Barbarians at the Gates 1. The Nightmare 元明哀
The Emperor has killed himself!
The Barbarians are at the gates!
~Words that would be repeated in 200 years.
Music: Dagger Society Suite
"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been." A statement uttered in 17th century China that even 400 years ago described the long detached and cyclical world view of the Chinese people~ or more precisely the Han people.
For them who had originated from the Yellow River and farmed by it for over 4000 years, dynasties will always rise, warfare (as they do) will always tear apart the state- Then, as a form of the nature of things proscribed by Daoism, the opposite of yin and yang will switch places and what is order will transform to chaos, and what is peace to war.
This scholarly truism reflected a certain innate privilege of the Han, a privilege that afforded them such detached observations. A privilege that outside people could only dream of: they were gifted with a bountiful land, strong defensible natural barriers, but most of all, they were always able to retain their sovereignty.
Times can change, invaders could come, but always~ the Han Chinese will remain where they are, ruling themselves in different incarnation of the Chinese empire that are differentiated only by Dynastic names.
Imagine that Rome had lived from 5th century onward, not only as the beating heart of Europe exclusively through the Catholic faith but also in its consistent bodily form for 2000 years onwards- where their classics are still relevant, so often referred to by the worthies of all the continent that over the millennium they are still simply known as "the classics," that their allusions are not referred back in some nostalgic Renaissance painting (that at best still gets it wrong,) but could be easily explained by the nearest subject of that nation beside you. Where it still had the powers of military and the continental power to play as kingmakers and persisted in the pampered world view of itself as the center of the cosmos. A dream that many people of that age~ the Balkan people, the Africans, and the Jews could only dream and re-dream.
For 3000 years, barbarians had come, had conquered parts of the Chinese polities for themselves, had established their versions of Chinese sounding dynasties and imitated the ways of the Han people, be they Huns, Gokturks, or Khitans, then, they were driven out, the land reclaimed by the natives in this cyclical fashion. But the Chinese people had never been conquered entirely and subjugated at the hands of a single foreign overlord.
The Foreign Khans
That all changed when Kublai Khan completed his conquest of all of Song Dynasty China in 1279, the Song was the last Chinese polity to fall to the Mongols after a grudging century of resistance, by the time of this feat, 4 great Khans had died, Genghis, Ogedei, Guyuk, and Mongke, had already conquered, depopulated, repopulated, reorganized, and finally ruled from the entirety of the middle east to Russia, from Korea to Bohemia for 40 years.
When it died, it died spectacularly amidst a burning sea, where 1000 ships burned along with a boy emperor and his court that drowned all around him. Like Dan no Ura, but with trebuchets, fire-ships and nearly ten times more soldiers burning. Climatically, when the battle was lost, and the Mongol marines are closing in on the Emperor's flagship, a loyal minister grabbed the 7 year old emperor and lept into the sea together, thousands of concubines and retainers would do so after.
To the Khan, the Empire, that had so long been divided, would be reunited under him.To the Han who had just lost their army, the familiar sovereignty that had been their constant for 4000 years was for the first time in foreign hands.
The Battle of Yamen, as it was known, cemented the last great phase of Mongol conquests in the world, Japan and Java would follow, but Kublai would not lead them personally, and when they failed due to typhoons and diseases respectively, were abandoned so long as they pledged tributes to him and acknowledged him as the ruler of China. They were colonial "tributary" affairs and did not take on personal dimensions of this particular conquest.
Yamen cemented Kublai as the undisputed and first ever full blooded foreign overlord over all of China, so legitimized that he eventually named his empire with a Chinese sounding "Yuan" dynasty. He would be part of China's history because he...has chosen to become China. In time, he insisted his new subjects to view him as their Emperor, of the same procession as the ancient worthies on account that he would fulfill the same ceremonial role as the Son of Heaven and the father of the nation.
Like the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty of the ancient times (who possessed some foreign blood before they fully assimilated into the Chinese culture, and also "assimilated" the Chinese culture to become more liberal and outward looking through their leadership,) Kublai himself was arguably the best candidate to take on this endeavor: a conduit of change.
He was himself perhaps the most scholarly of Mongol rulers (perhaps ever) and also the most "civilized" through a top tier 13th century education with the best tutors from 3 continents. His court was filled with artisans and dignitaries from Persia to Nepal, from the Latin nations (a certain Venetian trader) Tibetan medicine men, to Armenian postmen bringing news of his Khan rivals.
