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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 9, 2020

Columns of Mongol rider, armed with bow, lance and mace, march through the dark defiles and narrow valleys of the Yan mountains, a confined route for warriors used to the open steppe. Here, the valleys were marked by towns and villages in close proximity, a track for their army to follow, falling upon terrified settlements whose newly collected harvests now fed hungry Mongols. After days of this claustrophobic territory, of surprising and outwitting the garrisons of the forts blocking their path, the mountains suddenly gave way, opening up to the Northern Chinese Plain: low, open country, marked by the great Yellow River, farmland and the capital of the mighty Jin Empire: Zhongdu, modern day Beijing. Northern China was now open to the Mongol horde, and the Mongol conquests were about to begin in earnest. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol Conquests.


After returning from the Tangut Kingdom in early 1210, and shortly thereafter disrespecting the envoys of the new Jin Emperor, Wei Shao Wang, Chinggis Khan began his preparations, reviewing his forces and gathering intelligence. Alongside Muslim, Uighur and Ongguds  merchants and travelers who brought him information on the Jin, a few Khitan and Chinese officials had already defected to Chinggis, bringing him detailed intelligence and urging an attack. Though still mighty, the 13th century had not been kind to the Jin Dynasty. The 1190s saw a huge flood of the Yellow River, so severe it changed its course; once entering the ocean north of the Shandong peninsula, it now spilled to the south, a drastic shift which displaced entire villages, destroyed cropland and sowed discontent. War with the Song Dynasty from 1206-1208 drained Jin finances, and inflation caused the paper currency of the Jin to be near worthless.  The Jin armies, though large and their horsemen still fierce, were past their prime, many having become quite sinicized and lost the biting edge of their grandfathers. The time was as good as any for an assault upon the Altan Khan, the Golden Khan, as the Mongols called the Jin Emperors. 


At the start of 1211, the Qarluqs (Kar-luk) of Almaliq (alma-lik) and Qayaliq (kaya-lik) submitted to Chinggis Khan, providing their own Turkic horsemen as auxiliaries. Chinggis positioned his son-in-law, Toquchar, in the west of Mongolia, doubtless with Qarluq forces, to act as a guard against roaming tribes or the Naiman prince Kuchlug (whooch-loog), who usurped power in Qara-Khitai that year. Feeling himself secure and that he had the favour of Eternal Blue Heaven, Chinggis Khan was ready. He marched south early in the spring of 1211 with as many men as he could muster, around 100,000 split into two armies, one commanded by himself, the other by his three oldest sons, Jochi ( Джучи, Зүчи, Züchi) Chagatai (Цагадай) and Ogedai (Өгэдэй). By May 1211, they had crossed the Gobi desert, entering what is now modern Inner Mongolia, the band of steppe between the Gobi and the Yanshan mountains which shield north China. 


You may be anticipating the Mongols cinematically bursting through the Great Wall of China, or the popular internet variation wherein the Mongols ‘just went around it.’ But the Great Wall of China as it exists today was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries, well after Chinggis’ invasion. There had been sections of walls built prior, most notably in the Qin and Han dynasties a millenium prior, but the 1000 odd years between the Han and the Ming saw only sporadic building, generally of rammed or stamped earth, which erodes comparatively quickly over time in unmaintained. The Jin Dynasty in the late 12th century had ordered the creation of several dozen kilometres of wall built in Inner Mongolia, a ditch before a rammed earth wall, marked by gates and a few forts. The base of this is still extant, a long, low, grass covered ridge which today doesn’t even block the wanderings of sheep. This wall was manned by whichever people inhabited the local area, largely from the Onggud tribe, a Turkic Nestorian people who had been on friendly terms with Chinggis Khan since 1204. The Naiman Khan had tried to urge them to attack Chinggis’ southern flank, which they refused, alerting the Mongol Khan to the scheme. 


