Manchu Conquest of China 2 清明決戦


For the millions of the native Han population, they would tell a drastically different story of the Manchu conquest of China. It would be one of the coming of strangers, and an echo of a nightmare they thought they once averted, they would again have to endure their ancestor's shames for another unknown eternity.

To many native Chinese of the 17th century the Manchus came as barbarian invaders. To the average subject of the empire, all they could make out was that a people on the boarders of their empire who had previously served as good mercenaries and vassals had rebelled in full force. Their own generals in the north had opened the mountain pass to the invaders and has thrown their weight behind the foreigners.


Twenty years and 30 million death (nearly half of Western Europe combined at that time, also greater than the whole of 17th century Africa) later, all of China would belong to the Manchu conquerors. The native's own dynasty, the Ming had fallen, and the Manchus had set up their own Chinese styled "Qing" dynasty. All men from nobles to subjects would be forced to wear the Manchu "ques," or ponytails as a sign or their subjugation. To the Chinese of this time all of this had seemed to be a dark echo from an earlier age, the memory of their own humiliation and subjugation at the hands of the Mongols was still bitterly echoed in their minds. Three century of security and sovereignty was over.

But for a while, the Ming did stood and resist the great horde. Even though the dynasty was financially broken, internally rife with court intrigue and great peasant rebellions, effective leadership of generals and the advantage of gunpowder held the invaders at bay. For 20 years since Nurhaci launched his campaign to subjugate all of China, the Manchu were held at the border by a shoe string army.


While the endless rebellions pockmarked the empire, the Ming was still able to field a relatively effective army with trained generals. Even after the Ming collapsed in 1644, a Ming loyalist general, Zheng Chenggong (or Koxinga as known in the west) would defeat a contemporary Dutch garrison armed with 17th century muskets and cannons and take Taiwan for his own and create an empire of renegade pirates

It was when Nurhaci's 50,000 army obliterated all of China's northern defenses that history remembered the name Yuan Chonghuan.


I think much of the world's history neglected this studious, Portuguese speaking gentleman who died a traitor's death in a thousand cuts at the hands of the very people he loyally protected. I think much of his story resonated of a Flavius Aetius, who confronted the Huns, with a dash of flavor of a Scipiio Africanus.


Yuan was curious, he grew up near bright haired and bright eyed foriegners in Guangdong, (Canton, or where Hong Kong is today in southern China) the usual port of call for nearly all sea-borne foreigners in China. Yuan grew up playing and speaking liberally with the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Dutch and learned much of their culture, of Christianity, and most importantly, the effective way of using "barbarian cannons."


He tried many times to apply himself as a scholar- official by taking the Imperial Exams but was rejected on a number of occasions. Having failed to attain a scholarly title, he satisfied himself with learning military arts, disassembling and modifying European cannons.



It was during this time the Ming traitors opened up the pass allowing Nurhaci and his great host to penetrate into northern China, also around the time when the Ming imperial army was utterly destroyed by Nurhaci in the disastrous Battle of Sarhu,




Yuan, at the time of the disaster only a minor magistrate of a county, toured the collapsing front and was quickly promoted to a second ranked secretary in the Ministry of War, and then almost instantly was raised to the full position of secretary and empowered with funds and privilege to raise his own soldiers. His rapid promotion was notable in that he had little to nearly no military training before and was only acquainted with the scholarly Confucian Classics for the Imperial Exam. For two years he drilled his army at Ningyuan Pass, working harmoniously with fellow commanders, but when the court ordered a general withdraw from the front and replaced several of his comrade commanders, he refused to leave.



Seeing the massive pullout along his entire border, Nurhaci crossed the Liao River in the early spring of next year with some 140,000 bannermen and found the whole front deserted, save the small fort city that had no more than 9,000 militias standing in his way. Like many Ming generals he bribed, Nurhaci sent a letter with a bribe encased within, his reply was an essay written entirely with Yuan's own blood rebuffing any of such talk.

Impressed, Nurhaci nonetheless attacked with his full force 20 days later, but what they found was a wall ringed with European cannons, behind the greater ones that outranged anything he had, there were also smaller guns, swirvel guns and wall guns mounted on tripods that overlapped each other. It was the ideal terrain for a defense centric commander, and Nurhaci have nothing that could counter such threat. Each step the Manchu advances would be met with another series of ranged weapons, worse yet, Yuan had scorched all the neighboring lands, stockpiling the fort with all the provisions so there was nothing left for the besiegers.



Hordes and hordes of Manchu warriors dismounted and assaulted the tall walls, and hordes and hordes were cut down by the overlapping fire. Not even their camps dugged in the distance was safe from the fire from the great European fires.

