This is the story of the Jianruiying, a small elite unit of specially selected Manchu soldiers under the Qing dynasty. They were trained to overcome rough terrain, obstacles, and rivers in order to commence special attacks towards fortifications. In some ways, they are comparable to today’s special forces.
Background story: The Jinchuan situation
In the eighteenth century, several conflicts broke out between local chieftains in the Jinchuan (金川, literally: “Golden River”) area in Sichuan province. The area was divided in Lesser Jinchuan (小金川) and Greater Jinchuan (大金川). Both areas were lead by local kings called Tǔsī (土司), powerful regional leaders that were recognized by the imperial government. Tǔsī were royal hereditary ranks that typically went from father to oldest son.
Greater Jinchuan was lead by a king with the hereditary title Cùqīn Tǔsī (促侵土司) or “Chief of Chuchen” who also used the royal Tibetan title of Namkha Gyalpo. Lesser Jinchuan was lead by a king with the hereditary title Zànlā Tǔsī (赞拉土司 who used the royal title Tsanlha Gyalpo. Both followed the Bon religion, the native Tibetan folk religion, and Jinchuan kings typically also acted as Lamas or “high priests” of the Bon religion.
People from Lesser Jinchuan (left) and Greater Jinchuan (right).
Woodblock prints from the “Illustrated Qing Tributaries” (皇清职贡图).
Until that point, the Qing had governed the area with “loose reins”, which meant as much as bestowing official titles to local lords and encouraging them to maintain peace. In 1747, a large-scale war broke out and Greater Jinchuan annexed Lesser Jinchuan and continued to expand to neighboring domains. The Qing court sent a large military force to intervene and restore peace. What was expected to become a quick and decisive victory for the otherwise highly effective Qing army, ended in a stalemate.
Jinchuan was an inaccessible mountainous region with high cliffs and steep gorges cut out by its rivers. Life was harsh here: the ground not suitable for agriculture, nor for larger numbers of livestock. When food ran out, people would turn to mass banditry and raid nearby settlements. Its towns were fortified with walls and stone towers, some up to 51 meters high. The Jinchuan people were very much accustomed to war, and well prepared for it…
Jinchuan type fortifications in Danba, Sichuan. Artwork from an 18th century Chinese copperplate print, commemorating the 2nd Jinchuan war. Contemporary photographs of remaining fortifications from Western Sichuan: Danba Tibetan village
The Qing army’s main strength, the elite Manchu mounted archers, were of limited effectiveness in the mountains and the Green Standard Army had considerable trouble transporting and setting up their cannon. As a result, the Qing army sustained great losses as their conventional ways of warfare proved ineffective against the Jinchuan rebels, who made clever use of the local terrain and their fortifications.
The emperor’s new approach
The Qianlong emperor was a hands-on ruler, with a keen interest in both past and present affairs. Inspired while reading about how his Manchu ancestors captured Chinese fortifications in the 17th century, he decided to pick 300 of his best men and train them in special wall-scaling tactics. In July 1748 training commenced at the Fragrant Hills (香山), west of Beijing.
Meanwhile, the Qing army in Jinchuan was sustaining some serious defeats and the war was getting increasingly costly. The Qianlong emperor rigorously changed the command and decided to replenish the troops with fresh ones. His specially prepared wall-scaling troops were sent -along with other forces from all over the empire- to Jinchuan. They probably saw little action because soon afterward the Shaloben (ruler-priest) of Greater Jinchuan surrendered, for no apparent reason, effectively ending the 1st Jinchuan war.
An illustration from the Manju-i yargiyan kooli or “Manchu Veritable Records”, showing a battle scene where Nurhaci’s Manchus take on Chinese fortifications with ladders. It was probably this text that inspired the Qianlong emperor.
