Perspectives on Early Ming Military History I

In recent years, scholars have developed a new appreciation for Ming warfare. The early Ming state was, they have shown, the world’s most powerful gunpowder empire, possessing gun-bearing infantry that were more numerous and effective than those of any other state in the world. Nor did the Ming lose its military mojo over the following centuries. Whereas previously the mid- and late-Ming Dynasty military was seen as backwards, conservative, and ineffective, recent work has established that throughout the 1500s and early 1600s the Ming undertook a series of strikingly innovative reforms and adaptations, which kept it a major military power until its sudden military collapse in the late 1630s.

Scholars have drawn attention to many different aspects of Ming military history – the wide and deep use of firearms in its armed forces (the proportion of firearm-toting units was higher than in Europe from the 1300s through the mid-1500s); the rapid and effective adoption of gunpowder technology from other peoples (from Vietnam, from the Portuguese, from the Japanese, from the Ottoman Empire, from northern Europe); the effective use of advanced (by the standards of Europe) infantry tactics such as the volley technique; advanced hybrid metallurgical cannon casting techniques; experiments with broadside ships and Renaissance artillery fortresses; and so on. Yet there is much work yet to be done, and this is particularly true of the early Ming period.

This article focuses on the two-decade reign of the third Ming emperor, the bellicose and ambitious usurper Yongle (r. 1402–1424). Most work on early Ming military history has focused on his father, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. This makes sense, because, as historians have noted, Zhu Yuanzhang invested heavily in firearm manufacture, working to increase the proportions of gunners within his infantry, gunners who helped him overcome his powerful Han Chinese rivals, run the Mongols out of China, and expand China’s borders, laying the groundwork for the long and successful Ming Dynasty.

Yet his son Yongle carried forth his father’s firearms innovations, systematizing and expanding them. It was under his rule that the central administrative structure of Ming firearms use, the Firearms Commandery, was established, and Yongle increased the proportion of gunners beyond the levels in his father’s armies. He also focused on the deployment of guns in his massive wars northwards against the Mongols and southwards against Vietnam (Đại Việt), and those wars helped stimulate firearms innovation, particularly the Đại Việt conflict.

Intriguingly, Yongle didn’t start out as a partisan of the gun. Sources suggest that his attitude toward firearms changed as he made a transition from prince of the northern reaches to usurper fighting in the central plain. His embrace of the gun may thus shed light on a central problematic of Chinese military history: the question of whether guns evolved more slowly in China because the Chinese faced primarily mounted nomads as enemies, rather than infantry armies. As we’ll see, it was during his war for succession in more southerly parts of China, to wit the central plains, that he came to appreciate the gun, and he did so, it seems, because guns were used successfully against him, leading to a significant defeat from which he barely escaped. After this episode, he rapidly increased his use of guns, and we can see further stages in his use of guns occurring during the huge military expeditions he undertook after he finally defeated his rival and came to the throne. In his use of guns against the Đại Việt state (itself a powerful gunpowder empire) and the Mongols, we see the development and systematization of the Ming gunpowder empire, a coming into being of institutions and practices that would in some cases remain extant for the rest of the Ming Dynasty.


The Yongle emperor had grown up in a martial world. At the age of nine, his father named him the Prince of Yan and gave him a fiefdom based in the city of Beiping (current-day Beijing), admonishing him to “diligently drill the troops and defend the domain.” In the golden book he was given that day, his father noted that rulership was difficult and recalled his own rise: “I came from the peasantry, battled with so many warlords, and endured all kinds of hardships.” These battles and hardships were fresh in mind. The Ming Dynasty had been declared just two years previously, in 1368, and throughout the previous decade his father had fought one rival after another. Guns and other gunpowder weapons were significant factors in his eventual victory.

Sitting now upon the dragon throne, he encouraged his sons to undertake military training, and the future Yongle, i.e., the Prince of Yan, proved an eager pupil. The boy enjoyed riding and practicing and parading, and he trained hard, living in the rain and snow, learning the use of gunpowder, firearms, and traditional weapons. He grew into an impressive man: tall, athletic, and better looking than his father. At the age of seventeen he married the daughter of China’s top military man, Xu Da, who had helped bring his father victory on many occasions, as in 1367, when he captured the city of Suzhou, seat of the powerful King of Wu, Zhang Shicheng. The prince learned the art of war from his father-in-law and from another top general, Fu Youde, to whom the young prince served as aide-de-camp, helping in routine training, fortification, and patrols. He also accompanied his mentors northward on expeditions, including a famous 1381 campaign that his father launched against the Mongols, which gave a hint of his abilities as a field commander. When Xu Da died, the prince inherited the loyalty of the old general’s men, the best army in China. This loyalty would come in handy starting in 1398, when his father died and the throne passed to his nephew rather than to him.

