Saturday, April 19, 2008

Decisive Battles: Shanhaiguan, 1644

Before I go on, a bit of background.

I've always been a military history buff, going back to being a kid playing with toy soldiers: I was odd about making the uniform and equipment details "right" and finding out about who did what to whom where and why. Didn't stop me from trying to see the elephant, but I said I was a historian of sorts, not a genius.

Old as I am, as much as I know about battle and war, I still find the human inclination to settle issues with violence intriguing in a rather inhumane fashion. You don't have to like it to accept that battle has decided human lives in a most declarative way for thousands of years.

So I'm going to begin posting on my collected list of "Decisive Battles": where DID someone do something to someone else that changed history. I emphasize that this is my own collation, and I am not Creasy or Fuller. Differences of opinion, or comments on my analysis are thoroughly welcomed!

April's first engagement (I have a second battle planned for later in the month - be warned!) is:

Shanhaiguan (or Shanhai Pass) Date: 19-22 April, 1644Forces engaged:
Han China:
Old Han regime ("loyalists"): ~40,000 Ming Chinese troops under Wu Sangui
New Han regime ("rebels"): ~80-100,000 Shun Chinese troops under Li Zicheng
Manchu: ~100,000 Manchu (later Qing) Banner troops under Dorgon

Situation:: In the middle 1600's the Ming imperial system, which had ruled Han China since the fall of the Yuan Dynasty founded by Genghis Khan, was faltering in a storm of imperial incompetence, vicious infighting and economic disasters. Zhou Youjian, the Chongzhen Emperor, was a hard man known for his quick anger and suspicion. While this might not have made him a disaster as Emperor in other times, with the late Ming poised on the edge of implosion his paranoia and rash actions made him a problem too great to be overcome. He himself probably drove the nail into the Ming forehead by executing Yuan Chonghuan (family relationship note: Chonghuan is Missy's homeboy, born in Dongguan some time in the late 1500s), probably the most capable of the Ming officials at fighting the rising Manchu threat from the northeast.

The year 1644 was an endless disaster for Ming China: first, the rebel army led by Li Zicheng stormed Beijing. The Chongzhen Emperor hung himself from the "Guilty Chinese Scholartree"and the empire all but collapsed in the resulting chaos. But Han empires had dissolved before and had risen again under a new dynasty. Shanhaiguan would ensure that this would not be the case.

The Engagement: A confusing three-sided siege/melee between Great Wall garrison troops (notionally loyal to the former Ming Dynasty), "rebel"/newly installed Shun dynasty troops led by the new emperor Li Zicheng, and the Manchu Army (known as "Bannermen" from their thicket of personal and unit flags).

Attacking the Great Wall from behind, the Shun forces apparently tore into the Ming soldiers - perhaps not a great shock given that Li's rebels had spent years campaigning against and beating Ming soldiery like red-headed stepchildren (and Wu's mob were essentially Maginot-style garritroopers) - taking three of the four gates to Shanhai Pass. With his troops backed to the sea and the Shun hammering at the walls,Wu agreed to "surrender" to the the Banner Army and the following day the Manchus descended on the rear of the Shun army as Wu's troops sortied from their front. The Shun troops appear to have stayed in order long enough for Li to escape to Beijing, but beyond that it was over for the Two-Months' Emperor. The Manchu Banners flew over the Forbidden City in May, 1644, and Shunzhi Emperor - the first Qing emperor of China - was proclaimed.Outcome: Geopolitical/grand strategic Manchu victory.

Impact: Replaced Han Chinese rule over the world's then-most sophisticated polity with a foreign occupation. Although the Ming dynasty had fallen into desuetude by the early to mid-17th Century, it continued to resist the incursions of northern barbarians such as the Mongols. Given time, the new Shun dynasty might have stabilized into an ethnic Han administration and reunited the empire. As it was, the Qing did effectively halt the social disintegration begun in Ming times, but at the expense of dividing the nation between Manchu occupiers and Han occupied. The fierce rigidity required to maintain Manchu hegemony made the Qing extremely conservative and resistant to change. In particular, the Banner troops became garrisons in hostile Han cities, removed from their original citizen-soldier origins and rotted by corruption and inactivity. Their Han counterparts, the "Green Standard Army" never attained any real competence or trust. Rebellion and invasion in the 19th Century exposed the Qing as hidebound, antiquated and brittle.

We will never know what would have happened if Li Zicheng had managed to trust Wu Sangui (AND just maybe kept his dickbeaters off Wu's squeeze - see below), or if Wu had taken one for the team and refused to turn the Manchu loose through the Wall. But the possibility of a united - and potentially vigorous - Han China meeting the Western colonialists, Japanese imperialists as well as domestic rebels like the Taiping remains one of history's more intriguing "what-ifs".

Touchline tattles: To make the whole business more bodice-ripping, one backstory of this battle is that Wu was at least partially motivated by the capture of his inamorata (a member of the defunct Ming imperial court) by Li Zicheng. There seems to be a real question how much of the story is true, whether Chen Yuanyuan was even an actual person, a political invention to justify Wu's defection to the Manchus, or a Maid Marian-level ballad and folktale invention. No culture in history has let irritating facts get in the way of a good story and, let's face it, even the goriest violence loses traction without some juicy sex: "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion."

Next time: The Battle of Panipat

1 comment:

Chris said...

I've been reading a lot about the Opium Wars for my China since 1600 class, and ran across a paper by Parks Croble of the University of Nebraska, in which he argues that we need an increased understanding of Chinese military history because it is not clear how war shaped China before the second half of the 19th century. Scholarship on the topic in the West is hampered by language barriers, while that in the PRC is hampered by political considerations. He says that even the basics are needed to move things forward - standard military histories of battles and wars. Even the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) needs more work before we will really understand how it influenced later developments, including the fall of the Qing, the development of the Guomingdang, and the rise of the CCP.

You can find the paper here: