A 17th-century handscroll depiction of battle during the Imjin War.
In 1127 the Jurchen Jin from Manchuria captured the Song capital, Kaifeng, on the Central Plains. Song sovereignty seemed on the verge of collapse, with both the emperor and the retired emperor captured. The immediate reach of the Jin army, however, was limited to the land north of the Huai River. A new Song emperor established himself in southern China and began to reconstruct a semblance of a government. Under these circumstances the Song navy became vital to the survival of the state. The contrast between the Jin and the later Mongols is instructive. Jin superiority on land was more than offset by naval weakness, and Jin’s failure to develop an effective navy prevented it from conquering the Song. The Mongols, on the other hand, realized that a strong navy was a necessary prerequisite to conquering the south.
The Jin responded to the appearance of the new Song emperor by crossing the Yangzi River and chasing him south. He was forced to take ship and wait at sea for the crisis to pass. The Jin army was unable to maintain itself in southern China and retreated north. When it reached the Yangzi, however, it found its way blocked by Han Shizhong’s 8,000-man navy. Jin reinforcements waited on the north bank, while the Jin army on the south bank found itself threatened by the gathering Song forces. The Song navy, with its large oceangoing warships, wreaked havoc on the small Jin vessels. The 100,000-man Jin army was entirely stymied until a Chinese collaborator pointed out that all of the Song navy’s advantages and the Jin navy’s disadvantages would be reversed when there was no wind. So, on a windless day, the smaller Jin ships rowed out and shot fire arrows into the becalmed Song navy, destroying most of it. The Jin troops were finally able to recross the Yangzi. This narrow escape probably contributed to keeping the Jin on the north side of the river for another thirty years. Han Shizhong’s men had held up the Jin army for forty-eight days.
The next major Jin invasion came in 1161. This 600,000-man invasion force was divided into four major routes, one of which was an attack from the sea. The Jin naval force, however, fell victim to a Song fleet under Li Bao. Li’s fleet of 3,000 men and 120 ships regularly attacked the Jin territory by sea, and so was quite familiar with the sailing routes. He attacked the Jin’s 600 ships and 100,000 troops at their base. Li’s force confidently engaged the much larger Jin fleet, knowing that their opponents were poor sailors and unaccustomed to fighting at sea. The Song navy’s fire arrows made short work of the Jin fleet, annihilating the entire Jin force in this single engagement.
While Li Bao was disposing of the Jin seaborne force, the main army under the Jin emperor came up against another Song fleet, this time on the Yangzi River. The original Song commander of the border defenses elected to fall back from the Huai River and defend the Yangzi line instead. He was promptly sacked, but before his replacement could assume command of the Yangzi River forces, matters came to a head. The Jin army outnumbered the Song army by nearly ten to one, yet it had failed to make proper provision for crossing the river. Its ships were constructed with the wood from dismantled houses. Command of the Song navy fell to Yu Yunwen, a civil official with no military experience. Yu proved himself a master of naval warfare, however, repeatedly inflicting devastating defeats upon the Jin. It was simply impossible for the Jin army to cross the Yangzi at that point, so the Jin emperor shifted his army downstream hoping to find another way across. Yu anticipated this and, while his navy was then limited by lower water levels, its continued presence on the river dissuaded the Jin emperor from further attempts to cross. Yu and the Song navy had rendered superior Jin army numbers moot. The invasion had foundered on its lack of an effective navy.
The Mongols did not repeat the Jin’s mistakes. They completely overran the last of the Jin state by 1234 and, despite earlier cooperative efforts with the Song, found themselves contemplating the same sorts of invasions that the Jin had attempted in the twelfth century. For the moment, the Huai and Yangzi river defenses were not seriously assaulted as Mongol armies occupied themselves with the rest of Eurasia. It was only when Khubilai became khan in 1260 that the continued existence of the Song in southern China came to the fore. Khubilai had originally shifted his power base into China in order to exploit Chinese resources in his struggle for supremacy with the other Mongol princes. Now firmly rooted in China and secure in his rule, he saw that vast riches could be extracted from the wealthy south. It was also clear that a navy would be required for any serious action against the Song, Mongol efforts in Sichuan having already been repulsed through a coordinated defensive system of forts and fortified cities.