When Chinggis Khan arrived, the Onggud wisely opened the gates and submitted

voluntarily to him: it was a fair assumption he may have forced his way through them had they refused. Rather than conquer the Great Wall, or go around it, we might better say that it was  opened to him. For their part, the Mongols treated the Onggud well, and a daughter of Chinggis Khan married into their ruling family- she would effectively rule the Onggud in her own right, the direct representative of Chinggis Khan. The Mongols spent the summer in Onggud territory, resting, fattening their horses on the local pasture, and taking the few Jin towns in the region- the first to fall was Fu-zhou, stormed after a brief resistance in late August 1211.


    The Jin Emperor, Wei Shao Wang, was bolted awake by the news of the Mongol arrival on his doorstep. To his credit, he did not sit idle-  two large armies were mobilized and sent to the most likely route. Dividing the Northern Chinese plain from the steppe was the Yan Mountains, relatively low mountains with numerous towns and villages nestled in its many valleys. The primary defile which provides access from the steppe through the northern side of these mountains is the Yehuling, the Wild Fox Ridge, just south of Fu-zhou. 


The army led by Chinggis’ sons was making its way into the Ordos to the west, but Chinggis himself was certainly to try passing through Yehuling (ye-hu-ling), a route which would lead him only a few days away from the Jin’s central capital of Zhongdu. It was here, the Jin leadership rightly supposed, that the determining battle should be fought with as much might as possible; kill the Khan, and the princes would certainly withdraw.  As Chinggis stormed Fu-zhou, a major force of crack Jurchen and Khitan cavalry, supported by Chinese infantry, all under the Jurchen commander Hushahu (hoosh-a-hu), was sent to Yehuling (ye-hu-ling). Hushahu was an unpopular, arrogant individual but influential with the Emperor, and had shown himself a cunning figure during the war against the Song Dynasty. Just a small note here; Hushahu is known by a dozen variations of Heshihlie Jiujun Hushahu (hesh-ee-hlee djioo-jun hoosh-a-hu), with some sources just calling by one of these names. Hushahu is the easiest to say, so we’ll stick with it here.


Supporting Hushahu was a smaller force under Wanyen Ho-Sha, who was sent ahead to repair the fort of Wo-shao-pao, between Fu-zhou and the entrance to the Yehuling. Together, this was a massive mobilization, given in the sources as anywhere from 300,000-500,00 men- though a good many of these were probably labourers, who would be tasked with digging ditches and building defenses along the passage.


    Before the Wu-sha-pao fortifications could be completed, Chinggis sent his commander Jebe (Зэв) to surprise this smaller army in August shortly before the fall of Fu-zhou. Ho-sha escaped with much of his army, making his way to Huihebao, a fort south of the Yehuling, all before Hushahu could even reach Yehuling. Once within the defile, Hushahu set up at the narrow point within the Yehuling known as Huanerzui (Huan-er-zui), the Badger’s Mouth Pass. Here,his labourers were put to work, digging ditches and defences. His Khitan scouts informed him of the fall of Fu-zhou, and that the Mongols seemed occupied with looting the city, but Hushahu declined advice to immediately attack them. Wary of Mongol cavalry in the open field, he was hoping to use the narrow Huanerzui to protect his flanks. 


A Khitan officer who had previously been sent as embassy to Chinggis Khan, Shimo Ming’an, was sent to speak to the Khan, officially to reprimand him for his actions but intended to gather intelligence and stall for time. Ming’an, a proud Khitan who admired the Mongol Khan, promptly defected and told Chinggis of Hushahu’s battle plans.  Alarmed, Chinggis’ scouts confirmed his statements. 