Formation of a new battalion
Despite the limited use that could have been made of them in this short period of service, the emperor firmly believed in his new elite troops. Upon their return in 1749 the Qianlong emperor erected a temple named “The Temple of True Victory” at the Fragrant Hills and organized them as an official battalion that was to keep training in their ways of warfare.
He named them the jianruiying (健銳營).
What’s in a name:
健 (jiàn): Strong, robust, vigorous, persevering. 健卒 (jiànzú): Able-bodied soldiers.
銳 (ruì): Sharp, acute, zealous, valiant. 銳兵 (ruìbīng): Well-drilled troops.
營 (yíng): Army, battalion.
In Manchu: Silin dacungga kūwaran
Literally: “Elite sharp army”.
You get the idea; they meant business. Jianruiying training focused on reaching inaccessible areas and overcoming fortifications with specialized equipment. Their curriculum included the use of so-called yúntī (雲梯) or “cloud ladders” to scale walls rapidly.
They were further trained in rowing and fighting on the water. Riding fast horses, mounting them on the run. Weapons included archery on foot and from horseback, muskets, saber fencing, spearmanship, and the bian (鞭), a heavy steel bar-mace.
The Jianruiying were lead by a commander-general or zongtong. Their importance is illustrated by the fact that this position was initially filled by princes or members of the grand council. The unit consisted of two wings, with a wing commander, yizhang (翼長) for each.1 They also served as imperial guards on some occasions and were issued similar equipment to the guard such as special tents and arrows.
1. From 八旗通志, 33. [乾隆]十四年設健鋭營總統,無定員,以王公大臣兼任,率兩翼長.
Thanks to dr. Ulrich Theobald for pointing this source out.
Colors and uniforms
Regular Manchu troops typically served under one of the Eight Banners and their flags and parade uniforms matched accordingly. The Jianruiying was provided with its own uniforms and banners.
Left: xinggua or jacket of the Jianruiying Vanguard company commander, each leading ten men. Right: Jacket of the soldiers. Colors added by myself.
Banners of the Jianruiying regimental commanders. Color and wing designation added by myself.
The Jianruiying in action
The first evidence for the use of Jianruiying in the field, under that name, is found in the records on the East Turkestan campaign. It reads:
On Nov 7, 1754, 1,000 troops of the Jianruiying were dispatched to the Western Route along with 1,000 Oirats.1
This campaign was a war against the Dzungars, a rival empire at the borders of the Qing. The Dzunghars kept attacking Tibet and Mongol tribes who were allied to the Qing, and after several warnings the Qianlong emperor sent his armies with orders to annihilate the entire empire. It resulted in a Qing victory that indeed completely destroyed the empire of Dzungaria and added present-day Xinjiang to the Qing territory.
The Victory of the Khorgos, copperplate engraving by Hellman based on a copperplate commissioned by the Qianlong emperor.
When the troops returned from Xinjiang, the Qianlong emperor erected a stele in honor of the Jianruiying in their Temple of True victory:
“With the protection of Heaven and the blessing of my ancestors I have pacified Dzungaria, the Mohammedan country, Ili, Kashgar, and Yarkand, one after the other, at a distance of 20,000 li.
This monument is to commemorate the conduct of the men of the Jianrui Cloud Ladder garrisons, near this temple, many of whom fought in this campaign.
At the battle of Qurman and at Huo Si Ku Lu Ke a few dozen of our men were greatly outnumbered by the rebels. While they were consulting, and their drums were beating faintly, their flags in disarray, they suddenly reorganized their ranks like a wall, steadily advanced, killed the enemy’s commander and captured his flags.
When my men can do that, even the Solon cavalry, excellent archers and horsemen, who advance and retire at will and spoil the plans of their enemies without being beaten themselves, cannot equal the cool courage of my Bannermen.
