Jinyiwei: Ming Elite Guards 錦衣衛 1. Bloodhounds




The Jinyiwei 锦衣卫, (literally "brocade clad guards)- were elite bodyguards and secret police that directly served the Ming Emperors. Functionally they were reminiscent of the Roman Praetorian Guards, and the Shinsengumi at the twilight of Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate. 

The Jinyiwei was founded by the Hongwu Emperor in 1368 to serve as his personal bodyguards and it developed into a military organisation the following year. They were authorized to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions, with full autonomy granted in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles and the emperor's relatives~ in time they would become synonymous with imperial assassins. 

The Jinyiwei were also tasked with collecting military intelligence on the enemy and participated in battle planning stages. A Jinyiwei is distinguished by his distinctive dragon embroidered uniform, an ivory tablet (非象牙腰牌) worn on his torso, and a special blade (繡春刀.)

A military official in court robes. Most of the guard captains would have worn similar attires~ 
including the hat of an mandarin official designating his rank. 

The Jinyiwei was created as a direct result of the centralized nature of Ming monarchy. The Hongwu Emperor, the progenitor of the dynasty had always felt that what had led to previous Chinese dynasty's decline was unchecked infighting, factionalism, and rampant corruption that fundamentally weakened the court from within. In every such cycle, the poor's plight were blocked from the supreme rulers of the land, the essential truths from the provinces were tampered with, the powerful factions would monopolize power while leaving the empire blind and misguided, ultimately culminating in the destruction of the empire. To prevent this, he must be assured that he can always pierce the veil of misinformation.


Details of the brocade robes worn by the guards~ Note that they were one of
the few group of people privileged enough to don golden robes (usually reserved for the
emperor himself and his family members) ~ and to have the sacred dragon emblems sown on
their uniforms. They had originally started as honor guards, but slowly became a 
secret police solely loyal to the emperor. At the end of the dynasty they were virtually 
a vast intelligence bureau of their own.

The Hongwu emperor (Hongwu, 洪武 being his imperial title, meaning "martial tide," or "a deluge of force" similar to Augustus Caesar, his last name is Zhu) had been born a peasant named Zhu YuanZhang and had lost both of his parents to famine in his infancy. When he was a child, China was still ruled by the mongol overlords~ who had by this point became both inept and tyrannical, often ignoring the famines in southern China that led to millions of deaths. In the emperor's youth he had lived a shockingly destitute existence, from a penniless beggar, to an urchin hooligan, until he ended up at the head of one of the many rebel armies sick and tired of the Mongol yoke. Thus when he finally ascended to the throne, he was fully aware of the cyclical plight of the lowborn and the threat of a bickering, lying court filled with privilidged officials' intrigue. 

The Jinyiwei walking directly before the emperor (off screen) in the procession

To him: if he does not lead at the front, forcing his dictatorial edits across the empire, he'd be letting the imperial power delegate itself out of existence, (as it had been for countless "soft" dynasties before him.) To do something that lasts, forge a dynasty that lasts, and have works for the peasants done "right," with constant supervision, he would need enforcers and informers. 

He needed a force directly loyal to him that could step in and exert imperial power~ whenever there are too many factions deadlocking policies or whenever there are too many contradictory reports from untrustworthy frontiers. The Jinyiwei would act and serve as his private eyes and ears and would pierce the cocoons of lies around the court to provide direct reports "for His Majesty's eyes only." 


Multiple views of the Jinyiwei uniform, the dragon robe, the sword and the cap

The earliest days of the Jinyiwei was just that, a loyal cohort of bodyguards~ similar to the Praetorian guards or the Ottoman Janisarries that fought regularly in the field in conjuncture with campaigns. When Zhu YuanZhang was still consolidating his power in the massive rebellion against the mongol emperors, the Jinyiwei served as his aides and defended him on his campaigns.


But over time, their roles and their numbers changed accordingly to the politics of the dynasty. After Zhu founded the Ming dynasty and became the Hongwu Emperor, he doubted his general's loyalties and was constantly on guard against possible rebellions and assassinations. One of the early duties of the Jinyiwei was to help the emperor spy on his ministers. The Hongwu Emperor increased the Jinyiwei's duties later, allowing them to inspect his officials at work in the capital city, before formally establishing the organisation in 1382, with about 500 members. Their numbers increased to around 14,000 in three years.


By now it had become amply clear they have became a corp of assassins and secret police that actively hunted down disloyal generals and suspected ministers in broad daylight. Their garrisons and barracks were soon expanded with prison cells and interrogation rooms. In time, their operation was given free reign to prosecute any officials on their own initiative within minimal imperial oversight. 

Over these years, they would be feared throughout the empire: for the modern reader~ their singular zeal to their master, their prosecution of all their master's enemies would conjure up images of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniks~ all dreaded bloodhounds sniffing after hidden foes. 


However, in 1393, after presiding two decades over their service, the Hongwu Emperor suddenly reduced the Jinyiwei's duties after they allegedly abused their authority during the investigation of a rebellion plot by Lan Yu, in which nearly 15,000 people were implicated and summarily executed (some sources claims 40,000). From then on, the guard corp languished under close imperial supervision. For the remainder of the Hongwu Emperor's reign they acted as little more than glorified policemen. 

Despite this reversal, in the chaotic decades to come, the Jinyiwei would rise again to new savage heights. 



Leap attack and draw slash with 繡春刀, there are a numbers of disagreements among
historians as to the exappearance of the blade, except the fact that it is curved. Some 
versions proposed a reminiscent of the curved sabers shown above in the Ming painting
while others point to the fact that the Ming records have described them with a 
long handle~ so long that it was described as a pole~

Two possible versions of the Jinyiwei saber, one possesses a longer handle.


To be continued in Part 2. 


Comments

  1. If my memory serve, Jinyiwei's mandarin hats are without flaps.

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    1. That's what I thought until I perused back some of the ancient scroll paintings. I had always thought that just like the eunuchs, the top ranking commanders could maintain their original hat- style (since they are so unique and autonomous) but there are quite number of guard uniformed officers with both the boa- constrictor- dragon uniform and a mandarin hat with flaps~

      http://pic.baike.soso.com/p/20131221/20131221160134-2125809544.jpg

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