So if you can still remember back to last week when we were talking about the Black Dragon War, it’s quite interesting that at the same moment, that decade in the 1590s when the Koreans and then the Chinese were preoccupied by beating off the invasion of Japanese, a whole new power was stirring and rising not far away that would eventually dominate all three of the parties who were fighting the Black Dragon War. That new power was the Manchus. As I’ll explain, they weren’t even calling themselves the Manchus yet in the 1590s.
But it was the same group of semi-nomadic, could call them tribal peoples, living on the Manchurian Steppe, actually bordering both Ming China and Chosun Korea, who in that period, during the moment of the Black Dragon War, started a really spectacular rise. An example of early modern state building that eventually incorporated Ming China into an even bigger empire, known as the Qing. So that’s the story that I want to talk to you about a little bit now. And especially in terms of how it relates to our central topic of China-Korea relations. The story starts with a Manchu leader named Nurhaci. And Nurhaci in the 1590s started to bring together these warring groups of tribes.
Most of them would call themselves Jurchen, using this older term. We could call it an ethnic marker that they used to identify themselves. But Nurhaci started to unify these groups. And he came up with a really innovative military system. So his method for unification was to create a whole new kind of military organisation called the banner system. It literally referred simply to the banners, plain and chequered banners of different colours, that the units in Nurhaci’s new army would carry. But this banner system was doing something far more profound. It was actually overlaying on top of the tribal system, and then redirecting the allegiance of these Jurchen and then eventually various Mongolian tribes.
It was redirecting their allegiance away from their particular small tribal chief up to somewhere else, to the centre, to the top of the banner system. And of course, that was Nurhaci himself. And so over the course of the late 16th century and going into the early 17th century, the banner system with Nurhaci’s leadership started to bring together previously warring Jurchen and then Mongolian groups into a very powerful force. So this new power, organised through the banners, started to militarily and politically challenge Ming dominance. In other words, the Manchus really replaced the Japanese, and Nurhaci replaced Hitoyoshi as the new revisionist power in Northeast Asia. In 1616, Nurhaci officially proclaimed an empire.
He called it the ladder Jin Dynasty after a great Jurchen Dynasty of older times. He said, we’re restoring the greatness of the Jin Dynasty period. And he officially proclaimed a new one. So after proclaiming an empire, Nurhaci then put out a list of grievances, the seven grievances against the Ming. So here, we see he’s taking another step toward openly challenging Ming dominance, openly trying to revise the order, the hierarchy, of states in the region. A couple years after that at a major military battle, the Battle of Sarhu, a force primarily of Ming Chinese troops but also including a Korean contingent who were sent to finally snuff out the Manchus, Nurhaci, and end this threat, were actually defeated by the Manchus.
And so the military stature of this new force increased dramatically after that. Now, Nurhaci himself died in battle. He was killed from shrapnel by a Portuguese cannon. So his death, in a way, mirrors the death of Yi Sun-sin, who died from a bullet wound. It tells us about how military technology was travelling across the world, since these were European weapons that had made their way actually relatively quickly and all too effectively over to this part of the world. After Nurhaci’s death, however, his great enterprise of building a dynastic state, of unifying first these Jurchen tribes, Mongolian tribes, and even trying to challenge and revise the order, that great enterprise continued under his heir, Hong Taiji.
Hong Taiji further built on Nurhaci’s base. He moved the capital to what is today’s city of Shenyang. So now, the Manchus were moving into Chinese territory. And actually, it was after moving the capital in 1627 that Hong Taiji took another step that’s very important for our story, but also a clue to the Sino-Korean relationship and its place in the broader order when he, Hong Taiji, ordered an invasion, the first of two major invasions, of the Korean peninsula. So of course, Korea is nearby to the Manchus insofar as they’re still engaging in semi-nomadic tribal raids. Korea would’ve been a natural place to look for loot.
But really, when we look back at this in hindsight, there was something more, something we could describe as geopolitical going on. Hong Taiji was positioning his new power to challenge the order, to revise the order. And by attacking Korea, he basically put a dagger to the throat of the whole system. Remember, as we’re learning, Korea is right at the top of the tributary system. It’s the closest, the perfect Confucian ally to China. And so if you, as the Manchus, if you cut that relationship apart, it’s as if you’re cutting the whole thing at the knees. And course, the Ming are aware of that. If they’re unable to protect Korea, who else can they protect?
Who else is safe in the system? Who’s the real dominant power? So both the first invasion in 1627 followed up by a second invasion by the Manchus in 1636, these are events that we should interpret as having again a kind of geopolitical significance that hopefully you can appreciate because of this week and the way that we’re learning about the tributary system and the broader order in East Asia. So just prior to that second invasion of Korea, Hong Taiji had done two other very significant, even momentous things. First of all, he had given his people a new name. And it’s at this point that we no longer call them Jurchens. They start to call themselves Manchus.
He said, we are unified people. We need a unified name. We are the Manchus. The second thing he did is he gave a new name to the dynasty, the dynasty that Nurhaci had called the ladder Jin Dynasty. He said, we need a new name. We’re a new powerful force. And he officially proclaimed the Qing Dynasty. Now, the story shifts back to China and simultaneously to the rise of this formidable, well organised, military and political behemoth on the Manchurian Steppe. You have the demise, the steady, slow demise of the Ming state. And by the 1630s, 1640s, Ming decline was reaching a tipping point, where peasant rebellion was breaking out, often fueled by mutiny, by underpaid, angry Ming soldiers.
And all of this came crashing down finally in the year 1644, when a peasant rebel army marched and was on the outskirts of Beijing. The last emperor of the Ming Dynasty walked across the street outside of the Forbidden City. And if you go to Beijing, you can see the tree. There’s a plaque under the tree where he threw a rope with some assistance presumably emperors never act alone and hung himself. With that suicide, that was the end of centuries of Ming rule. And a power vacuum was created. You had a ragtag rebel army that was strong enough to the muscle its way into Beijing. But it didn’t have much broader support. Meanwhile, Ming generals didn’t know what to do.
Their emperor had killed himself. And one of the most powerful northern Ming generals, who was mostly preoccupied by fighting off the Manchus, told the Manchus, OK, you can come in and help us kick the rebels out. And so that’s what happened in 1644. The Ming general let the Manchus through the pass, let them walk through the Great Wall, which maybe you’ve visited, this incredible, ultimately Maginot Line to protect China. The Manchus walked through. They got rid of the peasant rebel army in Beijing. And then said, you know what? We’re going to stay. This is now Qing. And so that was the takeover by the Manchus of the Ming Empire, of the capital.
That great revisionist dream, that in a way goes back to Hitoyoshi and what we studied with the Black Dragon War was finally realised by the Manchus in 1644. The rise of the Manchus, and then their incorporation of China into their Qing Empire, posed a profound dilemma for Korea. It was a political dilemma, but it was more than that. It was a sort of moral, almost an existential dilemma. And that’s one of the main topics that we’ll be wrestling with the rest of this week.