Perspectives on Early Ming Military History II

Ming artillerymen.

How many gunners did Yongle send to Đại Việt? There are no detailed records, but we can make an estimate, based on the fact that a decree of Hongwu stipulated that ten percent of Ming infantry units be gun units. Given that the Ming invasion force numbered 215,000, most of which were infantry, we can guess that there were on the order of twenty thousand or so gunners. The importance of guns is also suggested by the fact that among the top officers sent were at least four generals specifically in charge of firearms, referred to by the title “Miraculous Weapon General.”

Guns certainly appear in battle accounts. When the Ming troops moved southward, Đại Việt troops defended the passes into Vietnam with guns. Ming forces easily defeated them and moved southward, stopping at the Red River to construct ships, which they armed with guns, quite possibly the bowl-mouth guns that were standard equipment on most Ming vessels by this point. The Vietnamese attacked across the river with guns, but were routed, and the Ming were able to deploy their guns against a key point in the Đại Việt defense: the City of Do-bang, which guarded the entrance to the Red River plain, the heart of Vietnam.

Do-bang was amply armed with guns, but according to the Ming Veritable Records, the Vietnamese barely got a chance to fire them: Do-bang’s impressive walls were simply climbed in a brilliantly conceived and daringly executed night move. The Veritable Records says that Ming troops, holding bits in their mouth to enforce silence, snuck through the darkness to the walls, placed their ladders against them, and then climbed and began slashing at the defenders with swords. The latter were so surprised they didn’t even have time to shoot. Vietnamese records, however, suggest that the Veritable Records may not have been so veritable: “The dead bodies [of the Ming soldiers] piled up as high as the city wall, but [the Ming troops] still kept climbing and fighting; nobody dared to stop.” Both sources, however, indicate that Ming guns were not used to batter walls or gates or structures of any kind. They were aimed at people. And at elephants.

Tượng binh – lit. “War Elephant”. War elephants have always been symbol of wealth and power in Southeast Asia. Captured from the wild jungle, savage male elephants are tamed and trained for years to become ferocious weapons in themselves. Despite their inferior quality in comparison with elephantry of the Cham or Khmers, these beasts could carry Viet nobles and their retainers into the thickest of battles. From a secured howdah, troops on its back can fire crossbows with greater accuracy and line of sight that infantry.

Once inside the walls, the Ming faced Đại Việt’s elephant troops. The beasts were huge, towering over cavalry, with frightening tusks. They broke formations, trampling soldiers and smashing everything in their path. They could grab enemy soldiers and hurl them into the air, or smash them with the forehead, or gore and gouge with tusks, or crush beneath knees. To counter the elephants, Ming firearm generals arrayed gunners to the sides of a Ming cavalry corps, whose horses had been given lion masks to scare the elephants. “The firearms general Luo Wen and others deployed guns in front at the flanks. The elephants all trembled with fear and were wounded by the gun arrows, and they all withdrew and ran away, at which the enemy troops scattered in panic. “Other sources suggest that the Ming also shot rocket arrows at the elephants. Ming soldiers pursued and continued picking off enemy soldiers with arrows, handguns, and heavier guns (pao), killing many. Elephant troops had long been a challenge to Chinese armies, and this wasn’t the first time guns evened the balance. A famous battle in 1388 saw Ming gunners triumph against an enemy elephant corps in Yunnan.

In any case, with Do-bang defeated, Ming forces could move into the Red River Delta, and in these various battles of early 1407, firearms proved vital, as when on 21 February soldiers wielding firearms, including “bowl-mouth guns,” attacked a huge Đại Việt fleet, the “firearms like flying stars and lightning.” As many as ten thousand Đại Việt troops were killed. On 18 March, Ming troops used “great general guns” to destroy more enemy ships. In early May, Ming forces, including four firearms generals, fought against a 70,000-strong Đại Việt force and hundreds of vessels. The Đại Việt were equipped with guns, but the Ming won decisively, killing as many as ten thousand and capturing hundreds of warships. By summertime, Ming firearms generals and others were chasing the Ho king of Đại Việt southward. They caught him in mid-June, bringing the invasion to a successful close.

In the fall, six senior officers of the expedition returned to Nanjing to report the victory, including firearms general Zhang Sheng. Yongle himself went to a city gate to welcome them home, and it was a major event, with all the civil and military officials in attendance. Doubtless there were crowds of onlookers as well, eager to catch a glimpse of the Đại Việt prisoners in their cages, among whom were the former king and his sons.

