 10,000 Musketeers and 3000 archers were proving themselves very capable warriors. He managed to capture a few fortresses, killed 2 Jin generals and inflicted a few thousand casualties. Nurhaci then decided to do something rather cunning: he slipped some saboteurs into Liu Ting’s army. These saboteurs pretended to be messengers from Du Song, stating his force was already besieging Hetu Ala and desperately needed assistance for the final victory. Liu Ting proceeded to respond by increasing his army’s speed to rush to Hetu Ala. Because of the increased speed they were going, Liu Ting’s force became very stretched out and now there were practically 2 divided groups. Around 18 miles from Hetu Ala, Liu Ting’s frontal force was ambushed in the Abudali Pass. This allowed 2 of Nurhaci’s son’s Daisan and Hong Taiji to both make cavalry charges one after the other into the front of Liu Ting’s force. These back to back charges inflicted heavy casualties, and they soon managed to surround the Ming force, exacting an estimated 10,000 casualties upon them. It also claimed the life of Liu Ting who was said to go down killing several Jin with him, must have been waving around a pretty big sword. By the way I tried quite hard to find out how the nickname came about and failed to find anything concrete, if anyone knows let me know perhaps by commenting on one of my Youtube episodes!


The Korean Musketeers performed quite well, but the archers, it is alleged, fired without arrowheads, because the Joseon Dynasty intended to keep a neutrality with the newly emerged Jin people. The Joseon Musketeers were eventually overwhelmed by the Jin cavalry, because they lacked spearmen in their formations to thwart off the charges, something they would improve upon later down the road.  Gang Hong-rip ended up surrendering the remaining 4500 of his forces. Those who survived later captivity were eventually allowed to return to their homeland. Gang Hong-rip was proficient in the Jurchen language and was held hostage. Interestingly, once the battle was won and done, Nurhaci went back to Hetu Ala to celebrate and one of the first things he did afterwards was send a message to the King of the Joseon Dynasty asking why they sent an expeditionary force to aid the Mings. The king tried to play it cool and sent a letter of congratulations for the victory, but made sure not to write anything that recognized the Jin state. It seemed the Joseon dynasty was now stuck between the Ming-Jin conflict and this would hold dire consequences later. 


Li Rubo had received the message to retreat from Yang Hao, so he was able to avoid disaster, losing around 1000 troops before getting out to safety. Overall it is estimated that the Ming lost some 45,000 troops, 28,000 horses and a ton of war equipment. The Jin claimed to have only lost 200 men, but better estimations put them at losing around 5000. The Ming Court was rocked by this loss and ordered the arrest of Yang Hao, sending the Embroidered Uniform Guard after him; those are essentially the Emperor’s secret police. Li Rubo was impeached, because there were rumors he had only survived because he had a personal relationship with Nurhaci. Li Rubo would commit suicide before his trial and Yang Hao would rot in prison for almost a decade before being executed.


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Nurhaci did not stop after defeating the 4 armies, he continued to raise hell by capturing Kaiyuan, Tieling and Xicheng without breaking much of a sweat. Hell Nurhaci was said to have braved a hail of arrows when he personally led the assault on the east wall of Xicheng. Over in Chahar, some of Nurhaci’s subjects were defeated at Guangning and this would lead to ongoing troubles between the Jin and Chahar mongols for 15 years. Now Xicheng was the last bastion of Nurhaci’s Yehe Jurchen rivals, so now he looked towards more empire building activities. Alongside his advisors they began to plan the conquest of Shenyang and perhaps to establish a new Jin Capital in its place.