The Mongol Reduction of Northern China II

By 1213, with Beijing resisting them even though it was effectively cut off, the Mongols were simply roaming the central plains of northern China and had lost the initiative. They were therefore fortunate that the Jin court was in the act of imploding at this juncture. The Emperor Weishao Wang had been assassinated in 1213 by Hu Shahu, a general who had lost the western Jin capital of Datong to the Mongols. Hu Shahu may have decided to strike first, as the punishment for such failure was bound to be harsh. A new emperor, Xuanzong, was installed, but the Jin state was unravelling fast and, in an attempt to replace the high-ranking Jurchen who were deserting the dynasty for service with the Mongols, the normally xenophobic court opened military and civilian posts to all races within the state. A further symptom of the collapse of Jin confidence was seen in the spring of 1214 when the Jin sent peace envoys to Chinggis, and offered a daughter of the late emperor for the khan’s marriage bed. The breathing space this gained them was used by the court to abandon Beijing and desert the troops left there. The court fled to the southern capital of Kaifeng which, it was hoped, was beyond the reach of both the Mongols and of the drought and famine that had struck the north and had once again crippled the logistics of the Jin army.

The Mongols marched on Beijing but could do little except sit beneath its walls and terrorise the surrounding environs. The city was encircled and defended by four fortified villages with four thousand Jin troops in each. Each village also had its own granary and arsenal and was linked by tunnels to Beijing. The city was also protected by three moats fed from Kunming Lake and a 15-kilometre rectangle of rammed earth walls that were 15 metres thick at their base and 12 metres high. Each of its thirteen gates and nine hundred guard towers was protected by double and triple crossbows, capable of hurling 3-metre quarrels over a kilometre, and traction trebuchets with a range of some 300 metres for 25-kilogram projectiles. The Mongols had units in their army trained to use both siege crossbows and trebuchets, the so-called nujun and baojun, but the technology they used was, at this juncture, almost certainly not a match for that of their opponents.

The Mongols suffered enormous losses through pestilence during the siege, which lasted a year, but then the city suddenly surrendered in May 1215, as it was evident that no relief force was coming from Kaifeng. The capitulation, it seems, did not temper the Mongols’ rage at the city’s long defiance, and even in 1216 a visiting envoy could still attest the fact that the bones of the slaughtered formed mountains and the soil was greasy with human fat. Sixty thousand maidens had thrown themselves from the walls rather than fall into Mongol hands and only masons, carpenters and–oddly enough–actors were immune from the risk of summary executions.

By now the Jin were ready to accept having the khan as their overlord, but Chinggis seems to have interpreted the dynasty’s move to Kaifeng as a dangerous act of separatism and he responded with further devastations of the Jin’s Chinese provinces. Elsewhere, control was slipping away from the Jin too. The grain supplies of northern Hubei were gone and the refusal of Song to pay its yearly tribute had reduced the Jin to near penury. The collapse of local government that this and the Mongols’ rapine had precipitated reduced whole provinces to chaos and in Shandong it made bandits the only form of authority. Many of these groups sought Song support and proclaimed loyalty to the dynasty in exchange for secret supplies of food and money. The Song particularly favoured a large confederation of outlaws called the Red Coats, possibly because red was the traditional ‘fire’ colour of the Song court. If this was so, then the Song were sorely misled, as the Red Coats, in fact, showed no particular loyalty to anyone but themselves. However, they resisted all Jin efforts to bring Shandong back under control, and this was probably reason enough for the Song court to support them. In 1218, with the Yellow River flooding and Shandong effectively beyond Jin control, the Song went further and recognised the ruthless Red Coat commander Li Quan as their ‘prefect’ of Shandong.

Song’s sponsoring of bandits such as Li Quan was a direct response to Jin assaults on Song in 1217 as the Jin went to war to try to extract payments from the Song government. Making the Jin fight a proxy war in their own lands would certainly distract them from assaults on Song lands. However, the policy also had a secondary aim: by maintaining a viable state in Shandong the Song may have hoped to prevent a mass movement of Jin’s Han citizens to the south, which would have effectively swamped Song with refugees or even with a mass movement of Jurchen households. It is impossible to make a judgement on the great unanswered question about this period of Jin history: where did all the people go? The drop in population was immense and there was, no doubt, massive emigration from north to south and also death through disease and famine. How many were simply slaughtered by the Mongols and how many died as a result of the invaders’ damage to agricultural infrastructure and destruction of cities is impossible to decide. Certainly nowhere was safe; cities were refuges of a sort, but were also the key strategic goals of the Mongols and were wealthy enough to attract them for plunder alone. The number of refugees fleeing to Song must have been immense; if any member of the ‘local elite’ fled there would also be a movement of his kinsmen, retainers and tenants as an organised community of several hundred households. Certainly there are other occurrences of this phenomenon of a ‘tsunami’ of people in Asian history, and there was never a pleasant outcome for either the displaced or the settled peoples involved. For example, the Jurchen destruction of the Liao’s Kitan state in 1125 had pushed immense numbers of Turkish tribesmen into settled Islamic lands and had within only two decades sounded the death knell of the great Saljuq sultanate of Iran.