The new emperor, who took the reign title Jianwen, was young – not quite twenty-one – but he understood that his uncle was a threat to his authority. The Prince of Yan, for his part, felt with some justification that he was more capable than his nephew. The young emperor had more troops, more resources, and the legitimacy of the throne, but the prince was a canny leader and knew how to use deception. When imperial forces surrounded his palace in Beiping in 1399, he sent out word that he would surrender. His men waited for the two imperial officials charged with arresting him to enter the palace. Then the Prince of Yan had them seized and killed. The prince’s small force of loyal guards quickly took control of Beiping and its military forces and then prepared to seize the imperial throne.

The ensuing war of succession was hard fought. The Prince of Yan was outnumbered, and the new emperor had the advantage of legitimacy, but the prince was a superior commander. For example, in one of the first major episodes, an imperial army said to be 300,000-strong was sent against him (the actual numbers were lower – perhaps 130,000). It might have seemed prudent to wait and let the army attack, relying on Beiping’s stout walls, but instead the prince moved his army southward and attacked first. It was a bold wager, based on the calculation that the imperial army was still forming and might be broken if struck hard. He attacked the army’s garrisons and encampments, using ruses and stratagems. On one occasion, he hid soldiers in the water under a bridge and hid scouts along the road to watch. When the scouts saw the enemy approach, they fired a signal cannon, at which the ambush was sprung. The imperials were trapped on the bridge and two top imperial commanders were captured. From these commanders he learned which imperial garrisons were weak. He moved against them, and soon he had routed the main imperial force.

At this point it might have seemed best to press the advantage and continue the attack, but he had a masterly sense of timing, so instead took his spoils northward – including more than 20,000 horses – and consolidated his control there. The imperials attacked Beiping but were ill-prepared for the northern winter, wearing thin clothes and poor shoes. When they gave up the siege and returned to the south, they were weak and sickly. The Prince of Yan decided to keep them tired. He made a feint to draw their attention, and, indeed, the imperials duly marched north again, and then, when the danger had lifted, turned back toward the south. Many died on the way back, leaving armor and equipment on the road.

In these early battles of the war of succession, the Prince of Yan used guns only peripherally. We see plenty of evidence of signal guns and occasionally guns used offensively or defensively, but never in core functions. This may seem odd. After all, we know that under the Prince of Yan’s father, the Hongwu Emperor, some 10 percent of infantry were already armed with firearms, which indicates that there were on the order of 150,000 gun units in Ming infantry forces. Why might the Prince of Yan have used fewer guns?

The Prince of Yan was used to warfare in northern China, and particularly to conditions in Mongolia. Kenneth Chase has argued in his influential book, Firearms: A Global History to 1700, that guns are far less useful against mounted nomads than against standard infantry armies, because early guns were slow and clumsy and ineffective on horseback. According to Chase, the fact that China faced primarily mounted nomads as enemies helps explain why it did not “perfect” guns whereas Europe did. The Chase thesis has some problems with it – most notably, the fact that it neglects the many other types of warfare that occurred in China. Southern Chinese warfare, for example, was quite a bit more like European warfare than was northern Chinese warfare. Yet if Chase’s conclusions are too sweeping, he is nonetheless onto something. Northern warfare was different from southern warfare; guns were used differently against mounted nomads.

Until the war of succession, the Prince of Yan’s experiences were primarily based on northern warfare. His father had deliberately situated his princedom in Beiping, knowing that his primary foes would be mounted nomads, primarily Mongols. The Prince of Yan was the second-highest ranking son but he was also the most able, and he ended up playing a major role in northern defenses, commanding various expeditions against “wild men” and frontier raiders. He was particularly successful against the Mongols. In early 1396, for example, he led troops to defeat a major Mongol force east of the bend of the Yellow River and then chased them to Uriyangqad, taking prisoner top Mongol commanders. This type of warfare against Mongols frequently focused less on infantry – who were, after all, the primary types of troops armed with guns – and more on cavalry, who were generally armed with traditional weapons.

