Twice had a Tartar empire been established in China, that of the Kin dynasty in the north, and that of their successors, the Mongols, over the whole country. A third and more permanent Tartar dynasty, that of the Manchus, was yet to come. With the striking story of the rise and progress of these new conquerors we are now concerned.
In the northeast of China, beyond the Great Wall and bordering on Corea, lies the province of Liautung. Northward from this to the Amur River extends the eastern section of the steppes, known on modern maps as Manchuria. From these broad wilds the Kins had advanced to their conquest of Northern China. To them they fled for safety from the Mongol arms, and here lost their proud name of Kin and resumed their older and humbler one of Niuche. For some five centuries they remained here unnoticed and undisturbed, broken up into numerous small clans, none of much strength and importance. Of these clans, which were frequently in a state of hostility to one another, there is only one of interest, that of the Manchus.
The original seat of this small Tartar clan lay not far north of the Chinese border, being on the Soodsu River, about thirty miles east of the Chinese city of Moukden. Between the Soodsu and Jiaho streams, and south of the Long White Mountains, lies the valley of Hootooala, a location of rugged and picturesque scenery. This valley, protected on three sides by water and on the fourth by a lofty range of mountains, the whole not more than twelve miles long, formed the cradle of the Manchu race, the narrow realm from which they were to emerge to victory and empire. In a certain respect it resembled the native home of the Mongols, but was far smaller and much nearer the Chinese frontier.
In this small and secluded valley appeared, about the middle of the fourteenth century, when the emperor Hongwou was fighting with the Mongols, a man named Aisin Gioro. Tradition attributes to him a miraculous birth, while calumny asserts that he was a runaway Mongol; but at any rate he became lord of Hootooala and ancestor of its race of conquerors. Five generations from him came a chief named Huen, who ruled over the same small state, and whose grandson, Noorhachu by name, born in 1559, was the man upon whom the wonderful fortunes of the Manchus were to depend. Like many other great conquerors, his appearance predicted his career. "He had the dragon face and the phœnix eye; his chest was enormous, his ears were large, and his voice had the tone of the largest bell."
He began life like many of the heroes of folk-lore, his step-mother, when he was nineteen years of age, giving him a small sum of money and turning him out into the world to seek his fortune. She repented afterwards, and bade him come home again or accept further aid, but the proud youth refused to receive from her any assistance, and determined to make his own way in the world.
Noorhachu first came into notice in 1583. In that year Haida, chief of a small district south of Hootooala, made an attack, assisted by the Chinese, on some neighboring clans. One of these was governed by a relative of the old Manchu chief Huen, who, with his son and a small force, hurried to his aid and helped him to defend his town. Haida and his allies, finding the place too strung for them, enticed a part of the garrison outside the walls, and then fell upon and treacherously massacred them. Among the slain were Huen and his son.
This brutal murder left Noorhachu chief of his clan, and at the same time filled him with a fierce desire for revenge, both upon Haida and upon the Chinese. He was forced to bide his time, Haida gaining such influence with his allies that he was appointed by them chief of all the Niuche districts. This act only deepened the hatred of Noorhachu, who found himself made one of the vassals of the murderer, while many of his own people left him and attached themselves to the fortunes of Haida.
Fortunately for the youthful chief, the Chinese did not strongly support their nominee, and Noorhachu pursued his rival so persistently that the assassin did not feel safe even within his stockaded camp, but several times retreated for safety into Liautung. The Chinese at length, tired of supporting a man without the courage to defend himself, seized him and handed him over to Noorhachu, who immediately put him to death.
The energy and success of Noorhachu in this scheme of vengeance gave him a high reputation among the Niuche. He was still but twenty-seven years of age, but had probably laid out his life-work, that of making himself chief of a Niuche confederacy, and employing his subjects in an invasion of Chinese soil. It is said that he had sworn to revenge his father's death by the slaughter of two hundred thousand Chinese.
He began by building himself a stronghold. Selecting a site in the plain where water was abundant, he built a town and surrounded it with a triple wall. This done, he began the work of uniting the southern clans under his sway, a task which proved easy, they being much impressed by his victory over Haida. This peaceful progress was succeeded by a warlike movement. In 1591 he suddenly invaded the district of Yalookiang, which, taken by surprise, was forced to submit to his arms.
This act of spoliation roused general apprehension among the chiefs. Here was a man who was not satisfied with petty feuds, but evidently had higher objects in view. Roused by apprehension of danger, seven of the neighboring chiefs gathered their forces, and with an army of thirty thousand Niuche and Mongols invaded the territory of the daring young leader. The odds against him seemed irresistible. He had but four thousand men to oppose to this large force. But his men had been well chosen and well trained, and they so vigorously resisted the onset of the enemy that the principal Niuche chief was killed and the Mongol leader forced to flee. At this juncture Noorhachu charged his foes with such vigor that they were broken and put to flight, four thousand of them being slain in the pursuit. A number of chiefs were taken prisoners, while the spoils included several thousand horses and plaited suits of armor, material of great value to the ambitious young victor.