But it is purely because of this entrenched caste system of racial favoritism that his new people recieved the shaft. For in this cosmopolitan, pluralistic society, those first came (first conquered and obeyed) the Khan, was first "served" and thus their race retained the most dignities. And the entire power structure of the Yuan society was a racial totem pole of who the Mongols assimilated first and trusted the most.
~After them came the caste of skillful foriegners: merchants, dignitaries and artisans from Nepal, Persia, Armenia, and Tibet.
Worse yet still, slavery and indentured serfdom, which had been absent from China for nearly 600 years, returned to the land because of the Mongol rule. The southerners would bear this as a permanent caste to be used, and in time enserfed by their overlords in indentured servitude.
Kublai may have been many extraordinary personages to many who appreciated him, and to history itself just through his sheer force of personality. But to the southern Han Chinese, he was just what they had always thought he was: a truly foreign, conqueror whose colonial yoke simply must be broken when the time comes. And it seemed that the empire that had been so ill united, must divide.
Like himself, his early successors were enlightened in their own right, but foreign in manner and treatment of his people, and foreign still with their obsession with steppe politics that frequently sent sons to be drafted to fight afar while Mongol soldiers emptied out the granaries to be requisitioned for their contentions in the steppes.
This forced awkward symbiosis became downright untenable when the court was plunged into institutionalized corruption 20 years after the inauguration of the dynasty, and like the Great Leap Forward of the 20th century. There were many pockets of famine in the south but the court officials simply skipped to mention their occurrence (while skimming the profit of the grain tax) and when rebellions flared up, the court crushed them with the utmost savagery. Millions died in these series of negligence, that soon the southerners began to tacitly believe all of it was calculated. This seesaw back and forth eventually culminated in a series of simultaneous rebellions led by Han rebels aiming to reassert their extinguished legacy, and by 1368, nearly 90 years after the fall of the Song Dynasty, the Mongols were driven out. For the millions of Han Chinese, a native dynasty would again be a reality.
The Ming Reunification of China
The establishment and various organization of the newly risen Ming dynasty are talked in detail in one of my previous articles, as well as the imperial guards and secret assassins. Suffice to say that the new dynasty was vigorous, ambitious, and megalomaniacal.
I will briefly detail Ming's rise, but I would strongly encourage you refer to my other posts for more detailed reading of court life and the checks and balances that kept the empire running, as well as the fashion of its armors and the general construction of Ming armors.
The Ming was founded by Zhu Yuan Zhong, a peasant orphan who had lost both of his parents to the famines. Orphaned before he was a teen, he survived by begging near a Buddhist monastery, and associating himself with the many roving outlaw rebel bands that operated in the area. In many ways because of his grassroot origin and losses to famine he was the perfect avenger to challenge the Yuan. Over the years he was able to rise through their ranks and become one of the foremost rebel warlords in Southern China, after a climactic naval battle (Battle of Lake Poyang) involving nearly a million sailor/ marines with his arch rival in the region.
The practice of Kowtowing, or "to touch one's head" in kneeling submission while the court is in session, took practice during this period (while in the previous Han dynasties the officials stood and walked with the emperor.) The emperor also assumed great powers in intervening in cases with the power to punish and reprieve outside the laws proscribed to the realm. The absolutism so favored by the Khans is here to stay.
It's safe to say that "Han" Chinese culture of the scholarly class (where the power rested in men who had taken the Imperial Exam to become the new governors and magistrates~ the west referred to them as Scholar Bureaucrats or "Mandarins") again reasserted itself during this time. With the escape of the many Mongol officials that followed the last Yuan Khan's wake, the official staffing of the empire were again taken by the Han.
But despite these reassertion of "classical" Chinese traits, the dynasty also took on new ones. One is that the Emperors became increasingly relied on their Eunuchs for the administration of the empire concurrent to the scholar bureaucrats. They possessed such immense powers that some were entrusted as the virtual face of China on far reaching voyages around the world on massive treasure fleets:~ Check out: Zheng He's Voyages.
Muslims also rose in prominence in China during this period because of their support in helping the Emperor himself in his early days and also taking part in ridding off the Mongols. They would be elevated to important military and civil posts.
Trading, namely the exchange of silver with strange fair headed foreigners also rose in importance, the Spanish and the Portugese would establish towns of their own hear Hangzhou, and Macau, the Jesuits would also come to the Ming empire to proselytize the crucified savior who they claimed is also the living celestial King of all Man.
