UNIT: Ming Liaodong Mongol Cavalry 辽东蒙古骑兵 Part 1 Ruin

Mongol cavalryman of the Liaodong garrison located on the northeastern frontier of the Ming Empire. He wears a standard Ming cavalryman's brigandine armor which featured iron plates sewn on the inside and armguards reminiscent of the Roman Manica. In terms of weapons he carries a curved cavalry saber and recurved composite bow. His most distinctive weapon is the multi-barreled "Three Eyed Gun" with long stock designed for firing from horseback.

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The Ming dynasty was perhaps the single dynasty that possessed the greatest enmity for the Mongol hordes north of its boarders. But even during those intensely strife- filled times, the Ming cooperated with many Mongol Khans beyond the Great Walls and hired tens of thousands of Mongol soldiers in its ranks. A sizable contingent of Mongol auxiliary served the Ming along the wide expanse of its its northern garrisons. 



The strategically vital Liandong 辽东 Peninsula circled in gold: Liaodong was a critical stopping point for all traffic in northeastern China beyond the inner perimeter of the Great Walls. It was a secure harbor that also acted as a supply depot for trade between Ming China and Korea. During the mid, late Ming it jutted out as a lone isolated fortress that bordered all the main powers of the region. To the north laid the lands of the Jurchen (future Manchus) to their north west laid the various Mongol Khanates, to their east laid the Korean Kingdom of Joseon. Whoever controlled the peninsula exerted control of the protected harbor of the Bohai Sea. 

Many in the west who had some knowledge of medieval China may find it strange to discover Mongol warriors serving the Ming dynasty while defending the Great Wall, but before we continue it is critical that we look at the political dynamics of the region not through a nationalist Post- Westphalian perspective but rather that of the feudal vassal and overlord dynamics of the era. It is also important that we hold the vital truth that both the Mongols and the Chinese have always been multi-ethnic states that was composed of many ethnic minorities. 


Covering over 11,000,000 km2 (or 4,200,000 sq mi,) territorially, the Yuan dynasty was one of the largest Chinese dynasties, second only to the Qing

Many of us are well familiar of the splendid empire of Kublai Khan, but few are aware of the details of its ultimate fall and the prolonged fratricide suffered by the grandchildren of the Khans. 

In 1344 calamity struck the Yuan dynasty during its twilight days, the Yellow River shifted course and flooded over vast swaths of Central China. Whole areas as large as several European nations combined were inundated and whole communities were blasted away in the mammoth torrent. In total, 7 provinces were ruined, the whole heartland and breadbasket of China was devastated. 

Millions died from the starvation all while the avalanche of muddy water barreled southward in a unceasing gout until it found a new exit some 260 miles at the south end of the modern Shandong Province. The Mongol overlords were powerless to help, and millions would continue to die as a consequence of this national catastrophe. This would be one of the many dominoes that would completely unseat the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Within a decade there would be several great rebellions across southern China, and within two and a half decades the Yuan would be completely driven out of China by its native rebels. The great flood alone was but one of a long series of factors that contributed to the uprising against the Yuan. 

Worldly, sagacious, and ambitious, Kublai Khan was perhaps the single most influential political figure of the the 13th century world. Educated by the foremost Persian, Chinese and Eurasian polymaths he received a level of education that was the envy of nearly all of his contemporary monarchs. The empire that he created in his image reflected his ambition to consolidate the many distinctive people that existed in his domains into a new cosmopolitan identity. He was a great Khan who ruled a newly stylized Sinicize dynasty called "Yuan," whose court was staffed with the best Nepalese artists, Tibetan Lamas, Mongol generals, and Chinese Mandarins. But despite his unequal achievements, he also enshrined many restrictive and oppressive policies toward the citizendry of the vanquished Song dynasty in southern China which one day would lead to the massive rebellion that expelled his successors from China.

Although the Yuan were multi-cultural and was tolerant of all faiths and races, it also had a restrictive racial caste system that hierarchically placed the native Han Chinese at the bottom of the society. The likes of horse-lords such as the Mongols, Turks, even ostensibly foreigners such as the Nepalese and Tibetans benefited at the top and middle of the society and were enrolled in its army and bureaucracy. Northern Han Chinese were barred from having military power, and were restricted beneath the aforementioned races- they were also forbidden from marrying such more privileged races. Southern Chinese (the remnants of the vanquished Song) were subjected to even more restrictive racial restrictions. Not only were they barred from having any political power but they were also forbidden entrance into the rungs of their own local civilian governments as well. Taxes against those already oppressed groups were crippling, and many were sold into slavery because of these debts. 