One son was Ho Nguyen Trung (Li Cheng, in Chinese), an expert in firearms who had been in charge of making guns for his father’s armies.48 Whereas other members of his family were imprisoned, he was put in charge of manufacturing guns and gunpowder in the Ming Military Armory Department. Eventually he rose to be the chief of the Ministry of Works, one of the top posts in the Chinese bureaucracy. He was so revered for his work that he was even offered a ritual sacrifice when the Ming court held a memorial ceremony for the “God of Firearms.” As a late Ming scholar wrote, circa 1606,

Our dynasty employed firearms to combat the northern barbarians, [which] are number-one weapons from ancient times to the present. However, the ingenious (qing miao, meaning literally “light” and “wonderful”) techniques of these firearms were not obtained until Emperor Wen (Yongle) pacified Jiaozhi. Hence, [our dynasty] hired its false Grand Councillor . . . to work in the Ministry of Works, [to be] solely in charge of manufacturing [Vietnamese-style firearms], and all the techniques were truly grasped.

Nguyen Trung wasn’t the only firearms expert the Chinese brought from Vietnam. In one cage was a Vietnamese firearms commander named Chen Tangmeng, and over the following months, thousands more prisoners arrived in the Ming capital, some of whom were artisans skilled at making gunpowder, guns (huo chong), and fire lances. Indeed, historian Sun Laichen believes – with good reason – that the techniques and methods introduced by the Vietnamese helped transform Ming firearms technology. Perhaps the most notable improvement was a wooden chip that was rammed into place after the powder had been inserted, after which the projectile was placed on top. This created a complete occlusion of the barrel, so that the full force created by the gunpowder reaction was imparted to the missile.

Some historians even credit the Vietnamese with the creation of one of the most important military institutions of Ming China: the Firearms Commandery [shen ji ying]. The Firearms Commandery was one of the Three Great Commanderies of the Ming, central military structures based in the Ming capital. The other two great commanderies were devoted to infantry and cavalry. The Firearms Commandery was an elite fighting force in itself, but it was also responsible for training other divisions in firearms use. It became a key part of Yongle’s armed forces, but there are many mysteries about it.

We don’t know, for example, when precisely it was founded. According to the official Ming History, “When Chengzu [i.e., Yongle] pacified Vietnam [Jiaozhi], the art of magical lances and guns was obtained, and a special Firearms Commandery was established to expand and practice it.” But of course, the Ming knew of gunpowder weapons well before the invasion of Đại Việt, and there are various other bits of evidence to suggest other dates for the founding of the commandery. We can say that it was probably founded sometime around 1409. That is in any case well before any remotely similar institution was established in Europe. Western historians have argued that the world’s first “full-fledged” administrative organ pertaining to firearms was the artillery corps of the Frenchmen Jean and Gaspard Bureau, which appears to have been founded sometime around the year 1435. But of course the Ming Firearms Commandery existed before that, and it was much larger. Whereas the Bureau brothers seem to have had thirty cannoneers and a small group of other technicians under their command, the Ming Firearms Commandery had at least five-thousand men under it.

They practiced and drilled carefully. The loading and firing of a gun was not as simple as we might imagine it to be and required considerable practice to train soldiers to do it smoothly, something that had to be second nature to them, because they might have to do it when confronted by Vietnamese elephants or Mongol cavalry. The powder had to be added in precise amounts, and the measurements required were inscribed on the powder scoops that seem to have been standard issue with guns starting in the early Ming. The powder was tamped down with a tamping rod. Examples of tamping rods have been excavated, although they are rare, because they were made of wood, which decomposes rapidly. On top of the powder was placed the “wooden horse chip” to contain the gunpowder explosion and increase the amount of energy imparted to the projectile. That was rammed down and then the projectile itself was added. Often the projectile was a hewn stone or cast iron ball, but there is evidence to suggest that many fire lances also shot arrows. Projectiles didn’t fit perfectly snugly against the side of the cannon, which is why you needed the plug. Then you’d hold the gun out, apply fire to the “fire-gate,” a bored hole in the body of the gun that led to the powder chamber, and the gun would go off. Ming guns were short, and the possibilities for misfires and backfire were legion, making training all the more important. Since most soldiers were illiterate, there were songs and chants to help them remember the stages.