The Jin assaults on Song served them badly; they offered peace for tribute, but made little progress in their war and in 1218 the Song were so confident of their ability to resist that they did not even allow the Jin envoys to enter their territory. A third and final Jin offensive was launched in the central border region in the spring of 1221. Initially, the Jin met with success and penetrated over 200 kilometres into Song territory, but the Song, in partnership with Li Quan, then counterattacked and pushed the Jin out.

Jin morale was eroded by their defeat in this campaign and was damaged further by news from other fronts. Despite the Mongols being distracted by their need to complete outstanding ‘steppe business’ with war against, and assimilation of, the Naiman and Merkit peoples of Mongolia, Chinggis’s lieutenant, Mukhali, had used the opportunity of Jin’s war on Song to take the cities of Taiyuan and Daming in 1218 and 1220 and to enter Shandong in 1220. The army that Jin had mustered to eradicate Li Quan was then destroyed by Mukhali. Western Shandong effectively fell to the Mongols and a three-sided war, fought through proxies recruited among bandit clans, ensued between the Mongols, Jin and Song in eastern Shandong. Li Quan attempted to exploit the war for personal gain and, in this increasingly dirty little war, the Song accepted his false proclamations of loyalty to their camp whilst attempting to break up his army by extending generous offers to his subordinates. Song chicanery of this ilk came to Li Quan’s ears whilst bandits in the Mongols’ employ were besieging him at Qingzhou in 1226. He therefore turned to the Jin for support in 1227, but when it became obvious that they were a failing star he opted for the Mongols.

Meanwhile, in the west in 1218 the Tangut of Xi Xia, after attacking the western borders of Jin but failing to make any headway, had then refused to honour troop agreements they had made with the Mongols. Speedy Mongol correction in the form of a punitive invasion forced the Tangut to send troops to serve with Mukhali in the east but this arrangement collapsed once again in 1223 amid mutual recriminations. The Xi Xia were then finally driven by the Mongols’ depredations to parley with their old foe, the Jin. Negotiations ended in the autumn of 1223 with a peace accord, no doubt forced through by mutual fear of the Mongols and by Jin’s need to obtain horses from the Tangut breeding grounds.

The Jin had attempted to secure peace with the Mongols as early as 1220, when envoys were sent far to the west where Chinggis was campaigning against the Khwarazm shah of Persia. However, the offer of recognising the khan as an older brother of the Jin emperor was rejected by Chinggis, and the Jin emperor refused to be ‘demoted’ to king of Henan. Peace negotiations with the Mongols had therefore ended in 1222. Having secured a pragmatic peace with one set of previously inveterate enemies, the Xi Xia, in 1223, the Jin looked now to secure peace with the Song. It was as if China was going to unify, however tardily, in the face of the Mongol onslaught. The last ‘true’ Jin emperor, Aizong, came to the throne in 1224 and his much-reduced empire made peace with Song in the same year, on the basis of Jin giving up its claim for tribute and on an equality of titles between the two emperors. In amongst all this chaos and action the Song emperor, Ningzong, passed quietly away on 17 September 1224. He had been an emperor very much in the background of his own reign; the minister Shi Miyuan had run the country, and the last act he carried out for the dying emperor was to write an edict elevating a new heir to the throne. Ningzong’s children had all died young and one adopted son, Zhao Hong, who was the heir expectant, was replaced by another adoptee, Zhao Yun, almost at the last moment. The succession and enthronement of Zhao Yun as Emperor Lizong went without a hitch despite the odd character of his accession, and the whole affair made the Song state appear as calm as the eye of the storm that was tearing through every other part of China.

Chinggis Khan repaid Xi Xia for its peacemaking with Jin by the near-obliteration of their army in 1226 in a series of battles, one of which was fought upon the frozen waters of the Yellow River, and by a siege of their capital, Zhongxing, in 1227. The siege dragged on, but the liquidation of the Xi Xia state was essentially completed by the time of Chinggis’s death in August 1227.

Jin obtained some respite from the Mongols following the death of the khan, as a regency under Chinggis’s wife attempted to settle the succession issue. This was tricky because, despite some undoubted influence on Mongol polity by Chinese imperial customs, Turco-Mongolic custom had always been for a ‘patrimonial share-out’ of a successful father’s lands and wealth. The apparent solution to this was that Chinggis’s son, Ogedei, was created khagan, or khan of khans, and his brothers were all made khans in their own right. In practice this meant that Ogedei was a primus inter pares and that his writ did not run too far geographically in an empire that already reached to southern Russia and would soon solidify those gains and expand further into the Middle East. His election was also held up for some two years because of an ongoing opposition to his election and animosity from his brother Tolui. Ogedei managed finally to quell all the overt opposition to his reign but the fact that the ‘great khan’ had only limited power over the ‘junior’ khans and that this authority was diminished with each subsequent reign would become more and more apparent as the Mongol empire reached its end.

