The Mongol Reduction of Northern China I

Just as the Jin were being challenged by the Song on their southern border, the man whose ambition would bring about their destruction was being hailed as universal ruler or great khan by a confederation of Mongol tribes to their north. Chinggis Khan was not a great general or warrior, but he was a skilled and compelling political strategist who had used these talents to unite the disparate and often-warring tribes of the steppes. It seems likely that his plan was to use this confederation rapidly, and before it disintegrated like so many tribal alliances before it, to plunder the lands of northern China on a vast scale.

The Mongol raids on China began in earnest in 1209, with a campaign against the Tangut state of Xi Xia. The Tangut emperor ruled over a multi-ethnic population that included Chinese, Tibetans and many Turkic groups, in addition to the Tangut themselves. Indeed, when we use the term Tangut, as with Jurchen, Kitan or Mongol, we should remember that we are really only naming the leadership of these states or confederations. In reality, each of these entities were multi-ethnic and, particularly in the case of the Mongols as their empire grew, the leading group was very much a minority.

The Tangut emperor’s state also bordered the Jin state along the northwestern reaches of the Yellow River and extended into the Gobi desert and modern Ningxia. In the past the Tangut had lived a nomadic existence, with their only ties to the settled state being their trade in horses with the Song and their raiding of Song merchant columns. The nomadic past of the Xi Xia state, its largely Turkish population and its extension into the steppe made it a natural first target of the nascent Mongol confederation of Chinggis Khan. Its subjugation would give the Mongols access to the northwestern flank of the Jin state, from which they could raid the Yellow River plains, and if the Xi Xia state could be brought to full submission the Mongols would also gain access to its army of horse archers. Added to this was the fact that the Xi Xia state had never fully escaped the orbit of steppe politics, and the Mongol conquest of the state was also part of a ‘tidying up’ of loose ends, as all the Turco-Mongolic peoples on China’s perimeter were absorbed either voluntarily or otherwise into the Mongol ordus or horde. That Xi Xia could never escape its own steppe history is obvious from the fact that many Turkish princes seeking refuge from Chinggis Khan’s father found dubious refuge at the Xi Xia court and that royal daughters of the Xi Xia state were not uncommonly married to members of Chinggis’s own family. To add to this confused mesh of amiability and animosity, one Kereyid prince sought refuge from Mongol vengeance with the Tangut, but then gave a daughter in marriage to Chinggis’s son, Tolui, and she bore the great khans Mongke and Qubilai and the Persian Ilkhan Hulegu. Another of the dissident prince’s daughters married into the Tangut royal family and an unlikely romantic tale has her beauty being the catalyst for Chinggis Khan’s final annihilation of the Xi Xia state. Be that as it may, the Mongols certainly used the harbouring of Kereyid royal fugitives by the Xi Xia court as a pretext for their first extensive incursions into Xi Xia territory. Mongol raids across the Xi Xia state began in 1205 and the presence of their troops in an area bordering Jin also drew the Onggid tribes, a grouping of previously loyal barbarians whom the Jin had relied on to stabilise their northwest frontier, to join Chinggis’s horde.

The Mongols stayed in Xi Xia territory for the next two years and the Xi Xia sent a series of embassies to the Jin emperor, calling for alliance against the Mongols. These appeals were rebuffed by the Jin emperor with the curt comment, ‘it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?’

The autumn of 1209 saw Chinggis launching a major invasion of Xi Xia and defeating three Tangut armies before investing the capital Chong Xingfu. The Mongols then attempted to divert the waters of the Yellow River’s irrigation canals to flood the city, but succeeded only in deluging their own camp, which effectively broke the siege. However, they had done enough damage to the Xi Xia state to ensure its capitulation, and in 1210 the Tangut emperor, Xianzong, became a vassal to the Khan.