But perhaps the most importantly, the army's status rose to great prominence during the Ming. Forever seeing the Mongol rump state as an un-extinguished threat, the Ming kept a huge army that numbered well over 1,200,000. In 1388 they captured and sacked Karakorum, the capital of the Northern Yuan Khans.
For the Ming, who was born with an instinct of bitter hatred against the steppe invaders, who regarded it as a constant chip on their shoulders, nothing is more bitter than the memories of past humiliation, worse yet, the prospect of an unconquered horde coming back.
The Divide of the Ming
The first few generations of the Ming emperors, although forceful and domineering, was able to accomplish great results in the militaristic, diplomatic and cultural spheres. For through their acumen and forceful personality they were able to keep the levers and pulleys of the government work for their will, however this worked only as long as there are no entrenched parties.
But as the first century of the dynasty passed, court intrigues, the in-pass and then full blown infighting of the various cliques between the scholars and the eunuchs would grind the court into chaos. In fact, during the Tumu Crisis the Yingzong emperor was abducted by the Mongols in a surprise attack. And it is telling that he was befriended by his captor the Khan and was more afraid of being sent back to his younger brother, the sitting emperor.
This middle tier of Ming emperors were all meek compared to their energetic predecessors. Some found distraction in Daoist alchemy, others were endlessly tangled within the web of court politics while asserting little to no powers, enduring simply as pawns of either powerful officials or eunuchs. Nearly all of them did not live past their mid forties due to the high stress of daily rituals proscribed by their ancestor the Hongwu emperor, or died because of the intrigue they were too powerless to stop, all the while the empire's northern frontiers was detached piecemeal to various groups of steppe invaders.
Even the long reined Wanli emperor (Reign: 1572-1620,) who was raised in a relative austere and virtuous manner, succumbed to a great ennui of the constant stalemate and actively detached himself from the affair of state, sought comfort only in his harems. But trouble would follow him there too, several assassination attempts were made on him and against his favorite concubines. His reign would be longest among all the Ming emperors, and though he deftly aided Korea during the Imjin War and suppressed several rebellions, he let the dynasty decline because he thought it was his feeble protest against an endemic partisanship that he simply couldn't destroy himself.
From a modern perspective, the Wanli emperor also lived too long, he died in 1620 (merely 24 years before the collapse of his empire,) his sucessor reigned for only a month before dying, and his successor, reigned for only 7 years before dying at the age of 21. Interestingly, the 16 year old boy who continued after them might just have the curious mix of traits necessary to overhaul the waning empire.
The Dying Gasp
Much of this will echo my previous articles that dealt in detail with the rise of the Manchus and the fall of the Ming.
The 16 year old Chonzheng emperor rose to power in a time of immense strife. In his young brother's days, a whole swath of the empire's frontier rose in a massive rebellion against the imperial court. At its head was Nurhaci, a Jurchen warlord who had united all the various Jurchen clans into a great Kingdom in the north and rechristened them: the Manchus. The Jurchen has been auxiliaries of the Ming empire, and over the centuries had fought for the court as mercenaries and allies. Nurhaci belonged to the tribes that was less privileged than those who were frequently contracted with the Chinese court and has in fact, established himself in thwarting and destroying those allied clans of the Ming in his rise to power.
Chonzheng's brother, the sitting Tianqi emperor initially preferred to stay unattached to the brewing crisis, but when the warlord established total control in present day northern China, Nurhaci lead his newly christened Manchus south in a full scale invasion. The time to intervene was nigh.
Nurhaci tore through the first waves of Ming relief columns, despite being out numbered 4 to 1, Nurhaci demonstrated his strategic brilliance at the Battle of Sarhu by fighting the 4 converging armies piecemeal. Using high initiative and a tried system of trusted subcommanders he was able to pin the dispersed armies while swiftly attacking each yet isolated army with overwhelming assaults. The columns were scattered and the highly mobile Manchu riders won the day. Chonzheng watched as his brother and the nation's generals helplessly attempted to gather an army to relive the north, but rebellions had sprung up in the south, and manpower was needed to be diverted to that theater.
Within years, the whole of the Ming north belonged to Nurhaci, in the former beating heart of the Ming north, he proclaimed himself an emperor worthy of all of China, and donned the dragon robe of the emperor. There would be no great army to stop him between him and the capital. Within another year, the boy Ming Emperor's brother would die leaving the 16 year old to fend for the rattled empire's behalf. In the year of his accession, the Manchus stormed Korea and grinded their support of the Ming to a trickle.