Music: The Gods Duel

From the late 1340s onwards, people in the countryside suffered from frequent natural disasters such as droughts, floods and the resulting famines, and the government's lack of effective policy led to a loss of popular support. Those who cannot pay taxes were sold into slavery by the Mongols or left to starve, whole regions perished in these great famines. Worse yet- when the great flood happened in 1344, much of the grain reserves were transferred from the local areas to the northern provinces, and those who resisted the confiscations were massacred by the government. Millions in the south would die- leaving whole regions that were already depopulated and deeply resentful of the Yuan overlords (and still loyal to the vanquished Song) to rise up in full flung rebellion

To them, the great flood might as well have been a sign from Heaven itself- to signify once and for all for a change in the world order. And it was one of those suffering southerners, a peasant beggar named Zhu Yuanzhang who had lost both of his parents to the great starvation that would one day eject the last Yuan Khan in 1368 and establish his own Ming Dynasty. 

Gruff, authoritarian, but also diligent, Zhu Yuanzhang (the future Hongwu Emperor) rose from a penniless beggar who lost both of his parents to starvation to become one of the greatest warriors of the 14th century. From illiterate beggar to rebel to warlord to emperor, his life was a kaleidoscope of strife and harsh measures. Because of his early sufferings he had the bearing of a cheerless career soldier. 

However, it was also because of the suffering that he had personally witnessed that Hongwu Emperor would spent his entire life sympathizing with the little farmers and punishing corrupt officials with equal diligence. Often Zhu would give liberal tax breaks and stipends to the peasantry while killing suspected corrupt officials in the thousands. Zhu would spend most of his tenure as emperor in the saddles and would seek to force his children to emulate his back breaking work schedule. Scholars have suggested it was this extremely demanding work schedule that led to the early death of many Ming emperors. At least half of the Ming emperors would die relatively early in their middle ages. 

A realm in flames: Ming boarders (gold) superimposed over the territories of the Yuan dynasty (gray) at its greatest extent. Tibet and Korean marked with white streaks. Ultimately the Yuan holds twice dwarfed the Ming even at its greatest extent. After the great Khan lost most of his lands south of the steppes, the Ming would take the war directly to the steppelands. Orange marked areas where Mongols princes eventually pledged fealty to the Ming.

In 1370 the Yuan remnants retreated north until it receded back into the steppe lands of modern Mongolia, where Kublai's name "Great Yuan" (大元) would formally carried on and they would continue to call themselves "Emperor of China," though for historical distinction is would be known as the "Northern Yuan" dynasty because they lost most of their core administrative centers and diverse population. According to the traditional Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate dynasty whose rulers were blessed by Heaven to rule as Emperor of China, thus the Ming denied the Yuan remnants' legitimacy as "Emperors of China," but the Ming did consider the previous Yuan which it had succeeded to be a legitimate Chinese dynasty. During the rise of the Ming, Zhu Yuan Zhang (the new Hongwu Emperor) and his sons would vigorously attack the Northern Yuan forces.  


Although the Yuan Emperors 大元可汗 (Yuan Khans) were driven beyond the boarders outlined by the arable lands of northern China, by no means were the Mongol people collectively driven out of China. The Mongol royal family that stayed in China surrendered and eventually settled in the Henan region of central China, they would become farmers and their descendant would remain there today. 

A great number of Mongols under Yuan Prince of Liang also established a separate pocket of resistance to the Ming in Yunnan and Guizhou, but his forces were decisively defeated by the Ming in 1381- it was here that the future Admiral Zheng He (of the Treasure Fleets) would be castrated when his Muslim pro- Mongol loyalists clashed with the pro- Ming Muslims warriors. Mostly, however, the influx of Mongol recruits into the Ming army would come from beyond the frontiers- for in the aftermath of Yuan's expulsion, civil wars and inter- dynastic strife would break apart the Mongolian political world. In the not so distant future the steppes would cracked open like a massive egg shell. 


Middle: a fractured political landscape of the Mongol world in the 14th-17th centuries, though the Northern Yuan nominally held sway over the steppe lands north of the Ming, in time it was challenged by other ambitious Khans from within. The Oriats (or western Mongols) eventually rose up and openly defied the authority of the Yuan Khans, the cycles of civil wars and inter tribal subjugation would lead to the east and some central factions of the Mongol princes to ally with the Ming. Above: artwork by the extremely talented BurenErdene Altankhuyag depicting a Mongol civil war in the late 13th century, please check out his gallery on ArtStation.