The Jin had sent a great army to crush the invasion in one fell swoop, and Chinggis had only a part of the total Mongol force, his sons still in the west. Ming’an’s information, and Hushahu’s caution was to the Khan’s advantage. As one, the Mongols  moved into Yehuling, approaching the Jin army at Huanerzui. Jin scouts informed Hushahu of Chinggis’ sudden advance, and the Jurchen general ordered his huge army into position- wings of Jurchen and Khitan heavy cavalry and horse archers in the front, supported by a large group of Chinese infantry and the labourers who had started the fortifications. In the narrow defile, Hushahu’s army was tightly packed, unable to maneuver or envelop the smaller Mongol army.


    Mongol archers got to work first, sending volleys of deadly arrows into the thick rows of Jin warriors, who had nowhere to move under the hail. One of Chinggis’ commanders, the tireless Mukhali ( Мухулай) saw opportunity, and his lancers led the first charge into the injured enemy- Chinggis followed with the imperial bodyguard, the Keshig. The Jurchen and Khitan horsemen buckled, and fell back, right into the dense rows of Chinese infantry behind them, who were trampled and crushed under the panicking horsemen. Discipline and command broke down, and the army disintegrated in the confusion, the Mongols cutting through them like a hot chainsaw through butter. As they ran, the Mongols pursued: bodies lined the road for kilometres, and the Secret History of the Mongols repeatedly described the fallen ‘heaped like rotten logs.’ Hushahu and Ho-sha met up at Huihebao (hwee-he-bao) fort several kilometres south, and put up another stand, only to be overwhelmed by the end of the day. 


    Huanerzui was long remembered by the Mongols as their greatest victory. Ten years later, a Taoist monk travelling through the region to meet with Chinggis Khan passed through and found bones still piled high throughout. Perhaps the finest warriors of the Jin fell that day, and the chance to nip the Mongol conquest in the bud had been ripped bloodily from their hands.


    Hushahu fled to Zhongdu with nothing but bedraggled, bloody remnants of his great army. Mongol forces were briefly halted by the fortified pass of Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan), which guarded the narrow, 18 kilometre long Guangou Valley, the final barrier before entry into the North China plain, some 53 kilometres north of Zhongdu. During the Ming Dynasty, the famous Badaling section of the Great Wall was built at the north end of this valley. Badaling is the most popular tourist site of the entire wall, due to its preservation and proximity to Beijing. Indeed, it was this proximity to the capital that made it such a strategic pass, the final chokepoint before the open space of the Chinese plains. Therefore, even in the 13th century Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan) was strongly fortified with a large garrison, and the Mongols lacked any weapons to force it. So, Jebe Noyan fled before its impenetrable gate, and the defenders, eager to avenge their fallen comrades, sallied out to pursue. 30 kilometres from Juyongguan, Jebe (Zev) turned about and destroyed them. The mighty Juyongguan surrendered shortly thereafter.


    By the end of October 1211, Chinggis Khan was on the North China Plain, and all hell was let loose. Chinggis made a brief effort to besiege Zhongdu itself, but this great city was far too well defended, its walls defiant and unbreachable. Leaving a force to blockade Zhongdu, Chinggis sent his armies to ravage across the plain. One army captured the imperial horse herds, depriving the Jin of much of their cavalry.  From the Jin’s western capital, Xijingto (Shi-jin-to)their eastern capital, Dongjing (dong-jing) in Manchuria, those are modern Datong and Liaoyang respectively, Mongols armies pillaged and raided. Dongjing fell to Jebe Noyan through another expertly executed feigned retreat, while Xijing stood firm against the Mongols.


    Mongol armies withdrew back to Onggud territory in February 1212, loot and animals in tow, eager to give horses and riders a well deserved rest. The border passes they had fought so hard for were, somewhat surprisingly, left unoccupied. Why the Mongols chose not to garrison them is unclear- some suggest Chinggis had no ambitions beyond that initial raid, while others note that with the Mongols’ lack of administrative experience, attempting to hold territory at this point was foolish with the Jin still strong. The Jin, meanwhile, were left bloodied but still unbroken. The defeats at Huanerzui (Huan-er-zui) were horrific for the Jin, decimating their prized cavalry, but reinforcement Jurchen were called upon from Manchuria. Wei Shao Wang appointed Hushahu as Deputy Military Commander of the Empire and sent him to reoccupy the border forts, Juyongguan (joo-yong-guan) in particular. 