That Chinggis was only interested in Xi Xia’s submission as a prelude to the greater havoc he wished to wreak upon the Jin is evidenced by his almost immediate employment of Tangut horsemen in raids upon Jin borderlands. By 1214 Xi Xia troops, under Mongol direction, were extensively raiding Jin’s southwest provinces. By this point the Jin were becoming more and more dependent on this region for finances and for horses, as the Song had ceased the payment of the tribute that they had agreed to in 1207 and the Mongols were pressing hard from the north and gobbling up Jin pastureland. The city of Lanzhou slipped from effective Jin control in 1214, as the Xi Xia sponsored a rebellion there against them, and then the Xi Xia sent proposals to Song for a joint action against Jin in the west. At this juncture the Song sat on their hands and did not, in fact, act against Jin in alliance with the Xi Xia until 1220, and even then only in a half-hearted fashion. Perhaps it seemed more logical to the Song to let the Mongols destroy the ‘auld enemy’ for them than to engage the Jin directly themselves or even ally with them against the new foe. The lessons of the past and the debacle that had followed Jin’s conquest of Liao with Song complicity had evidently either not yet been learned or simply forgotten.

The encroachment by the peoples of the northern steppe on Jin lands had begun almost at the beginning of the Jin dynasty. In some ways, the Jurchen’s descent into ‘China proper’ in the first quarter of the twelfth century had created a power vacuum in the northern lands beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders, and this had been rapidly filled by new confederations. As early as the 1130s, the Jin had been compelled to send punitive expeditions into the hinterlands at the edge of the Gobi. They suffered many reverses on these expeditions, but through them they also managed to retard any progress towards unification by the tribes as they exterminated much of the leadership in the steppe. Possibly as a result of this policy, the words ‘a Jin Emperor killed one of my forefathers. Let me have my revenge!’ have been put into the mouth of Chinggis in traditional Chinese histories to explain the Khan’s invasion of Jin. We can be certain that no such justification was in fact required for the ensuing carnage meted out to Jin by Chinggis Khan and his descendants; invoking the will of Tenggeri the Sky Father or Eternal Heaven would have been sufficient. But there is tenuous evidence to support the fact that Chinggis could have been intent on revenging the death of Ambaghai Khan, whom the Tatar tribe had handed over to their Jin overlords for execution after they captured him. Chinggis Khan considered himself a legitimate successor of Ambaghai as leader of the Mongols. In 1194 Jin had also made a temporary alliance with the man who became Chinggis Khan. This had helped to stabilise the border but had also unfortunately increased the Mongols’ power, as it aided their elimination of tribal rivals. Chinggis Khan’s unification of the tribes was, then, in many ways, begun by the Jin’s actions in the steppes, and it was at the head of a vast confederation army of Mongols, Kitan and Tangut3 that Chinggis set out in March 1211 to launch what was in effect a vast raid or chevachee across the Jin state.

The word chevachee is the most apt way of describing the Mongol raiding tactics in 1211, for it is an act of plundering on a relentless and extensive scale, in order to make control and rule over a region untenable for the enemy. It also deprives the enemy of legitimacy if they cannot effectively respond to the terror inflicted upon their citizens. The taking of territory would have rendered Chinggis’s forces open to a Jin riposte, so the tactic of ‘burn and move on’ also served Chinggis well at this juncture. It is arguable that it failed the Mongols later, when they moved on to attempt to conquer Song, through Sichuan, a region that would not support the rapid movement of cavalry, and they then became bogged down in the garrisoning of territory and a long war of attrition. Later the genius of Qubilai Khan and his commanders was shown in their co-opting of Chinese infantry and engineers to operate where cavalry could not, thereby freeing up the horsemen to go where they could be most effective and to stretch the Song’s defences by lightning strikes. On a more philosophical plane Mongol warfare is a perfect paradigm of Clausewitz’s theory of ‘total war’, in which the ends of war are consumed by the means taken to achieve them. The brief lives of both the Yuan Dynasty and the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia are both, perhaps, partly explainable by the ‘total war’ origins of both states, and we will look a little later in more depth at how an inability to muzzle the dogs of war once they had been allowed to slip the leash completely contributed to the Yuan’s rapid demise. That such all-enveloping concepts of warfare were alien to China before the Mongols’ rise seems evident, given Sunzi’s five governing factors, the first of which is the Moral Law, which requires accord between the ruled and the ruler, and the fact that the Confucian definition of war was that it was a punishment for both the defeated and the victor.

