The population of the Chinese empire was about 120 times larger than the Jurchen tribe, who later renamed themselves to Manchus. Yes, the Manchus were very skilled warriors and the late Ming dynasty was facing internal troubles but how did such an insignificant group of hunter gatherers form a new dynasty in China lasting from something like 1644 to 1912?

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    Just saw this, and I'm not sure if there's still interest in the question (i.e. 4-yr old question). Before going further, however, the few assumptions in the question is clearly wrong. For a start, the Manchus (who are descendants of Jurchen, i.e. Tugusic people) were not nomadic, in the context of 17th century China re establishment of Qing. I wonder if I should go further, as in answer the question.
    – J Asia
    Oct 8, 2017 at 17:25

5 Answers 5


To begin with, the Empire was rocked with two major peasant rebellions at the same time as the Qing invasion - when the palace appeared as if they were going to be overrun by the newly declared Shun Emperor, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chongzhen, went nuts and killed his entire family before hanging himself, leaving a succession crisis on top of everything else.

Meanwhile, the Jin dynasty had, at the time, consolidated politically, and developed a formidable army with the right combination of training, tactics and leadership to win major battles against a moribund and complacent Imperial army. They also had the political savvy to bring disaffected nobles and officials to their cause, most notably General Wu Sangui. With the defeat of the Shun Emperor at Shanhai Pass, the supremacy of the Qing was assured. It took a succession of emperors and a few decades before all of China was brought into the new empire, mostly due to resistance to being ruled by yet another outside power - but in the end, Hong Taiji was able to reconcile the culture of the Manchu with the culture of the Han, and cement the Qing as a dynasty.

  • +1 answer. Could you perhaps recommend a single good book on the period or Wu Sangui, say. I'm always on the lookout for meaningful book recommendations on topics that interest me, and in comments asking for those is (I think) allowed :)
    – Drux
    Feb 22, 2013 at 15:01

Perhaps part of your confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the Manchu. They were not, as you say hunter-gatherers. Rather, they were pastoralists. Hunter-gatherers, as you rightly point out, tend to have very low populations. They have to rely for sustinance only upon what nature has available where they happen to be living.

Pastoralists raise their own herd animals, which typically can subsist off off grasses. While this does require a great deal of mobility, if the terrain is right it allows a nation of pastoralists to have far more people than a hunter-gatherer socity.

Agricultural societies don't have the drawback of mobility, feed themseves directly (rather than indirectly through animals), and thus can achieve even greater populations. However, pastoralists still have one trump card that the other two types of societies can't match: It turns out that mobility is damn useful in warfare as well. Pastoralists have a lifetime of mounted training that residents of other societies have a hard time matching. This fact has always allowed pastoral societies to punch way above their population "weight class".

In China this meant continual conquests from the grassland areas to their north up until the modern age. This includes not just the Manchu but before them the Yuan, Jin, Former Qin, Northern Wei, Northern Zhou, Later Tang, Liao, and Xi Xia.

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    +1 esp. for last link. This may be one fine explanation for the conquest. I'm still (mainly) wondering: how could they then remain in power (and totally change their nomadic ways to exert rule from the capital)? How did they convince their subjects that they now possessed the "Mandate of Heaven"?
    – Drux
    Feb 22, 2013 at 15:13
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    @Drux - That was sort of the magic of China. The country had an entrenched beuracracy that made it essentially an unsinkable unit. Conquerors wouldn't mess with the gravy train, and were always eventually assimilated. Europe didn't have that luxury, and had to rebuild their socities to allow for a class of "horse junkies" who could do the fighting and hold their own against pastoralists.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22, 2013 at 15:36
  • Good point, thx.
    – Drux
    Feb 22, 2013 at 16:24
  • @T.E.D. - And yet it was usually the peasants with pointy sticks who did the most damage - Martel at Tours, Richard the Lionhearted vs. Saladin, Swiss Pikemen - western cavalry was always a bit crap, even in antiquity, but its heavy infantry usually matched up well. Feb 22, 2013 at 17:01
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    @DVK - I did. You probably didn't notice because I spelled it "Yuan". :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22, 2013 at 19:32

By the name of Jurchen they were known for they high culture long ago. Tengis-Khan win over China, but did not win over this nation. Only his heir Ögedei Khan did manage it.