Suspicious that the Khitan population of Manchuria may align themselves with the Mongols, Jurchen colonists were sent amongst them, an act which ironically prompted the large Khitan revolt the Jin so feared. Led by Yelu Liuge (ye-lu liu-ge), within a few months he had not only submitted to Chinggis Khan, but also declared a new Liao dynasty with himself as king. The Tangut began to raid the Jin’s western frontier, the Song ended their tribute payments to the Jin, and famine began to break out in several provinces.  To top it off, the Mongols returned in autumn 1212 after resting their horses for the summer, but this campaign was cut short when Chinggis was injured by an arrow to the leg at Xijing, and forced to withdraw. 


    Famine, Tangut attacks and insurrection did not abate, and only continued to spread in 1213. In July or August of that year, a healed Chinggis Khan returned to Jin China. In the valleys south of Yehuling, towns and settlements fell or surrendered with alarming speed. On the road towards Juyongguan, at modern Huai-lai, Chinggis was met by a large army under the commander Zhuhu Gaoqi. Supposedly a force of 100,000, in the narrow valley they had no room to maneuver and were crushed by the Mongols. The survivors fled to the refortified Juyongguan, where the ground for almost 50 kilometres was said to be covered by caltrops. For a month, Chinggis waited before the fort, trying to lure the garrison out. Finally he withdrew and wisely, the garrison stayed in the fort. A small Mongol force was left to watch the northern mouth, while Jebe was sent through the hills, finally coming out south below the Juyongguan, where the fortifications had not been improved. Surprising the garrison, its Khitan commander panicked and surrendered, and by the end of October 1213, the road to Zhongdu was once more open. 


Things had developed rapidly in Zhongdu in the meantime. Hushahu had been ordered to remain in the city to defend it, though had spent the weeks before the Mongol return in 1213 hunting. When the Mongols returned to Juyongguan in September, a messenger had arrived from Wei Shao Wang to reprimand Hushahu for inactivity, but the panicked general killed the messenger. Now forced to act, he made his way to Zhongdu, overwhelmed the palace guards, captured and executed the emperor. He appointed Wei Shao Wang’s nephew, the 50 year old Wudubu, as Emperor, expecting him to be submissive. Hushahu’s arrogance and disrespect to the new emperor made him no allies in the court. He succeeded in defeating two Mongol raiding parties outside the walls in November, but fell ill. In Hushahu’s absence, Zhuhu Gaoqi was ordered to repulse the Mongols, on pain of death should he fail. Gaoqi failed, and hurried back to the palace before Hushahu could learn of it. Hushahu was captured and decapitated by Gaoqi, who was pardoned by Wudubu and made Vice-Commander of the Empire. 


The course of this political upheaval left the Jin leadership paralyzed for two valuable months as the Mongols broke through Juyongguan. With the Mongol army before Zhongdu, the new emperor sent Chinggis a peace offering in December 1213. Recognizing the weakness of the Jin, Chinggis left a small force to blockade the Jin, and then unleashed a massive onslaught across the north China plain, a three pronged assault across the whole of Hebei province, into Shanxi and western Shandong. “Everywhere north of the Yellow River there could be seen dust and smoke and the sound of drums rose to Heaven,” was how one Chinese writer described the offensive. Almost 100 towns fell to the Mongols, farmland was destroyed, and the Mongol reputation for both invincibility, and cruelty, blossomed. The Jin had been hamstrung, unable to retaliate. By February 1214, Mongol forces were converging on Zhongdu.