In the spring of 1211 two Mongol armies totalling about one hundred thousand warriors entered China from the northwest, through lands formerly ‘guarded’ for the Jin by the Onggids, and from the northeast, through mountain passes near modern Beijing. They devastated great portions of the northern provinces and the northwestern army essentially split the Jin army of Shensi from the rest of the Jin forces in the east. This northwestern army, however, failed to take the key border fortresses as the Jin forces in the region outnumbered them by about four to one and the Jin garrison infantry were well equipped with cavalry pikes and crossbows. Initial defeats in the open field and a devastating famine across the entire state seem to have decided the Jin on a defensive strategy by which they hoped either to bring about the break-up of the Mongol army or to bring Chinggis to a negotiation where a modus vivendi similar to that enacted between the Mongols and Xi Xia could be formed. Given that Mongol warriors were unpaid and that therefore commanders were entirely reliant on booty for paying them, the Jin might have been hoping that Chinggis’s horde would disintegrate for lack of plunder. Certainly this was the norm for such barbarian confederations, but unfortunately the tribal army that had invaded China this time was perhaps exceptional in that it was composed of men who were ‘more obedient to their masters than any other men in the world, be they religious or secular’.

The strategy therefore failed. The Jin could keep the Mongols from taking their fortified cities through the technological advantages they held over them, the chief of these being gunpowder and trebuchet-fired ‘thunder crash’ bombs–some of which were moulded from wax to burn slowly, whilst others were hollow ceramic creations holding molten metal or barbs that would stick in wooden shields and make them impossible to carry. Naptha or ‘Greek fire’ was thrown in pots at the enemy and fire-arrows could also break up Mongol attacks, but the Jin could not match the Mongols in the field; the Jin had long ago abandoned the ‘battue’ or nomadic hunt and their stature as mounted archers had gone into decline. The slow-moving, often largely infantry-based field armies the Jin deployed against the Mongols, perhaps a product of the long, static, cold–hot war the Jin had fought against the Song, were easily defeated by the Mongols, and those Jurchen among the Jin armies who did retain the warrior skills of the steppes soon enough joined the Mongols. The cavalry that the Jin did retain was also denied pasture by the Mongols’ continual traversing of the northern plains. Each Mongol trooper had about six horses, and one ‘tumen’ of ten thousand troopers also meant the presence of forty thousand ‘civilians’ and six hundred thousand sheep or goats. Additionally, Bactrian camels and giant carts pulled by as many as twenty oxen were part of the Mongol army’s train. This vast caravan had been known to travel up to six hundred miles in nine days and its capacity for consuming pasture would have been almost locust-like. To worsen matters, the Jurchen homeland of Manchuria, from which they drew horses, cattle and Jurchen warriors, then slipped from the Jin’s grasp as leftovers of the old Liao Dynasty took the opportunity of Jin’s misfortune to desert their cause. Virtually all the Liao–Kitan cavalry and soldiers that had formerly fought with the Jin army swore their allegiance to Chinggis Khan in 1212. A Jin punitive expedition failed to regain Manchuria from the rebels in 1214 and, to make matters worse, its commander then went on to set up his own independent state in northeast China.

The Mongols withdrew for the winter, which gave the Jin forces some respite, but soon enough the Mongols were back again, and over the course of the next two years they also began to enrol Han Chinese deserters into their army. The engineers among these men would make a very valuable contribution to the later Mongol campaigns.

The poor showing of the Jin in this early contest lured the Mongols further into China than they may have planned to go. Certainly, by the time they had taken the Juyong pass and the environs of Beijing, they had in fact overreached themselves. They were unprepared for the siege of such a large city, and what was almost certainly meant as a simple large-scale raid had now got them wrapped up in a territorial war in China. The equipment of the Mongol troopers of this period makes it clear that there was no developed weapons industry available to the army that could produce siege weapons capable of tackling the walls of Beijing; in fact, even with the later acquisition of Chinese centres of industry, many Mongol troopers still lacked crafted metal weapons. The average Mongol soldier wore a simple heavy coat with a belt sword, dagger and axe, and carried dried meat and curds for rations, along with a stone sharpener. The heavy cavalry had lamellar armour, presumably purchased or looted from Chinese manufacturing centres, and every trooper carried a composite bow of yak horn, sinew and bamboo. Other weapons–round wooden shields and lassoes–were decidedly crude compared to the crafted and cherished Mongol bow. The myth that Mongol silk undershirts ‘wrapped’ arrowheads and prevented injury to the wearer has long ago been exploded, but the lamellar armour that the Mongols favoured was certainly more effective than mail against arrows, and this may have been particularly significant given the Jin and Song reliance on archers and crossbowmen.