Barbarians at the Gates?


B. (Barend) Noordam, MA


In broad lines my project concerns the ways in which the Ming Empire (1368-1644) endeavoured to control the martial resources and potential of the realm’s frontiers. I have chosen to approach this topic by studying two frontiers, which during the reign of the dynasty often proved to be troublesome: the northern frontier bordering the steppe, and the southern coastal frontier. Both frontiers were the scene of intensive military conflict between the sedentary empire and more mobile “outsiders”, respectively the Mongol (and later Manchu semi-nomads) in the north and the `pirates’ (of diverse ethnic origins) in the south. I will look at how the military policies developed to deal with the problem of military security at the frontier had their impact upon the recruitment and identity formation of the army. A study like this could also be performed on the question of internal security and the use of the army to suppress internal rebellion, but a look at the frontier, where the empire confronted the outsider, other or barbarian, throws in greater relief the questions of ethnic composition, social aspects of recruitment, identity, self-perception and dynastic or political loyalty of the military.

Intellectual goals

Macao (1602)

Macao (1602)

I aim to meet different intellectual goals with this study. The first goal is to contribute to the developing historical discourse on the Ming empire which seeks to decenter the prevalent notion of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous Chinese polity, and instead emphasize its status of a pluralistic multi-faceted entity with multiple identities at the frontier. Here a Chinese identity had to co-exist with the identities of frontier communities and negotiate the meaning of `empire’ with them. This will be analyzed against the backdrop of the founder’s intention that the Ming should be a Mongol successor state and not merely a Chinese empire. This identity was foremost articulated by the imperial family, with the powerful and vocal civil bureaucracy tending more towards cultural chauvinism and belligerence, which has biased many of the sources dating from the period under review. I will approach the topic through the problematic of frontier military security and the effects it had on the recruitment, social composition and self-perception of the military.

The second goal is to contribute to the deconstruction of the persistent myth of a lasting dichotomy between wen and wu, the civil and the martial, and the consistent downplaying and devaluation of the latter by the former. Instead, I will argue that, since at least the later sixteenth century, in matters of frontier defense, but lasting until the end of the empire, a significant mingling and merging took place between civil and military officials of the empire. In this process civil literati became more preoccupied with military matters and the military elite took over many of the values and customs of the civil literati, prompting the rise to a new mixed civil-military elite who were united in their concern with the defense of their empire.

Generals Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou

In this context I wish to introduce the two generals who will form the subject of this study: Qi Jiguang (1528-1588) and Yu Dayou (1503-1579). There are several reasons why they constitute interesting starting points from which to venture an analysis of the late Ming military. Both were responsible for innovations in the sphere of military organization in the late sixteenth century. They emphasized the rigid training and drilling of certain segments of the coastal population to suppress piracy by military means. Both articulated views on the proper manpower pool that was eligible for recruitment practices, with Qi Jiguang preferring peasants who he praised for their ruggedness and loyalty. Yu Dayou on the other hand preferred youthful and physically imposing recruits with a martial disposition. Qi and Yu emphasized drilling and rigid discipline to instill a sense of obedience and esprit de corps. Qi Jiguang in addition wanted to create strong bonds of loyalty between officers and men, something which was contrary to previous state policies, but it did seem to enhance combat performance considerably. Both generals were able to implement their innovations thanks to patronage by influential court officials and seem to have been part of a developing combined civil-military elite. Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou in addition also served at the northern frontier and they thus represent agents in a transfer process of new approaches to military organization between both the southern maritime and northern steppe frontiers.

Even more important is the fact that the two generals left their own written record, which gives the military branch of the Ming empire a voice of its own. Through the writings of Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou on military frontier matters I will assess their perception of empire through their perception of non-Chinese and Chinese alike and the policies they recommended (and implemented) to preserve the empire through the military incorporation of different ethnic groups and the Chinese. Linked to this will be an analysis of the Chinese military labour market as it reveals itself in the composition of Chinese frontier armies. In this process the military will be thought of as an identity marker through which empires and their (barbarian) others defined themselves against each other, and thus became a field for the negotiation of cultural identity. This comparative analysis of two different imperial frontiers will shed more light on the composition, identity formation, place and function of the Ming (frontier) military within its polity, clarifying its role as an agent of cohesion and integration.

Last Modified: 11-08-2014