All of this training was required just to learn to load and shoot the guns effectively, but gunners also had to learn to work in close coordination with each other and with other types of units. Drill and regimen were vital to the success of the endeavor, a fact which Yongle himself pointed out. He admonished his top military commander Liu Sheng to pay careful attention to training firearms units:

Magical-instrument chongs and paos are effective weapons for attacking in warfare, but in order not to make mistakes in using them, it is necessary to practice carefully and become proficient and skilled, and then one can use them when the occasion calls for it. You . . . must not be lax in this.

All this training paid off for Yongle when, accompanied by the Liu Sheng whom he admonished to pay attention to careful training, he personally marched northward against China’s greatest foes, the Mongols.


Although his father had driven the Mongols out of China, they were still considered a mortal threat. A new Genghis Khan might emerge and unify the clans. So Yongle was determined to take the fight to them personally and led five expeditions against them. Guns played a key role.

Consider, for example, the first campaign, a massive expedition that departed Beijing in the spring of 1410. Western language treatments of it omit mention of firearms – including Kenneth Chase’s short discussion, but it’s clear that guns were present and played a significant role. When, for example, Yongle’s forces engaged Mongol leader Arughtai near the Great Khingan Mountains, General Liu Sheng “used firearms, serving as the advanced guard, and badly defeated Arughtai.” We find a slightly more detailed account in the Ming Veritable Records:

The emperor chased the enemy to Huiqujin and ordered the Anyuan Marquis Liu Sheng to take the magical-device guns and serve as the vanguard. The guns fired and their sound thundered forth for ten li, and each arrow penetrated two men, and [the projectiles] also struck the horses, and all immediately died. The enemy, frightened, spurred their horses and departed. Our troops advanced bravely and defeated them, beheading their famous generals and hundreds of men.

Four years later, Yongle led a second campaign against the Mongols, and records of it have left even clearer evidence for the effectiveness of guns. It was a huge expedition, containing around a half a million men.68 A civil official named Jin Youzi described the cold rain and the emperor’s mood as they moved northward. “Look,” Yongle said to Jin, “at this expanse, empty in all four directions! It’s not something you see everyday. When you’re tired, sleep a bit, and then stand up and look out in all directions, and you’ll feel joy in your breast!” He liked teaching him how to look for signs of wild game, like the paths through the grass made by antelopes and wild horses. And he enjoyed instructing his soldiers how to search for traces of the enemy: hoofprints, horse dung along trails, dust swirling in the distance. He also liked teasing Jin and the other civil officials from the south, who weren’t used to the weather. On one occasion, for example, when Jin rode with one hand on his hat, to keep it from blowing away in the cold wind, Yongle had laughed and said, “The esteemed scholar isn’t having a good day today!”

Finally Yongle’s troops met the enemy. Thirty thousand or so mounted Mongols occupied hills, each of them having three or four extra mounts. Yongle ordered his troops to array themselves on the steppe below. A few skirmishes occurred, but it was in the early evening that Yongle made his move. In the gathering darkness, Yongle led a vanguard of elite cavalry units forward, followed closely by General Liu Sheng’s gun units. The Mongols came down, but Yongle didn’t charge at first. Instead, he waited while Liu Sheng’s guns opened fire. Several hundred Mongols fell, causing confusion and disarray in the Mongol ranks. At this point, Yongle and his cavalry – the elite iron horsemen – charged, driving the enemy back into the hills and capturing many horses. As Jin Youzi described the episode, when the Mongols came down the hills, finding the emperor too tempting of a target to resist they didn’t even get a chance to strike before the guns fired in secret and the [emperor’s] crack troops then again moved forward and attacked with great force, and each could stand against a hundred. The enemy was badly defeated, and the number of men and horses killed and hurt was uncountable, and they all screamed out in pain and left . . . Henceforth that place was called ‘Barbarian Slaughtering Hold’.

Another account – in the Veritable Records – adds an intriguing detail: Liu Sheng’s guns “fired in continuous succession.” Historians in China have interpreted this passage – rightly I believe – as indicating the use of volley fire. Given that western historians have hailed the later emergence of the volley fire technique in Europe as a hallmark of the military revolution, it is intriguing to find it here in Yongle’s armed forces, but it is not surprising. Historians of China have argued that the technique was used with firearms in China as early as 1388. This makes sense, because the Chinese had used the volley technique for crossbows continuously since at the latest the Tang Dynasty, and probably earlier.