The Mongol navy owed its creation to Khubilai. As was explicitly pointed out in his court, “If there were no Yangzi then that country [the Song] would also not exist.” Construction of five thousand warships and training of 70,000 troops in naval warfare began in 1270. Three years later a further two thousand ships and more than 50,000 troops were added to the growing Mongol navy. The navy continued to grow into an overwhelming force. Several thousand Mongol ships took part in the 1273 campaign against the Song. Once the Song lost control of the Yangzi River, its fate was decided. The final tattered remains of the dynasty, including an infant emperor, were destroyed in a climactic sea battle off the island of Yaishan (near today’s Hong Kong) in 1279.
In the course of destroying the Song, Khubilai turned his navy to other military adventures. He attempted to invade Japan twice, in 1274 and again in 1281. The Mongol navy also attacked Vietnam in 1282 and 1287. These campaigns represented the high point of Mongol naval power. Subsequent Mongol expansion on land and sea lost the explosiveness that characterized their efforts during the thirteenth century, and Mongol control of China was fairly short-lived. By the mid-fourteenth century the Mongol regime had begun to implode, and rebellions sprang up all over China.
The leader who would emerge to found a new dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644), started his career in southern China. Zhu Yuanzhang became the only ruler ever to unify China and establish a stable regime by moving from south to north. Not surprising, naval operations were vital to the growth of his power. By 1360 the Ming was situated on the middle reaches of the Yangzi River, sandwiched between the forces of Han upstream and Wu downstream. Han was the much greater threat, due to both its greater size (its subject population in 1359 was 14 million, as compared to the Ming’s 8 million) and aggressiveness. Wu, by contrast, was only slightly larger than the Ming, and much less aggressive.
War between these southern rivals centered around the capture of walled cities. These cities were the economic and political keys to the surrounding territory, and frequently commanded the transportation and communication routes. Combined with the extensive use of ships for transporting men, horses, and provisions, the importance of attacking walled cities led to vessels with extremely tall stern structures purpose-built to overtop walls along waterways. As we have seen from our earlier discussions, this was not a new innovation, but rather the revival of an old idea. These large vessels, combining both transport and siege functions, maneuvered poorly, but were still effective in naval combat because of their size. In spite of the extensive use of fire weapons, including cannon, naval combat was still frequently decided by hand-to-hand combat.
A turning point in Ming fortunes came during the 1363 Boyang Lake campaign against Han. Although a Ming ambush three years earlier near Nanjing had virtually destroyed the Han navy and greatly strengthened that of the Ming, internal rebellions removed Ming pressure long enough for the Han to rebuild their navy. Early in 1363 Wu momentarily distracted the Ming downstream, giving Han a good opportunity to attack the city of Nanchang, on the Gan River off Boyang Lake. Nanchang was vital to the control of Jiangxi province, and lay much closer to the Han center of power than to that of the Ming.
Particularly large ships were constructed for Han’s attack on Nanchang, with tall stern castles and iron-plated archers’ towers. This was an all-out effort by the Han ruler Chen Youliang, for which he had gathered some 300,000 men and vast quantities of supplies. Ideally, the enormous size of the Han vessels would allow them to quickly carry the main cities and towns as they proceeded downstream, avoiding protracted sieges. However, the fleet was hung up on the siege of Nanchang.
The Han fleet arrived on June 5 and, despite some initial success in breaching the city’s outer wall, remained stuck there until August 28, when an approaching Ming fleet some 100,000 men strong drove them off. The ensuing fleet action on Boyang Lake was an uninspired slugging match, led by the rival rulers. If Chen destroyed the Ming fleet, then Nanchang would fall. Zhu, on the other hand, had only to raise the siege to succeed in his objective. Yet the Ming fleet was outnumbered by the Han fleet, and its ships were smaller. Its only advantage lay in its position across the line of retreat of the Han fleet, whose deeper draft vessels were now restricted by lower water levels. From August 30 to September 2 the two fleets fought a series of bloody engagements that weakened and demoralized both sides. Still, Zhu Yuanzhang was succeeding in his objective of raising the siege, and Chen Youliang had failed to win anything like a decisive victory despite his superior strength. Ironically, it was the different drafts of the main ships in the shallow lake that had contributed to the indecisiveness of the fighting. The Han ships were frequently unable to approach the Ming ships in shallow water, so although the Ming fleet was weaker in all respects, it retained the initiative.