Ogedei was in a position to recommence the war on Jin in 1230 and from the pool of fifteen- to sixty-year-old males that the Mongol nation made available to him he formed a personal bodyguard of ten thousand men and deployed armies of thirty-nine thousand men in the west and centre under his truculent younger brother Tolui and sixty-two thousand more in the east under his own command. The armies also included Chinese engineers who had defected from the Jin, along with their gunpowder weapons. The Mongol armies met near the Yellow River during the winter of 1231, where, under the command of Subetei, probably Chinggis’s most trusted lieutenant, the army crossed the fords despite the stout defence of some thirty thousand Jin troops. Subetei’s outriders made it to the walls of Kaifeng by February 1232. The Song court had refused passage through Sichuan to the Mongols of Tolui’s western army, but the Mongols journeyed through the province anyway and there was no Song response to the incursion.

A demand for the surrender of the capital was refused by the Jin court and a siege began in April. Further negotiations ended in July when two Jin officers murdered the Mongols’ envoy along with thirty men of his entourage. This apparent act of madness on the part of the Jin officers is more easily understood against the backdrop of Kaifeng’s misery and chaos in the summer of 1232. Disease and famine are of course natural sequelae to any war, but the total collapse of governance and recriminations within the court, with summary executions commonly following a few days after any man’s promotion, were the street theatre of the dying city. The music accompanying the city to its grave was made by the ‘thunder crash’ bombs of both sides and by the fire-lance rockets of the Jin engineers. Arguably, the Jin’s superiority in technology was the only thing that kept the Mongols from rapidly capturing the city. The fire-lance rocketeers would certainly have had an effect on Mongol cavalry, with their long reinforced paper pipes spewing flames over 3 metres long.

February 1233 saw the Jin emperor flee the doomed city for Henan, where he holed up in Caizhou (modern Runan). Kaifeng was left under the control of several generals, and General Xu Li took overall command in May by virtue of his elimination of any dissenting official or general. He then offered the city to Subetei. His act may have constrained the Mongols in their sacking of the city and the massacre that ensued was at least limited to only the male members of one clan. Xu Li was, however, a victim of the Mongol victory as he was murdered by a fellow Jin officer.

Then, in the summer of 1233, rumours spread to the Song court of a Jin plan to cut through the Song border and form a route of escape for Aizong to Sichuan. However, when the Jin crossed the border they were rapidly defeated by General Meng Gong, and the Song counterattack effectively cut the Jin forces at Caizhou off from any hope of relief. The Song army was now fully in control of southern Henan. The confidence this gave the Song meant that Jin emissaries seeking a pact were sent home, without even the courtesy of an audience being extended to them.

Aizong sent more desperate missives to the Song court, begging for at the least supplies, and at the best armed support against the Mongols who were closing on Caizhou by December 1233, but the Song were by this time already plotting with his enemies for the destruction of Jin. Aizong committed suicide and handed the reins of power, worn out though they were, to a distant relative, Mo Di.

The siege of Caizhou saw the entire populace of the region crowded into the city, for fear of the Mongols, and famine quickly ensued. The Song supplied the Mongol army with grain and no Jin relief army would come to the new capital’s aid, as all strategy had broken down and the armies of the Jin were still defending patches of land across the now dead empire. The rainy season was also in full flow and floods slowed those forces that did respond to the Jin emperor’s pleas. In September 1233 the Song had begun retaking their former prefectures from the Jin and their massing on the border of a large army also drew Jin forces away from the war for the heartland.

Before his death Aizong had attempted to buoy his troops defending the southern border with these words:

The fact that the Tatars unleash their forces and often win battles is because of their northern style and because they use the tricks of the Chinese. It is very difficult to fight against them. As to the Song, they are really not our match! They are weak and not martial, just like women. If I had three thousand armoured soldiers, we could march into Chiang and Huai provinces. Take courage

The Jin then defeated the Song at the battle of Changtu Tian and this Song failure must have made it obvious to the Mongols that the Song state was defended by an army that was, despite its size and sophistication, at times, a paper tiger.

By this time, cannibalism had broken out in Caizhou, and the Song, under General Meng Gong, joined the Mongols in besieging the city in November 1233 with ten thousand men. They breached one wall, but were driven out. Then, on 8 January 1234, the Mongols broke the banks of the Lien River and Song engineers diverted the Ju River away from Caizhou. This effectively denuded Caizhou of its western and southern defences and by 20 January the Mongols were in the western part of the city. Mo Di was killed in house-to-house fighting as the Mongols stormed Caizhou on 9 February 1234. A large body of Jin soldiers, loyal to the last, had desperately tried to defend him and perished with him. General Meng Gong seized the Jin imperial seals and part of Aizong’s burned body as proof of the end of the dynasty, and Song garrisons were placed in southern Henan.

The Song had now outlasted two enemy dynasties, the Liao and the Jin, though they themselves had defeated neither and had even failed once against the armies of the dying Jin. Now they faced another invader from the north, one with which they had made common cause with in the last few months of Jin’s demise. A Chinese proverb that predates the Song dynasty tells us, ‘When the lips are gone, the teeth soon become cold.’ The Jin were gone and Song now faced the Mongols alone.