But when he fought against the forces of his nephew in the central plains of China, an area suited to infantry warfare, he experienced firsthand the devastating effect of guns. The most frightening battle of his life occurred in January of 1401. The prince, feeling confident, had moved against the commander-in-chief of the imperials, a general named Sheng Yong, who had garrisoned his troops in Dongchang City, in Shandong Province (present day Liaocheng City). Although the sources differ on some particulars, the main contours of the battle seem clear. Sheng Yong had prepared carefully, feeding his troops, readying the walls, inspecting and reviewing battle formations, and, most importantly, “preparing and laying out firearms and poison crossbows to await [the Prince of Yan].” The prince’s troops were confident, having won so many engagements, and they advanced at once upon Sheng Yong’s troops. But when Sheng Yong’s guns opened fire, the results were disastrous. The troops of the Prince of Yan “were all entirely wounded by the firearms.”

Sheng Yong, spirits buoyed by the arrival of reinforcements, pressed his advantage, and the prince found himself and his cavalry troops completely surrounded. As one source notes, “the Prince of Yan tried to attack and charge, but he couldn’t escape.” The enemy pressed in, and “the prince was in grave danger several times.”

Fortunately for the Prince of Yan, his nephew, the young emperor, had issued a filial order: no one was to harm the Prince of Yan, who, after all, had imperial blood. So although swords slashed close, the enemy soldiers never dared to cut him. The prince was saved by the arrival of some “barbarian cavalry troops,” most likely Mongols who had joined the Ming. The mounted warriors charged the imperials’ lines from the outside, extracted the prince, and galloped off. The prince survived, but the troops he left behind were less lucky. In the melee and under the fire of Sheng Yong’s guns, perhaps ten thousand of the prince’s troops expired.

All accounts of this key defeat focus on the devastating role of guns. The Ming History says that Sheng Yong “used firearms and powerful crossbows to annihilate the prince’s troops.” A history written by Ming scholar Tan Xisi noted that “Yan’s troops suffered a great defeat from the firearms.” The biography of Sheng Yong in the Ming History notes that “multitudes of Yan troops were wounded by the firearms.”

The battle seems to have traumatized the prince. He was particularly preoccupied by the loss of one of his top generals, his friend and mentor Zhang Yu, who died trying to save him from encirclement. “Victory and defeat are part of life,” he is said to have exclaimed, “but at a time like this to have also lost such a teacher [as Zhang Yu] is deeply lamentable.” It seems that whenever the Battle of Dongchang was discussed, the prince became disturbed, having trouble eating and finding it impossible to rest. It is of course impossible to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder from across a chasm of six centuries, but his symptoms certainly seem commensurate with such a diagnosis. And a traumatic battle experience like this – in which fear, responsibility, and near capture is combined with guilt at being saved while leaving comrades behind to die – is just the sort of thing to elicit such symptoms.

What is particularly intriguing, however, is that his military leadership seems to have changed. In subsequent battles in the war of succession, he was much more diffident – less bold, less decisive. As the Ming History notes, at the beginning of his revolt “the prince’s troops had been victorious and able, and there was nothing like Dongchang, but from that point forward, the Prince of Yan’s troops went southward only to Xu and Jin. They didn’t dare again go to Shandong.”

There was an even more important change to the prince’s warcraft after Dongchang: he began to integrate guns more firmly into his warcraft. After Dongchang, guns are mentioned more frequently in descriptions of battles. His gun victories weren’t always glorious. On one occasion, for example, he launched a dawn gun attack on an imperial encampment, and the imperials mistook the gunfire for signal cannon on their own side. They rushed out the gate and, panicking under fire, fell into the deep trenches that they themselves had dug. But there were also great gun victories, as when the prince’s gunmen terrified Sheng Yong himself. The prince had dispatched a small force of gunmen to creep close to the great general’s encampment. Once within range, they opened fire. The imperials threw down their weapons and ran. Sheng Yong was supposedly frozen with fear, unable to climb on his horse, and had to be carried to a waiting boat.

After the gunmen’s victory over Sheng Yong, the prince’s momentum increased. He moved closer and closer to Nanjing. The fall of the imperial city, however, was achieved not by arms but by intrigue. The prince had collaborators within the administration of the young emperor, whose policies had alienated key blocs of power, including the once-powerful eunuchs. When the prince entered Nanjing in the summer of 1402, he did so by the most traditional means in China’s military history: through a gate opened by conspirators.

The prince ascended the dragon throne and took as his reign title the term Yongle, “eternal happiness,” but his reign is remembered less for happiness than for outlandish ambition and profligate spending. Much of this spending went to a huge military buildup, in which firearms played a key role.