In any case, Yongle’s gunners won a victory that day. Top Mongol commanders were killed and several thousand heads were captured, after which Yongle went after the survivors. In these subsequent battles, guns were similarly in evidence. When Mongol forces tried occupying highlands and small lakes, Ming troops “again used guns to first pound those occupying the two ponds, and these enemy, knowing they could not resist, withdrew. The remaining bandits, those who were on the peaks of the gorge, feared the guns would come again, and also withdrew and left.” Kenneth Chase does note the presence of guns on this expedition but downplays their importance, saying merely that guns frightened the Mongols. Sinophone historians, on the other hand, believe – as I do – that guns played a dramatic role, causing significant casualties.

During the 1420s, Yongle led other expeditions against the Mongols, and then, too, he paid close attention to his gun units, focusing in particular on their drill and training. In the campaign of 1422, for example, he gave his generals precise and detailed instructions about drilling gunners so that they could coordinate effectively with cavalry:

The emperor ordered that all the generals train their troops outside each encampment by arraying the gunnery units [shen ji chong] in the front and the cavalry in the back, ordering the officers to practice and train in the free time. He admonished them as follows: “A formation that is dense is solid, while an advance force is sparse, and when they arrive at the gates of war and it’s time to fight, then first use the guns to destroy their advance guard and then use cavalry to rush their solidity. In this way there is nothing to fear.”

Wang Zhaochun believes that Yongle was here discussing volley fire:

The meaning of this [passage] is that when fighting, the gun troops line up in front of the entire formation, and between them there must be a certain amount of space, so that they can load bullets and powder and employ shooting by turns and in concert to destroy the enemy advance guard. Once the enemy has been thrown into chaos, the rear densely arrayed cavalry troops together come forth in great vigor, striking forth with irresistible force.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but it wouldn’t be surprising. Yongle’s willingness to place thin rows of gunnery units in the front lines of a battle against Mongol cavalry shows that he believed those gunners would offer enough fire to keep the cavalry at bay, which suggests volley fire, but the passage in the Veritable Records doesn’t in itself make a clear case for it.

Whatever the drilling regime the troops practiced, they didn’t get much of an opportunity to test it against the enemy, because this campaign didn’t manage to find the enemy. Yongle led subsequent expeditions northward against the Mongols, in 1423 and 1424, but those, too, were futile. The Mongols had learned to avoid Ming guns and instead simply slip into the steppes, to reemerge later at a time and a place of their choosing.

On the last Mongolian campaign, in 1424, Yongle became depressed and died of illness in Chahar, Mongolia. The expedition returned to Beijing, bringing his body in a sealed tin coffin. His funeral was as ambitious as his military exploits, and thirty palace woman committed suicide to accompany him in death. His successors stopped making incursions into Mongolia and pulled out of Vietnam, which had adopted Ming weapons and ended up defeating Ming armies badly. They halted the great maritime voyages Yongle had undertaken. As the Ming History noted, “During the Hong[xi] (1425) and Xuan[de] (1426–1435) reigns, [the Ming court] became accustomed to a routine and peaceful life.” The peace was interrupted in 1449, when Yongle’s great grandson, Zhu Qizhen, the Zhengtong Emperor, tried reviving the practice of grand Mongolian expeditions but was captured by the Mongols, who then marched on Beijing. Thanks to many guns and good leadership, the Mongols were driven off, with heavy casualties; sources suggest that the guns and other Ming weapons killed ten thousand Mongols. By the mid 1450s, the Mongol threat had receded again, not to reappear in a serious way for another century.

China’s powerful guns had helped the Ming to create the world’s most powerful empire, unparalleled in military power, but it seems that the death of Yongle in 1424 also corresponded with the end of the period of rapid experimentation with guns and their administration. Indeed, Sinophone historians argue that China’s indigenous gun technology reached its apogee under Yongle. A set of regulations for firearm production and design that Yongle’s administration issued in 1414 formed the basic blueprint for Ming firearms production for the next century, “becoming the Ming Military production method for guns.” In 1419, Yongle’s court issued a new regulation according to which “all military weapons, aside from those that are kept for exercise or in deployment must be placed in the [central] armories . . . and there is not allowed any kind of private manufacture.” These two decrees can be taken to mark the end of China’s period as the global leader of firearms technology. In the mid-1400s, just as Ming innovation was slowing, Europeans entered a period of rapid gun development, and when in the early 1500s Portuguese arrived on the Chinese coast, Ming officials were fascinated by their guns and began adopting them rapidly, effectively, and creatively. As Kenneth Swope and others have argued, the structures that Yongle had set up – particularly the Firearms Commandery – played an important role in the rapid adoption of European guns during the 1500s.

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