The Ming fleet withdrew on the night of September 2, threading its way through the straits leading from the lake to the Yangzi River. It then took a position upstream from the mouth of the straits, again blocking the Han fleet’s line of retreat. Despite several important defections to the Ming cause, the Han fleet was still considerably stronger. By the time the battle was joined on October 3, however, the Han fleet was in a do-or-die situation. It had simply run out of food. Combat quickly broke down into clumps of opposing vessels drifting downstream locked in hand-to-hand combat. The results of that day’s fighting would have been similarly inconclusive except for two major incidents: Chen Youliang’s death from a stray arrow, and the capture of his son, the designated successor to the Han throne. The remains of the leaderless fleet surrendered the following day.
In retrospect, this inelegant and bloody naval campaign was a turning point in the development of Ming power. Zhu Yuanzhang was able to expand into Han territory over the next two years and increase his power to the point where he could overrun Wu in 1367. The following year Zhu declared the founding of a new dynasty, and launched campaigns into north China and along the southern coast. Naval forces played a key role in conquering the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, and they also played a significant role in supplying the northern campaigns. With the remnants of Mongol power driven back to the steppes, though not destroyed, Zhu turned his attention in 1371 to conquering the Xia regime in Sichuan. A two-pronged attack began in early summer and was over by September. The Ming fleet virtually shot its way into Sichuan, using cannon to destroy the booms deployed to block its progress up the Yangzi River.
Despite continuing increases in the number and size of vessels during Zhu Yuanzhang’s reign, the navy was shifted to a defensive role as part of a generally defensive foreign policy. The Ming court’s attitude toward foreign trade would vary not only from emperor to emperor, but also over the course of individual reigns. At the same time, however, overseas trade continued to grow without regard for the government’s desires. By the mid-sixteenth century the issue of overseas trade came to a head when some court officials connected it to the endemic problem of piracy along the southeastern coast. While there was undoubtedly some truth to the belief that trade and piracy were related, many prominent local families along the coast were engaged in the lucrative overseas trade. Locally, then, central government efforts to suppress piracy by suppressing trading were extremely unpopular, and ultimately backfired. Legitimate merchants who had been interested in helping the government capture real pirates found their livelihood criminalized. They were thus forced to become pirates themselves.
Zhu Wan was originally sent to suppress piracy along the Fujian and Zhejiang coast in 1547. He was forced to recruit his own staff because local officials refused to cooperate with him in his intention to prohibit trade. Whatever the effect of his efforts on piracy, Zhu was fairly successful in suppressing trade. He repeatedly attacked merchant fleets and executed many of those he captured. Unfortunately for him, his actions earned him the enmity of officials from those provinces. Zhu was impeached in 1549, and committed suicide early the next year to avoid disgrace.
Although Zhu Wan was gone and his fleet dispersed, the Ming court did not change its policy on overseas trade. Faced with an even stricter ban, merchant fleets under the leadership of Wang Zhi began coordinated raids against the southeast coast in 1552. These raids came on the heels of famine and drought, further exacerbating already difficult conditions in the region. By 1554, these raids had been so successful, and the government response so ineffective, that the pirates established fortified bases on the mainland from which to raid further inland. Chinese pirates were joined by Japanese warriors, causing all of them to be labeled wokou (Japanese bandits). Much of the countryside was left to be pillaged, while government armies stayed in the walled cities after repeated defeats in the field in 1553 and 1554. During all of this, it seems that Wang Zhi and many of his fellow Chinese merchants were still looking for a way to return to the peaceful pursuit of trade. The emperor had decided upon extermination of the bandits, however, closing off the possibility of allowing men like Wang to surrender and serve the government by destroying the other pirates. Wang eventually did surrender and was executed because his captor could not deliver the pardon he had promised. Even so, the underhanded dealing of the government had eliminated some of the major pirates, and improved imperial forces began to take their toll. This was largely a victory of land forces, though, rather than a massive naval effort. The worst depredations were over by the 1560s.