They already ruled China in the past - Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) in China. Sometimes, they were vassals of China. China, Korea, Manchu and Japan were all parts of one cultural space.

So, they were no insignificant, no hunters/gatherers, no nomads. And their winning over China in 16-17th century was a thing not a bit outstanding.


There was a "civil war" between two Chinese factions one under Wu Sangui, the other under Li Zicheng that handed the balance of power to the "Manchurians."

This occurred after the "Nuzhen" or "Jurchen" (Manchurian) tribes had been united under one banner, with their capital and Shenyang.


A similar division of "China" between the Jin and Song dynasties accomanied by a similar unification of the Mongol tribes under Genghis Khan led to the Mongol conquest of China.

Put another way, the "stars aligned" for both the Mongols and the Manchus at different times.

  • Those weren't factions. And it wasn't a civil war. it was a peasant uprising a revolution. And Wu was not a faction, he was a general of the Ming dynasty. He had command of the Ming forces guarding the Great Wall. And Manchurians were invited in by Wu to fight Li, after Li took Wu's wife for himself. There was a historical rumor that Wu was ready to bend his knees and accept the new regime, when words of his wife taken by Li reached him. And in a rage he decided to join forces with the Manchus. Nov 20, 2018 at 17:22

If they worked anything like the Mongols and other nomads that went imperial, they absorbed those they conquered, giving them a level of autonomy backed up with quick and brutal reprisals if they stepped so much as an inch out of line (and that could involve the sacking of cities, killing the entire adult population and selling the children into slavery in case of the Mongols). Do that a few times and an a population tends to get the message that they'd best do as they're told.
Also give them a decent living by not overtaxing them, probably taxing them less than their previous overlords used to do, and you've made a population that isn't likely to rebel, in fact will police itself against rebellion.

And as you said, being what they were they would have been very hard to fight effectively by the traditional means of Chinese armies (just as the field armies of the day in the middle east and Europe had no effective counter against the Mongol hordes until they themselves adopted large scale cavalry tactics, combined with firearms).

So study the Mongols as they swept out of the steppes to form an empire stretching from current day Mongolia to the gates of Constantinopel and beyond and you find pretty much how the Manchu could do the same in China (with the added advantage to them that the Chinese had a far more formalised and inflexible form of warfare established over more than a thousand years and were thus less prepared to deal with a radically different enemy than were the Europeans that eventually stopped the scourge from the steppes.

  • The Eight Banners army didn't operate anything like the Mongols. Feb 22, 2013 at 13:43
  • Conquering all of China (e.g. not fragmenting it) and holding it seems a highly unlikely achievement for an any outside force. I've noticed that Chinese from the North (say Xi'an) sometimes tend to look a bit down on the South, commenting that they "talk weird accents" or "eat all kinds of food" there. (I'm sure the people from, say, Hongkong have their own ways of countering that). Was it perhaps the case that the Jurchen, coming from the very North (outside Han culture) had relatively good "credentials" for obtaining respect as new imperial rulers for centuries after the conquest?
    – Drux
    Feb 22, 2013 at 14:54
  • @RISwampYankee - I did notice that available pictures for The Eight Banners showed a lot of Chinese-style pikemen. That may be a stylistic anachronisim though, as we were well into the gunpowder age by then. If nothing else, a proper army of the day should at least be toting flintlocks.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 22, 2013 at 15:08
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    @Ted - There were a lot of Chinese defectors; POWs and refugees from the rebellions. Musketry didn't really play much of a part in 17th century China, tho they did use artillery. Feb 22, 2013 at 15:36

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