If you pick up an academic book on Mongolian history, there’s a good bet that somewhere in the introductory sections the author will lament his or her inability to study the full range of primary sources on the topic. This is because the two most important languages for studying the Mongols (more important even than Mongolian, ironically enough) are Persian and Chinese, and there have been only a handful of scholars, ever, who have managed to learn both of those languages well enough to research primary sources on the Mongols from one end of the empire to the other. When I write about the Mongols it’s usually about their activities in the west, in the Persian half of the Mongol world, because that’s how I approached the Mongols in grad school and that’s the part of the world we mostly cover around here. Basically, I’m saying that despite today’s post, don’t expect me to start covering Chinese history on a regular basis.
I’m making an exception for the 1232-1233 Siege of Kaifeng partly because the Mongols were involved, but also because, from the standpoint of military history, there were some incredible things happening in China in this period. You see, the Jin, who were the ruling dynasty in northern China and the target of the Mongols’ offensive, were using early gunpowder weapons (the Mongols may have been using gunpowder by this point as well, but there’s no great evidence for it). Some of them appear to have been quite devastating, while others were probably more useful in terms of terrifying the enemy than in physically injuring them, but nevertheless they all played a role in the Jins’ ultimately unsuccessful defense of the city. One of them, the “fire-lance,” had actually been in use in China for a couple of centuries by this point, but its use at Kaifeng is particularly well-attested thanks to an account by a Jin official who lived through the siege.
Here’s the historical context. The Jin Dynasty ruled northern China (which doesn’t exactly correspond with “northern China” as we’d think of it today, but it works as shorthand) from the early 12th century through 1234, a year after Kaifeng, when the Mongols toppled them. They began as a Manchurian tribe that worked with the southern Song Dynasty to do away with the Liao, who had previously controlled most of northern China. One of the main preoccupations for whichever dynasty controlled northern China at this time was coping with raiding nomadic steppe tribes to the north. The Jin extracted tribute from the tribes, regularly intervened in inter-tribal politics in order to keep any one tribe from becoming too powerful, and at their most fanciful they actually claimed sovereignty over all the tribes. Never let it be said that 12th century Chinese ruling dynasties lacked a sense of humor.
When Temujin, the future Genghis Khan, began his career of conquest, his first order of business was to subjugate all those various nomadic tribes under his own banner. For part of this time he actually served as a vassal of the Jin, or more accurately as a vassal of a vassal of the Jin, but he then defeated his former lord and consolidated his own rule over the steppe tribes in 1206–that’s when he officially became Genghis Khan. Then, naturally, his attentions turned south toward China. His first move was to force Xi Xia (see the map above), ruled by the Tanguts, to submit to his rule, at which point the combined Mongol-Tangut army invaded Jin. In 1215 Genghis Khan besieged and captured the Jin capital, Zhongdu (modern Beijing), forcing the Jin to move their court to Kaifeng. At this point, after 10 years of continuous heavy warfare, the Mongols took a pause. Genghis Khan sent a small force west to conquer the Qara Khitai, the empire that had formed out of the western part of the former Liao territory, but his plan was to resume his campaign against Jin shortly.
It was the sheer stupidity of the Central Asian Khwarazmian ruler Muhammad II (d. 1220) that bought the Jin a few more years in power. In 1219, Genghis Khan, who doesn’t seem to have had any interest–at least at that point–in campaigning to the west, into Muslim territory, sent a caravan to Otrar, one of Muhammad’s cities, seeking to form a diplomatic and (especially) commercial connection with the Khwarazmians. The governor of Otrar, somewhat inexplicably as far as is known to us today, massacred the caravan. Genghis Khan then sent diplomatic envoys to Muhammad. Muhammad had them shaved bald, had one of them beheaded, and sent the rest back home in disgrace. To say that this enraged Genghis Khan would be an understatement. To say that it was a mistake on Muhammad’s part would be a much greater understatement. The Mongols utterly destroyed the Khwarazmian Empire within two years. At the end of that adventure, a Mongolian army was sent to ride around the Caspian Sea on an extended raid/scouting expedition, and when they returned to Mongolia in the mid-1220s it was time again to focus fully on China. But the immediate problem for Genghis Khan in China was the Tangut again–they’d revolted while he was off defeating the Khwarazmians. It didn’t take very long to reconquer the Tangut, but shortly after that was done (this time with the execution of the entire Tangut royal line), in 1227, Genghis Khan died.
Genghis Khan was succeeded by his son, Ögedei, and the succession itself further delayed a new Mongolian offensive against the Jin. But by 1230, the Mongols were able to once again invade Jin territory in force. An army under the legendary Mongolian general Subutai surrounded and laid siege to Kaifeng in early April, 1232. Now, despite rapidly dwindling supplies and the onset of some kind of plague inside Kaifeng, the Jin defenders were able to hold out against the Mongol siege for over 10 months, and this is where, in part, these gunpowder weapons come in.
The most devastating weapons the Jin used were simple gunpowder bombs, which had fuses that were lit on fire before they were launched by trebuchet at the attackers. They exploded on impact, dealing shrapnel damage, and also caught the surrounding area on fire. The Mongol trebuchets could launch massive stones at the city walls, but nothing as devastating to human beings as these gunpowder devices. So the Mongols adjusted. We’re told that they dug approach trenches to get to the city walls and covered them with cowhide shields to protect against shrapnel. The Jin, in response, began to lower their explosives into the trenches on the end of long chains; the effect of their explosions inside the trenches was apparently quite devastating–“the attackers were all blown to bits.”
The other weapon the Jin used were those fire-lances I mentioned above. These were some of the first firearms in history. Probably invented in the 10th century and brought into heavy use by the Song Dynasty, they consisted of a spear with a long bamboo tube tied to it. The tube was packed with gunpowder and tiny projectiles. A soldier would light a fuse, which would ignite the gunpowder and send the projectiles and fire shooting out of the tube. These were of questionable effectiveness as an anti-personnel weapon (a massed group of these things firing down from atop a city wall might have driven off a group of attackers, but for pure lethality I’d have taken a bow and arrow over one of these easy), but the effect was probably pretty terrifying to an enemy who hadn’t seen one before.
Despite the Jins’ technological superiority, the Mongol siege held, and things inside Kaifeng began to get desperate. On February 26, 1233, Emperor Aizong of Jin (d. 1234) took a chance and fled the city, eventually winding up at Caizhou in August. With the emperor gone, the city’s defenders gave up and let the Mongols in. The emperor died in Caizhou in February 1234, preferring to commit suicide than to be defeated by advancing Mongolian and Song (who decided to take advantage of the Mongolian invasion by declaring war on Jin and invading from the south) forces. The Mongols and Song briefly went to war with each other, but the real Mongolian invasion (and conquest, of course) of Song China didn’t happen until the 1250s.
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