Historians have shown that the Yongle period (1402–1424) saw the highest sustained gun production levels of the entire early Ming period (1368–1521, i.e, Hongwu through Zhengde reigns). This production – which sometimes reached around ten thousand guns per month – was overseen by new centralized facilities, most notably the famous Firearms Commandery, a bureau tasked with overseeing firearms production and training. The protocols and structures he established continued in use throughout the dynasty. Those protocols and structures emerged, however, in a somewhat ad hoc fashion, as part of a series of massive expeditions Yongle undertook, southward against the Đại Việt state, and northward against the Mongols.

Yongle’s Vietnamese War

Although it is barely mentioned in our history textbooks, the Ming Vietnamese War was one of the most important wars of the late medieval period. Whereas armies in contemporary European conflicts numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands, Yongle sent more than two-hundred thousand troops to Vietnam. It was also a war in which both sides – but especially the Ming – employed the most advanced weapons in the world. Indeed, according to historian Sun Laichen, whose wonderful work has explored this war in detail, the spectacular victory of the Ming invasion force was due mainly to “Ming China’s military superiority, including firearms.”

To be sure, there is a tendency among some scholars to overrate Ming technological superiority. Wang Zhaochun has written, for example, that the first time the Ming invaded Vietnam, the Vietnamese had no firearms. This was clearly not the case. As Sun Laichen points out, Vietnamese annals make clear that the Vietnamese state – known as Đại Việt – deployed guns against its long-term enemy to the south, the Cham state, against whom it had been fighting a series of increasingly desperate wars. The Chams were led by a warlike king, who invaded Đại Việt over and over again in the 1360s, 1370s, and 1380s. By 1390, the Đại Việt state was on the brink of collapse. Guns saved it. Đại Việt forces shot and killed the Cham king with a Ming-style gun [huochong].

The Vietnamese adoption of Chinese guns saved their state, and after 1390 Đại Việt began to enjoy the upper hand in its battles with Champa, as noted by John Whitmore in the present volume. Indeed, by 1471 the expansive Vietnamese state had defeated and annexed its longtime rival, relegating Champa to the status of a historical footnote, one that is largely ignored in the West, thereby obscuring the Vietnamese accomplishment and glossing over the crucial role of firearms in the process. Many Western authors still ignore the widespread presence of firearms in Southeast Asia prior to the large-scale arrival of Europeans and completely discount the role of the Ming in disseminating these firearms as chronicled ably by Sun Laichen in his many publications.

It’s rarely a good idea for a great power to get involved in Vietnam, so what made Yongle decide to invade? In 1404, a man appeared in Yongle’s court and said he was the legitimate heir to the throne of Annam (i.e., Đại Việt) and that his family – the Tran – had been usurped by the Ho clan. After considerable diplomatic wrangling with the actual occupants of the Vietnamese throne, Yongle decided to try to reinstate the man. In early 1406, he sent five thousand soldiers to escort him to the Đại Việt capital. The expedition never made it. The Ho army ambushed them, killing most of the Chinese troops as well as Tran himself. When Yongle learned about the ambush he supposedly flew into a rage. “If we don’t destroy them,” he said, “then what are our armies for?”

Was he really so furious? Had he really expected that five thousand Chinese troops would be able to impose his will on a state as powerful as Đại Việt? Or did he perhaps deliberately send a vulnerable force of escorts so that, once it was attacked, he would have a pretext for war? We’ll never know, but we do know that Yongle began preparing his campaign immediately after this outburst, and he put considerable care into it.

What is intriguing is that in making his preparations he recognized the fact that the Đại Việt troops were armed with powerful guns. He ordered his commanders to follow ten elements of his strategic plan, and among them was the following point:

[I have heard] that the enemy has prepared many firearms to resist the enemy. If our troops, when on the march, should encounter a mountain that is narrow and dangerous, they should rather avoid it than to waste our troops’ strength. Moreover, [I] have heard that the enemy has prepared its equipment not thinking that there is anything to stand up against it . . . [I] order that the Board of Works discuss the development and production of a thicker armor in order to withstand their firearms.

Following this exhortation are stipulations about how workers should weave the armor out of bamboo and strengthen it with leather, with clear benchmarks for testing its resistance to projectiles at various ranges. Yongle, like his father, paid close attention to the role of guns.

He also took measures to prevent his advanced gun designs from being leaked to the enemy. “It is most important,” he commanded, that the miraculous weapon guns that are employed and all types of gunpowder weapons (huoqi) be kept in the strictest secrecy. It is not permitted to leak [them] to foreigners so that they can learn the techniques. When encountering the enemy, be certain to carefully and secretly gather them together [afterward].

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