To say the Ming had a chip on its shoulders would be a massive understatement, the Ming was born in vengeance and fear. From their perspective, so long as the Yuan were able to regroup and re-exert their claims on the Chinese lands and reassert their status as deposed Emperors through victories, their own regime would be direly threatened, their progress reverted. Thus Hongwu Emperor vigorously attacked Northern Yuan in not less than half a dozen northern campaigns. Although the Mongols were able to achieve some victories in order to stop Ming advances north, in the 1380s, the Hongwu Emperor was able to score a decisive victories that turned whole hordes to join the ranks of the Ming. After dislodging the final resistance of Yuan loyalists in Yunna, the Ming swept northward and broke apart Yuan garrisons in Manchuria. Bolstered by this successful campaign, the Hongwu Emperor ordered General Lan Yu to lead 150,000 men on a military campaign to directly challenge Toghus Temur, the Khan of the Mongols. 

In 1388, the Hongwu Emperor was able to decisively ambush the personal army of the Tögüs Temür by the Lake Buir near the Ming/ Northern Yuan boarder and capture nearly the entirety of his court, including 100 close family members of the Northern Yuan Khan (including the younger prince of the clan), 3000 princes and their subordinates, 77,000 men and women from the horde, various imperial seals of office, and 150,000 domesticated animals, but the Khan and his Crown Prince managed to escape. This miraculous escape would little benefit Tögüs Temür as soon after his flight he was murdered by another Mongol rival contender for the Northern Yuan throne named Yesüder. 

The death of Tögüs Temür effectively (and irrevocably) destroyed the unity that the Northern Yuan regime held over all the hordes of the steppes. And it was in the aftermath of this disintegration of central authority in Mongolia that the Mongol world imploded into civil war and anarchy. With the weakening of Yuan forces in eastern Mongolia, another great power rose to challenge for supremacy in the steppe lands, the Oriats (or the Western Mongols.)


The Mongols were peerless mounted warriors of the 14th century world, many Mongol auxiliaries would fight in their traditional manners of warfare (i.e. nimble mounted horse archers with medium armor.) The garrisons that fought on the Liandong area- or the Northern Army of the Ming, would be issued the powerful multi-barreled "three eyed guns" with spear stocks.


With the assassination of Tögüs Temür by Yesüder, the steppes descended into a period of endless warfare and anarchy. The following century saw a succession of Chinggisid rulers, many of whom were mere figureheads put on the throne by those warlords who happened to be the most powerful. From the end of the 14th century there appear designations such as "period of small kings" (Бага хаадын үе) for this period in modern historiography. On one side stood the Oirats (or Western Mongols) in the west against the Eastern (Khorchin) Mongols.

The assassination of Tögüs Temür created a series of succession crises in the Mongol realm. From the end of the 14th century on there were inter factional wars among the various Mongol hordes. On one side stood the Oirats (or Western Mongols) in the west against the Eastern (Khorchin) Mongols. Another force in the giant battle royale was the House of Ogedei who briefly attempted to reunite the Mongols under their rule. 

While the Oirats drew their side to the descendants of Arik Boke and other princes, Arugtai of the east supported the descendants old Yuan khans. Another force in the giant battle royale was the House of Ogedei who briefly attempted to reunite the Mongols under their rule. The Mongols split into three main groups: Western Oriat Mongols, the Mongol groups under the Uriankhai in northeast, and the Eastern Khorchin Mongols between the two. Because of the threat post by the powerful Oriats, even the descendants of the Northern Yuan would seek Ming support in their struggles.

Ming brigandine armor with 护心镜 mirror plate. Iron plates are laced and sewn on the inside. These armor usually afforded a great deal of protection and flexibility, it's one of the main reasons they were widely adopted by the horsemen of the era. 

Detail of a cavalryman's segmented armguards. These were a distinctive feature of Ming armors and were see throughout the dynasty. The design offered a comfortable yet flexible solution for arm protection- allowing the users to fire bow and wield two handed weapons with relative ease.