The Manchus tried to shield their assault with mobile wooden pavises on wagon wheels, they even deployed metalic ladder shields to protect the ascending soldiers on scaling ladders but these bore little protection against the city's fire power.


Thousands of Manchu soldiery was cut down including their great Khan. Nurhaci was either shot while he commanded from his mare or grazed by a cannon blast while he was touring the trenches. Bleeding and severely wounded he was carried off the field, his army quickly followed suit in full retreat.

Nurhaci would die two days later near Mukden from his wounds. Thus a meteoric career marked by mastery of statecraft and a slew of miraculous victories against series of numerically superior foes would end anticlimactically facing against a foe of armed peasants no more than a tenth of his army. This was to be his first and final defeat.


Following Nurhaci's death, his eighth son, Lord Hong Taiji succeeded him as the Khan of the Manchu nation. Yuan, meanwhile, took to the offensive and reconquered key Ming strongholds in the lost lands, strengthening a series of forts along the Manchu invasion path the same manner as Ningyuan. A year passes after the debacle, and Hong Taiji tried his chance against Yuan at Ningyuan with another army, this time numbering nearly 200,000 and equipped with much more siege weapons. This army, although numbered nearly half time as much as his father's with the impressed soldiery from the recently subdued Korean kingdom was also destroyed by Yuan's garrison. Yuan was able to effectively secure all of North China and bolster it into a staging point for counter-offensives into the heart of Manchuria.


Unable to defeat Yuan on the field (in fact the Manchus would never defeat the garrison in battle in the next 20 years) Hong Taiji resorted to intrigue to plot the downfall of his nemesis.

In 1627, a 16 year old Emperor ascended the Ming throne. The Chongzhen Emperor was an extremely idealistic and ambitious emperor who launched a serious of reforms aimed at destroying corruption and root out treacherous ministers, but he was also extremely paranoid. Initially he trusted Yuan's successive victories, and sent much aid in securing the north. However by 1629, the jealous eunuchs at court have smeared his name enough in the emperor's ears to make him suspicious of the ever victorious general.



Hong Taiji noted this distrust, and fed on the opportunity. In one of his ambushes he captured a high ranking Ming general, and during the man's imprisonment, Hong ordered the jailers to talk about Yuan as if he has been instrumental in feeding Ming troop movements to the Manchus, saying that he was ambitious to create his own principality, and would defect to the Manchus anytime in the near future. Then, Hong created situations where the general would escape from his captivity and return to the Imperial court to "warn" of Yuan's treachery.

That winter, the Manchus circumvented Yuan's entire north and breached the Great Wall the west of Shanghai pass. Diving radically down toward the Ming imperial capital. When Yuan heard of this sudden maneuver, he raced from Ningyuan with a harden core of elite soldiers, reaching Beijing days before the Manchu attack and routed an army numbering over 100,000 barely outside the city's walls, but failed to destroy the Manchu army. Though he foiled the surprised invasion, when Yuan entered the imperial capital the whole court was against him. During an audience with the emperor he was arrested, many eunuchs accused him of corruption and many even labeled him with collaborating with then enemy.

Despite almost no evidence against him, Yuan was sentenced to death by a thousand cuts. He would be cut up in public before nearly a million accusing eyes, and then he would have all his titles posthumously stripped. When he was asked his last words, he uttered the poem:


一生事業總成空,半世功名在夢中。死後不愁無將勇,忠魂依舊保遼東!

"A life's work always ends up in vain; half of my career seems to be in dreams. I do not worry about lacking brave warriors after my death, for my loyal spirit will continue to guard Liaodong."


It seemed that Yuan had knew the portent of the great despair to come, the coming of strangers, the thirty million screams of his dying countrymen, and the fate of his people, moving from foreign oppression to existential crisis for untold centuries to come.

It took the great general half a day to die from his wounds, until in the end, the headsman struck off his head.

A loyal retainer stole the head from the flagpole and buried it outside Beijing's margins (risking his entire family's fate). The soldier's family, his children would live there for the next 400 years, their houses would be grafted around that humble mound for 17 generations as the world changed and changed again. As China moved from suspicion of their Manchu overlords to embracing them, to the coming of strangers with prismatic eyes and hairs from beyond the seas, to national humiliation under them, to the overthrow of the Manchus, the establishment of the Republic, to the Warlords, Nationalists, and Communists, from the paranoid purges of Mao's 50s to the iconoclastic Cultural Revolution of the 60s and the 70s. The soldier's clan remained beside the mound, until finally in 2010, the site was converted into a national monument.


Comments

  1. You stopped updating. I like the artwork.

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    1. Thanks! I should really get back to it have I? Thought no one read those pieces, but apparently there are peeps interested!

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