In the late 15th century China was still a world leader in many areas of technology, having enjoyed advanced economic development for many centuries before the West. However, it began to suffer from worsening ossification of the central government and scholar-elite into endemic corruption and a rigid interpretation of Confucianism which ultimately was unable to adapt the rural economy to the expanding population. Late Ming China slowly withered under a baleful climate of stifling bureaucracy and self-imposed insulation from the emerging centers of world trade and technological innovation, which were shifting from China to Europe. For instance, the tendency to concentrate firearms production and casting artillery in centralized locations may have inhibited innovation in design. Political crisis also interfered with military reform and adaptation. At least on land the Xuande emperor had been a committed war leader. His son, Zhu Qizhen (Zhengtong Emperor), was not. Goaded to invade Mongolia, he was captured and lost an army of 500,000 to the Mongols at Tumu in 1449, after which the Mongols advanced on Beijing.
Battle of Tumu, (September 1, 1449)
In 1449 the Ming emperor Zhu Qizhen (Zhengtong), son of the fierce Xuande emperor, was just 21. Accepting advice from his chief eunuch, Wang Zhen, he invaded Mongolia with a huge host several hundred thousand strong and a truly mammoth supply train. Without ever encountering the Mongols the army turned around once it reached the extreme edge of its supplies. Just a few days march from a fortified town, and food and water, its rearguard was ambushed. Another was quickly formed but it too was cut off and wiped out by pursuing Mongols. Then the main body was surrounded. Weak from thirst, hunger, and overlong marches, the Ming Army stood no chance in the battle that followed. Wang Zhen was killed and Emperor Zhu Qizhen captured. As many as 500,000 Chinese may have perished in the Tumu campaign and battle. The Mongol horde then moved toward Beijing, raiding, pillaging, and raping as it passed unimpeded by any Ming army. The eight border garrisons (built by Hongwu but later abandoned by Yongle) did nothing but tend to themselves. As the Mongols were ill-equipped for a siege, after a week of plundering the outlying districts and countryside around Beijing they left, steppe ponies burdened with booty. In 1450 the Mongols released the boy emperor but in the interim his brother had claimed the throne. The Zhengtong Emperor did not regain power until he mounted a successful coup against his brother in 1457. After a long debate over appropriate strategy toward the Mongols, the Ming court decided to adopt a pure defensive posture and began construction of 700 miles of the Great Wall.
After that, the terrified Ming rebuilt old frontier fortifications and added 700 new miles of Great Wall to huddle behind in fear of Mongol raids-in short, they surrendered the old claim to rule Mongolia and shifted to a purely defensive strategy. From 1474 wall-building intensified and the number of firearms troops multiplied, with most in garrisons along the walls. Since their major enemies lacked fortifications, Chinese field tactics emphasized the use of guns mainly in defense. It was only in civil wars that Chinese gunners faced the tactical problem of overwhelming fortifications.
Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s “First Emperor,” Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B. C. E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern “Great Wall” built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of “limes” which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.
The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly “barbarian” through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.
China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.