The Uriankhai and some eastern Borjigin princes (of the Northern Yuan) surrendered to the Ming dynasty in the 1390s and pledged their fealty as allies and wardens of Ming's north. Öljei Temür Khan- the subsequent Northern Yuan Khan would officially drop his hereditary claims as the Emperor of China and conclusively end the claims to the Chinese hold south of the boarder. With binding treaties and official gesture of good will from the Mongols, nearly half a century of wars were finally concluded between the Ming and the Mongol Khans. For the next 25 years the boarders between the steppe lands and the northern farmlands were marked with a general peace with only minor instances of raids and outlawry. With this alliance, comes proper Mongol auxiliaries into the Ming ranks. 

Suddenly, there was peace in the northern spine of the Ming empire. With this fresh peace, the Ming separated those who joined the Ming into Three Guards: Doyin, Tai'nin and Fuyu. From now on the Ming would possess a reliable and sizable contingent of tens of thousands of Mongol allies and auxiliaries. Peace finally arrived along the Ming/ Mongol frontier.

Northeastern China, the historical region of Manchuria and boundaries of modern provinces of Liaoning (circled) Jilin, and Heilongjiang marked in dark yellow in the east. The eastern portion of Inner Mongolia marked in beige. During the Ming the Jurchen and the Mongols served as Ming allies in the regions of Liaoning (Uriankhai) Jilin and Heilongjiang (Khorchin,) while much of the Inner Mongolia served as a buffer against the endless civil wars of the steppes. The fortress of the Liaodong garrison marked with "軍" it would become the most important Ming settlement beyond the inner Great Walls~ 沈阳中卫. Eventually the garrison would become the modern city of Shenyang.

Follow us next chapter where we discuss the Liaodong Garrison and Ming's Northern Army, Ming cavalry tactics, and the advanced equipment of those mounted frontier warriors. 

Stay Tuned

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Der said…
Excellent article again!

I hope you will cover the reign of the Yongle Emperor, and his campaigns against the Mongols. These are some of the most epic battles in Chinese (and I guess Mongol) history! Didn't the troops of his father in law, the general Xu Da, reach the most northern point in Siberia that any Chinese army has ever reached? I wonder what that campaign was like for the average Chinese cavalryman in Xu Da's army. Also, what are your thoughts on Tamerlane's attempted invasion of China during Yongle's reign? Could Timur the Lame have succeeded in overthrowing the Ming?
Dragon's Armory said…
Yes I will, Yongle's active campaigns against the Mongols were some of the biggest and least covered wars of the entire 15th century. It really frustrates me to my core that the majority of West's coverage of military history is a circle jerk that keeps ignoring China from the ancient to the medieval periods. Given how the western narrative is a global default, I am often saddened that a culture as ancient as the Hebrews, as dominant as the Romans, as influential as the Vatican, and as relevant in the modern world as USA is repeatedly ignored and not covered.
Dragon's Armory said…
As for Tamerlane, I actually talked about this a lot in private with other Chinese history enthusiasts. My take is that he should concentrate most of his efforts on winning the northern Yuan remnants and turn them southward in a coalition while he uses their land for his troops then dive down together from the wide naked expanse of Ming's backside. The western approach is filled with too much desert- thus attrition for his massive supply lines and he would have trouble breaking into the Gansu Corridor.

My take is that the most he will reach is the Tarim Basin and some of the steppelands in SW Mongolia, but after that he will severely have problems maintaining his supply lines. He will not break into China proper because the Ming Weisou garrisons (like the Sui-Tang Fubing) were endless lines of military farmer- garrisons. He might break into 1-2 or 5 lines but he will keep run into them. This is how the USSR slowed down German offenses and penetrations: Defense in Depth.

Simultaneously, despite the early loss and slow mobilization of the Ming (they are very slow to organize a campaign because the commanders are assigned rather than locally pooled, the troops needed to be customized for the campaign etc and refitted for the campaign) but once the war fully get going the Ming will repel them back. At most it will probably end as a Status Quo Antebellum while Timur pulls west to address some rebellions that sprung up in Shiite lands or Anatolia. Given how many people all rebelled after his death Timur had no chance turning his attention to the east for that long, especially against such a unified entrenched foe.

Think about it, just in terms of supply lines, food production, and taxation the Ming are sitting on some of the best pools of incomes in the entire 15th century world. Fighting this close to their home turf, especially under the early leadership of its warrior- Emperors. The Ming will do quite good. The Hongwu and Jianwen Emperor pooled over 1,000,000 soldiers along the Mongolian boarders alone man.
Der said…
Thank you for the in depth response.

I can't wait for your take on the early Ming campaigns of Yongle. His father in law reportedly reached Lake Baikal.