But despite all that seemed to logically oppose him, the new emperor was his own man. Chonzheng's life, as stated by many Jesuits who had lived in China at time had the workings of a classical Greek tragedy.
Like Cassandra from Troy, he had long foresaw the decline of the empire with perfect clarity, and also realized that within such a crumbling system that was initially pioneered by a series of forceful warrior kings that it takes a heavy dose of Ming styled absolutism to pump blood back into the withered veins. In order to inhabit this authoritarian system, the mantle that is his own lineage, he must take down the partisan deadlocks, the disloyal traitors, and the scheming cliques all down to restore imperial dignity. He was idealistic, ambitious, and saw possibilities where his ancestors had only saw hopelessness. He was quiet but always confrontational, preferring to challenge things to its logical conclusions.
That, and the fact the boy emperor's mother was arbitrarily executed by his father when he was only 4 and secretly buried in an unmarked grave, or that all his other brothers had died in their childhood before him did nothing to alleviate his particular sway toward paranoia and ruthlessness~ one that ironically his empire needed at this time. His entire life he watched scheming power blocks lie and cheat to his father and brother, there were plots and covert assassination attempts, there were even imperial nurses and the highest ranking officials that he suspected had poisoned his brother, the same ones who acted as his illiterate father's nanny and fed him lies, forged self aggrandizing decrees in his name behind his father's back, and possibly killed his mother. No, he was very clear he was in a gilded nest of lying traitors.
Naturally, when he ascended the dragon throne, his first immediate prerogatives were to smash the power blocks of the scholar officials and the eunuchs. Where ever he saw concentration of power, he went after them under the prejudice that such cabals were always nests of corruption. To his early credits, his suspicions usually were confirmed. In the civil sphere, it looked like after 80 years of slow fragmentation, the imperial core was again able to wield enough power to restore vitality and loyal service to the bureaucracy.
But as fate would have it, by this great prejudice, he would also undo the most important pillar his empire would be rested on.
For when he turned his persecutions toward the army, he saw his most serious threats from the senior officer core. Especially the meteoric and beloved general Yuan ChongHuan.
Remember the unstoppable barbarian warlord outside the Empire's gates? No one imagined that a little known general heading toward the collapsing front would not only stop Nurhaci, but utterly destroy his army~ and the warlord himself. In the stunning defense of Ningyuan Pass, though severely outnumbered. Yuan's European cannons devastated the besiegers. Suddenly, the great Manchu army withdrew unilaterally along the frontier. Liaoning was recovered, the empire was saved.
The general was arrested on trumped up charges and was publicly executed by slow slicing, or death by a thousand cuts. The emperor had killed the only man who might realize his own dreams to restore the empire, by the very quality that had initially made him a promising autocrat. Thus ensuring the very damnation of the empire he had spend his life trying to save. He would be his own man, in so doing he would die alone as his own man.
The end came no more than a decade later. Massive rebellions have sprung up again in the south, and by this time, there was no Yuan ChongHuan, or much of anyone for that matter to throw themselves between the barbarians and the gate. A peasant warlord named Li ZiCheng, (just like the Ming founder Zhu YuanZhang) assembled a massive host of rebel peasants and assaulted Beijing directly. Stranded, Chongzhen was left with only a few eunuchs and imperial assassins.
Chongzhen, now 33, watched as the imperial gate had swung open without a fight, when he demanded an explanation of the events where were no ministers to report, the entire palace staff had fled, even most of the palace guards, as he watched the suburbs succumb to the soldiery, and the besiegers closing in toward the Forbidden City, after ordering his sons to escape, he gathered the rest of his family and like a Sandanapolus or...Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and demanded their suicides.
Then, he asked for the silk scarf from his attendant.
When the rebel soldiers finally found the hanging emperor, swaying from the "guilty scholar cypress" it was said that there is only a small wooden tablet inscribed "The Son of Heaven" by his side.
Did he thought of the last Song emperor before he perished? Did he thought of the irony, and cyclical patience his own people had long believed? The closing of a cruel circle in bitter imitation, where the unity and division converged, then slit apart while he lived and slipped away from his fingertips?
Music: Dagger Society
What did they say, how did they react when these new barbarians become almost more "Chinese" than they are?
Will be continued with the founding of Qing dynasty and the reign of the Kangxi Emperor next.
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