He was born into an elite family of the Jurchens of the Long White Mountains (Changbaishan) on the border between Manchuria and Korea. During his youth, he traveled to Beijing as part of tribute missions on at least one occasion. As early as 1587, a governor of the northern provinces of Ming Dynasty China noticed that a certain tribal leader (Nurhachi) had begun amassing territory and followers, and eliminating rivals; he sent a force against Nurhachi but was defeated, and ultimately censured by the Court, though in the end both he and his district director were absolved of charges for their failures, and the matter fell from the Court's attention, leaving Nurhachi free to continue gathering his forces. In the 1590s, he offered to aid the Ming Dynasty in defending Korea against the Japanese invasions, and the Ming bestowed upon him a number of titles in return for these offers.
By 1610, however, Nurhachi broke off relations between his group and the Ming, in response to certain attacks and humiliations which impacted not only his family's pride, but also their agricultural base. He did meet with Korean envoys, however, on at least one occasion. Beginning around that time, from 1610 until around 1620, Nurhachi began to expand the territory and people under his leadership, through a combination of political marriages, alliances, and conquest, absorbing a number of neighboring Jurchen and Mongol groups.
He declared himself "khan" of a new dynasty, the Later Jin Dynasty, in 1616, drawing legitimacy or prestige from a suggestion of descent from the Jurchen Jin Dynasty of the 12th-13th centuries. Nurhachi organized the people under his dynasty into eight groups called "banners," each associated with a different color banner. There were two banners each in yellow, red, blue, and white, one plain and one with fringed borders. These served as both military and civil divisions of society. Nurhachi also developed a written form for the Jurchen language.
Beginning in 1618, Nurhachi launched attacks on Jurchen groups in Liaoning province, which lived less tribally-oriented lifestyles, in towns and villages intermingled with Chinese traders. Though the Ming maintained garrisons in this area, and considered it an integral part of their empire, Nurhachi encouraged Chinese residents to join him, and threatened Ming soldiers that they should surrender rather than be killed, promising both better, more prosperous and benevolent rule under him than under the Ming. Many Chinese and Jurchens, of course, resisted, by force of arms, by poisoning wells, and by other means; however, some number of Chinese officers and officials also changed sides, and were granted official positions in his government or military, along with titles and honors; some were even married into Nurhachi's own family. He seized Shenyang (Mukden) and Liaoyang in 1621, making Shenyang his capital in 1625, and by the time of his death the following year, Nurhachi controlled all the land east of the Liao River, as well as some on the western side.
Chinese who were brought under Nurhachi's banners, as well as urbanized Jurchens, were obliged to wear their hair in a queue, and to adopt certain other customs; this received some resistance, and would certainly chafe at many Chinese men's ego following the conquest of China proper, but in these initial stages it seems that many went along with these new practices with relatively little complaint. Many Chinese were offered elite positions, especially those who possessed some special tactical or technical skill; however, many were also simply relocated and put to work.
As he expanded his territory, in 1622 Nurhachi considered the possibility of sending his forces down the Shanhaiguan Pass, where the Great Wall meets the sea, in order to attack the Ming more directly. The following year, however, before any such plan could be put into place, there was a rebellion amongst the Chinese in Liaoning, which diverted his attention. Nurhachi quickly suppressed this rebellion, however, and took steps to ensure it not happen again: Chinese were divided apart from Jurchens, into separate streets and separate homes. Chinese were banned from carrying any weapons, and Jurchens were, conversely, now obliged to be armed at all times, in order to defend against further uprisings. The Chinese rose up again, however, in 1625, and were harshly suppressed. Up until now, the Ming had not taken action to take advantage of these uprisings, but in 1625 some number of Ming generals did begin to launch attacks against the Manchus, achieving some early successes.
Nurhachi died in 1626, and in accordance with Jurchen custom, his land and titles were divided amongst his most capable sons and nephews. The succession dispute which ensued ended in victory for Nurhachi's eighth son, Hong Taiji, commander of the two yellow banners. It was under Hong Taiji that the group would be renamed the Manchus, and the dynasty, the Qing.
|Khan of Later Jin Dynasty
- Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 26-30.
- Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 111-112.