Detail of a scroll from the Jurchen Jin dynasty, titled Admonitions of the Instructress to the Palace Ladies, by Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–406). Royal children are groomed by their nannies as their parents look on indulgently. COLLECTION OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

The Jurchen Jin dynasty was founded in Manchuria by the chieftain Aguda in 1125. During its 109-year reign the Jurchen people combined tribal vigor with Chinese-style government, struggling all the while to preserve their ethnic identities. Although the dynasty was defeated by the Mongols in 1234, the Jurchen people were able to prosper and survive for several more centuries.

Two groups of Jurchen, a sedentary, Tungus-speaking people living in Manchuria and southeastern Siberia, existed in the eleventh century. One was a little-assimilated group of “raw” tribespeople living more or less the traditional life. The other was the “cooked” Jurchen, who had interacted closely with the Kitan, who, as the rulers of the Liao dynasty (906–1125), were the dominant political group at that time in north China, and with the many Chinese ruled by the Kitan.

The chieftain Aguda (1068–1123) of the Wanyan clan, the founder of the Jurchen state, was primarily a ruler of the “raw” Jurchen people, but he had learned how to use cavalry effectively in warfare from the Kitan. (Horsemanship and war on horseback were then not part of Jurchen native tradition but soon became an important part of Jurchen culture and the real basis of their military power.) Aguda had also learned how to form a state in the central Asian manner by joining heterogeneous elements, including Kitan tribesmen dissatisfied with their own government, to a Jurchen core.

After a series of raids conducted all along the Liao’s western frontiers, Aguda began attacks that captured the Liao subordinate capitals one by one, sometimes with the help of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), the native Chinese dynasty occupying the rest of China. Aguda died before completing his conquest of the Liao, but his successor, Wuqimai, or Taizong (1075–1135), not only completed the task but also began a massive invasion of the Song, his former ally. The invasion had attempted to make gains in the north as the Liao had collapsed at the expense of the Jurchen Jin.

New Dynasty

In the decades of war that followed, the Song dynasty was nearly destroyed; it was then reorganized as the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) under a collateral branch of the old imperial line based in the city of Hangzhou in central China. Not just the old Liao domains, which had been confined to the northeast, but the entire north came under Jurchen Jin control. China was divided between two equally powerful regimes, with a third regime, that of the Xi Xia state, occupying the northwest.

Even as the wars with the Song continued, internecine struggle (conflict within a group) divided the Jurchen Jin elite. The courts of Wuqimai and his successors had adopted Chinese forms of government in order to organize its new conquests. Many traditional elements of Jin society failed to understand why this was necessary; they felt that their vested interests were in danger and that they faced absorption by Chinese culture. This conflict was still unresolved at the time of the Mongol invasions, and it was one of the reasons why the Mongols were able to conquer the Jin with relative ease—in part with some of the very same tribal allies that the Jurchen people had used in their own rise.

The Jurchen emperor at the time of the dynasty’s first Mongol crisis was Zhangzong (1168–1208), a sinicizer. He had begun a new war with the Southern Song in 1207 in which Jurchen cavalry had proven far less effective than in the past, indicating a weakening of a native Jurchen tribal base that was having more and more difficulty maintaining its traditional life, not to speak of the cavalry forces sanctioned by Aguda as part of this traditional life. The reign of Zhangzong also witnessed growing Jurchen Jin problems with its other tribal groups, principally with the Kitan of the Sino-Mongolian frontier zone. In 1207 most of the peoples involved revolted, handing what is now Inner Mongolia over to the Mongols, who used it as a base for raiding and expansion.

The Jurchen Jin, who had once actively intervened in the steppe and had manipulated events there in its own interests, build fortifications in response to the Mongol threat. These proved to be no barrier whatever to the Mongols, who began a general assault on the Jurchens in 1211. During the next twenty-three years they conquered Jurchen Jin territory piecemeal. They took the principal capital of Zhongdu in 1215 and consolidated their rule in much of the north with a great deal of local help, including from Chinese warlords, the Kitan, and even Jurchen allies. Forced to retreat to its domains along the Huang (Yellow) River, the Jurchen court held out for another nineteen years thanks to Mongol preoccupation elsewhere, principally with a campaign in the west (1218–1223) and the conquest of Xi Xia, and then with an interregnum (the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes).

Mongol Assault

When the Mongol khan (sovereign) Ogodei (1185–1241) gathered his resources and refocused Mongol attention on China, the Jurchen Jin dynasty came to a close. Mongols assaulted the capital, then at Kaifeng, from several directions. The Jurchen Jin court fled south to Caizhou, where it attempted to organize further resistance. Kaifeng fell in 1233 and Caizhou in February 1234. The last Jurchen Jin emperor committed suicide.

Unlike the Tangut of Xi Xia, who were virtually exterminated resisting the Mongols, the Jurchen survived and prospered when their dynasty ended. The Jurchen had their own native scripts, based loosely on Chinese, and these survived into the sixteenth century. Later the same cultural groups that had given rise to the Jurchen produced the Manchu, who had their own “raw” and “cooked” components and who also tried to combine tribal vigor with a Chinese style of government. They had even less success than the Jurchen in maintaining their ethnic identity during their reign of China, and the once-large Tungus population of Manchuria is all but extinct today.

Further Reading

Buell, P. D. (1979). The role of the Sino-Mongolian frontier zone in the rise of Cinggis-qan. In H. G. Schwarz (Ed.), Studies on Mongolia, proceedings of the first North American conference on Mongolian studies (pp. 63–76). Bellingham, WA: Center for East Asian Studies.

Franke, H. H. (1994). The Chin dynasty. In H. Frank & D. Twitchett (Eds.), The Cambridge history of China: Vol. 6. Alien regimes and border states, 907–1368 (pp. 215–320). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vorob’yev, M. V. (1975). Chzhurchzheni i gosudarstvo Tszin’ (X v.-1234g.): Istoricheskiy Ocherk [The Jurchen and the state of Jin (10th century to 1243), a historical overview]. Moscow: Nauka.

Vorob’yev, M. V. (1983). Kultura Chzhurchenzhenei i gosudarstva Tszin (Xv-1234g) [Culture of the Jurchen and of the state of Jin (10th century to 1234)]. Moscow: Nauka.

Source: Buell, Paul D.. (2009). Jurchen Jin Dynasty. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclop
edia of China
, pp. 1230–1232. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Jurchen Jin Dynasty (Nüzh?n J?n Cháo ????)|Nüzh?n J?n Cháo ???? (Jurchen Jin Dynasty)

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