    While the Mongols had shown frightening success in the field and against less fortified settlements, Zhongdu was a different beast altogether. The Jin’s central capital since the early 1150s, now the site of modern Beijing, it had been keenly designed to withstand assaults. Built in a rough square, the city had almost 30 kilometres of stamped earthen walls 12 metres high. Over 900 towers were said to line these walls, lined with various types of defensive siege weapons. Before the city were three lines of moats, as well as four forts outside the main city, each with their own walls, moats, garrisons and supplies, connected to the main city by underground tunnels. The surrounding countryside had been stripped bare of not just food stores, but even stones and ties which could have been for projectiles. Each fort held 4,000 men, with another 20,000 manning the walls of the city itself. Zhongdu was well stocked, well fortified and well prepared for a siege.


    The Mongols, with their siege knowledge still in its infancy, were not without their own cards to play.  They had near total freedom of movement outside of the city, and now had begun to have their forces bolstered by desertions, especially among the Chinese and Khitans in the Jin military. Some of these deserters had brought along their own catapults, and captured engineers provided knowledge to construct more. At one point, the Mongols burst through a gate of Zhongdu, or were perhaps allowed in, as they found themselves surrounded, the street behind them set on fire. That party only escaped with heavy losses. Another assault was repulsed by the garrisons of the forts. It seems some sort of disease was spreading among Chinggis’ forces as the siege dragged on, and they must have started to become frustrated. In April 1214, Chinggis sent an embassy under a Tangut officer in his service with terms, entailing the submission of the Jin and the Emperor relinquishing his title. Wudubu refused to be demoted. Since Wudubu had no bargaining position beyond ‘we haven’t starved yet!’ Chinggis sent his envoys again, with the message:

    “the whole of Shandong and Hebei are now in my possession, while you retain only 

Zhongdu; God has made you so weak, that should I further molest you, I know not what 

Heaven would say; I am willing to withdraw my army, but what provisions will you make 

to still the demands of my officers?”


    Wudubu was finally convinced to come to terms, noting the reality of his situation. In May, 1214, the Jin Emperor capitulated. A daughter of Wei Shao Wang was sent in marriage to Chinggis, with 500 boys and girls for her retinue, and 3,000 horses, 10,000 liang of gold and 10,000 bolts of silk, which would have been a mighty caravan of tribute. For reference, 1 liang is equal to 50 grams. The Jin, who had once held the forefathers of Chinggis Khan in such contempt, were now his vassal, and Chinggis Khan withdrew back to Onggud territory, doubtless proud of his work. 


    What Chinggis Khan’s plans were from this point we will never know- perhaps he was to turn west, pursue those final few enemies like Kuchlug? Allow his men to grow fat and soft off the tribute from the Jin and enjoy his own retirement? Or perhaps, with his new vassals, march south against the Chinese Song Dynasty. But we’ll never know. For in June 1214, the anxious Wudubu, fearing himself too close to Chinggis Khan, made the ill-fated decision to abandon Zhongdu and flee to his southern capital, Kaifeng, in territory untouched by the Mongols and shielded by the mighty Yellow River. Shortly after his departure, he began to have misgivings over the 2,000 Khitans in his retinue, and tried to take their horses. The Khitans, like the Mongols, were skilled horsemen who prized their mounts. To take their horses was to take their legs, and they abandoned the fleeing Emperor, riding all the way north to Chinggis Khan in inner Mongolia. 


    When the Khan learned of this, he was incensed. This was the Jin Emperor breaking his word, violating the treaty in an action tantamount to preparation for future hostilies. South of the Yellow River, he would be beyond the authority of Chinggis Khan where he could plan further troubles. Zhongdu was left with a much smaller garrison and would now pay the price for Wudubu’s cowardice. In late summer the general Samukha, with Shimo Ming’an, and the 2,000 Khitans who had abandoned Wudubu marched to Zhongdu with perhaps 50,000 men. The city was reached around September 1214, and placed under siege. The garrison, forlorn but proud, stoutly manned their doomed walls. Even with it defenders reduced, an assault on the city’s mighty fortifications would be costly, so Samukha aimed to starve it out. 