But Tamerlane was a military genius, defeating foes from the Golden Horde in Russia to the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid Thunderbold at the battle of Ankara and he was never defeated. How does he stack up to Yongle do you think? Yongle was a competent general, but was he a genius like Timur? How do the Timurid forces stack up to early Ming forces in terms of weapons, organization and strategy/tactics?

Also, regarding Timur's invasion of China, your suggestion of Timur allying with the Yuen Remnant would not have panned out I think. For some strange reason, Timur, the self declared heir of Genghis Khan NEVER had very good relations with the same true heirs of Genghis. The Chagatai of Mogulistan were is eternal enemies, he crippled the Golden Horde in Russia (leading to the rise of the Slavs of Muscowvy), and he never reestablished the Illkhan hegemony in Persia, usurping them instead. I think he would not have gotten along with the Yuan Remnant as a result, in fact, they'd be enemies.

I find the historical anecdote about Ming officials visiting Timur in Samarkand and being treated like shit interesting. The Ming were probably arrogant and demanded Timur make tribute to the Ming and abase himself as the Ming vassal tributary. I think Timur almost had them executed. This incident is recorded by the Spanish ambassador Clavijo I think. The Ming always called Timur the 'Son in Law' of the House of Genghis, since Timur took wives from the bloodline of Genghis Khan to bolster his own claims to the world conqueror.
Dragon's Armory said…
Timur is a genius, yes, but I know for sure that when he dies his empires crumbles like a house of cards or even faster than Alexander's. Remember that Alexander himself was a genius as well.

Timur may have had top level cavalry and artillery in the entire 15th century world but the reason I raised the example of German advances into Russia and USSR defense in depth is because the Germans were the best equipped army probably in the world but were still delayed then exhausted by lines of seemingly endless Soviet entrenchments. I honestly don't think Yongle or Hongwu was in the same league as Timur because he fought many realms and faced many armies and still came out on top. But look at the objectives: Timur has to make enough gains in order to have a steady footfold and pool of supplies to sustain his soldiers or else each victory is still a loss for his manpower, meanwhile all the Ming has to do is to absorb the blow and attrition the enemy to death.

I'm also pretty sure once Anatolia realized Timur is getting bogged down too deep in Ming lands they will declare a full scale rebellion so once that happened the empire might crumble during Timur's lifetime.
春秋戰國 said…
Actually, it's likely that Timur did not have any gunpowder artillery - except maybe naptha hand grenade. None of his enemies had either, for that matter.
Dragon's Armory said…
1. No. The Ottomans had made use of the cannons by the 1400s, though some were only hand cannons, their hand cannoners were called Piyade Topçu, literally foot artillery. As for true artillery, during their conquest of the Balkans in the late 1380s and 1390s the Ottoman used artillery pieces, they were some of the first to be developed in all of Eurasia. During the next 2 decades they would field Mortars and massive bombards.

2. I actually consider trebuchets that launches bombs artillery, be it for the Song or Central Asian powers. It might be a strange and subjective qualification but I believe its a definitive step up from the standard medieval siege weapons. So when I talk about Song, Ming, I'd still refer to those primitive weapons as primitive artillery. Timur will have an easy time take cities with those- but as I said above, he will not make much penetration before the west erupt in rebellion.

Der said…
Wow! that would be a great 'What If' of history. The Ming vs the Ottomans, a clash of titans indeed. Would the Chinese even see the Ottomans as 'Turks'?
春秋戰國 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
春秋戰國 said…
@Dragon's Armory
I should have worded my comment more carefully - none of the enemies "encountered by Timur" had them. Ottomans during the Battle of Ankara didn't use firearms, and neither did Knights of Rhodes (Hospitallers) appear to use any during the Siege of Symrna.

In any case, even if his enemies had firearms, it does not automatically follow that Timur must had them, especially given the general lack of findings or even mentions of firearms in Timurid records.

I will agree with you that trebuchet-launched bombs count as "gunpowder artillery" in a sense, although by 1400s it was very, very obsolete (basically amount to 300-ish years museum piece, considering that even Song Chinese had them). The title of "Top level" artilery in the 1400s should probably be given to the Europeans, followed by Ming or possibly Ottomans.

Timur never claimed descend from the Genghis line, not even as "son-in-law", and never claimed any title other than Amir (instead of "Khan" and whatnot).

His descendands or later historians could have pin the claim on him retroactively though.

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