The fear of pirate raids surfaced again in 1592, after the Japanese invasion of Korea. Naval operations were to play a crucial role in both this invasion and a second one in 1597. The Japanese army had to bring most of its supplies and all of its men to Korea by sea. Its logistics were further complicated by Korean partisans, who actively denied the Japanese control of the countryside. Confronted by the formidable Ming armies in the field, and with their communications attacked at sea, the Japanese forces received the order to retreat even before their warlord Hideyoshi died (in Japan) in 1598. Without control over the sea lanes, the Japanese invasion force was always in danger of being cut off from retreat. Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin’s “turtle boats,” iron-plated galleys armed with cannon, wreaked havoc on the Japanese navy (although Admiral Yi is not much credited in the Chinese sources). The Koreans were saved by their navy, and that of the Ming.
The Ming navy would also preserve the last shreds of the Ming cause when the dynasty fell to the Manchus in the seventeenth century. In the 1640s, the dynasty was caught between internal rebellion and the rising Manchu Qing regime north of the Great Wall. These twin threats prevented an adequate response to either, and Beijing fell in 1644, first to the rebel leader Li Zicheng and then to the Manchus. A new Ming emperor was enthroned in Nanjing, the first capital from which Zhu Yuanzhang had ruled the empire, following the suicide of the sitting emperor when Li Zicheng’s army entered Beijing. While the Manchu forces were overrunning north China, the new Ming court was attempting to achieve some semblance of normality amidst bitter factionalism. By June of the following year the Qing army had captured Nanjing as well as the new emperor. Ming loyalist forces still held out in southern China, however, relying upon naval strength that they hoped the Qing could not counter. Yet at the same time the men in control of those forces, principally Zheng Zhilong, were reluctant to do more than defend the south. Fragments of Ming rule survived for some years, with one court spending much of its time on Zhoushan Island off the coast of Zhejiang.
Qing efforts to eradicate these Ming remnants concentrated on destroying the various resistance forces on the mainland while building up a navy capable of taking Zhoushan Island. In addition, they made every effort to suppress trade with the island. The Qing fleet overwhelmed the Ming navy in October of 1651, then battered Zhoushan City into submission with cannon fire. Regent Lu, representing one of the last threads of Ming rule, fled by sea to seek the protection of Zheng Chenggong, the son of Zheng Zhilong. Zheng Chenggong (also known as Koxinga) had taken command of the Zheng family navy after his father surrendered to the Qing. The younger Zheng had been born in Japan of a Japanese mother, and represented exactly the sort of trader-pirate that had plagued the Chinese coast in the 1550s.
The Qing had great difficulty overcoming Zheng because of his overwhelming naval strength and his bases in areas nearly inaccessible by land. By 1655, after two years of fruitless attempts by the Qing court to induce him to surrender on favorable terms, Zheng actually began to expand northward. A Qing fleet was destroyed trying to capture Jinmen Island off the Fujian coast in 1656, inducing the Manchus to turn to less direct methods. Their previous prohibition on coastal trading was extended to encompass more of the coastline, while amnesties were offered to pirates who surrendered and served the Qing. This brought the Qing valuable sailors and ships, but Zheng’s northern expansion was ultimately hobbled much more by his limited ability to sustain a land attack and his lack of familiarity with the waters of the Yangzi River and the north. After a crushing defeat on land outside Nanjing in 1659, he retreated to defend his territory from the expected Qing counteroffensive. Zheng recognized that he needed a more secure base farther from the mainland. In 1661, he shifted his base to Taiwan, driving out the Dutch. He died the following year. His son held out for another two decades, but there was a limit to what purely naval force could do.
The Qing would have little use for a navy for quite some time after Admiral Shi Lang finally subjugated Taiwan in 1683. It was not until it was confronted by another group of trader-raiders, this time Europeans, in the nineteenth century that the Qing court had to once again take up the serious matter of naval affairs. As with all previous dynasties, the Qing had been forced to develop some naval capability during its conquest of the Chinese empire. And just like many of its predecessors, it later found itself desperately trying to erect a naval line of defense against attacks on its sovereignty.