    Wudubu hadn’t completely abandoned the city, and belatedly in early 1215 sent relief columns bearing foodstuffs and reinforcements to Zhongdu. The Mongols overcame these columns with ease, and sated their own hunger with the supplies meant for the people of Zhongdu. The noose only continued to tighten around the city. Those communities in the region still untaken were reduced: most of the Jurchen homeland in Manchuria had fallen to the Mongols and their vassal Khitan kingdom. One Jurchen commander in Manchuria, upon learning of Wudubu’s flight, deserted and founded his own kingdom in the far east of Manchuria. In the Shandong peninsula, a long simmering local uprising erupted quickly, commonly known as the Red Coats, who proved themselves staunch foes of the Jin government. Whatever Jin forces that remained had either joined the Mongols, or were already destroyed. North of the Yellow River, only a strip along it, and around Xijing in the west, remained under Jin rule. 


For Zhongdu, these happenings made the chance of reinforcement grow ever dimmer. Starvation was severe in the city. All possible animals were eaten, and accusations of cannibalism seem unfortunately probable. At one point, thousands of the city’s virgins were said to have thrown themselves from the walls, rather than suffer fate at the hands of the Mongols. The city’s leadership began to fight each other, with one top commander committing suicide, while another made his way through the blockade, arriving in Kaifeng where he was executed for desertion. 


    In June 1215, Zhongdu finally surrendered. Mongol troops let out their pent up frustration on the poor souls still within the city. Many thousands were slaughtered, every home and shop looted. Parts of the city were said to have burned for a month. So terrible was the slaughter that a Khwarezmian embassy passing the city a few months later was horrified to see piles of human bones surrounding the city, the ground greasy with human fat and disease rampant. Some of their embassy even fell ill and died as a result. 


    For the Mongols, it is interesting to note what anecdotes they took away from this tragedy. Chinqai, an officer of importance in the decades to come, climbed one of Zhongdu’s towers and sent an arrow in every direction. When Chinggis learned of the feat, he was so tickled by it that he granted Chinqai ownership of everything within the range of arrows. Chinggis Khan always found a particular joy in these sorts of acts. The event most fondly reported by the Mongols was when several officers attempted to bribe Chinggis’ adopted son, Shigi Qutuqu, in splitting the loot of the city between them. He declined, stating he could not take it, as it was all the possessions of the Khan. Such loyalty to the Khan was prized greater than all the treasures of China.


    There can be little doubt that the flight of Wudubu and destruction of Zhongdu a year later was an irreverseible blow to the prestige of the Jin Dynasty, alongside the obvious territorial losses. To many, coupled with years of natural disasters, disorders, and poor governance, the Mongol invasion and Wudubu’s abandonment of the north must have looked like the Jin had lost the Mandate of Heaven, the supernatural approval necessary to rule China. When Heaven rescinded its Mandate, it always awarded it elsewhere, and it seemed that Chinggis Khan had received its blessing. It should not be a surprise that the following years saw the desertions to the Mongols turn into a flood, and they were now able to staff their newly taken territory with loyal Chinese, Khitan and even Jurchen officials. Entire armies of Chinese were soon fighting for the Mongols to aid their conquest of China, something we will explore in detail in future.


    Zhongdu was left a shell of its former self, and was renamed ‘Yen’ or ‘Yenching’ by the Mongols. It remained an important command centre, but only began to return to real significance again when Chinggis’ grandson Kublai built a capital near the site. But that’s a few decades ahead of us. In the meantime, Chinggis Khan returned to his homeland and found himself distracted by uprisings and the pursuit of old enemies- a path which brought him, unintentionally, into a collision course with the Khwarezmian Empire to west. 


    In the next episode we will explore the first western movements of the Mongols, so be sure to hit subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!