Eight years passed before Noorhachu was ready for another move. Then he conquered and annexed the fertile district of Hada, on the north. In 1607 he added to this the state of Hwifa, and in the following year that of Woola. These conquests were preliminary to an invasion of Yeho, the most powerful of the Niuche states. His first attack upon this important district failed, and before repeating it he deemed it necessary to show his strength by invading the Chinese province of Liautung. He had long been preparing for this great enterprise. He had begun his military career with a force of one hundred men, but had now an army forty thousand strong, well drilled and disciplined men, provided with engines of war, and of a race famed for courage and intrepidity. Their chief weapon consisted of the formidable Manchu bow, while the horsemen wore an armor of cotton-plaited mail which was proof against arrow or spear. The invasion was preceded by a list of grievances drawn up against the Chinese, which, instead of forwarding it to the Chinese court, Noorhachu burnt in presence of his army, as an appeal to Heaven for the justice of his cause.
The Chinese had supinely permitted this dangerous power to grow up among their tributaries on the north. In truth, the Ming dynasty, which had begun with the great Hongwou, had shared the fate of Chinese dynasties in general, having fallen into decadence and decay. With a strong hand at the imperial helm the Manchu invasion, with only a thinly settled region to draw on for recruits, would have been hopeless. With a weak hand no one could predict the result.
In 1618 the Manchus crossed their southern frontier and boldly set foot on the soil of China, their movement being so sudden and unexpected that the border town of Fooshun was taken almost without a blow. The army sent to retake it was hurled back in defeat, and the strong town of Tsingho was next besieged and captured. The progress of Noorhachu was checked at this point by the clamor of his men, who were unwilling to march farther while leaving the hostile state of Yeho in their rear. He therefore led them back to their homes.
The Chinese were now thoroughly aroused. An army of more than one hundred thousand men was raised and sent to attack Noorhachu in his native realm. But it was weakly commanded and unwisely divided into three unsupported sections, which the Manchus attacked and routed in detail. The year's work was completed by the conquest and annexation of Yeho, an event which added thirty thousand men to Noorhachu's resources and completed the confederation of the Niuche clans, which had been his original plan.
The old Chinese emperor was now near his life's end. But his last act was one of his wisest ones, it being the appointment of Tingbi, a leader of skill and resolution, to the command in Liautung. In a brief time this energetic commander had placed the capital and the border towns of the province in a state of defence and collected an army of one hundred and eighty thousand men on the frontier. Two years sufficed to make the province impregnable to Manchu attack. During this period of energy Noorhachu wisely remained quiet. But the Chinese emperor died, and was succeeded by his son, who quickly followed him to the grave. His grandson, a boy of sixteen, succeeded, and the court enemies of Tingbi now had him recalled and replaced by a man who had never seen a battle.
The result was what might have been expected. Noorhachu, who had been waiting his opportunity, at once led his army across the borders (1621), marching upon the strong town of Moukden, whose commandant, more brave than wise, left the shelter of his walls to meet him in the field. The result was a severe repulse, the Manchus entering the gates with the fugitives and slaughtering the garrison in the streets. Three armies were sent to retake Moukden, but were so vigorously dealt with that in a few weeks less than half Tingbi's strong army remained. Liauyang, the capital of the province, was next besieged and taken by storm, the garrison falling almost to a man, among them Tingbi's incapable successor meeting his death. No further resistance was made, the other towns, with one exception, opened their gates, and in a brief time Noorhachu completed the conquest of the province of Liautung.
Only one thing kept the Manchus from crossing the Great Wall and invading the provinces beyond. This was the stronghold of Ningyuen, which a Chinese officer named Chungwan had reinforced with a small party, and which resolutely resisted all assaults. Noorbachu, not daring to leave this fortified place in his rear, besieged it with a strong army, making two desperate assaults upon its walls. But Chungwan, assisted by some European cannon, whose noise proved more terrible to the Manchus than their balls, held out so vigorously that for the first time in his career the Manchu chief met with defeat. Disappointed and sick at heart, he retraced his steps to Moukden, then his capital, there to end his career, his death taking place in September, 1626.
Such was the adventurous life of the man who, while not conquering China himself, made its conquest possible to his immediate successors, who acknowledged his great deeds by giving him the posthumous title of Emperor of China, the Manchu dynasty dating its origin back to 1616. His son, Taitsong, who succeeded him, renewed the attack on Ningyuen, but found the heroic Chungwan more than his match. A brilliant idea brought him final success. Leaving the impregnable stronghold in his rear, he suddenly marched to the Great Wall, which he crossed, and was far on the road to Peking before Chungwan knew of his purpose. At once abandoning the town, the Chinese general hurried southward, and, having the best road, succeeded in reaching the capital in advance of the Manchus. But he came only to his death. Tingbi, the one man feared by Noorhachu, had been executed through the machinations of his enemies, and now Chungwan suffered the same fate, Taitsong, not being able to defeat him in the field, having succeeded in forming a plot against him in the palace.
But Peking, though in serious peril, was not taken. A truce was arranged, and Taitsong drew off his troops—for reasons best known to himself. He was soon back in China, but did not again attack Peking, devoting himself to raids through the border provinces. In 1635 he assumed the title of Emperor of China, in consequence of the seal of the Mongol dynasty, which had been lost in Mongolia two centuries before, being found and sent to him. But Ningyuen still held out, under an able successor to Chungwan, and in September, 1643, this second of the Manchu leaders came to his death. The conquest of China was reserved for a later leader.