A Bannerman would not fear if he were the last man alive in ten thousand fighting for his country. I had not thought it was possible that between the years 1749 and 1761 these garrisons could have so repaid the Emperor’s kindness. This must be a gift from Heaven.” 2
1. From 平定準噶爾方略 (Pingding Zhungar Fanglüe), or “Imperially endorsed Military annals of pacification of the Dzunghars” Central Collection 5: 己亥命派健鋭營兵丁一千往西路調遣上諭軍機大臣曰前將新降厄魯特兵一千名派往西路已降㫖令於原派緑旗兵一萬名内裁減三千此外著添派健鋭營滿洲兵一 千名命往西路再將緑旗兵裁減一千其所派官弁毋庸裁減照舊遣往以備調遣. Thanks to Ulrich Theobald for this reference and its translation.
2. From Carrol B. Malone, HISTORY OF THE PEKING SUMMER PALACES UNDER THE CH’ING DYNASTY, Urbana 1934.
The Second Jinchuan War
In July 1771, trouble broke out in Jinchuan once again. The Green Standard Army had been proven ineffective and unreliable, and after great losses at Mugom in 1773 the emperor dispatched 9,500 Elite banner troops from the Jianruiying and the huoqiying, a Banner unit specialized in the use of firearms, as well as Banner troops from Jilin, Heilongjiang and the garrisons in Chengdu, Jingzhou and Xi’an including some Ölöd Mongol and Solon troops.
In addition, 11,000 Green Standard troops were dispatched from nearby provinces so that together with the Banner troops and the native auxiliaries, 74,900 imperial troops were in Jinchuan at the end of summer in 1773.
Conquest of the Ripang mountain, A Qing battle painting in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Detail of the storming of a Jinchuan fortified tower, from a Qing copperplate.
December 10, 1773 Agui commanded Hailancha to advance. The conquest of the towers in lesser Jinchuan went quickly now, the Qing taking as many towers in a few days as they previously did in six months. Greater Jinchuan took a bit longer, but in March 1776 they too finally surrendered.1
1. For a thorough account of the Second Jinchuan campaign, see: Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010.
General Agui, who lead the 2nd Jinchuan campaign.
Mingliang, one of Agui’s trusted commanders.
Mingliang was a frugal, practical Manchu warrior, just like the emperor liked them.
Of noble birth, he nevertheless chose the hard life and distinguished himself in the field.
Notice his choice for an iron mounted saber, even though through his rank he was entitled to gold.
Officer Suliyang, leading the Jianruiying in the Jinchuan Campaign of 1771-1776
This portrait was made to be hung in the prestigious Hall of Purple Brightness,
a military hall near Beijing where -among others- war heroes were commemorated,
victory banquets were held, and where imperial military examinations were organized.
Suliyang was portraited no less than two times, once for bravery in the 2nd Jinchuan
campaign and again for merit earned the Taiwan campaigns.
The Jianruiying saw action as an elite army in most important battles after their formation, including:
The Sino-Burmese War (1765–69)
Hui Uprising in Gansu, 1784
Lin Shuangwen rebellion (1786–88)
Lin Shuangwen rebellion (1788–93)
Eight Trigrams Uprising (1813)
Fall of the Jianruiying
During the course of the 19th century, the Jianruiying seemed to have lost their edge. China, in general, was in a bad state of economic decline and was unable to properly train and equip their armoires. In 1860 the Second Opium War broke out. British and French troops attacked Beijing. The Jianruiying and other imperial forces suffered heavy casualties and were ultimately defeated.
Their last combat mission of the Jianruiying that I am aware of was in August 1900 when the allied forces of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing during the Boxer Uprising. The Jianruiying successfully slowed down the progress of coalition forces long enough for Cixi, the Empress Dowager, to get away.
In 1912 the Qing dynasty fell, and the Eight Banners system was disbanded. Some Jianruiying soldiers got incorporated into Chinese armies based on the modern Western-style training that became the norm for Chinese forces.
Carrol B. Malone, History of the Peking summer palaces under the Ch’ing dynasty, Urbana 1934.
Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001.
Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Culture of War in China, I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010. Available online.